Sunday, April 22, 2012

Brian Walker's 2012 Krebs Lecture

What follows is a summary and time guide to Brian Walker's 2012 Krebs Lecture Learning how to change in order not to change: Lessons from ecology for an uncertain world (video available here).

Walker begins by asking his audience the following question: How much can you change and still be the same person? After how much change would you have a new identity? Walker's question aims to draw attention to the notion of 'dominant organizing principals' -- the central aspects responsible for maintaining the identity of a system. He illustrates the point with research connecting place, identity and resilience among Eritrean refugees: individuals who had spent their whole life in one location have a much harder time coping with being a refugee forced from their land than individuals who had lived a nomadic life.

Walker then turns to a brief description of four key elements of resilience thinking:
  1. feedback: resilient systems are self-organizing systems governed by feedback (illustrated by the relation between the invasive fern salvinia molesta and a wevil used as a biological control): from around the 5:15 mark -  9:15
  2. change: resilience is only maintained by disturbance and change (e.g., the forest that becomes less resilient as a result of being protected from fire): 9:15-10:15
  3. scale: you cannot understand or manage a system at one scale: 10:15-11:25
  4. tradeoffs: efforts to maintain resilience at one level often lead to declines in resilience at another scale (e.g., efforts to maintain the resilience of global scale economies and industries often has adverse effects on national level economies and industries): 11:25-12:40
Which he uses to describe the ball in a basin metaphor of resilience (with changes in the size and shape of the basin and resulting threshold effects, initially in terms of a simple system and then in systems with multiple organizing principals and multiple threshold effects): 12:40- 19:30

Walker then turns to adaptive capacity or the issue of how one maximizes the resilience of the system as a whole (19:30-20:40) as a means to introduce the central focus of the topic -- transformational change, that is change in the system such that it operates with different dominant organizing principals and has a different identity (e.g., the shift from feudalism to capitalism).

At the 23:15 point, Walker begins a discussion of three factors necessary for the transformation of a system and the complication of a rapidly changing environment:
  1. getting beyond a state of denial
  2. the existence or creation of options for change
  3. the capacity to change (typically some source of higher level support or resources such as government financial resources)
At 27:00 Walker turns to a discussion of the Planetary Boundaries analysis. Particularly interesting is the discussion of the Arctic and the way the melting of ice is changing the alkalinity of the water leading to a scale decline in the size of plankton with potential implications for the entire food chain.
At 34:15 a discussion of the distinction between rapid and abrupt transformations of identity with slow and gradual transformations begins. Specifically, Walker contrasts the abrupt and cataclysmic change of the French and Russian revolutions with the enclosure movement in Britain. Walker uses it as an example of a fine grained change occurring at the level of the individual farm over a period of two generations that led to a gradual transformation of the entire British agricultural system.

The topic of combined bottom-up and top-down transformation begins at 37:30. In particular, Walker notes the need for transformation of both the energy system and the economic system at the global scale as a facilitating factor for necessary transformations at other levels.

At 39:00 the lecture turns back to the first factor necessary for transformation, getting past denial, with particular reference to the way risks are framed and perceived (as discussed by Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow).

At the 40:00 mark, Walker reprises the central point of the lecture: "We need to learn how to put in place continuing transformational change in order for us not to be subjected to the painful catastrophic change that will otherwise inevitably occur."

1 comment:

  1. The idea of "transformability" is what I'm trying to incorporate into my dissertation. A society has to be willing to risk transformation--and there also have to be the conditions that make it possible. Sometimes 'resilience' is a 'good enough' goal; absorbing shocks to the system while maintaining essentially the same characteristics and functioning. But in some cases, especially in the case of a 'rigidity trap,' the system is too good at keeping it all together, until it collapses catastrophically. Social groups have to be willing to risk collapse and transformation to another state. I hope we talk some more about this tomorrow, Gary.