Monday, July 30, 2012

Qualitative Complexity: new source for complexity theory


Ecology, cognitive processes and the re-emergence of structures in post-humanist social theory
John Smith and Chris Jenks
Offering a critique of the humanist paradigm in contemporary social theory, Qualitative Complexity is the first comprehensive sociological analysis of complexity theory. Drawing from sources in sociology, philosophy, complexity theory, ‘fuzzy logic’, systems theory, cognitive science and evolutionary biology, John Smith and Chris Jenks present a new series of interdisciplinary perspectives on the sociology of complex, self-organising structures.
John Smith has taught at Goldsmiths College, University of London; Lancaster University; and Greenwich University. He is a sociologist and a painter trained at the Royal College of Art. He is interested in sociological theory, philosophy and visual culture, and has published in all of these areas.
Chris Jenks is Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Sociology at Brunel University. He has published extensively in the areas of sociological theory, childhood, cultural theory and visual and urban culture.
The two authors met at Goldsmiths College and have subsequently published together in Cultural Reproduction (edited by Jenks; Routledge 1993);Visual Culture (edited by Jenks; Routledge 1995); Images of Community: Durkheim, Social Systems and the Sociology of Art (jointly authored by Smith and Jenks; Ashgate 2000); and an article on Complexity Theory in Theory, Culture and Society (October 2005).

[quote] Autopoiesis in its original form stressed that the living organism produced and organised the relationships between its components. Crucially, it also organised its relationship to its environment. Despite ‘structural coupling’ or evolved adaptation, ‘the organism decides what counts as environment’ and so also maintains its ‘operational closure’7. It is, of course, central to the application of complexity theory to sociology (Luhmann 1984, 1995), but it should be noted that Varela objected to the application of autopoiesis to social systems, even the operationally closed models developed by Luhmann. The versions explored here are much more open. Indeed, it is a characteristic of complex systems that boundaries are extremely difficult to draw. For example, in sociology how do we draw the boundary between individual and member? We shall return at length to Maturana Varela and Luhmann below. For the moment, it is important to stress that autopoiesis is completely unlike the ideas of self-autonomy assumed by post-modern or post-structural notions of freedom, negation and deconstruction.

Though self-organisation obviously signifies autonomy, a self-organising system … must work to construct and reconstruct its autonomy and this requires energy …[T]he system must draw energy from the outside; to be autonomous…it must be [also] dependent.
(Morin 2002:45, following von Foerster 1984)
The inexorable fate of any system that does not draw energy from its environment is entropic equilibrium: it will cease to be dynamic or, in the case of the living, it will die.[unquote]

This reflects exactly my critique that Luhmann's theory lacks a thermodynamic theory that explains energy and entropy. And it has to do, apparently, with the openness of systems allowing systems to obtain energy from the environment.

There is another structural implication:
… when a variable affecting a dissipative structure changes enough, the structure either reorganises itself or collapses. This crisis point is called a ‘bifurcation’. When collapse is avoided, the reorganisation process takes pieces of the earlier structure and changes their functions and relative importance so as to allow the system to continue, although now in a new form. An example is the stress caused by rising populations, which ultimately compels a society to become more hierarchical or collapse into fragments.
(Grimes 2000:33)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Summer break / links

I'm off to Argentina for the next few weeks, so there won't be much action here.

Individuals wanting substance, can head on over to Collide-a-scape where there is an interesting discussion going on About the New Energy Revolution.

Individuals interested in visuals should check out Palíndromo Mészáros photos documenting the effects of a massive toxic aluminum spill in Hungary. The photo below isn't photoshopped or a before/after photo. The red line represents the height of the toxic sludge. The photographer cleverly selected the camera height in order to create the effect. Details and other amazing images at American Photo.

Monday, July 9, 2012

US Energy Outlook and other energy matters

The US Energy Information Agency has released the 2012 US Energy Outlook which contains a variety of projections about US energy use to 2035. The basic structure of the analysis involves comparison of the 'reference case' (the continuation of current policies) with various alternative scenarios based on alternative sets of assumptions (e.g., allowing existing regulations with sunset provisions to expire, new regulatory regimes, technological developments, different price scenarios, etc.). The base scenario for 2035 is pretty rosy --- predicting growth in energy consumption will average 0.3%  per year, despite a 25% growth in population and an almost doubling of GDP over the same period.

I was intending to write up my thoughts, but time intervened and Tom Fuller  has saved me the effort by taking up the challenge in a series of posts over at 3000 Quads (with the promise of more to come): The DoE's Daring Assumptions, U.S. Energy Consumption in 2035: Analyzing the DOE’s Projections, and How The DOE Thinks We’ll Save Energy Through 2035. Here is the main take away of Tom's analysis -- a point I share entirely. Following a listing of the various policy iniatives and global events the report outlines (e.g., improved emissions and fuel consumption standards for automobiles and trucks, a decline in US manufacturing after 2020 as a result of increased global competition, reduced residential energy use resulting from improved technology, etc), Tom concludes:
... if you postulated any one of these to me I would say it’s well within the realm of possibility. However, if anyone were to tell me that all of these were sure enough bets to make policy decisions on, I would start to shake my head in dismay. That’s more than a Green Trifecta. It would be like winning the lottery on successive days.

One thing that is not explicit in the report but seems to really drive a lot of their thinking–a core assumption seems to be that energy will get more expensive–expensive enough to justify the wholesale changes they are predicting.
But, for a fascinating assessment of why that may not be the case, see The Future of Natural Gas

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Austerity and Collapse: A Snapshot of Portugal

I recommend that you read Luis de Sousa's post "A Postcard from Portugal" on the effects of austerity measures on the economy and society in Portugal. De Sousa snapshot reveals the multiple effects of economic austerity and collapse: a shocking 20% increase in the mortality rate, rising unemployment and poverty, the shrinkage of outlying towns as people move toward the cities, and the tension of impending political upheaval. Luis de Sousa is also an expert on Peak Oil and links that crisis with the ongoing political and economic crisis in Europe.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The thrust and perry over Planetary Boundaries

The concept of Planetary Boundaries was front and center at the Rio+20 conference. In the run up to the conference, the Breakthrough Institute released a report highlighting "scientific flaws" with the concept and, as a result, UN negotiators "stripped out all references to planetary boundaries from the Rio+20 text."

This appears to have been an overreaction. A reading of the Breakthrough Report and the response by Johan Rockström (Planetary boundaries: Addressing some key misconceptions) leads to the conclusion that a) some earth scientists interested in getting traction with the policy community appear to have deployed the idea in ways that went beyond what can be justified on the basis of current science and b) the critics appear to be more interested in cutting the head off the concept than in furthering sound debate.

Thus, for example, the critics state categorically that six of the nine planetary boundaries operate at the local or regional scale and don't have global biophysical thresholds. There are two basic problems with the claim. First, it fails to recognize our level of ignorance about many of the topics. New information is constantly appearing. As one specific example, a recent summary of our understanding of biodiversity makes the case for a planetary boundary in that area much stronger. Second, the distinction between planetary level processes and the aggregate of local/regional processes is not as clear cut as the critics would suggest.

A second example relates to the 'environmentalist's paradox'. Here is the summary of the Breakthrough critique:
The planetary boundaries hypothesis rests on the assumption that environmental variables are closely linked to human welfare, and that, consequently, loss of ecosystem services or natural capital implies declining human welfare. This assumption, however, has thus far not stood up well to observed trends with regard to both human welfare and ecological degradation. Over the last few decades, human welfare has improved significantly on a global level, even as a majority of ecosystem services have declined.
While this critique does give greater play to the role of time (note the reference to "thus far"), it fundamentally treats the observation as an inconsistency that contradicts the planetary boundaries account rather than as an empirical observation which can be explained in a variety of ways -- only one of which would contradict the planetary boundaries concept.