Anthropologies #21: Betwixt and Between: Geological Phase Transition, Adaptive Co-Management, and Anthropology

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the Anthropologies #21 series.

The next piece in the anthropologies climate change series comes from Michael Agar. His bio is here. Check out more of his work on the rest of the Ethnoworks site, or email him at magar AT umd dot edu. –R.A.

Several years ago, in 2011, The Onion—a satirical newspaper—ran a feature story entitled “Planet Earth Doesn’t Know How To Make It Any Clearer It Wants Everyone To Leave.” The Onion presented the Earth’s prepared statement as follows:

At this point, I think I’ve stated my wishes quite loudly and clearly,” the Earth’s statement to all of humanity read in part. “I haven’t exactly been subtle about it, you realize. I have literally tried to drown you, crush you, starve you, dehydrate you, pump you full of diseases, and suck your homes and families into swirling vortices of death. Honestly, what more is it going to take for you people to get the message? Do I have to spell it out for you?” the statement continued. “Get the fuck out of here. I want you to leave now.

With all due respect to the sin of anthropomorphizing, I’m finding it extremely difficult to grasp the current planetary moment and our part in it without attributing some emotion and intention to Earth as a being to whom we are connected but from whom we are also separate. It’s a life partner we’ve upset. It’s trying to tell us why. And, to modify the title from Deb Tannen’s book about men and women talking past each other, we just don’t understand.

Not that there aren’t plenty of humans flooding the logosphere with interpretations of Earth’s bad mood, increasingly so in recent years. For example, Earth has forced most everyone to notice that “climate”—the range of weather a person can expect in a particular place—behaves in new and often unpleasant ways. A Sierra Club official in New Mexico gave a talk recently about its new climate change initiative. Her mantra was, “This is a very hard problem to wrap your mind around.”  It’s not hard to notice that things have changed, but it is hard to grasp the root of Earth’s anger in a catchy fund-raising phrase. In fact, once you start piling up the details—and they include many other planetary systems in addition to climate—it’s hard to figure out how to save the relationship.

For example, take a look at the 2014 American Anthropological Association report on climate change, a document that shines with the three years of hard work that it took to produce it. An amazing job, but it describes many different angles on climate change, some of them not yet well-developed or well-defined. Or take a look at the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, just at the “Summary for Policymakers.” Another impressive compendium of data, research, and recommendations, but it is a series of lists, still without a bigger picture to “wrap the mind around.” Or, in the area of water, consider a 2014 book edited by Jonathan Lautze, Key Concepts in Water Resource Management: A Review and Critical Evaluation. The book takes several trendy 21st century concepts and shows how many different things each of them has been taken to mean. It’s useful, but also indicative of how impossible it is to “wrap your mind around” what is happening in a way that puts the pieces together.

I want to try for a different kind of mind-wrapper here. I was already at a loss for a big-picture view after working just on the specific area of water for a few years. Water, of course, lends itself to several big pictures, climate change being one of them, as in—warmer in New Mexico means less snowmelt and more rapid evapotranspiration and therefore increased reliance on groundwater, but also more flooding, not to mention drier forests and more fires. That’s just part of the story. And studying water also leads to the recent popular idea of a “nexus,” a concept that places water in an even broader context (See this for an example). Water is linked with climate, but also with energy, land, food, health, security and god knows how many more things.

Too many big pictures are as bad as none at all. And there’s more. Population growth and global GDP continue to rumble in the background, human engines that exceeded their planetary speed limit long ago. And then there is the master trope, the “dynamics of coupled natural and human systems,” CNH for short, enshrined at the National Science Foundation and automatically linked to water, since without water there is no coupled dynamic system about which to write a proposal.

The biggest picture of all, the one I’ll try and use here, is the claim that we are entering, or are in, a new geological epoch called the “Anthropocene.” With that new moniker, we humans have promoted ourselves to the chief agent of planetary dynamics. This, too, is a 21st century concept rapidly spreading like an infectious disease. It includes climate change, and not for the first time in geological history. The marker for the transition into the Holocene was also climate change, namely, the melting of the glaciers, though that was a natural cycle into an interglacial period that provided the conditions for humans to become the annoying Earth residents that they are today.

This claim for a new geological epoch is a very big deal. At its center is the undramatically named International Commission on Stratigraphy, a part of the International Union of Geological Sciences. The Commission will announce next year, in 2016, whether we’ve crossed into a new epoch or not. Their judgment, as the commission name implies, is based on whether or not a sedimentary boundary will mark the transition for future earth scientists, a boundary as clear as the layers on the wall of the Grand Canyon. Some proponents mark the Industrial Revolution as a starting point; still others the 1950s when nuclear testing began. And some say it’s all smoke and mirrors and that we’re still in the Holocene.

I’d like to do a thought-experiment using the Anthropocene concept as a potential Rosetta stone to find the coherence in the story that Earth is trying to tell us. What if we are neither in the Holocene nor in the Anthropocene. The (hypothesized) fact is, we—humans and the rest of Earth—are in transition between the two. In the language of complexity theory, we are in a “phase transition” between a planetary system that endured for twelve thousand years and a new system, and we won’t know what the new system looks like until we get there, and we’re not there yet.

If that were true, we could explain how the environment now acts like what the military and business worlds have named VUCA, “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.” In more technical terms, a phase transition is a period of disorder as a previous system disorganizes and a new one re-organizes. In the intermediate stage, things seem “chaotic,” another technical term meaning that the system in transition looks disordered, even like it is acting randomly from a human perspective. But if we push down into the system components, we find out that actually there are islands of order in the details. Those islands of order eventually connect up, typically in unanticipated ways, as a new system “emerges” from the disorder of the previous one.

Hanging the many specifics of planetary change on one concept suspiciously resembles a “master narrative,” the kind of thing that Lyotard convinced me to give up years ago. I believed him then because I figured that anyone who could get away with writing a book about postmodernism on a government contract had to know how the world really worked. But this is different. I think that Earth itself is the primary author of the phase transition, as The Onion parody suggests. This transition is more a “natural construction.” The “social” part is now trying to catch up and learn how to fit humankind in as a more useful character as the story develops. Humans were the protagonists in creating the conflict that started the narrative. The question now is, what role if any do we play as the story develops and eventually concludes in some as yet unknown new planetary system?

Liminal Earth

We forced the planetary system of the Holocene to go out of control, in the sense of its ability to “steer” itself, the Greek roots of the term “cybernetics,” a field that Mead and Bateson helped to create after World War II. Systems are made up in part of feedback loops, loops that take in some value from their environment, add to it or subtract from it, output it to the environment, then take that changed value as a new input to the same loop. Some loops “dampen” their inputs, “negative” feedback, like when air heats and then because of increased pressure rises and cools. Some “amplify” their inputs, “positive” feedback, like when snow melts and then less sunlight is reflected so the snow melts faster.

Now imagine a real planetary system made up of massively complicated networks of interconnected loops in all their physical, chemical, biological, geological and astronomical complexity. If a system endures for some period of time, like the Holocene did, it means that the loops balanced each other out into a dynamic equilibrium, plenty of variation to be sure, but within a space of possibilities. But if a system is disturbed beyond its capacity to maintain that balance, it will disorganize into a phase transition. In a worst case scenario, dampening feedback will dominate and the system will die, or amplifying feedback will go out of control and the system will blow up. In a best case scenario, the system will reorganize as a different system and regain the ability to maintain a new dynamic equilibrium for a changed environment.

The Anthropocene argument is that humans have by and large taken over the dominant role in the feedback loops of the planetary system. They have used and are using their controlling positions in those loops to increase amplifying feedback without adjusting dampening feedback to restrain the amplifying loops from running amok, while in other cases they are increasing dampening feedback without increasing the corresponding amplifying feedback that would balance that effect. As a result, so goes the argument, we have pushed the planetary system into a phase transition between the Holocene and the Anthropocene.

The phase transition introduces a period of uncertainty and surprise, from a human point of view. Is that a reasonable interpretation of what we humans are experiencing? So many things seem to be going haywire it’s not difficult to see it that way—see the AAA and the IPCC reports mentioned at the start of this essay. As Marten Scheffer says in his book Critical Transitions in Nature and Society, the best we can do given the level of complexity is look for “empirical indicators that tell us whether we are approaching a critical transition” (pg. 282).

The AAA and IPCC reports, like Elizabeth Kolbert’s well-written popular book The Sixth Extinction and the increasing flood of bad news from professional and popular media coverage, show that it’s not just the number of changing indicators in so many different planetary domains. Also remarkable is the accelerating rate at which they are changing. Consider the classic—the amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. It has gone to higher values before in the history of Earth, true enough, but never with the acceleration of recent decades, packed into the blink of an eye in geological time.

But here’s an important difference among phase transitions. In a well-known transition in physics, we know that as temperature gets colder, water will turn from gas into liquid into solid. But the transition into the Anthropocene isn’t so predictable. It has never happened before. It is the first ever human-caused change from one geological epoch to another, and human reactions for better or for worse will cause more change as we respond to it. It is the first transition where the keystone species is conscious and reflexive and both amazingly creative and destructive. We can’t know exactly how it will go or how it will end.

So does this mean the phase transition is a bitch and then we die? Maybe. The planet will endure, but maybe not us. Does it mean that we will reduce our Earth abuse to the point where a new dynamic equilibrium results in a livable new human/earth coupling that—though different from anything we can predict today—writes a happy ending to our future in Earth’s narrative? Maybe. Does it mean that Earth culls the human herd and corrals it enough to get itself into a new dynamic equilibrium that suits it, with Santa Fe County in New Mexico maybe turning into lush spring rains and gentle winters? Maybe. We won’t know until the transition is over. We can’t calculate the probabilities because there’s no denominator and the value of the numerator isn’t yet known.

A phase transition works as a concept to wrap one’s mind around, a central plot structure for the Earth-driven narrative, the story that helps put the many pieces of climate and other environmental change together into a coherent picture. Earth is in the process of turning into something that will correct for the human-caused system overload of the Holocene. We don’t know exactly what that future “something” is going to be. We call it the Anthropocene, because the transition taught us how important a part of the narrative we are.

Adaptive Co-Management and Anthropology

The uncertainty leaves room for optimism and pessimism and various blends of both. At the moment I lean towards pessimism because of two historically and politically entrenched human models for managing the environment. The first is, how can we make money off of it? The second is the tradition of experience-distant, top-down, command and control among those who regulate that first model. Earth’s narrative, if those two models continue to dominate, will cast humans in the role of re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, to quote Stephen Colbert’s famous line.

On the other hand, there is a counter-trend to those traditional models, newer ways of thinking about human-environment relationships that make more sense for a phase transition of the type hypothesized here, namely, one where handling uncertainty and surprise are required and where long-range outcomes can’t be predicted. An interesting thing about these new management models is that anthropology starts to appear, not only in its research capacity, but also in management practice.

Several buzzwords have gained traction in the last few decades that signal this change. The one I’ll mention here is “adaptive co-management.” For the interested reader, Fikret Berkes offers a nice summary description of his rationale for the concept in this video.

The phrase has its roots in the earlier phrase “adaptive management,” without the “co.” That concept dates back, by most accounts, to the work of C.S. Holling in 1978. I’d date it back even further to Kurt Lewin’s model of “action research,” published in the academic journals just after World War II.

The “co” was added to “adaptive management” to address the issue of power. I just reviewed a collection of case studies on water co-management to try and learn how the “co” addition changes the phrase. “Adaptive management” still leaves open the question of who controls the adaptation. I’ve heard of and been at water meetings where the organizer’s version is—“here is how we will adapt. Are there any questions?” “Co” requires participation in knowledge construction and institution building. That means influence on the part of many different identities and interests.

It doesn’t sound easy to do and it usually isn’t. The problem is, as the case studies in the book illustrate, that most examples of water co-management don’t live up to their potential. The concept is often preached but actual attempts typically fall short. I hear the same conclusion in discussions with local water colleagues. I’m not surprised. The key principles undermine the traditional environmental management template. Adaptive management, “co” or not, with water or any other ecological service, is neither standardized, nor planned far in advance, nor set in stone, nor micromanaged from afar, nor limited in participation only to experts and politically powerful interests. Implementation requires significant social change.

The late Elinor Ostrom should be mentioned, though there is nowhere near enough space to do justice to her Nobel prize-winning work on bottom-up common pool resource management. Her work, and that of her colleagues, often appear in adaptive management discussions.

Adaptive co-management principles read like something out of the anthropological epistemology playbook by way of using that epistemology to guide action. And I’m only dealing with sociocultural anthropology in this brief article. I could write more essays, just on water for example, relevant to biological anthropology, as in water quality, or from archaeology, as in history of irrigation, or from linguistics, as in environmental discourse as it runs up and down from policy to media to meetings to conflict in a river basin.

The AAA climate change report serves as a general template for how adaptive co-management and anthropology might be made for each other. Three main strengths of anthropology were described in the report’s introduction. The first is “being there” and knowing the local world firsthand. The second is learning and taking seriously local ways that have developed for understanding and living in a particular environment. The third is looking at history, long- as well as short-term, to learn ways that have worked and others that have not in that particular environment. The relevance of these strengths to a management jargon that uses terms like “stakeholder” and “inclusion” and “local” is obvious.

The AAA report describes many active roles that climate change anthropologists have played. They tend to be research-based and advisory. All well and good. But Earth would be a lot happier with us if there were less preaching and more practice.

As an example of an academic/practitioner transition, I’ll mention my colleague, Sylvia Rodriguez. She’s an emerita professor, which is just another word for freedom to do the work you want to do. She grew up on irrigated land in a traditional New Mexican acequia community near Taos. After years of teaching and research and writing on the anthropology of water, she decided to purchase her own terreno and go to work as a parciante or active member. I see her now and then and it’s an education to hear about her new project. She’s taking notes and will produce a terrific book. But she helps run the community irrigation organization, represents it in local settings, and works with co-members in the struggle against development policies that threaten water rights and quality. She is an adaptive co-manager.

A second quick example, staying with the example of water: I recently reviewed John Wagner’s 2013 edited book, The Social Life of Water. The book is a collection of anthropological case studies of water crises. But the last two chapters are more interesting for purposes of this essay. Bryan Bruns worked as a management consultant for water projects in Indonesia and created a concept of “bureaucratic bricolage” to describe how he constructed agreements between funders with an experience-distant plan and resources, and stakeholders with their own ideas about management based on local knowledge and history who needed those resources. Another chapter, by John M. Donahue, another professor emeritus, describes the complicated negotiations over the Edwards Aquifer in Texas in which he participated, where he helped the process by learning and working with conflicting points of view to create a common sense of purpose.

The book’s editor, writing of Donahue’s chapter, notes that: “While the image of a boardroom full of stakeholders may not be the most striking image with which to end this volume, I believe it does honestly portray the real work that must be done around the world to resolve water crises.”

I don’t agree with the “image” problem—it’s the striking image I’m advocating—though I do agree that some “real work” is involved. I think the image of us working away with a group, Earth included of course, treating it as a colleague rather than a slave to do our bidding, might encourage it to reconsider its view of us as the most self-centered destructive species on the planet. An effort on the part of a profession—us—who are expert in the local and the uncertain wouldn’t go unnoticed. It would attract more of Earth’s attention than yet another panel at the AAA. It might even change its statement the next time The Onion interviews and invite us to stay on the planet.


Series Navigation<< Anthropologies #21: The Challenge of Motivated Reasoning: Science, Education, and Changing ClimatesAnthropologies #21: Global Warming is not a Crisis >>

Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

4 thoughts on “Anthropologies #21: Betwixt and Between: Geological Phase Transition, Adaptive Co-Management, and Anthropology

  1. Michael Agar’s intriguing application of the concept of “phase transition” to the dynamic system comprised of the planet and its human population throws open a whole range of possible futures – not all of which arise in heated debates over climate change:

    “So does this mean the phase transition is a bitch and then we die? Maybe. The planet will endure, but maybe not us. Does it mean that we will reduce our Earth abuse to the point where a new dynamic equilibrium results in a livable new human/earth coupling that—though different from anything we can predict today—writes a happy ending to our future in Earth’s narrative? Maybe. Does it mean that Earth culls the human herd and corrals it enough to get itself into a new dynamic equilibrium that suits it, with Santa Fe County in New Mexico maybe turning into lush spring rains and gentle winters? Maybe. We won’t know until the transition is over. We can’t calculate the probabilities because there’s no denominator and the value of the numerator isn’t yet known.”

    It appears that Kybernetes’ oar has somehow lost steerage, so, as Agar writes, “we can’t calculate the probabilities . . .” Who knows where this thing is headed?
    A related question: A phase transition within a thermodynamic system, say water being heated and becoming vapor preserves the same elements of the system, here the water molecule in somewhat different configurations. But a phase transition in which one element is “humanity’? may very well alter that element in fundamental ways. Our evolutionary past has been a rough-and-tumble business of different species and, when Homo finally appeared, of dramatically different social-cultural worlds. Was a phase transition involved in the replacement of Pleistocene hunters by Holocene farmers? How about what may be an even more dramatic transformation, that of Holocene Man into Anthropocene Man? Another century or two of biotechnology applied to the human genome may create beings – new “species” if we want to call them that – beyond the wildest imaginings of Doctor Moreau. So, what if we get to the Anthropocene and there is no Anthro to Cene? Just a thought.

  2. Interesting comment. “Phase transition” deserves a lot more discussion. There is a journal by that name, debates about whether second order transitions should be called “continuous,” how to define it in general, how to use it in human social science, and so on. Your human evolutionary examples are right on. Examples like oxygenation of Earth’s atmosphere and the Cambrian explosion are other non-primate examples in Earth’s history. Hobsbawm in his “On History” starts out wondering at how it is that major historical events in his lifetime that changed the world were unexpected. And there has been much social science dealing with “emergence,” that word we tossed around in anthropology grad school all the time, related in that one meaning was how our research changes in some surprising way after it starts that wouldn’t have been predicted when we wrote the proposal.

    Couple of root problems here are that complexity theory came out of physics, from Los Alamos to the Santa Fe Institute is the origin story in the U.S. (Waldrop’s old book “Complexity” is a good readable history), so discussions of phase transition tend to regress to concepts and example from that field, magnets rather than taking into account the post-cultural species. Another is how overwhelmingly complicated (in addition to complex) our planetary system is. I based my phase transition hypothesis on Scheffer’s book, noted in the blog, looking at how indicators from many different environmental domains are moving in new directions—problematic from a human perspective given a world we have in large part created—at increasing rates. There are some discussions in the math/physics/biology literatures about how increasing variance and higher degree of auto-correlation across system indicators is a signal of a phase transition that makes it a plausible hypothesis. Lots more to talk about here. In the end, your comment inspires me to dive deeper inside of this concept. Or probably someone has figured it out already and I haven’t found the dissertation yet (:

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  3. A few additional thoughts.

    Phase transitions are not always unpredictable or irreversible. H20 is a classic example here, shifting back and forth between ice, liquid, and gas, depending on pressure and temperature. The mechanisms involved are predictable.

    Complexity is not random. Melanie Mitchell makes a big point of this in her introductory course at Complexity Explorer []. The equations that describe complexity are well-defined and contain no random variables. The problem is that solutions multiply too rapidly to keep up with them. This is related to another characteristic, sensitivity to initial conditions. One set of conditions may result in a single, well-defined solution or a relatively simple oscillation between two or three solutions. Another set of conditions, apparently only trivially different, results in a very large or infinite set of solutions.

    The relationship of conscious actors to complex systems is difficult to model. In Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life, John Miller and Scott Page remark that in most agent-based simulations the agents are either too stupid — always using the same heuristics — or too smart — always performing game-theoretic calculations — to be realistic representations of human actors. It is easy to say humans learn, humans forget, humans rarely employ game theory. But the mathematical and computational issues raised by trying to incorporate more human characteristics in agents are very difficult. Modeling the human remains an on-going enterprise.

    In thinking about new ideas like phase transitions and complex systems, I always keep in mind a diagram described by Gerald Weinstein in An Introduction to General Systems Thinking. The diagram is a simple box divided into three layers, two very small, the other very large. One small layer is the zone of classical mechanics, where principles governing simple machines are sufficient to explain what is happening. The other small layer is the zone of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, where the global properties of systems that involve large numbers of randomly interacting parts are well understood. The very large zone is the one where neither simple mechanisms nor statistical inference are sufficient to explain what is happening. This is the zone in which the best we can do — to date— is to construct narratives, telling plausible stories.

    The “to date” is important.The simple mechanical and statistical layers that Weinstein describes writing between 1961 and 1975 are no longer the only games in town when it comes to mathematical or computational analysis. As indicated above, there is still a lot of work to be done, but new advances continue to appear. All of which leads me to conclude that the late 1960s world in which I went to graduate school, when the choice was physics envy vs literary subtlety is no longer a good model for framing anthropological debates.

  4. Sorry for the late reply, been bogged down with writing lately. I believe the new concepts of how to measure phase transition that Mike was describing are most clearly discussed by Vasilis Dakos in his dissertation and a host of articles he has published in the past four or five years.

    Dakos, Vasilis. 2011. Expecting the unexpected: indicators of resilience as early-warning signals for critical transitions. Wageningen: s.n.].

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