Category Archives: Reflections

Cityscapes :: An urban magazine from the global south :: New issue #3: The Smart City?

How to think cities anew? When what we are seeing are not new londons, parises, new-yorks or even tokyos growing, we need to start re-thinking what urbanization and urbanism is about.

New Cityscapes issue #3 out. Speaking from the south on ‘Smart Cities’.

This is when we need a magazine like Cityscapes. Started in 2011 by artist-desginer-urbanist Tau Tavengwa and Sean O’Toole, backed up by southern urbanist stalwart Edgar Pieterese, the magazine gives a provocative shot or sip of a matured postcolonial critique of knowledge production.

Indeed when urban Theory, capital T, is not longer valid for the type of cities we see in Rio de Janeiro, Lagos, Johannesburg, Mumbai, and Jakarta, we need new tools, registers and ways of engaging that allows for new theories of the urban to grow and influence city-making, including planning and design professions. This is when we need to ask, like Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty of how to “provincialize Europe”—re-inserting the ‘localness’ of European thought to allow for experiences of urbanization and scholarship from different regions to take hold and influence theory-making. If Europe and USA is merely a province in the world of knowledge-making, then how have other regions thought and enacted their cities?

The Cityscapes magazine makes the amazing balancing act of being popular and punchy, while delivering a relentless critique that cities should not only be thought about from a EuroAmerican experience. But from locations like Lima, Nairobi, Mogadishu, Bangalore, Jakarta, Harare, and Medellín. This builds upon decades of academic critique of how theory—or established ways of thinking—has been critiqued.

Indian urban scholar Ananya Roy (2009) and South African cultural geographer and comparative urbanist Jennifer Robinson (2002, 2005 etc.) have in a series of articles argued for a comparative urbanism, a cosmopolitan urbanism that can de-centre EuroAmerican theory and experience.

Cityscapes #2 – the previous issue.

In response to the ‘world city’ theory created by Saskia Sassen and in part Manuell Castells—which traces the economic relations for global capitalism and has come to create hierarchies of cities based upon the number of transnational companies that chooses to place their offices there—Robinson argues for theories of the ‘ordinary city’.

This is not to say that the world city theory is not helpful to understand the internationalization of capitalism, and how it necessarily needs cities, but to say that its focus comes with effects.

These ‘ordinary cities’ does not only ‘fall off the map’ of the ‘world city theory’, making these cities uninterested locations for research and policy, but these cities also suffer in the way that investment—private and above all public—are spent increasingly in cities that aspire to become ‘world class cities’.

Rather than spending money on improving essential infrastructure to deliver safe water, sewage, electricity and food, money are spent on business parks, luxurious water front developments, and big event buildings (think the World Cup soccer stadium built in Cape Town, now standing mostly empty; or the Formula 1 racing track in the Omerli Watershed outside Istanbul, used once a year).

Consequently, backed by the world city theory, a whole industry of consultants and thinkers have carved out a policy field to influence how decision-makers can turn their own cities into ‘world cities’. This shapes the urban agenda away from the problems and possibilities of the ‘ordinary city’ and in particular the needs of the urban poor.

In Cityscapes last issue #2 the world city theory is under scrutiny. Through interviews and photography, the magazine unpacks infrastructural investment in Johannesburg, and also visits Bangalore. Increasingly many Indian cities are aspiring to become world-class. “As an instance of homegrown neoliberalism, the Indian world-class city is inevitably a normative project”, writes Ananya Roy in Worldling Cities edited book (2011). As reported, “Why? And for whose benefit is the world-class city?”.

In the current issue #3 focus is on ‘The Smart City’, the increasing tendency to invest in high-tech monitoring and surveillance techniques to govern city-life. This represents a move to allow technicians and experts not only a greater say in defining the problems of the city, and its solutions, but also in the actual day-to-day governing of the city. As expressed by the editors in promoting this issue:

This fuzzily defined term speaks to the increasing use of networked information and communications technologies in ordering of large-scale urban phenomenon. The magazine visits Rio de Janeiro to find out what this means practically. “Technology gives you a faster response,” explains Dario Bizzo Marques, a technology systems coordinator at Rio’s $14-million integrated city management centre, home to Latin America’s largest surveillance screen.

“We increasingly share the space and time of cities with semi-autonomous agents of a nonhuman, indeed non-biological, nature, from drones to algorithms,” offers Adam Greenfield in his provocative 100-point manifesto appearing in Cityscapes and addressing the pervasive use of tech-savvy urban management solutions. Noted urban theorist Ash Amin, in a cornerstone 5000-word interview with Matthew Gandy, is also wary of the ideological implications of reducing city management to the top-down marshalling of abstract data.

If you are intrigued and need a stylish, punchy, provocative shot of postcolonial critique, make sure to get a copy of the new Cityscapes #3. It will hopefully come to destabilize how you think about cities. You can find more information here.

If you are interested in the academic debates, I have just with Mary Lawhon and James Duminy submitted a paper to the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (IJURR) with the title “Conceptual vectors of African urbanism: ‘engaged theory-making’ and ‘platforms of engagement’. The manuscript summarizes debates but also pushes towards clarifying some of the contribution from the recent research on urbanism in Africa and what it could bring to theoretical conversations about cities. I could send you a copy if you are interested. For other entry points, see papers by Chakrabarty, Roy, Robinson, Simone and Pieterse below.

/Henrik Ernstson, Cape Town, 20 March, 2013

PS. The Cityscapes issue #3 will be launched Mar 27, 2013 at The Book Lounge, 71 Roeland Street, Cnr Buitenkant & Roeland Street, Cape Town. More information here.

Chakrabarty, D. (2007). Provincialising Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Second.). Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Parnell, S., & Robinson, J. (n.d.). (Re)Theorizing Cities from the Global South: Looking Beyond Neoliberalism. Urban Geography.

Pieterse, E. (2008). City Futures: Confronting the Crisis of Urban Development. Global Issues Series. London: Zed Books.

Robinson, J. (2002). Global and world cities: a view from off the map. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 26, 531–554. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.00397

Robinson, J. (2011). Cities in a World of Cities: The Comparative Gesture. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 35, 1–23. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2010.00982.x

Roy, A. (2009). The 21st-Century Metropolis: New Geographies of Theory. Regional Studies, 43(6), 819–830. doi:10.1080/00343400701809665

Roy, A., & Ong, A. (2011). Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, 41.

Simone, A. (2011). City Life from Jakarta to Dakar: Movements at the Crossroads. London: Routledge.


Can Geoengineering and Planetary stewardship be combined?

Should we deliberately intervene in the Earth system to counteract the negative impacts of climate change? Certainly not, if we ask prominent Earth system scholar Will Steffen. In a recent article published in Ambio , Steffen and colleagues argue that geoengineering and Planetary stewardship are opposing extremes because the former deal with “symptom treatment” rather than the reduction of anthropogenic pressures on the planet (Steffen et al. 2011:752).

In my view, this very much depends on what particular technology you focus on, and on what scale. In a recent article in Ecology and Society “Geo-engineering, Governance, and Social-Ecological Systems: Critical Issues and Joint Research Needs” , I argue that there is an interesting, and unexplored interface between some types of geoengineering technologies, and Planetary stewardship.

One important detail that tends to get lost in the public debate about geoengineering, is that the concept not only includes technologies that intend to counteract warming through the regulation of solar radiation (e.g. injection of stratospheric aerosols, cloud brightening), but also a suite of proposals that build on ecosystem-based approaches such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), long-term storage of charcoal in soils (biochar), and reforestation and afforestation.

Once this wider spectrum of proposed and future technologies is acknowledged, a whole different set of poorly explored issues emerge.

Earth stewards could play a key role in various phases of geo-engineering research, ranging from theory and modeling, to technology development, and subscale field-testing. […] Two issues will prove critical. One is to secure that geo-engineering experiments explore technologies that not only address climate stresses, but could also bring multiple social-ecological benefits to communities. […] Second, participatory and co-management processes always play out within an institutional context. Hence, the creation of institutional mechanisms at the national or international level that support consultation, the disclosure of information, provide ombudsmen functions, and endorse integrated assessments of social-ecological dimensions will provide a critical underpinning for participatory processes (from mentioned article in Ecology and Society).

Is this really geoengineering? Well, if you follow the conventional definitions of the concept, I would argue that it is. But it is geoengineering in a different way. As Mark Stafford-Smith and Lynn Russell so elegantly summarizes it in a recent article in Carbon Management

Instead, the geoengineering debate should urgently be reframed as, “what combination of many smaller geoengineering options could be resilient, least harmful and yet effective in mitigating global environmental change?”

Time has come for the resilience community to think more creatively about technology, and seriously engage with the geoengineering debate.

Additional resources of interest:

Lynn M Russel et al. (2012). “Ecosystem Impacts of Geoengineering: A Review for Developing a Science Plan”, Ambio

STEPS Centre (2012). Biochar: “Triple Wins”, Livelihoods and Technological Promise, STEPS Working Paper [PDF]

Oxford Geoengineering Programme (Oxford University)

Stockholm Seminar with Jason Blackstock on Solar Geoengineering

Interdisciplinary science – what should we measure, and why?

Research impact assessments of academic environments with bibliometric indicators are becoming increasingly important. Not only do they define where you are placed in international rankings of research institutes, but they are also being used as a basis for distribution of funds. This might sound like a smart and simple way to secure funds for world-leading researchers. But it could also create difficulties for interdisciplinary research environments. Here is one example.
Lennart Olsson from Lund University gave an interesting and critical presentation at the Resilience Conference in Arizona early this year, and presented data indicating that resilience thinking has had very little impact in the social science community. The analysis is the following. First, pick the 10 top-ranked social sciences journals (based on Science Gateway) for a few disciplines. Then, search for articles that contain “social-ecological systems” AND “resilience”. The results:

So, is resilience thinking (from a social science perspective) in crisis? If the ambition is to target mainstream top-political science journals, we sure are. Two issues could be raised here however. One: is this really the best way to measure our impact in the social sciences? Why not (just as one example) look for articles that reference Holling’s, Folke’s or Elinor Ostrom’s work for example?

A second, and I would argue more important objection to the analysis, is whether the sort of metric Olsson uses really captures the core ambition of interdisciplinary research. Bluntly put: isn’t the whole point of building interdisciplinary teams, teaching, methods and research networks, to create innovative sustainability science that is hard to classify as “social” or “natural”? These articles are not likely to fit easily into mono-disciplinary social science journals. If that is the case, how do we measure the scientific success of such attempts, without contributing to an artificial split between the “social” and the “natural”?

I assume many of you have had similar experiences or thoughts. Feel free to share in the comment field below.

The tragedy of a common currency

The current crisis of the Euro emphasizes some basic lessons from the study of resilience of dynamic systems. Attributes of complex systems that enhance resilience are diversity, redundancy and modularity. There is a cost of maintaining resilience. The decision to have one currency among different countries in Europe was based on a focus of efficiency. This could be reached as long as economies would grow steadily and the countries kept their budgets in check.

Unfortunately, some countries did not so. Also Germany and France have broken maximum governmental budget shortages, and no actions were taken. It sounds as if the basic principles of institutional design were not met. Meaning that there was no proper monitoring and were no proper enforcement mechanisms. Surprisingly there are not even regulations how countries may leave the EU or Euro.

By creating a tightly connected system without proper enforcement it is no surprise that the resilience of the European, and global, economy has been decreased. The budget crisis leads now to a spiral of distrust among participants in the action arena of the global financial system. It does not help either that the USA is not able to reach to any solution to their own budget problems.

If there was more modularity we could afford countries to fail. But in the tightly globalized financial system, a failure leads to a cascade of dominos falling. A short-sighted focus on efficiency has led to a costly endeavor and likely collapse of the euro. We can learn from long-lasting biological systems and the importance to develop system features that enhance resilience. Hopefully during the recovery after the pending transformation more emphasis will be given to design system properties to enhance resilience.

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:

Information and communication technologies in the Anthropocene

UPDATED: Slides from the talks at the end of this blogpost

The use of social media for political mobilization during the political uprisings in Northern Africa and the Middle East during 2010 and 2011; digital coordination of climate skeptic networks during “Climategate” in 2010; and the repercussions of hackers in carbon markets the last years. These are all examples of intriguing phenomena that take place at the interface between rapid information technological change, and the emergence of globally spanning virtual networks.

Exactly how information and communication technologies affect the behavior of actors at multiple scales, is of course widely debated. The question is: how do we make sense of these changes, from a wider resilience perspective?

Some of these discussions took place at the 2011 Resilience conference in Arizona in a panel convened by us at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and with generous support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Canada). Ola Tjornbo from Social Innovation Generation (SIG) at the University of Waterloo, explored some of the opportunites, but also profound challenges, related in trying to design effective virtual deliberation processes. Ola noted that while several success stories related to crowd-sourcing (Wikipedia) and collective intelligence (e.g. Polymath) do exist, we have surprisingly little systematic knowledge of how to design digital decision-making processes that help overcome conflicts of interest related to issues of sustainability. Some if these issues are elaborated by SiG, and you can find videos from an interesting panel on “Open Source Democracy” here.

Richard Taylor from SEI-Oxford presented a rapidly evolving platform for integration and dissemination of knowledge on climate adaptation – weADAPT. This platform combines the strengths of a growing community of climate adaptation experts, a database of ongoing local climate adaptation projects, semantic web technologies, and a Google Earth interface. The visualizations are stunning, and provide and interesting example of how ICTs can be used for scientific communication.

Angelica Ospina from the Centre of Development Informatics at the University of Manchester, showcased some ongoing work on mobile technologies and climate adaptation resilience. As Ospina noted, ICTs can provide some very tangible support for various features of resilience, ranging from self-organization, to learning and flexibility. You can find a working paper  by Angelica here.

To summarize: three very different yet complementary perspectives on how ICTs could be harnessed in the Anthropocene: by building new types of virtually supported decision making and collective intelligence processes; linking expert communities and local natural resource management experimentation together; and by exploring the resilience building strengths of decentralized mobile technologies.

Slides from the talks

Victor Galaz (intro)

Ola Tjornbo

Richard Taylor

Controversies around the Social Cost of Carbon

What is the social cost of carbon? That is,the monetary value of the long-term damages done by greenhouse gas emissions? Frank Ackerman from the Stockholm Environment Institute U.S. Center, recently gave a fascinating talk at the Stockholm Resilience Centre where he presented the widely used FUND-model, an integrated assessment model of climate change that links climate change science with economics. According to Ackerman, the interesting aspect with this model is not only that it is commonly cited by policy-makers in the US, but also that some of its basic assumptions, lead to quite bizarre results. The policy implications can not be overestimated.

As Ackerman notes in the TripleCrisis blog:

True or false: Risks of a climate catastrophe can be ignored, even as temperatures rise? The economic impact of climate change is no greater than the increased cost of air conditioning in a warmer future? The ideal temperature for agriculture could be 17oC above historical levels?

All true, according to the increasingly popular FUND model of climate economics. It is one of three models used by the federal government’s Interagency Working Group to estimate the “social cost of carbon” – that is, the monetary value of the long-term damages done by greenhouse gas emissions. According to FUND, as used by the Working Group, the social cost of carbon is a mere $6 per ton of CO2. That translates into $0.06 per gallon of gasoline. Do you believe that a tax of $0.06 per gallon at the gas pump (and equivalent taxes on other fossil fuels) would solve the climate problem and pay for all future climate damages?

I didn’t believe it, either. But the FUND model is growing in acceptance as a standard for evaluation of climate economics. To explain the model’s apparent dismissal of potential harm, I undertook a study of the inner workings of FUND (with the help of an expert in the relevant software language) for E3 Network. Having looked under the hood, I’d say the model needs to be towed back to the shop for a major overhaul.

A working paper that teases the critique in detail can be found here. To summarize the conclusions for non-economists: the social cost of carbon is way higher than $6 per ton of CO2….

Resilience and Life in the Arctic

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

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

How We Grow, How We Die, How We Transform

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Inside vs. Outside the System

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

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

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

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

The Planet First, The People Next

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next the People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Does an increased awareness of catastrophic “tipping points”, really trigger political action?

This critical question relates to a suite of resilience related research fields, ranging from early warnings of catastrophic shifts in ecosystems, non-linear planetary boundaries, and the role of perceived crisis as triggers of transformations towards more adaptive forms of ecosystem governance.

The answer might seem quite straight-forward: “yes!”. Why wouldn’t political actors try to steer away from potentially devastating tipping points? Political philosopher Stephen M. Gardiner elaborates the opposite position in a very thought-provoking article in the Journal of Social Philosophy (2009) about the moral implications of abrupt climate change.

Planetary Boundaries

Planetary Boundaries

According to Gardiner, several economical, psychological and intergenerational dilemmas make it likely that an increased awareness of devastating “tipping points”, undermine political actors’ work towards effective climate change mitigation. Instead, it induces them to focus on adaptation measures, and involve in what Gardiner denotes an “Intergenerational Arms Race”.

Suppose, for example, that a given generation knew that it would be hit with a catastrophic abrupt change no matter what it did. Might it not be inclined to fatalism? If so, then the temporal proximity of abrupt change would actually enhance political inertia, rather than undercut it. (Why bother?)

In addition, according to Gardiner, in facing abrupt climate change, there will be other more urgent concerns than climate change mitigation, again creating greater risks for future generations.

[T]he proximity of the abrupt change may actually provide an incentive for increasing current emissions above the amount that even a completely self-interested generation would normally choose. What I have in mind is this. Suppose that a generation could increase its own ability to cope with an impending abrupt change by increasing its emissions beyond their existing level. (For example, suppose that it could boost economic output to enhance adaptation efforts by relaxing existing emissions standards.) Then, it would have a generation-relative reason to do so, and it would have this even if the net costs of the additional emissions to future generations far exceed the short-term benefits. Given this, it is conceivable that the impending presence of a given abrupt change may actually exacerbate the PIBP “the problem of intergenerational buck passing”], leaving future generations worse off than under the gradualist paradigm.

So what are the ways to get out of this dilemma? Gardiner suggests:

In my view, if we are to solve this problem, we will need to look beyond people’s generation-relative preferences. Moreover, the prevalence of the intergenerational problem suggests that one set of motivations that we need to think hard about engaging is those connected to moral beliefs about our obligations to those only recently, or not yet, born. This leaves us with one final question. Can the abrupt paradigm assist us in this last task? Perhaps so: for one intriguing possibility is that abrupt change will help us to engage intergenerational motivations.

(Thanks to Simon Birnbaum for passing on Gardiner’s article.)

Impacts of the 2010 tsunami in Chile

UPDATE: Here is a link to a video to Prof. Castilla’s talk (via @sthlmresilience)

03:34 a.m. February 27th 2010. Suddenly, a devastating earthquake and a series of tsunamis hits the central–south coast of Chile. An earthquake so powerful (8.8 on the moment magnitude scale), that not only is the fifth largest recorded on earth, but also moves the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina, 10 feet (!) to the west.

Juan Carlos Castilla from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, recently visited Stockholm, and gave an update about the tsunamis’ impact on coastal communities. The effects of the tsunami were devastating, and the death toll from the 2-3 tsunamis alone was between 170-200 in the coastal areas of regions VI, VII and VIII. The most noticeable biophysical impact in the region is the elevation of the whole coastal area, ranging from 1.5 to 3 meters. This obviously has had big impacts on the composition of species and vegetation on the coast. The impacts on coastal ecosystems and fisheries is however still unclear.

Based on extensive field studies two months after the disaster, Castilla and his research team noted that only 8-12 (about 6%) of the 200 deceased where from fisherman families. According to Castilla, this low figure can be explained by the existence of strong social networks, and local knowledge passed on from generation to generation. As an artisan fisherman in the study, summarized one shared local saying:

“if an earthquake is so strong you can not stand up: run to the hills”

Luckily, February 27th was a night of full moon. This allowed people to more easily run for protection in the hills. According to Castilla, the combination of full moon, local knowledge, and strong bonds between neighbors, made it possible for members of fishermen communities to rapidly act on the first warning signal: the earthquake. The fact that locals also were taught not to leave the hills after at least a couple of hours after an earthquake, also helped them avoid the following devastating tsunamis. Unfortunately, visitors and tourists in the tsunami affected coastal areas, were not.

Read more:

Marín, A et al. (2010) ”The 2010 tsunami in Chile: Devastation and survival of coastal small-scale fishing communities”, Marine Policy, 2010, 34:1381-1384.

Gelchich, S et al. “Nagivating transformations in governance of Chilean marine coastal resources”, PNAS, 107(39): 16794-16799.

See Henrik’s post just the days after the Chilean earthquake here.