Category Archives: Big Back Loop

What Are Leaders Really For?

A week ago I had an interesting discussion with Jon Norberg, a professor in Systems Ecology here at Stockholm University, about leadership.  Jon is working on, among other things, an agent based model about how leaders influence opinion change in social networks. He’s been inspired by one of the iconic examples of transformation in resilience science: the case of the governance system of Kristianstads Vattenrike in Southern Sweden.

I have to confess that I’ve been skeptic when it comes to leadership. My feeling is that the literature give too much importance to key individuals, the product of history tends to fall in the actions of few key individuals that acted in the right moment bridging organization or spreading initiatives. I don’t find it surprisingly given the fact that most of us grow up watching Captain America and Superman. What a good times.  Anyway, the literature on complex adaptive systems have addressed the same issue from another perspective: swarm dynamics – how emergent patterns rise from local interactions between agents. In a swarm, any individual could be an agent of change. All it has to do is following the rules and send the right signals in the right moment to scale up the movement of the swarm or the flock and avoid predators or mountains. On this perspective, leaders are not superheros, but rather individual with agency (the power to produce change locally) that act accordingly with the signals of its own context and the network structure. In that sense, Hitler or Gandhi were not driving the change, rather they were part of it, they were rather driven by the bubbling of the social activity of their time. Jon told me that both versions belong to different schools of thought in sociology, which names I can’t recall at this moment.

Today, Duncan Watts, on of the authors on my to read list, wrote something similar that illustrate the issue of leadership inspired on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here is his blogpost from Harvard Business Review, I copied all so you don’t miss the details (source: What Are Leaders Really For? – Duncan Watts – Harvard Business Review.)

The Occupy Wall Street movement has both perplexed and frustrated observers and analysts by its persistent refusal to nominate an identifiable leadership who can in turn articulate a coherent agenda. What is the point, these critics wonder, of a movement that can’t figure out where it’s trying to go, and how can it get there without anyone to lead it?

It’s a reasonable question, but it says at least as much about what we want from our social movements as it does about the way movements actually succeed.

Typically, the way we think of social change is some variant of the “great man” theory of history: that remarkable events are driven by correspondingly remarkable individuals whose vision and leadership inspire and coordinate the actions of the many. Sometimes these individuals occupy traditional roles of leadership, like presidents, CEOs, or generals, while at other times they emerge from the rank and file; but regardless of where they come from, their presence is necessary for real social change to begin. As Margaret Meade is supposed to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It’s an inspiring idea, but over 100 years ago in his early classic of social psychology, “The Crowd,” the French social critic Gustave LeBon, argued that the role of the leader was more subtle and indirect. According to LeBon, it was the crowd, not the princes and generals, that had become the driving force of social change. Leaders still mattered, but it wasn’t because they themselves put their shoulders to the wheel of history; rather it was because they were quick to recognize the forces at work and adept at placing themselves in the forefront.

Even before LeBon, no less an observer of history than Tolstoy presented an even more jaundiced view of the great man theory. In a celebrated essay on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin summed up Tolstoy’s central insight this way: “the higher the soldiers or statesmen are in the pyramid of authority, the farther they must be from its base, which consists of those ordinary men and women whose lives are the actual stuff of history; and, consequently, the smaller the effect of the words and acts of such remote personages, despite all their theoretical authority, upon that history.” According to Tolstoy, in other words, the accounts of historians are borderline fabrications, glossing over the vast majority of what actually happens in favor of a convenient storyline focused on the skill and leadership of the great generals.

Thinkers like Le Bon and Tolstoy and Berlin therefore lead us to a radically alternative hypothesis of social change: that successful movements succeed for reasons other than the presence of a great leader, who is as much a consequence of the movement’s success as its cause. Explanations of historically important events that focus on the actions of a special few therefore misunderstand their true causes, which are invariably complex and often depend on the actions of a great many individuals whose names are lost to history.

Interestingly, in the natural world we don’t find this sort of explanation controversial. When we hear that a raging forest fire has consumed millions of acres of California forest, we don’t assume that there was anything special about the initial spark. Quite to the contrary, we understand that in context of the large-scale environmental conditions — prolonged drought, a buildup of flammable undergrowth, strong winds, rugged terrain, and on so — that truly drive fires, the nature of the spark itself is close to irrelevant.

Yet when it comes to the social equivalent of the forest fire, we do in effect insist that there must have been something special about the spark that started it. Because our experience tells us that leadership matters in small groups such as Army platoons or start-up companies, we assume that it matters in the same way for the very largest groups as well. Thus when we witness some successful movement or organization, it seems obvious to us that whoever the leader is, his or her particular combination of personality, vision, and leadership style must have supplied the critical X factor, where the larger and more successful the movement, the more important the leader will appear.

By refusing to name a leader, Occupy Wall Street presents a challenge to this view. With no one figure to credit or blame, with no face to put on a sprawling inchoate movement, and with no hierarchy of power, we simply don’t know how to process what “it” is, and therefore how to think about it. And because this absence of a familiar personality-centric narrative makes us uncomfortable, we are tempted to reject the whole thing as somehow not real. Or instead, we insist that in order to be taken seriously, the movement must first change to reflect what we expect from serious organizations — namely a charismatic leader to whom we can attribute everything.

In the case of Occupy Wall Street, we will probably get our wish, for two reasons. First, if OWS grows large enough to deliver any lasting social change, some hierarchy will become necessary in order to coordinate its increasingly diverse activities; and a hierarchy by nature requires a leader. And second, precisely because the outside world wants a leader — to negotiate with, to hold responsible, and ultimately to lionize — the temptation to be that person will eventually prove irresistible.

Leaders, in other words, are necessary, but not because they are the source of social change. Rather their real function is to occupy the role that allows the rest of us to make sense of what is happening — just as Tolstoy suspected. For better and worse, telling stories is how we make sense of the world, and it’s hard to tell a story without focal actors around which to center the action. But as we witness a succession of popular movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, we can at least pause to appreciate the real story, which is the remarkable phenomenon of a great many ordinary individuals coming together to change the world.

As a final thought, I don’t think leaders actually drive social change, at least when it comes to opinion formation and value change that has driven transformations in governance systems of  Kristianstads or the establishment of Australia’s Great Coral Reef Park cases. The “transformations” were rather driven by a self-organization of the system itself, it was ready for change. Leaders played a role on the course of action that history take, on the developing of the facts. But as the forest fire example proposed by Watts, it is more the change in slow variables rather than the spark what dominate the dynamics of fire. A more relevant question is then, what are the slow variables that underly regime shifts in society?

SFU Convocation Address – Global Resilience Requires Novelty

[On Oct 7th, 2011 Buzz Holling was awarded a Honorary Doctorate of Science at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver, Canada. Below is his convocation address - editor]

Sixty years ago I was where you graduates are now, but graduating from the University of Toronto. By the time I got my PhD a few years later, I was well launched on a goal to understand population processes. It was the unknown that beckoned me and simple curiosity that motivated me.

The goal was to develop suites of models and experiments that could yield explanations and understanding that were simultaneously precise, realistic, holistic and general. For that time, just before computers became available, that was viewed as being unnecessarily complex. After all, one distinguished ecologist asked me, if you are interested in the time a ball takes rolling downhill, why worry about anything more than the height of the hill and its slope? General laws of physics will provide the answer.

But I was stubbornly curious about the path down the hill, the bumps and valleys that the ball might encounter and the momentary pauses as the ball encountered, or even, over several runs, created a shallow valley. That led to really delightful experimental studies of predators and prey leading to generalized models and sudden discoveries from them. The beasts used in the experiments depended on the question of the moment – Preying Mantis, deer mice, shrews, then birds, fish and stalking lions. The early computers and languages like Fortran suddenly provided the language that could use the experimental and field results. Models plus reality combined to yield broadened, generalized understanding of a small number of classes of predation.

That is when I discovered multi-stable states – population systems were not driven only by attraction to a single equilibrium state but, instead, there were several equilibrium states that determined their existence. And the goal for understanding and managing living resources and their physical world, was not sustainability but simple persistence. I learned, for example, that we could have detected and averted a collapse of cod populations off Newfoundland, avoiding the social and economic upheaval that in fact occurred. Or, we could have anticipated and avoided a western sub-continental outbreak of bark beetles that are now destroying stands of lodge pole pine throughout British Columbia and Alberta. Both of these examples were dominantly caused by the slow consequence of earlier development and exploitation, by the ingenious, but myopic foraging of fishers and harvesters, and by decades long fire protection policies.

Those slowly and invisibly led to reduced resilience, poising the systems on the edge of an instability state which began to unravel in a stutter of local spatial collapses and outbreaks, each stutter hidden by fast and innovative fishers and tree harvesters, until the whole system followed the stutters and collapsed at all scales.

That has forced a new paradigm that led to theories of resilience, to adaptive complex systems, to integration across scales from fast and small to very slow and big– from the needles of trees over months, to the boreal forest over millennia, That new resilience paradigm led to management of resources that was adaptive, where the unknown was large, alternatives could be proposed and monitoring was essential.

That is all part of complex adaptive system theory. It reflects humanity’s partial knowledge, fast inventions for dealing with surprises, and persistent learning.

It applies to the present turbulence in the world now. Slow economic processes have led us to the big surprises now appearing on a global scale. Financial collapse, debts threatening nations, European deep instability, and climate change.

Since the Berlin Wall fell, and the Soviet Union collapsed, corporations began to focus on fast economic variables and on globalization. That led to an emphasis on expanding efficiency but also to the emergence of slowly increasing debt, and hidden forces caused by diversified, subdivided and fragmented investments. No one knew where they were, or what they cost. That eventually triggered a collapse that exposed the reality that slow, invisible changes had decreased the resilience of the world economy. Globalization spread the collapse. What was presumed to be efficient began to be realized as being myopic.

At this turbulent time of crises, you and I have a real purpose. We need to help minimize and slow the spread of the collapses in the face of resistance from lobbies and from accumulated wealth. Banks and investment firms need regulation and a richer paradigm, but that need is opposed by the entrenched powers of corporations and banks that are caught in a rigidity trap. Nations of the European Union, and the Euro, need an integrated, multi-scalar inter-relationship, but one that now encounters the loss of resilience that comes in part from the inability to devalue a single nation’s currency and little control on debt inflamed growth. Carbon dioxide emissions need to be inhibited, but that encounters the opposition from the fossil fuel corporations- particularly oil.

Our aboriginal cultures and small communities here on the west coast are discovering and protecting treasured histories and traditions of local cultures. They now need to also add and create novel new ways to see and act beyond their traditional scales at the mouths of rivers and to connect to others across scales. Does fear stop them? Could their traditional theory (and myths) combine with adaptive resilience theory (and myths) as an emerging synthesis?

The answer is to keep trying, keep talking, keep communicating, but recognize it is a frustratingly slow process. Understand the traps- poverty traps like Haiti, rigidity traps like Fascism, lock-in traps of mega agriculture, and gilded traps from external subsidies.

And here is a program specifically for you. Encourage and support experiments, a multiplicity of experiments that search for and deepen new paradigms. Be entrepreneurs, alone and cooperatively together. And make the experiments global and cross scale. The internet and its novel ways of helping people to interact lets us reach or create groups of participants independent of where they live, ones from multiple patches and multiple time senses.

Many experiments will fail, but make them safe in their failure. Look for rare synergisms between a few successes. When enough people and experiences have accumulated, then protest publicly, non-violently and simultaneously against the defenders of the old paradigm that created the crash, the flip.

Make it our Big Arab Spring.

Disaster and disaster – Junot Diaz on Haiti

Junot Diaz, author of the fantastic novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, writes about Haiti’s earthquake in Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal.  The experience of Port au Prince was quite difference from Lyttleton, New Zealand response to their own earthquake.

Diaz writes:

The figures vary, but an estimated 220,000 people were killed in the aftermath of the quake, with hundreds of thousands injured and at least a million—one-tenth of Haiti’s population—rendered homeless. According to the Red Cross, three million Haitians were affected. It was the single greatest catastrophe in Haiti’s modern history. It was for all intents and purposes an apocalypse.  …

So the earthquake that devastated Haiti: what did it reveal?

Well I think it’s safe to say that first and foremost it revealed Haiti.

This might strike some of you as jejune but considering the colossal denial energies (the veil) that keep most third-world countries (and their problems) out of global sightlines, this is no mean feat. For most people Haiti has never been more than a blip on a map, a faint disturbance in the force so far removed that what happened there might as well have been happening on another planet. The earthquake for a while changed that, tore the veil from before planet’s eyes and put before us what we all saw firsthand or on the TV: a Haiti desperate beyond imagining.

Truth be told, I’m not very optimistic. I mean, just look at us. No, I’m not optimistic—but that doesn’t mean I don’t have hope. Do I contradict myself? Then I contradict myself. I’m from New Jersey: as a writer from out that way once said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Yes, I have hope. We humans are a fractious lot, flawed and often diabolical. But, for all our deficiencies, we are still capable of great deeds. Consider the legendary, divinely inspired endurance of the Haitian people. Consider how they have managed to survive everything the world has thrown at them—from slavery to Sarah Palin, who visited last December. Consider the Haitian people’s superhuman solidarity in the weeks after the quake. Consider the outpouring of support from Haitians across the planet. Consider the impossible sacrifices the Haitian community has made and continues to make to care for those who were shattered on January 12, 2010.

Consider also my people, the Dominicans. In the modern period, few Caribbean populations have been more hostile to Haitians. We are of course neighbors, but what neighbors! In 1937 the dictator Rafael Trujillo launched a genocidal campaign against Haitians and Haitian Dominicans. Tens of thousands were massacred; tens of thousands more were wounded and driven into Haiti, and in the aftermath of that genocide the relationship between the two countries has never thawed. Contemporary Dominican society in many respects strikes me as profoundly anti-Haitian, and Haitian immigrants to my country experience widespread discrimination, abysmal labor conditions, constant harassment, mob violence, and summary deportation without due process.

No one, and I mean no one, expected anything from Dominicans after the quake; yet look at what happened: Dominican rescue workers were the first to enter Haiti. They arrived within hours of the quake, and in the crucial first days of the crisis, while the international community was getting its act together, Dominicans shifted into Haiti vital resources that were the difference between life and death for thousands of victims.

In a shocking reversal of decades of toxic enmity, it seemed as if the entire Dominican society mobilized for the relief effort. Dominican hospitals were emptied to receive the wounded, and all elective surgeries were canceled for months. (Imagine if the United States canceled all elective surgeries for a single month in order to help Haiti, what a different that would have made.) Schools across the political and economic spectrums organized relief drives, and individual citizens delivered caravans of essential materials and personnel in their own vehicles, even as international organizations were claiming that the roads to Port-au-Prince were impassable. The Dominican government transported generators and mobile kitchens and established a field hospital. The Dominican Red Cross was up and running long before anyone else. Dominican communities in New York City, Boston, Providence, and Miami sent supplies and money. This historic shift must have Trujillo rolling in his grave. Sonia Marmolejos, a humble Dominican woman, left her own infant babies at home in order to breastfeed more than twenty Haitian babies whose mothers had either been seriously injured or killed in the earthquake.

Consider Sonia Marmolejos and understand why, despite everything, I still have hope.

After all, apocalypses like the Haitian earthquake are not only catastrophes; they are also opportunities: chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change. One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen, and for once we won’t look away. We will reject what Jane Anna and Lewis R. Gordon have described in Of Divine Warning as that strange moment following a catastrophe where “in our aversion to addressing disasters as signs” we refuse “to interpret and take responsibility for the kinds of collective responses that may be needed to alleviate human misery.” One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen and for once we will heed the ruins. We will begin collectively to take responsibility for the world we’re creating. Call me foolishly utopian, but I sincerely believe this will happen. I do. I just wonder how many millions of people will perish before it does.

Resilience and Life in the Arctic

On Thursday, March 10, 2011, the Resilience Alliance Board voted to accept Eddy Carmack as the new Program Research Director. Eddy is a climate oceanographer studying water and people from oceans to estuaries as scientific lead for the Canada’s Three Oceans monitoring program in the Arctic and Subarctic; he is retiring in 2011.  He invented something extraordinary – a Philosopher’s Cruise on the Canadian icebreaker Louis St. Laurent as it journeyed through the North West Passage while monitoring data were collected. It was like the meetings on islands that the Resilience Alliance delights in.  It brought scientists form different disciplines, from the polar climate change community, philosophers, senior leaders in the Canadian government, Dene from the Canadian Senate, aboriginal and other young people, policy advisors to governments, business people from communications and people from the Resilience Alliance.  We lectured and talked, and discovered new steps. I describe my discoveries and one new step here. – CSH

Is the Arctic about to flip into a new state as a consequence of climate change?   It is certainly the first region of the world where climate change has so clearly demonstrated its early impacts. But it is also the place where political transformations have opened the opportunity for leaders and citizens to address economic, social and ecological changes. Such flips are an inevitable potential in any living system. They are rare but dramatic, and potentially transforming.  One of the steps that can now be made is to join the international science monitoring effort with a community based one.

How We Grow, How We Die, How We Transform

The Arctic is no different from any system of life. Every living system, at some stage, grows: a baby, a neighborhood, a company, a town, a forest, a grassland, a nation, a global set of biophysical and human processes, During the early phase, growth is dominated by entrepreneurial processes.  Early growth in a temperate forest, for example, sees saplings beginning to grow on a landscape during a period when entrepreneurial, pioneer species and physical forces dominate.  The system then continues to develop during an intermediate period with more diverse interacting species, leading to a period where a mature forest of a few species emerges that captures and stores the capital that has been accumulated.

But also, nearing the culmination of this first phase of growth and accumulation, resilience gradually decreases, new invaders are progressively resisted, and the system becomes locally stable but rigid, less resilient, with little latitude for innovation or for adapting to surprise. For example, the 800 year old trees of the Cathedral Grove in the Vancouver Island temperate rain forest stun the mind and entrance the spirit.  But its delights as a mature, temperate rain forest, immense and still, but singing with its small bits, also poise it on a sensitive edge of collapse. Remember the great windstorm of January 1997 that felled a number of giants? As a mature forest, it had become, and the survivors continue to be, an accident waiting to happen.  In other forests, the accident might be a fire, a windstorm or an insect or disease outbreak.

When collapse is triggered, then reorganization and renewal follows.  That is when power lays in the hands of the individual- plant, animal, person or small group. They can launch experiments, some of which can survive to determine the future. This is when resilience expands and where surprise and novelty can suddenly appear. The collapse is a kind of Schumpeterian creative destruction: certainly destructive, but much more interesting, also creative because it releases new opportunity that earlier was smothered. That might lead to the return of the original cycle from the memory of the old established by their seeds and saplings. Or more intriguingly, novelty might emerge as invasive species establish unexpected synergies with native species that fruitfully nucleate a new system, a new cycle.

That full cycle is what we call the Adaptive Cycle, one where there is a “front-loop” of growth, followed by a “back loop” of collapse and reorganization (see: Holling, C.S. and Lance H. Gunderson. 2002).

In terrestrial ecological systems, change during the front loop is incremental and learning is gradual and applied. It is essentially predictable.  In contrast, during the back loop, disorganization reigns, constraints are removed and probabilistic events can begin to emerge and synergize to nucleate the beginning of a new pathway. That back loop is faster in natural ecological systems than the front loop. It is the time when the individual – species or person- has the greatest potential influence. Learning can be dramatic, but it is chaotic and there are extensive unknowns.  The back loop is inherently unpredictable.

The front loop is a period of increasing efficiency, the back loop a period of reemerging resilience.


At times, the memory of the old system can be subverted by larger changes that, at a larger scale of cycles, have set new conditions that can flip biospheres into new states at smaller scales.  Going up and down such scales is what Panarchy adds to the Adaptive Cycle (see: Holling, C.S., Gunderson, L. H. and G.D. Peterson, 2002)

Global climate change did that 11,000 years ago, and established the conditions for new biospheres.  For example, much of Florida, and I would guess, Cedar Key, where we used to live, earlier was dry oak and grass savannas since so much of the water of the world was still trapped in ice sheets.  Shorelines were many kilometers from their present location, and the present Everglades were semi-arid lands.

Similarly, the southern edge of the present Boreal Forest was a mixed oak and beech savanna, waiting for the ice sheets to retreat and for the appearance of new species from the south that gradually, in a sequence of adaptive cycles, established the present interacting mix of spruce and fir, jack-pine, alders and birch.

When our view of the scale of a system in space and in time is expanded in this manner, new ranges of scale are perceived where ecosystems become seen as transient assemblages, that for a time- long for people, short for evolving systems- maintain persistent associations of species and local climate, to be ultimately replaced by new conditions that have emerged at a larger scale. Regional or global changes in climate intrude, and ultimately the earlier association breaks down to evolve to another.

Inside vs. Outside the System

Time and space scales in the boreal forest (from Peterson et al 1998. Ecosystems)

I have written this to this point inferring an Olympian view from inside the system, where we perceive with equal precision small and big elements, fast and slow ones and all in between. The fast cycling of leaves are perceived as precisely, with as much detail as the very slow millennial scale cycling of bioregions. The first occurs in days and months, and the other in centuries and hundreds of kilometers.  But standing outside the full system, in real life, we humans see partial chunks of that full spectrum. We perceive and live in a reduced scale range.  Some elements have a speed that are seen and reacted to immediately, some are slower and are seen roughly and periodically.  For long periods, as the slow elements on the inside change, that change is invisible to us on the outside.

Hence, within our constrained, but swinging rhythm, for long periods we see and act on principally the fast variables.  Changes in them dominate our actions, management and policies.  Think of the recent financial crisis that precipitated a global surge of surprise and the unknown in 2008/2009. That emerged because our society had slowly evolved a global economy based on a front loop concentration on fast investments through reduced financial regulation and monitoring and on extending globally.  Removing controls on an imaginary market was seen as allowing the market to solve any unexpected deviations without explicit attention.  Big instabilities could be forgotten. That is as much of a joke of limited economic theory as it is of myopic vision.

This focus on fast economic variables led to an emphasis on efficiency but also to the emergence of slowly increasing, hidden forces caused by diversified, subdivided and fragmented investments.  No one knew where they were, or what they cost. That eventually triggered a collapse that exposed the reality that slow, invisible changes had decreased the resilience of the world economy.  Globalization spread the collapse.  What was presumed to be efficient began to be realized as being myopic.

The Planet First, The People Next

Now that process is happening to biophysical elements, not just economic ones.  Humans have become a global force by also slowly increasing green house gas emissions, modifying the landscape and transforming the hydrosphere. We are, perhaps, at the beginning of the impact of those slow changes as climate warms because of human influences. Humans have become a global force. We are at the time of a large scale back loop when the individual – species or person- has the greatest potential influence. It is the global time when small is beautiful and local experiment most useful. Learning is chaotic and there are extensive unknowns.  The back loop, recall, is inherently unpredictable.

That is particularly evident in the Arctic now as we see the floating ice sheets dramatically contract and glaciers melt. Over the past decade, radar satellite imagery shows that the ice sheets on the Arctic Ocean have shrunk to 2/3 of their original extent and thickness. It is simply astonishing that the thickness can be measured within a few centimeters from space!

The image of change described earlier shows adaptive cycles arranged in structures across scales. This equally applies to a different set of ecological and physical processes at the top of the world, in the Arctic region.

In one orientation of a map of the top of the world, sitting on the pole, scanning the world above the Arctic Circle, we see Alaska at the top left, Canada on the left side, Greenland and Iceland on left bottom, Norway, Sweden, and Finland on the right bottom and Russia sprawling throughout the right side to the top.  Those nations represent the Arctic Council of eight nations. This is indeed a view from the top of the world.

The Arctic Ocean dominates the center of the map, while Northern Alaska, the Canadian Arctic archipelago and Greenland fringe the left side.  This is the region where the North West Passage was imagined in its alternate routes. This is a region, at smaller scales, of ocean passages, changing ocean currents, productive biotic hotspots, and Inuit communities with polar bears, beluga whales, seals and Arctic fox both at the top of the world and the top of the food network or chain. Even the subsurface topography is only crudely known as are the biotic interactions and the water chemistry.  The Beaufort Sea is now freshening as melt water creates the largest collection of fresh water in the world. The area is the focus of the International Polar Year (IPY) and, more specifically of Canada’s contribution: The Canada’s Three Oceans (C3O) project, led by Eddy Carmac (Carmac and Mclaughlin. 2011).

That project is dedicated to monitoring the Arctic from the northern Pacific through the Arctic into the northern Atlantic. Physical, chemical and biological attributes are sampled along a trajectory that can ultimately reveal, when repeated, the changes that occur as regional temperature increases.  Melting of floating ice sheets, increases in water acidity, and hints of impacts on some species in the trophic network are already evident.  The most obvious hints come from speculation concerning polar bears as they hunt for food on diminishing ice sheets.  But there are also hints from suspicions about planktonic species. Fish resources are likely to respond, and the knowledge needed to mange them is weak.

These observations reinforce the steps now underway to collect the kind of data, test speculations and develop models that are essential as change progresses on the top of the world.  The possibility of flips of ecological systems is very real, with surprises emerging that will have positive and negative consequences from a human perspective.  There are existing examples on land as permafrost melts; more will appear in the oceans.

The economic consequences for access to new fossil fuel sources and for ship movement through the Arctic are increasingly raising social, ecological and political issues that challenge and invite a cooperative regime of governance among the nations of the north. Perhaps Norway’s experience as one of the eight Arctic nations can help.  They have dealt with their own oil development in a way that recognizes present and future social needs. Perhaps those lessons are transferable to other Arctic nations.  At the moment, however, individual nations tend to launch competitive national initiatives to establish sovereignty, in preparation for international negotiations.

Next the People

These clear changes in the impacts of climate change suggest a need to expand national efforts to moderate climate change from present  international steps limiting greenhouse gas emissions, to new regional steps to adapt to existing and expected effects of changes in climate (for example, see Visbeck, 2008). Active Adaptive Management then becomes a priority, and the north the place to initiate and test the steps. Scientists, stakeholders and citizens are an integral part of the approach that has evolved. In the Arctic new scientific, social and political forces can combine for mutual benefit as an initiative leading to international action.

The polar program is therefore more than natural science. It is politics, history and social science as well.  Preeminently, the Inuit will be profoundly affected.

Historically, it is hard to imagine a more adaptive culture than that of the Inuit who lived on ice and land in the Arctic, prior to the appearance of Europeans. The Inuit and others hunted and lived over 4 000 years in ecological edges and hotspots, shifting away when climate became colder, back again when it got warmer.  Throughout, they adapted inventively for blunt survival.

The appearance of Europeans launched one transformation of these societies. Conversation now with those who live in and know the north feature telling stories of the isolating, shattering Residential Schools, of forced movement of Inuit groups torn from northern Quebec forests to Arctic deserts. The Churches, RCMP, and the government were blind, locked in their own paradigm of conquest and dominance. These are examples from our past that now are seen as representing beautifully intentioned narrowness and overwhelming ignorance (McGrath 2008).

Since then, the Inuit have experienced both crises and opportunities whose effects are barely grasped as settlements increasingly detach people and parts of their culture from the land and seascape.

The Arctic is now on the edge of a new sudden flip into a new regime caused by climatic, global economic and social causes. The Inuit’s adaptive capacity is one element that could help invent elements for the transition. Recent changes in political structures in northern Canada, Alaska and in Greenland open the opportunities. In addition, the best of integrative science at the scales now examined in Polar Studies is the other.  Extending the work of the International Polar Year and of the Three Canadian Oceans’ Project is therefore a prime opportunity.

A fundamental step for that extension is to join a new social initiative with existing scientific ones.  That could be done in a program that developed a consortium of local communities to monitor the physical, biological and social changes on land and at sea, using small vessels or snow machines owned by each community.

An early example of such a program is provided by Carmack and Macdonald (2008) who describe examples of indigenous knowledge and western science combining to give deeper insight than either alone. That local monitoring can combine to provide data and understanding at a next larger scale. And that in turn would combine with the IPY and 3CO programs for a full Arctic and costal assessment.

The Panarchy would be bridged and its different speeds perceived.  People would combine their talents, different experiences and histories as a stage for policy responses globally and regionally and for living locally.

That sounds nice, but how will we get people from eight different nations to cooperate, and have their governments act accordingly and not with selfish greed for resources?

Such an initiative would have its own local economic benefit as residents used their community vessel for other activities as well.  It would, for example, connect to the existing Canadian Rangers program, an existing network of local peoples with extraordinary skills in living on the land. There is deep knowledge of ecosystems and environment in every community of the Arctic and of the Pacific coast, knowledge drawn from the history and present experiences of the Inuit and First Nations. This new project would open a new direction to build on the deep identities indigenous peoples have slowly evolved in their earlier worlds. It could begin small and expand as naturally appropriate.

Imagine the potential for the Inuit kid or the young Haida native to develop the knowledge that can link his elders knowledge, with modern science, and economically viable harvesting, across scales.  A member of a true regional and global citizenship, who could recapture a disappearing identity.


Carmack, Eddy and Fiona McLaughlin. 2011. Towards recognition of physical and geochemical change in Subarctic and Arctic Seas. Progress in Oceanography. in press. (doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2011.02.007)

Carmack, Eddy and Robie Macdonald. 2008.  Water and ice-related phenomena in the Costal Region of the Beaufort Sea: Some parallels between native experience and western science. Arctic 61(3): 1-16.

Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S (eds) Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems . Island Press, Washington and London.

Holling, C. S., L.H. Gunderson and G.D. Peterson. 2002. Sustainability and Panarchies. In. Gunderson, L.H and Holling, C.S (eds) Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems . Island Press, Washington and London, Chapter 3, 63-102.

McGrath, M. 2006. The Long Exile. Alfred A. Knopf, Nerw York, 268 pp.

Visbeck, M. 2008. From climate assessment to climate services. Nature Geosciences, 1, 2-3. doi:10.1038/ngeo.2007.55

OECD global shock reports

The OECD’s Risk Management project has commissioned a number of reports to examine possible future global shocks and how society can become resilient to them.  They write:

The Project … recognises that shocks can provide opportunities for progress, not just negative consequences. Amongst the inputs from which the final report will draw are six background papers and case studies on the following themes: Systemic Financial Risk ; Pandemics ; Cyber Risks ; Geomagnetic Storms ; Social Unrest and Anticipating Extreme Events.

I haven’t read these reports (which are available through the links above), but they look interesting.  For example, prolific complexity scientist John Casti wrote the report on Anticipating Extreme Events.

thanks to Victor Galaz for the tip.

Global history: Ian Morris and the Great Divergence

Two of the big questions of global history are why did the industrial revolution happen, and why did it happen in NW Europe?

I’ve been partial to the explanation offered by historian Kenneth Pomeranz in his 2000 book The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (here’s Cosma Shalizi’s review) that China and Europe were quite similar and industrial revolution in Europe is largely explained by the accidental discovery and then imperial conquest of new world by Europeans.

Stanford archaeologist and historian Ian Morris has a new popular world history book, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future, that similarly proposes that geography has been the main factor shaping history. He takes a longer view and argues that the aspects of geography matter depend on social development.

In the videos below he outlines the thesis of his book in a short publicity interview from Stanford and a longer lecture at the RSA . (Here’s a review from the Economist).


In response to comments.  Morris is concerned about fossil fuels and environmental degradation. Here is a quote from a review of his book by Orville Schell in New York Times:

Finally, Morris surprises us. … what really concerns him, it turns out, is not whether the West may be bested by the East, but whether mankind’s Promethean collective developmental abilities may not end up being our common undoing.

The competition that East and West have been pursuing for so long, Morris warns, is about to be disrupted by some powerful forces. Nuclear proliferation, population growth, global epidemics and climate change are in the process of radically altering old historical patterns. “We are approaching the greatest discontinuity in history,” he says.

… Morris counsels that we now need to concentrate not on the old competition between East and West, but on a choice. We must decide between what Morris, borrowing from the writer Ray Kurzweil, terms “the Singularity,” salvation through the expansion of our collective technological abilities, and “Nightfall,” an apocalypse from the old Five Horsemen aided by their new accomplices. He warns that this choice offers “no silver medal.” One alternative “will win and one will lose.” We are, he insists, “approaching a new hard ceiling” and are facing a completely new kind of collective historical turning point.

For the Singularity to win out, “everything has to go right,” Morris says. “For Nightfall to win only one thing needs to go wrong. The odds look bad.”

Because distinctions of geography are becoming increasingly irrelevant, Morris views the old saw that “East is East and West is West” as a catastrophic way of looking at our present situation. Like it or not, East and West are now in a common mess, and “the next 40 years will be the most important in history.”

Planning for climate catastrophe

Thomas Homer-Dixon, author of the Ingenuity Gap and other books on the social response to environmental change and now a professor of global systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo and Wilfred Laurier University, argues in a recent New York Times op-ed Near the North Pole, Looking at a Disaster, that societies won’t make significant changes to address climate change until there is a crisis, but that people should prepare for such a moment for security reasons (an idea that fits well with the policy analysis related to the adaptive cycle).  He writes:

… Scientists aren’t sure what will happen when a significant portion of the Arctic Ocean changes from white, sunlight-reflecting ice to dark, sunlight-absorbing open water. But most aren’t sanguine.

These experts are especially concerned that new patterns of air movement in the Arctic could disrupt the Northern Hemisphere’s jet streams — which are apparently weakening and moving northward. This could alter storm tracks, rainfall patterns and food production far to the south.

The limited slack in the world’s food system, particularly its grain production, can amplify the effects of disruptions. Remember that two years ago, when higher oil prices encouraged farmers to shift enormous tracts of cropland from grain to biofuel production, grain prices quickly doubled or tripled. Violence erupted in dozens of countries. Should climate change cause crop failures in major food-producing regions of Europe, North America and East Asia, the consequences would likely be far more severe.

Policy makers need to accept that societies won’t make drastic changes to address climate change until such a crisis hits. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for them to do in the meantime. When a crisis does occur, the societies with response plans on the shelf will be far better off than those that are blindsided. The task for national and regional leaders, then, is to develop a set of contingency plans for possible climate shocks — what we might call, collectively, Plan Z.

Some work of this kind is under way at intelligence agencies and research institutions in the United States and Europe. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government has produced one of the best studies, “Responding to Threat of Climate Change Mega-Catastrophes.” But for the most part these initiatives are preliminary and uncoordinated.

We need a much more deliberate Plan Z, with detailed scenarios of plausible climate shocks; close analyses of options for emergency response by governments, corporations and nongovernmental groups; and clear specifics about what resources — financial, technological and organizational — we will need to cope with different types of crises.

In the most likely scenarios, climate change would cause some kind of regional or continental disruption, like a major crop failure; this disruption would cascade through the world’s tightly connected economic and political systems to produce a global effect. …

If so, a Plan Z for this particular scenario would help us make the most of the opportunity. It would provide guidelines for regional and local leaders on how to respond to the crisis. We would decide in advance where supplies of water would be found and who would get priority allocations; local law enforcement and emergency responders would already have worked out lines of authority with federal agencies and the military.

Then there are the broader steps to mitigate climate change in general. Here, Plan Z would address many critical questions: How fast could carbon emissions from automobiles and energy production be ramped down, and what would be the economic, political and social consequences of different rates of reduction? Where would we find the vast amounts of money needed to overhaul existing energy systems? How quickly could different economic sectors and social groups adapt to different kinds of climate impacts? And if geoengineering to alter earth’s climate — for example, injecting sulfates into the high atmosphere — is to be an option, who would make the decision and undertake the operation?

Looking over the endless, empty horizon of the Arctic, I find it hard to imagine this spot being of any importance to global affairs. But it is just one of many places now considered marginal that could be the starting point for a climate shock that plays a central role in the evolution of human civilization. We need to be ready.

See previous RS posts on Homer-Dixon’s work here.

Building civilizational memory

Memory is an important part of resilience.  Alexander Rose writes about various ideas of creating a Manual for Civilization from the The Long Now Blog:

Today we received another email about creating a record of humanity and technology that would help restart civilization. …

My bet is that the reality of watching your civilization (and population) collapse is likely one of the worst things anyone could experience. I am also not so sure the problem is just knowing how to remake a technology. For instance after the fall of the great Egyptian, Mayan, and Roman empires we had evidence and examples of their engineering achievements all around us. But aqueducts or senate buildings are worthless without a society around them to maintain, contextualize and protect them. …

In any case I thought I would create this blog post which I will try and keep updated as these proposals and efforts come to me (and hopefully come to fruition). I will also list some of the resources that I usually refer to when I get these inquiries. Please note these resources are extremely biased toward the English language, the United States and Western culture. Also note that one of the first things that comes up when creating any compendium style work is the issue of copyright. It might sound ridiculous that you might worry about copyright in a doomsday manual, but if you want to publish it and get it into peoples hands before the apocalypse, you are going to have to deal with it in some way. Please feel free to use the comments field to make suggestions and pointers and I will integrate them here as well.

Projects that are attempts in this direction:

  • The Rosetta Project: A multi-millennial micro-etched disk with a record of thousands of the worlds languages.
  • Westinghouse Time Capsules: Two time capsules (they actually coined the term for this project) by Westinghouse buried at Worlds Fair sites, one in 01939 and the other 01965 to be recovered in 5000 years.  They also did the very smart thing of making a “Book of Record” and an above ground duplicate of the contents on display.
  • The Human Document Project: A German project to create a record of humanity that will last one million years.
  • Crypt of Civilization: A airtight chamber located at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia. The crypt consists of preserved artifacts scheduled to be opened in the year 8113 AD.
  • The Voyager Record: The Voyager Golden Record are phonograph records which were included aboard both Voyager spacecraft, which were launched in 1977. They contain sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, and are intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form, or far future humans, who may find them.
  • Georgia Guidestones: The four granite Guidestones are covered in inscriptions written in 8 major languages that describe the tenets of their imagined Age of Reason.
  • (added) Doomsday Chests by Noah Raford
  • (added) The Forever Book an idea by Kevin Kelly

Critical Reflections on resilience thinking in the Transition Movement

The Resilience Alliance website has pointed to an interesting working paper from Alex Haxeltine, and Gill Seyfang from the Tyndall Centre in the UK Transitions for the People: Theory and Practice of ‘Transition’ and ‘Resilience’ in the UK’s Transition Movement, whose focus on developing transition towns to respond to the challenges of climate change and peak oil we have covered before on this blog.

Haxeltine and Seyfang state they write as ‘critical friends’ of the transition movement and address the transition movements equation of localism with resilience (which I believe is incorrect, and likely counterproductive).  It is wonderful to see resilience researchers engaging with they dynamic transition movement.  They write:

The specific language used is of “rebuilding resilience” – drawing on historical descriptions of towns in the UK around 100 years ago, the handbook argues that resilience has been decreased in recent decades. The narrative describes how localised patterns of production and consumption (and the associated skill sets and community cohesion) were eroded in a relentless shift to ever larger scale industrialized systems of production and consumption, made possible by the use of fossil fuel energy sources. Hopkins argues that there is now a great urgency to the need to rebuild resilience because of imminent disturbances (or shocks) in the form of peak-oil, climate change, and the associated impacts on economic systems and trading patterns (Hopkins, 2008). He links this urgency directly to our current oil dependency: “it is about looking at the Achilles heel of globalization, one from which there is no protection other than resilience: its degree of oil dependency” (Hopkins, 2008).

The framing of the Transition model provided in the handbook does explicitly draw upon the academic literature on resilience in socio-ecological systems (citing a 2006 introductory text by Brian Walker and David Salt for example), but what ideas are being taken from this literature, and to what extent is the resulting framework consistent with the interpretation of resilience quoted in section 2 of this paper? The Transition Handbook (Hopkins, 2008) cites studies of what makes ecosystems resilient, identifying: diversity, modularity and tightness of feedbacks:

These initial resilience indicators rely heavily on equating resilience with the re-localisation of systems of production and consumption. So the Transition Handbook could be said to provide a starting point for talking about resilience in a Transition Town, but it is still a long way from being clear about what is needed in practice. Furthermore the evidence from observation of the local Transition groups (during 2008-2009) is that they are in an equivalent situation of trying to frame multiple actions in terms of the building of resilience but relying heavily on equating resilience with a re-localisation of production-consumption patterns.

Resilience theory highlights the fact that building resilience to a specified disturbance (such as Peak Oil) does not necessarily provide the same resilience to all possible disturbances. Some properties of a Transitioning community, such as strong community networks and diverse skill sets, may help provide resilience to most disturbances, while other properties may be very specific to one disturbance. If one were to take the position that the greatest shocks in the coming years may, in the end, turn out not to be the ones that we expected, then successfully building a specific resilience to an expected threat (such as Peak Oil) may not provide resilience against realized disturbances. So what may be required is to build resilience to specific threats in a way that also builds system properties that help in coping with diverse possible threats – implying, for example, a need for a capacity to innovate.

The current framing of resilience equates resilience with localisation in a rather unquestioning way, as demonstrated by the resilience indicators given in the Transition Handbook. We would argue that increasing any one of these indicators could actually either increase or decrease resilience to a specific disturbance, depending the exact nature of the disturbance and on the exact systemic changes used to enhance the indicator. We also argue that the desirable goal is not to simply increase such indicators as much as possible, but to find the right balance between resilience and other goals, such as quality of life and well being.

Rob Hopkins and Neil Adger on transition towns and resilience

Rob Hopkins founder of the Transition movement has a long interview with Neil Adger on resilience, peak oil, and climate adaptation on Transition CultureNeil Adger is a professor in Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia and a member of the Resilience Alliance (Neil briefly explains social resilience in a video here).

RH: I was reading a piece of yours yesterday where you wrote “some elements of society are inherently vulnerable, and others are inherently resilient.” What is it that determines the degree to which things are vulnerable or resilient?

NA: First of all both vulnerability and resilience need a referent, so we need to be vulnerable to something, or resilient to something. I think the things that parts of society are vulnerable to are environmental change at the large scale, and the changes in the way the world and society works, which you can capture in the idea of globalisation. Some parts of society are, in effect, vulnerable to the large scale structural changes that are happening around the world – the changes in the flows of capital and labour and the restrictions on those, and the impact that that has on their life and livelihoods.

So if you think about the farming sector, it’s vulnerable to large scale price shocks, and we as consumers are vulnerable to large scale price shocks around the world. Some parts of society are vulnerable to environmental change and in combination are vulnerable to the sorts of things that are going on in terms of economic globalisation around the world. Others are more resilient. But being resilient to the forces of globalisation doesn’t necessarily mean that those parts of society are immune to them or even aren’t integrated into them.

I don’t think you can simply isolate yourself from the globalised world and say, “well, that’ll make us more resilient”. It’ll make us more resilient in some senses, but the world is as it is and I think we just need to deal with the fact that it’s more globally integrated and look on the positive side of that and reap the benefits of it.

Would you not have any truck with the idea that a resilient society is one where local economies are stronger?

I don’t disagree with that. What I’m saying is that local economies, for all sorts of reasons, are actually stronger and likely to be more resilient, because if we go back to the definition, they have more autonomy and room for self organisation and adaptability and change. Hence, I think it’s impossible to isolate a community or society from a globalised world.

Simply looking to give more autonomy to a community is a positive thing, but trying to isolate it from the rest of the world and not realise that we’re globalised and all the rest of it isn’t a sensible thing to do. As I say, there are a lot of benefits to globalisation (not necessarily economic globalisation) such as the flow of information around the world, global solidarity with places in other parts of the world. There are all sorts of up sides to globalisation. I’m sure you’re familiar with all those arguments and you know this on the ground.

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