Saturday, August 18, 2007

huge systems

For the book group I'm a part of, this month we're reading The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. The part I'm reading now is describing the modern industrial food system based around corn. He tries to get the big picture, to see how our eating habits tie in with industrial and economic logic of production. Corn production is based on petroleum use (petrochemicals, oil based transportations systems etc.), and feed lot cows in turn eat a corn based diet. On page 83, he says
I don't have a sufficiently vivid imagination to look at my steer and see a barrel of oil, but petroleum is one of the most important ingredients in the production of modern meat, and the Persian Gulf is surely a link in the food chain that passes through this (or any) feedlot.
The part that interests me in this is the "sufficiently vivid imagination". Certainly Pollan has a vivid imagination as we see from all the creative, clarifying metaphors he uses. But the point is that the system is just too big.

I mention this because I feel the same way about my own work in particle accelerators. I jump in at different levels and understand different things, and find people and ideas and work flows and processes at each level. But it just seems too big. In order for it to work, the amount of expertise is literally incomprehensible. But on the other hand, any one person has only a piece of the picture. How this all worked was really a big question I've had for a long time. If no one person understands it all, then how does it actually work? Pollan uses evolutionary metaphors frequently, and I think that this gets at a good piece of the answer to this question. Both the people involved, and the system itself coevolve to form a relatively coherent whole. Corn evolves to use oil and maximize growth, and people adapt to eating processed food.

These big systems have a big effect on us. They shape our lives, and because they contain so many parts, the basic underlying logic escapes us which means we lose control of our life. I find Pollan's book very inspiring in that he is taking something so big that it is almost invisible, and laying it out in front of us in a clear, enjoyable way.

1 comment:

Trista said...

I went to see Pollan speak 2 weeks ago at a college south of Charlottesville. He was as inspiring to see live as his written works are to read. If I were to be a writer, oh that I could think in such big pictures as Pollan does. You're right--he's able to address a system that's larger than any of us in a way that makes it understandable.

So many things are larger than we are: the global food system, the petroleum thirst and quenching system, the IMF and World Bank. I can get lost thinking on that scale. So I bring it back down to: what can I understand in my own little microcosm that affects that big picture?

It IS amazing that your work works, with no one person knowing everything but all contributing toward a larger idea and schematic. It could be overwhelming to work for the "big picture" aspects in life. For anyone to do it successfully, the big picture has to be broken down into manageable human-sized bits.

We're all in this together.