Ecologists and Engineers

Are you an ecologist or an engineer?

Source: Wikipedia

An ecologist looks at a river or mountain or a forest and says, “What a fascinating community. How do all the creatures and systems interact?” An engineer looks at the same vista and thinks, “We can build a bridge here. We could improve the river’s flow, or make the conditions less harsh.” Engineering and ecology aren’t so much opposed, as they look at the world in totally different ways.

America was built by engineers—men and women who saw a vast, undeveloped landscape with virtually limitless potential. Thomas Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again” (Common Sense, 1776). Farmers engineered the prairies into wheat-fields; loggers engineered the forests into lumber; we build roads and bridges and dams and sent electricity to every corner of the country.

But the continenet was explored first by ecologists, who wanted to know how everything fit together. The Lewis and Clark expedition was one of scientific study as well as an attempt to find a land route to the Pacific Ocean. Ecologists try to understand how systems grow and develop and fit together over time.

Lewis and Clark, by Charles Russell. Source: Wikipedia

It seems that in economics we have ecologists and engineers—ecologists who want to observe and comprehend how the banking system or market structure or transportation infrastructure work to facilitate economic growth, and engineers who see market failure or predatory pricing or asymmetric information and want to help them work better. Personally, my family is filled with engineers—but I studied ecology in school, and I think it’s often possible to over-engineer things. G.K. Chesterton once noted that just because you don’t see why a fence should be somewhere doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to pull it down.

The markets are deeply complex systems, with market-makers, brokers, and investors all transacting to get their own jobs done. We all interact with the market in many different ways. But it’s not enough just to understand how things work. We also need to fix them, when they’re broken.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA

Chief Investment Officer

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