Seeing Like a State


by Barry King, November 28 2015

Thanks to Reid's son Forest for introducing me to this book. If you buy it, or buy anything else from, please shop at instead of, and select The Virunga Fund as your beneficiary. It won't increase your price, but amazon will make a donation to Virunga.…/…/

Book review: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, by James C. Scott.

Prototypical scheme: A wild forest was designed by God, or by Darwinian evolution, to "succeed" as an ecosystem capable of sustaining a bio-diverse assortment of plant, animal, insect and bird species (and many other kinds). Modern "scientific" forestry, on the other hand, in its early stages, focused on maximizing board-feet of lumber produced, and chose mono-culture: a whole forest of trees of a single species, planted in rows. Many such projects worked for a few years, then failed as the whole forest ecosystem collapsed for unforeseen reasons involving complex interdependencies. The key insight is: these projects, and many others like them, were promoted as "modern", "scientific" and "rational", but were nevertheless unsustainable.

How did they fail? Scotts answer is itself nuanced and complex, but a key element is: the planners failed to understand the complexity of the system being replaced, in this case, the wild and natural forest, with its many and varied input factors and multiple and inter-related variables, so complex as to defy complete analysis, even now in 2015 (although progress is being made).

Moving from forestry to agriculture: this book should be read alongside Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" and with a look at the Christian NGO "Farming God's Way". A traditional, small-scale, family farm, especially in the tropics, involves unfathomable complexities about the ecosystem, raised to the power of the complex society and culture of the human farmers, to approach infinite complexity by geometric progression. Yet, the planners of collective farms in the Soviet Union, Tanzania, and elsewhere, misled by the unsustainable success of large-scale capitalist farming in the USA, presumed to have a scientific and rational plan for increasing ag production, that they would be able to impose on rural communities from the top down. It didn't work as planned, and the failed attempts were destructive both to the impacted ecosystems and wildlife habitats, and to the pre-existing human cultures and societies, causing damage from which Russia and Tanzania have yet to recover.

A whole chapter is dedicated specifically to the economic, social, political, cultural, and environmental damage caused by Nyerere's "Ujamaa" collective farm program in Tanzania during the 70s and 80s. I was fascinated to see that chosen as a case study, since my experience of seeing that myself, in Tanzania, was key to my own recovery from infatuation with "progressive", "scientific", and "rational" central planning which is inclined to dismiss criticism and resistance as being rooted in rural backwardness, superstition, and alleged "irrationality".

The failure mode applies not only to forests and farms, but also to centrally-planned cities, institutions, and a variety of government programs of many kinds. One wonders: what large scale, centrally-planned programs are being implemented now, which will fail, as the forestry program did, because of a failure to understand the complexity of the system being replaced?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *