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Ben Hoffmann, Jack Gallagher, and I were driving through the valley of Maui in a rust-bucket of an unmarked white van. There were great scars on the land where perhaps the final crop of sugarcane had been harvested before the regulations set in and made it no longer strategic. Uniform weeds lined the rest of the fields, before giving way to the same copypasted suburbs I'd seen everywhere from Chile to Cambodia.
Before we ended up back in civilization, we talked about plants. Plants are one of the few existent positive-sum organisms on the face of this earth, in that they at least generally do better when surrounded by other plants. Jack pointed out something more than a little bit important then: "Rainforests are what happens when there's enough resources that even the plants are zero-sum." The rainforest is simply safe enough, in an intergenerational, evolutionary sense that it makes sense to engage in all out and totalizing war on an intergenerational interspecies scale, at least until you end up with humans with technological force multipliers like chainsaws where you kind of overdo it as the stewards of nature. Something remarkably intriguing about this phenomena is that it ends up typically creating systems of stratification wherein a givens species is engaged in totalistic competition for a given canopy level of the jungle, attempting to gain dominance over all other contenders for a given traitset of possible sunlight consumption. While there are certainly interdependencies in things like soil quality, water consumption, and so on, in a given natural rainforest I would at least assume that mineral content would likely be balanced for a given set of convergent evolutionary strategies—provided no species from foreign geographic lineages were introduced. At the end of the day, solar is the scarce resource, and so the strategies largely converge towards to either playing tall like a tree, or playing wide like a vine. I would hypothesize that these general convergences to strata-based strategies are largely a local maxima, itself based on the efficiency of inter-generational cycles to evolve at competitive pace, leading to a situation where this style of specialization is more efficient than other possible methods of gaining an adversarial advantage in traversing the search-space to find a configuration that allows for an asymmetric capture of solar energy.
I'm not a biologist. This is all speculation. I don't really know anything about this, but what I do know is that writing these things down and giving them names as best as I can gives me a sense of hope. One of the other longer conversations we've had while wandering around Maui has been about the psychology of agriculture. The local population—just like most of the American states as a whole—doesn't seem to understand the nature of food production. In effect, this place is attempting to replace the cash crop of sugarcane with tourism, just as Larry Ellison's strategy on Lanai is trying to replace the pineapple with marketing. In effect, the majority of economic spaces in the modern world are organized so as they attempt to all be second order effects on the abstraction of the market, creating a system of interdependence without local rationality. If the logistic networks of the Pacific were to breakdown, leaving Hawaii somewhat cut off from the world, the socioeconomic systems of modern Hawaii wouldn't be remotely oriented to exist as an independent actor. There would be chaos. I wouldn't be surprised if things would go fairly far in the Mad Max direction with worse costume design. When we thought about how difficult it would be to attempt to get off the island, we came down to the fact that there aren't a lot of places like the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center left, so we'd probably need to wait for a rescue ship, attempt to find a yacht that hadn't already been requisitioned or used, or attempt to learn the difficult craft of boat production from scratch, ideally getting to a level of sophistication that we'd consider sufficient to deploy us back to the mainland.
So, the reason the fact that my willingness to be a dilettante biologist gives me hope is that its the same well trained pattern recognition and model construction that might get me off a remote island in a crisis. The disciplinary nature of modern academia has created a scenario where almost every field is siloed unto itself in such a way that very few obvious advancements are made that are not in-narrative to a given discipline. If there's anything that I value at the end of the day, it's the random speculation of a few given friends as they attempt to navigate the world.
I have a strong memory of one of the early months of 2014, where my friend April and I wandered around the Drawbridge, California ghost town, tracing the patterns of decay as the old houses sunk into the mud. We spent a while trying to reconstruct ballistic trajectories from bullet holes we found that had tilted a good 45° as the house had sunk. It was odd. At that point in my life, I wasn't remotely used to the possibility of collaborative forensics. Communication itself had seemed zero-sum for so long. Now, looking back on it from this cafe off Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles where I'm writing this, surrounded by men and women who are trying as hard as they can to look like they have no messages to send and are totally self-sufficient and effortlessly prosperous and worthy as moral patients, the message that seems to be necessary to send is one of the thrift and glory of communication itself.