Category Archives: General

Why bother with Durkheim? Using (classical) social science to understand the social dynamics of social-ecological systems

Reflections on a PhD Course at the Resilience Research School, Thursday 30th January

A guest post form Simon West, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, at Stockholm University.

 This Thursday we began a new 5-week PhD course at the Resilience Research School (RRS). “Why bother with Durkheim?’ will introduce PhD students at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) to some classical social science thinkers – Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Thorstein Veblen. Each class will encourage students to extrapolate the insights of a classical thinker to understand the social dynamics of social-ecological systems (SES). The plan is to run the course in future semesters with a changing roster of ‘classics’ each time. We will be summarizing class discussions in a weekly blog post here on Resilience Science, with the aim of widening the discussion beyond the RRS to the international community of resilience and sustainability researchers. This week – why bother with ‘the classics’ at all?

As course coordinator Wijnand Boonstra has pointed out in a previous blog, the classics often look weird in a contemporary scientific centre devoted to trans-disciplinary sustainability research. In fact, the motivation for this course came from the comments Wijnand received when he was scanning pages from a battered book, published 1949. I had a similar experience when preparing the course reading material this week. A fellow PhD student pointed at the small, well-worn 1924 edition of Thorstein Veblen’s Absentee Ownership I held in my hands and exclaimed, “are you reading the Bible?!” For many researchers it might as well have been, given the ostensible relevance of the work for their research. In our PhD reading group here at the SRC, articles written as recently as 2005 can be dismissed as ‘old news.’

Our aim through this course, however, is to change the perception of the classics as curiosities of a bygone age, and demonstrate their relevance to the study of social-ecological systems. Indeed, the increasing willingness and need for social and natural sciences and the humanities to work together, for example to examine processes of global environmental change in the Future Earth research programme, suggests that interdisciplinary sustainability researchers will need to become much more familiar with the classics in the years to come. As Michel Foucault (1980) has indicated, there is no better tribute to a classic than to “use it, deform it, make it groan and protest.” We look forward to the various deformations applied by course participants in the coming weeks, coming from such varied backgrounds as ecology, literature, industrial engineering, political science, computer science and modeling, and development studies.

What are the social science ‘classics’?

Understanding ‘the classics’ is essential for grasping not only some of the core debates in the social sciences, but also the conceptual tools used by social science research to produce knowledge. But what are the classics? Alexander (1987: 22) defines classics as “earlier works of human exploration which are given a privileged status vis-à-vis contemporary explorations in the same field.” For Alexander privileged status means that, “contemporary practitioners of the discipline in question believe that they can learn as much about their field through understanding this earlier work as they can from the work of their own contemporaries.” The classics of sociology (the disciplinary focus for the coming lectures) are generally thought of as the works of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. But these ‘big three’ are often complemented by a host of other thinkers that are cited as ‘minor’ classics in the social science canon, e.g. August Comte, Georg Simmel, Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.

What makes a classic classic? The factors that determine which books and thinkers becomes classic and which are simply forgotten are multiplex. In fact there is a whole sub-field of research on this topic – Reception Theory. As Baehr (2002: 111) notes, to find answers we must not look at classicality as a quality inherent to particular works but rather “as a dialectic in which the text, its evaluation and re-evaluation define what is exemplary.” There are several crucial factors that help to explain the development of classics’ privileged status.

Firstly, death. Dead authors are less likely to compete with others for prestige and academic standing, and therefore living academics can valorize them without fear of being superseded. Death also signifies the passing of time, which provides context to works and separates classic work from the chaff. Death also prevents authors from ‘fighting back’ against the dispersion, re-interpretation and appropriation of their work – all necessary components for the spread and use of ideas. Stinchcombe (1982: 3) joked that aspiring social scientists therefore better first find “a dead German who said it first” before they publish anything.

Secondly, cultural resonance. Texts do not become classic simply because they are ‘better’ or ‘truer’ than others, but because they are provocative and strike a chord about enduring aspects of human existence. Merely providing solutions to a discrete problem may prevent a text becoming a classic because it provides “no challenges for contemporaries to embrace and successors to ponder” (Baehr 2002: 118). So classics become classics because of the questions they pose and the mistakes they make, as much as the answers they provide. For instance Durkheim’s 1894 book The Rules of Sociological Method is widely regarded as a classic – yet it is just as widely panned. Indeed, it has been criticized and demolished repeatedly for over one hundred years because of the usefulness of its mistakes.

Thirdly, academic and social circumstances. While Durkheim became known fairly rapidly after his death as a founder of sociology, for Marx it took more than seventy years to be recognized as a classic sociologist. This difference in reception is a product of academic discovery and re-interpretation, but also linked to Marx’s posthumous entanglement with events in ‘the real world.’ As John Gray has written in a recent review of Jonathan Sperber’s book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, “if World War I had not occurred and caused the collapse of tsarism, if the Whites had prevailed in the Russian Civil War as Lenin at times feared they would and the Bolshevik leader had not been able to seize and retain his hold on power … Marx would now be a name most educated people struggled to remember.”

Finally, textual suppleness. Texts must contain enough ambiguity to mean different things to different people in different situations. As this is a course at the SRC, we can say that they must have the ability to adapt to change through transformation – they must be resilient.

Why are there no natural science classics?

The idea of providing privileged status to works published over one hundred years ago would seem bizarre to many natural and interdisciplinary sustainability scientists. You do not hear SRC researchers continually debating and publishing on what Norbert Wiener ‘really meant’ in his 1948 complex systems classic, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Most will have never heard of Wiener. Why not?

The classics highlight the predominantly discursive character of the social sciences. Alexander (1987: 22-23) argues that social sciences proceed primarily through argument and reasoning rather than through prediction or attempts at verification or falsification. This reasoning is conducted at a greater level of generality and speculation than normally takes place in the natural sciences (see Baehr 2002: 82). This is not because the social sciences are inherently more discursive than the natural sciences. It is widely accepted in the philosophy of science that knowledge produced by natural science relies on similarly metaphysical assumptions, but the natural sciences are simply better at hiding their discursive elements. These assumptions can be black-boxed and ‘normal science’ can progress through debate purely about the operational elements of research (see Kuhn 1970), without the need for classics.

Some would argue that the social sciences should therefore just ditch the classics and follow the model of the natural sciences. Indeed, this narrative was what motivated many early founders, and classics, of sociology – especially Durkheim. But to do this, argues Alexander (1987), would be to run away from the crucial problems that face the social sciences in the first place: the non-linear, complex and essentially discursive dynamics that drive human social behavior and shape human knowledge. Instead of modeling the study of social dynamics on the natural sciences, sustainability researchers should perhaps embrace the classics – in search of novel ways of knowing and becoming truly transdisciplinary.

What is the use of the social science classics for the study of social-ecological systems?

Firstly, the classics deal with key questions concerning the dynamics of social change, the origins of social action, the (in)stability of social systems – all essential for analyzing social dynamics today. Knowing the classics helps interdisciplinary sustainability researchers to avoid past mistakes and stimulates new hypotheses.

Secondly, the treatment of human-nature relationships in the classics has fundamentally shaped the academic landscape of today – take for example the influence of Marx in political ecology and the lineage of Durkheim’s functionalist approach in systems theory. Study of the classics can therefore help to contextualize social-ecological systems approaches in the wider academic terrain and help researchers to grasp the context of criticisms relating to, for example, the supposed neglect of power relations and conflict in social-ecological systems research.

Thirdly, while social-ecological systems research has long recognized the desirability of becoming trans-disciplinary, it is fair to say that SES research to date has been driven by researchers versed primarily in the natural sciences. However, the concept of the Anthropocene and the role of humans in generating global environmental change is mobilizing closer collaboration between social scientists, humanities researchers and natural scientists. Classics literacy among sustainability researchers will enhance ability to collaborate productively. Such intermingling of epistemological traditions offers real potential to create new ways of thinking and knowing the Anthropocene.

Fourth, study of the classics prompts sociological interpretation of social-ecological systems research. While in many ways transcending the origins of their birth, the classics came from somewhere at some time. Durkheim posed his central question, ‘what social bonds hold men together?’ in a cultural climate where fear of societal collapse was widespread. Indeed, sociology as a discipline emerged through attempts to understand mass transformation in human organization and relationships with nature (including the rise of capitalism and industrialism). Durkheim’s personal fears about the imminent collapse of society arguably led to a conservative approach focused on maintaining social order. Reflection on the social factors influencing SES research as a product of its time (e.g. economic collapse, teleconnected vulnerabilities) may help researchers to reflexively assess the assumptions underlying their own work.

Next week, Karl Marx …

References

  • Alexander, J. 1987. ‘The Centrality of the Classics.’ In A. Giddens and J.H. Turner (eds.) Social Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Baehr, P. 2002. Founders, Classics, Canons: Modern Disputes over the Origins and Appraisal of Sociology’s Heritage. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
  • Foucault, M. 1980. Gordon C (ed.). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon.
  • Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Stinchcombe, A.L. 1982. Should Sociologists Forget Their Mothers and Fathers. The American Sociologist 17(1): 2 – 11.

A “Planetary Boundaries” Straw-Man

Update:  I work at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, headed by Johan Rockström and Carl Folke. The opinions reflected here are my own, and not the organizations.

The notion of “planetary boundaries” and its potential policy implications, are without doubt worth discussing. But the last blogpost by Roger Pielke Jr. (professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute), left me wondering whether not the debate is becoming increasingly unproductive. I will not try to recap the argument, but recommend a thorough read of Pielke’s blogpost as well as Melissa Leach’s (from STEPS) article in the Huffington Post, on the Anthropocene, SDGs and democracy.

What really troubles me is the argument that “planetary boundaries” is associated with one (and only one) “political philosophy”: heavily centralized, top-down, “World Government-like” interventions where “issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science”. Hence, Pielke’s claim of a “power grab” by proponents of planetary boundaries.

This is either an unfortunate misunderstanding of what the academic discussions about “planetary boundaries” really looks like, or the creation of a straw man argument aspiring to create a heated, but essentially misdirected discussion. There is no such thing as one homogenous “political philosophy” for planetary boundaries. And there is no power grab. Allow me to elaborate.

Yes, Frank Biermann’s observation that “scientists involved in this process become inadvertently also political actors” seems relevant. But he also notes – in the very same paper that Pielke quotes in his blogpost to support his argument – that

“within this overall target corridor, the nine boundaries leave human societies ample space for different political choices and socio-economic development trajectories. These socio-economic development trajectories—within the safe operating space set by the planetary boundaries—are left open to the democratic political process and intergovernmental negotiation. […]. The planetary boundaries do not determine any “limits to growth”, but set limits to the total human impact on planetary systems.”

Needless to say, this is the complete opposite of what Pielke and the Breakthrough Institute argue. Another way to understand how so called “planetary boundaries proponents” (whatever that is) explore the political implications of the concept, is nicely summarized in the Earth System Governance Project synthesis piece, published in Science in 2012. In this paper, planetary boundaries are acknowledged as an important insight from the Earth system science community, and a trigger for fundamental and much-needed reforms in global environmental governance – in the article described as “seven building blocks”. The focus is on international institutional reform to create stronger coherence and integration, closing international regulatory gaps, mainstreaming of environmental goals into global trade, and novel financial mechanism with an emphasis on global equity and fairness. The details of these suggestions can be debated of course, but this is far from a “World Government/power grab” agenda.

Another example: in 2011, I coordinated a workshop where governance, politics and planetary boundaries were discussed with a group of international governance scholars. The end result (here in PDF) was again not the sort of “political philosophy” proposed by Pielke, but rather a more nuanced discussion of the role of scientific assessments in creating credibility, saliency, and legitimacy for the science of planetary boundaries; the politically contested role of “boundaries”; the role of international organizations as participants, coordinators and facilitators of polycentric governance initiatives; and the need to explore the institutional context of social-ecological innovation.

Another interesting and emerging stream of research of relevance here, explores the legal implications of planetary boundaries and the Anthropocene. I think Davor Vidas discussion from (2011) on the need to reform legal principles embedded in the international law of the sea, is a nice example of the sort of nuanced discussion emerging between social scientists wishing to explore the implications of planetary boundaries.

Lastly, a very important research stream relevant for this discussion, attempts to explore the possible institutional and broader governance implications of planetary boundaries, by focusing on “Planetary stewardship” or “Earth system stewardship”. (See Folke and colleagues (2012) paper for an introduction). As a comment to Prof Leach’s observation, this stream with its roots in studies of adaptive co-management, acknowledges not only the role of uncertainty, participation, and diversity, but also has a very explicit multilevel-governance focus. Ideas of polycentric, participatory, and reflexive modes of governance of this sort, align just as neatly into the planetary boundaries discourse.

I fail to see how these vibrant and diverse ways of studying and exploring the governance implications of planetary boundaries, are part of the “top-down”, “World Government”, “power grab” narrative depicted in the discussions.

That being said however: As a political scientist, I too find the formulation by Steffen, Rockström and Constanza (2011) that there is a need for a “global referee on the planetary playing field”, confusing. My personal interpretation after discussing these issues repeatedly with the authors on other occasions, is that this is likely to be the result of uncareful phrasing – pretty much in the same way that social scientists like myself, struggle to grasp and articulate the nuances of Earth system science in my papers. I do hope however, that they will be able to elaborate their argument somehow in the near future to avoid further misunderstandings, and to steer away from an artificial conflict between the social and Earth system sciences.

A final observation. Breakthrough Institute praises itself for being a paradigm shifting think-tank. I applaud that ambition, but also note that their framing of planetary boundaries research, and some of their researchers, is creating a really unhelpful polarization of the discussions. Polarization might create a nice temporary buzz on Twitter, and drive loads of readers and comments to a blog. But is it really creating an interesting and productive discussion? Most certainly not.

Planetary boundaries science is, and should be, an arena for continuous dialogue and constructive debate between actors with different perspectives, values and disciplinary backgrounds. It would be a pity to build the foundation for such a debate on straw man arguments, and polarized misconceptions.

Bruno Latour thinks about the Anthropocene

Bruno Latour‘s Gifford Lectures Facing Gaia: A new enquiry into Natural Religion, which were given at University of Edinburgh over the last few months are now on the web.

Bruno Latour’s website has the text (pdf) of the lectures and describes them as:

Those six lectures in ‘natural religion’ explore what it could mean to live at the epoch of the Anthropocene when what was until now a mere décor for human history is becoming the principal actor. They confront head on the controversial figure of Gaia, that is, the Earth understood not as system but as what has a history, what mobilizes everything in the same geostory. Gaia is not Nature, nor is it a deity. In order to face a secular Gaia, we need to extract ourselves from the amalgam of Religion and Nature. It is a new form of political power that has to be explored through a renewed attempt at political theology composed of those three concepts: demos, theos and nomos. It is only once the multiplicity of people in conflicts for the new geopolitics of the Anthropocene is recognized, that the ‘planetary boundaries’ might be recognized as political delineations and the question of peace addressed. Neither Nature nor Gods bring unity and peace. ‘The people of Gaia’, the Earthbound might be the ‘artisans of peace’.

The lectures are organized by groups of two, the two first ones deal with the question of Natural Religion per se and show that the notion is confusing because on the one hand ‘nature’ and ‘religion’ share too many attributes and, on the other, the two notions fail to register the originality of scientific practice and the specificity of the religious regime of enunciation.

Once the pleonasm of Natural Religion is pushed aside, it becomes possible to take up, in the next two lectures, the question first of Gaia as it has been conceived by James Lovelock and of the Anthropocene as it has been explored by geologists and climate scientists. It is thus possible to differentiate the figure of the Earth and of the agencies that populate it from the notion of nature and of the globe thus bringing to the fore the geostory to which they all belong.

In the last two lectures, after the notion of Natural Religion has been put aside, and after the complete originality of Gaia and geostory have been foregrounded, it becomes possible to reopen the political question at the heart of what will be life at the Anthropocene. Once the key question of war has been introduced, the search for a peace along the delineations allowed by politically relevant ‘planetary boundaries’ to which Earthbound (the new word for Humans) accept to be bound become again possible.

 As mentioned on Resilience Science previously, Canada’s CBC radio has a great accessible series – How to think about science – on science studies and philosophy of science, which includes an introduction to Latour and his work.

Cityscapes :: An urban magazine from the global south :: New issue #3: The Smart City?

How to think cities anew? When what we are seeing are not new londons, parises, new-yorks or even tokyos growing, we need to start re-thinking what urbanization and urbanism is about.

New Cityscapes issue #3 out. Speaking from the south on ‘Smart Cities’.

This is when we need a magazine like Cityscapes. Started in 2011 by artist-desginer-urbanist Tau Tavengwa and Sean O’Toole, backed up by southern urbanist stalwart Edgar Pieterese, the magazine gives a provocative shot or sip of a matured postcolonial critique of knowledge production.

Indeed when urban Theory, capital T, is not longer valid for the type of cities we see in Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Johannesburg, Mumbai, and Jakarta, we need new tools, registers and ways of engaging that allows for new theories of the urban to grow and influence city-making, including planning and design professions. This is when we need to ask, like Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty of how to “provincialize Europe”—re-inserting the ‘localness’ of European thought to allow for experiences of urbanization and scholarship from different regions to take hold and influence theory-making. If Europe and USA is merely a province in the world of knowledge-making, then how have other regions thought and enacted their cities?

The Cityscapes magazine makes the amazing balancing act of being popular and punchy, while delivering a relentless critique that cities should not only be thought about from a EuroAmerican experience. But from locations like Lima, Nairobi, Mogadishu, Bangalore, Jakarta, Harare, and Medellín. This builds upon decades of academic critique of how theory—or established ways of thinking—has been critiqued.

Indian urban scholar Ananya Roy (2009) and South African cultural geographer and comparative urbanist Jennifer Robinson (2002, 2005 etc.) have in a series of articles argued for a comparative urbanism, a cosmopolitan urbanism that can de-centre EuroAmerican theory and experience.

Cityscapes #2 – the previous issue.

In response to the ‘world city’ theory created by Saskia Sassen and in part Manuell Castells—which traces the economic relations for global capitalism and has come to create hierarchies of cities based upon the number of transnational companies that chooses to place their offices there—Robinson argues for theories of the ‘ordinary city’.

This is not to say that the world city theory is not helpful to understand the internationalization of capitalism, and how it necessarily needs cities, but to say that its focus comes with effects.

These ‘ordinary cities’ does not only ‘fall off the map’ of the ‘world city theory’, making these cities uninterested locations for research and policy, but these cities also suffer in the way that investment—private and above all public—are spent increasingly in cities that aspire to become ‘world class cities’.

Rather than spending money on improving essential infrastructure to deliver safe water, sewage, electricity and food, money are spent on business parks, luxurious water front developments, and big event buildings (think the World Cup soccer stadium built in Cape Town, now standing mostly empty; or the Formula 1 racing track in the Omerli Watershed outside Istanbul, used once a year).

Consequently, backed by the world city theory, a whole industry of consultants and thinkers have carved out a policy field to influence how decision-makers can turn their own cities into ‘world cities’. This shapes the urban agenda away from the problems and possibilities of the ‘ordinary city’ and in particular the needs of the urban poor.

In Cityscapes last issue #2 the world city theory is under scrutiny. Through interviews and photography, the magazine unpacks infrastructural investment in Johannesburg, and also visits Bangalore. Increasingly many Indian cities are aspiring to become world-class. “As an instance of homegrown neoliberalism, the Indian world-class city is inevitably a normative project”, writes Ananya Roy in Worldling Cities edited book (2011). As reported, “Why? And for whose benefit is the world-class city?”.

In the current issue #3 focus is on ‘The Smart City’, the increasing tendency to invest in high-tech monitoring and surveillance techniques to govern city-life. This represents a move to allow technicians and experts not only a greater say in defining the problems of the city, and its solutions, but also in the actual day-to-day governing of the city. As expressed by the editors in promoting this issue:

This fuzzily defined term speaks to the increasing use of networked information and communications technologies in ordering of large-scale urban phenomenon. The magazine visits Rio de Janeiro to find out what this means practically. “Technology gives you a faster response,” explains Dario Bizzo Marques, a technology systems coordinator at Rio’s $14-million integrated city management centre, home to Latin America’s largest surveillance screen.

“We increasingly share the space and time of cities with semi-autonomous agents of a nonhuman, indeed non-biological, nature, from drones to algorithms,” offers Adam Greenfield in his provocative 100-point manifesto appearing in Cityscapes and addressing the pervasive use of tech-savvy urban management solutions. Noted urban theorist Ash Amin, in a cornerstone 5000-word interview with Matthew Gandy, is also wary of the ideological implications of reducing city management to the top-down marshalling of abstract data.

If you are intrigued and need a stylish, punchy, provocative shot of postcolonial critique, make sure to get a copy of the new Cityscapes #3. It will hopefully come to destabilize how you think about cities. You can find more information here.

If you are interested in the academic debates, I have just with Mary Lawhon and James Duminy submitted a paper to the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (IJURR) with the title “Conceptual vectors of African urbanism: ‘engaged theory-making’ and ‘platforms of engagement’. The manuscript summarizes debates but also pushes towards clarifying some of the contribution from the recent research on urbanism in Africa and what it could bring to theoretical conversations about cities. I could send you a copy if you are interested. For other entry points, see papers by Chakrabarty, Roy, Robinson, Simone and Pieterse below.

/Henrik Ernstson, Cape Town, 20 March, 2013

PS. The Cityscapes issue #3 will be launched Mar 27, 2013 at The Book Lounge, 71 Roeland Street, Cnr Buitenkant & Roeland Street, Cape Town. More information here.

References
Chakrabarty, D. (2007). Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Second.). Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Parnell, S., & Robinson, J. (n.d.). (Re)Theorizing Cities from the Global South: Looking Beyond Neoliberalism. Urban Geography.

Pieterse, E. (2008). City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development. Global Issues Series. London: Zed Books.

Robinson, J. (2002). Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 26, 531–554. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.00397

Robinson, J. (2011). Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35, 1–23. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2010.00982.x

Roy, A. (2009). The 21st-Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory. Regional Studies, 43(6), 819–830. doi:10.1080/00343400701809665

Roy, A., & Ong, A. (2011). Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, 41.

Simone, A. (2011). City Life from Jakarta to Dakar: Movements at the Crossroads. London: Routledge.

 

Is 3D printing the “next big thing” for ecology?

If you are interested in emerging technologies with disruptive potential, it is hard to avoid the growing hype around 3D-printing: printers able to reproduce a digital model by adding materials in layers, until the final product is achieved. If you think this sounds like weird science fiction, you probably haven’t heard about 3D printed bikes, jawbones, guitars and …. meat. And yes, there is a “Pirate Bay” for 3D printing called “physibles” which would allow you to download the code needed to print 3D objects.

3D-printed bike, image from policymic

Interestingly enough, a paper by William Sutherland and colleagues was recently published in TREE [PDF] where they explore emerging technologies which may have big implications for conservation and biological diversity. Among the list of issues you find rapid growth of concentrated solar power, wide spread development of thorium-fuelled nuclear power, ecological monitoring drones, vegetarian aquaculture feed and of course, 3D-printing. They write:

The environmental effects of a society that only prints what is needed could include waste reduction and decreased emissions from transporting manufactured goods. Additionally, spare parts could be printed in remote regions. However, printing on a whim could lead to an increase in resource consumption, higher energy demand due to transportation of raw materials, and pollution, if storage or disposal of chemicals used in household-level printing are haphazard.

Interesting first take on the issue, but seems like there is lots more to think about than simply the consumption of raw materials and energy.

A Planet without Humans? Two Short Reflections on “Does the terrestrial biosphere have planetary tipping points?”

Are “planetary tipping points” likely? Trends in Ecology and Evolution recently published a very thought provoking article by Brooks et al. that challenges the notion of abrupt global threshold change. In the authors’ own words, we are likely to experience “[…] relatively ‘smooth changes at the global scale, without an expectation of marked tipping patterns.”

“Planetary tipping points” is not only a very important issue, with clear links to discussions about “planetary boundaries” and a “state shifts in the Earth’s biosphere”. It is also a very multifaceted inquiry that entails an electric combination between Earth system science, complex systems thinking, and science communication.

The paper opens up a whole set of important issues, but allow me to just briefly elaborate points that I find critical and interesting to explore and debate further.

1. Connectivity

Connectivity is a key factor in the assessment of the paper. As the authors note “If drivers or responses are spatially heterogeneous and inter-regional or intercontinental connectivity (through biotic or abiotic factors) is weak, the global aggregate pattern and rate of ecological change are likely to be relatively constant, without any identifiable tipping point. Conversely, if drivers and responses are spatially homogeneous or inter-regional or intercontinental connectivity is strong, ecological change might display a tipping-point pattern at a global scale.” (pp.2)

So, how strong is “intercontinental connectivity” between ecosystems? It depends on how you define “connectivity” of course. On the same page, the authors list a whole set of “biotic” and “abiotic factors” which underpin connectivity: species movement, ocean transport of heat, changes in CO2 levels, and others. Based on a brief analysis of these “connectors” for terrestrial ecosystems, the authors conclude that the “lack of strong continental interconnectivity, probably induce relatively smooth changes at the global scale, without an expectation of marked tipping patterns”.

Am I the only one getting the feeling that something is missing here? What I find intriguing in the analysis, is the absence of a discussion of “social connectors” which are likely to connect ecosystems across the world. The interconnected degradation of marine systems through global markets and new technologies denoted “roving bandits” are well known, and I see no reason why scholars should ignore similar phenomena for terrestrial ecosystems.

GWSP Digital Water Atlas (2008). Map 34: Virtual Water 2 (V1.0). Available online at http://atlas.gwsp.org

For example, while forest ecosystems in different continents might have few biotic and abiotic intercontinental connections, it is known that successful conservation policies in one region or a country, tends to shift environmental externalities to other areas through global markets (a “displacement effect” elaborated Lambin and Meyfroidt 2011). The flows of “virtual water”, and the observation that decreasing fish stocks force people to extract more resources from wildlife and tropical forests in West Africa (Brashares et al. 2004) are two additional examples of how social connectivity is tightly related to interconnected environmental change (some of which is likely to be non-linear). Global change scientists are just starting to get to grips with these complex human-environmental connectors (Adger et al. 2006, Young et al. 2006), but surely these would have an impact on how we analytically assess the sort of intercontinental connectivity Brook and colleagues are trying to get at? Bluntly put: if we indeed have entered the Anthropocene, why is social connectivity through institutions, technology and globalized trade, not part of the analysis?

2. Global tipping points and fatalism

The article ends with an interesting statement: “Second, framing global change in the dichotomous terms implied by the notion of a global tipping point could lead to complacency on the ‘safe’ side of the point and fatalism about catastrophic or irrevocable effects on the other.”

Brook also argues (in an associated blogpost) that “Why does this matter? Well, one concern we have is that an undue focus on planetary tipping points may distract from the vast ecological transformations that have already occurred.”

I find both these claims surprising. Surely a discussion about “thresholds” of this sort lead to more multifaceted social perceptions and responses than simple dichotomies of doom-and-gloom, or distraction? Nuttal and Hulme (which are quoted to support the first quote on framings) are just two articles in a much richer and multidisciplinary body of literature (raging from formal theory, to social-psychological experiments and case based approaches) that elaborates social perceptions, framings and responses to threshold phenomena. A somewhat more nuanced and empirically based discussion on this last issue of social perceptions and responses, could have contributed in significant ways to a much-needed discussion.

WEF’s Risk Report and the misperception of environmental risks

World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2013 report is an interesting, but one eyed view of the global risk landscape.

I think the main weakness is lack of consideration of how the financial, economic, and social systems that support the global elites at Davos are producing most of the risks that threaten those same systems.  Some of these systems are part of what sf writer Kim Stanley Robinson has called Gotterdammerung capitalismwhile others are what resilience researchers have called Holling’s pathology of management.  But in either case, assessing the symptomns, but not examining the causes is not particularly useful and a bit pathological.

However, I thought one interesting point in the report was the the assessment of expert risk assessment.  The report found a substantial difference between environmental experts view of risks versus that of experts in other sectors.

Unlike all over sectors environmental experts thought that environmental risks were substantially more likely and would have a bigger impact than other people.  While I don’t find this result surprising, I am a bit surprised that this is the only problem domain in which this is the case.  Because I don’t think there is a big difference between environmental experts and experts in other fields, I think this suggests there is something special about societies ability to detect or understand environmental problems.

Below is the relevant figure from the report.

The report writes:

The differences between environmental experts and their peers from other fields are striking – they assign higher impact and likelihood scores to all 10 risks in the environmental category, with most of these differences being statistically significant at the 5% level (see Appendix 2).

Also there are a number of societal risks where specialists are more alarmed than other respondents, such as rising rates of chronic diseases, unsustainable population growth or unman- aged migration. In the economic category, this pattern holds only for chronic fiscal imbalances. For most other risks in this category, as well as in the geopolitical and in the technological domains, there are few statistically significant differences.

On the other side of the equation, experts in economic issues worry less about the impact and likelihood of severe income disparity than non-experts. Similarly, technological experts worry less than non-experts about the likelihood and impact of unforeseen consequences of nanotechnology.

These findings raise interesting questions. Are economists more informed about economic issues than others, or are there ideological differences at play? Are the technological specialists more knowledgeable here, or does their excitement about new technologies dampen their risk perceptions? And where experts are more worried, does that mean that we should listen to them more, or do they just feel more strongly about their issue without knowing enough about other threats?

The Risks report asked about 6000 experts using an online survey from the “World Economic Forum’s communities, which comprise of top experts and high-level leaders from business, academia, NGOs, international organizations, the public sector and civil society.”  Who were male (7:3)   Their survey had about 1,200 responses which included about 230 environmental experts.

Two research positions at Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to work with SRC

Exciting job opportunities here in Stockholm at Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to work with Stockholm Resilience Centre:

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is pleased to announce two positions as Early Career Academy Researcher, one for a scholar with a documented background in economics and one for a scholar with a documented background in research on social-ecological interactions. The positions will be part of the Family Erling Persson’s Academy Program on The Ecological Economics of Global Change, lead by Prof. Carl Folke.

Human wellbeing and the Earth system on which it depends are in transition. In a globalised world the economy, society, technology and the environment interact in novel and even unexpected ways. A key challenge is to foster development that is favourable and sustainable for current and future generations, taking into account and respecting the capacity of the biosphere to support such development. Research will address the complex, multi-scale dynamics of social–ecological systems, economic development and critical ecosystem services in the new global context. The dynamics include nonlinear thresholds that can lead to large, persistent changes but also transformations of human actions toward stewardship of social–ecological systems for global sustainability. Part of the program will focus on marine issues in this context.

The Ecological Economics of Global Change program aims to address such challenges and is searching for key collaborators to achieve this. The positions are two plus three years, with potential for continuation. We envision a early career researchers at the level of post-doc or similar. Documented experience from interdisciplinary collaboration is a bonus. The two Early Career Academy Researcher positions will be part of a team with two Academy Researchers, a visiting professor and two other early career researchers, which will form the core of the program.

The program provides a forum for researchers in economics and social-ecological systems to interact and develop joint research, seeking a deeper understanding of the interplay of social-ecological systems and economic development from local to global levels. There will be opportunity for researchers of the program to closely collaborate with the Academy’s Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. A stimulating, trusting and friendly research environment in collaboration with diverse disciplines is provided, focusing on understanding the new global dynamics and the challenges towards sustainability.

The Academy is accepting applications from researchers with a PhD in economics and ecology or related disciplines. We are looking for open minded candidates with exceptional scholarly promise and a rigorous approach to problem solving. We value documented capacity to synthesize knowledge, analyze large data sets and build empirically grounded theory. The successful candidates must be team players who understand how their particular expertise fits within the greater global picture and can collaborate with other researchers in an open-minded and creative way. Salary will depend on the merits of the candidate. The program starts 1 January 2013 and the positions, which are full time, are to be filled as soon as possible for an initial period of two years.

Applicants should submit a single document containing a short letter of interest including a vision of research focus to further the understanding of social-ecological systems in the context of new global dynamics (1-2 page) and Curriculum Vitae including relevant publications (max 3 pages). In addition the applicants should ask a person of their choice to send a letter of recommendation.

Please submit the applications to Christina Leijonhufvud (chris@beijer.kva.se) by 20 February 2013.

Trade union representatives are Magnus Lundgren (SACO), 0046-8-673 95 25 and Peter Jacobsson (ST), 0046-8-673 97 92.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences is an independent organisation whose overall objective is to promote the sciences and strengthen their influence in society.

Resilience Alliance & the Integration of Social and Natural Science in Global Change Research

In a new paper Evolution of natural and social science interactions in global change research programs in PNAS (doi:10.1073/pnas.1107484110), Harold A. Mooney, Anantha Duraiappah, & Anne Larigauderie look back on the history of the integration of Social and Natural Science in global change research and relate this history, the barriers overcome, and the lessons learned to the development of the new global research programme on sustainability science – Future Earth.

The paper places the Beijer Intitute of Ecological Economics efforts build communication between ecologists and economists as very import.  They write:

Much of the mistrust between the ecologists and economists was minimized, because cooperation between these groups was increased through a series of workshops organized by the Beijer Institute of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences under the leadership of Karl-Göran Mäler in 1993 on the Swedish island of Askö. Many seminal papers on the interface between the environment and economics were crafted at these meetings.

The also value the role of the Resilience Alliance, which was also highly connected to the Beijer Institute:

A somewhat parallel approach to sustainability science to integrating social and natural sciences is embodied in the Resilience Alliance that was established in 1999 (http://www.resalliance. org/). This alliance is a network of scientists and institutions that uses a conceptual framework that was first articulated by C. S. Holling in 1986 (42) and updated in 2001 (43). This frame- work is built on the nature of hierarchies and cyclic properties of both ecosystems and social–ecological systems and their adaptive nature. Concrete examples of resilience approaches for sustaining ecosystems and societies in the face of change were clearly articulated in a book published in 2006 by Walker and Salt (44), and the basic principles were described in a textbook by Chapin et al. (45) in 2009. An important component of this framework is developing resilience in systems to avoid crossing over irreversible thresholds (regime shifts) that move systems into a less favorable state for society. Thus, the resilience approach is an important approach to sustainability and has the same goal as sustainability science, but it is built on an overarching theory that sustainability science per se lacks.

The also place a high importance of the contribution of Elinor Ostrom whom, they write:

What About Progress at the International Science Program Level Within Social Sciences?
One of the important contributions from the IHDP community over the past 10 y has been on environmental governance. The first thrust began with the work by Elinor Ostrom and col- leagues under the LUCC. The governance of the commons and the role of local communities in overseeing the use of local resources in contrast to government regulations and private market instruments were a central contribution by the IHDP community over these years. Following the governance of land resources, Oran Young and others began a 10-y study on global governance, bridging the local to global spectrum.

The paper also discusses the key role of geographers and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in the integration of social and natural sciences, and assesses the post-normal, transdisciplinary research terrain that Future Earth must navigate.

Now the sustainability science community needs build on this success, but also better connect with communities of engineers, architects, planners, and designers so we can all figure out how to actually build a “Good” Anthropocene – or a future that is a good place for us all to live.

Seminar on Role of Design in Anthropocene @ Konstfack, Stockholm – updated

For readers near Stockholm. I’ll be speaking Jan 14th at a seminar on design in the Anthropocene at Konstfack, the University College of Arst, Crafts, and Design in Stockholm.

I’ll give a talk “Co-Creating the Anthropocene: What are some possible roles for design?”

The seminar announcement states:

What is the Anthropocene?
Scientists are beginning to call our current geological period “the human age”, in other words, “the Anthropocene”.
Excerpt from http://www.anthropocene.info/: “Every living thing affects its surroundings. But humanity is now influencing every aspect of the Earth on a scale akin to the great forces of nature.

There are now so many of us, using so many resources, that we’re disrupting the grand cycles of biology, chemistry and geology by which elements like carbon and nitrogen circulate between land, sea and atmosphere. We’re changing the way water moves around the globe as never before. Almost all the planet’s ecosystems bear the marks of our presence.
Our species’ whole recorded history has taken place in the geological period called the Holocene – the brief interval stretching back 10,000 years. But our collective actions have brought us into uncharted territory. A growing number of scientists think we’ve entered a new geological epoch that needs a new name – the Anthropocene. (…)”
What roles could design take and what insights arise in relation to this understanding?
Together with guest speakers, we at ID will be discussing this perspective on design during this important symposium.

–update
The event will be recorded – when it is on the web I will post a link here.

Schedule of speakers

Monday, January 14 2013

09:00   Welcome and introduction/ Martin Avila, Bo Westerlund – Konstfack ID

09:20   Anthropocenic citizens need anthroposcenic imaginaries [and designs]/ Jakob von Heland – Filmmaker and consultant on human ecology and resilience.

09:50   Metadesign and Fashion – How can we mobilise design sensibilities for sustainable products, systems and paradigms? / Dr Mathilda Tham, Visiting Professor in Fashion and Sustainability Beckmans College of Design, Stockholm. Metadesign researcher, Goldsmiths University of London.

10:20   Coffee break

10:40   Co-Creating the Anthropocene: What are some possible roles for design?/ Garry Peterson, Professor in Environmental Sciences with key focus on resilience in social-ecological systems at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.

11:10   Panel discussion

UPDATE #2:

Videos of the event are now online at Konstfack.