Saturday, October 31, 2009

Climate Change as Evidence of A System

Where can we find evidence of a social system? Do we have to concoct some kind of academic hocus-pocus to linguistically conjure up the "idea" of a social system?

I don't think so. Evidence of a system, and by that I mean a human social system, is all around us: it's climate change.

Let's look at what we already know from the science of climate change:

• Individuals don't create climate change
• 6.5 Billion individuals together don't create climate change


6.5 Billion individuals PLUS a capitalist system, a technological system, create climate change.

In fact, it isn't even all 6.5 billion of us. At least half the world's population is so poor, so "underconsuming," that their collective contribution to global carbon emissions is almost negligible.

It really amounts to the richest one sixth of the world's population, the 1 billion or so who consume the most, who contribute the vast majority of the world's excessive carbon emissions. And it's not just that 1 billion alone. It's 1 billion PLUS all their automobiles, highways, coal-fired power plants, suburban subdivisions, millions of acres of shopping malls, agribusiness, distant factories and 60" television sets, all consuming, burning and emitting energy, that together create climate change. The technological system of resource extraction, production, distribution and consumption, as an economic system, makes a larger contribution to the production of climate change as the billion or so "individuals" who participate in that system.

To this we must add "nature's own" climate feedback cycles that, triggered by this excessive human C02 production, continuously creates more warming than just the human social system alone. What begins as a human system problem then becomes a human/environment system problem. And that is the ultimate designation of a system.

And to prove this point, please listen to physicist Anita Burke, who worked for Shell Oil International, advising their top corporate leaders on the causes and impacts of climate change. She spoke at the "Gaining Ground" conference in Vancouver, Oct. 2009, along with Bill Rees. Anita gives us the numbers: individual and household consumption of energy, water and other resources only counts for 10-25% of all resource consumption. The other 75-90% is used by corporations.

US Senator Bernie Sanders: The Environment, the Economy, and Energy Independence

Bernie Sanders is the Independent Senator from Vermont, and the only declared socialist in the US Senate.

This presentation by him sums up a lot of issues well. Though I've also noticed how, in the United States, "energy independence" is a real buzzword in the drive to alternative energy sources - ie. America should not be beholden to dictators from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia (rather only be beholden to creditors in China, okay I added that one, but it is the truth).

Energy independence in principle is a good thing to strive for, but we also live in a globalized inter-dependent World.

Key Concept: Emergence or Those flocking boids!

One of the great philosophical arguments of all time involves conceptualizing the relationship between different levels of phenomena: does one favor organicism or reductionism? Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? Or can it be reduced to an understanding of those parts?

Sociology, following Durkheim and his 'social facts can only be explained through reference to other social facts' dictum, traditionally favored organicism. One of the more interesting places to explore these ideas is by looking at emergence. How, for example, do we understand the flocking of birds or the existence of segregated neighborhoods in cities?

Craig Reynolds has a mesmerizing page where you can watch an individual based model of boids that mimic the flocking behaviour of birds. In philosophical terms, Reynolds is trying to explain the emergent phenomena of flocking behaviour through a set of individual-level instructions to his computerized agents (the boids). The page does an excellent job of explaining both the assumptions that are programed into the agents and providing links to a wide variety of relevant literature.

This is similar to the famous explanation for segregation provided by Nobel prize winning economist Thomas Schelling in his book Micromotives and Macrobehavior. By positing the existence of individuals (agents in the jargon) with slight-but-not-malicious preference to have neighbors of the same race, Schelling developed an agent based model showing that, over time, the result of people acting to meet these preference leads not to a mixed neighborhood but, rather, to completely segregated populations. There are a number of different simulations of this on the web, for example, here, here and here. A simpler and less interesting version is here.

But, as Russ Abbott has noted, while boids do a good job of modeling flocking behavior, they ignore energy issues. Thus, as currently conceived, most agent based representations of ecosystem phenomena are seriously deficient.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Landmark Study on the Cost of Carbon Reduction for Canada

A landmark report on climate change shows that Canada can meet its carbon reduction targets. The study was conducted by the David Suzuki Foundation, the Pembina Institute and Toronto Dominion Bank.

"Ottawa will have to lead a massive restructuring of the Canadian economy, with wealth flowing from the West to the rest of the country, if it is to meet its climate-change targets.

The Conservative government's goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 can be achieved, but only by limiting growth in Alberta and Saskatchewan."

The report states that economic growth in Alberta and Saskatchewan would be reduced by 2.8 percent, growth in other provinces would be static, and central Canada would increase its rate of employment. Even with emissions reductions, Canada's overall GDP will grow by 2.2 percent per year until 2020.

This study reveals the key technological approaches needed to achieve major reductions in Canada’s GHG emissions.

The most important of these are

• capture and storage of carbon dioxide from the oil and gas industry and power plants

• reduction of “fugitive” emissions from the oil and gas industry and from landfills

• increased energy efficiency throughout the economy (e.g., in vehicles and buildings)

• increased production of renewable energy (e.g., wind power accounts for 18 per cent

of electricity generated in 2020 when meeting either of the two targets, compared to

less than two per cent now)

• replacement of fossil fuels by cleaner electricity (e.g., for heating buildings).

The accompanying technical reports shows that switching from burning of fossil fuels to electricity generation from clean sources (such as electrifying home heating and transport) reduces emissions by 33 megatons of C02e. However, switching from fossil fuels to nuclear power in electricity generation yields the smallest reduction in emissions from that sector, a nearly negligible 0 to 1 megaton of C02e by 2020.

It's a little unclear what "Reduced fossil fuel output" refers to, but it appears to mean a reduction in the production of oil and natural gas, located primarily in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and yields a drop of 43 to 64 megatons of C02e by 2020. Carbon capture and storage yields a reduction of 30 to 76 megatons of C02e.

However, it should be noted that another report issued in September by Greenpeace CA estimated the cost of using carbon capture and storage at the tar sands projects would cost Canadians 2 to 3 billion dollars per year for the next 20 years.

Cdn Bill Rees on Urban Ecology and "Smart Decline"

Bill Rees, creator of the "ecological footprint," gave a lecture at the 2009 Gaining Ground Summit in Vancouver on the evolution of cities and "smart decline," or "planning down", i.e. planning for a descent in consumption, not just in fuel, but all consumer goods and natural resources. He opens with one of the most original and revelatory statements I've heard on the evolution of cities.

Smart Decline in CD Quality

You should definitely put "Radio Ecoshock" from Vancouver on your short list of "must listen to" podcasts. It's the only site I've found that regularly features interviews and presentations of actual climate scientists from around the world on climate change issues. If you want the latest on climate science, check out Alex Smith's podcast.

Environmentalists and Irving Oil on the Same Page?

Came across this story on the CBC:

NB Power sale gets environmentalists' support

Environmentalists are applauding the potential closure of the Coleson Cove Generating Station as a likely outcome of the proposed sale of NB Power to Hydro-Québec.

Under the proposed agreement, Hydro-Québec would purchase a majority of NB Power's assets for $4.8 billion, which would erase the public utility's debt.

Click here to read more.

Irvings favour the sale of NB Power because of lower industrial power rates, but interesting to see environmentalists onside as well. Closing Coleson Cove will be good for the environment... but a lot of people will be out of work and overall New Brunswick will lose its energy sovereignty.

It's also not often that environmentalists agree with Shawn Graham on something...

P.S. Danny Williams is not too happy about the sale, as Hydro Quebec is likely to block and/or obstruct Newfoundland power sales to the United States via New Brunswick; below, Premiers Shawn Graham and Danny Williams engage in a staring contest, who will win?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

When the Climate Change Center Cannot Hold | MR Zine

"Kyoto's promised 5% emissions cuts (by 2012, from 1990 levels) are impossible now. Obama's people hope the world will accept 2005 as a new starting date; a 20% reduction by 2020 then only brings the target back to around 5% below 1990 levels. Such pathetically low ambitions, surely Obama knows, guarantee a runaway climate catastrophe -- he should shoot for 45%, say the small island nations.

Regardless, core principles of the progressive movement are non-negotiable. In advance of Copenhagen Bella Center protests, here are demands articulated by Climate Justice Action:

* leaving fossil fuels in the ground;
* reasserting peoples' and community control over production;
* relocalizing food production;
* massively reducing overconsumption, particularly in the North;
* respecting indigenous and forest peoples' rights; and
* recognizing the ecological and climate debt owed to the peoples of the South and making reparations.

If the center is not holding, that's fine: the wave of courageous direct-action protests against climate criminals in recent weeks -- and the prospect of seattling Copenhagen at the big protest on December 16 -- offer an inspiring reflection of left pressure that will soon counteract that from the right. It's our only hope, isn't it?"

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Call for Papers: Media Ecology Association

Close to home and interesting .... could be well worth checking out.

The Eleventh Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association
Media Ecology and Natural Environments

June 10–13, 2010
University of Maine
Orono, Maine

Media Ecology and Natural Environments

The subject of media ecology was formed with two biological methaphors in mind, Neil Postman wrote in “The Humanism of Media Ecology” (2000). In biology, a medium is a substance within which a culture grows. Change “substance” to “technology,” and media ecology defines a medium as a technology within which a culture grows, forming its politics, social organization, and ways of thinking. In biology, ecology is the study of what constitutes a balanced and healthy natural environment. Media ecology refers to ways that cultures maintain a healthy symbolic balance to help keep our natural world in order. Media ecology seeks to make us more aware that we live in two different environments. We live in both the natural environment of air, water, animals, and plants, and the media environment of language, images, symbols, and technologies that shape us.

The 11th Annual Convention of the Media Ecology Association invites papers, panels, creative projects, and other proposals exploring the connections between these two ecologies, one of culture and communication, the other of nature and the physical sciences. Convention submissions are welcome that draw on a wide variety of perspectives in environmental studies in the sciences and communication, from issues such as climate change, biodiversity, acid rain, and wildlife ecology. How do media ecology and natural ecology intersect? How do ecologists in humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences create dialogue with each other? Can scholarship bring artists, communication researchers, and scientists together? What is the relationship between primary natural and virtual media realities? What is the history of environmental thought?

Electronic submissions of papers and session proposals are preferred and should be sent by January 15, 2010 to Paul Grosswiler, Chair, Department of Communication and Journalism, 420 Dunn Hall, University of Maine, Orono ME 04460, paulg at

All submissions will be acknowledged. The convention will be sponsored by the Vice President for Research, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine. Campus housing will be available. Tours of Maine’s natural environments will be offered.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Biophysical Economics

The second conference of Biophysical Economics was held in Syracuse, NY at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

"Real economics is the study of how people transform nature to meet their needs," said Charles Hall, professor of systems ecology at SUNY-ESF and organizer of both gatherings in Syracuse. "Neoclassical economics is inconsistent with the laws of thermodynamics."

"The financial crisis and subsequent global recession have led to much soul-searching among economists, the vast majority of whom never saw it coming. But were their assumptions and models wrong only because of minor errors or because today's dominant economic thinking violates the laws of physics?

A small but growing group of academics believe the latter is true, and they are out to prove it. These thinkers say that the neoclassical mantra of constant economic growth is ignoring the world's diminishing supply of energy at humanity's peril, failing to take account of the principle of net energy return on investment. They hope that a set of theories they call "biophysical economics" will improve upon neoclassical theory, or even replace it altogether."

What interests me as a sociologist is the idea that "biophysical" concepts are being encoded into many different branches of knowledge. Does this signal a major paradigm shift, or in biophysical terms, a non-linear phase transition of the system into a new state? Are we entering a new phase of human civilization?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Green Gov - Obama Administration

Something I came across when browsing the site; it's an initiative of the Obama administration. Thoughts? Debate?

You can click here to visit the site.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Resilience, Vulnerability and Criticality

In my search for appropriate definitions of resilience, I have come across the work of Neil Adger, Prof. of Environmental Science at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. Neil is a fellow at the Resilience Alliance, at the Tyndall Center for Climate Change, and one of the co-recipients of the Nobel prize awarded to scientists of the IPCC.

I am attempting to get several of his papers, some of which are not published, but one that is available online is "Social and ecological resilience: are they related?", a chapter from Progress in Human Geography, 24,3 (2000) pp. 347-364. This paper examines various definitions of 'resilience', 'vulnerability' and 'criticality'. The last term, 'criticality', is not one I had heard before:

"The concept of criticality is distinct from vulnerability. Environmental criticality ‘refers to situations in which the extent or rate of environmental degradation precludes the continuation of current use systems or levels of human well being, given feasible adaptations and societal capabilities to respond.'" (Kasperson et al., 1995: 25) (Adger 2000).

Resilience is sometimes defined as the capacity to cope with stress, at other times as the opposite of "reisistence."

"Resilience can be defined in many ways. It is the buffer capacity or the ability of a system to absorb perturbations, or the magnitude of disturbance that can be absorbed before a system changes its structure by changing the variables and processes that control behaviour (Holling et al., 1995). By contrast other definitions of resilience emphasize the speed of recovery from a disturbance, highlighting the difference between resilience and resistance, where the latter is the extent to which disturbance is actually translated into impact (see Figure 1). It is important to note that these definitions, shown for a population in the graphical representations in Figure 1, are most relevant at the ecosystem scale. (Adger 2000)

On social resilience:

"Social resilience has economic, spatial and social dimensions and hence its observation and appraisal require interdisciplinary understanding and analysis at various scales. But it is important to note that, because of its institutional context, social resilience is defined at the community level rather than being a phenomenon pertaining to individuals. Hence it is related to the social capital of societies and communities." (Adger 2000)

The empirical portion of this study focuses on the resilience of coastal communities related to changed in coastal resources, e.g. mangrove ecology in coastal Viet Nam.

A Tale of Two Protocols | Counter Punch

An analysis of the effectiveness of the Kyoto and Montreal protocols:

"So far, emission cuts under Kyoto have been well short of the target. Some climate change experts and thinkers, say Kyoto is clearly a failure. ... The Kyoto Protocol covers a basket of 12 gases, and only deals with emissions of the total basket, not individual substances. It also does not deal with reducing consumption. ... The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, has specific control measures for phasing out the use of specific ozone depleting gases. ... The Montreal Protocol is the only international environmental treaty to which every single country on the planet has signed up. It is also arguably the most successful international environment treaty ever"

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Edward Burtynsky’s Oil

Alberta Oil Sands #6, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, 2007.

Noted Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has an acute awareness of the scale of our impact on the earth and an uncanny ability to capture it in photos. Click on the image a couple of times to get the full effect. Like seeing his work in person (they are HUGE), the bigger the image is, the more impact it has. Photos from his new work, Oil, can be seen here. His photo of NB's own Saint John refinery is among those decorating the right hand column of the blog.

Burtynsky's TED talk about his work can be seen here.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Nobel Prize and the Tragedy of the Commons

Elinor Ostrom, Indiana University, won the Nobel Prize for Economics (along with O. Williamson) for her work of supplanting the "tragedy of the commons" with a more rigorous understanding of managing natural resources.

Garrett Hardin's 1968 article "The Tragedy of the Commons" proposed that a "commons," typically a natural resource such as grazing lands, could not be managed by local individuals, e.g. local cattle grazers, because the users would not share the commons fairly or sustainably; they would overgraze the commons with their own stock at the expense of others who use it, and thus destroy the commons. Hardin proposed that the only way to avoid the tragedy of the commons was to place it under the management of central governments or convert it to private property, managed by the owners. The Tragedy of the Commons became a sort of unquestioned mantra that governments, corporations, and certain NGOs used to justify policies that barred local people from using land and natural resources. Hardin even used the concept to justify population control, warning that "freedom to breed will bring ruin to all."

Elinor Ostrom demonstrated empirically that many local users of a commons have found ways to both share the commons and use it sustainably as a collective. In some cases, they were not able to do so, and her research identified why some commons were well-managed by locals and others were not. The factors she identified were the kinds of "social capital" that enabled people to manage it well on their own: well-defined boundaries, a strong community tradition, and the absence of government interference.(Leal). She found that small groups of people who develop their own rules for using the commons are able to get immediate feedback on their use of the commons and adjust their uses as needed. Rules devised by one group are "error checked" by rules developed by another small group using the same commons. Ostrom called this process of local rule-making "polycentric governance."

"The strength of polycentric governance systems is each of the subunits has considerable autonomy to experiment with diverse rules for a particular type of resource system and with different response capabilities to external shock. In experimenting with rule combinations within the smaller-scale units of a polycentric system, citizens and officials have access to local knowledge, obtain rapid feedback from their own policy changes, and can learn from the experience of other parallel units."

What's even more interesting about Ostrom's work is her empirical method. She developed and tested her theories by living with local communities, studying their relationships and use of natural resources.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From Environmental to Ecological Sociology

Here is a position piece I wrote a number of years ago. I'm putting it up for several reasons. First, it used to be on the web as part of the conference program, but the Australian Sociology Association took it down. While it was up, it made it to the top of the Google list when you searched for for ecological sociology. So, it needs to be returned to public view.

Second, I'm curious about embedding a pdf in a blog. So I thought I'd see if it would work. Here goes ....

From Environmental to Ecological Sociology

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

More Blogs for Sociology and Complexity Science

Dr. Castellani, currently a professor of Sociology at Kent State, Ohio, has a blog dedicated to Sociology and Complexity Science. Interestingly, Dr. Castellani's background also includes extensive studies in psychology and visual arts. His Art & Science Factory includes his diverse interests in popular art and the social complexity of public health. The blog itself is loaded with fantastic art. His book on Sociology and Complexity Science looks like a good overview of the field, with a related website that gets into the specifics of complexity theories and models.

A related blog is Aaron Bramson's Complexity Blog that features Agent-Based Modeling.

And don't be embarrassed to take a look at the Wikipedia page on Sociology and Complexity Science. It's really a very good overview of the history of social complexity theory, it's related theories, schools and authors.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ellul, Vanderburg and Theriault

Thanks for the great post about the Encyclopedia of Social Thermodynamics. I wasn't aware of it and think those ideas are fundamental. Lots of things to explore!

Ellul's book, The Technological Society, is a classic. You may also be interested in Living in the Labyrinth of Technology written by Ellul student and associate Willem Vanderburg. I wrote a book review of it for the Canadian Journal of Sociology. Interestingly, Vanderburg was the supervisor of our own Luc Theriault!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Social Thermodynamics

The new Encyclopedia of Human Thermodynamics (EoHT), launched in December 2007, is a wiki of 1,150 articles related to the thermodynamics of human systems.

Within EoHT is a subsection on Sociological Thermodynamics. Under this heading I found a section on Niklas Luhmann and a French co-theorist that I hadn't heard of before, Jacque Ellul. The sociology subsection contains a list of social theorists of thermodynamics. Among these is an American anthropologist, Eugene Ruyle, who developed social thermodynamic theory based on Marx's labor theory of value; Edgar Morin, a French philosopher who developed a "complexity theory" of sociology; and Adrian Bejan, a Romanian-born mechanical engineer at MIT, applies thermodynamics in his "constructural theory" of society.

The author of the EoHT believes that the use of thermodynamic theory in sociology is still fairly new. The wiki was started by Sadi Carnot, aka, Libb Thims.

I had been looking for some connection between Luhmann and thermodynamics. I knew that he had a cybernetic theory, but not necessarily a thermodynamic model. I still think that Luhmann's thermodynamics is only partial, mainly concerned with entropy. But that the fact that he conceives society as an autopoietic system is an excellent place to begin to construct a sociology of thermodynamics.

The page lists some excellent sources, including Douglas White's Thermodynamic Principles for Social Sciences.

Mountaintop Removal (Read Blasting) in West Virginia

Thank you for inviting me to contribute to this blog; below is something I wrote a while ago on an issue that does not receive nearly as much attention as it should

The price of unchecked greed

Mountain top removal is reducing West Virginia’s Appalachian mountains to gravel, polluting the landscape and contaminating local water supplies.

Published Monday April 6th, 2009
Hassan Arif
Telegraph Journal

Sometimes one comes across a news story which forces us to think, why isn't this making more news? It is such a dramatic and pressing issue, yet hardly anyone has heard about it.

For me, mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia is one such story.

The state of West Virginia is, in some respects, like New Brunswick. It is geographically small and characterized by dense forests, small communities and cities and rural areas. Socially, West Virginia is much more conservative, as the state shares cultural characteristics with the Deep South. Economically, it is poorer than our "have not" province, but the similarities make West Virginia a state that we can empathize with.

The Appalachian mountain range contains much natural beauty, with majestic mountains and dense forests. These mountains form an important part of the identity and culture of West Virginians. Their influence is pervasive. West Virginia's nickname is "The Mountain State", the state motto is "Mountaineers are always free," and one of the state songs is "The West Virginia Hills."

This is also something we can relate to. Our province is characterized by forests, rivers and coastlines that form an important part of its identity. The loss or destruction of these natural characteristics would represent a grave loss to us personally as New Brunswickers.

In West Virginia, the natural heritage is being destroyed through mountain top removal. Mountain tops (and even entire mountains, in some cases) are literally being removed by coal companies. Traditional underground coal mining requires more labour, and hence more wages, while blasting the mountains allows the mining companies to send in trucks and equipment to retrieve the coal with fewer costs. This leads to more profits for the coal companies and job losses in the coal mining industry.

That this destruction is not making more headlines is astounding. A whole state is literally being blown up and the heritage of a region ruthlessly destroyed in the interests of greed.

Through mountain top removal, pristine and forested mountains are reduced to barren moonscape-like terrains. Airborne debris from the blasting is harming the health of West Virginia residents. "Overburden," which is the remainder from the blasts and coal mining operations, is trucked into valleys where it is deposited, a practice known as "valley-filling." This practice additionally erodes the natural beauty of Appalachia and leads to the pollution of nearby rivers and streams, thus further harming the health of West Virginians.

The practices of mountain top removal and valley filling are destroying local ecosystems and harming biodiversity, as forests are destroyed and streams and rivers contaminated.

Furthermore, the processing of mined coal creates a waste product known as coal sludge which is stored in "sludge pond" impoundments that are contained by dams. These act as the only barriers between the impoundments and further ecological catastrophe. One particularly controversial sludge impoundment in West Virginia is located near an elementary school. In neighbouring Kentucky, the breach of a sludge impoundment caused a catastrophic spill that polluted waterways, killed aquatic life, and contaminated the water supply of 27,000 people.

Because of the crushing poverty of Appalachia, many of people do not feel they have the voice to fight back, and thus they are taken advantage of as their surroundings are blasted.

This destruction of West Virginia's landscape prevents other economic opportunities, such as eco-tourism, which would provide jobs and revenues. If energy and economic alternatives such as wind power were explored, West Virginians could find a viable substitute to the destructive effects of mountaintop blasting.

The Bush administration pushed forward measures to relax restrictions on both mountain top removal and valley filling. West Virginia shows the impact of unchecked corporate abuse, where little regard is given to the ecological and social consequences for local residents.

When assessing new economic projects in our own province, we should be keenly aware of the ecological and social impacts, and be careful to avoid ending up in a situation akin to West Virginia where a natural heritage is being destroyed, and the local people disregarded, in the interests of greed.

You can click here to read the original article.

Evolutionary Networks

In response to the previous post, here's a story from Guardian UK/America about ongoing research on networks. It features the work of Lieberman and Nowak on evolutionary graph theory. This mathematics, arranged in a grid network, shows the particular ways that networks evolve over time, be they cancer cells or human social networks. Lieberman's evolutionary graph theory [] describes several features of dynamic networks. It is a general theory of how population structure affects evolutionary dynamics:

• "random" vs. "scale-free" networks [scale-free networks develop larger inequalities]
• the fixation-probability of mutants [evolutionary agents]
• graphs as suppressors or amplifiers of [evolutionary] selection
• frequency-dependent evolution
• the outcome of evolutionary games [scenarios] is dependent on the structure of the graph
• in small populations, "drift" dominates, i.e. random mutations don't trigger an evolutionary path, while
• large populations are sensitive to small changes in selection values
• the higher the correlation between the mutant's fitness and fixation, the stronger the effect of natural selection

Lieberman and Nowak's theories involve replicators. [GDUK] A replicator is an entity that makes copies of itself; it could be a virus or an idea. Network theory predicts where that replicator will go, how successfully it will propagate.

Human organizations have complicated network structures25−27. Evolutionary graph theory offers an appropriate tool to study selection on such networks. We can ask, for example, which networks are well suited to ensure the spread of favorable concepts. If a company is strictly one-rooted, then only those ideas will prevail that originate from the root (the CEO). A selection amplifier, like a star structure or a scalefree network, will enhance the spread of favorable ideas arising from any one individual. Notably, scientific collaboration graphs tend to be scalefree28.

One of the more interesting things that Lieberman notes is that individuals don't evolve, populations do:

Evolutionary dynamics act on populations. Neither genes, nor cells, nor individu- als but populations evolve.

Historically, this concept has been applied to the biological evolution of species. But through graph theory, we can also show that social networks evolve, but not individuals. This supports Luhmann's idea that social systems are systems that take shape beyond the individual level.

Lieberman's paper on evolutionary graphs is short and not hard to understand. Just read the sentences between the mathematical equations and it's fairly clear.

Networks and personal decisions

I found this link on CNN. Building on the discussion of resilence, I found this link interesting. It discusses how networks influence decisions thought to be personal. (While I am not a fan of Dr. Christakis' previous comments to CNN on allergies as hysteria), this book looks intriguing.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Few and Far Between

I just picked up a copy of John Bellamy Foster’s Ecological Revolution. (This is not a review of the book, not yet anyway.) In the preface, Foster thanks his former graduate student, Brett Clark, who studied environmental sociology with him at the University of Oregon. Brett went on to become a professor of sociology at North Carolina State, and he wrote four of the chapters in Foster’s book.

That really struck me: the idea that a grad student was a continuing source of inspiration to an experienced professor, that a grad student could write four chapters of a widely read book under the auspices of one of the best and brightest in the field. That grad student is now a professor, but obviously a vital link in this very thin chain of ecological wisdom across North America. There are very few us out there, so few that each one of us is critically important to the whole effort, including, and perhaps even especially, grad students.

John Bellamy Foster was recently interviewed on Democracy Now along with Grace Lee Boggs, on September 17, 2009. Boggs and Foster commented on the ongoing financial crisis in the US.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Visualizing Inequality

The previous post raises interesting questions about the nature of inequality and the impact of urbanization. Do, for example, the middle class of wealthy countries have a lifestyle equivalent to the rich in the developing world? And how might that be changing? Inequality is at the heart of sociology's understanding of the world. And, with the economic growth in China and India, many have argued that global income inequality is declining. Not so argues Branko Milanovic, one of the most knowledgeable people about such issues and author of Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality and Global Income Inequality: What it Is and why it Matters? (World Economics, Vol. 7, No. 1, January-March 2006) from which this graph is taken.

The figure compares the income distribution within France, Brazil, Sri Lanka, and Rural Indonesia. The graph shows that the poorest 5% of France (the left hand end of the France line) are richer than the top 5% of rural Indonesians (the right hand end of the Indonesia line). Focusing on the left hand side of the figure, we see the poorest 5% of rural Indonesian are richer than the poorest 5% of Brazil. But, focusing on the right hand side, we see that the richest 5% of Brazil are as rich as the top 5% of France. While people frequently note that income inequality has increased within rich countries over the past 30 years, the same trend has occurred to an even greater extent in the BRIC countries.

Turning to urbanization, David Owen's new book Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability argues that Manhattan, Hong Kong and large, old European cities are inherently greener than less densely populated places because a higher percentage of their inhabitants walk, bike and use mass transit than drive; they share infrastructure and civic services more efficiently; they live in smaller spaces and use less energy to heat their homes (because those homes tend to share walls); and they’re less likely to accumulate a lot of large, energy-sucking appliances. People in cities use about half as much electricity as people who don’t, Owen reports, and the average New Yorker generates fewer greenhouse gases annually than “residents of any other American city, and less than 30 percent of the national average.”

A complete review of the book is available here.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

From Environmental Crisis to Class Analysis

Like the Ziegler article below, George Monbiot's recent article in the Guardian UK introduces a class analysis to the debate on ecological issues. Monbiot argues that population growth among the global poor is not the main driver of climate change: it's the consumption of the developed nations, especially, the consumption of the super rich. In "Stop blaming the poor. . .", Monbiot looks at research published by David Satterthwaite in Environment and Urbanization which provides data showing that the poorest populations, who have the most children, make an almost negligible contribution to global carbon emissions; and that the wealthiest in the developed nations, who have the fewest children, contribute the lion's share of global carbon emissions.

Monbiot's environmental advocacy has always had a class analysis, and this research allows him to make a strong case. However, he glosses over the implications of the research for the global middle class: it's not just the super rich, who are less than 1% of the population, who consume the most and contribute the most to global warming, but the middle class of the rich nations, of which he is one. A middle class person in the UK has a lifestyle commensurate with the "rich" of India and China. The OECD middle class consumes as much and contributes as much to carbon emissions as the "rich" of many poor nations. In fact, Satterthwaite's article proposes that the wealthiest one-fifth of the world's population contributes 80 percent of the world's GHGs (564). This one-fifth are not just the super-rich—they are also the prosperous middle class of North America and Europe.

It's unfortunate that one could read Monbiot's article and make the claim that the way to keep emissions down is to keep the global poor as poor as possible, but that's not his intent at all. He's trying to argue against population control programs that target poor people and deprive them of the right to bear children. He's arguing for development policies that bring up consumption among the poorest to the recommended world standard: 2 tonnes carbon emissions per person. He wants to stop the billionaires of the world from blaming the poor for climate change and look at their own consumption habits. Moreover, he's trying to get the environmental movement to stop focusing on the wrong issues and refocus on the real problem: the main driver of global climate change is overproduction and overconsumption for profit, i.e. capitalism. And he's using the typical envy and rage of the middle class against the super rich to fuel that shift in thinking.

I found these two articles by Ziegler and Monbiot posted respectively on The Oil Drum and The Energy Bulletin, two websites that I track on a daily basis. My research on environmental movements has shifted recently to looking at how such movements have changed since the economic crisis of '08-'09. While analysis of the impact of "growth" and capitalism has always been a part of this discourse, my question is whether such discourse has become increasingly concerned with class analysis since the onset of the global financial crisis. Have discussions of the impacts of wealth and capitalism on both peak oil and climate change increased with this economic crisis?

In particular, my plan has been to study the Transition Towns movement in Devon, UK, both as an environmental movement and as a localized response to these crises. The Transition Towns movement is almost exclusively a middle class response. My question now is, "how does an environmental movement deal with an economic crisis?" How are the people of Totnes Transition Towns dealing with the economic crisis? Does this class analysis enter their discussions about responding to peak oil and climate change?

The "black" squares noted in the legend are actually the blue squares. Note that, per capita, Canada emits nearly the same tonnes of GHGs as the United States, among the highest in the world.
Satterthwaite, David, "The implications of population growth and urbanization for climate change," Environment and Urbanization, Vol. 21, No. 2, 545-567 (2009)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Dancing at the Edge of the Precipice

Alexis Ziegler's article, Dancing at the Edge of the Precipice, is a profound analysis of the global energy situation that goes well beyond the usually narrow "peak oil" discussion. The article ties shrinking resources to global class divisions, imperialist state and corporate power relations, and the decline of civil liberties. A sample:

"We are part of an aging Empire that is now facing a constriction of energy supply, which will in turn exacerbate the impacts of other ecological and resource limits. Put simply, if the global supply of energy and resources is shrinking, and if the global upper class is intent on maintaining its lifestyle at current or expanded levels, the consumption of the rich must be supported by a reduction of consumption among the poor. If the energy pie is shrinking and we intend to continue to eat the same or more, than everyone else must eat less."

* * * * *
"In the larger perspective, we do not face an energy crisis at all. Even as oil supplies decline, we will still have a greater supply of energy and other resources at our disposal than our grandparents had. . . The real issue is power. As we discussed in Culture Change, consumption is power, throughput is power. The desire of the global upper class to hold on to power drives them to continue to consume, and that is creating a conflict over dwindling resources."