Monday, March 16, 2015

limits and systems theory

Recently the graduate students in the Philosophy Department organized a conference on the topic "delimiting limits".

The papers of this two day event were on gender, identity, and mind, and on topics in the history of philosophy, primarily Greek, French, and German. Materially, such topics concern culture, and formally, they are inward-oriented or centered on the self. They are either centered on philosophy itself, as philosophical reflections on past philosophers; or on the self itself and epistemic derivatives, such as truth; or on self-centered topics of culture, such as on violence and identity. The papers and discussions I attended were interesting and worthwile.

While the stated topic on limits was their delimitation; that is, how to demarcate or define limits, the conference was, in effect, less on demarcation and more about deconstruction. It makes sense to challenge limits in matters of culture or in the formal relation to the self. But the same cannot be said about limits when they are not inward-directed, but outward-directed instead; when the topics are are not centered on one's self, but rather oriented on what surrounds all human selves.

The Chinese word for 'environment,' huanjing 環境, is a composite of 'loop' or 'ring' 環 and 'border' or 'boundary' . The first loop constituting a boundary to the self is the body, of course. The second loop, which bounds all human selves (civilization or world culture), is material nature. The boundaries between the loops are permeable. Mental and physical conditions affect one another. Likewise, civilization and nature are linked by matter- and energy-flows. Inputs from nature to civilization are resources; outputs are artifacts, waste, and emissions.

Interesting about these outward-oriented or non-self-centered topics is that their kinds of limits are in an altogether different category. They are limits with a capital "L". The limits are of a material type; they are biological, chemical, or physical. They are not as flexible. They can be pushed a little bit, but not as far as culture-related limits, and in contrast to boundaries of personal, gender, and cultural identity, their structural lawfulness is not negotiable.

Right and wrong are turned upside down, too. Nietzsche rightly argues that it is an excellent idea to push cultural limits, as those of morality, identification,and convention. Naess is also right to make a similar point with the deep-ecological aspiration towards a Greater Self, quite literally an expansion of identification-limits. But as climatologists and environmental economists have been telling us, it is not an excellent idea to transgress material limits; in fact, doing just that is what has made civilization unsustainable. So the normative relation is the opposite: environmental limits deserve respect, and violate them is evil.

However, all of this makes sense only if the backdrop is a systems approach to the loops and limits of the environment. A good way to start is again with the civilization-nature boundaries. Think of them in structural and dynamic terms. Start with inputs, such as resource consumption. Instead of looking at resource consumption in terms of bulk, consider it as a material flow, specifically as the rate of flow. This works best with biotic resources. Ask yourself: what is the rate of the resource's renewal? What is the rate of the resource's recovery or exploitation? Does the exploitation rate exceed the renewal rate? If so, then the exploitation is unsustainable.

Even more compelling are environmental services. Here relate input and output. Take the carbon cycle and consider its assimilative rate, which is partly determined by carbon sinks such as oceans and forests. Compare this to the global carbon emissions rate per year. The following are rhetorical questions, of course, since we know the answers: does the assimilative capacity keep pace with emissions? Or is it being outpaced by the rate of emissions? If the latter, then with regard to this specific service, civilization is in overshoot.

The wonderfully profound aspect of these structures is that they are fixed. There is very little that's fluid here. For the most part such limits are physically absolute and geographically universal. The biophysical planetary environment houses global civilization just like the body envelops the spirit. And there is very little one can do about pushing the boundaries of the body. Yes, one can make an effort to stay healthy, of course, and take good care of oneself and one another but all such effort are again defined by physical constraints. Bodies are finite, and their biological parameters are fixed.

Delimiting these parameters, in the deconstructive-transgressive sense the word was used in the conference, is usually not a good idea. For the safe of collective flourishing, it's better (and safer) to stick to the original sense of delimitation: locate the limits and give their found location respect.

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