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Bali’s famous rice terraces, when seen from above, look like colorful mosaics because some farmers plant synchronously, while others plant at different times. The resulting fractal patterns are rare for human-made systems and lead to optimal harvests without global planning.

To understand how Balinese rice farmers make their decisions for planting, a team of scientists led by Stephen Lansing (Nanyang Technological University) and Stefan Thurner (Medical University of Vienna, Complexity Science Hub Vienna, IIASA, SFI), both external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute, modeled two variables: water availability and pest damage. Farmers that live upstream have the advantage of always having water; while those downstream have to adapt their planning on the schedules of the upstream farmers.

Here, pests enter the scene. When farmers are planting at different times, pests can move from one field to another, but when farmers plant in synchrony, pests drown and the pest load is reduced. So upstream farmers have an incentive to share water so that synchronous planting can happen. However, water resources are limited and there is not enough water for everybody to plant at the same time. As a result of this constraint, fractal planting patterns emerge, which yield close to maximal harvests.

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“The remarkable finding is that this optimal situation arises without central planners or coordination. Farmers interact locally and take local individual free decisions, which they believe will optimize their own harvest. And yet the global system works optimally,” says Lansing. “What is exciting scientifically is that this is in contrast to the tragedy of the commons, where the global optimum is not reached because everyone is maximizing his individual profit. This is what we are experiencing typically when egoistic people are using a limited resource on the planet, everyone optimizes the individual payoff and never reach an optimum for all,” he says.

The scientists find that under these assumptions, the planting patterns become fractal, which is indeed the case as they confirm with satellite imagery. “The system becomes remarkably stable, again without any planning — stability is the outcome of a remarkably simple but efficient self-organized process” Thurner says. (1)

We believe that everything needs planning. We believe that we need to analyze things, to reach logical conclusions, to plan and then to re-plan in order to reach an optimum effect.

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But these farmers did not plan anything and yet it seems that they managed to reach to a state where crops grew in an optimum way. (Unless of course you name the “I want to plant now in my field” as “planning”. The choice of words is always important for our civilization and it seems that we tend to name everything based on our view of the cosmos) But looking more closely, we will see that they did not actually manage anything. The system simply evolved as it is meant to evolve. Planning too much simply disrupts this natural evolution of things. Fractals emerge only to show the obvious; everything is the same everywhere. It is just your distinct perspective that creates the illusion of difference (and change).

All systems have the natural tendency to reach a balance.

And humans have the tendency to always be impressed by that simple fact.

But what we fail to see is that all processes at the end reach that balance.

Because the cosmos is not under our control.

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We are under the control of the cosmos.

Let go1. Grow the crops without planning.

And it will seem2 like you have planned everything.

Harmonia Philosophical Explanatory Notes

1 “Let go” not in the sense of “Be lazy and do nothing because the crops will grow on their own” but in the sense of “Accept the nature’s cycles and trust the cosmos. Plan only when and at the extent required. Try not to change and control the cosmos”…

2 It seems cynical, but isn’t that what it is all about after all? At least for the western civilization? Appearances? We all care so much about the phenomena, that we have forgotten the simple fact that phenomena are a cloak which conceals the truth, even though nature continuously reminds us of our illusion. On the other hand, when something looks as if it is planned (even though it is not), wouldn’t that mean that is simply… is? A weird place the cosmos is. (and philosophy is actually a much weirder place)