Buckminster fuller often used the example of the behavior of chrome steel to demonstrate that complex systems are far more than the mere sum of their parts. Its constituents are chrome, nickel, and steel. No one of these metals is very strong and if one was to make half-inch rods of each and bundle them together, the three rods combined would have only a fraction of the strength that would result from melting them together and making a single half-inch rod from the resulting material, chrome steel.
On the most fundamental level of science, we cannot predict from the qualities and properties of several individual constituents the qualities and properties that could result from their combination. This phenomenon is the well-known principle called synergy. But Fuller also discussed synergy’s anti-principle: the almost forgotten phenomenon of dysergy, a word so seldom used that it is not in computer spell-check dictionaries. But it may go down as the most important word of our age because it describes the thing man is doing to the environment that may well end up killing off some—but hopefully not all!—of its humans.
Dysergy is an little understood process which occurs when you simplify a complex system by deleting one of its components and encounter unpredictable consequences. Common sense would tell you that since table salt is harmless and has only two constituents, you might be able to separate them without harm. But in fact, if you remove either one, what is left is a deadly poison. Disturbing large natural systems will tend to create war, famine, flood, and disease because these are the kinds of tools Mother Nature uses to rearrange and rebalance things as needed.
Naturally complex systems like forests, oceans or the human body are incomprehensibly more complex than table salt. They manage to create a harmonious balance of many forces and processes which are very destructive by themselves. Fire, flood, erosion, decay, insect infestations, disease and the predacious behavior of many animals all exist in a forest system, yet the resulting system is stable and harmonious.
Our bodies are complex systems which contain powerful chemicals and acids necessary to digest raw meat in our stomachs. If our bodies are healthy and in harmony, we contain and use them in our digestive system without danger of destroying our adjacent internal organs. But if we abuse our bodies with alcohol or bad food, these acids and chemicals in our stomachs can destroy healthy adjacent tissue. Dysergy predicts that when one disturbs, removes or alters one of the parts of a system in equilibrium, the results are not just hard to predict, they are completely unpredictable. Scientists therefore cannot predict accurately the effect of simplifying complex biological systems. For example, the Northwest is very fire and flood prone, but a climax forest through the complex interactions of its components acts as a control on these two powerful forces. In the case of a major forest re, an ancient forest will only burn about 30 percent because of the unique qualities of the bark of old trees and the protective influence of small groves of hardwoods scattered among the softwoods. When a naturally occurring forest is converted to a single species tree farm, a future fire may burn up 90 percent of it because the crowns are all the same height off the ground.
No one predicted that putting roads into Africa to facilitate mining and logging would release Ebola. Or that exotic diseases may emerge when humans in desperation begin eating monkeys and other bush meat that brings wild animal parts into contact with open cuts. Or that if you poison the atmosphere with radioactivity you may lose reindeer because the lichens on which they feed precipitate it out of the air and accumulate it in their tissues. Or that too much burning of fossil fuels in the First World may result in drought-caused famines in the Third World, forcing uncontrollable migrations to Europe.
Political and business incentives eliminate the likelihood of impartial examinations of our interventions. Agencies charged with monitoring our impacts on the physical environment—i.e., Departments of Agriculture (forests) and Interior (deserts and forests) and Commerce (oceans)—are also charged with promoting their exploitation. State fish and wildlife departments who are supposed to look after animals fund their budgets with fees from licensing people to kill animals some who do it for mere recreation.
When scientists do sit down to try to analyze adverse environmental impacts, it’s all about us. Their studies invariably focus on those creatures or places humans enjoy looking at, humans use for recreation or humans have organized to save. Seldom is much attention paid or money spent to protect living things that are small, crawly, homely, icky, or slimy. But the importance of any part of a system does not depend on how attractive or useful it is to people who go hunting and vote in elections.
At the human scale, if our bodies become sick, we may experience a fever to get rid of troublesome cells. If we make the planet sick, the Earth may run its version of a fever to lower the number of us. Mother Nature does not love humans particularly, but she loves her systems to be in balance and loves the Earth exactly the way we love another person. When we fall in love with a person, we do not fall in love with a person’s spleen or pancreas or lower intestine; we love the whole person. Likewise, Mother Nature does not single out humans or fish or trees or water for unique or exclusive love, she loves complete harmonious systems. We would not open and remove some functioning organ from a person, but we do it to the organs of an ecosystems every day.
If humans decide to put two million people in the capital of Haiti and not provide sewer systems, we shouldn’t be surprised when Mother Nature reacts by creating 500,000 cases of cholera. From a systems point of view, cholera or hurricanes or droughts are not problems, but solutions. The systems we are destabilizing and unbalancing, from oceans to forests, will be brought into balance either by us or by Mother Nature. But Mother Nature does not care if humans believe in global warming or not, or if the Florida state government does not care that most of Tampa will be destroyed in the next great hurricane or 30 million people decide to live in Lagos, Nigeria.
In natural systems, all parts are created equal and what happens in a watershed stays in the watershed. If humans remove parts of the Earth’s working systems, they will always be returned to stable equilibrium one way or another. With people, if we overdo bad food, drugs or habits, our bodies will naturally react in some corrective way that is often difficult and painful. Similarly, if we abuse the Earth by removing fish runs or other elements ecosystems need, we may get lucky and get results that just slow us down, like an ulcer would slow the body down.
If Mother Nature has a sense of humor and notices us, she must think it amusing to watch her puny little human cells strutting around, bragging about how they all intend to, “Do whatever it takes,” all the while knowing that she alone decides who will do what to whom. Since she loves naturally harmonious systems, she will always keep things in balance, even if it requires removing a few millions or billions of troublesome human cells. Because, with Mother Nature, “It’s not personal; it’s just business.”
This essay is an excerpt from “Organize to Win Vol 2.”