Category Archives: Ideas

Richard Wilkinson gives a TED talk on impact of inequality

Richard Wilkinson, well known British public health researcher and co-author of the recent influential book on economic inequality the Spirit Level (which has been previously mentioned on Resilience Science) gives a TED talk about his research on the social impact of inequality.

More on his research and his advocacy of social change is on the Equality Trust‘s website.

Zizek interviewed by Al Jazeera on world protests and Occupy Wall Street

In his quite amazing, nerve-racking style, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek spins out a critique in an interview by Al Jazeera, a critique that homes in on the historical crisis of ‘our’ time, which we should read as a crisis of our economic system called capitalism. In commenting on what protesters across the world during this revolutionary and insurgent year of 2011, have been able to construct, he states:

The system has lost its self-evidence, its automatic legitimacy. And now the field is open. This is a very important achievement.

Click link to start video: Zizek interviewed by Al Jazeera about Occupy Wall Street

He contends, for instance, that what we might be experiencing, is a time when Western-led capitalism, which for a century has been able to combine exploitation with liberal democracy, is overtaken – or shown less effective – than a form of capitalism with, what he refers to has “Asian values”, a Chinese-Singaporean authoritarian capitalism. The liberalist argument, that capitalism will always sow the seeds of  democracy, under which we can all live reasonably well, as it did for instance in Spain (after Franco), in Chile (after Pinochet), and in many other countries in the world, might not longer hold true, Zizek means. It could be that the kind of capitalist model that is forged through China, outcompetes a western-liberal mode of capitalism. Zizek also laments the tragedy of Europe, which seems like a true tragedy, if the only alternatives Europe can construct for themselves is either a “Brussel bureaucratic model” that gives more of the same, or a nationalist anti-immigrant stance on the rise in European countries.

However, the most interesting part of the interview is when the Al Jazeera interviewer pushes the often sceptic Zizek to look for glimmers of hope in the protests we have been witnessing during 2011 (16m50s into the clip):

INTERVIEWER: “You are lamenting that the Left does not have a global remedy or approach to deal with a lot of these problems. Where would you see the glimmers of some kind of change?”
ZIZEK: “I think that what is already happening now is reason for modest optimism. Don’t expect miracles in the sense that all of a sudden there will be a magical solution. The beginning is simply that people should become aware that the difficulties we are confronting are not just the difficulties caused by bad greedy guys in an otherwise good system, but that we have to ask certain questions about the system as such. And this awareness is raising, this is what all the protests here [at the Occupy Wall Street] are about.  And I think that at this stage what is again important is not so much to offer fast solutions, but to break this, I call it ironically, ‘Fukuyama taboo’. [...] I mean, Fukuyama is not an idiot. In a way we all were until now Fukuyamaists. Even radical leftists were not thinking about what can replace capitalism… they were demanding more social justice, more rights for women within the system. The time has come to raise this more fundamental question. The system has lost its self-evidence, its automatic legitimacy. And now the field is open. This is a very important achievement.”

[There is another interview by Al Jazeera where Zizek further elaborates his views and outlook on for instance Climate Change, read more about it here: "The 'decaffinated' other": Zizek again at Al Jazeera on climate change, tolerance, and the post-political.]

This blogpost has been posted before at my blog In Rhizomia: http://www.rhizomia.net/2011/10/zizek-interviewed-by-al-jazeera-on.html

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.

Links: Melting glaciers, floods, and species responses to climate change

1) BBC News – Rivers of ice: Vanishing glaciers.- David Breashears retraced the steps of early photographic pioneers such as Major E O Wheeler, George Mallory and Vittorio Sella – to try to re-take their views of breathtaking glacial vistas.

2) Thai water management experts are blaming human activity.for turning an unusually heavy monsoon season into a disaster. NYTimes writes:

The main factors, they say, are deforestation, overbuilding in catchment areas, the damming and diversion of natural waterways, urban sprawl, and the filling-in of canals, combined with bad planning. Warnings to the authorities, they say, have been in vain

3) Chen et al’s conducted a metanalysis of published species response to ongoing climate change and found 2-3X faster movement than previous studies.  Their paper in Science – Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming (DOI: 10.1126/science.1206432) estimated median rates of species movement were 11m gain in elevation/ decade and poleward movement of 17 km/ decade. They conclude:

average rates of latitudinal distribution change match those expected on the basis of average temperature change, but that variation is so great within taxonomic groups that more detailed physiological, ecological and environmental data are required to provide specific prognoses for individual species.

Climate Stablization Wedges – an update, responses and critiques

A well know proposed strategy for reducing carbon emissions was the 2004 “wedges” paper in by ecologist Stephen Pacala and engineer Robert Socolow (Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1100103). For more on wedges see Carbon Mitigation Initiative website at Princeton.

Robert Socolow has recently published an update on the wedges paper, in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which discusses the failures of their proposal, he reaffirms the wedges approach and argues that they should have presented their work differently – specifically:

…advocates for prompt action, of whom I am one, also bear responsibility for the poor quality of the discussion and the lack of momentum. Over the past seven years, I wish we had been more forthcoming with three messages: We should have conceded, prominently, that the news about climate change is unwelcome, that today’s climate science is incomplete, and that every “solution” carries risk. I don’t know for sure that such candor would have produced a less polarized public discourse. But I bet it would have. Our audiences would have been reassured that we and they are on the same team — that we are not holding anything back and have the same hopes and fears.

and he proposes that:

To motivate prompt action today, seven years later, our wedges paper needs supplements: insights from psychology and history about how unwelcome news is received, probing reports about the limitations of current climate science, and sober assessments of unsafe braking.

There are responses onThe Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists website and Climate Central that include the Nicholas Stern and others.

Andrew Revkin on DotEarth has an number of US and energy oriented comments from earth system scientist Ken Caldeira, my former colleague at McGill economist Chris Green and others as well as response from Socolow.

Rob Hopkins from Transition Town movement presents a view from local sustainability action.  He worries that the wedges approach can actually make our current situaiton worse – in Giving Robert Socolow a Wedgie (so to speak). He argues that systemic strategies that improve local resilience could be much more successful by addressing multiple issues that focusing on energy and CO2.

Socolow argues that part of the blame for the fact that the world hasn’t adopted the wedges approach can be laid at the door of the environmental movement, for being so upbeat and chipper about the impacts and not acknowledging that there will be ‘pain’ alongside the ‘gain’ (as it were).  …  I think it is far more likely that most of Pacala and Socolow’s wedges are, ultimately, unfeasible due to their own energy intensity and cost in a contracting global economy.

Socolow and Pacala’s wedges were conceived and proposed solely as responses to climate change.  Yet, of course, climate change is not the only challenge we face.  As the World Economic Forum’s recently-released analysis of the risks facing the world over the next 10 years identified, extreme energy price volatility and the fiscal crisis sit alongside climate change, closely followed by economic disparity, collectively leading the field in terms of risks we need to be building resilience to as a matter of urgency

Resilience of Totnes

‘Town’ series on BBC2 examines the role of towns in the UK.

The last show in the series looks at the resilience of Totnes, the founding site of rapidly growing Transition Towns movement, which is represented locally by Transition Town Totnes.

The show focuses on the town, rather than the transition movement, but its focus on the resilience and deep history of Totnes is quite interesting. I especially found interesting how the town is connected to the utopian experiments of the nearby Dartington Hall, which is now home to the sustainability focused Schumacher College. The entire show is available on youtube.

The BBC describes the episode as:

A Saxon river town in South Devon, Totnes is one of the UK’s oldest towns. It has seen tough times through its long history, but adversity has taught it to innovate. Geographer and adventurer Nicholas Crane visits the home of one of the greatest social experiments of the 20th century, and uncovers the test bed for an ambitious new idea that aims to change our urban life forever.

Analysis of impact of recent global crises on development

In the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog Lawrence Haddad, director of the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK, writes What impact have the global crises had on development thinking? He summarizes some of the findings from an effort at IDS to assess how the financial, fuel, and food crisis of the past several years have shifted the assumptions underlying development.

Economic growth can be a force for good, but it does not have to be

When many of us were taught economics, growth was sometimes seen as sufficient for development and always necessary. [Our study] concluded that some kinds of growth are necessary, others irrelevant, and some harmful. Growth should be treated like technology: with the right governance, it can advance human wellbeing. The growth we want is economic development that is potent in reducing poverty, uses natural resources sustainably and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases. Too much research on growth is focused on how we get it, rather than how we get the type we need. We get the growth we want by focusing on: creating the right initial conditions (such as low inequality); reducing entry barriers for new, small businesses; setting key prices at appropriate levels (as with carbon production); and adopting stronger transparency mechanisms to allow society to pressurise corporations.

Views on growth are surprisingly homogenous. This is probably because only one type of economics (neoclassical) is taught the world over. But monocultures, nature has taught us, are particularly vulnerable to events.

Wellbeing and resilience are not panaceas, but neither are they fads

The crisis impact work indicated that while material goods were very important to the human condition, so too were the relationships and the psychological dimensions of human existence. Wellbeing brings these dimensions together in an explicit way. The emerging concern with resilience of systems is perhaps a good thing to come out of the bad news of the crises. Given the new global uncertainties (climate, the emerging powers, and resource scarcities deriving from current lifestyles) we think these concepts of wellbeing and resilience are here to stay. But if used lazily to provide politically correct gloss to issues of measurement of progress and interdependence, they will become devalued.

Unfortunately the full study only seems to be available as a book.

New resilience theory related book Phase Transitions

Ricard Solé, the well known complex systems scientist, has a new book Phase Transitions (here’s Table of Contents). It sounds interesting especially since Solé’s work frequently includes ecological and evolutionary dynamics.  The book looks very similar it is to Marten Scheffer‘s Critical Transitions in Nature and Society – so it will be interesting to see how they differ in approach and content.

The book is the third in Princeton University Press’s Primers in Complex Systems series.  Since phase transitions, critical transitions, and regime shifts are all extremely similar and all relate to resilience I’ll certainly check the book out.

The publisher describes the book:

Phase transitions–changes between different states of organization in a complex system–have long helped to explain physics concepts, such as why water freezes into a solid or boils to become a gas. How might phase transitions shed light on important problems in biological and ecological complex systems? Exploring the origins and implications of sudden changes in nature and society, Phase Transitions examines different dynamical behaviors in a broad range of complex systems. Using a compelling set of examples, from gene networks and ant colonies to human language and the degradation of diverse ecosystems, the book illustrates the power of simple models to reveal how phase transitions occur.

Introductory chapters provide the critical concepts and the simplest mathematical techniques required to study phase transitions. In a series of example-driven chapters, Ricard Solé shows how such concepts and techniques can be applied to the analysis and prediction of complex system behavior, including the origins of life, viral replication, epidemics, language evolution, and the emergence and breakdown of societies.

Written at an undergraduate mathematical level, this book provides the essential theoretical tools and foundations required to develop basic models to explain collective phase transitions for a wide variety of ecosystems.

Biotic simplification and ecological reorganization

From a powerful review paper in Science on the Trophic Downgrading of Planet Earth (DOI: 10.1126/science.1205106) James A. Estes and many other ecological stars documents the strong role of apex consumers (i.e. big herbivores like elephants) and top predators (e.g. wolves).

Fig. 4. Examples of the indirect effects of apex consumers and top-down forcing on diverse ecosystem processes, including wildfires (30); disease (35); composition of atmosphere (37), soil (47), and fresh water (49); invadability by exotic species (55); and species diversity (60). Interaction web linkages by which these processes are connected to apex consumers are shown in the center. Magnitude of effect is shown in graphs on right. Blue bars are data from systems containing the apex consumer;brown bars are data from systems lacking the apex consumer. Data replotted from original sources (cited above), except raw data on native bird diversity in chaparral habitats provided by K. Crooks.

A parallel world

From David Denby’s review of Soderbergh’s new movie Contagion in the New Yorker:

“Contagion” is, of course, a 9/11-anniversary movie, though probably not one that the public was expecting. Soderbergh appears to be saying, “I’ll show you something far worse than a terrorist attack, and no fundamentalist fanatic planned it.” The film suggests that, at any moment, our advanced civilization could be close to a breakdown exacerbated by precisely what is most advanced in it. And the movie shows us something else: heroic work by scientists and Homeland Security officials. We can’t help noticing that with two exceptions—a French doctor who works for the World Health Organization (Marion Cotillard) and a renegade epidemiologist in San Francisco (Elliott Gould)—the heroes are all employees of the federal government, and instinctively factual people. No one prays, no one calls on God. “Contagion” lacks any spiritual dimension—except for its passionate belief in science and rational administration. The movie says: When there’s real trouble, we’re in the hands of the reality-based community. No one else matters.