A Journey of Discovery: Reflections

As I write this, it is mid September 2006. I am writing in a sun-drenched room at our cottage in Ontario, thinking of the unrolling events of the last few months. It is a surprising time with some light events and some very dark ones.

For me, the light, bright events, come from the birth of twin grandsons, living on Vancouver Island. They turn my mind from the present dark colors of international and US politics and governance, and add balance in the promise youth opens for the future. And, on the same positive note, I have also met a large group of new and old friends, on two recent trips- one trip to South Africa and one to Montreal, where we met bubbling communities of people, young and old, experimenting in new options for interracial design and novel social and scientific experimentation. The collapse of apartheid in South Africa has slowly opened huge potential and hope. This is just the opposite of the public mood I see in the United States.

It stunned me to discover that major new centers, truly international in character, have emerged for resilience studies and policies- for the world’s coral reefs in Australia, for climate change in the UK and for regional and global social and ecological systems in Sweden. And all this is apparently influenced deeply by the discoveries and experiments presented by my own work over the last decades. All that says the world is exuberantly healthy and productive. But there are other, very dark events.

In the United States, the mood and currents of thought and politics perceived among good friends at our main home in the small fishing village of Cedar Key, on the Gulf of Mexico is depressing. They are good friends, but now deeply pessimistic ones. The political situation in the United States is quite simply ugly. It is a time when the power of the state has achieved a rigidity unseen since the triumphs of the falling of the Berlin Wall. Politicians have reacted to extreme disturbances, like the appalling terrorist attacks of 9/11, with a powerful military response, a blind view of history and cultures, and a greedy desire for narrow benefit. Global economic expansion and dependence on peaking oil supplies, particularly in the Middle East, lock geopolitics into a self-destructive state, from which transformation is extraordinarily difficult.

It is the classically destructive phase of the mature part of an adaptive cycle. It is also potentially creative, because opportunities for innovative experiments and novel enterprises start to open at such times. It is a time of potentially creative destruction. And a recent mid term election in the United States in November 2006 at least hints at a shift into a renewal that requires deep changes nationally and internationally. Democracy is indeed a huge invention that stimulates assessment of a society and institutions whose leaders have become rigid and myopic. Democracy, at times, can trigger its renewal.

That is what I want to end up discussing here. But I want to get to that point by musing about the personal contributions I’ve made, my colleagues have made and our colleagues in science have at times questioned, at times supported. That is the true skepticism of science unfolding. At times it is turned over by truly novel discoveries- a kind of Kuhnian revolution of thought and approach. I think that transformation has happened, and I will describe my personal journey in science that, with other such journeys, contributed to the transformation.

These reflections will be presented in a series of posts over the next few weeks.

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