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Out of Control

You may have heard the heartwarming account of "The Man Who Planted Trees and Grew Happiness." It's about how a forest and happiness were created out of almost nothing. The story is told by a young European man who hikes into a remote area of the Alps in 1910.

The young man wanders into a windy, treeless region, a harsh place whose remaining inhabitants are a few mean, poor, discontented charcoal burners huddled in a couple of dilapidated villages. The hiker meets the only truly happy inhabitant in the area, a lone shepherd hermit. The young man watches in wonder as the hermit wordlessly and idiotically spends his days poking acorns one by one into the moonscape. Every day the silent hermit plants 100 acorns. The hiker departs, eager to leave such desolation, only to return many years later by accident, after the interruption of World War I. He now finds the same village almost unrecognizable in its lushness. The hills are flush with trees and vegetation, brimming with streams, and full of wildlife and a new population of content villagers. Over three decades the hermit had planted 90 square miles thick with oak, beech, and birch trees. His single -- handed work-a mere nudge in the world of nature -- had remodeled the local climate and restored the hopes of many thousands of people.

The only unhappy part of the story is that it is not true. Although it has been reprinted as a true story all over the world, it is, in fact, a fantasy written by a Frenchman for Vogue magazine. There are, however, genuine stories of idealists recreating a forest environment by planting trees in the thousands. And their results confirm the Frenchman's intuition: tiny plants grown on a large scale can divert a local ecosystem in a positive loop of increasing good.

As one true example, in the early 1960s, an eccentric Englishwoman, Wendy Campbell-Purdy, journeyed to North Africa to combat the encroaching sand dunes by planting trees in the desert. She planted a "green wall" of 2,000 trees on 45 acres in Tiznit, Morocco. In six years time, the trees had done so well, she founded a trust to finance the planting of 130,000 more trees on a 260-acre dump in the desert wastes at Bou Saada, Algeria. This too took off, creating a new minihabitat that was suitable for growing citrus, vegetables, and grain.

Given a slim foothold, the remarkable latent power in interconnected green things can launch the law of increasing returns: "Them that has, gets more." Life encourages an environment that encourages yet more life. On Wingate's island the presence of herons enables the presence of sedges. In Packard's prairie the toehold of fire enables the existence of wildflowers which enable the existence of butterflies. In Bou Saada, Algeria, some trees alter the climate and soil to make them fit for more trees. More trees make a space for animals and insects and birds, which prepare a place for yet more trees. Out of acorns, nature makes a machine that provides a luxurious home for people, animals, and plants.

The story of Nonsuch and the other forests of increasing returns, as well as the data from Stuart Pimm's microcosms overlap into a powerful lesson that Pimm calls the Humpty Dumpty Effect. Can we put the Humpty Dumpty of a lost ecosystem together again? Yes, we can if we have all the pieces. But we don't know if we do. There may be chaperone species that catalyze the assembly of an ecosystem in some early stage -- the thumb for intelligence -- that just aren't around the neighborhood anymore. Or, in a real tragedy, a key scaffold species may be globally extinct. One could imagine a hypothetical small, prolific grass essential to creating the matrix out of which the prairie arose, which was wiped out by the last ice age. With it gone, Humpty Dumpty can't be put back together again. "Keep in mind you can't always get there from here," Pimm says.

Packard has contemplated this sad idea. "One of the reasons the prairie may never be fully restored is that some parts are forever gone. Perhaps without the megaherbivores like the mastodon of old or even the bison of yesteryear, the prairie won't come back." Even more scary is yet another conclusion of Pimm's and Drake's work: that it is not just the presence of the right species, in the right order, but the absence of the right species at the right time as well. A mature ecology may be able to tolerate species X easily; but during its assembly, the presence of species X will divert the system onto some other path leading toward a different ecosystem. "That's why," Packard sighs, "it may take a million years to make an ecosystem." Which species now rooted on Nonsuch island or dwelling in the Chicago suburbs might push the reemerging savanna ecosystem away from its original destination?

The rule for machines is counterintuitive but clear: Complex machines must be made incrementally and often indirectly. Don't try to make a functioning mechanical system all at once, in one glorious act of assembly. You have to first make a working system that serves as a platform for the system you really want. To make a mechanical mind, you need to make the equivalent of a mechanical thumb -- a lateral approach that few appreciate. In assembling complexity, the bounty of increasing returns is won by multiple tries over time -- a process anyone would call growth.

Ecologies and organisms have always been grown. Today computer networks and intricate silicon chips are grown too. Even if we owned the blueprints of the existing telephone system, we could not assemble a replacement as huge and reliable as the one we had without in some sense recapitulating its growth from many small working networks into a planetary web.

Creating extremely complex machines, such as robots and software programs of the future, will be like restoring prairies or tropical islands. These intricate constructions will have to be assembled over time because that is the only way to make sure they work from top to bottom. Unripe machinery let out before it is fully grown and fully integrated with diversity will be a common complaint. "We ship no hardware before its time," will not sound funny before too long.