Entropic Ecologies: A Prosthetic Approach
By Nicole Koltick
Published in VOLUME, vol. 31, 2012, ISBN:9 789 077 966 310
Edited by: Arjen Oosterman
Contributing editors: Ole Bouman, Rem Koolhaas, Mark Wigley
Co-editors for this issue: Liam Young and Kate Davies
Feature editor: Jeffrey Inaba
A highly entropic ecology embodies a vast amount of potential. Might it be possible to seed an entropic ecology through the deployment of prosthetics in a variety of small scale interventions? These seeds would yield diverse, unpredictable outcomes and provide additional opportunities for feedback, adaptation, and evolution within the system. The concept of entropy originates from the field of thermodynamics where it describes a measure of disorder or randomness in a given system. Entropy is related to the transfer and dissipation of energy in a system, and a corresponding increase in disorder. In closed systems it is a useful measure for evaluating a given set of exchanges. In an ecological context, when evaluating a complex system with many constituents operating at a broad array of spatial and temporal scales, the term entropy may be applied analogously.1 The interplay between order and chaos is evident in cells and organisms as well as the systems they inhabit. This disorder is not chaos as portrayed in an apocalyptic vignette but rather is an indicator of the myriad potentialities in a given system. In closed systems order tends to reduce complexity. For example, the geometric configuration of a crystal embodies a set order and has no potential to embody another state without an application of an external force; therefore entropy and complexity decrease with the establishment of order in its spatial structure. However, in a living system with a variety of nonlinear feedbacks among interacting entities there exists both, “order and complexity or… actual and potential information.”2 Therefore an entropic ecology exhibits a higher tendency towards a number of potential outcomes rather than a fixed order. Of course, the stochastic nature of these potential states means that such a system may tend towards either positive or negative outcomes, depending on one’s assessment criteria. Too much order and a given ecology rapidly becomes a hegemonic monoculture with little ability for evolution or adaptation. Counter-intuitively, the entropic ecology should be our goal.
The prosthetic as a typology has traditionally not afforded an exact replacement of original function. Instead, the prosthetic impulse involves an honest appraisal of the present and a gesture of remediation, rather than replacement in whole. A prosthetic approach to ecologies, then, would require the admission that there is no ideal state to which we can return. Rather, we might explore a series of upgrades, nudges or tweaks to these systems. The prosthetic approach allows for a variety of small scale efforts that through their radiating and unexpected consequences can yield varied, resilient remediation. The small scale and highly divergent nature of prosthetic intervention dispels overly hierarchical or top down approaches. The prosthetic seeks to assist, not insist. It does not dictate a priori outcomes or dogmatic usages, but offers a given organism or system some addition that can be incorporated into a larger network of operations and facilitate adaptation within a specific context or environment. There exists no large solution that will quickly or even slowly ameliorate these ecologies. The prosthetic is interested in localized, targeted assists that when incorporated into larger systems will increase diversity and potentials, and in turn provide opportunities for novel and adaptive solutions to evolve. The answer is not to do nothing, sit back and wait it out. Optimally, we need an increased sensitivity to the complexity and self-organizing principles at work in these systems. By encouraging diversity at all levels we may perhaps nudge these systems towards more resilient outcomes. In fact, it may be possible to ‘seed’ an ecology with a variety of species which can speed up the selection process. If a given ecology is ‘seeded’ beyond a certain threshold of diversity then the system may be able to optimize through evolutionary mechanisms the ideal combinations of processes and organisms to maximize performance.3
The prosthetic approach acknowledges that a given system or ecology embodies the potential for self-organization and that we may be able to encourage these tendencies with a series of ecological augmentations. There is no magic gift or solution to be proffered here; ecological prosthetics entails a series of finely tuned and localized micro-interventions, such as the introduction of a variety of bacteria, flora, or fauna along with social, behavioral, and technological tweaks. The prosthetic need not be confined to the realms of the natural or the biological. Although technology enacted on a large scale has contributed to many ecological problems, it is not the guilty party. Our deployment of technological solutions in unconsidered, short sighted, and unskillful ways has been problematic. Ecological prosthetics should deploy all manner of interventions. Developments in genetic engineering and nano-materials suggest a multitude of future possibilities for prosthetic deployment in biological and synthetic realms. The prosthetic is localized. It does not attempt to fix every problem; instead it locates opportunities for augmentation and intervenes. It does not seek to overcompensate through guilt nor over-augment through a misguided sense of design. It recognizes the underlying mechanisms present in complex systems and works in targeted and precise ways. This is not to suggest that these interventions have a decided outcome. Indeed, by encouraging a varied and multivalent approach without an explicit top-down agenda the system itself is able to evolve and ‘decide’. The prosthetic approach acknowledges that there is not one perfect prosthetic, but that there are in fact infinite combinations of elements that can produce resilient and diverse outcomes. The prosthetic approach is democratic and it is enhanced by heterogeneity in approach, opinion, deployment, and viewpoint.
It seems productive moving forward to expand the nature of what may be considered a prosthetic to a landscape, ecology, or system. Existing ecological prosthetics have taken the form of more typical landscape architecture or civil engineering projects involving wetland reconstruction,4 or targeted and strategic plantings. I am arguing for a more varied approach that takes into account specificities of spatio-temporal scale, and the complex interactions between individual agents. There are several categories which could offer rich opportunities for prosthetic augmentations: the behavioral, the micro-ecological, the technological, the social, and the aesthetic.
Behavioral prosthetics may apply to both human and non-human behaviors. In his book, The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton offers a compelling new philosophical framework to evaluate our current attitudes toward ecology and natural systems. Some interventions he proposes include teaching drowning polar bears to use flotation devices, or feeding penguins until the seas contain enough fish.5 While these suggestions are offered in a somewhat off-handed way, the underlying sentiment is that of a non-anthropocentric point of view that considers the desires and needs of non-human entities. In researching the permeating effects of radiologic fallout in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone after my visit there, I came across a study indicating that male birds displaying bright orange colors are much less colorful and plentiful due to a lack of the available antioxidant GSH used in phaeomelanin production which provides their color. These antioxidant molecules had been exhausted from the birds’ continual long-term exposure to radioactive decay. Thus the birds did not have extra available antioxidants to allocate for pigment production of colored feathers.6 These birds use their colorful feather displays in attracting female birds for mating, a prime example of sexual selection, an important mechanism of evolution found in many bird species. While mitigating the radiologic damage is a lofty goal, the prosthetic seeks a more modest solution. The mating behavior seems to be crucial to the birds’ aesthetic and cultural behavior. In proposing a behavioral prosthetic I looked to other avian strategies in sexual selection behaviors. Bowerbirds, most prevalent in New Guinea, utilize a strategy to attract mates that does not involve their own color or personal characteristics. Instead these birds create bowers to impress females, highly specific and ordered creations incorporating both natural materials and manmade artifacts. A behavioral prosthetic might seek to teach the birds of Chernobyl a similar behavioral strategy. Whether through videos, demonstrations by robotic birds or perhaps even genetic means, might it be possible to inject a new behavior into a species as a way to ameliorate a physiological deficiency?
This seeding process can take many disparate and novel forms. The use of bioengineered interventions and unconventional combinations of existing flora and fauna are possibilities. Also there seems to be potential for novel investigations of existing fields of study examined in new contexts. A given ecosystem can be viewed as a full scale real world lab in which various theories can be tested. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone offers the potential to enact multiple ecological prosthetics on a large scale. This landscape could transition to an ecological incubation zone for the deployment of a wide variety of experiments in seeding a landscape with prosthetics. Can our interventionist approach be recombined and explored in more novel ways? The production of multiple narrative threads positing novel recombinations of interactions and behaviors is another way to approach the ecologically distressed. Perhaps these guilty landscapes may allow us the freedom to enact on their tarnished terrains a series of small prosthetic offerings.
1 Yuri M. Svirezhev, ‘Thermodynamics and ecology’ Ecological Modeling Volume 132, Issues 1–2, July 2000, pg.13.
2 Mathias Binswanger, ‘From microscopic to macroscopic theories: entropic aspects of ecological and economic processes’ Ecological Economics Volume 8, Issue 3, December 1993, 220-1.
3 William J. Mitsch and Sven E. Jørgensen, ‘Ecological engineering: A field whose time has come’ Ecological Engineering, Volume 20, Issue 5, October 2003, 363- 377. At: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0925857403000600 (accessed February 12, 2012).
4 David M. Blersch, ‘Conceptual Basis for Ecological Prosthetics as a Subclass of Technoecosystem Engineering’, presented at the Annual American Ecological Engineering Society Meeting, 2004. At: http://www.powershow.com/view/855Y2VhZ/Conceptual_Basis_for_Ecological_Prosthetics_flash_ppt_presentation#, (accessed February 12, 2012).
5 Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010), 128.
6 Lucas Laursen, ‘When being Colorful Doesn't Pay’ published May 4, 2011 At: www.nature.com, (accessed, 25 Feb 2012).