Services provided by nature

February 13, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedA while back I had considered free energy as it exists in modern industrial society. Today I want to consider free services provided by nature, but that are ignored for what they are, especially in the context of a long-running trend that is finally getting notice in the tech-centric media: the tension between automation and employment. Specifically, I’ve been trying to understand what these trends say about how we conceive of our society and the ecosystem around it.

This post from a few months back reminded me about how proponents of “advanced” farming techniques haven’t given up, and are still pushing their expensive wares. Despite the various claims about the energy, environmental, and human benefits of vertical farms and the like, part of the issue left unaddressed is actually standard fare for ecological economics. That is, I think there’s something deeper and simpler to explain why vertical farming always has proponents: the economic model in question. A common ecological-economic observation is that the services rendered by nature aren’t quantified in economic terms so they can’t be compared with replacement services created by human-built systems. Vertical “plantscrapers”, fish farms, water purification, fertilization, etc. fall into this category. As observed at the link above:

If a machine were invented that scrubbed carbon from the atmosphere and turned it into useful food, construction materials, animal feedstocks, and fibers, all while rebuilding topsoil, it would be on the cover of every tech magazine in the world and its inventor would be a celebrity millionaire. Yet I’ve never seen a tree on the cover of Wired.


But it’s not only trees that provide such useful services that are ignored. What are some others, and how could they be reframed to be a high-tech “green” technology? In other words, what other things nature does for free would be hailed as a breakthrough if only created by a human? I’d like to consider those questions in a future post, but for now, how does this fit into the question of automation and the trends that seem to most excite techno-optimists?

Kevin Kelly, who I find to be among more the thoughtful of techno-optimists, seems to acknowledge in a recent article (as it happens, in Wired magazine) that yes there are physical limits we’re facing, and we’ll navigate those currents (and many more) through increased used of smart robots which will replace the tedious, dangerous, and expensive things that are currently done by human hands.

I think back to the thoroughly-cynical but not incorrect Sevareid’s Law: The chief cause of problems is solutions. Kelly, it seems, is saying exactly this (without actually saying it): that it’s right and proper that people should continue to find new things to do as automation replaces the things they used to do, even as those new things are really largely to fix the problems created by replacing human work with automation. While I’m not really qualified to speak on philosophical matters, it seems Kelly is wholeheartedly endorsing the idea that humanity should embrace its role as Sisyphus, though I’m pretty sure he doesn’t think of it that way.

But here’s again the problem with the techno-fix approach: if we’re facing just engineering problems that will require engineering solutions (in the immortal words of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson), then we ignore the the fact that human misery as a result of backbreaking labor has much more to do with imbalances in the economic system and exploitation of people than it does with the availability or lack of technology (i.e. an “engineering solution”). This is evidenced by the societies that have managed to have relatively high levels of human wellbeing (high autonomy, literacy, health, etc.) while also staying close to the ground, as it were (Kerala comes to mind, though I’m sure there are better examples).

And this brings us back to the question about the services nature provides for us. It seems that in many ways our struggle as an industrial society is almost a rebellion against the very physical, chemical, and biological forces around us. This almost defines the modern industrial system, and it’s often celebrated (immortalized in sayings like Clarke’s—”any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—and Kay’s—”technology is anything that was invented after you were born”).

I think there are three ideas I’m trying to convey here, none of which are new:
1) that the primary blindspot in new technology is that it is pursued not only for its own sake, but without considering the vast invisible support system underneath that is fundamentally rooted in what the ecosystem provides for us,
2) that in a world in which people are even further distanced from the ecosystem—via automation or economics or otherwise—people will perpetuate a shortsighted approach to human and non-human affairs, and
3) that in this thinking it is the struggle itself against nature and against other human beings that almost defines the value of a pursuit.

It’s in this spirit that vertical farms are proposed: basic functions that the ecosystem provides are forgotten (e.g. work done by life in natural soils); part of the allure is that satisfaction (and sometimes recognition) comes from the immensity of the struggle itself against, in this case, gravity (not to mention basic physical issues like shadows); and as people are further distanced from the ecosystem such proposals will seem increasingly worthwhile.

I think that permaculture, among other systems, works to correct some of these mistakes, but, significantly, not all of them. To begin with, one of its primary tools is to take a Jujutsu-approach to ecosystems—to let them do their work on our behalf in the way that they naturally would. As commonly practiced permaculture also acknowledges the ecosystem services that underlie the systems the permaculture designer is building. However, it’s this last issue that I think hasn’t really been addressed or resolved yet—how to make this new kind of permaculture-oriented struggle (likely as meaningless, in the sense of Camus, as the one that it seeks to replace) feel more worthwhile to people and societies who have, for a very long time, defined themselves by a “progress”-driven struggle against nature. It’s the challenge of replacing this long-held drive to commodify not only nature, but also other people in the process, that will require not only thought, but action that seems to not yet be a focus of those thinking about these issues today.

Barath Raghavan

Barath Raghavan is a computer scientist who writes about the intersection of energy, environmental, and technological issues.

Tags: ecosystem services, robots, vertical farms