Category Archives: General

Harder, Faster, Stronger – How Financial Markets are Shaping the Biosphere

Should ecologists and sustainability scientists care about financial markets? The answer is a loud and resounding “yes”, and I’m delighted to finally be able to share our latest article published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution yesterday, co-authored with colleagues Johan Gars, Fredrik Moberg, Björn Nykvist and Cecilia Repinski.

The article not only shows how financial systems connect to social ecological change at the global scale. It also shows the ultra-speed by which financial information flows through international commodity markets, often supported by sophisticated trading algorithms (Figure 1 below). Bluntly put: financial systems have a harder, faster, and stronger – and not necessarily better (for those familiar with the Daft Punk song) – impact on social-ecological connections in the Anthropocene than previously understood.

Figure 1. Algorithmic trade with commodity derivatives

Figure 1. Map showing the world’s 20 largest commodity derivatives markets, denoted with their official acronyms (KCBT = The Kansas City Board of Trade; ROFEX = The Rosario Futures Exchange; etc). Symbols indicate the main commodity derivative traded, and the purple-colored circles show where indications of algorithmic trade have been found (blue circles = no indication of algorithmic trade). The graph in the lower right corner shows the rapid increase from year 2005 in the turnover of commodity futures contracts traded in organized exchanges. For details, see Galaz et al. 2015 in TREE

Debates about the “financialisation of nature” and the potential of divestment from fossil fuels  is not new of course. Our article broadens these debates in two ways as I see it.

One is that it challenges recent arguments about the lack of “intercontinental connectivity” between ecosystems across the world put forward by Brook and colleagues in TREE in 2013 (see my previous critique here). As others have explored already, globalization has created a number of “telecouplings” across the planet (e.g. Liu and colleagues), often through trade flows. We show for the first time, that intercontinental connectivity between ecosystems also increasing unfolds through financial flows, financial innovation and associated technologies (illustrated in Figure 2 from McKinsey Global Institute (2014) .

Figure 2. Global Financial Flows, 2002 vs. 2012. Picture from McKinsey Global Institute (2014). Global flows in a digital age: How trade, finance, people, and data connect the world economy (pp. 12).

The second contribution I believe, is that we take a closer look at what normally (and sometimes too vaguely) is referred to as “Wall Street” (like here) or the “financialisation of nature” (e.g. here). These are valid and important contributions, but only give us a first glimpse of the complexities and dynamics of global financial systems and capital flows.

Put bluntly: “Wall Street” is not an amorphous “black box” system  – it consists of financial actors such as investment banks and hedge funds; instruments such as commodity derivatives; and technologies such as algorithmic trading. Understanding how financial connectivity evolves in the Anthropocene should include more than general criticisms against financial systems. It should also try to map how these actors, their relations, and associated capital flows shape the biosphere.

What happens in Wall Street and other international financial centers matters. Hopefully our article provides a first step in opening the financial “black box”.

Critically reflecting on social-ecological systems research

Guest post from Simon West, Diego Galafassi, Jamila Haider, Andres Marin, Andrew Merrie, Daniel Ospina-Medina, Caroline Schill

Critical reflection is a core competence for sustainability researchers and a crucial mechanism through which research evolves and breaks new ground. For instance, Lance Gunderson and C.S. Holling stress in the canonical social-ecological systems (SES) book Panarchy that SES research will develop through critical interrogation of their work and identifying where their heuristics do not apply. However, critical reflection can also be tricky – it requires moving out of safety zones, challenging established perspectives, and having open and frank discussions. Productive critical reflection also requires mutual respect, decency, and high standards of academic integrity.

For our critical reflection seminar Andrea J. Nightingale gave the talk, ‘Conceptualizing society-environment dynamics: social-ecological systems, socionatures, or something else?’

Prof. Nightingale is Professor in Environmental Social Sciences at the School of Global Studies at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Her work navigates the intersections between critical development studies, political ecology, and human geography – including a longstanding engagement with ‘socionatures’ concepts (linked to theorists such as Donna Haraway and Bruno Latour). Prof. Nightingale was an speaker for the CRS – her 2012 paper ‘Resilience thinking meets social theory,’ written with Muriel Cote, critically examines the treatment of social change within social-ecological resilience thinking. It is often cited at the SRC as one of the more useful and engaging critiques of resilience thinking from a critical social science perspective.

Prof. Nightingale’s presentation sparked lively and exciting debate in the public seminar and the PhD workshops that followed (with PhD students from the SRC and the School of Global Studies, Gothenburg).

What follows is a narrative tracing Prof. Nightingale’s critique of SES research and the discussions it provoked. Prof. Nightingale’s comments have been paraphrased, and the subsequent discussions have been condensed into a single narrative voice for ease of reading (this should not be taken to mean that there was a single ‘unified response’ among the students to Prof. Nightingale’s comments). All omissions remain the fault of the authors of this blog.

A new Enlightenment from the old? 

Prof. Nightingale:

Our ways of thinking about the world are largely inherited from the Enlightenment era, where domains of “society” and “nature” were constructed as means of knowing the world. This system of thought allows for the construction of analytical objects that are clearly ‘natural’ or ‘social,’ and produces mechanistic interpretations of the world. Today we are finding these distinctions difficult to maintain and a profusion of research approaches – including resilience, social-ecological systems, political ecology, the livelihoods framework, assemblages, actor-network theory and socionatures – have emerged that challenge this division between humans and the environment. 

However, none of these approaches have yet managed to satisfactorily figure out how to think outside of the domains of ‘society’ and ‘nature.’ Imagine a forest: the forest consists of relations between all sorts of organisms, the structure of the forest is affected by the harvesting activities of people as well as by various other creatures, the biophysical processes of vegetation growth are affected by atmospheric chemistry, which in turn is shaped by human activities across the globe, the content of the soil reflects the chemicals used by surrounding agricultural areas, and perhaps the forest only exists because it sits on land designated as a “conservation area.” What in the forest is ‘social’ and what is ‘natural’?


Perhaps all emerging approaches to studying human-environment relations would recognize the Enlightenment heritage we are working with. Indeed, SRC Science Director Carl Folke in his new book Reflections on People and the Biosphere, suggests we are now entering a ‘new Enlightenment’ that recognizes interdependency of humans and the environment. The difficulty is conceiving of these relations in terms other than those we have inherited, while still thinking and speaking comprehensibly to a wide audience – are we hamstrung by language? The profusion of approaches to studying human-environment relationships has brought with it a flood of hyphens, plurals, and portmanteaus. However, existing terms such as ‘socionatures,’ ‘social-ecological systems’ and so on, are all to some extent reifying past distinctions. 

Are social-ecological systems interactions or processes? Are they characterized by feedbacks or emergence?

Prof. Nightingale:

New ways of understanding human-environment relationships can be broadly grouped into ‘interactional’ and ‘relational’ approaches in terms of their underlying ontologies. Interactional approaches include social-ecological systems, adaptive cycles, the livelihoods framework, and political ecology. Here ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ components are considered to be distinct but interacting; the focus is therefore on ‘linked’ or ‘nested’ systems and on the interactions across spatial and temporal scales. ‘Feedbacks’ are the crucial devices to understand human-environment dynamics, and the analytical imagery is largely of boxes with connecting arrows.

In contrast, relational approaches such as socionatures, assemblages and actor-network theory rely on a ‘process-based’ ontology. They insist that entities only come into being in relation to each other, and therefore that it is impossible to clearly distinguish social and ecological ‘components’ of a system. Human-environment dynamics are captured through the concept of emergence rather than feedbacks, and the imagery is of ‘hybrids’ or ‘cyborgs.’ Neither interactional or relational approaches are ‘right,’ rather, each allows us to see different things.


Despite emphasis on feedbacks, SES work is – like much of ‘socionatures’ – founded upon ontological commitments to emergence, complex processes, and co-production of social-ecological dynamics. However, distinctions between ‘ecological’ and ‘social’ components in SES research are often made in order to more easily measure and study human-environment relations. The assumption that we can analytically separate ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ in order to study emergent processes is a crucial tension that many SES researchers struggle with. 

Moreover, SES research is characterized by wide heterogeneity in ontologies and epistemologies. It is therefore difficult to make broad categorizations of ‘relational’ versus ‘interactional’ approaches. These difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that ontologies in particular are often not explicitly discussed. A more open discussion about ontologies and epistemologies, and how they are expressed and ‘connected’ in our work, will strengthen and clarify trans-disciplinary SES research. 

Analytical constructs or heuristics?

Prof. Nightingale:

When we discuss interactional and relational approaches, it is crucial to be aware that all science deals with signs (semiotics) – and therefore we need to distinguish between analytical constructs (which try to reflect reality and may offer methodological tools and entry points), and boundary objects (which act as metaphors, drawing attention to particular dynamics but not intended to directly reflect reality or to be directly operationalized). 

Without being aware of this distinction, there is a high risk of ‘slippage’ and confusing analytical constructs and boundary-objects or metaphors with ‘life itself.’ Social-ecological systems (and socionatures) are not ‘life itself’ – rather, each reduce it in particular ways. So the focus should be on how the concepts reduce, what aspects of life they allow us to see, and what aspects they obscure.


The debate about whether social-ecological resilience, adaptive cycles, and social-ecological systems are ‘boundary-objects’ – useful metaphorically and heuristically but not something directly observable/measurable – has been ongoing for some time. Indeed, it connects to broader historical debates about the ‘reality’ of ecological concepts. In a previous post on this blog, Allyson Quinlan has outlined the tensions inherent in widespread moves to measure resilience (considered by some to be inherently un-measurable).

While practising scientists may consider it self-evident that such representations are not ‘life itself,’ there is a risk that a lack of clarity on these issues can prompt ‘slippage’– especially when these concepts enter the public realm. For instance, the use and communication of concepts like ecosystem services, the anthropocene and planetary boundaries in academic, policy and public debates can become ‘ontologized.’ Concepts also play different roles in different realms – an analytical construct in one discipline may be used as a metaphor or heuristic in another (for instance the use of ecological concepts such as ‘metabolism’ and ‘rhizome’ as metaphors in socionatures); likewise a heuristic in academia may become something more ‘concrete’ in policy discourse. 

How do we ‘see’ and ‘know’ relations? 

Prof. Nightingale:

Just like Enlightenment thinking, SES and socionatures perspectives allow us to ‘see’ some things and not others. The ontologies and epistemologies we use provide us access to different realities (not different aspects of the same one). SES allows us to see how the character of systems are constituted from relations between things rather than only the qualities of things in themselves, how system dynamics operate within and across scales, and the importance of small-scale, rapid rate change for shaping large-scale, slower rate change. However, system components currently remain relatively discrete in SES models (obscuring the way that ‘components’ are often at once social and ecological), social processes are not as neatly ‘nested’ as ecological processes appear to be, and social scale does not correspond to rate in the same way as ecological scale tends to.  These are problems for SES because it means that social processes like learning, scale and governance are undertheorized, and currently cannot account for the dynamics of change considered central to social systems – such as power, politics and justice.

Relational thinking allows us to see the operations of power, politics and justice in systems, the inextricability of ‘social’ and ‘natural’ objects, and the process-based dynamics through which these objects come into being. But relational approaches generally have a poor understanding of ecological and environmental dynamics, a resistance to using established ecological methods (because of their ‘ontological baggage’), and carry unresolved tensions over bounding studies (where do networks begin and end), defining methodological objects, and developing methodological tools that keep ‘society’ and ‘nature’ together.

In conclusion, the challenge to Enlightenment thinking represented by these new approaches to human-environment relations is easier to operationalize conceptually than methodologically, and fundamental questions remain over the consequences of our simplifications and abstractions. No approach is ‘life itself’ but rather a particular rendering of reality – so questions turn to the role of the researcher, what kinds of role they play, and what kind of change they are trying to effect. Moreover, no research strand has ‘figured it all out yet,’ and satisfactorily overcome the ‘society’/’nature’ divide. Some crucial further questions are: How do we develop new research tools that can ‘see’ process-based dynamics and objects that are at once ‘social’ and ‘natural’? How do we retain attention to power and politics while also attempting to speak for other species (beyond anthropocentrism and ecocentrism)? Who decides what change is desirable?


Firstly, is ‘not seeing’ justice, power and politics a problem for SES? If all approaches and frameworks only ‘see’ certain aspects of the world, wouldn’t ‘not seeing’ only become a problem if the end goal of SES approaches was to develop a theory of everything? Is this what we do or imply? Or is the problem rather that justice, power and politics may potentially be crucial to the operation of SES and we are ‘missing out’ by not including them in our work? 

Secondly, is it the case the SES necessarily does not see power, politics and justice? Many of us would argue not. Indeed, an increasing number of SES researchers frame social-ecological resilience (defined in a broad sense including adaptive capacity and transformation) as an emergent quality arising from negotiations and contestations over knowledge, including ideas of justice, politics and power. A current special issue in Ecology and Society is exploring potential contributions from social theory to SES research.

There is a wide heterogeneity of ontologies and epistemologies in SES research. Indeed, in the experience of discussants, scholars can be committed to a more relational understanding of SES – for instance, emphasizing the importance of processes that co-produce emergent properties – but decide to adopt more interactional epistemologies and methodologies because they are easier to ‘operationalize.’ How is it possible to work in between and among differing epistemologies and ontologies? The answers to these questions are likely to reside in the particular ways these dilemmas are managed in each individual research project, but productive research will be more likely to come from researchers who have reflected on and explored these issues. 

Trans-disciplinary sustainability science sits at the boundaries of multiple, quite different, epistemologies and ontologies. How can we work and speak between these worlds? Life in the ‘border zone’ of sustainability science renders these questions ever-present: our goal for Critical Reflection Seminars is to provide a space to help us navigate them.

In the comments below we welcome further discussions, and invite suggestions about aspects of social-ecological systems you judge important to consider critically – as well as suggestions for future speakers.


Business & Resilience: Convergence or critical mismatch?

Guest post from Margot Hill Clarvis and Michael Schoon

In the aftermath of major global weather events such as Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan, companies have increasingly focused on resilient infrastructure, business continuity, and secure supply chains. But are business continuity and rapid recovery the hallmarks of resilience, or has there been a disconnect between the scientific understanding of resilience and its implementation by business?

1. Why do it?

It’s clearly in the interests of the private sector to invest in resilience-building activities.  More and more corporations are embracing resilience as a framework to maintain core operations, fulfil corporate responsibilities, and develop new business opportunities as global economic, social and environmental conditions shift ever more rapidly.  By resilience we mean  social-ecological resilience, which integrates systems of people and the natural environment, as opposed to engineering or psychological resilience.

IBM, for example, has focused on developing resilience-based infrastructure management solutions that help both cities and companies prepare for major disruption from natural and man-made hazards. Their insurance sector scorecards support ways to vary insurance premiums according to reductions in hazard exposure and vulnerability, thus creating a financial incentive to invest in resilience.

Swiss Re is part of the Resilience Action Initiative, a multi-stakeholder partnership to support multinationals build their own resilience and that of the surrounding communities. PWC increasingly supports private and public-sector organisations in building disaster risk resilience.

Meanwhile Zurich Insurance wants to transform community flood resilience through its alliance with the International Federation of the Red Cross, International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, and the Wharton School. It is building partnerships that support community innovation for preparedness rather than post-disaster responses.

2. Convergence or critical mismatch?

These are encouraging examples, but for anyone familiar with the central tenets of social-ecological resilience, some troubling blind spots emerge in the way corporations implement resilience thinking. Businesses tend to focus on shorter-term issues that directly challenge their own specific and immediate operations, developing systems robust to isolated shocks. This pits local versus global resilience and individual supply chain resilience versus a broader perspective of resilience.

Although businesses often talk about addressing chronic, long-term stresses, in reality they focus far more on critical, immediate stresses, failing to recognise broader ‘systems’ issues, which track across sectors, economies and regions. To avoid these traps, business leaders should reflect on a few key questions:

  • Is resilience a short-term objective or a longer-term approach to help shape sustainable practice?
  • Is resilience being used to reduce vulnerability to specific risks or to optimise the system in which they do business?
  • And does the over-riding focus on short-term fixes still allow for taking longer-term, systemic issues into account?

Businesses would do well for themselves and the communities in which they operate by addressing some of the core complexities at the heart of resilience thinking.

The Capital Institute is one such example. Its Evergreen Direct Investing concept calls for the end of quarterly financial reporting, which incentivises short-term thinking at the expense of long-term stability and growth.  As another example, the R!SE initiative brings together the public and private sectors with civil society to scale up isolated best practice on disaster risk resilience for a more systemic response.

Business must also be better supported to understand how this kind of cross-scale complexity can become directly or indirectly relevant to them.

At the international scale, recent work has led to the translation of a set of ‘Planetary Boundaries’ (i.e. carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification and global freshwater use) from global levels of resource consumption and pollution into more specific societal and business relevant targets. At a national level, Earth Security Group has developed a risk dashboard to simplify the complexities of interdependent resource risks across trade partners and commodity supply chains.

As aggregate levels of risk collide with the growing interdependence of our global economy, it will become increasingly vital to take a longer-term and wider perspective to avoid unintended consequences.

3. Persistent challenges remain.

Firstly, resilience, as a concept, lacks clarity.  Academics need to critically address whether current research and its communication is suitable for supporting the resolution of urgent real-world problems.

Secondly, while companies may often think in the longer-term, our economic structures and financial practices remain captivated by quarterly timeframes and the pursuit of efficiency to the detriment of long-term systemic resilience. We need a more diverse and flexible financial system that is capable of factoring ‘general resilience’ into risk-adjusted returns on investment.

About the authors: Dr Margot Hill Clarvis of the University of Geneva and Earth Security Group, and Professor Michael Schoon of the School of Sustainability, Arizona State University. The authors would like to thanks participants of the Resilience of Business Event at the Resilience Conference 2014 for their insights that informed this post.

Making Sense of the Anthropocene Debate(s)

by Victor Galaz | @vgalaz

Do you find it hard to keep track of ongoing discussions about the Anthropocene? So do I. Part of the reason why it is easy to loose track, is that there is actually not only one – but (at least) five parallel Anthropocene debates.

Last week’s event hosted by the German HKW Anthropocene project, is an excellent example of this increasing diversity of perspectives that nowadays frame the Anthropocene debate.

Anthropocene Working Group, 16/10-2014 via @AnthropoceneObsAnthropocene Working Group, 16/10-2014 via @AnthropoceneObs

The first debate is what I would call the classical Anthropocene debate – has humanity formally left the Holocene, and entered a new geological epoch? If that is the case, when did it start? The epicenter of this discussion is the work of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (neatly summarized by Elizabeth Kolbert here , and updated by Andrew Revkin’s here).

Over the years however, a number of parallell debates have evolved as well. These focus is not on geological epochs and insights from the Earth system science, but rather on the social, institutional and political dimensions of the Anthropocene concept.

The second for example, is what I would denote a debate about  Anthropocene framings. In short: does the concept really capture the social and economical dynamics that have shaped planet Earth? Does the emphasis of the Anthropocene on “humanity” and  “human domination” overlook critical underlying issues of social power, global injustices, and unequal exchange in the history of mankind? Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg (PDF here), and Ninad Bodre (here), have raised this point.

A very different version of this debate is the argument that the concept contains elements of catastrophism that could lead to fatalism, and a failure to inspire to collective action. Raj Patel raises the point here, as well as Ruth DeFries and colleagues here.

The third debate is not about geology nor framings, but rather about Anthropocene politicsWhat are the political and institutional implications of entering the Anthropocene era? Does the increased understanding of the Earth system calls for profound transformations of the way we organize international institutions? This argument can be found in the recent works of Frank Biermann and colleagues (here), and myself in my recent book “The Anthropocene Gap” here.

The fourth debate is about the notion of a Good Anthropocene is it fruitful, or even possible visualising a positive Anthropocene considering the vast negative repercussions that could unfold as the result of e.g. runaway climate change? The debate between Clive Hamilton and Andrew Revikin here is the clearest example . It should be noted however, that this issue is an emerging research area e.g. the newly launched project “Seeds of a Good Anthropocene”.

"Spare us a Manthropocene"

“Spare us a Manthropocene” from Kate Raworth.

The last debate is about the Anthropocene and Knowledge Production. This debate focuses on issues of legitimacy and the lack of gender, ethnic and disciplinary diversity in existing processes of knowledge production associated with the Anthropocene concept. Bluntly put: how representative are the scientist exploring the implications of this new epoch? Kate Raworth’s widely spread tweet and picture commenting on the obvious absence of female researchers at the Anthropocene Working Group at HKW (first picture), is an excellent case in point. Ola Uhrqvist’s recently published Ph.D. thesis explores similar issues about the linkages between knowledge production and power in the Earth system sciences.

So, let’s acknowledge not only the diversity of voices, but also the diversity in the Anthropocene debate itself.



Sacredness, protection and taboos: how values can (not) be traded and shape our thoughts and behaviour

A Stockholm Resilience Centre Cognition reading group guest post from Tim Daw, Jamila Haider, Britt Stikvoort

Imagine the scenario: one day a government official walks into the Stockholm Resilience Centre lobby and proclaims that the biosphere has now become redundant, humans can live completely independently from ecological systems, and therefore, our research institute has become unnecessary. Imagine the nightmare for economists if that same official barges in telling him proof has been given that economic growth is not necessary. Or what if the official started telling people, about a millennium ago, that the earth was round? Such (unrealistic) stories make one thing clear: we do not like challenging our most ‘sacred’ and protected values. But sometimes we have to. In fact, sometimes it can be very useful to! Yet still, challenging such values feels bad, and that is perfectly natural. You are supposed to feel bad if someone asks you about eating babies (such as Jonathan Swift’s satirical Modest Proposal). But as researchers, we are also supposed to be able to step back from such feelings, and observe and reflect. This is what we have tried to do for this cognition meeting.


We read three papers to understand from a psychological perspective how values develop, are held and traded-off.

  • Tetlock, P.E., Kristel, O.V., Beth, S., Green, M.C., and Lerner, J.S. (2000). The psychology of the unthinkable: Taboo trade-offs, forbidden base rates, and heretical counterfactuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 78, 853–870.
  • Baron, J., and Leshner, S. (2000). How serious are expressions of protected values?  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 6, 183–194.
  • Waldmann, M.R., Nagel, J., and Wiegmann, A. (2012). Moral judgment. The Oxford Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning 364–389.

Below we provide a brief summary of each of the readings:

Waldeman et al. was a useful introduction to the interdisciplinary field of Moral Judgement, including introducing the ‘Trolley dilemma’, the ‘Drosophila’ of moral reasoning experiments. Most relevant for this reading group discussion was the section which introduced sacred values (SV) and protected values (PV). Both refer to values which are held as infinite in that people are unwilling to put a price on them or trade them off against secular values, in particular money. However Tetlock and colleagues work on SV conceptualise them as serving a group cohesion function, “The motivation of people to hold SVs is to preserve their identity as full-fledged moral being (p. 293)” while Baron and colleagues see PV as a mental short-cut to efficiently make decisions. An important distinction is that the SV work suggests two parallel sets of motivations (the sacred and the profane), while PV scholars adhere to a model of a single metric of utility. Both theories point to a surprising degree of flexibility in the supposedly infinite SV or PV, which is influenced firstly by context and also by framing.

Tetlock and colleagues (2000) see a sacred value as “possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs or other mingling with secular values”. These untouchable principles cannot be traded off for monetary ones in an economical market (taboo trade-offs), nor can we use cold statistics and hard facts on them (forbidden base-rates), nor can we make ‘what-if’ assumptions about past events and alternative happenings (heretic counterfactuals). Tetlock bases his idea on the Sacred Value Protection Model, which resembles the more well-known dissonance theory but which explains motivations to thoughts and behaviour both as an ego-improving as well as a social reputation-supporting tool. Harm done to sacred values (e.g. by making taboo trade-offs) is compensated for by exhibiting moral outrage towards the offender or if the offender is oneself – moral cleansing (overly moral behaviour to compensate for the transgression).

Baron and Threshner (2000) define protected values in a utilitarian sense: the marginal rate at which one good can substitute another is infinite. The purpose of their study is to test whether protected values are as absolute as they seem when they are first expressed. They test a number of hypotheses (with regards to when trade-offs are made) through experimental design. Important to note here is that they measure digression from a protected value through an expression of guilt, rather than behaviour. For example, if reducing emission of CO2 is my protected values, but I still fly, the action of flying does not discredit my protected values but whether or not I feel guilty about flying.  Baron and Threshner conclude that protected values are often unreflective overgeneralisation, that people are reluctant to believe that protected values can conflict and that it is immoral to make compromises, but will in the end make the trade-off when confronted with it. People also seem to give up values when the probability of harm is low: for example, people may have anti-GMO as a protected value, but if the risk is calculated to be low they are more likely to give up their protected values. They conclude “our results suggest that protected values are strong opinions, weakly held.”




1.    Differences between Baron and Tetlock and how this can be used in our own work

Generally we found Tetlock’s approach to be more valuable to social ecological system (SES) research. Particularly, we found Tetlock’s notion of trade-offs to be helpful, since SES governance and management often involves difficult trade-offs. Sometimes, when a sacred value is pitted against a secular one, we encounter what Tetlock calls a taboo trade-off, which makes most people feel bad. Think about trading off the life of a baby against, say, a thousand euros or a nice car. Most people would find this trade-off immoral, and if someone else is making that decision, you would respond to that person choosing the car over a baby’s life with outrage. Moral outrage is just that, a behavioural expression of anger against those who go against sacred values by choosing a secular one over a sacred one (or even thinking about such a choice!). ‘Moral cleansing’ is when you yourself are making this tough decision (say, protecting nature or selling the piece of land for real estate development). In fact, even thinking about a taboo trade-off makes you feel bad, even if you still choose to keep the patch of pristine nature in the end!  What happens is you then get the urge to show compensation behaviour after making a morally bad decision, or even thinking about it, against sacred values. Yes, you just sold your patch of pure pristine nature to a real-estate agent, but you’ll make up for it, by donating to Greenpeace! These Taboo trade-off dynamics can both impede and assist real life trade-offs with nature (nature is often seen as one of the sacred values we hold).

One of the main differences between Tetlock and Baron, is how each defines values. Tetlock defines values through a theory of social cohesion, whereas Baron bases values entirely on utility. Baron’s thoughts are quite disempowering and imposing, causing the reader moral outrage. It would be interesting to think about how and whether these results as a more individual level can be applied to a societal level, where context and politics plays an even more important role.

2. How are values defined?

There is a useful distinction made between ‘norms’ and ‘moral rules’: They both come from culture, and go beyond formal rules but people usually claim that moral rules are in some way universal (which they wouldn’t necessarily do for norms, like driving on the right side of the road). There do not seem to be any universal (transdisciplinary) definitions of either concept, and so it depends from what school of thought you come if you even have definitions, and if so, what they stipulate. It seems there is some room here for further clarification!

3. Origin of values

At first sight, we observed that values seem not to be universal, since nearly any value you can think of is transgressed in one or more other cultures across the world. However, the thought rose that maybe this is because we simply haven’t phrased the context or the value itself correctly, and if we do so, if we get to the ‘core’ of the value, we would maybe be able to find universal values. Perhaps if we formulate them as wanted ideals, this was a suggestion.

If values are not universal, what does seem universal is our need for ‘having’ values in human societies. This may even be an innate characteristic of human beings, although none of us was certain of such an assertion.

Next, we discussed protected values. What if, by shaking it, we can make any protected value lose its ‘protectedness’ (for instance by insisting on counter examples)? Doesn’t that make the term a bit void? But if we see the protected values as a sort of network, where more than one protected value is tied together with others in a sort of ‘ideology’ network, then it becomes easier to consider the loss of one protected value without doing harm to the whole (and thus the person’s feeling of integrity). We looked at this from an individual’s point of view, but as was later mentioned in the plenary discussions, values are products of society and culture, and so need to be viewed from such an aggregate level too. Having one person lose the ‘protectedness’ of a value due to a counter example doesn’t make the value ‘go down the drain’. Here the social-reputation aspect of values comes into play. Even if you yourself do not ‘believe’ in the protectedness of a value anymore, it is still important for your reputation to not harm that value, because other people still do hold that value sacred.

4. Stockholm Resilience Centre values

What could possibly be a protected value of the SRC? We first made a distinction between what could be protected values of people working at the SRC (assuming there is a certain ‘type’ of people working here, there might be a self-selection process going on resulting in people with like-minded values working here). We, however, were interested more in the values of the SRC as an institution in itself. What would shake the institution to its foundations, if it was refuted? What would no SRC staff member ever want to trade for money, or all the luxury in the world?

We came up with biodiversity first, but it seemed that there were plenty of easy cases in which we could imagine being confronted with a situation where less biodiversity was the more desirable situation (look at BBOP for example). No foundation-shaking shock there. So Resilience was next. However, this did not pass scrutiny either. Social-ecological (linked and interdependent) systems came up next, and we were not able to wholly refute this as a sacred value for the SRC. On the more individual level, we discussed that academic integrity was a value that likely would be central for most SRC staff members. Another prominent share sacred values at the resilience centre is re-connecting to the biosphere.

We could think of reconnecting the biosphere as an axiological value. With that, we simply mean it is part of the ‘study of values’ and not something else (e.g. epistemological). Spinning from that we may have various ontologies: there is a real physical social ecological system, ‘connected’ knowledge, whether local or indigenous is scared (though not everyone agreed on that). The possibilities seem endless, and are at the very least abundant. One hour is definitely not enough to come to the core values of the SRC, this is a conclusion we can draw with certainty! But that said, it is both fun and insightful to try, and experience firsthand how difficult such a thing can be!

Finally, we want to add that understanding the existence of sacred or protected values, and the way in which they influence us – be it through social image and reputation or via heuristic shortcuts in our decision making – can help us SES researchers in understanding (even modelling?) the behaviour of stakeholders in governance structures. This could shed some light on the dynamics in resource management dilemma’s and explain thus-far unexplained ‘deviant’ behaviour of stakeholders that are not playing the game as rational actors.

Should we measure resilience?

I’ve been reflecting on the idea of measuring resilience since the conference in Montpellier last month where @vgalaz quipped “Resilience metrics is the new black @resilience2014”. Efforts to measure resilience are well underway while at the same time there are concerns about what exactly is being measured and whether this shift in focus misses the point of what resilience thinking has to offer. My own thinking on this is that it depends on what you are trying to achieve but a deeper understanding of both perspectives is likely to benefit both approaches in the long-term.

Approaching the dialogue from two perspectives
The Resilience 2014 conference aimed to facilitate dialogue among researchers and practitioners from the resilience research community and the development community. To date, resilience has been conceptualized and applied in a variety of ways. Research along the lines of Holling, Gunderson, Folke, and Walker as well as many others in the Resilience Alliance network and beyond, has emerged from a complex adaptive systems’ perspective and in particular, a focus on ecosystems and integrated social-ecological systems. By contrast, development communities tend to approach resilience from a more human-centered perspective with a focus on livelihoods, risk reduction, and human well-being. What both communities hold in common is a desire to operationalize resilience by applying theoretical insights to real world problems and changing the way we manage and interact with the environment for more sustainable and equitable outcomes.

The demand side of resilience in development
The rapid uptake of resilience thinking by development agencies and foundations has forced the issue of resilience implementation and challenged the research community to make the leap from theory to practice to metrics. While resilience practice is not entirely new (see Walker & Salt 2012) and case studies have informed theoretical advances over the years the wide-ranging application of resilience thinking to development issues, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Development programs and projects operate within a different realm and have their own established frameworks, protocols, and practices. Notably, development programs require well-defined mechanisms for evaluating interventions and more specifically, metrics for quantifying and judging the success of their actions and investments. Thus the challenge that presents itself is how to measure resilience, if indeed it can or should be measured? This is a nuanced question, and much like the concept it addresses, there are multiple dimensions and no easy answers but it remains a worthy pursuit.

To measure or not to measure?
There is a concern shared by many that resilience may not live up to its promise for a variety of reasons including the potential for narrow interpretations and a selective or limited understanding of what can be a relatively abstract concept, but also because of a what some have identified as a lack of quantifiable metrics for evaluation purposes. In Luca Alinova’s plenary presentation he spoke of the very real threat of resilience being adopted and applied in name only, whereby others capitalize on the current trendiness of the concept while much of the same ineffective practices continue under the guise of a new name. In his words “there is a big risk of labeling some bad habits with a new name”. Any failures of course, will have a handy scapegoat and an enormous opportunity will have been lost. Similarly, there is a real risk that in the rush to measure resilience and develop quantitative metrics for comparative purposes, what is actually measured may represent the same things that have long been monitored and measured but are now being packaged in the language of resilience to meet the demand.

The fact remains however, that resilience will and already is, being measured.

What exactly is being measured?
If resilience must be measured to be meaningful to the development community, then how best to measure it? Luca Alinovi suggests we need to measure resilience at the household level rather than at an individual level because it is the interactions that are important. He also cautioned though that we are still far away from the dynamic analysis that is needed as well as a general approach for different types of systems.

Much of the discussion at Resilience 2014 around the topic of metrics tended to focus on food security and crisis impacts. Alexis Hoskins presented on the progress being made by the Food and Nutrition Security Resilience Measurement Technical Working Group that has produced a framing paper outlining the challenges in measuring resilience. They have also produced a set of resilience measurement principles that echo Alinovi’s call for dynamic analysis and reflect both systems-based requirements (multi-level interactions, rates of change, inherent volatility) as well as human dimensions (e.g., desirability of system states, people’s perceptions, vulnerability connections). The recommendations and next steps that follow from the measurement principles appear promising because they account for the underlying concepts of complex systems dynamics and cross-scale interactions, while recognizing the need for both quantitative and qualitative data to understand causal mechanisms.

Other presenters similarly advocated for a mixed method approach to measuring resilience, combining qualitative and quantitative data, as well as steps for interpreting data and providing the necessary contextualization that metrics alone cannot fully capture. Yet another type of approach offered by Christophe Bene, was a resilience proxy based on the cost of impacts calculated from the sum of anticipation costs + impact costs + recovery costs. Bene’s postulate being “the more resilient an individual the lower the costs it takes to get through a specific shock”. Assigning monetary values as a means of measuring resilience has many parallels in the ecosystem services literature, which increasingly recognizes the need to also consider nonmonetary values.

What is missing?
There is clearly something to be gained by measuring resilience, but any formula attempting to capture a dynamic system property will inevitably involve tradeoffs for simplifying purposes and something will be lost. Understanding exactly what is missing from resilience metrics or what is potentially lost with a shift in focus from understanding the resilience of a system to measuring the resilience of a system remains to be clearly articulated. In resilience assessment, a main objective of the exercise is to re-conceptualize a system, place, or issue from an alternative perspective, i.e., through a resilience lens and focusing on interactions such that new insights emerge and interventions can be better informed. How a system behaves is not a function of the sum of its parts so it follows that measuring component parts cannot capture what is meaningful about resilience.

To date, most metrics being proposed focus on social variables and the human dimensions of resilience, as opposed to taking an integrated social-ecological systems (SES) approach. Conceptualizing humans as part of nature and placing people within ecosystems, instead of keeping them separate, represents an important advance in resilience research and sustainability science more broadly. Metrics for resilience and more generally, the application of the concept in practice also stands to benefit from taking an SES approach.

Some considerations for developing resilience metrics
It has been said before that resilience is an overarching concept that encompasses many other core concepts. Biggs and colleagues (2012) identify seven principles for building resilience of ecosystem services. Assuming a given bundle of ES is desirable (and knowing for whom it matters), these seven facets can be managed to strengthen and enhance the resilience of the system. They include: maintaining diversity and redundancy, managing connectivity, managing slow variables and feedbacks, fostering complex adaptive systems thinking, encouraging learning, broadening participation, and promoting polycentric governance systems. To the extent resilience metrics can effectively address these seven principles, they would provide valuable information to anyone wanting to characterize and monitor the capacity of the system to maintain a desired set of ecosystem services in the face of continued change or disturbance.

A final consideration is that resilience is not always a good thing. As Brian Walker stated in his plenary presentation, part of the understanding required is knowing where we need to build resilience, and where we need to reduce it to enable transformation. A range of different types of traps characterized by rigid social and ecological processes that are tied to environmental degradation and livelihood impoverishment make change a real challenge (Boonstra and de Boer, 2014). Where traps exist, the goal may be to reduce the resilience of the current state of the system and build transformative capacity, which may require monitoring and measuring a different set of variables.

Measuring resilience should be possible but finding suitable indicators and metrics that retain key attributes of the concept will also need to reflect the fact that resilience is a means and not an end.

Biggs et al. 2012. Towards Principles for Enhancing the Resilience of Ecosystem Services. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 37:421-48.

Walker, B. & D. Salt. 2012. Resilience Practice: Building capacity to absorb disturbance and maintain function. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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.




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.


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.