Like many before him, Marten Scheffer is impressed with parallels between social systems and natural systems. Moreover, he is convinced that problems confronting the human race require something more integrated than the fragmentary knowledge of the various academic disciplines. In short, he seeks to span the famous “two cultures” and to take a long stride toward consilience. Coming from a background in limnology and aquatic ecology, Scheffer is inevitably more at home in some arenas of knowledge than others, and his new book, Critical Transitions in Nature and Society, is mainly about the critical transitions in nature that are of interest to society. An example with which he begins the book is typical: the transformation of the Western Sahara into desert about 5,500 years ago as a result of initially small climate change that built on itself because the drier climate reduced vegetation, thereby heightening albedo.
Part of Scheffer’s aim is to contribute to the study of how well the theory of system dynamics corresponds to real life, in the behavior both of nature and of society. “If we are able to pin down the mechanisms at work,” he says, “this may eventually open up the possibility of predicting, preventing, or catalyzing big shifts in nature and society.” To be able to do so is a long-standing human ambition, which has been given fullest rein in political regimes that have seen utopia just over the horizon and have aimed to get there as soon as possible. In the abstract, such ambition seems laudable. In practice, it has led to many regrettable “big shifts” in nature and society, such as those undertaken in the headiest days of the Soviet Union or Mao Zedong’s rule in China. To date, those most keen on provoking “big shifts” have known far too little, and perhaps cared too little as well, about the possible outcomes of their actions. When results did not conform closely enough to their hopes, they used their powers to try to force society and nature into preferred channels, which led to gulags and environmental disasters. When trying to catalyze big shifts in nature and society, one must really know what one is doing—and that is very, very hard to do.
So Scheffer seems more cheerful about the future of the Social-Eco-Earth-System at the end of writing his book than I am after reading it. But his premise—that hope lies with integrated eco-social science rather than our traditional isolated silos of knowledge—is surely correct. Perhaps we are on the edge of a happy tipping point after which science enters a state in which depth is not unduly esteemed over breadth, in which integrated study of complex systems becomes the norm, in which our insight into real-world eco-social systems grows and grows to formerly unimaginable levels. If so, Scheffer may be right to be optimistic. But there are some powerful attractors working against it.