The Drama of Earth Systems (Pt 7)

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Welcome to the final installment of this blog series. Thanks for making it all the way to the end.

To recap, on one side of the systems landscape (see Figure 1 below) we have information scientists who wish to disembody information while not upending the applecart of liberal humanism with its focus on such things as self-directedness, autonomy, self-regulation, and freedom. The chief animator here is Norbert Wiener. Liberal humanism is the driving force behind the transition from dogmatic religious control (the middle brain) to the Enlightenment (the upper brain). Information scientists moved their thinking through phases focused on homeostasis, recursion, and then recursion with direction.

On the other side of the systems landscape we have three waves of systems theory thinking. The first wave is focused on organic systems theory (from which the concept homeostasis comes) and was chiefly animated by the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy. In many respects, von Bertalanffy’s work is a refinement of Darwin’s theory of evolution. John Bowlby developed his theory of attachment using organic systems theory and evolution theory as backdrops. The second wave is focused on sociological systems theory. In his book Systemic Intervention, Gerald Midgley points out that the chief animator behind sociological systems theory is C. West Churchman who suggested that (quoting Midgley now) “boundaries are social or personal constructs that define the limits of the knowledge that is to be taken as pertinent in an analysis.” Many feminists (Susie Orbach would be an example here) welcomed the arrival of sociological systems theory because it allowed them to argue that such things as “mother,” the “mother-child relationship,” and even gender are sociological constructs that have very little, if anything, to do with organic systems or functioning. This takes us up to wave three, which I will touch on briefly before I wrap things up.

According to Midgley, wave three is focused on emancipatory systems theory. Emancipatory systems theory is informed by sociological forms of postmodernism. Michel Foucault would be a chief animator here. Essentially thinkers in the realm of emancipatory systems theory argue that social change at organic or even sociological levels will take too long to bring about. Their answer: forget biology, forget sociology, heck, forget liberal humanism … it’s all relative anyway.

Emancipatory systems thinkers wish to usher in the worldview of no worldviews, which, ironically, is a worldview. Liberal humanism is a worldview, or, as I like to call it, a cultural cognitive model, that allows individuals to map personal experience to collective experience. To use the terminology used in the book We Don’t Speak of Fear, liberal humanism is a Group Identity. Given that Liberal humanism is a worldview or Group Identity, emancipatory systems thinkers throw them out. Interestingly, they do not offer up an alternative because to do so would be to offer up a new worldview or Group Identity, which they deny exist, or, if they do, have little value. Should I put the image of the Ouroboros eating its tail back up? Yes, postmodernism is very recursive in that it does eat its own tail. In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, cognitive scientist and political commentator George Lakoff points out that in order to not think about an elephant, one must first create an image of an elephant in one’s head. In essence, to not think about an elephant, you must first, well, think of an elephant. To not have a model, you must first have a model. To not have a model is a Group Identity.

Like with information science, postmodernism does have this feeling of “bootstrapping” or pulling one’s self up by the bootstrap. This reminds me of people who are contemplating suicide. They will often say that they do not wish to die, however, they want the pain to go away. When a therapist (or other caring individual) tries to explain that by killing the self as a way of killing the pain, the self is killed as well. Therapists will often say that suicide is a “permanent solution to a temporary problem,” which it is. Interestingly, these explanations often make no sense to a person contemplating suicide because their mind is in a dissociated state where mind is separated from body. In a dissociated state, yes, a person could contemplate killing the body and staying alive at the same time. It makes perfect sense to a dissociated mind where organic systems have broken down and certain components (say, the brain’s fear center, the amygdala) are now operating autonomously. This is at the heart of organic systems theory as von Betalanffy presented it. A dissociated state is a very risky place to be because one is cutoff from the reflective, deliberative, perspective-taking, and time travel abilities of the upper brain. This is why persons who are contemplating suicide often (thankfully) will reach out to a healthcare professional who can in essence act as a surrogate prefrontal cortex (the upper brain).

Information scientists with their focus on disembodied information wish to make dissociation a reality by suggesting that a mind could be downloaded into a computer of some sort. The introduction to the edited volume Anti-Science and the Assault on Democracy reveals that “[t]he insidious influence of postmodern relativism equates the methods of the natural sciences with regimes of ‘power-knowledge’ where all claims to rational, objective truth are questioned as mere masks for social power and dominance.” In a dissociated state, the body of the natural sciences is perceived to be a body that must be eliminated in order to bring about emancipation. Simply, you cannot kill the body and have the body too, unless you first put the mind of the body into the form of the cyborg. This is why I have cybernetics shortcircuiting against emancipatory systems theory in my map of the shifting landscape of systems development. My map is presented below for your convenience with two new updates shown in red: AI and ChatGPT shown on the cybernetics side, and the DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) movement on the other.



As cybernetics continues to shortcircuit against emancipatory systems theory and usher in the age of posthumanism,[1] we begin to notice an interesting group of strange bedfellows:

People who believe in the Singularity believe that in the not too distant future (as early as 2033), people will be able to download their brains into a computer. The chief animator behind the Singularity and the posthumanism movement is Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil is best known for inventions such as OCR (optical character recognition) systems and electronic keyboard synthesizers.

People who believe in the End Times or the Rapture also have taken notice of the posthumanism movement arguing that maybe the world of the posthuman awaits them after they are “taken up.”

Emancipatory systems thinkers also are looking at posthumanism as a land to which emancipation could take them.

In all cases, these groups wish to kill the body and have their mind too. And maybe posthumanism will make this happen. However, as Damasio points out in his book Feeling & Knowing: “When people think of ‘uploading or downloading their minds’ and becoming immortal, they should realize that their [posthuman] adventure—in the absence of live brains in live organisms—would consist in transferring recipes [italics in original], and only recipes, to a computer device.” Damasio gives us this bottom line: “Following this argument to its conclusion, they would not gain access to the actual tastes and smells of the real cooking and of real food.”

What does all of this have to do with Earth systems? Allow me to explain.

Arguably the most pressing issue facing humankind has to be global warming. Climate scientists are now convinced that global warmning is contributing to changes in weather patterns leading to increased levels of storms, flooding, ocean temperatures, and wild fires. Increasingly younger generations are concerned not only for themselves but for their children. With good reason, younger generations are putting pressure on governmental and educational institutions to do something about global warming. Their cries are being recognized. As an example, the geoscience department at UT Dallas (my alma mater by the way) recently changed their name to the department of Sustainable Earth System Science (SESS). As another example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently released a booklet entitled Next Generation Earth Systems Science at the National Science Foundation (2022). You can access a copy of this booklet at this link. This booklet talks about how the NSF makes grants in areas such as:

  • Biological Sciences (including integrative organismal systems)
  • Computer & Information Sciences (including information & intelligent systems)
  • Education & Human Resources (including graduate education)
  • Engineering (including communications & cyber systems)
  • Geosciences
  • Social, Behavioral, & Economic Sciences (including behavioral & cognitive sciences)
  • Mathematics & Physical Sciences

Do these disciplines look familiar? They should. They are roughly the same disciplines represented at the Macy and Geneva conferences (talked about in earlier installments of this series). The NSF booklet makes it clear that NSF is going to bring all of these various groups together in a concerted effort to better understand global warming, and, in doing so, develop possible interventions and policies. This is nothing short of an “All Hands on Deck—Save the World” effort, which implies that the world is near destruction. That’s a lot of trauma; to think about the destruction of the Earth, not unlike how we had to think about the possible destruction of the Earth following the dropping of nuclear bombs on Japan.

What truly concerns me is I have noticed that although there is a big emphasis on Earth systems (interestingly, the NSF booklet refers to all of the above disciplines as “earth systems”), there is little emphasis on systems theory, especially organic systems theory. As an example, the NSF report does, in passing, mention the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy (who we now know is arguably the father of General Systems Theory), however, that is the only mention of systems theory proper. How is this possible (I ask rhetorically)?

I am writing this blog series as a way of bringing attention to the various approaches to systems theory—information systems, organic systems, sociological systems, and emancipatory systems—that have arisen since the close of WWII in response to huge amounts of collective trauma. I am doing so in an attempt to not reinvent the wheel, to not repeat history. I argue that the NSF effort to address climate change will be severely crippled unless it, 1) takes a look at these earlier efforts (such as the Macy and Geneva conferences) to address the trauma of Earth systems, and, 2) traces the various paths these efforts took ultimately leading to such present day developments as AI (artificial intelligence) and even the DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) movement, which I should point out is prominently profiled in the NSF report. As an example, the NSF booklet has a callout box entitled Definitions Used by the Committee in This Report. There are definitions for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) among others. As another example, the NSF booklet contains the following recommendation:

Recommendation 3. NSF should integrate diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in all aspects of next generation Earth Systems Science, including the determination of research priorities, evaluation of research activities, and development of the workforce.

This worries me because it is clear from the absence of any discussion of systems theory and systems theory development in the NSF booklet, that the Committee is either unaware of the complex history of systems thinking and theories, or they choose to ignore it. I can only assume that the booklet contains no discussion of the complex history of systems thinking and systems theories because it has chosen emancipatory systems theory as a foundational concept. If this is indeed true, then I am also concerned by the decidedly anti-science stance that postmodernism and emancipatory systems espouse. Equally troubling is the Committee espousing any ideology at all without disclosing this bias clearly, and clearly stating why such a bias is being used. If the Committee is using a bias then from the onset they have undermined the very nature of collaboration and interdisciplinary efforts. As McGilchrist suggests, the Committee seems to be locked in the middle left brain unable to access the reflective and deliberative nature of the upper brain.

As the NSF booklet makes clear, definitions of Earth systems and how to help these systems in an attempt to combat climate change, will go hand-in-hand (inextricably so) with DEI definitions of humanism as well as how to help this identity group in their attempts to access and be included in general prosperity. But for any of this to happen, two things are required: a vision for this future not unlike the vision that Dr. King had for us; and a return to body and mind working together so that access to the realm of the upper brain can be realized.

I am unabashedly a believer in evolution and the organic systems theory that holds it and gives it extraordinary explanatory power. However, as the preceding discussion points out, there are many other approaches to systems science and systems thinking such as information, sociology, and, yes, emancipation. Within the singular framework of DEI, I worry that these other forms of systems thinking and theory will be muffled out. Is the DEI worldview an assumption not explicitly articulated as Hayles suggests? I have tried my best to show where emancipatory systems theory has come from because I feel that such historical accounts and narratives are important so we do not repeat the past. (I should point out that Hayles, in talking about the history of posthumanism, brilliantly combines both scientific and literary analyses.)

Since President Obama declared that inequality will be the most pressing issue of the 21st century, DEI has become a major movement in the U.S. Many colleges and universities now have DEI departments. This has caused conservative-leaning states to declare bans on state-funded DEI departments. Will NSF efforts to save the Earth be caught up in what can only be called “culture wars.” And what are theses culture wars about anyway?

One of the messages delivered in the book We Don’t Speak of Fear is the following: When a group feels that it is losing its identity, it will choose a trauma around which an identity could be formed (which agrees with Dr. Pynoos’ take on trauma narratives talked about earlier). The trauma chosen could be recent, or in some cases, the trauma could be centuries old. As an example, during conflict resolution talks, “[R]ussian delegates went back to a thirteenth-century massive trauma and, through a time collapse [italics in original], linked emotions connected to this chosen trauma [Mongol-Tatar Yoke] to problems with the Estonians after the collapse of the Soviet Union” (quoting We Don’t Speak of Fear). Time collapse is the hallmark of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) where events from the past are experienced today as if they are actually happening now. In essence, events take place outside of the time travel abilities of the upper brain. Frankly, in my systems map I’m making educated guesses at possible traumas providing energy to the many shifts depicted, however, it is entirely possible that traumas from much further back are playing a role. To address current and future trauma, we have to look at old traumas, possibly centuries old.

Maybe the piece of the puzzle we are missing is the possibility that emancipatory systems theory may represent a throwing off of liberal humanism in favor of digital humanism. Maybe we are moving from “self-regulation” to “machine regulation.” Being charitable, maybe the DEI movement is about giving voice to everyone and not just a “privileged few,” doing away with “deep structural inequalities,” and ending “capitalistic imperialism” (quoting Hayles). Fair enough. But is killing the body and freeing (i.e., dissociating) the mind the way to go? Or is going through the long, arduous process of collective mourning the better way of saving the Earth? Unfortunately, I think the NSF Committee has already made a decision. And maybe, just maybe, humans evaporating into the ether is exactly what Earth needs. I know of a number of other species who would agree.

PS – I said there was a bit more to the cybernetics story. There is. Toward the end of his life, Norbert Wiener, again, arguably the father of cybernetics, became worried as he, in my mind, gained access to his empathetic upper brain. He became particularly concerned for oppressed groups. He feared that his brain child, cybernetics, rather than leading to emancipation, could in fact lead to a new era of oppression. I found the following Wiener quote by reading economist Jeremy Rifkin’s book The End of Work. Here’s the quote by Wiener from Rifkin’s book: “[T]he automatic machine … is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor.” Wiener continues: “Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor.” Rifkin comments thus: “[N]ot surprisingly, the first community to be devastated by the cybernetics revolution was Black America.” Again, many are clamoring for the freedom—especially freedom from the body—that emancipation systems theory promises while at the same time ignoring its potential to bring about a whole new era of slavery. I have no other explanation other than pointing to the processes of collective trauma and dissociation, Icarus flying toward the sun. To heal a traumatized Earth, we need to heal traumatized people, help them reach the realm of the upper brain. By embracing DEI, the NSF Committee may well be doing this. However, if this connection is true, then it needs to be made explicit lest it become one of the veiled assumptions Hayles talks about. The National Science Foundation spends our tax dollars, tens of millions of them. Veiled assumptions are not an option.



[1] It’s entirely possible that in the same way liberal humanism displaced dogmatic religion, digital humanism may be replacing liberal humanism. Clearly the digital age is here. Maybe it’s time to start thinking in terms of digital humanism.