Sunday, January 30, 2011

Finding Simplicity in Complex Ecosystems

A talk by ecologist Eric Berlow shows how network models and their nodes can help us find simplicity in complex systems, biological or social. The talk and demonstration of the model takes less than three minutes. The presentation is, unfortunately, so brief that he fails to describe the method by which nodes are selected and significant relationships are identified.

What I find most compelling about this concept is the possibility of using network/nodes analysis as a research method. I see that it has the potential to rival or exceed the capacity of statistical analysis to yield useful information for sociologists. The network/node analysis would reveal the significant relationships in a system; statistics would then be used as a refinement to quantify how strong the relationship is.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Ecology of Time

Unfortunately, I don't read Croatian. From the abstract, the article sounds fascinating.

Author Cifric, Ivan
Title: Ecology of Time. Time As Integrative and Disintegrative Factor
Journal Title: Socijalna Ekologija ISSN: 1330-0113
Volume: 19 Issue: 1 Date: 2010-01 Pages 5-32


Ivan Cifrić; Department of Sociology, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Zagreb

The work places emphasis on (a) the importance of some terms in the ecology of time with regards to socioecological research (irreversibility, rhythm, tempo, speed, time sovereignty, ecological timeprint, measure of time), (b) time as the medium of dis/integrative processes and (c) the need to slow down the tempo of life and social changes. The main thesis is that the problems (in the environment and social) arise due to the clash between two dimensions of time and their rhythms – the rhythm in nature (natural) and the rhythm in society (cultural). The clash arises because of the intentional tendency of modern society to separate social (cultural) time from natural time, to separate social time and social rhythm from the human being, and to subordinate natural rhythm and natural forms of time to time and accelerated rhythm of contemporary society. Through universal time contemporary society integrates different cultures and attempts to integrate nature into society through the domination of social time. At the same time its actions are culturally disintegrating. In order to decelerate the tempo a radical reorientation of post/modern society is needed, it is necessary for it to accept the dynamics of the relation between natural and social systems, and their different time perspectives on the level of individual and social actions.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Can you control the Population of Malthusians when Ideas have Sex?

Brendan O’Neill recently posted "The definitive guide to modern-day Malthusians"

Malthusians are multiplying like rabbits. They’re everywhere. In respectable Western society you can’t swing a bat without hitting a Malthus-inspired misery guts. Yet while many of them are happy to talk openly about the plague of people making Gaia sick, some don’t consider themselves Malthusians at all. There are old-style Malthusians who doom-monger about frenzied fecundity in the dusty Over There, and newer Malthusians-in-denial who never, ever use the words ‘population’ and ‘control’ in succession, yet who still claim that humanity’s consumption habits threaten to bring about eco-doom.

Either way, the Malthusian attitude – the idea that every problem we face is a product of our temerity to try to live beyond nature’s means – is rampant today, whether it labels itself Malthusianism or something less likely to get people’s backs up. So to help you spot Malthusian thinking in its many guises in the year ahead, as we welcome the seven billionth human being, spiked offers this guide to the myriad of modern-day Malthusians.

The article then goes on to describe a variety of different flavors of Malthusianism: Unreconstructed, celebrity, psycho, feminist and green (complete with cute photos caricaturing the various categories).

Andrew Revkin, in Deconstructing a Bestiary of Malthusian ‘Miserabilists’, delivers an email Q and A which reveals to O'Neil to be considerably more sensible than the populist characterization one constructs from the article. More interesting, to me, however, was Revkin's take on the significance of a particular type of person -- an educated and networked individual -- over population in general in recasting the cornucopian viewpoint.

What’s your take on my recent dissection of Julian Simon’s “ultimate resource” thesis?

I don’t argue against more minds = more innovation and a faster route out of poverty.

But I also see no implicit “need” for more people (again, I’m not a Malthusian, just noting a potentially extraneous element of the “cornucopian” argument).

What’s needed is more minds that are educated and — in the sense Matt Ridley describes so well — networked.

I’m cheering for more education and access to information, not more (or less) babies except by choices made ideally by informed, educated [couples].

Well, I am not pro-natalist; I don’t think the Earth needs a certain number of people. I am simply opposed to any controls or coercion whatsoever in the realm of reproductive choice. Often the flip side to Malthusianism is natalism, the idea that we need more people in order to do A, B and C. Both of these outlooks are based on a demographic obsession, and my belief is that we should move away from understanding our problems as demographic towards appreciating that they are social.

For those interested, here is Matt Ridley's TED Talk 'When Ideas have Sex'

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

TEQs: UK Gov't Tradable Energy Quotas

The UK Parliament's All Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil, which began in 2007, is backing a TEQ scheme, or Tradable Energy Quotas. TEQ is a system of energy accounts for each adult that both sets a price on energy and quantifies the amount of carbon emissions per energy unit. It links the two major energy issues together: peak oil and carbon emissions. The price floats depending on scarcity/price, and the carbon units change, depending on the emissions level of the energy source. The scheme is designed to price fuel according to its scarcity and emissions, but also make sure that no one is "energy poor", that energy distribution is fair.

I can't vouch for the fairness of the scheme because I haven't read a critique on exactly how it would price and distribute energy in the real world. However, one has to begin with the presumption that the wealthy can buy as much fuel and carbon emissions as they would like, causing scarcity that both raises the price of fuel and reduces the amount of carbon emissions the less-than-wealthy can have. The scheme merely says that each adult is given an equal share of TEQs at the start of the year. If you use less than your share, you can sell your surplus; if you need more, you can buy more. Industry and Government bid for their units at a weekly Tender (auction). It appears that there are no limits on the amount of units that a wealthy person would be allowed to buy, although there is an annual "budget of units" that is projected until 2020. The story in the Energy Bulletin gives a bit more detail on the policy.

Even as a possibly flawed scheme, I would rather see one government move ahead and implement the policy as an experiment, to see how it actually plays out. We won't really know what the issues are until somebody tries it.

UPDATE: One question I had about the TEQ scheme was how energy and emissions would be counted in embodied forms: the purchase of consumer goods. TEQ has a scheme to count those energy and emissions units by requiring the producer to pay those TEQs. From The Oil Drum:

"The purchase of goods other than energy would not require the surrender of TEQs units, since the producers of those goods would have already surrendered units for the energy used in the production of the goods. Producers would then pass on the cost of buying these units to consumers, who would simply find that certain goods (those produced in a more energy-intensive manner) cost more."

However, this scheme hides the fact that a significant portion of goods in OECD countries (in some countries, the majority) are produced outside the country in places like China. The TEQ scheme, therefore, externalizes the energy and emissions costs associated with buying consumer goods to the country of production, where energy and emissions are not counted. This scheme gives consumers a free-pass to consume as much "cheap goods from China" as they can, since they will not have to surrender TEQs for those purchases. Furthermore, it gives a free ride to major retailers, like Walmart, who won't have to surrender TEQs for selling foreign-produced goods. It also penalizes the local production of goods, which may be producing such goods with lower energy and emissions and under stricter environmental laws. Consumer tendency would be to purchase foreign goods that don't reduce one's TEQs. This discourages the local production of consumer goods.


TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas) is an energy rationing system to enable nations to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases along with their use of oil, gas and coal, and to ensure fair access to energy for all.

2.There are two reasons why such a scheme may be needed:

1. Climate change: to reduce the greenhouse gases released into the air when oil, gas and coal are used.

2. Energy supply: to maintain a fair distribution of oil, gas and electric power during shortages.

3.TEQs (pronounced "tex") are measured in units.

4.Every adult is given an equal free Entitlement of TEQs units. Industry and Government bid for their units at a weekly Tender.

5.At the start of the scheme, a full year's supply of units is placed on the market. Then, every week, the number of units in the market is topped up with a week's supply.

6.If you use less than your Entitlement of units, you can sell your surplus. If you need more, you can buy them.

7.All fuels (and electricity) carry a "rating" in units; one unit represents one kilogram of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent in other greenhouse gases, released when the fuel is used.

8.When you buy energy, such as petrol for your car or electricity for your household, units corresponding to the amount of energy you have bought are deducted from your TEQs account, in addition to your money payment. TEQs transactions are automatic, using credit-card or (more usually) direct-debit technology.

9.The number of units available on the market is set out in the TEQs Budget, which looks 20 years ahead. The size of the Budget goes down year-by-year - step-by-step, like a staircase.

10.The Budget is set by the Energy Policy Committee, which is independent of the Government.

11.The Government is itself bound by the scheme; its role is to find ways of living within it, and to help the rest of us to do so.

12.TEQs are a national scheme, enabling nations to keep their promises, guaranteeing their carbon reduction commitments within whatever international framework applies at the time.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hottest year on record: A Visual Memorial

According to the New York Times, two agencies, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have independently reached the conclusion that the global average surface temperature for 2010 tied the record for hottest year on record set in 2005.

The high temperatures were matched by a decline in Arctic sea ice. Arctic sea ice extent averaged over December 2010 was 12.00 million square kilometers (4.63 million square miles). This is the lowest December ice extent recorded in satellite observations from 1979 to 2010, 270,000 square kilometers (104,000 square miles) below the previous record low of 12.27 million square kilometers (4.74 million square miles) set in 2006 and 1.35 million square kilometers (521,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average. The extent of Arctic sea ice has declined 3.5% per decade between 1979 and 2010.

In recognition of these milestones, we are highlighting a specific work by Canadian artist Diana Thorneycroft from her series "Group of Seven Awkward Moments." Thorneycroft describes the purpose of the series as follows:
In this new series "Group of Seven Awkward Moments", I investigate the relationship between the Canadian landscape and national identity. Reproductions of paintings by the famous Canadian collective The Group of Seven are used as backdrops to the dioramas I photograph.

It is through the use of the collective's iconic northern landscapes, which have come to symbolize Canada as a nation, combined with scenes of accidents, disasters, and bad weather that gives the work its edge. By pairing the tranquility of traditional landscape painting with black humour, the work conjures up topical and universally familiar landscapes fraught with anxiety and contradictions.

The image immediately below is "Icebergs, Davis Strait (1930)" by Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris. At the bottom is Thorneycroft's riff on the image. Enough said.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Integrating Economic Gain in Biosocial Systems

A few of the past posts have drawn attention to West's work on scaling rules and, in particular, the distinction between the sublinear scaling properties of biological processes as compared to the superlinear scaling properties of social processes.

A recently published article by Timothy Allen, Joseph Tainter and others (Integrating Economic Gain in Biosocial Systems in Systems Research and Behavioral Science Syst. Res. 27, 537-552 2010) develops a model that has relevance to this situation, though its more explicit focus is on how systems evolve. Specifically, they note that observed hierarchies change their level structure and organization as they pass through time. Think, for example, of the European Union. This is an attempt to reorganized a social system through the insertion of an intermediate hierarchical level (the EU) that sits between the existing hierarchical levels of socio-economic organization at the level of the state and at the global scale. This idea is consistent with the work of Holling and other panarchy theorists who argue that the number of levels in a panarchical hierarchy can increase through time.

Allen et al argue that "The concept of gain and profit is introduced into ecology as a way of summarizing strategies of biological and social structures. High gain systems can be predicted by flux as they take in fuel at a rate. Low gain systems must refine low-quality materials in order to acquire fuel. Low gain systems are predictable from their plans and coded behaviour. Changes from high to low gain mode and vice versa represent a reordering of a hierarchy over time." The model of socio-ecological systems they utilize is described below.

Figure 1 "There are two basic parts to biological and social systems: thermodynamic happenings and coded limitations. The coded information amounts to plans which are executed in some sort of construction process. In biological systems the codes might be embodied in DNA, hormones or even mating dances. The construction might be protein synthesis, but could equally be making a nest for a bird. In social systems, there are many modes of construction, all involving plans. The whole constructed material system is an update on the narrative that the whole tells its mates, predators and prey. The scientist observes the updated whole with its extended story. The scientists tell stories about those stories amongst themselves. The construction may not live up to the plans such that the system must become something else more efficient by creating a new plan. Economists let their systems continue to tell their respective stories as they watch adjustments in plans as the system repeatedly becomes more economical, more flexible or bigger. Ecologists and biologists in general do not wait for their systems to update, and merely note that the old plan fails to work as resources are used up. Economists expect adjustments to be only temporary and simply note that scarcity increases costs that demand ever more efficiency."

Note the role of the observer in the above model. Definition of a system as high gain or low gain is dependent on the level of analysis. Thus, if the boundary of the system is the fuel entering the car, then the system is high gain. But if the system is bounded to include oil drilling, transportation and refinement, with crude oil as the original input, then it is low gain.

And the manner in which work gets done is dependent on whether the system is low or high gain. "High gain takes in high quality material and degrades it without effort put into being efficient: profligate consumption. Low gain efficiently degrades inputs to get more work out of them. The option may then be open for taking in lower quality of inputs. There is not only more quantity of raw lower quality inputs, but they also contain potential for producing a greater quantity of refined material that is of the same quality as the high gain inputs used directly as fuel. Degradation is separate from dissipation, which is input quantity times degradation. Low gain in the end gets more work done by increased degradation opening the door to greatly increased dissipation."

The article ends with a discussion of termites aimed at illustrating the processes of system evolution.
Termites make a very good example of how shifts over evolutionary time follow the patterns of high and low gain. Primitive termites eat good wood in which they live. In the end they literally eat themselves out of house and home. These high gain termites are forced to reproduce and move to a new site where new good wood prevails (Thorne and Traniello, 2003). The forced move amounts to a high gain collapse. More advanced termites eat a wide range of organic materials from the environs (Wilson, 1971). As opposed to the moderate colonies of high gain termites, the large low gain termite colonies live in huge ventilated mounds built of saliva cemented feces. They still eat woody material but they do so by gathering dead and rotting wood from the landscape around them. The large size of these colonies is characteristic of low gain systems. Lower quality woody remains exist in larger quantities over an area than does good wood. Good wood is a local resource, focused on individual chunks. Gathering woody material that is diffuse is clearly low gain and offers economies of scale.

The figure to the left shows "termite evolution from high to low gain on a pleated surface. Starting up in the top left of the surface, high gain termites eat themselves out of house and home, collapsing at point A where the colony must reproduce and move. The shift to low gain always occurs only as the instability is imminent. The course correction at the last minute avoids collapse of the resource base by becoming suddenly much more efficient. The correction may avoid collapse by reaching the continuous surface at point B. The alternative route to B is the dotted line of prudent planning. No system ever does that because it is out-competed by high gain rivals, and there is no incentive to economize anyway. Point B is transitional. It leads to low gain efficiency and increase in size due to economies of scale at point C. Burdened with much infrastructure the low-gainers at C can become too large and demanding, in which case they fall over the front side of the surface. The super low gain strategy of the soil eaters goes to point D with deep adaptation and energy limiting super low gain resources."

This article is both deep and abstract. As I've only started to seriously work my way through it, I've focused more on expanded quotes rather than summary and exposition. Any thoughts?