Classics of Social Science 1: Karl Marx the first ecological sociologist?

Guest post by Simon West:

Reflections on Week Two of the Resilience Research School PhD course, ‘Why Bother with Durkheim? Using (classical) social science to understand the social dynamics of social-ecological systems.  (previously Week One – why study classics).

a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

Karl Marx from Wikimedia Commons.

There is almost certainly no social scientist whose reputation precedes them as much as Karl Marx. Indeed, his reputation precedes him to the extent that many people would not even think of him as a social scientist.

This is troublesome for young interdisciplinary researchers – the ‘intimidation factor’ is enormous. However, this fear factor does not only, or perhaps even primarily, come from Marx himself, but from his coterie of followers and interpreters. Autonomist Marxism, Marxist Humanism, Analytical Marxism, Cultural Marxism, Structural Marxism, Marxist Theology, not to mention fields that borrow heavily from Marxist critique such as political ecology and critical theory – the extensive knowledge and passion that Marx-inspired sub-fields bring to the surface demonstrate his continued vitality, but also alienate many who might be surprised by the content of Marx’s original texts.

In this class we put chapter 15 of Marx’s Capital, ‘Machinery and Large-Scale Industry,’ into dialogue with John Bellamy Foster’s (1999) article, ‘Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology.

We did not attempt a close reading of Marx’s chapter, a la David Harvey (who once dedicated almost a whole class to a single footnote!), but rather used it as a springboard to identify potential areas of use for social-ecological systems research.

Course organiser Wijnand Boonstra set the scene in an introductory lecture outlining Marx’s personal and social context, including his lifetime friendship and collaboration with Friedrich Engels, “Marx’s general”. Marx remarks in his infamous footnote (see above) that, “a critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of a single individual.” The same is true for the products of 19th century social science. How could two young men who had no personal experience of industrial exploitation write about the debilitating effects of capitalism on the poor with such accuracy? An intriguing article published last year suggests an answer may be found in the sharp intellect and companionship of Engel’s working-class companion Mary Burns. It is thought that Mary, believed to be a prostitute by some historians, guided Engels through the slums of Manchester, providing him with an immersive experience of the poor that otherwise would have been impossible for the son of a wealthy mill-owner.

Social-Ecological Metabolism

In the subsequent discussion groups, we moved from the complex, unpredictable and dynamic interactions of interpersonal history to the equally complex and adaptive relationships between humans, machines, work and nature through time.

Discussions initially revolved around Marx’s concept of ‘metabolic rift,’ as elaborated by Bellamy Foster. For Marx, human-nature relations include a social-ecological metabolism carried out through labour processes:

 “Labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces, which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature … It [the labour process] is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction [Stoffwechsel] between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, […]” (Marx 1976 [1867]: 283, 290).

Marx, using the ecological crisis of large-scale soil degradation in United Kindgom during the first half of the 1800s, identified a ‘rift’ in this metabolism. Prior to industrialization soil nutrients were replaced by rural populations living off the land. But with the invention of Watt’s coal and water-fuelled, double-acting steam-engine, machines became mobile and “permitted production to be concentrated in towns instead of being scattered over the countryside” (Marx 1976 [1867]: 497-498). The English countryside depopulated while in crowded London nutrients were washed away in the Thames. This ‘rift’ – produced by growing differences between the urban and rural – supported Marx’s broader claim that capitalism is inherently self-destructive.

It was suggested in the discussion groups that a ‘rift’ between humans and nature has been postulated in many academic traditions. However, the temporal location of this rift varies – for some, perhaps Marx, the origin of the rift emerged the moment humans began to modify their environment through culture (yet only became problematic during the second industrial revolution). Others, such as the environmental historian Donald Worster, might associate it with the European discovery of the Americas in the 15th and 16th centuries. Earth system scientists on the other hand have suggested the ‘great acceleration’ of the second half of the twentieth-century.

Discussion turned towards the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s own plea for a ‘Reconnection to the Biosphere’ – and where and how, given Marx’s understanding of social-ecological metabolism, this ‘reconnection’ should take place. Should emphasis be placed on personal epiphanies and behavioural change? Should it be aimed at changing government policy or encouraging grass-roots innovation? Should it be geared towards challenging dominant power structures?

Discussants were united in expressing surprise at just how prescient Marx’s observations regarding human-environment relations were. Indeed, some sentences could conceivably have been used in the Brundtland Report (1987):  “Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good heads of the household]” (Marx 1959 [1894]: 530). Of course, the authors might have struggled getting such policy traction with a document explicitly quoting Marx!

What might the concept of social-ecological metabolism be useful for and what might it leave out? It was posited in class that the concept of ‘metabolism’ might be a useful way of understanding how the ‘social’ and ‘ecological’ components of SES interact and transform each other, and indeed some work has already been done using the concept of metabolism to understand human impacts on the earth system in the Anthropocene. SRC Professor Garry Peterson suggests that while metabolism might work for biogeochemical issues, complex systems approaches, which focus on populations, heterogenity and diversity, are more useful for thinking about many of the novel aspects of the anthropocene, such novel ecosystems. On the other hand, it might be intriguing to explore new kinds of ‘rift’ in a globally connected world, such as the concept of teleconnected vulnerabilities. Establishing such bridges and disconnects between academic traditions was precisely the type of debate we hoped the course would provoke.

Revolution, the adaptive cycle and systemic change

As a systems thinker, Marx believed that history progressed through revolutionary, cyclic change. A very related idea was later captured with the term “punctuated equilibrium” (Gould and Eldredge 1977). Often labeled a simple determinist because of his emphasis on the defining force of materiality on the social, Marx actually advocated a more subtle co-evolution between nature and culture, which Engels, in a letter written after Marx’ death, explains as follows: “The political, legal, philosophical, literary, and artistic development rests on the economic. But they all react upon one another and upon the economic base. It is not the case that the economic situation is the sole active cause and everything else is merely a passive effect” (Engels 1894 in Elwell 2008: 22). Here it is the interaction between the material and the ideational that produces social change.

Class discussants identified parallels and disconnects between this cyclic vision of human history and the adaptive cycle & panarchy heuristics used in resilience research.

Two features distinguish a panarchic representation from traditional hierarchical ones. The first is the importance of the adaptive cycle and, in particular the alpha phase as the engine of variety and the generator of new experiments within each level. The second is the connections between levels. There are potentially multiple connections between phases at one level and phases at another level, but two are most significant in our search for the meaning of sustainability. Those are the connections labeled as Revolt and Remember

Both approaches, to some extent, embrace a fatalistic approach to change and disorder. Still, both approaches seem to leave some room for agency, although perhaps in Marx’s case implicitly. “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (Marx 2007 [1852]: 112).

Attention in resilience research is increasingly turning explicitly to individual and collective agency to understand the dynamics of transformation in social-ecological systems.

Course participants imagined how Marx would interpret current attempts to ‘reinvent the system’ towards more sustainable trajectories. Transition towns as a movement to heal the metabolic rift, or as a bourgeois hobby? Ecosystem services as product of capitalism, or revolutionary re-valuation of capital?

Dialectics, causal loops and interdisciplinary science

Whether these initiatives contain the seeds of transformation or become colonized by a capitalist system would, according to Marx, probably depend on their historical, dialectic relations, which are uncontrollable. In Marx’s work you won’t find any descriptions of social-ecological systems, or causal loop diagrams that highlight its inner workings [See Figure 2 for an attempt by course participant Diego Galafassi to work through the concept of ‘metabolic rift’ using a causal loop diagram]. Instead he points out crucial elements – labour objects; nature; technology; society; mentalities; human nature – that form concatenating relations and shape human history. These interactions are forever changing – an understanding he adhered to since his PhD thesis on Epicurus – symbiotic and parasitic at the same time.

Figure 2: An interpretation of the concept of ‘metabolic rift’ as a causal loop diagram by course participant Diego Galafassi.

Marx also applies dialectics – thinking in inherent contradictions – to (scientific) hermeneutics. “It is characteristic of the entire crudeness of ‘common sense,’ […], that where it succeeds in seeing a distinction it fails to see a unity, and where it sees a unity it fails to see a distinction. If ‘common sense’ establishes distinction determinations, they immediately petrify surreptitiously and it is considered the most reprehensible sophistry to rub together these conceptual blocks in such a way that they catch fire” (Marx in Ollman 2003: 77). ‘Rubbing conceptual blocks’ captures eloquently what we now would understand as interdisciplinary science. Does this mean that we are on our way to transdiscplinarity after all?

Next week: Emile Durkheim…

 

References

Elwell, F. 2008. The sociology of Karl Marx. Chapter 1 in Macrosociology. The study of sociocultural systems. The Edwin Mellen Press: New York. Pp. 15-40.

Gould, S.J. and Eldredge, N. 1977. Punctuated equilibria: the tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered. Paleobiology 3 (2): 115-151.

Marx, K. 2007 [1852] The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In: Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J. Pfaff, S. and I. Virk. Classical Sociological Theory. Second Edition. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford. Pp. 112 – 121.

Marx, K. 1976 [1867] Capital. A critique of political economy. Volume I. London: Penguin Books.

Marx, K. 1959 [1894] Capital. The process of capitalist production as a whole. Volume III. New York: International Publishers.

Ollman, B. 2003. The dance of the dialectic. Steps in Marx’s method. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Why Bother with Walters? Revisiting the “classics” of resilience science

Classic Resilience Readings

Recently at the Stockholm Resilience Centre I’ve been working on update our suggested reading list for our PhD students based on recent research, critiques of various aspects of resilience, and the diversity of research in our centre’s research clusters.  However, I also thought it was important to not just identify the most interesting recent papers but also to identify a set of older (>10 years old) key papers and books that could provide some of the roots of resilience research.

Partly inspired by SRC researcher Wijnand Boonstra’s great initiative to produce a PhD course on the lessons from classic social science for social-ecological research, but also recognizing the shorter history of resilience research, I gave the first of several brief ‘speed talks’ to advertise some of the neglected classics of resilience research that many researchers center are not directly familiar, and explain what useful insights that could offer to them.

Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources

The first key reading I suggested, was Carl J Walters, classic book 1986 Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources.  Below, I describe the book and why it is a classic.  I’ll follow up with some other books and papers over the next few months.

Carl J Walters is a professor at University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre, and while he is a leading fisheries scientist, he has also worked on many non-fisheries related problems, ranging from land-use and logging  in British Columbia to the complex social-ecological problems of the Florida Everglades.

His 1986 book is one of the three key early texts in adaptive management.  Walter’s book is practical, technical and empirical.  While the other books Adaptive Environmental Assessment & Management, edited by CS Holling, and Kai Lee’s Compass & Gyroscope are respectively more diverse, and more theoretical and more focussed on social learning.  While the other books are good, in many ways I think Walter’s book is the key adaptive management reference.

So what is the book about?  In Adaptive Management of Renewable Resources, Carl Walters motivates his approach by arguing that because the world is complex and continually evolving it is essential that resource harvesting, management & environmental policies explicitly confront uncertainty.  When the book was written, his argument that management is improved by an explicit focus on uncertainty was unusual, and continues to be unusual in practice, even though adaptive management has been widely adopted in name, but often not in practice or in only an extremely shallow form that misses the deep engagement with the unknown that Walters advocates.  Indeed while quantitative approaches to risk assessment and hedging have greatly expanded over the past several decades, there has not be an increase in thinking about structural uncertainty, unknown, and surprise.

Walters also proposes that science, practice and policy have a lot to gain from mutual engagement, and he has an early and strong advocate of large scale ecological experiments, and noted that such experiments are often required to build strong ecological policies, and to advance large-scale scientific understanding.  While not highlighted in the book, this perspective also opens the way to ecological models that include models of resource harvester behaviour or management or policy processes

Finally, and indeed in many ways the main part of the book, Walters provides a diverse set of soft and hard methods for actually practicing adaptive management.

So why does this book matter today?

I think that sustainability scientists should read this book, or at least parts of it, for several reasons:

  1. It provides a practical primer on how to think about decisions when considering there is both variation in the world and uncertainty about the rules by which the world works.  Such type of thinking is at the centre of sustainability, because sustainability absolutely requires an increase in our ability to build robust strategies for navigating a turbulent world and for planning how and where to invest in monitoring or learning.  While Walters barely mentions resilience in the book, such approaches are essential to the development of resilient strategies, plans, or policies.
  2. The introductory chapters, especially Chapter 3, provide really useful practical advice on how to think about and run participatory modeling workshops.  Walters focuses on participatory modeling workshops but such approaches are equally useful for thinking about planning scenario or assessment workshops.
  3. The bulk of the book provides a solid, clear introduction to a set of methods for linking data and dynamic models using Bayesian statistics.  These approaches quickly get quite technical and are developed primarily for a fisheries context, but for people who are trying to link models and data in a variety of situations they provide a useful toolbox.
  4. Finally, while resilience and optimization approaches can complement one another in theory they are often presented as conflicting in practice (see: Fischer et al 2009  vs.  Holling & Meffe 1996).  This book, clearly links optimization approaches to resilience, and demonstrates by changing what variables are the focus of optimization, optimization approaches can be useful for improving decisions about how to invest in resilience and can provide an good understanding of tradeoffs.

References

Holling, C. S., & Meffe, G. K. (1996). Command and control and the pathology of natural resource management. Conservation Biology10(2), 328-337.

Fischer et al (2009) Integrating resilience thinking and optimisation for conservation. TREE24, 549–54.

Walters, C. 1986. Adaptive management of renewable resources. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, NY374. (note the book was out of print for a long time and is now reprinted by Blackburn press.)

Kim Stanley Robinson on the Anthropocene

Below are an interesting excerpt from an interview of Kim Stanley Robinson, a Californian sustainability oriented science fiction writer, in Boom Magazine.

Boom: But, as you’ve said, all of California in some ways has been terraformed. It’s not natural in the way we usually conceive of natural. Are we as gods, as Steward Brand famously proclaimed, so we better get good at it?

Robinson: California is a terraformed space. I think we have accidentally become terraformers, but of course we are not gods. We don’t actually know enough about ecology, or even about bacteria, to do what we want to do here. We could make environmental changes that could do damage that we can’t recover from, so it’s dangerous. We’re more like the sorcerer’s apprentice. We can do amazing things on this planet, out of hubris, and partial ignorance, and yet we are without the powers to jerk the system back to health if we wreck it. If ocean acidification occurs, we don’t have a chance to shift that back. So we’ve accidentally cast ourselves into this role by our scientific successes, but we don’t have the power to do what we need to do, so we need to negotiate our situation with the environment. The idea that we’re living in the Anthropocene is correct. We are the biggest geological impact now; human beings are doing more to change the planet than any other force, from bedrock up to the top of the troposphere. Of course if you consider twenty million years and plate tectonics, we’re never going to match that kind of movement. It’s only in our own temporal scale that we look like lords of the Earth; when you consider a longer temporality, you suddenly realize we’re more like ants on the back of an elephant. By no means do we have godlike powers on this planet. We have a biological system we can mess up, a thin wrap on the planet’s surface, like cellophane wrapping a basketball. But there is so much we don’t know. You can do cosmology with more certainty than ecology.

Boom: Speaking of terraformed, the Delta, where you live here in Davis, is a great example of a terraformed landscape.

Robinson: It’s kind of great. It’s troubled, but I think it’s still beautiful. I like these human-slash-natural landscapes. I like terraformed landscapes. The Central Valley has been depopulated of its Serengeti’s worth of wild creatures, and that’s a disaster. But you could do amazing agriculture in the Central Valley and add wildlife corridors, where the two could coexist in a palimpsest, big agriculture and the Serengeti of North America, occupying the same space. And then it would be that much more interesting and beautiful. If you went out there to the edge of Davis now, you would see nothing in terms of animals. But if you went out there and it was filled with tule elk and all the rest of the animals and birds of the Central Valley biome, occasionally a bear would come down out of the hills; and, well, you couldn’t run alone out there, because of the predators. You’d have to run in a group. But humans are meant to run in groups. The solo thing is dangerous. So it would all come back to a more natural social existence. This is the angle of utopianism that I’ve been following. It’s a kind of natural-cultural amalgam, whereas utopian literature historically was mostly a social construct, and it was kind of urban. Utopia was thought of as a humanist space, but when you think of humans as part of a much larger set of life forms, then you get to a utopia that includes it all and is a process. I haven’t actually written the novel that would put all of this together, because each of my novels has been a different part of the puzzle and a different attempt at it. So I keep having an idea for the book yet to come. Seems like I might start another one like that sometime soon.

California is a terraformed space.

Why bother with Durkheim? Using (classical) social science to understand the social dynamics of social-ecological systems

Reflections on a PhD Course at the Resilience Research School, Thursday 30th January

A guest post form Simon West, from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, at Stockholm University.

 This Thursday we began a new 5-week PhD course at the Resilience Research School (RRS). “Why bother with Durkheim?’ will introduce PhD students at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) to some classical social science thinkers – Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Thorstein Veblen. Each class will encourage students to extrapolate the insights of a classical thinker to understand the social dynamics of social-ecological systems (SES). The plan is to run the course in future semesters with a changing roster of ‘classics’ each time. We will be summarizing class discussions in a weekly blog post here on Resilience Science, with the aim of widening the discussion beyond the RRS to the international community of resilience and sustainability researchers. This week – why bother with ‘the classics’ at all?

As course coordinator Wijnand Boonstra has pointed out in a previous blog, the classics often look weird in a contemporary scientific centre devoted to trans-disciplinary sustainability research. In fact, the motivation for this course came from the comments Wijnand received when he was scanning pages from a battered book, published 1949. I had a similar experience when preparing the course reading material this week. A fellow PhD student pointed at the small, well-worn 1924 edition of Thorstein Veblen’s Absentee Ownership I held in my hands and exclaimed, “are you reading the Bible?!” For many researchers it might as well have been, given the ostensible relevance of the work for their research. In our PhD reading group here at the SRC, articles written as recently as 2005 can be dismissed as ‘old news.’

Our aim through this course, however, is to change the perception of the classics as curiosities of a bygone age, and demonstrate their relevance to the study of social-ecological systems. Indeed, the increasing willingness and need for social and natural sciences and the humanities to work together, for example to examine processes of global environmental change in the Future Earth research programme, suggests that interdisciplinary sustainability researchers will need to become much more familiar with the classics in the years to come. As Michel Foucault (1980) has indicated, there is no better tribute to a classic than to “use it, deform it, make it groan and protest.” We look forward to the various deformations applied by course participants in the coming weeks, coming from such varied backgrounds as ecology, literature, industrial engineering, political science, computer science and modeling, and development studies.

What are the social science ‘classics’?

Understanding ‘the classics’ is essential for grasping not only some of the core debates in the social sciences, but also the conceptual tools used by social science research to produce knowledge. But what are the classics? Alexander (1987: 22) defines classics as “earlier works of human exploration which are given a privileged status vis-à-vis contemporary explorations in the same field.” For Alexander privileged status means that, “contemporary practitioners of the discipline in question believe that they can learn as much about their field through understanding this earlier work as they can from the work of their own contemporaries.” The classics of sociology (the disciplinary focus for the coming lectures) are generally thought of as the works of Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. But these ‘big three’ are often complemented by a host of other thinkers that are cited as ‘minor’ classics in the social science canon, e.g. August Comte, Georg Simmel, Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.

What makes a classic classic? The factors that determine which books and thinkers becomes classic and which are simply forgotten are multiplex. In fact there is a whole sub-field of research on this topic – Reception Theory. As Baehr (2002: 111) notes, to find answers we must not look at classicality as a quality inherent to particular works but rather “as a dialectic in which the text, its evaluation and re-evaluation define what is exemplary.” There are several crucial factors that help to explain the development of classics’ privileged status.

Firstly, death. Dead authors are less likely to compete with others for prestige and academic standing, and therefore living academics can valorize them without fear of being superseded. Death also signifies the passing of time, which provides context to works and separates classic work from the chaff. Death also prevents authors from ‘fighting back’ against the dispersion, re-interpretation and appropriation of their work – all necessary components for the spread and use of ideas. Stinchcombe (1982: 3) joked that aspiring social scientists therefore better first find “a dead German who said it first” before they publish anything.

Secondly, cultural resonance. Texts do not become classic simply because they are ‘better’ or ‘truer’ than others, but because they are provocative and strike a chord about enduring aspects of human existence. Merely providing solutions to a discrete problem may prevent a text becoming a classic because it provides “no challenges for contemporaries to embrace and successors to ponder” (Baehr 2002: 118). So classics become classics because of the questions they pose and the mistakes they make, as much as the answers they provide. For instance Durkheim’s 1894 book The Rules of Sociological Method is widely regarded as a classic – yet it is just as widely panned. Indeed, it has been criticized and demolished repeatedly for over one hundred years because of the usefulness of its mistakes.

Thirdly, academic and social circumstances. While Durkheim became known fairly rapidly after his death as a founder of sociology, for Marx it took more than seventy years to be recognized as a classic sociologist. This difference in reception is a product of academic discovery and re-interpretation, but also linked to Marx’s posthumous entanglement with events in ‘the real world.’ As John Gray has written in a recent review of Jonathan Sperber’s book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, “if World War I had not occurred and caused the collapse of tsarism, if the Whites had prevailed in the Russian Civil War as Lenin at times feared they would and the Bolshevik leader had not been able to seize and retain his hold on power … Marx would now be a name most educated people struggled to remember.”

Finally, textual suppleness. Texts must contain enough ambiguity to mean different things to different people in different situations. As this is a course at the SRC, we can say that they must have the ability to adapt to change through transformation – they must be resilient.

Why are there no natural science classics?

The idea of providing privileged status to works published over one hundred years ago would seem bizarre to many natural and interdisciplinary sustainability scientists. You do not hear SRC researchers continually debating and publishing on what Norbert Wiener ‘really meant’ in his 1948 complex systems classic, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Most will have never heard of Wiener. Why not?

The classics highlight the predominantly discursive character of the social sciences. Alexander (1987: 22-23) argues that social sciences proceed primarily through argument and reasoning rather than through prediction or attempts at verification or falsification. This reasoning is conducted at a greater level of generality and speculation than normally takes place in the natural sciences (see Baehr 2002: 82). This is not because the social sciences are inherently more discursive than the natural sciences. It is widely accepted in the philosophy of science that knowledge produced by natural science relies on similarly metaphysical assumptions, but the natural sciences are simply better at hiding their discursive elements. These assumptions can be black-boxed and ‘normal science’ can progress through debate purely about the operational elements of research (see Kuhn 1970), without the need for classics.

Some would argue that the social sciences should therefore just ditch the classics and follow the model of the natural sciences. Indeed, this narrative was what motivated many early founders, and classics, of sociology – especially Durkheim. But to do this, argues Alexander (1987), would be to run away from the crucial problems that face the social sciences in the first place: the non-linear, complex and essentially discursive dynamics that drive human social behavior and shape human knowledge. Instead of modeling the study of social dynamics on the natural sciences, sustainability researchers should perhaps embrace the classics – in search of novel ways of knowing and becoming truly transdisciplinary.

What is the use of the social science classics for the study of social-ecological systems?

Firstly, the classics deal with key questions concerning the dynamics of social change, the origins of social action, the (in)stability of social systems – all essential for analyzing social dynamics today. Knowing the classics helps interdisciplinary sustainability researchers to avoid past mistakes and stimulates new hypotheses.

Secondly, the treatment of human-nature relationships in the classics has fundamentally shaped the academic landscape of today – take for example the influence of Marx in political ecology and the lineage of Durkheim’s functionalist approach in systems theory. Study of the classics can therefore help to contextualize social-ecological systems approaches in the wider academic terrain and help researchers to grasp the context of criticisms relating to, for example, the supposed neglect of power relations and conflict in social-ecological systems research.

Thirdly, while social-ecological systems research has long recognized the desirability of becoming trans-disciplinary, it is fair to say that SES research to date has been driven by researchers versed primarily in the natural sciences. However, the concept of the Anthropocene and the role of humans in generating global environmental change is mobilizing closer collaboration between social scientists, humanities researchers and natural scientists. Classics literacy among sustainability researchers will enhance ability to collaborate productively. Such intermingling of epistemological traditions offers real potential to create new ways of thinking and knowing the Anthropocene.

Fourth, study of the classics prompts sociological interpretation of social-ecological systems research. While in many ways transcending the origins of their birth, the classics came from somewhere at some time. Durkheim posed his central question, ‘what social bonds hold men together?’ in a cultural climate where fear of societal collapse was widespread. Indeed, sociology as a discipline emerged through attempts to understand mass transformation in human organization and relationships with nature (including the rise of capitalism and industrialism). Durkheim’s personal fears about the imminent collapse of society arguably led to a conservative approach focused on maintaining social order. Reflection on the social factors influencing SES research as a product of its time (e.g. economic collapse, teleconnected vulnerabilities) may help researchers to reflexively assess the assumptions underlying their own work.

Next week, Karl Marx …

References

  • Alexander, J. 1987. ‘The Centrality of the Classics.’ In A. Giddens and J.H. Turner (eds.) Social Theory Today. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Baehr, P. 2002. Founders, Classics, Canons: Modern Disputes over the Origins and Appraisal of Sociology’s Heritage. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
  • Foucault, M. 1980. Gordon C (ed.). Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. New York: Pantheon.
  • Kuhn, T.S. 1970. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Stinchcombe, A.L. 1982. Should Sociologists Forget Their Mothers and Fathers. The American Sociologist 17(1): 2 – 11.

A “Planetary Boundaries” Straw-Man

Update:  I work at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, headed by Johan Rockström and Carl Folke. The opinions reflected here are my own, and not the organizations.

The notion of “planetary boundaries” and its potential policy implications, are without doubt worth discussing. But the last blogpost by Roger Pielke Jr. (professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, as well as senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute), left me wondering whether not the debate is becoming increasingly unproductive. I will not try to recap the argument, but recommend a thorough read of Pielke’s blogpost as well as Melissa Leach’s (from STEPS) article in the Huffington Post, on the Anthropocene, SDGs and democracy.

What really troubles me is the argument that “planetary boundaries” is associated with one (and only one) “political philosophy”: heavily centralized, top-down, “World Government-like” interventions where “issues of legitimacy and accountability are easily dealt with through the incontestable authority of science”. Hence, Pielke’s claim of a “power grab” by proponents of planetary boundaries.

This is either an unfortunate misunderstanding of what the academic discussions about “planetary boundaries” really looks like, or the creation of a straw man argument aspiring to create a heated, but essentially misdirected discussion. There is no such thing as one homogenous “political philosophy” for planetary boundaries. And there is no power grab. Allow me to elaborate.

Yes, Frank Biermann’s observation that “scientists involved in this process become inadvertently also political actors” seems relevant. But he also notes – in the very same paper that Pielke quotes in his blogpost to support his argument – that

“within this overall target corridor, the nine boundaries leave human societies ample space for different political choices and socio-economic development trajectories. These socio-economic development trajectories—within the safe operating space set by the planetary boundaries—are left open to the democratic political process and intergovernmental negotiation. […]. The planetary boundaries do not determine any “limits to growth”, but set limits to the total human impact on planetary systems.”

Needless to say, this is the complete opposite of what Pielke and the Breakthrough Institute argue. Another way to understand how so called “planetary boundaries proponents” (whatever that is) explore the political implications of the concept, is nicely summarized in the Earth System Governance Project synthesis piece, published in Science in 2012. In this paper, planetary boundaries are acknowledged as an important insight from the Earth system science community, and a trigger for fundamental and much-needed reforms in global environmental governance – in the article described as “seven building blocks”. The focus is on international institutional reform to create stronger coherence and integration, closing international regulatory gaps, mainstreaming of environmental goals into global trade, and novel financial mechanism with an emphasis on global equity and fairness. The details of these suggestions can be debated of course, but this is far from a “World Government/power grab” agenda.

Another example: in 2011, I coordinated a workshop where governance, politics and planetary boundaries were discussed with a group of international governance scholars. The end result (here in PDF) was again not the sort of “political philosophy” proposed by Pielke, but rather a more nuanced discussion of the role of scientific assessments in creating credibility, saliency, and legitimacy for the science of planetary boundaries; the politically contested role of “boundaries”; the role of international organizations as participants, coordinators and facilitators of polycentric governance initiatives; and the need to explore the institutional context of social-ecological innovation.

Another interesting and emerging stream of research of relevance here, explores the legal implications of planetary boundaries and the Anthropocene. I think Davor Vidas discussion from (2011) on the need to reform legal principles embedded in the international law of the sea, is a nice example of the sort of nuanced discussion emerging between social scientists wishing to explore the implications of planetary boundaries.

Lastly, a very important research stream relevant for this discussion, attempts to explore the possible institutional and broader governance implications of planetary boundaries, by focusing on “Planetary stewardship” or “Earth system stewardship”. (See Folke and colleagues (2012) paper for an introduction). As a comment to Prof Leach’s observation, this stream with its roots in studies of adaptive co-management, acknowledges not only the role of uncertainty, participation, and diversity, but also has a very explicit multilevel-governance focus. Ideas of polycentric, participatory, and reflexive modes of governance of this sort, align just as neatly into the planetary boundaries discourse.

I fail to see how these vibrant and diverse ways of studying and exploring the governance implications of planetary boundaries, are part of the “top-down”, “World Government”, “power grab” narrative depicted in the discussions.

That being said however: As a political scientist, I too find the formulation by Steffen, Rockström and Constanza (2011) that there is a need for a “global referee on the planetary playing field”, confusing. My personal interpretation after discussing these issues repeatedly with the authors on other occasions, is that this is likely to be the result of uncareful phrasing – pretty much in the same way that social scientists like myself, struggle to grasp and articulate the nuances of Earth system science in my papers. I do hope however, that they will be able to elaborate their argument somehow in the near future to avoid further misunderstandings, and to steer away from an artificial conflict between the social and Earth system sciences.

A final observation. Breakthrough Institute praises itself for being a paradigm shifting think-tank. I applaud that ambition, but also note that their framing of planetary boundaries research, and some of their researchers, is creating a really unhelpful polarization of the discussions. Polarization might create a nice temporary buzz on Twitter, and drive loads of readers and comments to a blog. But is it really creating an interesting and productive discussion? Most certainly not.

Planetary boundaries science is, and should be, an arena for continuous dialogue and constructive debate between actors with different perspectives, values and disciplinary backgrounds. It would be a pity to build the foundation for such a debate on straw man arguments, and polarized misconceptions.

Bruno Latour thinks about the Anthropocene

Bruno Latour‘s Gifford Lectures Facing Gaia: A new enquiry into Natural Religion, which were given at University of Edinburgh over the last few months are now on the web.

Bruno Latour’s website has the text (pdf) of the lectures and describes them as:

Those six lectures in ‘natural religion’ explore what it could mean to live at the epoch of the Anthropocene when what was until now a mere décor for human history is becoming the principal actor. They confront head on the controversial figure of Gaia, that is, the Earth understood not as system but as what has a history, what mobilizes everything in the same geostory. Gaia is not Nature, nor is it a deity. In order to face a secular Gaia, we need to extract ourselves from the amalgam of Religion and Nature. It is a new form of political power that has to be explored through a renewed attempt at political theology composed of those three concepts: demos, theos and nomos. It is only once the multiplicity of people in conflicts for the new geopolitics of the Anthropocene is recognized, that the ‘planetary boundaries’ might be recognized as political delineations and the question of peace addressed. Neither Nature nor Gods bring unity and peace. ‘The people of Gaia’, the Earthbound might be the ‘artisans of peace’.

The lectures are organized by groups of two, the two first ones deal with the question of Natural Religion per se and show that the notion is confusing because on the one hand ‘nature’ and ‘religion’ share too many attributes and, on the other, the two notions fail to register the originality of scientific practice and the specificity of the religious regime of enunciation.

Once the pleonasm of Natural Religion is pushed aside, it becomes possible to take up, in the next two lectures, the question first of Gaia as it has been conceived by James Lovelock and of the Anthropocene as it has been explored by geologists and climate scientists. It is thus possible to differentiate the figure of the Earth and of the agencies that populate it from the notion of nature and of the globe thus bringing to the fore the geostory to which they all belong.

In the last two lectures, after the notion of Natural Religion has been put aside, and after the complete originality of Gaia and geostory have been foregrounded, it becomes possible to reopen the political question at the heart of what will be life at the Anthropocene. Once the key question of war has been introduced, the search for a peace along the delineations allowed by politically relevant ‘planetary boundaries’ to which Earthbound (the new word for Humans) accept to be bound become again possible.

 As mentioned on Resilience Science previously, Canada’s CBC radio has a great accessible series – How to think about science – on science studies and philosophy of science, which includes an introduction to Latour and his work.

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.

References
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.

 

Is 3D printing the “next big thing” for ecology?

If you are interested in emerging technologies with disruptive potential, it is hard to avoid the growing hype around 3D-printing: printers able to reproduce a digital model by adding materials in layers, until the final product is achieved. If you think this sounds like weird science fiction, you probably haven’t heard about 3D printed bikes, jawbones, guitars and …. meat. And yes, there is a “Pirate Bay” for 3D printing called “physibles” which would allow you to download the code needed to print 3D objects.

3D-printed bike, image from policymic

Interestingly enough, a paper by William Sutherland and colleagues was recently published in TREE [PDF] where they explore emerging technologies which may have big implications for conservation and biological diversity. Among the list of issues you find rapid growth of concentrated solar power, wide spread development of thorium-fuelled nuclear power, ecological monitoring drones, vegetarian aquaculture feed and of course, 3D-printing. They write:

The environmental effects of a society that only prints what is needed could include waste reduction and decreased emissions from transporting manufactured goods. Additionally, spare parts could be printed in remote regions. However, printing on a whim could lead to an increase in resource consumption, higher energy demand due to transportation of raw materials, and pollution, if storage or disposal of chemicals used in household-level printing are haphazard.

Interesting first take on the issue, but seems like there is lots more to think about than simply the consumption of raw materials and energy.

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 Planet without Humans? Two Short Reflections on “Does the terrestrial biosphere have planetary tipping points?”

Are “planetary tipping points” likely? Trends in Ecology and Evolution recently published a very thought provoking article by Brooks et al. that challenges the notion of abrupt global threshold change. In the authors’ own words, we are likely to experience “[…] relatively ‘smooth changes at the global scale, without an expectation of marked tipping patterns.”

“Planetary tipping points” is not only a very important issue, with clear links to discussions about “planetary boundaries” and a “state shifts in the Earth’s biosphere”. It is also a very multifaceted inquiry that entails an electric combination between Earth system science, complex systems thinking, and science communication.

The paper opens up a whole set of important issues, but allow me to just briefly elaborate points that I find critical and interesting to explore and debate further.

1. Connectivity

Connectivity is a key factor in the assessment of the paper. As the authors note “If drivers or responses are spatially heterogeneous and inter-regional or intercontinental connectivity (through biotic or abiotic factors) is weak, the global aggregate pattern and rate of ecological change are likely to be relatively constant, without any identifiable tipping point. Conversely, if drivers and responses are spatially homogeneous or inter-regional or intercontinental connectivity is strong, ecological change might display a tipping-point pattern at a global scale.” (pp.2)

So, how strong is “intercontinental connectivity” between ecosystems? It depends on how you define “connectivity” of course. On the same page, the authors list a whole set of “biotic” and “abiotic factors” which underpin connectivity: species movement, ocean transport of heat, changes in CO2 levels, and others. Based on a brief analysis of these “connectors” for terrestrial ecosystems, the authors conclude that the “lack of strong continental interconnectivity, probably induce relatively smooth changes at the global scale, without an expectation of marked tipping patterns”.

Am I the only one getting the feeling that something is missing here? What I find intriguing in the analysis, is the absence of a discussion of “social connectors” which are likely to connect ecosystems across the world. The interconnected degradation of marine systems through global markets and new technologies denoted “roving bandits” are well known, and I see no reason why scholars should ignore similar phenomena for terrestrial ecosystems.

GWSP Digital Water Atlas (2008). Map 34: Virtual Water 2 (V1.0). Available online at http://atlas.gwsp.org

For example, while forest ecosystems in different continents might have few biotic and abiotic intercontinental connections, it is known that successful conservation policies in one region or a country, tends to shift environmental externalities to other areas through global markets (a “displacement effect” elaborated Lambin and Meyfroidt 2011). The flows of “virtual water”, and the observation that decreasing fish stocks force people to extract more resources from wildlife and tropical forests in West Africa (Brashares et al. 2004) are two additional examples of how social connectivity is tightly related to interconnected environmental change (some of which is likely to be non-linear). Global change scientists are just starting to get to grips with these complex human-environmental connectors (Adger et al. 2006, Young et al. 2006), but surely these would have an impact on how we analytically assess the sort of intercontinental connectivity Brook and colleagues are trying to get at? Bluntly put: if we indeed have entered the Anthropocene, why is social connectivity through institutions, technology and globalized trade, not part of the analysis?

2. Global tipping points and fatalism

The article ends with an interesting statement: “Second, framing global change in the dichotomous terms implied by the notion of a global tipping point could lead to complacency on the ‘safe’ side of the point and fatalism about catastrophic or irrevocable effects on the other.”

Brook also argues (in an associated blogpost) that “Why does this matter? Well, one concern we have is that an undue focus on planetary tipping points may distract from the vast ecological transformations that have already occurred.”

I find both these claims surprising. Surely a discussion about “thresholds” of this sort lead to more multifaceted social perceptions and responses than simple dichotomies of doom-and-gloom, or distraction? Nuttal and Hulme (which are quoted to support the first quote on framings) are just two articles in a much richer and multidisciplinary body of literature (raging from formal theory, to social-psychological experiments and case based approaches) that elaborates social perceptions, framings and responses to threshold phenomena. A somewhat more nuanced and empirically based discussion on this last issue of social perceptions and responses, could have contributed in significant ways to a much-needed discussion.