Spring 2021 Colloquium
Sigrid Schmalzer, Department of History, University of Massachusetts-Amherst
Title: "Connecting the Dots: A History of Systems Thinking in Chinese Agricultural Science and Politics"
Abstract: Chinese agricultural scientists are prominent actors in global movements to promote agroecological engineering and preserve agricultural heritage systems. This presentation will explore the diverse historical roots of the systems paradigm, along with the scientific and political work it accomplishes. The notion that Chinese farmers have traditionally viewed agriculture as an ecological system (expressed most famously in the mulberry dyke / fish pond system of southeastern China) has inspired proponents of agroecology around the world. However, the mapping of such farming practices as systems of efficiently functioning components—along with the more general, transnational phenomenon of systems science—is a quintessentially modern way of thinking rooted in the application of scientific knowledge for the rationalization and control of nature and society. Similar language and diagrams have been used in China since the Mao era to describe agricultural, industrial, and political processes. The overarching principles of integration, efficiency, totality, and harmony emphasized in such schematics may be read as representing environmentalism or industrialism, holism or authoritarianism—or, more productively, some combination thereof. A deeper understanding of the history and current application of systems thinking in Chinese agriculture will help us more clearly identify where it inspires respect for ecological complexity and balance, and where it serves to justify and buttress state power.