Feb 18

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Hidden order in the Balinese "religion of water"

Stewart Brand sent out the following writeup of Stephen Lansing's talk last night as part of the Long Now Foundation seminar series, of which I am a sponsor. The talk is a testament to the hidden wisdom in many traditional practices, as well as a great illustration of why "long now" thinking is so important.

With lucid exposition and gorgeous graphics, anthropologist Stephen Lansing exposed the hidden structure and profound health of the traditional Balinese rice growing practices. The intensely productive terraced rice paddies of Bali are a thousand years old. So are the democratic subaks (irrigation cooperatives) that manage them, and so is the water temple system that links the subaks in a nested hierarchy.

When the Green Revolution came to Bali in 1971, suddenly everything went wrong. Along with the higher-yield rice came "technology packets" of fertilizers and pesticides and the requirement, stated in patriotic terms, to "plant as often as possible." The result: year after year millions of tons of rice harvest were lost, mostly to voracious pests. The level of pesticide use kept being increased, to ever decreasing effect.

Meanwhile Lansing and his colleagues were teasing apart what made the old water temple system work so well....

The universal problem in irrigation systems is that upstream users have all the power and no incentive to be generous to downstream users. What could account for their apparent generosity in Bali? Lansing discovered that the downstream users also had power, because pests can only controlled if everybody in the whole system plants rice at the same time (which overloads the pests with opportunity in one brief season and starves them the rest of the time). If the upstreamers didn't let enough water through, the downstreamers could refuse to synchronize their planting, and the pests would devour the upstreamers' rice crops.

Discussion within the subaks (which dispenses with otherwise powerful caste distinctions) and among neighboring subaks takes account of balancing the incentives, and the exquisite public rituals of the water temple system keep everyone mindful of the whole system.

The traditional synchronized planting is far more effective against the pests than pesticides. "Plant as often as possible" was a formula for disaster.

It seems clear how such "perfect order" can maintain itself, but how did it get started? Was there some enlightened rajah who set down the rules centuries ago? Working with complexity scientists at Santa Fe Institute, Lansing built an agent-based computer model of 172 subaks planting at random times, seeking to maximize their yields and paying attention to the success of their neighbors. The system self-organized! In just ten years within the model the balanced system seen in Bali emerged on its own. No enlightened rajah was needed. (Interestingly, the very highest yields came when the model subaks paid attention not just to their immediate neighbors but to the neighbors' neighbors as well. If they paid attention primarily to distant subaks, however, the whole system went chaotic.)

In Balinese language and understanding, "rice paddies" equals "jewel" equals "mind."

One result of Lansing's work is that in the 1980s the Balinese government threw out the "plant often" and pesticide parts of the Green Revolution and renewed respect for the water temple system. It kept the providentially higher yield rice. Unfortunately, it also kept pouring on the fertilizer. Balinese water is so naturally nutrient-rich, the extra fertilizer just passes through the watershed out to the sea, where it is destroying the coral reefs with algal blooms. So far, the water temple system does not reach that far downstream.

Lansing ended with a suggestion for Long Now about the perception and practice of time. In the standard western perspective, time is long but thin--- just past, present, future. In Bali, he said, time is dense. The Balinese have ten kinds of weeks operating concurrently--- solar, lunar, and 7-day, 6-day, on down to a one-day week ("Today is always luang.") It's like the difference between the shimmering density of polycyclic gamelan music versus western romantic narrative music--- beginning, middle, end.

The Long Now Foundation should figure out how to introduce Balinese time density to the time-impoverished West, Lansing said.

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