Human Limits to Environmental Endeavours

Prem Chandavarkar
5 min readMay 13, 2023

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This text is based on a 7-minute presentation I gave as a part of a panel discussion on “Governance Challenges in Making a New World.” This discussion was a part of a day-and-a-half long event organised to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Environment Support Group (ESG), Bengaluru.

For this discussion, I was assigned to speak on “Environmental Limits to Human Endeavours.” I started work on this topic only to find myself compelled to speak about its reversal, “Human Limits to Environmental Endeavours.” All of us here in this room are friends of ESG. We are the converted, already enlisted as warriors to the cause of environmental protection, so do not need anyone to speak to us on what environmental limits are. The challenge we face are the human limits to how we may advance our cause.

To me, an understanding of what environmental limits are is best captured by economist Kenneth Boulding in his classic paper of 1966 “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth,” where he describes two possible kinds of economics. The first he calls ‘Cowboy Economics’ recalling the appropriation of the Americas by European settlers who assumed an infinite terrain of ever expanding frontiers available for appropriation. The second is ‘Spaceship Economics’ that assumes a space so finite that every action must account for its impact on fellow inhabitants. ‘Cowboy Economics’ is the dominant prevailing paradigm that posits an open system where the priority is on expanding throughput and choice can be individualised. ‘Spaceship Economics’ accepts a closed system where the priority has to be toward sustaining the quality and quantity of stock within the system, and choice has to be collectivised in some form.

The profound challenge we face is that we have a political system in which the legitimacy of governance rests on assuring an open system of continuous economic growth combined with a doctrine of constitutional rights that foregrounds the individualisation of choice. We need a persuasive strategy that provokes systemic reform and lifestyle change, which brings me to the reversal of title I referred to earlier.

Persuasion is a challenge because nature is complex, and I use the word ‘complex’ in very specific way, inspired by another classic paper, this one from the 1940’s: Warren Weaver’s “Science and Complexity,” in which he posits three categories of scientific problems:

1. ‘Organised Simplicity,’ where the entire system can be captured in a conceptual model of scientific law.

2. ‘Disorganised Complexity,’ where the system is so disaggregated that understanding is possible only through statistical techniques.

3. ‘Organised Complexity,’ where organisation in the system does not directly ensue from a priori scientific law, but emerges over time through interaction of the parts of the system with each other and with context. This occurs because the system possesses a capacity for emergence of order through iterative evolutionary spirals of experiential pattern recognition.

Living systems (in other words ‘nature’) tend to be characterised by organised complexity. This makes nature a non-linear system, which means:

· There are no determined chains of cause and effect for emergence, in its experiential discovery of pattern, can divert down unforeseen paths.

· There is no direct correspondence between input and output; large inputs can result in insignificant output, and small inputs, especially when they exponentially coalesce, can provoke system changing output.

· Therefore, rational argument to incentivise human change is hugely challenging for you cannot offer anyone an assurance that an action toward lifestyle change will result in a specific benefit within a predictable period of time.

We must accept nature as a complex non-linear system of which we are a part, realise our cause has limits if hopes rest solely on a communicative rationality that builds consensus on public interest, and adopt an ethics and language of organised complexity. To this end, I offer five propositions (citations in links):

1. The strategic logic of organised complexity and emergence is not new to us: We are not schooled in the ways of emergence, but it is the way we intuitively live: our social relationships, our culture, are products of emergence. Emergence is the only way ideas go viral, and urgency demands virality. We must seek to inclusively institutionalise the connections, feedback loops, pattern recognition, and network logic that catalyse emergence.

2. We must discard modernity’s assumption of a disenchanted world in which we are the only sentient beings: The sentience of nature is revealed in a recalcitrance that becomes evident in longer time scales, and the visibility of this has been exponentially increasing in recent times. We must discard the detached ego-based consciousness we are schooled in and reschool ourselves in a participating consciousness that is moved by the magic of the world it is embedded in.

3. Nature is not purely a scientific fact out there, it is actively shaped by our inner imagination: We tend to equate it with wilderness, and therefore tend to construe its presence in the city as an aesthetic spectacle we may enjoy rather than an ecological presence we must respect. We must recognise that the shrub we plant in our garden and the weed that sprouts in a pavement crack are worthy of the same wonder we grant to a primal forest.

4. We must move beyond the language of rational persuasion and adopt the language of joy: A message of science, statistics, and moral exhortation while true, is weighty and demobilising. Joy is light, energising, and anchored in something larger than ourselves, and we must embark on a mission to sensitise people to the joy they may discover in how their environment echoes the miracle of their own consciousness.

5. Joy demands the language of poetry: If we feel that poetry is intimate, subjective, and distanced from politics, we have not learned a lesson available in our history — the role Mahatma Gandhi played in India’s freedom movement. Gandhi is recognised for his ethics and politics, but sadly insufficiently recognised for his poetics. One of his major contributions to the movement was his ability to translate the spirit of swaraj into poetic metaphors such as spinning wheels and salt. This made the message more accessible, lent unity to a diverse set of struggles, and empowered embodied participation by a multitude.

While we must persist with rational persuasion on environmental limits, especially to those possessing influence, I end by humbly suggesting we may achieve more by recognising human limits to environmental endeavours, adopt the non-linear logic of the natural world we are a part of, and embrace complexity and emergence.

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Prem Chandavarkar

Practicing architect in Bangalore, India. This blog contains general writing. For writing on architecture and urbanism, see https://premckar.wordpress.com