Fractals, Self-Organizing Principles, and Self-Segregation

Fractals are all around us

Came across this study on planting patterns, “Fractal planting patterns yield optimal harvests, without central control” that bears some closer review.

What’s fascinating about this is that it seems to present a real-world solution to a problem commonly referred to as the “tragedy of the commons,” in which the self-interest of individuals leads to the destruction and overuse of shared natural resources.

Spatial patterning often occurs in ecosystems as a self-organizing process caused by feedback between organisms and the physical environment. “The centuries-old Balinese rice terraces are also created by feedback between farmer’s decisions and the ecology, which triggers a transition from local to global scale control,” explains Lansing. “Our model shows for the first time that adaptation in a coupled human-natural system can trigger self-organized criticality.”

This is absolutely fascinating, and it’s interesting to consider this in relation to other ideas on a “self-organizing criticality” that we’ve explored here before, such as in brains and sand piles.

For proponents of ed reform who argue against centralized control, this seems like it could be worth digging into further.

The aspect of fractals here is also tantalizing. After chatting with a colleague about the article, he referred me to Ron Eglash, a mathematician who has studied fractals in African history and culture. Do yourself a favor and watch his TED talk, it will blow your mind.

Eglash raising an interesting point about self-organizing principles: they can be wonderful, as in Google search, or our brains. But there is also a dark side, such as in the spread of HIV or the damaging effects of capitalism. He suggests that the fractal algorithms employed in Africa could present us with “robust” “ways of doing self-organization — of doing entrepreneurship — that are gentle, that are egalitarian.”

I’d love to explore more about how the fractal design of school structures and systems could be utilized for a productive purpose. Please share if you’ve got more on this.

Another interesting angle on the Balinese rice farmers is suggested in an earlier study reported also on, “Phase transitions of rice farmers may offer insight into managing natural resources.

Their study and modeling seems to suggest that smaller self-segregated communities within a society are desirable in the long-run.

They found that the downside of the segregation is that it increases the social disharmony throughout the society as a whole. The upside, however, is that the social disharmony within each community becomes very low. In some communities, individuals are more likely to keep cooperating with each other—using the shared resource fairly—compared to the situation without segregation. These results were very similar to what the researchers observed in the segregated society of the Balinese subak.

This seems to be a dark side unmentioned in the more recent study on how the Balinese farmers exemplify a self-organizing society in harmony with nature. Or perhaps this isn’t a dark side — it’s a suggestion that some self-segregation can be positive.

But I don’t know anything about the Balinese subak, either, so not sure how much to read into this. Certainly worth going deeper into this. If any readers have knowledge of African fractal algorithms or Balinese subaks, please share!

A System of School Intensification

This recent article in The Guardian about a method of rice farming termed “System of Rice Intensification“(SRI) that can potentially increase yields dramatically without the use of chemicals immediately piqued my interest, firstly because I am strong believer in farming without pesticides and herbicides, and secondly because it holds implications for our ecological metaphor as it applies to schools.

A theme which I have been pursuing over some of my last few posts has been the idea that complex systems, given their proclivity for chaos and entropy, must be “intensively managed.” This idea can be witnessed in full in SRI, as the method requires the controlled transplanting of seedlings from a nursery into the area where the rice is to be grown, one by one.

“Rather than any magical theory, it is good husbandry, skill and attention which results in the super yields. Clearly in certain circumstances, it is an efficient resource for farmers. But it is labour intensive and nobody has come up with the technology to transplant single seedlings yet.”

No magic indeed. It is rather a set of good local management practices that requires an initial upfront investment in order to lay the painstaking foundation for a strong and resilient crop. As a farmer who practices SRI put it:

“When a farmer does SRI the first time, yes it is more labour intensive,” says Santosh Kumar, who grows 15 hectares of rice and vegetables in Nalanda. “Then it gets easier and new innovations are taking place now.”

What is fascinating is that this method has been around since the 1980s, and yet scientists continue to direct their attention to silver bullets, such as technology and genetic modification. Why is this?

SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers; there are no patents, royalties or licensing fees.” 

For 40 years now, says Uphoff, science has been obsessed with improving seeds and using artificial fertilisers: “It’s been genes, genes, genes. There has never been talk of managing crops. Corporations say ‘we will breed you a better plant’ and breeders work hard to get 5-10% increase in yields. We have tried to make agriculture an industrial enterprise and have forgotten its biological roots.” (Bold added)

Better local management, unfortunately, is not as sexy, nor profitable, as technological fixes. Plus, it’s just so messy.

Bihar, from being India’s poorest state, is now at the centre of what is being called a “new green grassroots revolution” with farming villages, research groups and NGOs all beginning to experiment with different crops using SRI. The state will invest $50m in SRI next year but western governments and foundations are holding back, preferring to invest in hi-tech research. The agronomist Anil Verma does not understand why: “The farmers know SRI works, but help is needed to train them. We know it works differently in different soils but the principles are solid,” he says. “The biggest problem we have is that people want to do it but we do not have enough trainers. 

“If any scientist or a company came up with a technology that almost guaranteed a 50% increase in yields at no extra cost they would get a Nobel prize. But when young Biharian farmers do that they get nothing. I only want to see the poor farmers have enough to eat.” (Bold added)

I am aware that this is only one article and that I should hesitate to draw larger inferences from it. But given that the research that has been done on SRI seems promising, I think I may be excused in drawing some connections between SRI and its implications for public education.

If we imagine a school district, a community, as a plot of arable land, we might perceive that our approach to its cultivation is all too often to become reliant on external supports and inputs, rather than to train community leaders and professionals to utilize practices and methods that are ultimately self-sustaining.

We can also perhaps draw some inferences from the idea of carefully transplanting seedlings from nurseries into the soil, as opposed to the traditional method of haphazardly dispersing clumps of seeds. It is no secret that there are toxic environments that all too many of our nation’s children are being raised in. Without a strong foundation in early childhood, academic education for many children is an increasingly uphill battle.

From these thoughts on SRI I draw two main implications for education policy:

1) Universal access to pre-K services is essential. All children must be given the opportunity to have access to as many “nutrients” as early as possible

2) Transplant students raised in toxic environments into schools offering positive, diverse learning environments

What do you think? Am I grasping at straws, or does SRI represent the next “green revolution”?