Emergent patterns in nature and society

Posts tagged “social regime shifts


Exploitation of Natural Resources, Conflict and Internally Displaced People in Colombia

Video by Colombiaverket, a Swedish NGO whose aim is to support a negotiated settlement of the conflict that leads to peace and social justice in Colombia. It shows the reality of some of the communities I worked with back in 2007. Maria Alejandra Velez and me were looking at how collective titling was shaping collective action for natural resource management in the Chocó rain forest.

Black communities have settled there for centuries but only in 1991 their right to land was acknowledge by the constitution. With very little (if any) resources to enforce their institutions; today, they face all sorts of pressure from multinationals trying to do mining to guerrillas trying to keep clean routes for drug smuggling. They live in a country where there is not help from the state if the crop fails, where there is not free education, unemployment subsidies, proper health care or social benefits. They live in the real world as I often call it, I’m writing from “the matrix”.

Thinking on natural resource management in such context is a little bit more complicated that what the textbook tells you about ecosystem management. Conflict, war, corruption, violence, poverty, displacement, power or massacre are not words used to write papers that enhance your good looking CV. They are reality for many who find it hard to talk about it. They are not just concepts in books, they are drivers of abrupt transitions in both ecosystems and societies. They are not external forces that can be ignored by changing the tv channel or asking for visas. They also spread in your social network. They are internal dynamics that still need to be understood. Science still needs to respond the challenge by going further than the journalistic exercise of reporting case studies. The challenge is on, it has always been there. Just go for it.


Video: Network analysis to predict the spread of disease and social contagion


Network analysis has been around for decades. Actually, the first paper with reference to graph theory   was published by Euler in 1736. But recent development on computational power and new datasets have open the possibilities to explore questions we couldn’t before, from the study of social influence, the collapse of food webs or the spread of diseases. I found both video inspiring. Hopefully someday I will be able to contribute some answer to the problems of critical transitions in social-ecosystems by applying a simple and old idea – networks – as a way to understand complex systems.

Ps. If you’re interested on social contagion, check Sinan Aral’s recent paper in Science here.

What Are Leaders Really For? – Duncan Watts

A week ago I had an interesting discussion with Jon Norberg about leadership. Jon is doing, among other things, an agent based model about how leaders influence opinion change in social networks. He’s been inspired by one of the iconic examples of transformation in resilience science: the case of the governance system of Kristianstads Vattenrike in Southern Sweden.

I have to confess that I’ve been skeptic when it comes to leadership. My feeling is that the literature give too much importance to key individuals, the product of history tends to fall in the actions of few key individuals that acted in the right moment bridging organization or spreading initiatives. I don’t find it surprisingly given the fact that much of us grow up watching Captain America and Superman. What a good times. Anyways, the literature on complex adaptive systems have address the same issue from another perspective: swarm dynamics – how emergent patterns rise from local interactions between agents. In a swarm, any individual could be an agent of change. All it has to do is following the rules and send the right signals in the right moment to scale up the movement of the swarm or the flock and avoid predators or mountains. On this perspective, leaders are not super heros, but rather individual with agency (the power to produce change locally) that act accordingly with the signals of its own context and the network structure. In that sense, Hitler or Gandhi were not driving the change, rather they were part of it, they were rather driven by the bubbling of the social activity of their time. Jon told me that both versions belong to different schools of thought in sociology, which names I can’t recall at this moment.

Today, Duncan Watts, on of the authors on my to read list, wrote something similar that illustrate the issue of leadership inspired on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here is his blogpost from Harvard Business Review, I copied all so you don’t miss the details (source: What Are Leaders Really For? – Duncan Watts – Harvard Business Review.)

The Occupy Wall Street movement has both perplexed and frustrated observers and analysts by its persistent refusal to nominate an identifiable leadership who can in turn articulate a coherent agenda. What is the point, these critics wonder, of a movement that can’t figure out where it’s trying to go, and how can it get there without anyone to lead it?

It’s a reasonable question, but it says at least as much about what we want from our social movements as it does about the way movements actually succeed.

Typically, the way we think of social change is some variant of the “great man” theory of history: that remarkable events are driven by correspondingly remarkable individuals whose vision and leadership inspire and coordinate the actions of the many. Sometimes these individuals occupy traditional roles of leadership, like presidents, CEOs, or generals, while at other times they emerge from the rank and file; but regardless of where they come from, their presence is necessary for real social change to begin. As Margaret Meade is supposed to have said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

It’s an inspiring idea, but over 100 years ago in his early classic of social psychology, “The Crowd,” the French social critic Gustave LeBon, argued that the role of the leader was more subtle and indirect. According to LeBon, it was the crowd, not the princes and generals, that had become the driving force of social change. Leaders still mattered, but it wasn’t because they themselves put their shoulders to the wheel of history; rather it was because they were quick to recognize the forces at work and adept at placing themselves in the forefront.

Even before LeBon, no less an observer of history than Tolstoy presented an even more jaundiced view of the great man theory. In a celebrated essay on Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin summed up Tolstoy’s central insight this way: “the higher the soldiers or statesmen are in the pyramid of authority, the farther they must be from its base, which consists of those ordinary men and women whose lives are the actual stuff of history; and, consequently, the smaller the effect of the words and acts of such remote personages, despite all their theoretical authority, upon that history.” According to Tolstoy, in other words, the accounts of historians are borderline fabrications, glossing over the vast majority of what actually happens in favor of a convenient storyline focused on the skill and leadership of the great generals.

Thinkers like Le Bon and Tolstoy and Berlin therefore lead us to a radically alternative hypothesis of social change: that successful movements succeed for reasons other than the presence of a great leader, who is as much a consequence of the movement’s success as its cause. Explanations of historically important events that focus on the actions of a special few therefore misunderstand their true causes, which are invariably complex and often depend on the actions of a great many individuals whose names are lost to history.

Interestingly, in the natural world we don’t find this sort of explanation controversial. When we hear that a raging forest fire has consumed millions of acres of California forest, we don’t assume that there was anything special about the initial spark. Quite to the contrary, we understand that in context of the large-scale environmental conditions — prolonged drought, a buildup of flammable undergrowth, strong winds, rugged terrain, and on so — that truly drive fires, the nature of the spark itself is close to irrelevant.

Yet when it comes to the social equivalent of the forest fire, we do in effect insist that there must have been something special about the spark that started it. Because our experience tells us that leadership matters in small groups such as Army platoons or start-up companies, we assume that it matters in the same way for the very largest groups as well. Thus when we witness some successful movement or organization, it seems obvious to us that whoever the leader is, his or her particular combination of personality, vision, and leadership style must have supplied the critical X factor, where the larger and more successful the movement, the more important the leader will appear.

By refusing to name a leader, Occupy Wall Street presents a challenge to this view. With no one figure to credit or blame, with no face to put on a sprawling inchoate movement, and with no hierarchy of power, we simply don’t know how to process what “it” is, and therefore how to think about it. And because this absence of a familiar personality-centric narrative makes us uncomfortable, we are tempted to reject the whole thing as somehow not real. Or instead, we insist that in order to be taken seriously, the movement must first change to reflect what we expect from serious organizations — namely a charismatic leader to whom we can attribute everything.

In the case of Occupy Wall Street, we will probably get our wish, for two reasons. First, if OWS grows large enough to deliver any lasting social change, some hierarchy will become necessary in order to coordinate its increasingly diverse activities; and a hierarchy by nature requires a leader. And second, precisely because the outside world wants a leader — to negotiate with, to hold responsible, and ultimately to lionize — the temptation to be that person will eventually prove irresistible.

Leaders, in other words, are necessary, but not because they are the source of social change. Rather their real function is to occupy the role that allows the rest of us to make sense of what is happening — just as Tolstoy suspected. For better and worse, telling stories is how we make sense of the world, and it’s hard to tell a story without focal actors around which to center the action. But as we witness a succession of popular movements, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, we can at least pause to appreciate the real story, which is the remarkable phenomenon of a great many ordinary individuals coming together to change the world.

As a final thought, I don’t think leaders actually drive social change, at least when it comes to opinion formation and value change that has driven transformations in governance systems of   Kristianstads or the Great Coral Reef cases. The “transformations” were rather driven by a self-organization of the system itself, it was ready for change. Leaders played a role on the course of action that history take, on the developing of the facts. But as the forest fire example proposed by Watts, it is more the change in slow variables rather than the spark what dominate the dynamics of fire. A more relevant question is then, what are the slow variables that underly regime shifts in society?

Climate change and conflict – violence

It’s becoming a trendy topic, the connection between future climate scenarios and conflict, violence and terrorism. Some quotes from The Guardian – Climate change will increase threat of war, Chris Huhne [UK climate secretary] to warn:

“Climate change is a threat multiplier. It will make unstable states more unstable, poor nations poorer, inequality more pronounced, and conflict more likely,” Huhne is expected to say in a speech to defence experts. “And the areas of most geopolitical risk are also most at risk of climate change.”


His comparison of climate change and terrorism echoes Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser to the government who warned in 2004 that global warning posed “a bigger threat than terrorism”. The warning so incensed the then US president George W Bush that he phoned Tony Blair to ask him to gag the scientist.


Climate change intensifies security threats in three ways: increasing competition for resources; more natural and humanitarian disasters, such as the droughts now causing famine in Africa, which will also lead to mass migration and the conflicts that ensue; and threats to the security of energy supplies.

The recently published book Tropic of Chaos: Climate change and the New Geography of Violence by Christian Parenti seems to be on the same line of thought. Although disentangling causality from a bunch of case studies is a delicate issue, by looking at the TOC’s one get some curiosity on his arguments on the links between e.g. monsoons, droughts, CPR dilemmas -cattle, water management- and particular syndromes of violence in different places of the planet. The interested reader may have a look at his interview on Grist: Packing heat: Why violence boils over on a warming planet. He for example picked up on the link between food crises and the Arab spring also reported by Bar-Yam and Homer-Dixon on a previous post here. Such linkages reinforces my idea that the frequency of disturbance is a key component on a regime shift archetype that operationalize the link between social and ecological processes. Let’s see how the idea evolves. In the meanwhile, I’ll need an extra summer to catch up my readings list.

CNN reports on Ocean Acidification and its impacts for society

CNN recently reports on a study carried by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts on the impacts of Ocean Acidification. Literature on ocean acidification is growing, but what capture my attention from the note on CNN is the link they do with social factors, which are not always evident on the academic literature. One of the reasons is scientist are looking for patterns and social dynamics are often very contextual and hard to grasp. However, they exist and worth to be included on the regime shift dynamics. From CNN I quote:

Ocean acidification, or the changing chemical make-up of seawater, has occurred since the industrial revolution as ocean waters absorbed too much carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a by-product of human industrial activities, mainly the burning of fossil fuels.

Those countries directly impacted are mostly poor and developing nations that are heavily dependent on shellfish as main sources for protein, like Senegal, Madagascar and Haiti. But the research also suggests damage caused by ocean acidification could ripple across economies around the world. It’s already blamed for economic losses at oyster farms in the Pacific Northwest and the slowing of coral growth in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, according to Oceana.

And here the part with the teleconnections between eco and social systems; and between rich and poor areas:

Even though this current study by Woods Hole found that ocean acidification is likely to have the worst impact on poor and developing nations first, it’s a problem with widespread impact.

“If you look at Somalia, where industrial fishing has fished out Somalian waters and the local fishermen can’t get food anymore, what do they do?” Savitz said. “They turn to piracy. Who does that affect? That affects anybody with a ship that’s going through those waters. They’ve taken a lot of different ships hostage. So, ultimately, food insecurity can become a national security issue.”

Savitz also said, “If all these countries are going to have food insecurities because their clams or oysters are no longer available or because their fisheries are no longer available as a result of climate change, that could put pressure on other countries and it can affect all of us.”

For the interested reader, here is a couple of links to the referred studies:

And this is the link from CNN: Study: Changes to ocean expected to damage shellfish around world – CNN.com.

Wet and dry monsoon in South America

Researchers have found evidence of the two-mode South American monsoon by studying lake sediments from Laguna Pumacocha in Peru. They discovered that the monsoon can have dry and wet regimes. In addition, their data suggest that the monsoon is shifting towards its dry mode given the fact that precipitation has sharply drop during the last century. I quote from EurekAlert:

A 2,300-year climate record University of Pittsburgh researchers recovered from an Andes Mountains lake reveals that as temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere rise, the planet’s densely populated tropical regions will most likely experience severe water shortages as the crucial summer monsoons become drier. The Pitt team found that equatorial regions of South America already are receiving less rainfall than at any point in the past millennium.


the sediment record illustrated that rainfall during the South American summer monsoon has dropped sharply since 1900—exhibiting the greatest shift in precipitation since around 300 BCE—while the Northern Hemisphere has experienced warmer temperatures.

“This model suggests that tropical regions are dry to a point we would not have predicted,” Abbott said. “If the monsoons that are so critical to the water supply in tropical areas continue to diminish at this pace, it will have devastating implications for the water resources of a huge swath of the planet.”

The sediment core shows regular fluctuations in rainfall from 300 BCE to 900 CE, with notably heavy precipitation around 550. Beginning in 900, however, a severe drought set in for the next three centuries, with the driest period falling between 1000 and 1040. This period correlates with the well-known demise of regional Native American populations, Abbott explained, including the Tiwanaku and Wari that inhabited present-day Boliva, Chile, and Peru.

After 1300, monsoons increasingly drenched the South American tropics. The wettest period of the past 2,300 years lasted from roughly 1500 to the 1750s during the time span known as the Little Ice Age, a period of cooler global temperatures. Around 1820, a dry cycle crept in briefly, but quickly gave way to a wet phase before the rain began waning again in 1900. By July 2007, when the sediment core was collected, there had been a steep, steady increase in dry conditions to a high point not surpassed since 1000.

If you want to follow up the paper, it was recently published in PNAS: A 2,300-year-long annually resolved record of the South American Summer monsoon from the Peruvian Andes by Bird and colleagues.

Water changes everything

I’m preparing a blogpost on poverty traps and regime shifts inspired in a seminar we held some days ago in the Resilience Centre. As an appetitive, here is a video exemplifying some of the key feedback mechanisms at the household level of water related poverty traps. Enjoy it and happy Earth’s day!!

Egypt’s crisis

On the case I promised in the last post, Debora MacKenzie from NewScientist reports:

Scientists who study complex systems have been warning that ever-tighter coupling among the world’s finance, energy and food systems would result in waves of political instability. Some say that is now happening in the Middle East. […]

For now, they show that there are two sides to complex interdependencies: they can generate cascading change, also known as revolution, but they can also collapse. At the minute, because so many aspects of Egypt’s daily life are interlinked, the country is walking a fine line between the two.

Food is a political issue in Egypt: Egyptians are the world’s biggest wheat importers and consumers, and most are poor.

As a result, the government maintains order with heavy subsidies for bread. It also runs the ports where imported wheat arrives, the trucks that haul it, the flour mills and bakeries. “Such hierarchical systems are both stable and unstable,” says Yaneer Bar-Yam, head of the New England Complex Systems Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. […]

The situation is “a real concern”, says Tad Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who has warned previously that stresses including food shortages and poverty can cause catastrophic collapse in complex modern systems. It all depends on whether work resumes before the system hits the wall, says Homer-Dixon. In other words, if lorries and banks don’t go back to work soon, widespread hunger could cause a breakdown of civil order.

Short notes: i) food shortage, energy shortage and poverty can trigger social regime shifts; ii) hierarchy as proxy of system structure matters (hence power); and iii) the individual perception of satisfaction of the system is determined by the local experience plus the communicated experience of the nearby social landscape (say friends, family and colleagues), then insatisfaction can spread faster than disease in the social network. It actually spread from country to country.

Social regime shifts?

The idea keeps going back and forth. Analytically I can understand them, but the idea becomes weak when communicating to broader audience, and even ridiculous when thinking on the usefulness. In any case, social scientist do not like natural ones to mess up with their subjects; they try to take care of other’s territory. But, to be honest, reality does not have such “ideologic landscapes”, perfect boxes where we fit our theories. Besides, I’m not a scientist, I’m a student which give me the right to make mistakes and mess up thinks a little bit 🙂

Nature recently published a Harvard University initiative to line up the biggest challenges of social science.  The top ten crucial questions or research priorities are:

1. How can we induce people to look after their health?

2. How do societies create effective and resilient institutions, such as governments?

3. How can humanity increase its collective wisdom?

4. How do we reduce the ‘skill gap’ between black and white people in America?

5. How can we aggregate information possessed by individuals to make the best decisions?

6. How can we understand the human capacity to create and articulate knowledge?

7. Why do so many female workers still earn less than male workers?

8. How and why does the ‘social’ become ‘biological’?

9. How can we be robust against ‘black swans’ — rare events that have extreme consequences?

10. Why do social processes, in particular civil violence, either persist over time or suddenly change?

Questions number 1, 2, 9 and 10 has to be with resilience, hysteresis, and abrupt change. How do manage coral reefs to favor a species (say hard corals) with a series of traits that when aggregated at the collective – landscape level allows ecological complexity to emerge; has the same principles of how to favor human beings that express more often the trait “healthy lifestyle” to make society as collective more desirable.

The study of highly resilience systems (for good or bad) like institutions, social traits, fads, ideologies, trade structure, market instability are fertile fields to explore why they change, if so, is it abruptly, predictable, avoidable?

I’ll bring in the next post a real case… coming soon!

Long-term cycles in society

One of the debated points when it comes to regime shifts is wether the observed pattern is a real shift or part of a cycle. The short answer is always: “it depends on the scale and your problem of interest”. However, even cyclical dynamics can undergo regime shifts when accelerated or decelerated. Such is the case of outbreaks frequency in social-ecological systems.

Last week The Economist publish a short note referring to long-term cycles in society. The author comments:

The recent rebound in global food prices has revived talk of a “commodity supercycle” in which raw-materials prices will be high for a prolonged period. Low prices in the 1980s and 1990s led to a lack of investment and the abandonment of marginal sites. Eventually this caused a shortage and rising prices. Such prices will eventually encourage greater production and efforts to find new sources of supply. This cycle will surely be variable in length: you would expect agriculture to adjust more quickly than mining.

Given that the global economy was largely agricultural until 1850, it was logical for the commodity cycle to drive overall activity. But the switch to a manufacturing-based economy brought no end to the pattern of booms and busts.

Various academics have argued that industrial economies also have a regular cycle, fuelled by stocks, capital investment or technological change, and lasting anywhere from three to 60 years. As with commodities, the driving force seems to be the shift from feast to famine as firms overinvest and overproduce, driving down profits and prices until a crisis occurs.

It seems to describe poverty and rigidity traps but in a higher scale and longer time frames than usually studied. The author concludes by suggesting that such cycles seems to be moving towards undesirable space parameters for society:

As Chris Watling of Longview Economics points out, the worry is that several long-term cycles seem to be moving in a hostile direction for Western economies, with commodity prices rising, populations ageing and the debt spree unwinding. That is not necessarily bad news for financial markets next month, or even next year. But it does suggest that a very awkward decade lies ahead.

via Buttonwood: The cycle lane | The Economist.