Category Archives: Reorganization

Punctuated Equilibrium in Environmental Policy

Readers familiar with panarchy theory will find a rich set of relevant examples in a new book edited by Robert Repetto, Punctuated Equilibrium and the Dynamics of U.S. Environmental Policy.

In Chapter 2, Frank Baumgartner explains how U.S. environmental policy shows is static for long periods of time, reflecting stable institutional structures, shared understanding of goals, and balance of power among competing interests. Occasionally, however, there are bursts of innovation as public policies are radically restructured. These rare but crucially important bursts of innovation occur across a range of scales, from local to national. Baumgartner makes his case using statistical case histories of policy dynamics.

William Brock, in Chapter 3, explains social and economic mechanisms that cause long periods of stasis interrupted by bursts of enormous change in environmental policy. Brock uses minimal models grounded in well-established social and economic phenomena. The remainder of the book develops case studies in depth.

Some cases have undergone radical change: management of water in California, certain marine fisheries, and timber in the Pacific Northwest. Other systems seem locked in traps: greenhouse gas and climate policy, vehicular fuel economy standards, and livestock grazing on public lands. History suggests that these traps will eventually be broken.

In his introductory chapter, Repetto summarizes the positive and negative feedback mechanisms that underlie punctuated equilibrium. He writes:

Though they [the feedback mechanisms] are fully capable of explaining the observed patterns of stability and abrupt change, their workings are difficult to predict in particular policy struggles because of their complex interactions. The infrequency of policy breakthroughs suggests that most efforts to bring them about will fail. Entrenched interests and ideology will retain their dominance; challengers will be unable to gather sufficient resources, attention, and momentum. Nonetheless, such failed efforts may build a foundation for later success when conditions are more favorable by undermining the prevailing policy image, by mobilizing new interests, and by forming new coalitions. Even knowing that the odds are long, effective policymakers continue to work on their issues in order to be ready and primed when opportunities arise. Timing is crucial . . . . Across the broad range of resource and environmental policy issues, only a few, if any, are likely to have potential for significant change at any particular time. The ability to discern which ones these are is a vital strategic skill.

This pattern is well known to researchers familiar with adaptive cycles and panarchy. Surprisingly, this scholarly and well-documented volume has almost no references to research on adaptive cycles, resilience and panarchy. The lone exception is a citation to the 2002 Panarchy book edited by Gunderson and Holling. I hope that there is more exchange of ideas on punctuated policy dynamics and panarchy in the future.

Hurricanes, Risk Models, and Insurance

Roger Pielke Jr has an interesting post Are We Seeing the End of Hurricane Insurability? on the Prometheus weblog. The insurance industry uses models of expected losses to set rates for catastrophic losses – from things such as huricanes. However, the models that are properitarity and not open to public evaluation. Now consumer groups are attacking the providers of “catastrophe models” arguing that these models main purpose is to justify increases in insurance rates.

In the past consumer groups have argued:

Consumers were told that, after the big price increases in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, they would see price stability. This was because the projections were not based on short-term weather history, as they had been in the past, but on very long-term data from 10,000 to 100,000 years of projected experience. The rate requests at the time were based upon the average of these long-range projections. Decades with no hurricane activity were assessed in the projections as were decades of severe hurricane activity, as most weather experts agree we are experiencing now. Small storms predominated, but there were projections of huge, category 5 hurricanes hitting Miami or New York as well, causing hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. Consumers were assured that, although hurricane activity was cyclical, they would not see significant price decreases during periods of little or no hurricane activity, nor price increases during periods of frequent activity. That promise has now been broken.

While the catastrophe modelling firms argue:

Given a constant climatological state (or if annual variations from that state are short lived and unpredictable) the activity rate in a catastrophe model can best be represented as the average of long-term history. In this situation there is no need to characterize the period over which the activity is considered to apply because, with current knowledge, it is expected that rate will continue indefinitely. The assumption that activity remains consistent breaks down, however, where there are either multi-year fluctuations in activity or persistent trends. It then becomes necessary to characterize the time period over which the activity in the Cat model is intended to apply.

Pielke argues that the disaster modellers are implying

…that the historical climatology of hurricane activity is no longer a valid basis for estimating future risks. This means that the catastrophe models that they provide are untethered from experience. Imagine if you are playing a game of poker, and the dealer tells you that the composition of the deck has been completely changed – now you don’t know whether there are 4 aces in the deck or 20. It would make gambling based on probabilities a pretty dodgy exercise. If RMS [Risk Management Solutions – a catastrophe modelling company] is correct, then it has planted the seed that has potential to completely transform its business and the modern insurance and reinsurance industries.

What happens if history is no longer a guide to the future? One answer is that you set your expectations about the future based on factors other than experience. One such approach is to ask the relevant experts what they expect. This is what RMS did last fall, convening Kerry Emanuel, Tom Knutson, Jim Elsner, and Mark Saunders in order to conduct an “expert elicitation”.

… RMS conducted its elicitation October, 2005 with the intent that it will shape its risk estimates for the next 5 years. This is wholly unrealistic in such a fast moving area of science. It is unlikely that the perspectives elicited from these 4 scientists will characterize the views of the relevant community (or even their own views!) over the next five years as further research is published and hurricane seasons unfold. Because RMS has changed from a historical approach to defining risk, which changes very, very slowly, if at all over time, to an expert-focused approach, it should fully expect to see very large changes in expert views as science evolves. This is a recipe for price instability, exactly the opposite from what the consumer groups, and insurance commissioners, want.

From the perspective of the basic functioning of the insurance and reinsurance industries, the change in approach by RMS is an admission that the future is far more uncertain than has been the norm for this community. Such uncertainty may call into question the very basis of hurricane insurance and reinsurance which lies in an ability to quantify and anticipate risks. If the industry can’t anticipate risks, or simply come to a consensus on how to calculate risks (even if inaccurate), then this removes one of the key characteristics of successful insurance. Debate on this issue has only just begun.

Hedging ones bets with insurance is a good strategy to deal with risk – where known outcomes are expected to occur with some known probability. However, when confronting more uncertain situations other approaches such as building resilience to potential classes of shock, engaging in experimental management to decrease uncertainty, and accelerating learning by integrating sources of knowledge across a wider variety of domains (e.g. meterology, ecology, and urban planning) and different regions (e.g. Sri Lanka, the Netherlands, and New Orleans).

Self-Organization of Ecosystem Lumpiness

niche evolutionWe have growing evidence that ecosystems are lumpy. Along an axis such as body size, for example, we find clusters of similar-sized species separated by intervals of body size in which no species are found. Multiple explanations exist for lumpy patterns, and causes are still debated. Scheffer and van Nes present a simple mathematical explanation for evolution of lumpy patterns in ecosystems. Their article appears in the Early Edition of PNAS on 3 April 2006. The abstract states

Here we show that self-organized clusters of look-a-likes may emerge spontaneously from evolution of competitors. The explanation is that there are two alternative ways to survive together: being sufficiently different or being sufficiently similar. Using a model based on classical competition theory, we demonstrate a tendency for evolutionary emergence of regularly spaced lumps of similar species along a niche axis . . . Our result suggest that these patterns may represent self-constructed niches emerging from competitive interactions.

Later, the authors comment

Finally, it is worth noting a remarkable link to Hotelling’s theory in social sciences suggesting that competition of companies or political parties will often lead to convergence rather than differentiation. In this field of research, the focus is on the problem that such convergence is not in the interest of the public. For instance, having more of the same kind of TV channels is not better. By contrast, the seeming redundancy of similar species in nature may be essential to ensure ecosystem functioning in the face of adverse impacts.

When Scheffer and van Nes’s article is published in the print version of PNAS, it will be accompanied by a commentary written by Craig Allen which places the new findings in the context of research on lumps dating to the original discovery by C.S. Holling in 1992 (Ecological Monographs 62: 447-502).

Exploring Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems – E&S special feature

Ecology & Society has just published a special feature Exploring Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems: Comparative Studies and Theory Development based upon the comparisons of 15 Resilience Alliance case studies.

The current table of contents of the issue is:

Exploring Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems Through Comparative Studies and Theory Development: Introduction to the Special Issue
by Brian H. Walker, John M. Anderies, Ann P. Kinzig, and Paul Ryan

A Handful of Heuristics and Some Propositions for Understanding Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems
by Brian Walker, Lance Gunderson, Ann Kinzig, Carl Folke, Steve Carpenter, and Lisen Schultz

Scale Mismatches in Social-Ecological Systems: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions
by Graeme S. Cumming, David H. M. Cumming, and Charles L. Redman

Resilience and Regime Shifts: Assessing Cascading Effects
by Ann P. Kinzig, Paul Ryan, Michel Etienne, Helen Allyson, Thomas Elmqvist, and Brian H. Walker

Fifteen Weddings and a Funeral: Case Studies and Resilience-based Management
by John M. Anderies, Brian H. Walker, and Ann P. Kinzig

Toward a Network Perspective of the Study of Resilience in Social-Ecological Systems
by Marco A. Janssen, Örjan Bodin, John M. Anderies, Thomas Elmqvist, Henrik Ernstson, Ryan R. J. McAllister, Per Olsson, and Paul Ryan

Collapse and Reorganization in Social-Ecological Systems: Questions, Some Ideas, and Policy Implications
by Nick Abel, David H. M. Cumming, and John M. Anderies

Governance and the Capacity to Manage Resilience in Regional Social-Ecological Systems
by Louis Lebel, John M. Anderies, Bruce Campbell, Carl Folke, Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Terry P. Hughes, and James Wilson

Water RATs (Resilience, Adaptability, and Transformability) in Lake and Wetland Social-Ecological Systems
by Lance H. Gunderson, Steve R. Carpenter, Carl Folke, Per Olsson, and Garry Peterson

Shooting the Rapids: Navigating Transitions to Adaptive Governance of Social-Ecological Systems
by Per Olsson, Lance H. Gunderson, Steve R. Carpenter, Paul Ryan, Louis Lebel, Carl Folke, and C. S. Holling

African ReOrientation II

Following the earlier post on Africa’s reOrientation, Nature has a news article, Tide of censure for African dams (Nature 440, 393-394 2006), Jim Giles writes that Chinese-built dams in Africa are expected to have devastating consequences for local communities.

…The billion-dollar Merowe project will more than double the amount of electricity that Sudan can produce, and is just one of a dozen new dam projects being built across Africa using Chinese money and expertise.

But scientists and environmentalists who have studied the dam say that poor local people will suffer because necessary precautions are not being taken. According to the first independent review of the dam plans, a copy of which has been seen by Nature, inadequate thought has been given to the environmental and social consequences of flooding hundreds of square kilometres of land. That is far from unusual when it comes to Chinese investment in Africa, environmental groups allege. They say that China, which has a dire domestic environmental record, is repeating the mistakes of previous big dam projects, and that rural African communities will pay the price.

“Chinese companies will ignore social and environmental impacts to the extent that local governments are willing to ignore them,” says Thayer Scudder, an anthropologist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, who has spent decades studying hydropower projects. “If governments don’t care, or are corrupt, why will the Chinese engineers worry?”

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Africa ReOrienting?

The world economy is ReOrientating towards Asia. The Jan 2006 issue of the British literary magazine Granta is focussed on Africa. In an article We Love China the British journalist Lindsey Hilsum writes about what Chinese investment may mean to Africa (and China).

I arrived in Sierra Leone in June 2005, at the height of the rainy season. Mud washed down the pot-holed streets of the capital, Freetown, and knots of beggars, some without arms or legs, huddled under trees and against battered shop-fronts. It was a fortnight before the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, where Bob Geldof and Bono were to celebrate a huge increase in aid to Africa, but in the Bintumani Hotel no-one spoke of this. Gusts of rain-filled wind blew through the hotel’s porch to set the large red lanterns swinging. Cardboard cut-outs of Chinese children in traditional dress had been stuck on the windows. The management had just celebrated Chinese New Year

Most European companies abandoned Sierra Leone long ago, but where Africa’s traditional business partners see only difficulty, the Chinese see opportunity. They are the new pioneers in Africa, and—seemingly unnoticed by aid planners and foreign ministries in Europe—they are changing the face of the continent. Forty years ago, Chinese interests in Africa were ideological. They built the TanZam railway as a way of linking Tanzania to Zambia while bypassing apartheid South Africa. Black and white footage shows Chinese workers in wide-brimmed straw hats laying sleepers, and a youthful President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia waving his white handkerchief as he mounted the first train. As an emblem of solidarity, China built stadiums for football matches and political rallies in most African countries which declared themselves socialist. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Middle Kingdom withdrew to concentrate on its own development, but in 2000 the first China–Africa Forum, held in Beijing, signalled renewed interest in Africa. Now, the Chinese are the most voracious capitalists on the continent and trade between China and Africa is doubling every year.

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Ruin and Recovery

Ruin & Recovery is a special series of newspaper articles in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on how other cities responded to disasters:

  • Galveston, TX – Galveston almost went under in the hurricane of 1900, but city leaders saved it, and a new economy reshaped it.
  • Charleston, SC – Historic Charleston survived Hurricane Hugo and rebuilt, keeping its charm
  • Grand Forks, ND – Lessons learned after devastating floods in 1997
  • Homestead, FL – Hurricane Andrew nearly wiped Homestead off the map. But after early stumbles, and a lot of help from private enterprise, the town is stronger than ever
  • Kobe, Japan – In seconds, buildings collapsed, bridges toppled and thousands died when an earthquake hit Kobe, Japan, 10 years ago. Despair was rampant. But with dogged determination, the city rebuilt, repopulated and rebounded
  • The Netherlands – After a North Sea flood killed nearly 2,000 peole in the Netherlands in 1953, building a state-of-the-art flood defense became a national priority.

Teddy Cruz – What adaptive architecture can learn from Shantytowns

From Mixed Feelings Teddy Cruz a California architecture, who has focussed on what architecture can be learnt from informal settlements is profiled in an article Border-town muse: An architect finds a model in Tijuana from the March 13 International Herald Tribune.

The IHT article writes:

As Tijuana has expanded into the hilly terrain to the east, squatters have fashioned an elaborate system of retaining walls out of used tires packed with earth. The houses jostling on the incline are constructed out of concrete blocks, sheets of corrugated metal, used garage doors and discarded packing crates – much of it brought down by local contractors and wholesalers from across the border (slideshow in NY Times).

Once such a settlement is completed, it is protected from demolition under Mexican law – and the government is eventually obliged to provide plumbing, electricity and roads to serve it. In Cruz’s view, the process is in some ways a far more flexible and democratic form of urban development than is the norm elsewhere.
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Recovery Happens – Asian Tsunami impacts after one year

Jamais Cascio posts on WorldChanging

photo 8 thailand then and nowIn the immediate aftermath of the December 26, 2004, tsunami, we pointed to satellite photos showing the before-and-after of coastal regions of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India and other affected locations. These images were among the most powerful representations of the disaster, as viewers could easily trace the path of destruction. New before-and-after images are now available, but these tell a very different story.

Photojournalist Zoriah covered both Sri Lanka and Thailand in the days following the tsunami; earlier this year, Zoriah returned to Thailand, and took pictures at the exact same sets of locations., a web portal for photojournalists covering conflict and disaster, posted the resulting side-by-side comparison this weekend. Some of the changes are subtle, but it’s clear that much of Thailand is well on the road to recovery.

John Stanmeyer also posted before-and-after shots, this time of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. Aceh still has much further to go than Thailand, but these images stand as record that human beings can, and will, choose to survive and flourish even in the wake of unthinkable disaster. (Warning: the first image of Stanmeyer’s collection includes a fully-visible corpse; the subsequent images aren’t nearly as disturbing.)

Fishing through marine foodwebs

Tim Essington, Anne Beaudreau and John Wiedenmann have a interesting new paper in PNAS Fishing through marine food webs.

The paper elaborates on Pauly and others influential 1998 paper Fishing Down Marine Food Webs that showed that the mean trophic level of global fisheries statistics declined from 1950 to 1994 (from an average of 3.3 to 3.1).

Essington et al analyzed regional fisheries data from 1950 to 2001. They also found a decline in trophic level in 30 of 48 large marine ecosystems, and that the average decline was .42 trophic levels (almost twice as large as the decline found by Pauly et al). However, they did more than replicate Pauly et al’s work at a regional level, they also tested two alternative models of fishing down foodwebs – sequential collapse (the removal of top levels) vs. sequential addition (adding lower level fisheries). They evaluated these models by examining the temporal dynamics of upper-trophic-level fishery catches when fishing down the food web was occurring:

Under the sequential collapse replacement mode, a decline in the mean trophic level should be accompanied by reduced catches of high-trophic-level species as these species become economically extinct. Under the sequential addition mode, however, we expect catches of upper-trophic-level species to be maintained or even increase.

In the 30 large marine ecosystems that exhibited a decline in trophic level , they found 15 that matched the sequential addition model, 6 that showed no pattern, and 9 that showed sequential collapse. They differences between the two models are illustrated in Figure 1 from the paper, shown below.

Fishing down food websFig. 1. Illustrative examples of the sequential collapse replacement (A) and sequential addition (B) mode of fishing down the food web. Total yearly catch for each 0.1 trophic-level increment is indicated by the color bar on the right (104 kg yr 1). The mean trophic level (white line) was smoothed by using a locally weighted regression smoother. (A) The Scotian Shelf ecosystem exhibited a sharp decline in mean trophic level from 1990 to 2001 owing to the collapse of the cod fishery followed by a decline in the herring fishery and then the growth of the northern prawn fishery. (B) The mean trophic level of the Patagonian Shelf declined from 1980 to 2001, during which time catches for upper-trophic-level species (Argentinean hake) grew substantially while new fisheries for shortfin squid developed.

Essington and his coauthors point out that fisheries science, at least in the published literature, has assumed that fishing down food webs follows the sequential collapse model, and this model has different policy implications to the sequential addition model.

Perhaps the most important policy consideration of the sequential addition mode is that, in most ecosystems of the world, several trophic levels are now exploited simultaneously. These diverse fisheries impose conflicting demands on marine ecosystems that are not generally well represented in single-species management plans that do not consider the effects of these alternative fisheries on each other. As the structure of fisheries and the management environment evolve, the scientific community faces a new challenge of conducting broad-scale ecological research to support the development of more holistic, ecologically based approaches to fisheries management.

Another description of the research is provided in a U Washington press release.