Category Archives: Ideas

Cognition in general: SRC Cognition group pt1

A guest post by Nanda Wijermans

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

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

This week’s readings were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disaster Memory

Guest post from Erin Bohensky & Anne Leitch

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

SES-oz

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

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

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

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

Reference:

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

 

 

Connecting the Instability of Markets and Ecosystems – C.S. Holling and Hyman Minsky

Both markets and ecosystems can, and have, been viewed as being shaped by feedback processes that push them towards a steady state – in markets this is the “invisible hand” – in ecology it is “succession.”  However, what has been appreciated in ecology, and has been reluctantly included in economics is that these invisible hands can push systems into turbulence or even tear them apart.

The 2008 financial crisis revived widespread interest in the work of American economist Hyman Minksy who developed a theory on the evolution of financial crises that not only provides a strong framework to understand the forces that created the crisis but also has strong parallels to the work of Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling, an originator of resilience thinking, who developed a theory of social-ecological crises that shares many features with Minksky’s theory.

Minsky and Holling both showed how successful regulation could lead systems into a trap of decreasing resilience and increased vulnerability.

Minsky’s “Financial instability hypothesis” argues that as an economy flourishes people and organizations lose their motivation to consider the possibility of failure, because the costs of concern are high and apparent while the benefits of a relaxed attitude are immediate.  Loans become less and less secure, bad risks drive out good, and the resilience of the entire economy to shocks is reduced. Minsky argued that economic resilience is slowly eroded as there is a shift of dominance between three types of borrowers: hedge borrowers, speculative borrowers, and Ponzi borrowers.   Hedge borrower have a cash flow that they can use to repay interest and principal on a debt, while the speculative borrower can cover the interest, but must continually roll over the principal, and Ponzi borrowers, who have to borrow more to cover their interest payments.  Hedge borrowers are least vulnerable to economic changes, while Ponzi borrowers are the most.  As the economy does well, speculative and Ponzi borrowers can outperform safer borrowers.  For example, highly leveraged investments in housing can yield big profits as house prices increase, driving further investment in housing and housing price increases.  As the use of Ponzi finance expands within the finance system the financial system becomes increasingly vulnerable to any change in the perceived value of Ponzi borrowers assets can trigger a collapse that includes speculative and hedge borrowers.  When a shock or change in perception causes the networks of loans to unravel, crisis moves from the financial sector other parts of the economy.  This theory fits many aspects of the 2008 financial crisis where public and private risk regulations were relaxed, and there was a lot of speculative and Ponzi borrowing in the US housing market.  For example, financial market regulationaccounting standards were lowered, and mortgage risk assessments were abandoned.

Similarly, Holling’s “Pathology of ecosystem management” argues that the management of ecosystems to increase the production of a desired ecological services often achieve their goal by simplifying ecosystems and reducing environmental variation. For example, forest management removes undesired species and suppresses wildfire and produces more timber which leads to sawmills and jobs. While these efforts are often initially successful, over the longer term these effort can trap a system into a situation where there is:

1) a high societal dependence on continuous supply of ecological benefits and

2) a declining ability of an ecosystem to recover from and regulate environmental variation.

Holling’s adaptive cycle concept grew out of the pathology of natural resource management.

Societal dependance arises as investment follows the initial success.  The decline in ecological resilience occurs because of management’s simplification the spatial pattern, food web, and disturbance dynamics of the managed ecosystem.  Often as resilience declines, management has to increasingly invest in artificial ecological regulation to maintain ecological benefits and protect its sunk investment infrastructure.  This dynamic can trap people within a social-ecological system which is unprofitable, has low resilience, and is difficult to disengage from due to sunk cost effects.  For example, logging and forest can lead to more investment in timber mills and towns and the simplified forest, which is more vulnerable to insect outbreaks.  These continual outbreaks require investment in pest control, which decreases the profitability of the logging.  Simultaneously, it is difficult to stop logging or pest control due to the people living in the towns and the investment in the timber mills.

Holling’s pathology was originally developed in the 1980s.  Since then Holling’s ideas have been substantially developed by ecologists and others environmental scientists over the past twenty years (notably in the book Panarchy).  Researchers have tried to identify different types of social-ecological traps.  Resilience researchers have created quantitative models explore and statistical methods to detect instabilities, and expanded upon the pathology to explore the roles of leadership and agency in creating new social-ecological trajectories.

Unlike Holling’s work, Minsky’s work has been largely marginalized within mainstream economics, though it has retained a dedicated following among financial and some hetrodox economists.  The lack of a rigourous mathematical structure to Minsky’s ideas seems to have been much more of a barrier in economics, than the similar lack in Holling’s ideas was to ecology.  However, I expect that the main reason for the lack of interest was that instability was not seen as a particularly relevant idea. The financial turmoil of the last few years has shown that despite economists dreams of a great moderation due to wise regulation, regulators and markets have not been able to tame the destabilizing dynamics of global markets.  Indeed, the financial crisis of 2008 and the recession that has followed has demonstrated that many regulations likely have made this crisis worse by reducing diversity, tightening couplings, and decreasing adaptive capacity.  For example, the Euro prevented countries, like Greece or Spain, from shifting their exchange rates with other countries.

However, the crisis has provoked substantial new interest in Minksy, and now eminient mainstream economists such as Paul Krugman have now attempted to connect his work to the central core of economics (see Eggertsson & Krugman 2012  paper & a critique from hetreodox financial economist Steve Keen).

The financial, political, price turbulence since 2008 has increased interest in theories of instability, but most theory is based upon stability, or short term departures from stable points.  This undersupply of theories of instability, makes the work of Holling and Minksy more valuable.  In separate realms and identifying different mechanisms, the work of Minsky and Holling suggests instability cannot be avoided, as stability creates instability.  This understanding can be used to help navigate instability, and it highlights the value of working to create new theories to understand, analyze, and navigate social-ecological instability – something that we are working on at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Further readings:

Holling (many followup articles are available in Ecology & Society)

  • Holling, C.S., 1986. The resilience of terrestrial ecosystems: local surprise and global change. In: Clark, W.C., Munn, R.E. (Eds.), Sustainable Development of the Biosphere. Cambridge University Press, London, pp. 292–317.
  • Holling, C.S., Meffe, G.K., 1996. Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conservation Biology 10, 328–337.
  • Gunderson, L.H. & Holling, C.S. (Eds.). 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press.

Minsky (lots of his publications are available on the Levy Institute’s website)

  • Minsky, H. P. (1975). John Maynard Keynes. New York, Columbia University Press.
  • Minsky, H. P. (1982). Can “it” happen again? : essays on instability and finance. Armonk, N.Y., M.E. Sharpe.
  • Minsky, H. P. (1986). Stabilizing an unstable economy, Twentieth Century Fund Report series, New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
  • Wray, L.R. 2011 Minsky Crisis in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, Online Edition, 2011.  Edited by Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E. Blume. Palgrave.

On the web Ashwin Parameswaren has been building on Minksy and Holling’s ideas at his websites Macroeconomic resilience and All systems need a little disorder.

Digging the Anthropocene

Human material use has rapidly and massively increased over the past century.  This is nicely illustrated in a 2009 paper by Krausmann and others at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna.

Fig. 1. Materials use by material types in the period 1900 to 2005. (a and b) total materials use in Giga tons (Gt) per yr; (c) metabolic rate (materials use in t/cap/year); (d) share of material types of total materials use.

The use of material has exploded:

  • overall use of material grew 8X
  • construction minerals grew 34X
  • ores/industrial minerals 27X.
  • fossil fuel energy carriers 12.2X
  • biomass extraction 3.6X.

This expansion is due to the growth of the human economy and population. Despite advances in efficiency (i.e. the amount of materials required per unit of GDP has declined), the economy has grown faster so total materials use per capita doubled from 4.6 to 10.3 T/cap/yr.

For most of the 20th century, biomass was the most significant of the four material types in terms of mass and only in the 1990s it was overtaken by construction minerals.

In 2000, the 15% of the world’s population living in rich countries were directly responsible for 1/3 of global resource extraction; however this inequality is more pronounced  for key materials the 15% of the world’s population living in rich countries consume more than 50% of  fossil energy carriers, industrial minerals and metallic ores (a 6X greater rate for the 15% vs. the 85%).

If global economic development continues its current trajectory (with a population growth of 30–40% until 2050) the will be a continuing sharp rise in global material extraction.

From:

Krausmann, F., Gingrich, S., Eisenmenger, N., Erb, K.-H., Haberl, H. & Fischer-Kowalski, M. 2009. Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century. Ecological Economics, 68, 2696–2705. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2009.05.007

James C Scott on the value of an anarchist squint

Political scientist James C. Scott, author of a series of ground breaking books that explore some of political and anthropological aspects of resilience has a new book out Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play.

On this blog I’ve frequently mentioned his book “Seeing Like a State“, and also enjoyed his “The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia” with its interesting perspectives on state resistance.  I found it particular interesting due to the connections I could see between his work on fugitive societies from the state, resonated with my own experience working with and researching Maroons in the Americas.

He introduces his new book with a preface which argues for the value of an “anarchist squint,” which I believe has many resonances with resilience research.  In the preface (pdf) he writes:

James C. Scott in his preface to his new book “Two Cheers for Anarchism:”

Lacking a comprehensive anarchist worldview and philosophy, and in any case wary of nomothetic ways of seeing, I am making a case for a sort of anarchist squint. What I aim to show is that if you put on anarchist glasses and look at the history of popular movements, revolutions, ordinary politics, and the state from that angle, certain insights will appear that are obscured from almost any other angle. It will also become apparent that anarchist principles are active in the aspirations and political action of people who have never heard of anarchism or anarchist philosophy. One thing that heaves into view, I believe, is what Pierre-Joseph Proudhon had in mind when he first used the term “anarchism,” namely, mutuality, or cooperation without hierarchy or state rule. Another is the anarchist tolerance for confusion and improvisation that accompanies social learning, and confidence in spontaneous cooperation and reciprocity. Here Rosa Luxemburg’s preference, in the long run, for the honest mistakes of the working class over the wisdom of the executive decisions of a handful of vanguard party elites is indicative of this stance.  My claim, then, is fairly modest. These glasses, I think, offer a sharper image and better depth of field than most of the alternatives.

Scott goes on to define what he means by an anarchist squint:

My anarchist squint involves a defense of politics, conflict, and debate, and the perpetual uncertainty and learning they entail. This means that I reject the major stream of utopian scientism that dominated much of anarchist thought around the turn of the twentieth century. In light of the huge strides in industry, chemistry, medicine, engineering, and transportation, it was no wonder that high modernist optimism on the right and the left led to the belief that the problem of scarcity had, in principle, been solved. Scientific progress, many believed, had uncovered the laws of nature, and with them the means to solve the problems of subsistence, social organization, and institutional design on a scientific basis. As men became more rational and knowledgeable, science would tell us how we should live, and politics would no longer be necessary. …. For many anarchists the same  vision of progress pointed the way toward an economy in which the state was beside the point. Not only have we subsequently learned both that material plenty, far from banishing politics, creates new spheres of political struggle but also that statist socialism was less “the administration of ” things than the trade union of the ruling class protecting its privileges.

Unlike many anarchist thinkers, I do not believe that the state is everywhere and always the enemy of freedom.

Nor do I believe that the state is the only institution that endangers freedom. To assert so would be to ignore a long and deep history of pre-state slavery, property in women, warfare, and bondage. It is one thing to disagree utterly with Hobbes about the nature of society before the existence of the state (nasty, brutish, and short) and another to believe that “the state of nature” was an unbroken landscape of communal property, cooperation, and peace.


The last strand of anarchist thought I definitely wish to distance myself from is the sort of libertarianism that tolerates (or even encourages) great differences in wealth, property, and status. Freedom and (small “d”) democracy are, in conditions of rampant inequality, a cruel sham as Bakunin understood. There is no authentic freedom where huge differences make voluntary agreements or exchanges nothing more than legalized plunder.

What is clear to anyone except a market fundamentalist (of the sort who would ethically condone a citizen’s selling himself—voluntarily, of course—as a chattel slave) is that democracy is a cruel hoax without relative equality. This, of course, is the great dilemma for an anarchist. If relative equality is a necessary condition of mutuality and freedom, how can it be guaranteed except through the state? Facing this conundrum, I believe that both theoretically and practically, the abolition of the state is not an option. We are stuck, alas, with Leviathan, though not at all for the reasons Hobbes had supposed, and the challenge is to tame it. That challenge may well be beyond our reach.

For more on Scott, here is a profile in the New York Times and his entry in Wikipedia.  Here are some reviews of “Two cheers” from a diverse set of places: Wall Street Journal, the Coffin Factory, the LA Review of Books, and Fortune Magazine.

A history of bicycle transformation in the Netherlands

Cool video about how a movement for social-ecological transformation took advantage of a window of opportunity.

Dutch cyclist organizations pushing for new cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands.

Read more on the Bicycling Dutch website in this post.  An interesting post compares public space in locations in Netherlands in 2012 and 1957.

Robert Harrison on Joesph Conrad

Stanford humanities professor Robert Harrison has a great online podcast, Entitled Opinons, that discusses various aspects of the Humanities.

Robert Harrison is a Dante specialist, but he is also very interested in people’s relationships with the Earth.  His enthralling books Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition, and Forests: The Shadow of Civilization provide much food for thought.

His shows cover diverse topics and thinkers such as Michel Foucault, eco-critic Ursula Heise on Extinction, and A Monologue on Machiavelli.

In his show on Joesph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness |MP3| he gives a (to me) an interesting environmental interpretation of the novel.  He states (transcript from Beams & Struts):

What did the intervening century [since Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness was written] do to change the situation [of Western nihilism outlined in that book]?  If one is honest, precious little. On the contrary, the twentieth century just enacted the most virulent forms of Western nihilism through two catastrophic world wars, and the endless genocides associated with communism and cold war politics and so forth. So it’s very difficult I think to soberly look back on the twentieth century and to say that the vision of nihilism that Conrad puts forward in ‘Heart of Darkness’ was not well founded.

I think it was well founded, raising the question of whether we are to be stuck in that dark hole that he so vividly  portrays for us, or whether the twenty-first century might find a way out of it…

One of the visions that Conrad has of Western nihilism in ‘Heart of Darkness’ is of the sheer carelessness of the Western rapacious attitude toward Africa and the continent of Africa, as raiding its resources, and taking from the Earth as much as one can take without giving anything back in return. And this is the formula for nihilism.

Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ sees Western modernity as a kind of ferocious drive to extract as much out of the Earth as possible without giving anything back to it…So the question for the twenty-first century will be whether a turn is possible in our relations with the Earth, whether we can return to the primary human vocation of being caretakers rather than destroyers in our relation to the Earth.

Forty years of Limits to Growth

The first presentation of the influential environmentalist book Limits to Growth was on March 1 in 1972 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, four decades ago.

The study was both hugely influential and hugely controversial, and the authors were quite strongly attacked, often for analytical flaws that their study never said or did.  However, after two followup books, and renewed discussions of peak oil (etc) & planetary boundaries, there has been an increased appreciation of Limits to Growth.

After 40 years it seems that:

  1. Limits to Growth was a pretty good first stab at a global model (look at the number of models based on it)
  2. That the scenarios in Limits to Growth were fairly reasonable  (see here and here, here)
  3. That humanity has avoided some really bad trajectories, but could have done a lot better
  4. And that today, global civilization is pushing up against all sort of boundaries and we require more and more innovation to keep going and
  5. We probably need to have a major societal transformation to create a good Anthropocene.

For more on this, see Australian corporate environmentalist Paul Gilding‘s book Great Disruption, just is based on a similar assessment of the world – and he just gave a TED talk based on the book.

Various Limits related events have been timed for this 40th anniversary.

First, the Smithsonian is hosting Perspectives on Limits to Growth – which will feature two of the original members of the team that wrote Limits.  They describe the seminar:

The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution’s Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet are hosting a symposium on March 1, 2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launching of Limits to Growth, the first report to the Club of Rome published in 1972. This book was one of the earliest scholarly works to recognize that the world was fast approaching its sustainable limits. Forty years later, the planet continues to face many of the same economic, social, and environmental challenges as when the book was first published.

The morning session will start at 9:00 a.m. and will focus on the lessons of Limits to Growth. The afternoon session will begin at 1:45 p.m. and will address the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing the planet. The symposium will end with a thought-provoking panel discussion among the speakers on future steps for building a sustainable planet.

The meeting will be live-streamed and video archived on the internet at Perspectives on Limits to Growth.

Second, coinciding with the with anniversary is the release an interesting report Life beyond Growth 2012.  Alan AtKisson, author of Believing Cassandra and colleague of many limits authors, wrote the report for the Japanese Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy, and Society.

Life Beyond Growth is the product of a year of research and reflection, during which the world experienced tumultuous changes, ranging from the Arab Spring to the Great East Japan Earthquake to the “Occupy” movement to the near-meltdown of the Eurozone.

Despite all the economic and political turmoil, a revolution in economic thought continued to gain steam. From “Green Economy” to “Gross National Happiness” to the more radical notion of “De-growth,” governments around the world have continued to explore new ways to frame, and measure, the idea of national progress. Most recently, the United Nations has formally joined the dialogue, with its own high-level panel calling for “new ways to measure progress” in advance of the Rio+20 global summit.

And third, one that was not planned to coincide with the anniversary, but is importantly connected Victor Galaz and many other have a new paper Planetary boundaries’ — exploring the challenges for global environmental governance, which is not freely available, in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2012.01.006).  The article (from the abstract):

… provides an overview of the global governance challenges that follow from this notion of multiple, interacting and possibly non-linear ‘planetary boundaries’. Here we discuss four interrelated global environmental governance challenges, as well as some possible ways to address them. The four identified challenges are related to, first, the interplay between Earth system science and global policies, and the implications of differences in risk perceptions in defining these boundaries; second, the capacity of international institutions to deal with individual ‘planetary boundaries’, as well as interactions between them; third, the role of international organizations in dealing with ‘planetary boundaries’ interactions; and fourth, the role of global governance in framing social–ecological innovations.

Learning about Arctic Regime Shifts

Science magazine has an interesting question and answer interview with Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist from the USA’s Smithsonian Institution, who has a worked with indigenous communities in Alaska and northern Russia. They talk about learning about local ecological knowledge and Arctic regime shifts.

Q: What are some of the biggest differences in how indigenous people and scientists look for change or perceive change in the environment?

I.K.: I wouldn’t put it like “indigenous people” and “scientists.” It’s a difference between someone who lives in the environment daily, and someone who studies it [at a distance]. If you wake up every morning and your day depends upon the weather, if your life depends upon going out and coming back safe, and bringing food and traveling, then you’re naturally much more attentive and in tune to the environment.

The difference between indigenous people and nonindigenous residents is that indigenous people have the advantage of multigenerational knowledge, and traditional knowledge of language, classification, and nomenclature that they learn from parents, grandparents, and other elders. If you’re just a resident scientist, you depend upon what you may watch in the environment on your own.

Q: What’s the relationship between knowledge and language in how it’s transmitted?

I.K.: We’ve always thought that a lot of information is stored and passed via language. We recently tried to document indigenous terminologies for sea ice, as one of the goals of a project during the International Polar Year [2007-2008]. Altogether, we have documented 30 terminologies from different parts of the Arctic. People are using between 60 and more than 100 terms for different types of ice, and their classifications are very different from those used by scientists. Their terminology is always very local, very different from place to place; the richness of the vocabulary is different. It’s not like there’s an “Eskimo terminology” for ice or for snow. There are a dozens of different terminologies.

Q: In your talk, you mentioned the Sea Ice Knowledge and Use (SIKU) Project, where you asked indigenous people to record observations of sea ice change. What were some of the most striking observations that came out of this project?

I.K.: [Indigenous] people keep saying that change has happened before, that we are now documenting an already changed environment. I’m increasingly hearing, “Igor, you’re late. That changed between 1999 and 2000, or 2001.” Probably they are pointing to what biologists and oceanographers call “regime shift” [when ecosystems rapidly change from one relatively stable state to another], which means that the regime shift happened before we started [the project]. Whether it was really an abrupt regime shift or a more gradual one, we don’t know, but we will learn.

Stabilizing Collectives in the Study of Transformation: Instead of “key-individuals”

This deserves perhaps an even longer blog post, but I wrote this quickly as an appreciation to the previous blog by Juan Carlos Rocha.

The previous blog post puts focus on a quite problematic nexus within social-ecological studies, and management theory more generally: the focus on “key-individuals”, “leaders”, and “institutional or social entrepreneurs” to explain change and ‘transformation’. In my new chapter on “Transformative Collective Action” (Ernstson, 2011a; see blog post here) I review some of that literature and conclude that such constructs can create an analytical trap, or blindness, since these constructs provides the analyst a too easy way out for explaining change; ‘key-individuals’ tend to step out on the scene like ready-made ‘magic boxes’ to put things right, very much like a deus ex machina in Greek or Brechtian dramas, who suddenly solves intractable problems.

To take research beyond key-individuals on one hand, and external/structural factors (equally ready-made) on the other, seems crucial to me. The references put forward by Duncan Watts in Juan’s post are highly useful here (LeBon, Tolstoy, Berlin), as are the search for mechanisms like those Jon Norberg studies through the clean world of agent-based model experiments.

However, what is also badly needed in the field of resilience and social-ecological studies are more empirical work, and more theoretical constructs, frameworks and registers that allow us to appreciate the often messy but profoundly collective nature of transformative or revolutionary change. (These ways of doing research should also acknowledge that change processes will be quite different from place to place.) To study such change must necessarily be more than just dividing a process into ‘phases’, looking for ‘windows of opportunity’, and plug in certain individuals in the account who can ‘seize’ these windows and usher in a new way of doing things.

To the particular tedious task of doing empirical studies of transformations, there are probably various ways. So far, in my own work, I have especially built on social movement theory, a field that par excellence has studied transformative and revolutionary change. Here social movement scholar Mario Diani has showed how to use social network analysis to understand “network-level mechanisms”, which I view as:

“social actions made possible through, and emerging from, the patterns of relations between mobilizing actors, and thus dependent on the full structure of the social network, and not just the local surrounding of single actors” (Ernstson 2011, p. 258).

Another important Italian is Alberto Melucci, who used a constructionist and cultural approach to collective action, emphasizing that collective action needs to be constructed and that ‘structural’ or external factors are not enough to explain change since a practice of engagement is needed to translate ‘structural/external’ factors into tangible action. He also emphasized that collective action necessarily also produces or constructs new ways of knowing, thus necessarily upsetting and challenging dominating ways of knowing (and one needs to account for how such knowledge is constructed in and through collective action).

Thirdly, I have been drawing on scholars like Jonathan Murdoch, Bruno Latour, John Law and Annmarie Mol who use post-structuralist geography and actor-network theory (ANT). This body of scholarship decenters the human subject in studying change, and thus “reassembles the social” (Latour, 2005) so as to allow also non-humans to be part in constructing/producing collective action. This makes it possible as an analyst to stabilize accounts of ‘distributed agency’, where the ability for change resides among people and things, which together come to make up quite heterogeneous collectives. For instance, in my case study here in Cape Town (Ernstson 2011), certain plants seem to participate in modes of empowerment, and play an important role in stabilizing collectives that can carry action across space and time. For the Occupy Movement, tents, streets, squares and Internet seems key but exactly how these things are enrolled into a stabilization of collective action needs ethnographic engagement. Importantly however, careful analysis of such heterogeneous collectives can come to also show how alternative ways of knowing and becoming are produced in and through the same collectives that carry or produce action, and thus such analysis lends itself to study how collective action engages the world in epistemological and ontological politics. The latter seems key in any transformation worthy the name.

This was just a short burst in response to Juan’s interesting blog post. If anybody has more ideas on this, tips on empirical studies or theoretical treatise in the area of social-ecological studies that relates to this, please make contact, or post comments, as usual.

References

Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. “Transformative collective action: a network approach to transformative change in ecosystem-based management.” Pp. 255-287 in Social Networks and Natural Resource Management: Uncovering the Social Fabric of Environmental Governance, edited by Ö. Bodin and C. Prell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. “Re-translating nature in post-apartheid Cape Town: the alliance of people and plants in generating collective action.” Presented at London School of Economics workshop on Actor-Network Theory in Development Studies, 3 July 2011 organized by Richard Heeks.

[Also posted on my blog http://www.rhizomia.net/]