6. Beyond Ascendency

“Everyone knows the usefulness of the useful, but no one knows the usefulness of the useless.”

— Chuang Tsu, Inner Chapters

In the notion of ascendency, Robert Ulanowicz proposes that a living system has a propensity to increase in orderliness over time. In its broad outline, this idea is squarely in the tradition of Frederic Clements and Eugene Odum, major ecological thinkers who espoused the fundamental position that nature moves toward order. Clements, in the early twentieth century, proposed that a landscape eventually reaches a final climax stage and becomes a “superorganism.” Odum, starting in the 1940’s, developed the idea that every ecosystem is “directed toward achieving as large and diverse an organic structure as is possible within the limits set by the available energy inputs and the prevailing physical conditions of existence.” These are both visions of a goal-directed world that strives toward harmony and a certain finality, a best possible state which would then, ideally at least, maintain itself indefinitely. That these are human aspirations as well is hardly a surprise, and if the science of ecology seems to echo them rather neatly, perhaps that’s not a surprise, either. It is a human construct, after all, and the American culture that brought forth Clements and Odum has long been committed to optimism.

It’s not easy to perceive that there is a problematic side to this vision, something in it that we should be wary of. This is where I believe Ulanowicz makes a major contribution, adding a crucial nuance to the ecological world-view. Like Clements and Odum, Ulanowicz portrays nature as moving toward greater order, but this is not the entirety of his vision. Ascendency has its limits, and what lies beyond them is equally significant.

Besides the ascendency of the ecosystem, the spontaneously organizing part, there is what Ulanowicz calls the “overhead,” which is the “disordered residual”; it is an index of the extent to which the system remains indeterminate. The overhead – the redundant, disorganized, “unsuccessful” part – is required as part of a healthy ecosystem, because if the system becomes too organized, it becomes brittle. If it consists of only the few most efficient, most tightly linked organisms supporting each other, then it is vulnerable to collapse if any one of those organisms should be done in by a change in the environment. The overhead is a safety margin that an ecosystem needs in a world where no state of being is sustained indefinitely. In the life cycle of an ecosystem, the end is near when not enough overhead remains to enable it to respond to new circumstances.

Ascendencies tend to increase through the pruning of their less efficient, less cooperative elements. But when a system is confronted by a novel or extremely infrequent challenge, something that under normal circumstances had been a liability suddenly takes on a potential for strength-in-reserve. It is from the reservoir of sundry and unfit processes that comprise its overhead that the system draws to create an adaptive response to the new threat. (bold added; italics in the original)

The notion of overhead resonates beyond ecology; it applies as well to all sorts of systems we create – social, technical, intellectual, artistic. The necessity of overhead is a warning against aspiring to the creation of a final best possible state, a culminating harmony. There is such a thing as a too perfect system; the tightness of its organization prepares the way for its own collapse. The sudden economic implosion of late 2008 is an example of this principle at work. The global economy was highly interconnected by flows of money through the financial system. A constant flux of nearly instantaneous transfers of value through borrowing and repayment, buying and selling notional assets, was necessary to the system’s continued functioning. Money, or credit, was the nutrient flowing at lightning speed through the ecosystem of finance upon which physical-world economic activity depended. Because the system was so tightly organized and interdependent, it became fatally vulnerable to a relatively small perturbation in the environment. The inability of some borrowers in the US to make the payments on their mortgages was enough to cause the whole system to stop functioning. And by this analysis, the restoration of a similar system to similar functioning – the current goal of frantic financial maneuvering and political struggle – should not be called recovery; it should be called repeating the same mistake. It may be that the sudden collapse of the lending system, the abrupt cessation of economic growth, the Treasury offering interest rates of nearly zero, were all events that needed to happen. When a brittle system collapses, a new one begins to self-organize. Perhaps the global economy hit a limit that we have been unable to detect, and started to respond to that new condition before any policy-maker recognized what was happening. The world’s economy is a complex system that no one controls, and despite our unrealizable goal of steady economic growth forever, it may be trying to level off.

Similarly, in the world of ideas a too-perfect synthesis is a brittle system of a different kind. Overhead remains the safety margin, perhaps even the sanity margin. If we understand why overhead is necessary, then one corollary is that aspiring to the Answer is a mistake. If all of one’s thinking is perfectly interlocking and self-confirming, it becomes an ideology, a system of convictions that can’t abide questioning. There needs to be some “nevertheless” in one’s thinking, some “and yet,” some willingness to live with ambiguity and the uncertainty of a forever unfolding process. As we create a narrative of our lives, or of our presence here on earth, it’s easier to think in terms of a decisive, definitive resolving action – the Messiah appears at last – than to think in terms of many different pieces forever shifting and sliding and trying to fit but never fitting in a final way. Yet the latter is more like the evolutionary reality we live in. There is some human desire to decide that all is figured out, once and for all, a desire whose intensity is demonstrated by the power of religions and the existence of totalitarian states which at least temporarily appeal to their populations. People do have a craving for rigid belief systems, rigid rule structures, prohibitions, obligatory rituals, elaborate duties. Yet people rebel against all those things as well, which makes sense from an ecosystem point of view because the top-down imposition of an order that can’t evolve is bound to fail in the long run.

Is there a developmental story of the human race? Are we, as some would have it, entering a new consciousness? If we are, my preferred version of the story would be that we are leaving behind the fundamentalist era of rigid ideology and entering into one that is more open to creative thought, innovation, flexibility, personal liberty, and getting over xenophobia. There is no doubt that we now see a struggle going on in the world between ideologies that long to return to the past, to a maximum of rigidity and enforced obedience, and on the other hand a way of life that is committed to recognizing new situations and creating new ways to be in them, seeking to get along on a minimum of enforced obedience. It seems to me that ecosystems tell us which side has to prevail in order to ensure our future as a species: an “ideal” order is in fact not ideal. What works in the long run is to some extent unorganized, impure, disobedient, and seemingly useless.

It’s particularly striking to me as a novelist and a teacher of writing that a professional ecologist with scores of publications to his name, writing in an attempt to influence the thinking of his peers, asserts in italics that the ecosystem creates. My whole work life has been involved with the kind of writing called creative, with cultivating the imagination. My professional life revolves around the fact that people, by not fully explainable means, can bring forth something that was not there before – which seems now to converge with the insights of contemporary science: that order spontaneously arises, that a living system creates. We’re not unique in this capacity; rather, we’re like the living world around us. The notion of overhead applies to the making of art: an artist’s work is inefficient, may well appear incoherent to some, is redundant in the sense of not being obviously useful. Yet that which is disorderly is also a reservoir of creative responses to the unexpected. Art is a “sundry and unfit process,” and yet it may be a major part of a society’s strength in reserve.


To accept that overhead is necessary to an ecosystem’s survival is to give up believing that we can make over the natural world in the image of what we call rationality. A program of total domination of nature, no matter how elegant the order it might try to impose, carries the seeds of its own failure. The only way we could assume otherwise would be to assume that we can create a perfect order independent of ecosystem dynamics, or that we will always be able to respond in successful ways to changes in the environment. Our history says that these have, in fact, been our assumptions. They are enormously optimistic, not to say reckless ones, and concealed beneath these assumptions are others that don’t stand up to closer scrutiny. In order to think that we could create a perfect order, we’d have to assume that we know all the factors which must be taken into account; in order to believe that we can always respond successfully to changes in the environment, we’d have to assume that we are aware of every change that matters. Our knowledge would have to be complete, and it clearly is not. A few decades ago, we knew nothing about the function of the ozone layer in protecting life on earth from deadly ultraviolet radiation. After we altered the ozone layer inadvertently by the use of chlorofluorocarbons as aerosol propellants and refrigerants, we came to realize that what happened up there mattered; as usual, we were playing catch-up with the consequences of our actions. At the present time we keep being surprised by the speed with which the Arctic ice is melting; our already unnerving predictions about climate-induced changes keep being exceeded by reality. We are embedded in, and relying upon, the dynamics of living systems whether we know it or not, whether we understand them or not. Ignorance is not a protection from consequences. Good intentions, to say nothing of stubbornness or arrogance, are not the same thing as competence or comprehension. What I am arguing for can be put in one word: humility. More is going on in nature than we are aware of, and perfected knowledge is not just around the corner.

We therefore must leave room for the autonomous living systems around us to do what they are doing, including that which we do not yet understand, and not try to make them conform too thoroughly to our idea of order. There is, as I said about Blair Pond, Mill Brook, and the Res, or about the “restoration” of the Salton Sea, a threshold of control beyond which we rob the natural world of its capacity to self-organize. The exact location of this threshold is not specifiable by some physical law or universal formula; we’re dealing with complex systems, and understanding complex systems always requires multiple approaches, multiple perspectives, multiple explanations simultaneously in operation. A threshold of control, a knowing when to stop, is something to be detected locally, humanly, and intuitively. We cannot consciously reason our way through multiple explanations at the same time, but this does not mean that the mind cannot integrate them. It can do so on an unconscious level, and the upshot is a feeling, a knack, a sense of what works that is more somatic and emotional than intellectual. One of the crucial first steps in getting there is a quiet recognition that one does not have all the answers.

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