Category Archives: Ideas

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.

Stafford Beer on Ross Ashby

Here is some old time systems theory from my Swedish summer reading.

Stafford Beer on Ross Ashby‘s Law of Requisite Variety in his paper “The Viable System Model: Its Provenance, Development, Methodology and Pathology” in The Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jan., 1984), pp. 7-25

It has always seemed to me that Ashby’s Law stands to management science as Newton’s Laws stand to physics; it is central to a coherent account of complexity control. “Only variety can destroy variety.” People have found it tautologous; but all mathematics is either tautologous or wrong. People have found it truistic; in that case, why do managers constantly act as if it were false? Monetary controls do not have requisite variety to regulate the economy. The Finance Act does not have requisite variety to regulate tax evasion. Police procedures do not have requisite variety to suppress crime. And so on. All these regulators could be redesigned according to cybernetic principles…

Much more on Beer and Ashby can be found in Andrew Pickering’s fine book – the Cybernetic Brain – sketches of another future.

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.

The Anthropocene: spread of an idea

The Anthropocene, the idea that the entire planet has become a social-ecological system, is now being discussed in the mass media.  Three recent sightings…

1) The Economist has a feature story A man-made world: Science is recognising humans as a geological force to be reckoned with.  The author writes:

To think of deliberately interfering in the Earth system will undoubtedly be alarming to some. But so will an Anthropocene deprived of such deliberation. A way to try and split the difference has been propounded by a group of Earth-system scientists inspired by (and including) Dr Crutzen under the banner of “planetary boundaries”. The planetary-boundaries group, which published a sort of manifesto in 2009, argues for increased restraint and, where necessary, direct intervention aimed at bringing all sorts of things in the Earth system, from the alkalinity of the oceans to the rate of phosphate run-off from the land, close to the conditions pertaining in the Holocene. Carbon-dioxide levels, the researchers recommend, should be brought back from whatever they peak at to a level a little higher than the Holocene’s and a little lower than today’s.

The Earth’s history shows that the planet can indeed tip from one state to another, amplifying the sometimes modest changes which trigger the transition. The nightmare would be a flip to some permanently altered state much further from the Holocene than things are today: a hotter world with much less productive oceans, for example. Such things cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, the invocation of poorly defined tipping points is a well worn rhetorical trick for stirring the fears of people unperturbed by current, relatively modest, changes.

In general, the goal of staying at or returning close to Holocene conditions seems judicious. It remains to be seen if it is practical. The Holocene never supported a civilisation of 10 billion reasonably rich people, as the Anthropocene must seek to do, and there is no proof that such a population can fit into a planetary pot so circumscribed. So it may be that a “good Anthropocene”, stable and productive for humans and other species they rely on, is one in which some aspects of the Earth system’s behaviour are lastingly changed. For example, the Holocene would, without human intervention, have eventually come to an end in a new ice age. Keeping the Anthropocene free of ice ages will probably strike most people as a good idea.

2) The New York Times has a discussion between a number of thinkers on the Anthropocene – The Age of Anthropocene: Should We Worry? The discussants include Jon Foley, Erle Ellis, Ruth DeFreis, and Brad Allenby.

3) There are also shorter articles in the BBC and Discovery News.

Is a Good Anthropocene Possible?

Will Steffen and I gave contrasting talks in a Mock Court on the meaning of the Anthropocene at the 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability in Stockholm.  The talks are now online, along with other talks from the symposium (I recommend Frances Westley‘s on innovation).

Will and I were arguing about four charges (defined by the Symposium organizers):

  1. Humanity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene epoch.
  2. Humanity is at risk of pushing the planet across catastrophic tipping points.
  3. Incrementality is dead as a strategy for human development in an era of rapid global change
  4. Humanity can prosper, in the Anthropocene, within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries (within the intrinsic boundaries of the Earth System).

I accepted Will’s case on the first, but argued against 2&3 and for 4.  The jury of Nobel Laureate ruled.

  1. Humanity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene epoch. Yes
  2. Humanity is at risk of pushing the planet across catastrophic tipping points. Lack of evidence.  The key sticking point here was the word “catastrophic”.
  3. Incrementality is dead as a strategy for human development in an era of rapid global change.  No
  4. Humanity can prosper, in the Anthropocene, within the safe operating space of planetary boundaries (within the intrinsic boundaries of the Earth System). Yes (But the key word is can – there is no guarantee humanity will.)

Nobel Symposium in Stockholm

I just argued the human role in the Anthropocene with Will Steffen at the 2011 Nobel Laureate Symposium in Stockholm.  In a mock court, in front of a jury of Nobelists, I successfully argued that:

1) Humanity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene epoch, but 4) Humanity can prosper, in the Anthropocene

2) Humanity has substantial capacity to cope with tipping points, they do not represent “catastrophic change” (from the perspective of humanity).

3) Humanity needs learn how to cope with a novel, turbulent world requires change – based on learning, experimentation, diversity.

The rest of the symposium is is being broadcast on the web.

The symposium’s website provides a description of the meeting:

This third Nobel Laureate Symposium will focus on the need for integrated approaches that deal with the synergies, conflicts and trade-offs between the individual components of climate change.

Climate change, decreasing biodiversity, deteriorating ecosystems, poverty and a continuously growing population all contribute to reducing the planet’s resilience and may have catastrophic implications for humanity.

Each of these problems has attracted great attention from the international community, but they have invariably been considered in isolation, with little or no regard to the interactions between them.

It is time to change this approach.

The Symposium is organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, Stockholm Environment Institute, Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics and Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research.

The Symposium, organised with the participation and support of HM King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, will provide an informal setting for productive discussions on how we can transform current governance into a more sustainable and adaptive management approach that operates within the boundaries of the planet.

It will take place at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm between 16-19 May and will include a mix of plenary presentations, panel discussions and working group sessions. The Symposium will be concluded with a Royal dinner hosted by HM Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

Resilience 2011 slides and videos

Slides and videos for keynote and invited speaker presentations at Resilience 2011 are now available online.



I didn’t see all of these talks, but those that I did see were good. I particularly recommend Bill Clark, Elinor Ostrom, Carlo Jaegar, and Marten Scheffer’s talks.

Interesting recent resilience papers

A few recent papers on resilience are quite exciting.  Below are brief pointers to them.  Hopefully we will have more time to right about them in the future.

  1. Steve Carpenter and colleagues Early Warnings of Regime Shifts: A Whole-Ecosystem Experiment in Science (DOI:10.1126/science.1203672)
    Uses experimental lakes to show that early warning signs of regime shifts can be detected (with high frequency monitoring).
  2. Kendra McSweeney and Oliver Coomes Climate-related disaster opens a window of opportunity for rural poor in northeastern Honduras PNAS 108(13) 5203-5208 (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1014123108)
    Response of a community in Honduras to Hurricane Mitch shows that disasters can provide opportunities for the poor.
  3. JP Evans Resilience, ecology and adaptation in the experimental city. Transactions of Institute of British Geographers 36 (2): 223-237 (DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2010.00420.x)
    A geographer reflects on the consequences of resilience approaches to cities – especially Urban LTER in USA.
  4. Bill Currie Units of nature or processes across scales? The ecosystem concept at age 75.  New Phytologist 109(1) 21-34. (DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8137.2011.03646.x)
    An ecosystem ecologist looks at the history, problems, and possible future of the ecosystem concept.