Tag Archives: Victor Galaz

Forty years of Limits to Growth

The first presentation of the influential environmentalist book Limits to Growth was on March 1 in 1972 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, four decades ago.

The study was both hugely influential and hugely controversial, and the authors were quite strongly attacked, often for analytical flaws that their study never said or did.  However, after two followup books, and renewed discussions of peak oil (etc) & planetary boundaries, there has been an increased appreciation of Limits to Growth.

After 40 years it seems that:

  1. Limits to Growth was a pretty good first stab at a global model (look at the number of models based on it)
  2. That the scenarios in Limits to Growth were fairly reasonable  (see here and here, here)
  3. That humanity has avoided some really bad trajectories, but could have done a lot better
  4. And that today, global civilization is pushing up against all sort of boundaries and we require more and more innovation to keep going and
  5. We probably need to have a major societal transformation to create a good Anthropocene.

For more on this, see Australian corporate environmentalist Paul Gilding‘s book Great Disruption, just is based on a similar assessment of the world – and he just gave a TED talk based on the book.

Various Limits related events have been timed for this 40th anniversary.

First, the Smithsonian is hosting Perspectives on Limits to Growth – which will feature two of the original members of the team that wrote Limits.  They describe the seminar:

The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution’s Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet are hosting a symposium on March 1, 2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launching of Limits to Growth, the first report to the Club of Rome published in 1972. This book was one of the earliest scholarly works to recognize that the world was fast approaching its sustainable limits. Forty years later, the planet continues to face many of the same economic, social, and environmental challenges as when the book was first published.

The morning session will start at 9:00 a.m. and will focus on the lessons of Limits to Growth. The afternoon session will begin at 1:45 p.m. and will address the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing the planet. The symposium will end with a thought-provoking panel discussion among the speakers on future steps for building a sustainable planet.

The meeting will be live-streamed and video archived on the internet at Perspectives on Limits to Growth.

Second, coinciding with the with anniversary is the release an interesting report Life beyond Growth 2012.  Alan AtKisson, author of Believing Cassandra and colleague of many limits authors, wrote the report for the Japanese Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy, and Society.

Life Beyond Growth is the product of a year of research and reflection, during which the world experienced tumultuous changes, ranging from the Arab Spring to the Great East Japan Earthquake to the “Occupy” movement to the near-meltdown of the Eurozone.

Despite all the economic and political turmoil, a revolution in economic thought continued to gain steam. From “Green Economy” to “Gross National Happiness” to the more radical notion of “De-growth,” governments around the world have continued to explore new ways to frame, and measure, the idea of national progress. Most recently, the United Nations has formally joined the dialogue, with its own high-level panel calling for “new ways to measure progress” in advance of the Rio+20 global summit.

And third, one that was not planned to coincide with the anniversary, but is importantly connected Victor Galaz and many other have a new paper Planetary boundaries’ — exploring the challenges for global environmental governance, which is not freely available, in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2012.01.006).  The article (from the abstract):

… provides an overview of the global governance challenges that follow from this notion of multiple, interacting and possibly non-linear ‘planetary boundaries’. Here we discuss four interrelated global environmental governance challenges, as well as some possible ways to address them. The four identified challenges are related to, first, the interplay between Earth system science and global policies, and the implications of differences in risk perceptions in defining these boundaries; second, the capacity of international institutions to deal with individual ‘planetary boundaries’, as well as interactions between them; third, the role of international organizations in dealing with ‘planetary boundaries’ interactions; and fourth, the role of global governance in framing social–ecological innovations.

Resilience 2011: notes on regime shifts and coupled social-ecological systems

The Resilience 2011 conference was a unique opportunity to meet people and new ways of thinking about resilience. This post is dedicated to the sessions I enjoyed the most, and my research interests biased me towards sessions on regime shifts and coupled social-ecological system analysis.

As PhD student working with regime shifts, it was not surprisingly that the panel on research frontiers for anticipating regime shifts was on my top list. Marten Scheffer from Wageningen University introduced the theoretical basis of critical transitions on social-ecological systems. His talk was complemented by his PhD student Vasilis Dakos on early warnings. Their methods are based on the statistical properties of systems when approaching a bifurcation point. These are gradual increase in spatial and temporal auto-correlation, as well as variability. A perfect counterpoint to these theoretical approaches was offered by Peter Davies from University of Tasmania; who presented the case study of a river catchment in Tasmania. Davies and colleagues introduced Bayesian networks as a method to estimate regime shifts, their likelihood and possible thresholds. Victor Galaz from Stockholm Resilience Centre presented an updated version of his work with web crawlers, exploring how well informed Internet search can give early warnings on, for example, disease outbreaks. Galaz point out the role of local knowledge as fundamental component of the filtering mechanism for early warning systems.  Questions from the audience and organizers were focused on the intersections from theory and practical applications of early warnings.

While Dakos’ technique does not need deep understanding of the system under study, his time series analysis approach does require long time series. On the other hand, Bayesian networks require a deep understanding of the system and their feedbacks in order to make well-informed assumptions to design models. An alternative approach was proposed by Steve Lade from Max Planck Institute in a parallel session, who used generalized models to identify the model’s Jacobian. Although his approach does need a basic knowledge of the system, it is able to identify critical transitions with limited time series, typical of social-ecological datasets in developing countries.

Most of the work on regime shifts is based on state variables that reflect either ecological processes or social dynamics, but rarely both. Thus, I was also interesting in advances on operationalizing the concept of critical transitions to social-ecological systems in a broader sense. I looked for modeling examples where it is easier to track how researchers couple social and ecological dynamics. Here are some notes on the modeling sessions.

J.M. Anderies and M.A. Janssen from Arizona State University (ASU) presented their work on the impact of uncertainty on collective action. They used a multi-agent model based in irrigation experiments (games in the lab). Their work caught my attention because first they capture the role of asymmetries in common pool resources, which is often overlooked. In the case of irrigation systems, it is given by the relative positions of “head-enders” and “tail-enders” with different access to the resource.  Secondly, they used their model to explore how uncertainty both in water variability and shocks to infrastructure affects the evolution of cooperation.

Ram Bastakoti and colleagues (ASU) complemented the previous talk by bringing Anderies and Janssen insights to the field, particularly to cases in Thailand, Nepal and Pakistan. Batstakoti is studying the robustness of irrigation systems to different source of disturbances including policy changes, market pressure and the biophysical variability associated with resource dynamics. In the following talk, Rimjhim Aggarwal (ASU) presented the case of India, a highly populated country facing a food security challenge in the forthcoming decades; where groundwater levels are falling faster than expected. Aggarwal research explores the tradeoffs among development trajectories. His focus on technological lock-ins and debt traps as socially reinforced mechanism towards undesirable regimes makes his study case a potential regime shift example.

My colleagues from the Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University also presented interesting work on modeling social-ecological dynamics. Emilie Lindqvist uses a theoretical agent model to explore the role of learning and memory in natural resource management. Her main results point out that long-term learning and memory is essential for coping with abrupt decline or cyclic resource dynamics. On the other hand, Jon Norberg and Marty Anderies presented a theoretical agent model where social capital dynamics are coupled with a typical fishery model. Although their work is still prelimary, it was the only talk that I saw which actually coupled social and ecological dynamics.

Resilience 2011 gave me the opportunity to rethink and learn a lot about regime shifts. Although my main question: how to study regime shifts in coupled social-ecological system remains unsolved, the discussions in the panel sessions gave me some possible ways of tackling it.

The research agenda on regime shifts is strongly developing towards early warnings. Three competing methods arise:

  1. look for signals in spatial and temporal data by examining the statistical properties of a system approaching a threshold: increase in variance and autocorrelation
  2. acquire a deep knowledge of feedback dynamics and apply Bayesian networks to understand and predict potential interacting thresholds
  3. use shallow knowledge of the system to estimate their Jacobian using short time series.

Social and ecological dynamics are hard to couple. It is not only because there are usually studied in different disciplines with different methods. My guess is that the rates of change of their main variables occur at very different rates. As consequence social scientists assume nature dynamics to be constant or as drivers, while natural scientists assume the “social stuff” to be constant as well.

Modelers have started breaking the ice by introducing noise to the external variables (e.g. rainfall variability, political instability, market pressure); or by looking at how memory or social capital at individual level scale up to resource dynamics. However, their main insights remain confined to study cases making difficult to generalize or study the coupling of society with global change trends.

What is resilience thinking and what is it not

Adaptive cycleVictor Galaz‘s post Machine Fetishism, Money and Resilience Theory reflected on Alf Hornborg‘s recent paper Zero-Sum World: Challenges in Conceptualizing Environmental Load Displacement and Ecologically Unequal Exchange in the World-System, in which, among other things, Hornborg presents a partial critique of what he calls “the gospel of resilence” – resilience theory and adaptive management.

There have been many comments on Victor’s post, including responses from the paper’s author.  To highlight this discussion, I’ve hoisted some points from the comments on that post.

Alf Hornborg writes that he is waiting for a convincing response to his criticism of social-ecological resilience:

At the most general level, the rhetoric on social-ecological resilience is framed in terms of a nomothetic search for the functional principles of socio-ecological systems (SES), as if human ecology was analogous to medicine.  SES are approached like biological systems with processes of adaptation and change that can be studied from a detached, objective position. The recurrent aim is to increase our “understanding” of how SES actually function, as if more data and better models could improve our management of these systems (again, analogous to medical practice).

Rather than try to develop a conspicuously and naively non-political cybernetic etiology of socio-ecological degradation – based on the assumption that such processes, irrespective of capitalist extractivism, are universally patterned, predictable, and potentially manageable – I challenge resilience theorists to address the operation of the global economic system that is the very obvious source of such processes. The attempt to provide an abstract vocabulary for describing SES often cries out for empirical examples that might get the discussion grounded in the real politics of human-environmental relations. For example, when it is argued that we must define on which scales agency is located and how an increase or decrease of scope for agency at one level influences agency on other levels, we need to consider a concrete case in order to assess whether the concept of resilience is really the most useful way of accounting for what actually seems to be a (rather well understood) problem of power.

Is “path dependence” so much better than various understandings of cultural, social, political, and generally structural problems of inertia and conservatism?

What do we gain by rephrasing environmental conflict and armed resistance as “regulation”?

How can we hope to predict and manage the abrupt surprises and discontinuities implied by notions of “critical thresholds” and “flipping”?

Why should concepts such as “non-linear dynamics”, “disturbance”, “opportunities for innovation”, “adaptation”, and “renewal” provide a better way of understanding what Joseph Tainter and many others for decades have recognized as socio-ecological collapse?

What are, quite frankly, the discursive/ideological benefits of subsuming social systems within the vocabulary of natural science?

I find it hard to respond to this critique because I do not recognize my work or that of my colleagues in the Resilience Alliance in Hornborg’s characterization of resilience thinking.

Perhaps this is because his article only shallowly engages the resilience literature, focusing on the Linking book edited by Berkes and Folke (an overview of resilience books and articles is available on the Resilience Alliance website), but I think it may be because Resilience thinking is not a formula for explaining how the world works.  In a recent paper, Steve Carpenter and Buz Brock described resilience as:

Resilience is a broad, multifaceted, and loosely organized cluster of concepts, each one related to some aspect of the interplay of transformation and persistence. Thus, resilience does not come down to a single testable theory or hypothesis. Instead it is a changing constellation of ideas, some of which are testable through the usual practices of natural or social science. Although particular ideas may be rejected or supported, the program of research on resilience itself is evaluated in a different way. As long as resilience thinking produces interesting research ideas, people are likely to pursue it. When it seems empty of ideas, it will be abandoned or transformed into something else.

Below I give some specific response to some aspects of Homborg’s comments:

  • Neither ecosystems nor society are super-organisms – and therefore most resilience researchers do not think that medicine or health are good metaphors for managing, manipulating, or understanding ecosystems.
  • Social-ecological systems are different from ecosystems or social systems.  How they are different was specifically addressed in the 2002 book Panarchy in a chapter by Westley F, Carpenter SR, Brock WA,. Holling CS, and Gunderson LH. called “Why systems of people and nature are not just social and ecological systems”
  • Resilience thinking takes a subjective rather than objective view of systems.  Being founded in systems theory, it aims to articulate the subjective perspective from which a system is analyzed to assist in the mapping and translating between multiple perspectives.
  • I believe that more data can help us  make the world more sustainable.  Data can show where theory is wrong, identify new problems, and suggest new ways of doing things.  Science and society don’t know how to create a sustainable society – consequently I believe we need to experiment, monitor, and observe to build a better world.
  • I don’t think resilience research lacks case studies.  Researchers in the Resilience Alliance has worked on a lot of case studies.   Ellinor Ostrom in particular has done a lot of compartive case studies.
  • Homborg writes that resilience researchers are trying”to develop a conspicuously and naively non-political cybernetic etiology of socio-ecological degradation – based on the assumption that such processes, irrespective of capitalist extractivism, are universally patterned, predictable, and potentially manageable.”
    The goal of my research is to help people make better decisions under conditions of uncertainty.  I want to better understand the dynamics of human dominated ecosystems – or social-ecological systems – not “subsum[e] social systems within the vocabulary of natural science”.   I am very interested in how people interact with ecosystems and I have tried to read and collaborate with a broad set of social and natural scientists to better understand social-ecological dynamics. As far as I know, none of the various social scientists I have worked with want to subsume the social sciences within the natural sciences but rather create new ways of understanding these linked systems, especially how they cope with change and surprise.

To response to specific questions:

  • Is “path dependence” so much better than various understandings of cultural, social, political, and generally structural problems of inertia and conservatism?
    Path dependence is a shorthand way of describing these things.   The term is general and not a term produced by resilience researchers.
  • What do we gain by rephrasing environmental conflict and armed resistance as “regulation”?
    Who does that?
  • How can we hope to predict and manage the abrupt surprises and discontinuities implied by notions of “critical thresholds” and “flipping”?
    That’s what resilience research is all about. There is a lot of active research on predicting “flips” (one recent example), with lots of papers being published on it in the last few years.
  • Why should concepts such as “non-linear dynamics”, “disturbance”, “opportunities for innovation”, “adaptation”, and “renewal” provide a better way of understanding what Joseph Tainter and many others for decades have recognized as socio-ecological collapse?
    While non-linear dynamics and disturbance and general terms from math and ecology, the other concepts are exactly what some resilience researchers have added to Tainter’s analysis.  Many resilience researchers are interested in how to avoid collapse and actively transform systems to new better states.  These concepts are new additions to our exploration of social-ecological systems.

Resilience researchers believe that because living in a human dominated biosphere, in which our way of life is destabilizing the ecological systems that stabilize our life support systems, learning how to be resilient to shocks and surprise are useful and important research goals.

I do this type of research because, I want to contribute to making human impacts on the biosphere positive rather than negative, and doing this requires a better, richer, understanding how social-ecological systems actually work.

Using the internet to provide early warning of ecological change

It all started with a discussion I had with Resilience Alliance member France Westley a couple of years ago about early warning and response challenges related to epidemic emergencies. Frances recommended I have a look at a lecture by Google’s Larry Brilliant.  A great lecture, and it triggered some new thinking. Maybe there are smart ways to tap into the noise of the Internet, and find early warnings of pending ecological crises? This lead to a first meeting with colleagues at Stockholm University, where we tried to explore the issue. Some were very positive, others very skeptic. The first group moved on with the idea, which is just about to be published in an article Can Webcrawlers revolutionize ecological monitoring in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (doi:10.1890/070204).  See also this press release from Stockholm Resilience Centre and an article in Wired.

worldwhiteSo, here is the key message: Sure there is a lot of junk on the Web (just Google for ”Britney Spears” and ”war Darfur”, and compare the number of hits). And people are certainly using emerging social media and Web 2.0 applications – such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr – in ways that seem quite useless from a resilience perspective. But if you look at how the health community is exploring this topic, you are likely to end up much more optimistic. Information and communication technology (ICT) innovations such as GPHIN , Google Flu , and ProMed , has had a tremendous impact on the speed and amount of information that epidemic intelligence can tap into. And nowadays, around 60% of all early warnings of emerging epidemic emergencies that reach the WHO come from these ICT tools. Not bad compared to the failure of conventional epidemic monitoring systems that were based on official data from governments that preferred to keep things to themselves. And that always reported events only after they had escalated out of control.

I’m pretty sure there is a revolution in the pipeline for ecological monitoring if we are smart enough to tap into emerging ICT innovations. Feel free to agree, or disagree by posting your comments on our discussion site.