Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Books about Panarchy

Two items from Paul Hartzog at Panarchy.com. First up is this visual diagram of the network of people and ideas tied to panarchy theory. Click on the diagram to see the whole thing.

Second, he's created a library listing of 200 books and growing about "panarchy" on LibraryThing.com. The list is as interesting for what is left out (no Holling!, no Homer-Dixon) as for what is included.

Can someone please tell me where to find the system?

[Part 1]

It seems that sociologists don’t study “society” anymore. There’s no such thing. There’s only a “chain of interaction rituals,” or a “network of individuals.” Or to put it another way, the chain of interaction rituals among individuals is the system. So there is basically only one level: the micro-level. If there is a macro-level, it’s just the micro-level writ large. So, micro or macro, there’s really only one level. Ok.

But I still have this nagging feeling that there’s a system. Why? Because we keep talking about it. We still refer to the “economic system” (ooh, that’s a big one), the “educational system”, the “political system,” etc. So the, what do these “systems” consist of? [Silence.] Individuals. In chains of interaction rituals. Aaarrggh! I want to tear my hair out.

This is where I find myself in the discipline of sociology. I have entered a Goffmanian hall of mirrors where the same single object gets repeated over and over into infinity.

The Goffmanian argument goes like this: if all the individual (humans) in the world suddenly vanished, there would be no society. It’s the Social Theory of the Neutron Bomb. Suppose some alien dropped a hundred thousand giant neutron bombs on planet earth and thereby killed all the humans on the planet all at once (and all the plants and animals too, but we won’t get into that). Poof! Society gone. There would be no society.

Pretty convincing and tough to dispute. But, the great thing about the neutron bomb (shiver) is that it leaves all the buildings standing. Just, nobody’s in them. And all the telecommunication systems working, but nobody’s using them. And all the cars running, just nobody’s driving them. (Why can’t they come up with a “car bomb” that only kills cars?) And all the documents stuffed into all the drawers and tacked up to all the walls, mail in the inboxes. The stores would be full of goods, but no one's buying them. And the Internet still humming. All of our Facebook pages would still contain billions of our own words and images, but no one would be looking at them, or adding anything new.

Sociologists almost always ignore the built environment. Except for Foucault—who took into account buildings and spaces like the prison, the asylum, the clinic—and urban sociologists, like myself.

So, arguably, that part of the social system, the built environment, the fabricated environment, the electronic environment, would still be there, all hooked up, ready to go. That conglomeration of objects is at least a significant portion of the social system. But again, without live humans, it’s little more than a smoldering relic.

Out of our decrepit 12 Monkeys landscape, one person crawls out of the wreckage and begins to look around. She had been sheltered in a radiation-protected laboratory deep underground where she had been conducting research with a thousand chimpanzees, who also survived. Once on the surface, she roams the streets, then enters an office building. She wipes the dust and debris off a desktop computer, presses the power switch, and hey, it still works! She sits down and begins to view all the images on the screen, all the stored text , photos, and videos, all the telecommunications sent between hundreds, thousands, millions of people. For her, at least, there is a virtual social system.

She must conduct research. While things are still marginally running, she embarks on a grand scheme of social research to discover one thing: is there anybody out there? In theory, if she can find at least one other human, she has a "social system." But how can she, one human, possibly cover all the territory and search all the places that need to be searched to find other humans?

Ah, thank god, she still has the thousand monkeys! She has trained chimpanzees, and she can send them out to find other humans. It’s the Thousand Monkeys Research. Get one thousand monkeys to randomly do social research for a thousand years, and you might (randomly) come up with something that looks like a social system. So she sends them off—run, fly, go find Society!

This is the state of sociology today, at least as I have found it. Dominated by micro-theories of interaction and Thousand Monkeys research, there is nothing left of what used to be our grand theoretical tradition of social systems. There is no “society.”

I’m discouraged but I haven’t given up. I know there’s a social system out there, somewhere.

[end of Part 1]

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Free screening of the 'Age of Stupid'

October 7, 2009

The Conservation Council of New Brunswick is teaming up with the New Brunswick Union, the NB Lung Association, the Green Matters Campaign, and the NB Public Interest Research Group to bring you a FREE screening of the new climate change film The Age of Stupid. The Age of Stupid is a 90-minute film about climate change that is set in the future.

Oscar-nominated actor, Pete Postlethwaite (In The Name of the Father, Brassed Off) stars as a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055, looking back at footage from 2007, and asking ‘why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?’

The screening will take place at Empire Theatres in Fredericton on Wednesday, October 7th at 6:15 (doors open at 6). A discussion will follow the film.

Gadgets and the Jevons Paradox

The NYTimes has a nice article describing how increases in the electrical efficiency of consumer electronics is actually leading to an increase in electrical consumption (because the number of gadgets we have is increasing). This trend will only get worse as we move toward the world of ubiquitous computing described in Adam Greenfield's book Everyware.

This same process occurred with automobiles, increases in fuel efficiency and emissions reduction from catalytic converters were offset by increases in the amount driven and, as a result, auto emissions were not reduced. The phenomena is so well know that economists have a name for it, the Jevons Paradox, referring to the tendency for technological increases in the efficiency with which a resource is used to increase, rather than decrease, the rate of consumption of that resource.

The folks over at Workers of the World Relax have put together a video about the paradox, suggesting that the solution is for North Americans to follow the European model and use productivity gains to increase the amount of leisure time rather than to increase production and consumption.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Key Concept: Resilience

Brian Walker explains resilience:

Organic Farming in the US

The New York Times took 2007 USDA data and mapped the location of all farms and of organic ones. They noted:

"The map of organic farms in the United States is clustered into a few geographic centers, a strikingly different pattern than the map of all farms, which spreads densely over many regions, breaking only for the Rockies and Western deserts.

Areas in the Northeast and Northwest have many small organic farms that sell produce directly to consumers. Large organic farms, which some critics call organic agribusiness, have flourished in California.

The largest organic markets by far are for vegetables, fruit and dairy products, according to Catherine Greene, an economist at the Agriculture Department.

Organic vegetables now account for 5 percent of all vegetable sales; organic dairies, which are the fastest-growing sector, now produce 1 percent of the nation’s milk."

Resilience in Human Systems

While not directly about Katrina, the web magazine People and Place has an article "Six Habits of Highly Resilient Organizations" that addresses the issue of resilience in human systems. The key point is that people have the capacity for foresight but social structural demands for short-term results often result in inadequate attention to the longer term. Thus, in the case of Katrina, the powers-that-be were well aware of the catastrophic potential of a hurricane hitting New Orleans (FEMA ranked it as the most dangerous natural catastrophe facing the US, even more problematic than a major earthquake in southern California). But, despite this awareness, proper precautions weren't taken. The article provides some insight into why that wasn't the case:

"successful, resilient organizations are those that are able to respond to two conflicting imperatives:
• managing for performance and growth, which requires consistency, efficiency, eliminating waste, and maximizing short-term results
• managing for adaptation, which requires foresight, innovation, experimentation, and improvisation, with an eye on long-term benefits
Most organizations pay great attention to the first imperative but little to the second."

The article also provides some suggestions for improving the resilience of human systems:
1. Resilient organizations actively attend to their environments.
2. Resilient organizations prepare themselves and their employees for disruptions.
3. Resilient organizations build in flexibility.
4. Resilient organizations strengthen and extend their communications networks – internally and externally.
5. Resilient organizations encourage innovation and experimentation.
6. Resilient organizations cultivate a culture with clearly shared purpose and values.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Sociology of Resilience: Panarchy and Post-Katrina

Our planet is faced with an array of ecological crises—in particular, peak oil, climate change, and fresh water scarcity. Scientists have begun in earnest to examine the impacts of these crises on natural and social systems, and how these systems respond. The ability of a system to respond to and survive crisis has come to be known as “resilience.” There are many theories of resilience, but one that has attained great influence recently is the resilience theory of Canadian ecologist Buzz Holling and his coauthor, Lance Gunderson. Resilience theory is part of their monumental work on cycles of transformation in natural systems called Panarchy. Their theory of resilience was developed out of detailed research on the life cycles of forests (including New Brusnwick) and other ecosystems. In Panarchy, they attempt to apply these theories of transformation and resilience to human social systems, in particular, the ability of social systems to respond to environmental crises.

My early study of this work raised questions for me as a social scientist. In the course of their research, Holling and Gunderson had to admit that human social systems were different from natural systems; social systems didn’t neatly fit the model. So they developed a set of “exceptional conditions” for social systems to explain how human systems responded differently. But what I found particularly troublesome was that their theory of resilience seemed to be completely antithetical to the way we experience the human condition. Panarchy’s theory of resilience states that in third stage of transformation, the ecosystem breaks down, collapses, and in the process, releases all the biological “wealth” that was stored during the “wealth-building” and “conservation” (first and second) stages. During the collapse stage, the system’s raw materials, nutrients and species are freed from their former links to the ecosystem. According to Panarchy, it is in the collapse stage that the system obtains its maximum resilience to ecological crises. In the final stage, the materials and species released by collapse can be recombined, new niches are built, and new species, formerly suppressed under the old system, can become the new dominant species.

I found this concept of resilience a little troubling, especially when applied to human social systems. I immediately thought of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the greatest ecological catastrophe in U.S. history. It was an ecological catastrophe, not just an environmental one, because it was caused by the combined forces and failures of both the natural system (climate change, hurricanes), and the human systems (systemic poverty, racism and a lack of preparedness to respond to disaster). To this day I can still remember the horror of seeing poor people of color drowning in the floods, stranded on roof-tops, imprisoned in hellish conditions in the Superdome, thirsty, hungry, searching for their families, for clean water, food, and a way out. To this day, I can still see the images of families walking down abandoned highways, carrying their few belongings, walking, walking toward they didn’t know where, trying to find a safe place to rest.

I had to ask myself, “is this maximum resilience?” Here you have a perfect test-case: complete collapse of both the natural and human social systems, and yet they these people did not seem to be “resilient” in the sense of "surviving.” More than 1400 people died in the storm. Half a million people left New Orleans and the affected Gulf region, the largest migration in U.S. history. Two years after the hurricane, only one-third of the City's population returned or remained in the area.(1.) Most of the evacuees never returned, and were forced to find homes in other cities and states. Not much is known about the fate of people who were forced to leave and resettle elsewhere, but one thing is certain: they left with little more than the clothes on their backs. Poor, traumatized, unemployed, bereft of connections and support from their former communities, how did they possess the resilience necessary to rebuild their lives? How is it possible that they would eventually be better off than before the crisis? Is this resilience?

These are the questions and concerns that led me to conduct research on the concept of resilience. I am not trying to discredit or debunk Hollings and Gunderson's theory, or Panarchy, because I think there is much in the theory that does work and is highly applicable to human social systems. But there also remains much in the theory that needs to be tested against the realities of the human condition. Human social systems are different from natural ecosystems, and thus we need to develop a sociological theory of resilience that accounts for that difference. And certainly I hope that research into the resilience of human social systems will yield knowledge and strategies that will help us face the many ecological crises ahead.

1. Source: NARAYAN SASTRY: Tracing the Effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Population of New Orleans: The Displaced New Orleans Residents Pilot Study


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Planetary Boundaries Project

Environmental sociology typically conceptualizes natural limits on humanity's use of the planet in terms of a single concept: the globe's 'carrying capacity' or, in it's more recent guise, 'ecological footprint.' Does this concept possess the relevant precision for understanding the complexity of our situation?

In contrast, a new report from the Stockholm Resilience Center defines nine separate 'planetary boundaries': climate change, stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, biological diversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. Strikingly, until recently, no one had made a serious effort to quantify these limits in measurable ways. That's why the new report is so crucial. Significantly, the report suggests we have already exceeded three of the boundaries.

Nature's coverage of the project can be found here, while the original report and other material is available here.