All posts by Garry Peterson

Prof. of Environmental science at Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University in Sweden.

What are the key frontier research areas for resilience research?

Now that the Resilience 2014 has ended, what do you in the resilience research community think are the most important frontiers of resilience research?

To answer this question Daniel Ospina & I have created a survey to ask the broad community of researchers and practitioners interested in resilience what research areas they believe are key for advancing resilience research in order to reflect the collective set of questions back to that community.

In the survey you will find a list of broad research questions that have been proposed and prioritized through a Delphi process involving over 60 senior and young researchers working of different areas of resilience and social-ecological research.  This Delphi process was conducted by the Resilience Alliance to identify priority research among its research network.

We believe that Resilience2014 attendees represent a much broader set of resilience research would like to identify and reflect upon the collective research priorities of this broader research community.

We estimate this survey will take no more than 5 minutes.  The results will be reported back on here on resilience science.

To reply to the survey here - and thanks.

 

 

 

Cognition in general: SRC Cognition group pt1

A guest post by Nanda Wijermans

Cognition – from hearing people talk around me it has something to do with people’s minds, views and their behaviour  and it is considered  very important. But what can/should we as SES researchers do with it? Actually, what do we mean when we talk about cognition?

To move on from wondering and pondering, we decided to start a reading group on Cognition to  learn and develop a shared understanding through reading and discussing. Recently we had our first thematic session: cognition in general. 

This week’s readings were:

In this selection we focused on getting a general overview, a first step in building common language and knowledge. 

In a 5-minute history-of-cognitive-science-quicky, SRC PhD student, Matteo Giusti described the development of the cognitive sciences of the last century.  The transformation of explaining mental processes and human behaviour starts with behaviourism, i.e. the view of the mind as a black box and introduction of rigour in methodology by focusing on measurable stimulus response behaviours. In the ‘60s classic cognition shifted it’s towards the mind itself. The mind was approached as an information processing system. The most recent change in the ‘90s concerns embodied cognition. Stressing the mind being inherently part of the human body and external world of an individual.

Discussions of the readings:  In general the different overviews were regarded very helpful, particularly, because everyone had heard of bits and pieces but missed connections between them.

Seed & Tomasello (2010) highlight that many of the basic cognitive skills and mental representations used by humans to navigate the social and physical world are possessed by all primates. For instance, all primates understand the behaviour of others in terms of underlying goals & intentions and perception and knowledge.  Apart from differentiating man from other primates on the complex cognitive skills, their main distinguishing feature was attributed to cultural intelligence and the ability of humans to form cultural groups that cooperate and learn.

Gintis (2009) contributed by providing an overview of the economic, psychological, social and biological models of human behaviour and arguing for a unification of the social science with the help of evolutionary game theory. Moreover, Gintis was valuable for our discussion by being quite provocative, highlighting recent debates and providing his own vision. By arguing very strongly for the Rational Actor model he enables both rationality lovers and haters to argue more precisely. For instance that the rational actor model is not the same as a Homo Economicus, what are the boundaries of models, or the differences between routine choices and deliberative choices.

Kolmussen & Agyeman (2010), who move more into our field, addresses pro-environmental behaviour. Along with providing an overview in its own right, our discussions turned into a debate of the usefulness of ‘pro-environmental behaviour’ as a concept for studying social-ecological systems. Who decides what is ‘pro-environmental’ … tricky. What about other concepts such as sense of place?  Pulling it back to cognition, it boils down to what are motives, how are they affected and how can they be studied particularly in relation to behaviour.

Based on all the readings and discussions we brainstormed on topics for our next meetings. One thing was very clear: a dedicated reading session of Rationality is a must-have, which sets the topic for our next meeting in May.

This session was organised by Maja Schlüter, Matteo Giusti, Andrew Merry and his social media network, Tracy van Holt and Nanda Wijermans.

Disaster Memory

Guest post from Erin Bohensky & Anne Leitch

We have recently created a new blog “Disaster Memory: Understanding social memory of extreme events and disasters” (http://disastermemory.wordpress.com/) to explore how human experience of extreme weather and natural disasters is encoded and archived in memory; how individual and collective memory of past events is recalled to make sense of present experience; and how these processes shape society’s responses to natural disasters. The blog provides a space for exploration and exchange of ‘disaster memory’ stories, and in doing so illuminates avenues for learning.

SES-oz

One of the themes currently under discussion in the blog is the role of culture and national identity in disaster memory: in Australia the State Emergency Service (SES) volunteers are in the front line of disaster response and therefore in the front line of experiential learning. Photo by Anne Leitch.

Local, place-based knowledge about social-ecological systems is thought to build resilience to uncertainty and rapid change, such as that posed by natural disasters. Learning from such knowledge is considered critical for societies living in disaster-prone areas such as coastlines, floodplains and peri-urban bushland. Less widely appreciated are the processes by which knowledge is harnessed to respond to disasters. Among these is social memory—“the long-term communal understanding of the dynamics of environmental change, and the transmission of the pertinent experience (McIntosh 2000:24)”—that becomes salient as societies anticipate and recover from disaster events.

While disaster management and risk reduction are expanding to encompass the role of human agency and behaviour, these domains can benefit further from the various scholarly traditions on knowledge and memory and how they relate to resilience. For example, anthropology recognises knowledge as fluid and embedded in social and cultural practice, rather than a static repository of past responses to disturbances without historical context. Cognitive psychology approaches appreciate that memory includes the subjective experience of remembering and that memory is prone to distortions. However, how memory scales up to larger social groups and social-ecological systems and is harnessed in times of need is not always evident. To understand how knowledge may be more effectively brought to bear on disaster resilience we argue that a deeper conceptualisation of knowledge is needed that spans disciplinary boundaries and communities of practice to consider how knowledge is encoded in memory at and across multiple scales. “Disaster Memory” intends to explore this through a series of case studies of different types of disasters around the globe.

We will be chairing a session at Resilience 2014, called “Knowledge for disaster resilience: Exploring memory, governance and resilience in practice” on Tuesday 6 May at 3:40-4:40pm.

Reference:

McIntosh, R. J. 2000. Climate, history and human action. Pages 1–42 in R. J. McIntosh, J. A. Tainter, and S. K. McIntosh, editors. The Way the Wind Blows: Climate, History and Human Action. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA.

 

 

Applying resilience thinking

The Stockholm Resilience Centre has just produced a beautiful new booklet that outlines seven principles for applying resilience thinking.

The 20 page free pdf booklet Applying resilience thinking – Seven principles for building resilience in social-ecological systemsPDF (pdf, 1.4 MB), presents  seven principles for building resilience in social-ecological systems:

  1. maintain diversity and redundancy
  2. manage connectivity
  3. manage slow variables and feedbacks
  4. foster complex adaptive systems thinking
  5. encourage learning
  6. broaden participation
  7. promote polycentric governance systems.

Each principle is presented along with an example of how it has been applied.

7 principles

The booklet builds on a in-depth, multi-year comprehensive review of the resilience literature conducted by the Resilience Alliance Young Scholars network.  The first product of this review was a 2012 paper by Oonise Biggs and others “Towards principles for enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services” in Annual Reviews of Environment and Resources (2012), and now  a book “Principles for Building Resilience: Sustaining Ecosystem Services in Social-Ecological Systems” that will be published by Cambridge University Press later this year.

Oonsie Biggs and company will be running a session on their book at the Resilience 2014 conference, on Tuesday 6 May, 11:30-12:30.

Old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky

Always provocative science fiction writer/design guru Bruce Sterling on the future – from his closing keynote at SXSW 2014 

My suspicion is you’re going to see some very severe (not super severe, but increasingly severe) weather disruption events that are just like the ones we’ve already had, only more so. And they’re going to be carried within this cruelty of neo-Liberal global capitalism and the casino economy that we’ve built, our extremely uneven, and outmatched economic structure where the ultra-wealthy can basically buy anything anywhere.

So what will that look like? The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. People often ask, “How could science fiction writers predict the future?” The middle of the 20th Century, from here up to about 2070, 2075… it’s old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky.

How do I know that? Well, it’s because demographic change is very obvious — people are gonna get older. And the urban change is very obvious — people have been moving into larger and larger cities for several decades. And climate change is super obvious. People can deny all three of them. You can say, “Oh, well my town will never get bigger.” Okay, Austin’s getting bigger by 100 people a day. Or you could say, “Oh, well I’m never going to get older.” Okay, you are gonna get older. You could get Botox, you can deny it, you can fake it, exercise, take vitamins… you’re gonna get older.

Then there’s the issue of being afraid of the sky, which is mostly a slider bar — you should be afraid of the sky now, but you could be *extremely* afraid of the sky very suddenly for pretty much any unpredictable reason. Once the thing hits— there’s gonna be lots of Katrinas. If it’s a Katrina a year, we could manage it. But if it’s a Katrina a month or if it’s a Katrina a week, we’re in for it. There’s gonna be lots of old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky. Demographics, urbanization, fear.

 

Classics of Social Science 3: Max Weber – Interpreter of (human) nature

Guest post by Simon West:

Karl Marx had modes of production, Emile Durkheim had collective consciousness; Max Weber wanted … nothing of this sort.  He believed it was foolish to assign supra-individual entities a causal force in human history.

Max Weber 1894

Nothing is more dangerous than the confusion of theory and history […]. This confusion expresses itself firstly in the belief that the “true” content and the essence of historical reality is portrayed in such theoretical constructs or secondly, in the use of these constructs as a procrustean bed into which history is to be forced or thirdly, in the hypostatization of such “ideas” as real “forces” and as a “true” reality which operates behind the passage of events and which works itself out in history” (Weber 2007 [1904], 214)

Weber marshaled two innovations to stay clear from the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’ (Whitehead 2011 [1926]), i.e. mistaking the abstract for the concrete. First of all, he grounded his sociology in the German hermeneutic tradition of interpretation of interpersonal social interactions (‘verstehen’).

The hermeneutic tradition differentiates between the study of nature and the study of society, suggesting that, “while we can ‘explain’ natural occurrences in terms of the application of causal laws, human conduct is intrinsically meaningful, and has to be ‘interpreted’ or ‘understood’ in a way that has no counterpart in nature” (Giddens 2001 [1992]: ix). This distinction between the social and natural, captured in the concept of the “double hermeneutic” (i.e. the ‘object’ of the social sciences is also a ‘subject’) prominently developed by British sociologist Anthony Giddens, has remained a central problem for the study of human-nature interaction. The expanding range of approaches to human-nature interaction, including social-ecological systems, sustainability science, cultural geography, political ecology, anthropology, environmental humanities, etc. all address this dilemma in different ways.

Interestingly (particularly for social-ecological research), Weber did not think that a deep engagement with subjective human interpretation would make (social) science relativistic, or preclude causal explanation. Knowledge of the motives and rationalities that trigger people to act would, for Weber, still allow a causal explanation of human behaviour, but leave out any metaphysical extra-individual entities. He was strongly committed to the hermeneutic tradition, but at the same time endorsed the positivist ideal of a generalizing, parsimonious science. With this definition of sociology Weber elegantly overcame the two opposite positions in the so-called ‘methodenstreit’ (or ‘methods dispute’).

Aware of the ambitious standards that he set himself, he knew that it would often (if not always) be impossible to lay bare the multi-causal and complex interactions between the material and ideal worlds, the individual, the collective and the environment. He therefore – and this is Weber’s second major innovation – insisted that his analysis was not complete explanation, and only traced “one side of the causal chain” (Weber 2001 [1930]:125). He termed such ‘one-sided’ or ‘accentuated’ analysis ‘ideal-typical’, and the concepts it engaged ‘ideal-types’.

 […] the only way to avoid serious and foolish blunders requires a sharp, precise distinction between the logically comparative analysis of reality by ideal-types in the logical sense and the value-judgment of reality on the basis of ideals.” (Weber 2007 [1904], 215)

Weber book coverWeber’s most famous academic work, The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism (1904), is a perfect example of an analysis through the use of ideal-types. The book traces the ideological basis (the spirit) of capitalism in the development of a protestant ethic in 15th century Europe. Weber was of course aware of the material origins of capitalism (his work has been described as a life-long debate with the ghost of Marx) but he in contrast focused on the ideas and rationale that produced capitalism. The book leaves implicit Marx’s legacy to identify the causal force of human interpretation in social-economic history. The book’s thesis is that the ‘capitalist spirit’ emerged from an austere ethic that Weber attributes to ascetic Protestantism, especially Calvinism, where beliefs in predestination, the idea of a ‘calling,’ and attribution of value to hard work established the pursuit of profit as inherently virtuous. Gradually the pursuit of profit transformed from being a means of salvation to becoming an end in and of itself; the protestant ethic became the capitalist spirit.

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so […]. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which from day-to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.” (Weber 2001 [1930]: 123).

In direct connection to the above quote Weber invokes the image of an ‘iron cage’ as a metaphor for the stultifying rationalization of everyday life. According to his own ideal-typical typology of motivations of social action, a functional rationality (means-ends deliberation) gradually superseded and colonized alternative motivations, such as value rational, traditional and emotional motivations for action (Kalberg 1980). Characteristically, Weber did not see these motivations as operating exclusively and separately, but rather co-evolving in different arenas of human life at different speeds and scales.

Weber’s typology of rationality.  Table by Wijnand Boonstra.

Weber’s typology of rationality. Table by Wijnand Boonstra.

Our class discussions revolved around the different ways that particular types of rationality shape human interaction with the environment today. As Giddens (2001 [1992]) points out, Weber’s work as a whole can be interpreted as a study of the divergent ways in which this rationalization of culture has taken place around the world – Weber published enormous and still influential texts on the major ‘world religions,’ including ancient Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Environmental historians (see for instance Robert Mark’s China: Its Environment and History or William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis) are increasingly unpacking the effects of these different forms of cultural rationalization on social-ecological interaction at the macro-scale.

The value of Weber’s ideas for social-ecological systems research is not easily overstated. Weber’s focus on inter-subjective interpretation influenced symbolic interactionists like Erving Goffman, who examined the meanings and frames of interpersonal interaction and understanding (Goffman 1974). In turn, Goffman’s work has prompted contemporary social theorists like Manuel De Landa to construct the social from networks and assemblages founded on personal interaction (De Landa 2006).

Weber’s ideas also resonate with recent work in cognitive science. George Lakoff, for instance, argues that individual ‘frames’ – mostly unconscious schemas including semantic roles, relations between roles, and relations to other frames – determine how we perceive and respond to environmental change (Lakoff 2010). While Lakoff does not cite Weber, they share sensitivity to the invidious and restrictive ways that subconscious frames, perhaps constitutive of an ‘ethic’ or ‘spirit,’ shape our everyday social, individual and even ecological experience.

Could Weber’s typology of rationality and associated forms of social action offer inspiration for thinking about social-ecological networks and SES modelling?

Max Weber completes the triumvirate of the classic ‘founders’ of sociology, and it is also with him that we reach the end of this course.

We hope this course can spark a wider exploration of the exciting theoretical options open to sustainability scholars.

Who are your classics?

On which shoulders do you stand?

The increasing willingness of sustainability scholars to excavate the classics to prompt new thinking of human-nature interactions may perhaps lead to a new generation of great theoretical synthesizers.

References

De Landa, 2006. A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London: Continuum.

Giddens, A., 2001. Introduction. In: Weber, M. 2001 [1930].The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London and New York: Routledge.

Goffman, E., 1974. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Lakoff, G., 2010. Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment. Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture 4(1): 70 – 81.

Kalberg, S., 1980. Max Weber’s Types of Rationality: Cornerstones for the Analysis of Rationalization in History. American Journal of Sociology 85(5): 1145 – 1179.

Weber, M. 2001 [1930].The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London and New York: Routledge.

Weber, M. 2007 [1904]. Objectivity in social science. In: Calhoun et al. (eds.) Classical Sociological Theory. London: Blackwell.

Whitehead, A.N. 2011 [1926] Science and the modern world. Cambridge, University Press. Cambridge.

Early Registration for Resilience 2014 – last day March 10th

March 10th is the last day for early Registration for Resilience 2014!

Resilience 2014 is this year’s open Resilience Science conference in Montpellier, France – running from May 4-8th.

The theme of this conference is “resilience and development: mobilizing for transformation” and the organizing committee aims to explore and reinforce the multiple links between resilience thinking and development issues

It follows up on the successful Resilience 2011, in Tempe, Arizona and Resilience 2008 in Stockholm, Sweden.

I and many of my colleagues are planning to attend, and I believe it should be a fun, provocative, and diverse conference.

Classics of Social Science 2: Emile Durkheim

A guest post by Wijnand Boonstra

Émile Durkheim photo.

Émile Durkheim from wikipedia.

Old Durkheim was used to taking blows, right from the day of his PhD defense in 1893. His dissertation, later published as The Division of Labour in Society, was turned down twice. The third time he got it through, but not without serious objections.

Durkheim was criticized for treating “the evolution of morality as inexorably determined by social causes”(Giddens 1978, 34) – and consequently for replacing God with a deified ‘society.’ Since then critique of Durkheim’s work never ceased. He threw himself into the fray, engaging in public intellectual battles with many of his adversaries. But, how did he fare posthumously in the lion’s den of the SRC’s Resilience Research School?

Durkheim is deemed responsible by some for leading sociology down the wrong theoretical track, especially with his emphasis on ‘social facts’. Bruno Latour, for example, argues that there are no discrete social totalities such as ‘social facts’, let alone ‘collective consciousness’. Instead, citing Margaret Thatcher’s famous line that there is “no such thing as society,” Latour proposes multiple, overlapping, contradicting networks of people and things as a more fitting object for social science (Latour 2005). According to Latour social science would be in a better condition today if it had listened more closely to the individualist sociology of Durkheim’s nemesis Gabriel Tarde.

from the Guardian: Margaret Thatcher with the Greater London Council’s 12,000th council home buyer in 1980. She was initially opposed to the right to buy. Photograph: PA Archive

Durkheim is also taken to task for denying the influence of natural environments on the development of societies. He is held responsible for establishing the so-called ‘human exceptionalism paradigm’ (Catton and Dunlap 1978; Dunlap and Catton 1979) that dominated the development of the social sciences during most of the 20th century. In this interpretation Durkheim was so preoccupied with establishing sociology as an independent scientific discipline, he purified it from all biological, psychological, and ecological explanations. ‘Social facts can only be explained with other social facts’ as his famous dictum has it.

But how averse really was Durkheim from non-sociological explanations? Well, against the famous 19th century sociologist and Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, Durkheim did assert that natural environments did not determine societies. But he did not think that society was autonomous from nature:

[…] even if society is a specific reality it is not an empire within an empire; it is part of nature, and indeed its highest representation. The social realm is a natural realm which differs from the others only by greater complexity” (Durkheim 1912 [1976]: 18).

In his dissertation he poses that “Man depends upon only three kinds of environment: the organism, the external world, and society” (1964 [1893]: 285). Moreover, he points out that the natural environment “bears the imprint of society” (1899 [1972]: 88 cited in Gross 2000, 283), i.e. describing how societies as complex social realities can partly disengage themselves from nature and, in so doing, transform nature:

 A society is the most powerful combination of physical and moral forces of which nature offers us an example. Nowhere else is an equal richness of different materials, carried to such a degree of concentration, to be found. Then it is not surprising that a higher life disengaged itself which, by reacting upon the elements of which it is the product, raises them to a higher plane of existence and transforms them” (idem, p. 446)

Remarks that sound surprisingly up-to-date in light of contemporary attempts to capture the co-production of nature and society: ‘novel ecosystems’ (Hobbs et al. 2013); ‘new natures’ (Jorgensen et al 2013); ‘environing’ (Sörlin and Warde 2009); ‘niche-construction’ (Odling-Smee et al. 2003). But to brand Durkheim as an early ecological sociologist would be going too far. As argued last week, that honor is better bestowed on Marx.

Discussions in class focused most on what Durkheim meant with his elusive and thought-provoking concept of ‘social fact’. From the second preface to The Rules of Sociological Method it becomes clear that this term was considered controversial immediately after its introduction in 1895. Here Durkheim goes to considerable lengths to defend it, pointing out misinterpretations and offering clarifications.

Critics had problems accepting that a social fact, according to Durkheim, exerts an “external constraint” over individuals. Was he not reifying social facts as something above and beyond individuals? In the preface Durkheim points out that social facts are real because they make themselves “felt” and “reckoned with”, and they “are never completely overcome” (1895 [1982], 44). “The individual encounters them when they are already completely fashioned and he cannot cause them to cease to exist or be different from what they are” (idem, 45).

In the remaining argument Durkheim also explains how the “individual plays a part in their creation [of social facts]”, and that we do not “receive them passively and without causing them to undergo modification”, but that “different people adapt themselves differently to social facts” (idem, 47). At the end of the text Durkheim makes a useful and interesting comparison. He points out (with reference to his nephew Marcel Mauss) that social facts “moderately well” resemble institutions (idem, 45).

The concept of ‘institutions’ is well established in sustainability science through the work of Elinor Ostrom. She defines institutions as “the prescriptions that humans use to organize all forms of repetitive and structured interactions” (Ostrom 2005, 2). Now compare her definition against Durkheim’s definition of institutions as “collective ways of acting and thinking” (1895 [1982], 45).

In Ostrom’s definition institutions seem to imply that institutions are tools that people use with the intention to organize social life. Durkheim casts his net much wider, and includes besides intentional, deliberate social action also more tacit, unconscious socially shared habits of thought and action. Would perhaps Durkheim’s understanding, compared to Ostrom’s focus on intentional action, lend itself better to account for the unplanned and unanticipated effects of people’s social actions? A lot more can be said about the definitions of institutions. But not right now (instead see Hodgeson 2006), because Max Weber is waiting.

References
Catton, W. R., & Dunlap, R. E. 1978. Environmental sociology: A new paradigm. The American Sociologist 13: 41-49.

Dunlap, R. E., & Catton, W. R., Jr. 1979. Environmental sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 5: 243-273.

Durkheim, É. 1893 [1964]. The division of labor in society. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, É. 1895 [1982]. The rules of sociological method. New York: The Free Press.

Durkheim, É. 1912 [1976]. The elementary forms of religious life. London: Allen & Unwin.

Giddens, Anthony (1978) Durkheim. Glasgow: Fontana.

Gross, M. 2000. Classical sociology and the restoration of nature: The relevance of Émile Durkheim and Georg Simmel. Organization and Environment 13 (3): 277-291.

Hobbs, R.J., Higgs, E.S., Hall, C. 2013. Novel ecosystems: Intervening in the new ecological world order. London: Wiley Blackwell.

Hodgeson, G.M. 2006. What are institutions? Journal of Economic Issues 40 (1): 1-25.

Jørgensen, F. A., Jørgensen, D. and Pritchard, S. 2013. New natures: Joining environmental history with science and technology studies, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Latour, B. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Odling-Smee, F. J., Laland, K. N., and Feldman, M. W. 2003. Niche construction: the neglected process in evolution (No. 37). Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ostrom, E. 2005. Understanding institutional diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sörlin, S., and Warde, P. 2009. Nature’s end: History and the environment. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Classics of Social Science 1: Karl Marx the first ecological sociologist?

Guest post by Simon West:

Reflections on Week Two of the Resilience Research School PhD course, ‘Why Bother with Durkheim? Using (classical) social science to understand the social dynamics of social-ecological systems.  (previously Week One – why study classics).

a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

Karl Marx from Wikimedia Commons.

There is almost certainly no social scientist whose reputation precedes them as much as Karl Marx. Indeed, his reputation precedes him to the extent that many people would not even think of him as a social scientist.

This is troublesome for young interdisciplinary researchers – the ‘intimidation factor’ is enormous. However, this fear factor does not only, or perhaps even primarily, come from Marx himself, but from his coterie of followers and interpreters. Autonomist Marxism, Marxist Humanism, Analytical Marxism, Cultural Marxism, Structural Marxism, Marxist Theology, not to mention fields that borrow heavily from Marxist critique such as political ecology and critical theory – the extensive knowledge and passion that Marx-inspired sub-fields bring to the surface demonstrate his continued vitality, but also alienate many who might be surprised by the content of Marx’s original texts.

In this class we put chapter 15 of Marx’s Capital, ‘Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,’ into dialogue with John Bellamy Foster’s (1999) article, ‘Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology.

We did not attempt a close reading of Marx’s chapter, a la David Harvey (who once dedicated almost a whole class to a single footnote!), but rather used it as a springboard to identify potential areas of use for social-ecological systems research.

Course organiser Wijnand Boonstra set the scene in an introductory lecture outlining Marx’s personal and social context, including his lifetime friendship and collaboration with Friedrich Engels, “Marx’s general”. Marx remarks in his infamous footnote (see above) that, “a critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of a single individual.” The same is true for the products of 19th century social science. How could two young men who had no personal experience of industrial exploitation write about the debilitating effects of capitalism on the poor with such accuracy? An intriguing article published last year suggests an answer may be found in the sharp intellect and companionship of Engel’s working-class companion Mary Burns. It is thought that Mary, believed to be a prostitute by some historians, guided Engels through the slums of Manchester, providing him with an immersive experience of the poor that otherwise would have been impossible for the son of a wealthy mill-owner.

Social-Ecological Metabolism

In the subsequent discussion groups, we moved from the complex, unpredictable and dynamic interactions of interpersonal history to the equally complex and adaptive relationships between humans, machines, work and nature through time.

Discussions initially revolved around Marx’s concept of ‘metabolic rift,’ as elaborated by Bellamy Foster. For Marx, human-nature relations include a social-ecological metabolism carried out through labour processes:

 “Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces, which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature … It [the labour process] is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, […]” (Marx 1976 [1867]: 283, 290).

Marx, using the ecological crisis of large-scale soil degradation in United Kindgom during the first half of the 1800s, identified a ‘rift’ in this metabolism. Prior to industrialization soil nutrients were replaced by rural populations living off the land. But with the invention of Watt’s coal and water-fuelled, double-acting steam-engine, machines became mobile and “permitted production to be concentrated in towns instead of being scattered over the countryside” (Marx 1976 [1867]: 497-498). The English countryside depopulated while in crowded London nutrients were washed away in the Thames. This ‘rift’ – produced by growing differences between the urban and rural – supported Marx’s broader claim that capitalism is inherently self-destructive.

It was suggested in the discussion groups that a ‘rift’ between humans and nature has been postulated in many academic traditions. However, the temporal location of this rift varies – for some, perhaps Marx, the origin of the rift emerged the moment humans began to modify their environment through culture (yet only became problematic during the second industrial revolution). Others, such as the environmental historian Donald Worster, might associate it with the European discovery of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Earth system scientists on the other hand have suggested the ‘great acceleration’ of the second half of the twentieth-century.

Discussion turned towards the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s own plea for a ‘Reconnection to the Biosphere’ – and where and how, given Marx’s understanding of social-ecological metabolism, this ‘reconnection’ should take place. Should emphasis be placed on personal epiphanies and behavioural change? Should it be aimed at changing government policy or encouraging grass-roots innovation? Should it be geared towards challenging dominant power structures?

Discussants were united in expressing surprise at just how prescient Marx’s observations regarding human-environment relations were. Indeed, some sentences could conceivably have been used in the Brundtland Report (1987):  “Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household]” (Marx 1959 [1894]: 530). Of course, the authors might have struggled getting such policy traction with a document explicitly quoting Marx!

What might the concept of social-ecological metabolism be useful for and what might it leave out? It was posited in class that the concept of ‘metabolism’ might be a useful way of understanding how the ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ components of SES interact and transform each other, and indeed some work has already been done using the concept of metabolism to understand human impacts on the earth system in the Anthropocene. SRC Professor Garry Peterson suggests that while metabolism might work for biogeochemical issues, complex systems approaches, which focus on populations, heterogenity and diversity, are more useful for thinking about many of the novel aspects of the anthropocene, such novel ecosystems. On the other hand, it might be intriguing to explore new kinds of ‘rift’ in a globally connected world, such as the concept of teleconnected vulnerabilities. Establishing such bridges and disconnects between academic traditions was precisely the type of debate we hoped the course would provoke.

Revolution, the adaptive cycle and systemic change

As a systems thinker, Marx believed that history progressed through revolutionary, cyclic change. A very related idea was later captured with the term “punctuated equilibrium” (Gould and Eldredge 1977). Often labeled a simple determinist because of his emphasis on the defining force of materiality on the social, Marx actually advocated a more subtle co-evolution between nature and culture, which Engels, in a letter written after Marx’ death, explains as follows: “The political, legal, philosophical, literary, and artistic development rests on the economic. But they all react upon one another and upon the economic base. It is not the case that the economic situation is the sole active cause and everything else is merely a passive effect” (Engels 1894 in Elwell 2008: 22). Here it is the interaction between the material and the ideational that produces social change.

Class discussants identified parallels and disconnects between this cyclic vision of human history and the adaptive cycle & panarchy heuristics used in resilience research.

Two features distinguish a panarchic representation from traditional hierarchical ones. The first is the importance of the adaptive cycle and, in particular the alpha phase as the engine of variety and the generator of new experiments within each level. The second is the connections between levels. There are potentially multiple connections between phases at one level and phases at another level, but two are most significant in our search for the meaning of sustainability. Those are the connections labeled as Revolt and Remember

Both approaches, to some extent, embrace a fatalistic approach to change and disorder. Still, both approaches seem to leave some room for agency, although perhaps in Marx’s case implicitly. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (Marx 2007 [1852]: 112).

Attention in resilience research is increasingly turning explicitly to individual and collective agency to understand the dynamics of transformation in social-ecological systems.

Course participants imagined how Marx would interpret current attempts to ‘reinvent the system’ towards more sustainable trajectories. Transition towns as a movement to heal the metabolic rift, or as a bourgeois hobby? Ecosystem services as product of capitalism, or revolutionary re-valuation of capital?

Dialectics, causal loops and interdisciplinary science

Whether these initiatives contain the seeds of transformation or become colonized by a capitalist system would, according to Marx, probably depend on their historical, dialectic relations, which are uncontrollable. In Marx’s work you won’t find any descriptions of social-ecological systems, or causal loop diagrams that highlight its inner workings [See Figure 2 for an attempt by course participant Diego Galafassi to work through the concept of ‘metabolic rift’ using a causal loop diagram]. Instead he points out crucial elements – labour objects; nature; technology; society; mentalities; human nature – that form concatenating relations and shape human history. These interactions are forever changing – an understanding he adhered to since his PhD thesis on Epicurus – symbiotic and parasitic at the same time.

Figure 2: An interpretation of the concept of ‘metabolic rift’ as a causal loop diagram by course participant Diego Galafassi.

Marx also applies dialectics – thinking in inherent contradictions – to (scientific) hermeneutics. “It is characteristic of the entire crudeness of ‘common sense,’ […], that where it succeeds in seeing a distinction it fails to see a unity, and where it sees a unity it fails to see a distinction. If ‘common sense’ establishes distinction determinations, they immediately petrify surreptitiously and it is considered the most reprehensible sophistry to rub together these conceptual blocks in such a way that they catch fire” (Marx in Ollman 2003: 77). ‘Rubbing conceptual blocks’ captures eloquently what we now would understand as interdisciplinary science. Does this mean that we are on our way to transdiscplinarity after all?

Next week: Emile Durkheim…

 

References

Elwell, F. 2008. The sociology of Karl Marx. Chapter 1 in Macrosociology. The study of sociocultural systems. The Edwin Mellen Press: New York. Pp. 15-40.

Gould, S.J. and Eldredge, N. 1977. Punctuated equilibria: the tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered. Paleobiology 3 (2): 115-151.

Marx, K. 2007 [1852] The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In: Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J. Pfaff, S. and I. Virk. Classical Sociological Theory. Second Edition. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford. Pp. 112 – 121.

Marx, K. 1976 [1867] Capital. A critique of political economy. Volume I. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, K. 1959 [1894] Capital. The process of capitalist production as a whole. Volume III. New York: International Publishers.

Ollman, B. 2003. The dance of the dialectic. Steps in Marx’s method. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Why Bother with Walters? Revisiting the “classics” of resilience science

Classic Resilience Readings

Recently at the Stockholm Resilience Centre I’ve been working on update our suggested reading list for our PhD students based on recent research, critiques of various aspects of resilience, and the diversity of research in our centre’s research clusters.  However, I also thought it was important to not just identify the most interesting recent papers but also to identify a set of older (>10 years old) key papers and books that could provide some of the roots of resilience research.

Partly inspired by SRC researcher Wijnand Boonstra’s great initiative to produce a PhD course on the lessons from classic social science for social-ecological research, but also recognizing the shorter history of resilience research, I gave the first of several brief ‘speed talks’ to advertise some of the neglected classics of resilience research that many researchers center are not directly familiar, and explain what useful insights that could offer to them.

Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources

The first key reading I suggested, was Carl J Walters, classic book 1986 Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources.  Below, I describe the book and why it is a classic.  I’ll follow up with some other books and papers over the next few months.

Carl J Walters is a professor at University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre, and while he is a leading fisheries scientist, he has also worked on many non-fisheries related problems, ranging from land-use and logging  in British Columbia to the complex social-ecological problems of the Florida Everglades.

His 1986 book is one of the three key early texts in adaptive management.  Walter’s book is practical, technical and empirical.  While the other books Adaptive Environmental Assessment & Management, edited by CS Holling, and Kai Lee’s Compass & Gyroscope are respectively more diverse, and more theoretical and more focussed on social learning.  While the other books are good, in many ways I think Walter’s book is the key adaptive management reference.

So what is the book about?  In Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources, Carl Walters motivates his approach by arguing that because the world is complex and continually evolving it is essential that resource harvesting, management & environmental policies explicitly confront uncertainty.  When the book was written, his argument that management is improved by an explicit focus on uncertainty was unusual, and continues to be unusual in practice, even though adaptive management has been widely adopted in name, but often not in practice or in only an extremely shallow form that misses the deep engagement with the unknown that Walters advocates.  Indeed while quantitative approaches to risk assessment and hedging have greatly expanded over the past several decades, there has not be an increase in thinking about structural uncertainty, unknown, and surprise.

Walters also proposes that science, practice and policy have a lot to gain from mutual engagement, and he has an early and strong advocate of large scale ecological experiments, and noted that such experiments are often required to build strong ecological policies, and to advance large-scale scientific understanding.  While not highlighted in the book, this perspective also opens the way to ecological models that include models of resource harvester behaviour or management or policy processes

Finally, and indeed in many ways the main part of the book, Walters provides a diverse set of soft and hard methods for actually practicing adaptive management.

So why does this book matter today?

I think that sustainability scientists should read this book, or at least parts of it, for several reasons:

  1. It provides a practical primer on how to think about decisions when considering there is both variation in the world and uncertainty about the rules by which the world works.  Such type of thinking is at the centre of sustainability, because sustainability absolutely requires an increase in our ability to build robust strategies for navigating a turbulent world and for planning how and where to invest in monitoring or learning.  While Walters barely mentions resilience in the book, such approaches are essential to the development of resilient strategies, plans, or policies.
  2. The introductory chapters, especially Chapter 3, provide really useful practical advice on how to think about and run participatory modeling workshops.  Walters focuses on participatory modeling workshops but such approaches are equally useful for thinking about planning scenario or assessment workshops.
  3. The bulk of the book provides a solid, clear introduction to a set of methods for linking data and dynamic models using Bayesian statistics.  These approaches quickly get quite technical and are developed primarily for a fisheries context, but for people who are trying to link models and data in a variety of situations they provide a useful toolbox.
  4. Finally, while resilience and optimization approaches can complement one another in theory they are often presented as conflicting in practice (see: Fischer et al 2009  vs.  Holling & Meffe 1996).  This book, clearly links optimization approaches to resilience, and demonstrates by changing what variables are the focus of optimization, optimization approaches can be useful for improving decisions about how to invest in resilience and can provide an good understanding of tradeoffs.

References

Holling, C. S., & Meffe, G. K. (1996). Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conservation Biology10(2), 328-337.

Fischer et al (2009) Integrating resilience thinking and optimisation for conservation. TREE24, 549–54.

Walters, C. 1986. Adaptive management of renewable resources. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, NY374. (note the book was out of print for a long time and is now reprinted by Blackburn press.)