The problem with the vegetables (is all this systems stuff b*ll*cks?)

A re-watch of ‘All Watch OVer by Machines of Loving Grace part 2 – the Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts’ raises some interesting questions.

(Two openly available versions below)

Wikipedia summary from All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (TV series) – Wikipedia

Part 2. ‘The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts’

This episode investigates how machine ideas such as cybernetics and systems theory were applied to natural ecosystems, and how this relates to the false idea that there is a balance of nature. Cybernetics has been applied to human beings in an attempt to build societies without central control, self organising networks built of people, based on a fantasy view of nature.

Arthur Tansley had a dream where he shot his wife. He wanted to know what it meant, so he studied Sigmund Freud. However, one part of Freud’s theory was that the human brain is an electrical machine. Tansley became convinced that, as the brain was interconnected, so was the whole of the natural world, in networks he called ecosystems, which he believed were inherently stable and self-correcting, and which regulated nature as if it were a machine.

Jay Forrester was an early pioneer in cybernetic systems who believed that brains, cities and even societies live in networks of feedback loops that control them, and he thought computers could determine the effects of the feedback loops. Cybernetics therefore viewed humans as nodes in networks, as machines.

The ecology movement also adopted this idea and viewed the natural world as systems, as it explained how the natural system could stabilise the natural world, via natural feedback loops.

Norbert Wiener laid out the position that humans, machines and ecology are simply nodes in a network in his book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, and this book became the bible of cybernetics.

Howard T. Odum

Howard T. Odum and Eugene Odum were brothers, and both of them ecologists. Howard collected data from ecological systems and built electronic networks to simulate them. His brother Eugene then took these ideas to make them the heart of ecology, and the hypothesis then became a certainty. However, they had distorted the idea and simplified the data to an extraordinary degree. That ecology was balanced became conventional wisdom among scientists.

Meanwhile, in the 1960s, Buckminster Fuller invented a radically new kind of structure, the geodesic dome, which emulated ecosystems in being made of highly connected, relatively weak parts. It was applied to the radomes covering early warning systems in the Arctic. His other system-based ideas inspired the counterculture movementCommunes of people who saw themselves as nodes in a network, without hierarchy, and applied feedback to try to control and stabilise their societies, and used his geodesic domes as habitats. These societies mostly broke up within a few years.

Also in the 1960s, Stewart Brand filmed a demonstration of a networked computer system with a graphics display, mouse and keyboardthat he believed would save the world by empowering people, in a similar way to the communes, to be free as individuals.

In 1967, Richard Brautigan published the poetry work All Watched Over by machines of Loving Grace. The title poem called for a cybernetic ecological utopia consisting of a fusion of computers and mammals living in perfect harmony and stability. The arguments in this part of the documentary closely echo Andrew Kirk’s 2007 environmental history of the California-appropriate technology movement, Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism.

By the 1970s, new problems such as overpopulation, limited natural resources and pollution that could not be solved by normal hierarchical systems had arrived. Jay Forrester stated that he knew how to solve this problem. He applied systems theory to the problem and drew a cybernetic system diagram for the world. This was turned into a computer model, which predicted population collapse. This became the basis of the model that was used by the Club of Rome, and the findings from this were published in The Limits to Growth. Forrester then argued for zero growth in order to maintain a steady equilibrium within the capacity of the Earth.

Jan Smuts

However, this was opposed by many people within the environmental movement, since the model did not allow for people to change their values to stabilise the world, and they argued that the model tried to maintain and enforce the current political hierarchy. Arthur Tansleywho had invented the term ecosystem, had once accused Field Marshal Jan Smuts of the “abuse of vegetational concepts”. Smuts had invented a philosophy called holism, where everyone had a ‘rightful place’, which was to be managed by the white race. The 70s protestors claimed that the same conceptual abuse of the supposed natural order was occurring, that it was really being used for political control.

At the time, there was a general belief in the stability of natural systems. However, cracks started to appear when a study was made of the predator-prey relationship of wolf and elks. It was found that wild population swings had occurred over centuries. Other studies then found huge variations, and a significant lack of homeostasis in natural systems. George Van Dyne then tried to build a computer model to try to simulate a complete ecosystem based on extensive real-world data, to show how the stability of natural systems actually worked. To his surprise, the computer model did not stabilize like the Odums’ electrical model had. The reason for this lack of stabilization was that he had used extensive data which more accurately reflected reality, whereas the Odums and other ecologists had “ruthlessly simplified nature.” The scientific idea had thus been shown to fail, but the popular idea remained in currency, and even grew as it apparently offered the possibility of a new egalitarian world order.

In 2003, a wave of spontaneous revolutions swept through Asia and Europe. Coordinated only via the internet, nobody seemed to be in overall charge, and no overall aims except self-determination and freedom were apparent. This seemed to justify the beliefs of the computer utopians.

However, the freedom from these revolutions lasted for only a short time. Curtis compares them with the hippie communes, all of which had been broken up within a few years by, “the very thing that was supposed to have been banished: power.” Aggressive members of the group began to bully the weaker ones, who were unable to band together in their own defence because formal power structures were prohibited by the commune’s rules, and even intervention against bullying by benevolent individuals was discouraged.

Curtis closes the episode by stating that it has become apparent that while the self-organising network is good at organising change, it is much less good at what comes next; networks leave people helpless in the face of people already in power in the world.


Critically, the wikipedia for includes:

Despite being discredited among ecologists, the theory is widely held to be true by the general public, with one authority calling it an “enduring myth”.[2] At least in Midwestern America, the “balance of nature” idea was shown to be widely held by both science majors and the general student population.[1] In a study at the University of Patras, educational sciences students were asked to reason about the future of ecosystems which suffered human-driven disturbances. Subjects agreed that it was very likely for the ecosystems to fully recover their initial state, referring to either a ‘recovery process’ which restores the initial ‘balance’, or specific ‘recovery mechanisms’ as an ecosystem’s inherent characteristic.[7] In a 2017 study, Ampatzidis and Ergazaki discuss the learning objectives and design criteria that a learning environment for non-biology major students should meet to support them challenge the “balance of nature” idea.[8]


The concessions to ‘superseded by chaos theory and catastrophe theory’ seem to me to provide an immediate way out (being, it seems to me, entirely systems theory and demonstrating maintenance of whole-system equilibrium in some meaningful sense), and also the demonstrations of homeostasis are still valid, even if demonstrations of non-homeostasis are also valid. And systems thinking and cybernetics, in any non-trivially dumb form, do not need any global, holistic or metaphysical ‘tendency to stability’ to justify their existence! And even if such a fundamental Hegelian-like grounding were needed, I’d plump for entropy and emergence any day…

BUT – is this something important? Useful? Have I finally understood some point of where complexity theory and ‘living systems’ people talk dismissively of ‘mechanistic’ systems thinking and cybernetics?

I don’t actually think so – just see my recent Andrew Pickering post for a much richer reading of cybernetics (I’m putting Adam Curtis in the ‘George Monbiot’ annoying, occasionally interesting, usually ideological and sometimes willingly lying box for now – though like the Jan de Bont Award for Worst Screenplay, the crown is unlikely to be taken from the title-holder in a rush ;-)) – but it would be interesting if people could respond….

I mean ‘there was no difference between humans and machines’, ‘both were just nodes in networks’ – that kind of characterisation actually makes me quite angry – I can open any page of the transcript of the Macy Conferences at random and find something to definitively refute that! Grr….