Sunday, June 30, 2013

John Thackery: Limits to Resilience

The Stockholm Resilience Centre investigates the governance of social-ecological systems. Shown here is a rural agricultural system in Madagascar

Spare a thought for global business leaders as they prepare for this year’s World Economic Forum, in Switzerland. Instead of a guide  to apres-skieateries, their host has sent them Global Risks 2013.

Highlights of this guide to possible futures include a killer virus pandemic; unmanageable deflation; a geomagnetic storm that wipes out the internet; global food shortages; and ‘unprecedented geophysical destruction’. Taken together, says the WEF, their top-trending risks “are a health warning regarding our most critical systems”.

The WEF is not alone in its somber outlook. What their Global Risks does for the economy, Global Trends 2030 does for geopolitics and security. The latter report, just published by the US National Intelligence Council, aggregates the research of 17 intelligence agencies with a collective budget of $75 billion and several hundred advising professors.

Having digested all this input, the NIC report concludes that ‘natural disasters might cause governments to collapse’ and warns that ‘we are at a critical juncture in human history.’
And those are the known risks. More alarming still is the possibility of a so-called ‘ecological surprise’ – a transformational change in one or more natural systems that can be sudden, non-linear, and catastrophic. We know they can happen – but we don’t know when; they cannot be predicted.

To add to the uncertainty there’s no consensus on how risks should be weighted. Trends that signal ‘risk’ to one researcher are perceived as ‘opportunity’ by others.

Wired founder Kevin Kelly, for example, thinks that the increased interdependency of systems, and the compound growth connectivity, are good news: They signify, he says, that our economy is in an ‘evolutionary uplift’ on its way to a ‘post-productive’ mode.

Reflecting on the same phenomena that Kelly celebrates, complex systems researcher Noah Raford draws a different conclusion: Too much inter-connectivity makes systems vulnerable to ‘phase transition’ – a word that sounds more benign that it probably is.

When a system reaches a critical state, Raford explains, ‘even a tiny change can lead to massive fluctuation and collapse.’ The sheer complexity of interacting social and ecological systems makes it impossible to forecast with certainty how they will evolve – catastrophically or otherwise.
Given that uncertainty, what is our best course: Plough on regardless – or take a different route?
For climate scientists and ecologists, the consequence of unknowability is clear: we must live within the known carrying capacity of the earth’s living systems rather than grow the economy regardless.
To guide us on this cautious path, climate scientists have delineated a set of nine ‘planetary boundaries’ (shown in the graphic above) that describe living systems that are systems essential for human survival.
The chart includes the scientists’ estimate of systems that have been pushed post their safe limits already – the point at which there is a risk of such ‘irreversible and abrupt environmental change’ that our own survival is threatened.

As conservation ecologist Gretchen Daily concludes, “We cannot go on treating nature like an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

Boundaries? What Boundaries?
Boundaries and limits are anathema, however, to the World Economic Forum. Its founder, Klaus Schwab, seems almost to relish the global risks identified in this year’s report: He describes them as opportunities ‘that we should grab with relish to ’improve the state of the world’ and to pursue the ‘critical goal…of future growth.’

Under the banner of a virile new concept called ‘resilient dynamism’, Schwab’s implicit advice to business leaders is to focus less on the causes of global risks and more on learning ‘how to adapt to changing contexts’ and ‘how to withstand sudden shocks.’
There is no acknowledgement – not a word – that compound economic growth could possibly be the cause of the biosphere-threatening trends described in the Global RisksAs for the fact that exponential economic growth on a physical planet contravenes: That is simply ignored.

This is not to deny that resilience – ‘the capacity to bounce back’  as Andrew Zolli‘s book so well explains it – is a desirable condition. The trouble is that a lot of people perceive resilience – dynamic or otherwise – to be a new variety of risk management that gives them the opportunity to carry on with business-as-usual.

Chris Anderson, for example, editor in chief of Wired, states that ‘in an increasingly complex world, we can’t avoid shocks - we can only build better shock absorbers.

But wait a minute: Anderson’s metaphor would just about work if the world around us were indeed a tarmac track disfigured by potholes. But it’s not: Those ‘bumps’ we’re driving over are better understood as the bodies, metaphorical or otherwise, of  living systems.

Why would anyone even consider driving over them?

Metabolic Rift
Paved surfaces and shock absorbers have a lot to answer for. By shielding us both from the weather, and from the state of the soil, they act as psychological barriers to empathy with the living systems that support us.

For as long as people have moved into cities – with their paved roads, and media-cultural shock absorbers – they’ve lost physical contact with nature and therefore stopped worrying how their actions might be affecting it.

Cities are like intensive care units in which the screens have been covered over, and the audio warnings turned off.

The term metabolic rift was coined by the environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster  to describe the alienation between humans and nature that has opened up with the growth of the modern economy.
Building on Karl Marx’s critique of how soil nutrients in the countryside are depleted to feed the towns, Foster argues that the capitalist economy, by distracting us from the condition of natural systems, enables us to exploit them without consideration of the consequences.
For so-called ‘dark ecologists’, the metabolic rift is a fundamental driver of our rush to ecological disaster.

The Kevin Kellys, Chris Andersons and Klaus Schwabs of this world can contemplate the destruction of living systems in the interests of the economy not because they evil bad guys, they argue, but because our whole society has been rendered cognitively blind.
In that sense, as Timothy Morton put it so memorably in 2008, ‘the ecological catastrophe has already occurred.’

Limits of resilience
The widespread embrace of resilience in this context – both as scientific practice, and as a cultural meme – is a mixed blessing.

For bodies such as the WEF, resilience is being used as a welcome diversion from the underlying causes of our difficulties – namely, our growth-addicted economic system.

The ‘risks’ scattered on the WEF’s charts are better described as disasters-in-progress: Resource depletion, water stress, malnutrition, biodiversity loss, and habitat destruction are not possibilities to be guarded against – they are the known and actual consequence of the economic system we have now.
In much the same way that ecological disaster moves like The Day After Tomorrow suggest, misleadingly, that the worst problems lie ahead of us – so too does WEF-style risk management.
Hollywood is not alone in its use of the eco-bogeyman card to distract our attention from catastrophes already under way. Hypothetical future disasters have also been used by scientists to promote their projects.

The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk, for example  - a joint initiative between a philosopher, a scientist, and a software entrepreneur – begins with the proposition that ‘developments in human technology may soon pose new, extinction-level risks to our species as a whole’.
Wow, that’s scary – and it’s not even a film. It’s almost as scary as the professors’ conclusion that the best response to the ‘threat of human extinction by science and technology’ is (wait for it) ‘a great deal more scientific investigation’.

But I digress. In other respects, resilience has enormous potential.
We know, for example, that extreme weather events are set to increase – so it is of course a good thing to be better prepared to respond effectively to these events – and to do so in new ways.
The most inspiring chapter in Zolli’s book, for example, is about the way new forms of crisis mapping and response that emerged in response to the catastrophe in Haiti. And San Francisco has been taking practical steps to turn itself into a resilient city since 2008.

Cultural surprise
But what about the causes of the future events we must be resilient to?
What about the metabolic rift: Can it be healed?

In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn introduced the term ‘paradigm shift‘ to describe the ways that scientific  world views periodically undergo radical change in what appears at the time to be a sudden leap.

Kuhn explains that these ‘sudden’ paradigm shifts in world view follow years, sometimes decades, in which scientists have encountered anomalies that don’t fit in with the dominant paradigm of the time.
Could a paradigm shift in our understanding of ‘progress’ and ‘the economy’ be imminent? Are there grounds for optimism that the modernist myth – that the biosphere is a repository of resources to fuel endless growth – will be supplanted by something new?

The conditions are surely ripe for a new narrative to emerge. According to the German Advisory Council on Climate Change (WGBU), the heavyweight scientific body that advises the German Federal Government on ‘Earth System Megatrends’, a ‘global transformation of values’ along these lines has already begun.

As reported here last month, this post-materialist thinking is not limited to the well­-off. In South Korea, Mexico, Brazil, India, and China, the WGBU also found, a significant majority ‘supports ambitious climate protection measures’ and would ‘welcome a new economic system’ to achieve that.
Many people despair, however, that utopian visions and ‘latent values’ are no substitute for positive change in the real world.

Whatever values we might wish the world to hold, they say, the obstacles to real-world change are insurmountable. These obstacles include system-wide ‘path dependencies’ (such as the financial system, and debt); the ‘lock-in effect’ of existing laws; and all-round institutional inertia.
These obstacles are real, of course – but this is where the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends gets interesting. It plots a variety of ways in which political and social change on the ground could undermine these institutional ‘path dependencies’.

Its report anticipates, for example, that power ‘could shift to networks and coalitions in a multipolar world.’ Enabled by new technologies, the NIC speculates, so-called ‘non-state actors’ – along with subnational actors such as cities, and city-regions – could play ‘important governance roles’. It describes this scenario as ‘political multi-polarisation’.

The NIC’s scenarios raise an interesting question: if profound paradigm shifts are possible in the world views of science, as Thomas Kuhn demonstrated; if ‘ecological surprises’ can transform natural systems, as ecologists have shown; and if today’s monolithic states could be transformed by the NIC’s ‘multi-polarisation’; in that case could a profound phase-shift in cultural belief systems also be on the cards?
It is surely plausible that a convergence of latent value change, as described by the WGBU, and the political fragmentation, as anticipated by the NIC, could unpave the way for a mosaic of globally-linked but self-governing bioregions.

Bioregional Stewardship 
On the ground, examples of a transformation along these lines are already emerging. As Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network, explains in this short video, regional food economies, local currencies, and community energy projects are no longer fringe.

As these local food, water and soil projects mature, and connect with each other, we are seeing see examples appear in urban contexts of the social-ecological innovation that, until now, has only been studied in places like the Great Barrier Reef or tropical rain forests.

For the Stockholm Resilience Centre,  cornerstone of  what it calls ‘successful common-pool resource management’  is innovative forms of social connectivity among the people who are stewarding the land.
Based on its initial findings, the SRC  recently published Seven Principles for Enhancing the Resilience of Ecosystem ServicesThese are:

1 maintain diversity and redundancy
2 manage connectivity
3 manage slow variables and feedbacks
4 foster an understanding of social ecological systems as complex adaptive systems
5 encourage learning and experimentation
6 broaden participation
7 promote polycentric governance systems
Those principles pose a number of challenges for design. These will be the focus of future posts on this blog, and of forthcoming Doors of Perception encounters with our partners.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Timothy Mitchell: Carbon Democracy

Dissent Magazine has an article by Timothy Mitchell, Prof. of Middle Eastern Studies at Columbia University, on the political-economy of peak oil. I suggest reading the article, which is a lead-up to his book Carbon Democracy.  The article walks through several recent trends on energy, climate change and economics that most of you are already familiar with. But it's pieced together in way that builds toward a penetrating analysis culminating in the issue of the politics of energy. The critical factor that Mitchell adds to the discussion is the role of Labour and its associated politics.The point of the book is stated in the last three paragraphs:
"The post-2009 energy boom that seemed to pull the United States out of a financial collapse and global recession caused by the excesses of speculative capital is not the antidote to that world of excess and speculation. The claim that the shale revolution represents a path to a “potential re-industrialization of the US” was published in the Wall Street Journal by the head of global commodities research at Citigroup. The same banks and newspapers that helped organize and profit from the system of exponentially growing consumer debt and the overvalued derivatives built on it were now creating the unsustainable expectations of a carbon-fueled future. Few people seemed to notice that the decline in U.S. oil imports that signaled the new age of energy independence was, to a significant degree, due not to increased oil production but to a shrinking demand for gasoline, as the doubling of the number of the unemployed and other economic hardships forced people to find ways of reducing the number of miles driven.
As we move, with a dangerous slowness, towards the increased use of renewable sources of energy that do not require the combustion of carbon and its further accumulation in the atmosphere, it is sometimes assumed that the post-carbon world will inevitably be more democratic. More cogently, it is argued that the European model of distributed and networked renewable energy production, based on transforming every household and business into a producer of its own energy and a generator of small surpluses, has a greater democratic potential than U.S. plans for utility-scale generation of renewable power distributed through a conventional long-distance grid. The democratizing potential of the Internet is offered as a model of the political benefits of a localized, distributed and intelligently networked design.34 The lesson from Carbon Democracy is that one cannot predict democratic possibilities directly from the design of socio-technical systems—as the internet itself demonstrates, with its capacity for open communication always threatened by the monopolistic commercial powers of the largest software, computer and internet businesses. The point, rather, is that in battles over the shape of future energy systems the possibilities for democracy are at stake.

There is, however, a considerable campaign to be undertaken before we reach a post-carbon world, especially in the United States. A larger lesson from Carbon Democracy is that such democratic struggles depend not on future designs but upon identifying in current socio-technical systems their points of vulnerability. This postscript has traced the peculiar vulnerability of oil companies dependent on flows of equity investment that must increase as rapidly as the costs of producing oil are rising. Yet those rising costs reflect a world in which cheap, conventional oil is more and more scarce and the technical expense and environmental costs of producing unconventional oil are escalating. These risks and costs reveal a world at odds with the optimistic scenarios on which accelerating flows of equity depend. Meanwhile, capital that long ago began losing interest in organizing—and thus becoming vulnerable to—large-scale productive labor, tried the easier route of organizing lives around the making and servicing of debt. The problems of peak oil hastened the collapse of the debt machine. The recent U.S. energy boom offers only a temporary and equally vulnerable diversion."

Timothy Mitchell teaches at Columbia University. His books include Colonising EgyptRule of Experts, and Carbon Democracy.

More on Carbon Democracy

How oil undermines democracy, and our ability to address the environmental crisis.
Oil is a curse, it is often said, that condemns the countries producing it to an existence defined by war, corruption and enormous inequality. Carbon Democracy tells a more complex story, arguing that no nation escapes the political consequences of our collective dependence on oil. It shapes the body politic both in regions such as the Middle East, which rely upon revenues from oil production, and in the places that have the greatest demand for energy.
Timothy Mitchell begins with the history of coal power to tell a radical new story about the rise of democracy. Coal was a source of energy so open to disruption that oligarchies in the West became vulnerable for the first time to mass demands for democracy. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the development of cheap and abundant energy from oil, most notably from the Middle East, offered a means to reduce this vulnerability to democratic pressures. The abundance of oil made it possible for the first time in history to reorganize political life around the management of something now called "the economy" and the promise of its infinite growth. The politics of the West became dependent on an undemocratic Middle East.
In the twenty-first century, the oil-based forms of modern democratic politics have become unsustainable. Foreign intervention and military rule are faltering in the Middle East, while governments everywhere appear incapable of addressing the crises that threaten to end the age of carbon democracy—the disappearance of cheap energy and the carbon-fuelled collapse of the ecological order.
In making the production of energy the central force shaping the democratic age, Carbon Democracyrethinks the history of energy, the politics of nature, the theory of democracy, and the place of the Middle East in our common world.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Informal Economy Blog

A new blog, The Informal Economy, has an interesting take on new, chaotic, grassroots businesses:


We live in turbulent times of rapid change, increased interconnectivity and rising socio-economic complexity. Ambiguity is our new constant. It is clear that top-down organizations optimised for efficiency need to shift towards more adaptive structures and platforms. They are not built for ambiguity.
Yet, amidst this chaos, informal enterprises are proliferating -- in both emerging and declining markets. Makeshift start-ups, sharing networks, and micro-businesses are expanding, and respond more nimbly to immediate opportunities and needs. We believe these are not fringe alternatives, but socially and economically desirable choices for an ambiguous world. Our aim is to find ways to create more adaptive businesses that harness the elasticity of informal enterprise, as well as to find ways to learn from, enable, and share value with them.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Michael Pollan: What Ecology Teaches Us About Human Health

In this interview with Michael Pollan on his new book, Cooked, Michael talks about the transference of terminology developed in the field of ecology into the science of medicine, how these new concepts and terminology are changing how we think about the human body and human health. Niklas Luhmann called this transference of terminology "ecological communication." When we transfer language and codes derived from studies of the environment (though not solely the natural environment) and import that terminology into other fields of knowledge, Luhmann proposes that by this process 'the social system' develops the capacity to respond and adapt to the environment.

Hitt: At one point you referred to “the impoverished westernized microbiome,” and you posed the question of whether the human body needs what some microbiologists call “restoration ecology.” So you’re applying environmental metaphors to the human body. How might this kind of language make us think in a new way about our bodies?
Pollan: I think when you bring the concepts of ecology into your body, that’s a revolutionary new paradigm for medicine and for the philosophy of human identity. It breaks down the “us and them” attitude we bring to nature. It’s a very direct implication of the natural world in the body. We know when we eat, we’re always taking nature into us. But the idea that we’re a host to an ecological community and that that ecological community is obviously shaped by what’s going on in the world—whether we’re talking about toxins, antibiotics—you’re really breaking down that barrier between us and nature out there. Nature is passing through us. I didn’t tease out these implications, but I think it does have important implications for how you think about nature. It definitely brings it home.
Hitt: And also how you think about what you eat?
Pollan: Yes. If it doesn’t necessarily change your diet, it does change your attitude toward the various chemical compounds that poison this environment. We’ve understood that feeding antibiotics to livestock is a public health risk because of the rise of superbugs and antibiotic-resistant microbes, and that’s the reason people have campaigned to remove them. But it turns out there’s another reason to remove them and that is that these antibiotics are poisoning and cutting down on the biodiversity inside you. So there are implications of knowing this that go beyond diet.

Hitt: How was it that scientists recently came to start talking about the human microbiome?
Pollan: There are two tools that have allowed for this wilderness to be explored. One is this new sequencing technology. But the other was theories of ecology. It was when scientists began thinking, “Hey, what if we ask the questions that ecosystems scientists ask?” Which was radical for medicine. Medicine doesn’t usually think that way. And that really opened it up. And they started using terms like community dynamics and invasion resistance. And exotic species. And resilience. So there was an intellectual tool and there was a technical tool. And they were both required to make the breakthroughs we’re starting to make.
Hitt: Wow, that’s cool. So, there really was a kind of theoretical borrowing?
Pollan: Yes. And this may be prove to be a key legacy of ecology—what it teaches us about health. Who would have thought?