Sunday, April 27, 2008

Against Monoculture

Nature abhors monocultures. Nature abhors them so much that they do not exist in accordance with nature. They would be unknown but for modern man.

A monoculture is a single form of life - or, by extension, a single culture - that exists over a large expanse of space, even globally. Nature abhors monocultures because they are so susceptible to annihilation by one agent of destruction. In plant or animal life, for example, a single virus or bacteria, a single destructive fungus or disease, a single hostile predator or pest would wipe out an entire monoculture without the barest resistance. It is the very nature of nature to avoid monocultures - indeed, it cannot be otherwise since any form of monoculture cannot long exist in nature. Life in the natural realm is manifold and varied, precisely so that some life will weather the inevitable deadly challenges that arise.

It could be posited that modernity is defined by the introduction of monocultures. In politics, thinkers like Hobbes and Locke articulate the first universal and anti-cultural theory of politics, obliterating considerations of local culture, history and tradition in the name of a singular and monolithic conception of political legitimacy. In economics, thinkers such as Adam Smith introduce a world-transforming economic theory that renders the entire globe subject to the logic of the market. In the sciences, thinkers like Bacon, Descartes and Spinoza introduce a method that renders all local knowledge irrelevant to the specialized knowledge of the expert, the universally valid findings of science.

We live at a moment of monoculture's triumph - and demise. Around us is the evidence of the near-total victory of monocultures in nearly every field of human activity, at the same time that the recklessness and fragility of monocultures comes ever more fully into focus.

In agriculture we have sought efficiency through crop monocultures, circumventing the need for rotation and variety through high levels of petroleum inputs. We have created monocultures of wheat, corn, potato, rice - all with a growing sense of fragility of their futures in a world of constrained petroleum and water. Industrial methods of farming have severely depleted topsoil around the world, the very source of agriculture and hence human life. Agricultural monocultures - attractive because they can be efficiently produced by means of industrial production - have led to an atrophy of knowledge of how to grow numerous other crops. Even as we face the prospects of decreasing supplies of industrially produced crops, we want the knowledge of how to produce in accordance with local conditions that is the possession of a dying generation.

In finance we have "rationalized" our economy to a worldwide scale, seeking to avoid the risk of a failure of local or regional markets by spreading risk across a worldwide market. For instance, where once mortgages were made and held by local banks whose interest in their soundness was vested in the community, now those same loans are immediately sold to distant financiers who in turn chop, separate, recombine and sell these loans as a variety of debt instruments to the broadest possible array of buyers. The fact that no one bears responsibility or accountability actually increases the risk of default, since there was every impetus to make loans to people who could not repay, secure in the knowledge that the loan would be off the lender's books within 24 hours. In turn, the mortgage crisis is a worldwide phenomenon in spite of the vast majority of loans made on American properties, damaging banks and investment firms on every corner of the globe. The Bear Stearns debacle - and the Fed's unprecedented intervention - was the consequence of the deep intertwining of the finances of innumerable firms with the largest financial concerns in America, and hence the reason why it could not be allowed to fail. Had BS failed, by all accounts it would have led to a worldwide "run on the bank" - a panic that could have resulted in international chaos and upheaval as all money ceased to have value.

The schools that are supposed to educate human beings for responsible lives also are undergoing transformation into a monoculture. Their aim is to create a mobile army of itinerant vandals, laborers in the international corporate culture whose one and only aim is to produce a monoculture of economic growth. Our schools were once a patchwork of local and particular traditions - regional, religious, pedagogical diversity, as diverse and lovely as a local ecosystem. Now they all race to be identical, deathly afraid that they may not be conforming closely enough to the nearest competitor who harbors exactly the same fears. During my fifth year at Princeton University - a year before I was to submit materials for tenure - I attended a meeting for all fifth-year untenured faculty held by the Dean of the Faculty. His most memorable advice (in addition to, "publish, publish, publish") was to apply for other jobs. The reason: a job offer from another institution would prove your worth in the eyes of Princeton. I asked, "if Princeton looks to other institutions to establish the worth of a faculty member, who is actually establishing their value?" Dean of Faculty: "The market." Me: "I thought WE set the standard. Why else do we brag about our number one ranking?" The message was clear: the standard was "academic excellence" defined as our reputation beyond the gates of Princeton, and as defined by the international community of scholars. Its coin was publication in refereed journals - "the creation of knowledge" - and not the contributions we were making specifically, and even possibly limited to, the community at Princeton. It is in the image of this ambition for "academic excellence" that all institutions are being remade, all in the same and monolithic fashion.

In the end, we were told, there was no standard other than a vast and anonymous interchangeable monoculture of higher education. In the end, it didn't matter if anyone who received an offer stayed at Princeton or left, since one would find the same sorts of colleagues and students at any elite institution. Money and esteem by the international community of scholars - not institutional particularlity and loyalty - increasingly becomes the currency for faculty, just as it is for students. An itinerant and rootless intellectual class prepares an itinerant and rootless student class - indeed, considers such interancy and rootlessness the sign of success. All prepare and assume equally that the future is one of economic growth and expanding globalization, without the slightest hesitation or doubt that it could be otherwise. The monoculture of higher education prepares our students for the monoculture of the world. It is at once the agent of, and the consequence of, modernity's monocultures.

In these three cases - and one could offer many more - the potential for failure is acute. In agriculture and finance, the dangers posed by our monocultures are obvious. In education we are more prone to self-congratulation, but we no less embrace a monoculture that could fail in the increasingly likely event that the future does not align with the expectations for which we blithely prepare our students. At this moment especially we should be protecting actual diversity - bio-diversity, financial diversity (i.e., local markets) and educational diversity in the name of local, regional, religious and pedagogical traditions (rather than being blinded by the monoculture-based claims of "multiculturalism"). Yet, at this moment we are apt to cling to our modern faith in the logic of monocultures, even as the news seems to be undeniable that nature hates monocultures, and nature will not be indefinitely denied.


Anonymous said...

[schools] aim is to create a mobile army of itinerant vandals

What a great line.

Withywindle said...

I'm not sure "monoculture" best describes the financial system. Since the number of different financial instruments multiplies by the day, "integrated polyculture" seems a more apt description. The integration may be dangerous--the global shift to a monetary economy may be described as a monoculture--but I think the multiplication of financial professions, niches, techniques, etc., is a different phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

One more point on this: A monoculture is a single form of life - or, by extension, a single culture - that exists over a large expanse of space, even globally. Nature abhors monocultures...

One of the problems with people who have soaked up modernity for too long is the assumption that it is a relentless forward motion, and cannot be stopped. For example, we see a never-ending drop in fertility as the third world becomes modern, and so many just assume this is "progress" and will continue.

Of course, this defies basic biology. Genetic diversity plus resources requires that some group of people will "just say no" to low fertility (if only by random chance or mutation) and these folk will soon dominate the culture (the future belongs to those who show up for it). This is why a monoculture can never dominate; genetics work day and night to "fill the gaps" so to speak. And no monoculture can fill every gap - it cannot be the most effective way to pass on the selfish gene in every environment.

If you think about it, our monoculture is merely the "first wave" after a new technology arrives (much like farming, the bronze age, iron age, etc). With this new technology, a new "monculture" dominates until fully spread, and then begins to become specialized to each local once more. Currently, we are certainly entering a phase where technology is changing so fast we can't all keep up anyway and the culture falls below where the technologies can be maintained. And I would think this might result in a "dark age" where a cultural regrouping is needed.

Anonymous said...

Following suggestions on the tailend of CrunchyCon discussion of this posting FYI here's my comments (second attempt has correct html coding for citations):

Anonymous said...

The points regarding the monoculture of higher education are largely accurate, with "top tier" schools desparately trying to be like all other "top tier" schools, and the vast unwashed mass of schools pretending to be just like the former... only a helluva lot poorer. And yet, in one crucial respect colleges and universities dare not let their monocultures show: Alumni Fundraising. Therein the mythos of a school's particular character and nature must be maintained at any cost: You went to Special U. because you wanted to "stand out" from the Crowd; and Special U. made its own unique and indelible mark on your soul; don't you want to donate to help make that Experience available for future generations??? The fundraising (obviously) works, not least for "top tier" schools, but I wonder how much of this success is riding on an mode of thinking about higher education that largely been converted to sacred myth over the last 50 years.

Christopher E Johnson said...

Excellent description of ecological monoculture and its countless metaphors in today's society. I have felt this way for years, as monoculture simply doesn't mesh with who I am, and am now working to bring about a polycultural world and an ecological society.

Don't necessarily agree with your political views (e.g. Sarah Palin scares me), but it is good to see someone who believes in diversity of thought!

Anonymous said...

It is extremely interesting for me to read the article. Thanx for it. I like such themes and everything connected to this matter. I would like to read a bit more on that blog soon.

kelly said...

GREAT article and I am so glad it stayed on since 2008! Thank you - am linking one of my posts to yours so more would know.