Category Archives: Tools

Declining child mortality – fast and slow

From the Economist:

THE frequent death of children before their fifth birthday is both a disaster for their parents and one of the most reliable indicators of country-wide poverty. …  One of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals requires that by 2015, developing countries should reduce their under-five mortality rate to one-third of where it stood in 1990. Just 17 countries had met that target in 2010; notable among them were Brazil, Egypt and Turkey. While China, with 13% of the world’s 636m children under five, is on course to meet the goal by 2015, it will be among only an additional 23 countries to do so, leaving 101 countries set to miss the target.

Development with Fossil or Solar Energy?

The price of solar power has been rapidly decling over the past several decades (~ 7%/year decline in US$/watt or a cost halving every 10 years ).  This drop , combined with peristently high oil prices is producing some interesting dynamics. New Scientist has an interesting article on the rapid drop in the price of solar power in India.  Where many people and unconnected to the power grid, and for those that are the brittleness of the grid means that many people rely on generators:

Recent figures from market analysts Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF)show that the price of solar panels fell by almost 50 per cent in 2011. They are now just one-quarter of what they were in 2008. That makes them a cost-effective option for many people in developing countries. .. Now [India's] generators could be on their way out. In India, electricity from solar supplied to the grid has fallen to just 8.78 rupees per kilowatt-hour compared with 17 rupees for diesel. The drop has little to do with improvements in the notoriously poor efficiency of solar panels: industrial panels still only convery 15 to 18 per cent of the energy they receive into electricity. But they are now much cheaper to produce, so inefficiency is no longer a major sticking point. …The one thing stopping households buying a solar panel is the initial cost, says Amit Kumar, director of energy-environment technology development at The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, India. Buying a solar panel is more expensive than buying a diesel generator, but according to Chase’s calculations solar becomes cheaper than diesel after seven years. The panels last 25 years. Even in India, solar electricity remains twice as expensive as electricity from coal, but that may soon change. While the price drop in 2011 was exceptional, analysts agree that solar will keep getting cheaper. Suntech’s in-house analysts predict that, by 2015, solar electricity will be as cheap as grid electricity in half of all countries. When that happens, expect to see solar panels wherever you go.

A similar article about the USA, was recently in the business magazine Fast Company.

No surprise to Buzz Holling: Non-linear response of seabirds to forage fish depletion

Guest post from Henrik Österblom from the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Basic ecology rests firmly on a number of basic assumptions.  Some of these assumptions, specifically how predators interaction with their prey, were developed by a key figure in the history of resilience – Buzz Holling. The Holling type I, II and III functional responses are standard material in many textbooks in ecology (here’s wikipedia on functional response).  The different functional responses reflect the prey consumption ratio as a function of food density.  I learned about these different types of functional response more than a decade before coming across anything related to resilience theory, which is perhaps not surprising as the first papers published by Holling on the topic came out in the late 1950s (Holling 1959).

The different functional responses reflect different ways in which predator consumption of prey varies  with changes in food density. The functional response is also related to the numerical response – the reproduction rate in relation to food abundance. If this is too technical, bear with me.

Different types of functional response.

As shown above, a type I functional response is linear – meaning that more prey means that more prey are consumed – straightforward and simple. A type II response is non-linear – the number of prey consumed/reproduction increases initially but reaches a plateau at a certain prey density, as the predator ability to consume prey is gradually saturated. A type III response is more complex and S shaped, with a slow increase in prey consumed/reproduction, due to difficulty in discovering  prey, followed by an increase and subsequent leveling off, as predators are saturated (for more background see here).

What has all this got to do with seabirds?

Seabirds are some of the most conspicuous components of the marine environment and are also well studied throughout the world. Many places where seabirds are studied also have monitoring programs for their prey. Seabirds prey on small pelagic, fat schooling fish – some of which are very important in the rapidly growing aquaculture and meat production sectors.

Recently, I was part of a large group of scientists who analyzed long-term data collected of seabird breeding success, for a range of seabird species breeding throughout the world, including puffins, murres, gulls and penguins. Several of these data sets had previously indicated a type I, or possibly a type II response in some instances, but the evidence were inconclusive. However – when putting all the data together, an interesting pattern emerged – the data indicated a clear type II response!What was even more interesting was that this response was consistent across ecosystems and species.  All ecosystems and species investigated had a very similar level of the threshold – regardless of latitude or foraging strategy. Although we assumed that there would be some nonlinear response in all ecosystems and species, we did not think the threshold would be so similar in where it was located (i.e., at one third of the maximum observed fish biomass).

The key figure from our paper is below.

Fig. 2 (A) Relationship between normalized annual breeding success of seabirds and normalized prey abundance. Each data point from all the time series was plotted with the predictions of a generalized additive model (GAM) (solid line). The gray area represents the 95% confidence interval of the fitted GAM. The threshold in the nonlinear relationship (black solid vertical line) and its 95% confidence interval (black dashed vertical lines) were detected from a change-point analysis. (B) Change in variance across the range of normalized food abundance ranging from –1.5 to 2 standard deviations in eight classes. Variance below the threshold was 1.8 times higher than above it. (C and D) Similar relationships were present when data were pooled (C) for species within ecosystems and (D) for species pooled among ecosystems using the best-fitting asymptotic model (table S2). The Arctic Tern (not shown) model fit was not significant (table S1). The colors in (A) and (C) represent the data set for each ecosystem and in (D) for each seabird species.

The findings, just published in Science (Cury et al. 2011), show that seabirds are unable to increase their breeding output over a certain prey abundance. However, if the amount of prey falls below a threshold – which we estimated at one third of the observed maximum prey abundance – breeding success drops dramatically. This non-linear response has potentially important implications for management: If forage fish stocks are maintained above the identified threshold – seabird breeding success is likely sustainable. However, if fish stocks are harvested to below this level for extended periods of time, we are likely to observe decreasing breeding success and decreasing seabird populations. The study suggests that the one-third rule of thumb can be used as a precautionary guiding principle for marine management. So, potentially, we can use some basic principles from ecology to arrive at some basic principles for marine resource use.

The study highlights the importance of curiosity driven research and long term monitoring program. These monitoring programs were not primarily intended to inform management of marine resources but were instead set up by individuals with a keen interest in basic seabird ecology The study also underlines the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration for producing fun and exciting syntheses. Most of all, it highlights how rewarding it is to work with seabirds – coolest critters on the planet.  Seabirds occupy some of the most remote and harsh habitats on the planet and are incredibly resilient – until critical thresholds are passed.

References

Cury, P.M., Boyd, I.L., Bonhommeau, S., Anker-Nilssen, T. Crawford, R. J. M., Furness, R.W., Mills, J.A., Murphy, E.J., Österblom, H., Paleczny, M., Piatt, J.F., Roux, J.-P., Shannon, L., Sydeman, W.J., 2011 Global Seabird Response to Forage Fish Depletion —One-Third for the Birds. Science 334 (6063), December 23. (DOI: 10.1126/science.1212928 )

Holling, C. S. 1959. The components of predation as revealed by a study of small-mammal predation of the European pine sawfly. Canadian Entomologist 91: 293-320

2011 precipitation anomalies in USA

From US’s National Weather Service – big precipitation anomalies in US this past year.  The purple areas are extra wet, while the red areas are extra dry.

Precipitation anomalies in USA for 2011 in mm

update:

“Normal” precipitation is derived from PRISM climate data, created at Oregon State University. The PRISM gridded climate maps are considered the most detailed, highest-quality spatial climate datasets currently available. The 30 year PRISM normal from 1971-2000 is used for precipitation analysis since 2004. Prior to 2004 the 30 year PRISM normal from 1961-1990 is used.” from http://water.weather.gov/precip/about.php

Stabilizing Collectives in the Study of Transformation: Instead of “key-individuals”

This deserves perhaps an even longer blog post, but I wrote this quickly as an appreciation to the previous blog by Juan Carlos Rocha.

The previous blog post puts focus on a quite problematic nexus within social-ecological studies, and management theory more generally: the focus on “key-individuals”, “leaders”, and “institutional or social entrepreneurs” to explain change and ‘transformation’. In my new chapter on “Transformative Collective Action” (Ernstson, 2011a; see blog post here) I review some of that literature and conclude that such constructs can create an analytical trap, or blindness, since these constructs provides the analyst a too easy way out for explaining change; ‘key-individuals’ tend to step out on the scene like ready-made ‘magic boxes’ to put things right, very much like a deus ex machina in Greek or Brechtian dramas, who suddenly solves intractable problems.

To take research beyond key-individuals on one hand, and external/structural factors (equally ready-made) on the other, seems crucial to me. The references put forward by Duncan Watts in Juan’s post are highly useful here (LeBon, Tolstoy, Berlin), as are the search for mechanisms like those Jon Norberg studies through the clean world of agent-based model experiments.

However, what is also badly needed in the field of resilience and social-ecological studies are more empirical work, and more theoretical constructs, frameworks and registers that allow us to appreciate the often messy but profoundly collective nature of transformative or revolutionary change. (These ways of doing research should also acknowledge that change processes will be quite different from place to place.) To study such change must necessarily be more than just dividing a process into ‘phases’, looking for ‘windows of opportunity’, and plug in certain individuals in the account who can ‘seize’ these windows and usher in a new way of doing things.

To the particular tedious task of doing empirical studies of transformations, there are probably various ways. So far, in my own work, I have especially built on social movement theory, a field that par excellence has studied transformative and revolutionary change. Here social movement scholar Mario Diani has showed how to use social network analysis to understand “network-level mechanisms”, which I view as:

“social actions made possible through, and emerging from, the patterns of relations between mobilizing actors, and thus dependent on the full structure of the social network, and not just the local surrounding of single actors” (Ernstson 2011, p. 258).

Another important Italian is Alberto Melucci, who used a constructionist and cultural approach to collective action, emphasizing that collective action needs to be constructed and that ‘structural’ or external factors are not enough to explain change since a practice of engagement is needed to translate ‘structural/external’ factors into tangible action. He also emphasized that collective action necessarily also produces or constructs new ways of knowing, thus necessarily upsetting and challenging dominating ways of knowing (and one needs to account for how such knowledge is constructed in and through collective action).

Thirdly, I have been drawing on scholars like Jonathan Murdoch, Bruno Latour, John Law and Annmarie Mol who use post-structuralist geography and actor-network theory (ANT). This body of scholarship decenters the human subject in studying change, and thus “reassembles the social” (Latour, 2005) so as to allow also non-humans to be part in constructing/producing collective action. This makes it possible as an analyst to stabilize accounts of ‘distributed agency’, where the ability for change resides among people and things, which together come to make up quite heterogeneous collectives. For instance, in my case study here in Cape Town (Ernstson 2011), certain plants seem to participate in modes of empowerment, and play an important role in stabilizing collectives that can carry action across space and time. For the Occupy Movement, tents, streets, squares and Internet seems key but exactly how these things are enrolled into a stabilization of collective action needs ethnographic engagement. Importantly however, careful analysis of such heterogeneous collectives can come to also show how alternative ways of knowing and becoming are produced in and through the same collectives that carry or produce action, and thus such analysis lends itself to study how collective action engages the world in epistemological and ontological politics. The latter seems key in any transformation worthy the name.

This was just a short burst in response to Juan’s interesting blog post. If anybody has more ideas on this, tips on empirical studies or theoretical treatise in the area of social-ecological studies that relates to this, please make contact, or post comments, as usual.

References

Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. “Transformative collective action: a network approach to transformative change in ecosystem-based management.” Pp. 255-287 in Social Networks and Natural Resource Management: Uncovering the Social Fabric of Environmental Governance, edited by Ö. Bodin and C. Prell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ernstson, Henrik. 2011. “Re-translating nature in post-apartheid Cape Town: the alliance of people and plants in generating collective action.” Presented at London School of Economics workshop on Actor-Network Theory in Development Studies, 3 July 2011 organized by Richard Heeks.

[Also posted on my blog http://www.rhizomia.net/]

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?

Resilience and the Euro – networks

The New Scientist recently had an article by Debora MacKenzie on resilience and the Euro.  She writes:

… The diversity of a network’s components and the density and strength of its connections – called its connectivity – affect the system’s resilience, or resistance to change. More connections make a system more resilient: if one component fails others can fill in. But only up to a point. Go past a certain threshold and more connectivity makes the system less resilient because a single failure can cascade to every other component.

The trick is to get the balance right. “Cascades of failure may be controlled by changing the nature and strength of the links between various parts of the networks,” says Fisher. Much current research in complex systems focuses on assessing connectivity correctly to enable that. Other work aims to detect behaviour that indicates an imminent collapse.

So turning 17 separate currencies into one eurozone was a cascading failure waiting to happen?

Yes. That is why Greek debt is a crisis, even though Greece accounts for only 2.5 per cent of the eurozone’s GDP. News of its debts caused the trust that markets placed in Greek government bonds to plummet. Its creditors are mainly in the eurozone, so a Greek default is causing markets to lose confidence in other members, such as Italy – which is too big to bail out.

Could the crisis have been avoided?

Complexity theory shows what went wrong. Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says his still-unpublished studies show that investors profited by driving down the value of Greek government bonds, triggering the crisis. And, he suspects, they have now moved on to Italy. If instead of national bonds issued by sometimes weak economies, the eurozone had one common bond backed by powerhouses such as Germany, such an attack could not have happened.

Germany rejects eurobonds. But, says Bar-Yam, complex systems such as multicellular organisms show that “if you are going to accept common risk, you have to invest in defences that extend to the weakest member”. Either that or make sure an attack on a weak member cannot spread, a technique that ant colonies have perfected: the death of a single ant has little effect on the colony as a whole. “Biology has solved this problem several ways,” says Bar-Yam.

Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints

Following up on my comments on William Gibson‘s discuss of his science fiction where I wrote that “Scenarios have to be plausible, but reality is under no such constraints”

Futurist, scenario planner, and co-founder of WorldChanging, Jamais Cascio writes on his weblog Open the Future about Living in a Scenario:

There’s something of a rule-of-thumb among professional futurey-types: scenario elements that sound plausible are almost certainly wrong, while scenario elements that sound utterly implausible are very likely on-target. That’s generally true, although it applies more to the disruptive aspects of a scenario than to the everyday aspects. (That said, a scenario that said “most people in the West continue to live quiet lives, using their barely-sufficient income to pay for disposable commodity goods and overly-processed food,” while both plausible and very likely on-target for the next decade or three, is more depressing than illuminating.) Good scenario disruption points should be things that, in the here-and-now, would make you say “oh, crap” if you heard them in the news.

Oh, crap.

Nanotechnology researchers in Mexico, France, Spain, and Chile have been targeted by a terror group calling itself “Individuals Tending Towards Savagery,” and claiming to be inspired by the Unabomber.

Unabomber-copycat terror cell hits nanotech researchers in the developing world and Europe — I’m not sure anything could sound more like a headline from a scenario exercise.