The Hideousness of Harmony: Why We Must Think Differently about Equilibrium
The idea of equilibrium or harmony as an end goal is incredibly attractive. Indeed, when you study ecology, biology, chemistry, or a handful of other natural sciences, it seems that this principle is baked right into the laws of nature. What often goes unnoticed, however, is the role of human thought in picking and choosing the scales on which equilibrium is sought.
In ecology, an ecosystem is viewed as a delicate balance of many living participants and the interactions between these participants and the inorganic environment. An ecosystem is considered to be in equilibrium when the populations of various organisms wax and wane in a predictable fashion over periods of time — there’s a cyclical pattern observed which returns to state X when the conditions which lead to X are met.
Notice here how this harmony is not a static state, but inherently dynamic, in motion. But where does this dynamism come from, if the system is supposedly in equilibrium?
The inconvenient truth is that equilibriums in the real world are necessarily composed of disequilibriums. An ecosystem maintains its balance only through the death of certain of its constituent organisms. For the living beings who pass away, there was no harmony, no equilibrium. The death and decay of an organism is precisely the disequilibrium of its vital systems. The ecologist can, of course, “zoom out” and begin analyzing the situation from a different level, where the death of this organism provides a fertile niche for the decomposers within the ecosystem, which are themselves entirely necessary for the continuation of habitable conditions. But this does not change the fact that, for the organism who died, perhaps unexpectedly or tragically, there was only a final, once-and-for-all disequilibrium. No amount of posturing at a superstructure of equilibrium in the ecosystem can bring this living being back to life. To attempt to cover over the tragedy of death in such a way is to deny inherent value to the organism that died.
This pattern of erasing the very real suffering of living beings through presenting complex systems at a level of analysis where a superstructure of harmony becomes visible is perhaps most evident in social sciences and economics. Patterns of rising wages or decreased unemployment, for example, may indeed be real, but these abstracted trends in no way ease the suffering of human beings who find themselves in desperate financial situations. So often, these kinds of equilibriums are used as excuses to disregard our ethical responsibility to care for the neighbor. If it is easy to point at hard data which paints an optimistic picture, then it becomes almost second nature to downplay or even justify any externalities.
Considering that the growth of the fossil fuel industry was responsible for lifting huge swaths of people out of poverty through the economic activity generated, there seems to be a natural instinct to withhold empathy when it comes to climate issues or even in the case of the more immediate suffering of individuals dealing with the direct effects of pollution in their communities. It seems to me that it is our moral responsibility as human beings to reject this type of reasoning, endeavoring instead to increase our sphere of concern to as many levels of existence as possible, even when this seems to generate tension.
Ultimately, this is a specific instance of seeing the ends as justifying the means — or perhaps more accurately, of seeing the goodness of the ends as so worthwhile that externalities or edge cases may be ignored with impunity. Perhaps fear is at the basis of this, and by pointing at the unaddressed suffering which exists beneath the blanket of equilibrium, we fear that in increasing our sphere of concern to address this injustice, the whole system could be thrown out of balance and the attempted cure could prove worse than the disease.
While this is a reasonable fear, as the equilibrium of a complex system is indeed a delicate and mysterious thing, I believe it is ultimately our responsibility as human beings imbued with reason to use our privileged position as stewards of the earth to extend our sphere of concern to include all sentient beings, and especially our fellow human beings. We are too stuck in an either/or paradigm, where we believe that we can either preserve equilibrium, or we can begin to work on alleviating the suffering which falls outside of this harmony, or in some cases is even caused by it. That it could be possible to do both simultaneously is hardly considered.
I’m convinced, however, that a both/and paradigm is entirely possible, but we need to come to this work with a greater sense of imagination and an openness to look at reality on multiple levels. This kind of openness will undoubtedly lead to discomfort, as it paints a much more complex picture of the world where unaddressed suffering remains pervasive. No longer hiding behind abstractions which only present a harmonious cosmos takes courage. This courage to see things plainly is the necessary basis from which to go forward and address the struggles of our age — struggles for justice which transcend the boundaries between the human and non-human realms.