Category Archives: Reorganization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further readings:

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

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

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

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

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

A history of bicycle transformation in the Netherlands

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Panarchy

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.

References

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

briefly noted: disruptive technological change

1) The Atlantic on the Digital Underground of North Korea

2) New York Times Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software about innovations in AI that allow textual analysis of large sets of documents. The article discusses two approaches it terms “linguistic” and “sociological.”:

The most basic linguistic approach uses specific search words to find and sort relevant documents. More advanced programs filter documents through a large web of word and phrase definitions. A user who types “dog” will also find documents that mention “man’s best friend” and even the notion of a “walk.”
The sociological approach adds an inferential layer of analysis, mimicking the deductive powers of a human Sherlock Holmes. Engineers and linguists at Cataphora, an information-sifting company based in Silicon Valley, have their software mine documents for the activities and interactions of people — who did what when, and who talks to whom. The software seeks to visualize chains of events. It identifies discussions that might have taken place across e-mail, instant messages and telephone calls.
Then the computer pounces, so to speak, capturing “digital anomalies” that white-collar criminals often create in trying to hide their activities.

3) An interactive example on game theoretic AI that plays rock paper scissors quite well.

4) New Yorker’s Letter from China interviews Rebecca MacKinnon on Internet in China – censorship, the state, the public, and corporations.