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Acting with the World: Doing without Science

Atuando com o mundo: fazer sem a ciência
Andrew Pickering


Neste artigo, comparo dois padrões sistematicamente diferentes de atuação no mundo por meio dos conceitos de enquadramento e poiesis. Enquadramento é a postura usual de dominação dualística que podemos associar ao Antropoceno, e concentro-me aqui na classe de contraste, poiesis. Para destacar suas principais características, discuto uma forma de agricultura natural desenvolvida no Japão por Masanobu Fukuoka, enfatizando a maneira como a abordagem poética de Fukuoka coloca em primeiro plano o vai e vem performativo com a natureza a que chamo de dança da agência. Faço uma revisão da crítica de Fukuoka à utilidade da ciência moderna e argumento, ao invés, que vertentes da filosofia oriental tradicional nos ajudam a compreender a alternativa poética.

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As individual animals we are not so special, and in some ways the human species is like a planetary disease.
James Lovelock (2007: 13)

1Talking about the Anthropocene reminds us that we are strongly coupled into the nonhuman world, meaning that what humans do matters. We arrange the world to suit ourselves but this has a darkside: it leads to enormous unintended side effects which bounce back at us – the usual list: global warming, the extinction of species, environmental disasters, economic inequalities. We cannot get rid of this coupling – we are in the world whether we like it or not – but the question is whether we could couple ourselves into the world differently. Could we act differently to attenuate the darkside of our presence here on earth?

2That’s what I want to consider in this paper, and to begin, I should clarify this idea of “acting differently”. First, to my mind it means something more radical than just stopping what we usually do or substituting one technology for another, such as replacing oil-fired power stations with solar energy. I am in favour of such changes but here I am after something more fundamental. I am looking for a different pattern of acting in the world from our usual one, which is something only a few people think about.

3So, this is a strange project but I want to follow it through, and the first step is to characterise what I think of as humanity’s usual pattern of acting in the world. This is a stance of dualist domination. We humans tend to act as if we are special, the lords of creation, transforming what we like to think of as a docile world to suit our own ends. This is the stance that Martin Heidegger (1977) called enframing – treating the world as a “standing reserve” – which has got us into so much trouble, and which we can think of as acting on the world. And then this other stance that I want to explore, this other pattern of acting, would have to acknowledge instead that we live in fact in a lively world that we cannot control and that we therefore have to learn to get along with. This is the stance that Heidegger called poiesis, which we can think of as acting with the world rather than on it.

4This is the contrast that I am interested in: enframing vs poiesis, acting-on vs acting-with. We’re all familiar with enframing and its many darksides. But the poetic, acting-with, stance is much less familiar, and my goal here is to try to bring poiesis to life, to make it imaginable (see also Pickering (2010), where I discuss cybernetics as “ontological theatre”, and Scott (1998) on metis). I’m currently writing a book that goes through several examples of poiesis in action, including styles of water management, rewilding, ecosystem restoration, farming, Aboriginal burning and communicating with spirits (Pickering, in preparation; see also Pickering, 2019). I discuss one of these examples below – farming – but first I can mention some key aspects of all the examples:

  1. My examples are strange. They concern ways of engaging with nature that I could never have imagined before I began this project. That is one obvious sense in which they are instances of a different pattern of being in the world.

  2. Enframing is understood as a sort of master-slave relation which distances us from the world. Nothing comes back from the slave to the master. Poiesis, in contrast, hinges on an intimate reciprocal engagement which brings us closer to nature. In the end, this might be what we need most.

  3. My examples all centre on agency and performance – our agency as humans, but also the agency of the nonhuman world. Acting on the world presumes that we are the only agents around. Acting-with acknowledges that that is not true: the world itself is a lively place that we need to collaborate with.

  4. In poiesis, knowledge is less important than action and performance. In contrast, enframing depends on modern science and technology, and we are continually instructed by governments, corporations, even philosophers, to look to science to solve the world’s problems. But science is part of the problem, and it is at most a side-issue in the poetic projects I’ve examined. It interests me a lot that there is a pattern of acting with the world that does not hinge on science and that is presently overshadowed by science. Part of my project is to foreground this strange pattern of “doing without science”. This is perhaps the most striking aspect of my attempt to find other ways of coupling ourselves into the world.

  5. This brings us to an important topic which will not be discussed in depth here, which is education. The current emphasis on STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – in western societies is a curriculum for enframing, and it is an interesting question as to how we could teach poiesis instead.

5If poiesis is a strange way of being in the world, we need an example to hang onto, and here I focus on something we all depend on, farming. Since World War II farming has become overwhelmingly technoscientific, dependent on chemical fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, selective breeding, genetically modified organisms, statistics and optimisation. At the same time, its darkside has become apparent, including all sorts of environmental pollution, ecological damage and major contributions to global warming. Modern farming is a kind of arms race with nature. So I now want to examine an alternative approach, so-called natural farming as developed in Japan by Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008), and described by him in several books, beginning with The One-Straw Revolution (Fukuoka, 1978).

6The first point to be emphasised is how strange and different Fukuoka’s natural farming is from what one might consider as conventional approaches. Its most striking feature is its “do nothing” stance. In contrast to conventional farming, the land is not ploughed or worked over in any way, no weeding is done and nor is there sustained flooding (as is usually the case in rice farming), no chemicals are used, either as fertiliser or pesticide. Natural farming is thus so different that when I first heard of it I was shocked. I live in the English countryside; I’m used to seeing farmers plough their land every year, and the possibility that you can farm without ploughing had never crossed my mind before. If I were Japanese, the non-flooding of rice fields would have shocked me just as much. I therefore want to consider first how this strange and radical form of do-nothing agriculture arose and then examine its mature form, emphasising what I take to be the poetic aspects of both.

7We can start with Fukuoka’s path to natural farming. He recalls (Fukuoka, 1978: 7-12) that it began in 1938 with a spontaneous revelation that we, humanity, are doing too much, setting ourselves apart from nature in our role as its masters. This is enframing, and Fukuoka felt that it must be possible to get out of it, to remain closer to nature and take part in the natural flow of events instead of ordering them around – to act with nature – poiesis.

8He set out to test this idea, working initially on his father’s land, and his first thought was to do literally nothing, simply to let his father's orchards go and not to look after them at all. This failed completely as all the trees died (ibidem: 13). Since that had failed, he then took a more active role, looking for ways to approach his goal progressively rather than in a single leap. After WWII he turned to raising crops, and to avoid weeding, herbicides and fertilisers he began by planting clover as groundcover that would enrich the soil while inhibiting weeds, which indeed worked. To avoid fertilisers, he reasoned that he had to return as much goodness as possible to the land each year, so he redistributed all the straw that remained after threshing each crop, yet with this solution he ran into difficulties. Looking more closely, it seemed the problem was that he had thrown the mulch onto the land in clumps (Korn, 2012) or distributed it too carefully and geometrically (Fukuoka, 1978: 48). Either way, the mulch was inhibiting the germination of the crops. And, trying it another way, he discovered that mulching was a success if he simply cast the straw randomly across the land (ibidem: 48).

9Many more twists and turns followed. In the early days, he found it necessary to control insects with a natural insecticide, but as his fields developed he found he could dispense with that too, another not-doing. Sparrows were a problem, pecking up the seed as quickly as he threw it across the ground. “I tried scarecrows and nets and strings of rattling cans, but nothing seemed to work very well” (ibidem: 52). The solution proved to be a new chore, coating the seeds in mud pellets before sowing them (ibidem: 43, 51). Fukuoka found that if he let ducks wander on his fields, their droppings would help the mulch decompose more quickly.

I once thought there would be nothing wrong with putting ashes from the fireplace onto the fields. The result was astounding. Two or three days later the field was completely bare of spiders [...] How many thousands of spiders fell victim to a single handful of this apparently harmless ash? (Fukuoka, 1978: 28)

10The upshot of this complex process was the mature form of natural farming. Fukuoka had learned how to obtain good yields of crops with a minimum of effort, while dispensing with otherwise definitive elements of farming such as ploughing, weeding, flooding, the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and much hard labour. We can discuss this mature form next, but first I want to comment on the path to it. I want to emphasise two points.

11First, it depended on a close and detailed engagement with nature. I used to live in the American midwest, and the work of farming there involved little more than sowing genetically modified corn and soya beans, spraying them with a variety of chemicals and then harvesting them – basically following a set procedure with little genuine engagement with the land. Fukuoka, instead, had a hands-on experimental engagement not just with his land and crops but also with sparrows, mice, chicken-droppings, mud and spiders. He knew his world much more intimately than is possible in the usual forms of industrial farming. This is what I meant earlier by getting closer to nature.

12Second, this closeness involved almost no knowledge, no chemicals, no statistical optimisation or whatever. It was performative. It centred on what I call a dance of agency (Pickering, 1995), a transformative back-and forth of Fukuoka’s actions and the actions of the land, seeds and whatever. He tried just doing nothing and his orchard died. In response, he tried something else, sowing clover, and the weeds slowed down in their growth. When the sparrows ate the seeds, he experimented with coating them in mud and the sparrows acted differently. And so on. Staging dances of agency like these is at the heart of all of my examples of poiesis, not just this one, and, to repeat, they centre on performance, not knowledge and technoscience. That is the sense in which they are a different way of being and acting in the world from our usual forms of enframing – doing without science.

13Now I want to talk about the mature form of natural farming as a more or less stable technique. Here is an account of Fukuoka’s method (Korn, 1978: xxiii-xxiv):

In the fall Mr Fukuoka sows the seeds of rice, white clover and winter grain onto the same fields and covers them with a thick layer of rice straw. The [grain] and the clover sprout up right away; the rice seeds lie dormant until spring [...] The rye and barley are harvested in May [...] then threshed... All the straw is scattered unshredded across the field [...] Water is then held in the field for a short time [...] Once the field is drained, the clover recovers and spreads beneath the growing rice plants [...] The rice is harvested in October [...] Autumn seeding [follows].

14What can be said about this? First, it works – Fukuoka obtained comparable or superior yields to conventional farming techniques. Second, we can note the striking absence of the key elements of enframing: ploughing, weeding, extensive flooding, transplanting, chemicals. Third, the dance of agency has now been regularised as what I call a choreography of agency, a stabilised tuning in and gearing together of human and nonhuman performances. The timing of planting and reaping the different crops – rice and grain – is so contrived that their growing seasons overlap. In this way, each fosters the growth of the other, while inhibiting weeds. Likewise, the alternation of crops is a self-acting form of disease control because rice diseases die out during the grain phase and vice versa.

15The rice, grain, clover, weeds and water thus act together in different combinations at different times of the year to achieve the desired outcome. The actions of the farmer are, of course, coupled directly into this choreography as part of the poetic process, and the timing of human interventions is, in fact, more closely coupled with nonhuman agency than is so far apparent. For example, speaking now of growing vegetables (Fukuoka, 1978: 66-67):

The important thing is knowing the right time to plant. For spring vegetables the right time is when the winter weeds are dying back and just before the summer weeds have sprouted. For the fall sowing, seeds should be tossed out when the summer grasses are fading away and winter weeds have not yet appeared. It is best to wait for a rain which is likely to last for several days.

16Thus the sense that natural farming is a poetic process very different from conventional farming. The natural farmer appears as a partner of the land, acting with nature and tuned into its rhythms and agency, in the plane of practice (Pickering, 1995) rather than hovering above it in a position of mastery.

17So, natural farming is my example here of poiesis. It is strange and different from technoscientific farming – a different pattern of acting in the world – acting-with rather than acting-on – and it works. It shows us that we can act differently in the world if we want to. Fukuoka also notes the obvious, that natural farming is environmentally benign, enriching rather than degrading the soil and avoiding all the environmental damage associated with ploughing and chemical inputs and run-off. Now I want to examine it from a couple of further angles.

18First, I’ve talked about poiesis as “doing without science”, and this is literally true of natural farming. No science, no detours through labs or chemical factories, were involved, either in Fukuoka’s path to natural farming or its mature form. And it interests me a lot that Fukuoka himself developed an ontological critique of science, which we can explore now.

19Fukuoka originally trained and worked as a scientist, and he never disputed individual pieces of scientific knowledge. His concern was with the difficulty of putting individual bits of science together as a useful picture of farming. We can see how this goes by looking at his ideas about pest control. He discusses, for example, Japanese attempts to protect pine trees from an outbreak of weevils by spraying them with pesticide (Fukuoka, 1978: 39-40):

I do not deny that this is effective in the short run, but I know there must be another way. Weevil blights, according to the latest research, are not a direct infestation, but follow upon the action of [...] nematodes. The nematodes breed within the trunk [...] and eventually cause the pine to wither and die. The ultimate cause [...] is not yet clearly understood. Nematodes feed on a fungus within the tree's trunk. Why did this fungus begin to spread [...]? Did the fungus begin to multiply after the nematode had already appeared? Or did the nematode appear because the fungus was already present? [...] Furthermore, there is another microbe [...] which always accompanies the fungus, and a virus which is toxic to the fungus. Effect following effect in every direction, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that pine trees are withering...

20Running through all of Fukuoka’s thinking one finds this image of the world as a great chain of being, a web of endlessly interacting dances of agency, which is, according to Fukuoka, ultimately unknowable. You can eradicate the weevils but this just leaves the nematodes, funguses, viruses and whatever, to do their thing in the new context, whatever that will turn out to be. This is how the world is, and this is what defeats the efficacy of science in farming. And, of course, this is what motivates a poetic and performative rather than cognitive and scientific approach to farming like Fukuoka’s.

21Fukuoka’s ontology also points to an endless epistemological regress of scientific expertise:

Methods of insect control which ignore the relationships among the insects... are truly useless. Research on spiders and leaf-hoppers must also consider the relation between frogs and spiders. [So], a frog professor will also be needed. Experts on spiders and leaf-hoppers, another on rice, and another expert on water management will all have to join the gathering. Furthermore, there are four or five kinds of spiders in these fields... (Fukuoka, 1978: 28)

22This is not a joke. In my university, scientific workshops on Gaia are full of grad students and postdocs chipping away at individual small parts of the puzzle in an apparently never-ending fashion, always opening up new questions for further research. And beyond that, Fukuoka’s ontological vision also has practical implications. If we can never fully know the endless web of nature, interfering with it – enframing again – is liable to end in disaster (ibidem: 39-40):

People cannot know what the true cause of the pine blight is, nor can they know the ultimate consequences of their “remedy”. If the situation is meddled with unknowingly, that only sows the seeds for the next great catastrophe.

23We could think here of Rachel Carson’s classic book, Silent Spring (1962), on the unexpected side-effects of DDT, eradicating insects, certainly, but also killing populations of songbirds. How then should natural farming respond to pests if not by eliminating them? Fukuoka’s basic idea was that with more poetic experimentation land becomes resistant to pests as pests and their predators come into dynamic equilibrium. The dance of agency more or less choreographs itself (Fukuoka, 1978: 59-60):

It is undesirable to eliminate predators because [...] greater insect damage will result [...] If [...] insect communities are left to achieve their natural balance [...] the problem will generally take care of itself. This will not work if an organic phosphorous pesticide has already been used [...] since the predators are also killed by this chemical.

24Just as the basic form of natural farming had to be found in performative experimentation, then, so do modulations of it such as pest control. This experimentation – poiesis, acting with nature – according to Fukuoka is, in general, the appropriate way to act with the unknowable web of life.

Putting “doing nothing” into practice is the one thing the farmer should strive to accomplish. Lao Tzu [...] would certainly practice natural farming.
Masanobu Fukuoka (1978: 119)

25Fukuoka’s ontology hangs together with his performative approach to acting with nature and with his critique of science. But if he was against science, I want to close by noting some other, non-scientific, ontological understandings that actually resonate with and support Fukuoka. First, his ontology is, in fact, the one I arrived at in my studies of the history of physics in my book, The Mangle of Practice (Pickering,1995). If scientific knowledge indeed sets the world up for enframing, my argument there was that genuine scientific research is itself poetic experimentation in an ultimately unknowable world. So personally, I think that Fukuoka’s ontology is just right, and natural farming, for me, is one of many examples of the mangle in action. My political project is to map out and connect these examples across different fields as instances of an overall nonmodern paradigm of acting with the world. My book, The Cybernetic Brain (Pickering, 2010), was another part of that project.

26But to finish I want to think about ontology from a different angle, I find it revealing to connect natural farming to eastern philosophy. I want to think about two key concepts. First, the Chinese idea of shi, which François Jullien (1999) translates as the ‘propensity of things’ – the disposition of things to act in specific ways in specific contexts. From our perspective, the attractive feature of shi is that it indeed refers directly to performance, action, doing things. Just what shi is can itself seem foggy and mysterious, but natural farming can help us understand it. En route to natural farming Fukuoka explored the propensities to act of trees, rice, barley, rye, clover, weeds, birds, water and the land, finally finding a complicated circular choreography of shis. So, just as enframing acts out a dualist, and mistaken, western ontology of man’s dominion over nature, so natural farming and poiesis in general can be seen to act out an eastern ontology of shi.

27And then we can think of Fukuoka’s minimalist approach to farming as an exemplar of wu wei, a key concept of Daoism usually translated as not-doing. I think wu wei can mean not-doing in a very literal sense. Fukuoka often described the route to natural farming as, let’s try not doing this, then not doing that (ploughing, weeding, fertilising, etc). But in natural farming these literal not-doings are themselves entwined with a more sophisticated sense of latching onto and gracefully inserting the farmer into the agency of nature in complex choreographies as I called them – the overlapping of rice and winter crops, delicate timings of sowing and so on. Natural farming is thus, I think, a rich and nuanced exemplification of the Daoist concept of wu wei. Enframing is the brutal contrast-class here: it is our way, forcing the other into submission.

28The conclusion of all this is, then, that ideas like shi and wu wei offer us a valuable and very direct way to think about poiesis and what it looks like in practice. And, conversely, of course, the unfamiliarity of eastern philosophy to people like me helps to explain the difficulty we moderns find in getting poiesis into focus. It points to the need for a significant paradigm shift – a revolution! – in order to recognise and grasp the existence of patterns of practice different from enframing.

29To sum up: I began with the perils of the Anthropocene as a reason to search for new ways, new patterns, of acting in the world – ways of acting with rather than on the environment. I believe these alternative patterns can be found, and natural farming has been my example. These patterns are strange to most of us – they are performative ways of doing without science – and the switch to eastern philosophy just now is one way to crystallise this strangeness. These patterns, so to speak, undercut modernity and the Anthropocene from below. Inasmuch as projects like natural farming grow and prosper, they denaturalise our usual mode of enframing and domination by revealing it as a dangerous choice rather than the one best way to go on in the world, in a feedback loop that promises to couple us into the world differently, in a more intimate, benign and graceful fashion. That is why poiesis interests me so much.

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Carson, Rachel (1962), Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Fukuoka, Masanobu (1978), The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. New York: New York Review Books. Translated by Larry Korn.

Heidegger, Martin (1977), “The Question Concerning Technology,” in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper & Row, 3-35. Translated by William Lovitt.

Jullien, François (1999), The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China. New York: Zone Books. Translated by Janet Lloyd.

Korn, Larry (1978), “Editor’s Introduction,” in Masanobu Fukuoka, The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming. New York: New York Review Books, xvii-xxviii.

Korn, Larry (2012), “Masanobu Fukuoka and Natural Farming”, site of the documentary Final Straw. Accessed on 15.04.2022, at

Lovelock, James (2007), The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth is Fighting Back – and How We Can Still Save Humanity. London: Penguin.

Pickering, Andrew (1995), The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, and Science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pickering, Andrew (2010), The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pickering, Andrew (2019), “Poiesis in Action: Doing without Knowledge” in Moritz Epple; Annette Imhausen; Falk Müller (eds.), Weak Knowledge: Forms, Functions, and Dynamics. Frankfurt: Campus Verlag, 61-84.

Pickering, Andrew (in preparation), Acting with the World: Doing without Science.

Scott, James (1998), Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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Andrew Pickering, «Acting with the World: Doing without Science»e-cadernos CES [Online], 38 | 2022, posto online no dia 31 março 2023, consultado o 01 junho 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Andrew Pickering

Emeritus Professor in the Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, University of Exeter
Amory Building, Rennes Drive, Exeter, EX4 4RJ, United Kingdom

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