Impact-sheds are not managed systems, except when…

–Conflation of the physical system managed with the area of system impacts should the system fail is common. The spatial area managed by a water supply or electric grid is not the spatial area affected by indefinite loss of water or electricity. Large critical infrastructures may be operated within regions, but regions are not systems managed on their own in the same way critical infrastructures with central control rooms are.

To see how this matters, picture a stylized relationship between the probability of levee failure (Pf, e.g., 1%, 0.1%, 0.01% per annum), the estimated cost per mile of levee stretch to bring it to high safety standard, and the estimated loss in economic value (including foregone earnings due to loss of life), should levee failure occur at a given Pf. One relationship is the diagonal read from the upper right to the lower left (my thanks for Robert Pyke for the figure):

The dotted line assumes that the losses in economic value of a levee breach decline as levees are brought to a higher, more costly standard with reductions in the probability of levee failure, Pf. What is managed directly is maintenance at a levee standard and the associated Pf; only indirectly is the “economic value of levee breach” managed..

–If you counter that this impact-shed is “the system to be managed,” then you beg the larger question: What infrastructure manages the impact-shed in terms of the consequences of levee breach (Cf), including economic losses?

Answer: Cf is most pertinent to the emergency management infrastructure, and not the flood and levee infrastructure as in the illustration. The time period for the former involvement may well be limited (say, six weeks to three months after the disaster), leaving the bulk of the recovery to those infrastructures that manage systems–e.g., roads and waterways–and not the respective impact-sheds.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda

–Have you attended any presentation where the engineer proposes all-benefit-and-no-cost designs and technologies of such fantastification as would bring a failing grade to a student in public policy and management? The slides are a tableau vivant of Revelation pulling the “thing” out of Nothing, the thingamajiggery sacralized as innovation. (As a Renaissance ceiling fresco, the fabled risk-seeking innovators would be little putti wheeling around St Market, upwards into a cerulean sky.)

–When I read criticisms that blame deaths or injuries in a disaster on the “lack of coordination,” I expect to see answers to two immediate questions: (1) can it be demonstrated that the lack of coordination did not arise because the responders knew—or thought so at the time—that they were undertaking activities just as urgent; and (2) can we conclude that the event in question would (not could, should, might or perhaps) have been better responded to had it not been handled the way it was (the classic counterfactual)? Rarely, I find, are answers even attempted, let alone provided. (The counterfactual often has a twofold would. The sociologist, Raymond Aron, ask critics of decisionmakers: “What would you do, in their place, and how would you do it?”)

–What would we be reading now to be as collectively agitated as were early readers of Machiavelli’s Prince, the French classes delving into the Encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert, or Beccaria’s On Crime and Punishment, or those stirred by Michael Harrington’s The Other America?

Or is the point quite the other way round? The “we” is expanding, every day, by agitations of other media?

–Go look for one of those early 20th century American landscape paintings by, e.g., Redmond Granville, of wildflowers spreading across fields or Edgar Payne of a remote lake in the snowy Sierras. Then look at virtually the same painting, but this time with a young woman in her calico dress or cowboy on a horse. In an instant, this painting dates the preceding one. What had been an idealized-now flips to a historicized-then. Public policy is full of such flips: reforms that work on paper but date immediately when real people with real problems in real time enter the picture—both as subject and as frame.

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge argued “matter” was treated like a pincushion whose surface was hidden by all the sensations, thoughts and properties stabbed into it.

You ask today’s version of, “What’s the matter?,” and you get a pincushion of sentences affixed with an “etc.” Each implies the unnamed factors are only critical to the point we needn’t clutter the analysis any further by naming them. “Hail, Muse! Et Cetera,” as the poet, Byron, sarcastically put it in the third canto of Don Juan. Yet, really, why are we reading if not to find out what the writers think are critical enough to name? (Writes Wittgenstein: “Again and again, my ‘etc’ has a limit.”)

–Our experiences “lie jumbled up inside us, and we find we have an inner world like a rubbish bin,” wrote the sociologist and psychotherapist, Ian Craib:

This is a different sort of mess…the flux of the inner life and our emotions, about which we maintain the illusion that it can be made orderly and predictable. We might think that the rubbish bin can be sorted out, but it seems to me what the push is towards emptying it and starting afresh.

But we don’t know how to start all over again, and as such two sets of opposing pressures drive the anxiety of having to sort things out: the centripetal pressures of closing in on what we think we really know (or can know) and the centrifugal pressures of opening up recasting what has been taken as unknowable or for granted.

This is Proust in translation: “What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown”. We only know that which we create—and with this, the anxiety both at the knowing and at the recasting.

–The first words in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are, “Whose there?” Indeed. And at its end, what life isn’t unfinished? In both cases, arithmetic averages wobble.

Updates and table of key entries by topic area

This week’s blog: “Impact-sheds are not managed systems, except when…”

Take another look: “Policy as magical thinking”

Popular blogs (by number of viewers): “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux”

(The most recent blog entry follows this one; use keyword search function to find others listed below)

Table of key entries

Most Important: “What am I missing?,” “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Power,” “Interconnected?,” “I believe,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “Keeping it complex. . .,” ““Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism,” “More on over-complexification,” “Playing it safe, utopia,” “Case-by-case analysis: realism, criteria, virtues,” “Not ‘Why don’t they listen to us?’ but rather: ‘What should we listen for from them. . .’,” “Humanism, by default,” “Mess and reliability: five inter-related propositions,” “Control, surpris’d,” “When good-enough is better: a summary,” “Heuristics as clues,” “First, differentiate!”

Recasting big policy issues: “Poverty and war,” “Second thoughts on income inequality,” “Unbracketing [Inequality],” “Surprising climate change,” “COVID-19,” “Missing racism,” “Healthcare,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene, ” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Culling sustainability,” “In a failed state,” “Revolts,” “A colossal inheritance,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination’,” “Government regulation,” “Economic consequences of having no must-never-happen events in the financial sector,” “What to do when criticisms are spot-on, but the recommendations aren’t,” “Recasting Roosevelt’s New Deal,” and Longer Reads (below)

More recastings: “Policy narratives,” “America’s and Trump’s,” “Recastings #1,” “When the light at the end of the tunnel is the tunnel,” “Public Policy Analysis, c.1970 – c.2020: In Memoriam?,” “Sound familiar? Here’s why,” “A grammar of policy analysis,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Policy as magical thinking,” “A different take on ‘traditional agriculture:’ risk-averse v. reliability-seeking,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!,” “Global Climate Sprawl,” “Disaster averted is central to pastoralist development,” “Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead”

Not-knowing and its proxies: “Seeing unknowns,” “Inexperience and central banks,” “Managing inexperience,” “Difficulty at risk and unequal,” “By way of distraction…,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter,” “Humanism, by default,” “Preknown, known, unknown,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations,” “On population increase”

Ignorance and uncertainty: “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Uncertain superlatives,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Why aren’t they all running away!,” “Yes, ‘risk and uncertainty’ are socially constructed and historicized. Now what? The missing corollary and 3 examples,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Error and Safety,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Mercator’s projection,” “Preknown, known, unknown,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations”

Risk, resilience and root causes: “A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications,” “Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios,” “Half-way risk,” “Central role of the track record in risk analysis,” “Resilience isn’t what you think,” “Root causes,” “Frau Hitler, again,” “With respect to what?,” “Yes, ‘risk and uncertainty’ are socially constructed and historicized. Now what? The missing corollary and 3 examples,” “Error and Safety,” “Four macro-design principles that matter—and one that can’t—for risk managers and policymakers,” “Managing-ahead for latent risks and latent interconnectivity,” “Can’t we be best anticipatory and resilient at the same time?,” “Safety, like much in democracy and intelligence, is not a noun but an adverb,” “First, differentiate!,” “One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations”

Regulation: “A few things I’ve learned from the Financial Times on regulation,” “Government regulation,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation”

Infrastructures: “The real U.S. infrastructure crisis,” “Innovation,” “Take-home messages,” “Who pays?,” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Catastrophized cascades,” “Healthcare,” “Interconnected,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “Achilles’ heel of high reliability management,” “Where distrust and dread are positive social values,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Government regulation,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Error and Safety,” “Managing-ahead for latent risks and latent interconnectivity,” “What you need to know: Big System Collapse! Or not.” “Mercator’s projection,” “Impact-sheds are not managed systems, except when…”

Environment: “New environmental narratives for these times (longer read, consolidated from following entries),” “Nature,” “Tansley’s ecosystem,” “Radical uncertainty and new environmental narratives,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Dining on gin and consommé,” “Culling sustainability,” “Lifecycle modeling of species,” “Better fastthinking in complex times,” Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,”“What to do when criticisms are spot-on, but the recommendations aren’t”

Rural development: “Disaster averted is core to pastoralist development,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Culling sustainability,” “A different take on ‘traditional agriculture:’ risk-averse v. reliability-seeking,” “Misadventures by design,” “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Next-ism”

Pastoralist development: “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms (longer read),” “Keeping up with pastoralists: A case for ‘Multiplatform pastoralism’ (longer read),” “Pastoralists as avant-garde,” “On population increase”

Catastrophe and crisis: “Catastrophized cascades,” “Jorie Graham’s systemcide,” “The shame of it all,” “Next-ism,” “The future is the mess we’re in now,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!,” “Good messes to be had from their catastrophism,” “What you need to know: Big System Collapse! Or not.”

More mess, good and bad: “Mess and reliability: five inter-related propositions,” “A different take on the traffic mess,” “Happiness: The mess,” “Who pays?,” “Misadventures by design,” “. . .and raise my taxes!,” “Top-of-the-list thinking,” “Take-home messages,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “The New Normal is managing not just negative setbacks but also positive ones,” “Good messes to be had from their catastrophism,” “Can’t we be best anticipatory and resilient at the same time?,” “The good mess in no single, right reading and in the many (more or less) wrong ones,” “Predicting the future”

Betterment and good-enough: “Betterment as ‘yes-but’ through ‘yes-and’,” “It’s better between the James brothers,” “Good-enoughs,” “Good-enough dreamers,” “Professional, amateur, apprentice; Or, As good as the fingernails of Manet,” “‘at sea,’ ‘from on high’,” “Betterment (continued),” “Better fastthinking in complex times,” “Humanism, by default,” “Good-enough criticism,” “When good-enough is better: a summary,” “What to do when policy articles keep ending where they should’ve started,” “Heuristics as clues,” “For the sake of betterment: Positive functions of social dread, blind-spots and complication”

Policy palimpsests and composite arguments: “Take home messages,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Reflection and sensibility,” and other Longer Reads (below)

Economism: “Economism,” “Keep it simple?,” “Loose ends, #1” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “The missing drop of realism,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “Makes the gorge rise”

Methods (narrative, risk, triangulation, others): “Triangulating complexity for policy and management,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination,’” “Policy narratives,”“A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications,” “Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios,” “Half-way risk,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “The missing drop of realism,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “New benchmark metrics for major risk and uncertainty,” “One ‘why’ and four ‘how’s’ to recasting complex policy and management problems,” “Narrative policy analysis, now and ahead,” “Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism,” “Wicked problems as a categorized nostalgia,” “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “On population increase”

Longer Reads: “Ammons and regulation,” “The next Constitutional Convention,” “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “A consultant’s diary,” “A different take on The Great Confinement,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “New environmental narratives for these times (consolidated from Environment entries),” “New benchmark metrics for major risk and uncertainty (consolidated from entries for Risk, resilience and root causes),” “One ‘why’ and four ‘how’s’ to recasting complex policy and management problems (consolidated from earlier entries),” “Pastoralists and. Pastoralisms”

Something less complex?: “Red in tooth and claw,” “What kdrama has taught me,” “The irony of it all,” “Dining on gin and consommé,” “Five questions everyone should want to answer,” “Distracted anti-utopians,” “Sallies out and sees,” “It’s as if,” “Proof-positive that international irrationality is socially constructed. . .,” “Coulda, shoulda, woulda”

On population increase

It’s the crudeness: As if more numbers of people were even a credible unit of analysis, full stop, for policy or management. As if complex could be abbreviated that simply.

Not a scintilla of recognition:

  • that perceptions and management of policies differ, at least, by a person’s age, education, income, gender, and ethnicity;
  • that not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience with respect to these numbers and to perceptions, at the very least, set disciplines, fields and ways of being apart from each other;
  • that what stops further polarization of disciplines, fields and ways of being are not fewer numbers but the not-knowing, difficulty, and inexperience; and
  • that when the numbers do polarize, fear becomes a solipsism, believing itself to be an anti-politics machine.

Recourse to numbers on their own is the Olympian capacity to deoxygenate all living matters.

Heuristics as clues

When Louis XIV saw the new maps of France he sponsored in 1693 he supposedly complained that his cartographers had cost his kingdom more land in a year than foreign armies had done in a century.

(From Paul Slack’s The Invention of Improvement)

–Long-held heuristics, like routines and standard operating procedures, are shorthand ways of doing things without all the uncertainty of reinventing the wheel. Newer heuristics include big data algorithms we don’t understand and policy narratives we think we do, both of which enable making decisions in the face of uncertainty. Both shorthands are treated as good-enough, like a new atlas of maps.

The older heuristics are relied upon because they are said to reduce uncertainty; more recent ones are used to better manage (in the face of) uncertainty that hasn’t been/cannot be reduced, at least for the moment.

One major commonality between both the old and new needs to be highlighted. While typically not taken as such, both are less a shorthand than clues for what to do ahead.

–By way of example, handbooks detailing how to respond to unpredictable floods and famines were written by and for administrators in Imperial China. Over the course of some thousand years, handbooks started to group together what had been learned into tables of maxims (sometime cast in rhyme) for ease of reference by users.

Handbooks “are quick to insist, however, that using the tables is not sufficient in the long run: for the professional administrator they are rather a ‘clue’. . .that indicates where to go in the more complete texts,” writes Pierre-Étienne Will, the most recent and comprehensive bibliographer of handbooks (2020, XLIV). This status of heuristic-as-clue is to alert us to important omissions that require reference beyond any shorthand exposition (Ibid, 568). Occasions when a map proves imperfect and misleading are all too familiar.

Professor Will elaborates in an email: “’clue’ (yinxian 引線. . .) literally means ‘a thread that leads to…’, ‘that can be pulled to get…, or something of the sort. The same character yin is part of the words suoyin and yinde, meaning ‘index’, in modern Chinese. The tables or rhymes are like indexes to the complete texts.”

–I want to apply this notion of heuristic-as-clue more speculatively to the newer algorithms derived from big data. We’re told that, even though the algorithms are not based on models of known cause and effect, they identify complex, albeit opaque, correlations said to be worth relying upon.

But that stops short of the needful. The status of a heuristic as clue underscores that, just as with causal models, there’s also a great deal yet to puzzle out with correlations before going forward. Correlations are not just the start of an analysis. They also are in context and those contexts start the analysis as well. Correlations index spatial-temporal references to be pursued.

–There is no obvious point of entry when it comes to revealing the wider references. For purposes of illustration, start with the canonical index of fire, smoke. In the same way, the heat from server centers (some indeed call it “data exhaust”) indexes the large electricity usage in generating and updating algorithms. But context doesn’t stop there. Other clues are less spatial-temporal and more social for the heuristic inseparable from wider referential meanings.

Again, by way of example, the status of the algorithm-as-heuristic clues you into the underlying assumptions for using big dataset algorithms, not least of exemplify “trust.” Some say, e.g.:

  • algorithms deliver the best result among the other methods and heuristics available;
  • while not free of bias, they do a better job than others by virtue of the huge run of cases and calculations;
  • some kind of result at the scale of big data is better than no result, plus the algorithmic result is often more timely; and
  • anyway, there’s always a danger that the critics of big data algorithms take them more seriously than the users, like consumers who comparison-shop and then make their own decisions.

The wider point here is that the methodological duty of care in using heuristics means treating them as indexes of that which cannot be omitted, yet could have already been omitted, from analysis and practice when usefulness is the question.

Principal sources

Pierre-Étienne Will (2020). “Introduction,” in: Handbooks and Anthologies for Officials in Imperial China: A descriptive and critical bibliography. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands.

The notion of index in the sense of smoke and fire follows that of C.S. Pierce (“purse”), a founder of American pragmatism.

R. Machen and E. Nost (2021). “Thinking algorithmically: The making of hegemonic knowledge in climate governance.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers: 1-15.

Julia Velkova (2021). “Thermopolitics of data: Cloud infrastructures and energy futures.” Cultural Studies.

Keeping up with pastoralists: A case for “Multiplatform Pastoralism” (longer read)

If I were compelled to describe in one word the complex infrastructures I’ve studied, it’d be: labyrinth. It’s a platform for action that has no linear pathway to get from start to finish. Also, labyrinths are typically grouped in two useful ways for our purposes: unicursal (below on the right) and multicursal (on the left).

Unlike pastoralist projects that are unicursal platforms (the one way, albeit circuitous, to arrive at the stated goal), really-existing pastoralist activities are a multicursal complex with multiple pathways to outputs, albeit with uncertainty at every turn and setbacks along the way.

To telegraph ahead, the argument below is threefold: pastoralists are usefully depicted from a multimedia platform; pastoral areas are usefully understood as platforms for contact and meeting points; and pastoralism is usefully thought of as a platform for multiple pastoralisms. Each platform is already maze-like. The term, platform, triggers negative connotations today, as in “platform capitalism” (though capitalism is more multicursally complex than some think).

Here, however, I’m asking you to think of platforms as infrastructure, and the notion of—for want of a better phrase, “multiplatform pastoralism”—enables us to appreciate the twists-and-turns ahead and what capitalizing on them would look like for pro-pastoralist policy and management.

Below are the shorthand versions of the three prongs of the argument, followed by major implications for policy and management. Seeing the multicursal for what it is suggests, I argue, that one pro-pastoralist intervention would be multipurpose digital and online mechanisms to advance real-time decisionmaking in government projects, programs and policymakers


  1. Pastoralists are intermedial.

Where pastoralist activities resist fuller point-in-time description, then:

  • Not only is more longitudinal study appropriate, e.g., to see at work a pastoralist’s multiple roles—herder, livestock marketer, youth/elder, etc.
  • Multiple media are also needed to capture the multicursal diversity, e.g., media ranging from participatory mapping to documentaries, with other representational modes in between and beyond.
  • The aim would be to create an intermedial composite of pastoralist activities over time.

Why “intermedial pastoralist”?

  • A composite depiction questions reduced-form development narratives while at the same time calls for more complex ones on which to proceed.
  • A limitation with the current (written/verbal) medium is that if you mention something positive about pastoralist practice, like “managing uncertainty better,” someone—even a colleague who knows you—feels compelled to counter, “But you also have to foreground all the threats to pastoralists. . .”
  • An intermedial depiction can usefully complicate any tit-negative for tat-positive interchange.

To rely on fewer media of representation, as in conventional research (even with the occasional photo), risks studying not pastoralists, but pastoralists, a trace marker or spoor in the sand for what eludes us.

  • And what’s the urgency?
  • Answer: Pastoralist are multidimensionally, demonstrably complex—just as are some policy types who disparage them.

  1. Pastoral areas are platforms for meeting and contact in spatially and temporally distributed networks.

It isn’t just that pastoralist households have off-site activities with household members elsewhere who contribute from there to on-site pastoralist activities.

Rather: It’s more appropriate to say that in some cases a good deal of the pastoralism is done off-site, just as what was once platform trading on the floor of a stock exchange is now done elsewhere on a different platform (e.g., the Hong Kong Stock Exchange).

  • Traders may meet from time to time in the physical headquarters of the stock exchange, but face-to-face trading on the floor no longer dominates.
  • Livestock trades at home sites give way to (more) buying and selling at off-site platforms, like central livestock markets.

Or to shift the analogy: If one were writing up a history of pastoral activities at the home site, it would be like writing the history of the UK Parliament isolated to the labyrinthine structure on the Thames.

  • It’s more accurate to say the UK Parliament is a meeting platform or contact zone for members whose parliamentary activities are importantly dispersed.
  • More, what was once the parliament building for all manner of private legislation by members has now become the contact platform for members who focus on other legislation.

  1. Pastoralism is pastoralisms.

Any whiggish temptation is to be resisted when assessing pastoralist systems, i.e., “they have evolved to this point for the better—no, for the worse!”

  • If researchers and observers have a hard time keeping up with pastoralist differentiation, then evaluative terms like “better” or “worse” are premature unless caveated.
  • The caveats? “Better” and “worse” need to be made explicit with respect to the provisionality of pastoralists as intermedial composites networked with changing pastoral sites as hubs for contingent interaction.[1]
  • [And we expect policy types to keep up with the changes and differentiation that even we have a hard time with?]

But “more effective” and “less effective” are unavoidable in ordinary descriptions of pastoralist systems. One thing this means is that extra-care is needed to reflect the fuller set of actually-existing practices that follow from recasting pastoralist areas as meeting platforms and pastoralists as intermedia. How so?

  • I’m not sure everyone would agree that pastoralist better practices (“better” as defined in the high reliability framework) include all those unofficial (read: clandestine) networks that sub-Saharan migrants to Europe and elsewhere rely on to resist surveillance and capture.
  • The practices have included encrypted communications, secret locations and multiplicity of efforts to counter the informatics of domination and the technologies of coercion.
  • Note the practices fit in—uncomfortably—with the reduced form narratives of national policy types that resident pastoralists are “outside the state’s control.”

A way government can rely on the three platforms: Using for its real-time decisionmaking an authoritative website, tentatively

An authoritative website provides sought-after, up-to-date and linked knowledge so quickly and reliably that it is continuously browsed by increasing numbers of users who click on the website early and often in their search for on-point information, in this case about all things pastoralism.

  • These websites do not pretend to provide final or definitive information, but rather seek to assure and ensure the quality of the topical information continually up-dated.
  • The website serves as a clearinghouse that encourages cross-checking and tailoring of information on, e.g., pastoral development, while also acting as a springboard for future information search and exchange. It is popular because it shortens the number of steps to search for salient information.

In our scenario, the policy type, analyst or manager starts her analysis on pastoralist development by searching [2]

  • She goes to this website on the well-established better practice that information becomes increasingly policy or management relevant when the people gathering the information are the ones who actually use that information.
  • That is, the authoritative website is constructed and maintained as a platform to make real-time searching and browsing easier for the policy type, not least of whom are project and program managers in the field and at the senior- and middle-levels in the center.
  • It is authoritative because it is: (1) online, that is, can be kept up-to-date in ways other media can’t; multicursal, in searching from one link to another; and (2) digital, that is, can be curated for salient multimedia, including different mixes of: video, podcast, reports, articles, chatrooms, graphics-rich tutorials, advice line (“ask the professionals”), up-to-date bibliographies, YouTube channel and blog, among others.

This is to say, online + multicursal + digital produce a bespoke platform for policy types to better grasp and reflect the intermedial, networked and plurality of dimensions in pastoralisms, right now. [3]

Who funds, provides content, and curates [4] such a website is, of course, the question, e.g., a consortium of researchers, centers, journals and foundations. . . But the broader point I’m making here remains the same:


I’d like to think the three perspectives sketched above constellate around something like “multiplatform pastoralism.” From this vantage point, pastoralisms are platforms—read, infrastructural arrays and portfolios—and not single-purpose entities devoid of infrastructure’s socio-technical dimensions.


[1] Apologies for the length of this digression, but it’s here where “pastoralist network(s)” need more thinking from a platform (infrastructure) perspective.

The site from where remittances are sent for the purpose of, say, livestock improvements in pastoral areas must be a hub of sorts in the broader pastoralist network, right? Both for remittance sender and remittance receiver, their sites of respective residence/occupation look like hubs of mobility (resources moving from or to) and immobility (can’t pick up and leave immediately in either case), right?

This notion that multiple network hubs—each a platform of (im)mobility—implies the network concerned has no real “outposts.” Now that’s an interesting formulation of a “network.” I wonder if another way of thinking about this is the notion of cross-loading (much talked about as informal coalition-making among EU members as distinct from the formal EU coordination and concertation mechanisms).

Cross-loading—I’m adapting the framework of a major article on the EU topic—is the mutual influence of pastoralist household members and close relations on each other, separate from those governed by state policies and regulations. Cross-loading captures better the sense of pastoralists looking sideways to each other and reacting, where each is co-present and their relations co-constitutive. Cross-loading on this shared platform does not deny that the pastoralists adapt their behavior to state policies and regulations (so-called “downloading” through formal hierarchies) nor does it deny that pastoralists seek to project their own views onto and thereby influence state policies and regulations (so-called “uploading”). Uploading and downloading may have their own (more vertical) networks, separate from or overlapping with those for (more horizontal) networks.

Cross-loading is very much more a “multilateral” platform than center-periphery networks (with hubs and outposts).

[2] Such authoritative websites may already exist on a regional, cooperative, or site/livestock specific basis, though I’d have to wonder to what extent the websites are linked and curated together (i.e., analogous to meta-analyses of variously published research findings).

[3] We’re routinely told that Africa is run by gerontocracies but has 80% of the population 30 years of age and under. But that’s a Good Position to be in, at least for people—the future policy elite—who are already relying on internet websites to know more about an issue, right?

[4] The curation is no incidental matter. There will be the ongoing problem of linkrot and content drift, i.e., responding to links that disappear from the archived material or material whose links now lead to different matter than originally referenced (e.g., updating a ministry’s organizational chart).

Related reading

E. Roe (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, STEPS Centre: Brighton, UK (available online at

Blog entries for: “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms (longer read),” “Pastoralists as avant-garde”

Pastoralists as avant-garde

–Let’s play with the notion that pastoralist practices contribute to coping with or managing better elsewhere. (This isn’t a stretch, when modern nomadism resonates with pastoralist practices, e.g.: “mobile work,” “coworking,” “virtual collaborations,” “Do It Yourself (DIY),” and “remote work.”)

“Play” being the operative word, think of pastoralists as an avant-garde for what sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, has called liquid modernities. “Avant-garde”?

The avant-garde is no more only French than intelligentsia only Russian. As in the photo from the early 20th century’s Café Voltaire?

That kind of looks like Basotho shepherds, right?

Ok, ok, let’s not be silly. . .

But the rationale for the avant-garde is to transgress society’s orthodoxies. How else to describe the herders Garrett Hardin famously blamed for the Tragedy of the Commons: “Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit. . .Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush. . .” Transgressive herders indeed, at least from one outside gaze.

–My starting point—and one I ask you to take seriously—is a feature of the avant-garde less commented upon, but central to its role in a wider society. Says a French artist, “It is the ontology of avant-gardes to fail in order for them to reinvent themselves.”

In this view, avant-gardes fail enough not to succeed, but succeed enough not to disappear. If so, pastoralists are a “vulnerable” and “marginalized” group, but not just because they are poor(er).

Reinventing themselves is something avant-gardes do all the time and better than others. It’s their métier. Just as avant-gardes are ahead of their time, so too have pastoralist behaviors been in advance of the two dominant development narratives for them, the older tragedy of the commons (ToC) and the later narrative about common property resource (CPR) management. (Indeed, any preoccupation with the CPR and earlier ToC imaginaries should be treated as an indicator of a limited ability to keep up with pastoralists.)

Being ahead of the institutional narratives has for pastoralists both the downsides and upsides of avant-gardes:

  • Downside: Really-existing pastoralist behavior—like that of any avant-garde—has never stopped the drive of normal professionalism (in our case, economics and ecology) to focus on reduced-form narratives like the ToC and CPR.
  • Upside: Knowledge of and, in some cases, the actual behavior of avant-gardes are diffusing into the wider society, albeit lagged and unevenly. I’m biased on this matter, but note just how out-of-date and old-fashioned are the dirigiste terms of “livestock, land and labor,” when read against pastoralist development “as real-time processes and practices in the name of increasing requisite variety…”

–So what? As with avant-gardes, the pastoralists’ labyrinth for action—in a nod to Bruno Latour—isn’t global as much as terrestrial, that complex zone to be articulated above, below and around them.

Related reading

E. Roe (2020). A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism? Pastoralists as Reliability Professionals and Pastoralist Systems as Infrastructure, STEPS Working Paper 113, STEPS Centre: Brighton, UK (available online at

Blog entries for: “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms (longer read),” “Keeping up with pastoralists: A case for ‘Multiplatform Pastoralism’ (longer read)”

Recasting Roosevelt’s New Deal

Then he gets up, firmly
shuts the door, and--quietly, 
into the ear:
‘In 1921 or 22, 
 Gorky admitted to me sadly
 what Lenin had told him in strict confidence:
 “The experiment has failed.”’
 Grateful to Shkolvsky
 for placing such trust in me,
 I bowed to him in silence.
 We both remained silent.
 Without a word, he raised 
 one finger to his mouth
 and looked at me sternly. 
                  “Victor Borisovich Shklovsky” by Lev Ozerov, translated by Boris Dralyuk

There is the view that the unknown-unknowns of the 1930’s Depression in the US caused such widespread dread and fear that large-scale social experimentation, like the Social Security program, became possible (the Roosevelt administration’s “New Deal”)

I suggest what looks like large-scale experimentation in the midst of unknown unknowns was, in part, policymakers probing a set of known unknowns (i.e., known uncertainties).

–Why does this matter?

Because the primary fears said to have prompted the New Deal would have produced in control room operators of society’s core infrastructures (1) the avoidance of systemwide experimentation in the midst of unknown unknowns by means of choosing (2) to operate the system in the midst of uncertainties about probabilities or consequences they knew something about and about which they could live with.

–It’s been argued that one great fear giving rise to the New Deal revolved around deep worries about whether the leading liberal democracies could compete successfully with totalitarian dictatorships. Bluntly: Does resorting to presidential emergency declarations in dire times leave us a liberal democracy or tip us well into rule by dictatorship?

Yet emergencies were far from unchartered in the US, and not just in terms of Abraham Lincoln’s executive actions during the US Civil War. The earlier Federalists were also worried about emergencies, and the accommodation they made was that, yes, presidential emergency powers may be needed in extraordinary times, but these would not serve as precedent for governance thereafter.

–From this vantage point, the New Deal looks like managing against having to experiment in unknown unknowns by choosing among known uncertainties to be put up with though disliked. Choosing among known unknowns buffered against having to cope with the more radical unknowability experienced in other countries.

Principal sources

C. Fatovic, (2009). Outside the Law: Emergency and Executive Power. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press.

I. Katznelson (2013). Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time. Liveright Publishing Corporation. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, NY.

What to do when criticisms are spot-on, but the recommendations aren’t

Add more

I’d be surprised if you haven’t read a publication on a major policy issue that was absolutely convincing—up to, that is, the part where recommendations are offered. “Where did these come from?” you wonder. Certainly not from its preceding analysis!

True, it’s a major contribution to detail and document the very real land problems in Kenya; but when did “massive land reform” follow as the solution? Yes, Big Polluters continue to damage and harm the environment under the pretext of committing to specific climate change measures; but when did banning them, immediately, become realistic? How did “We just need the political will to do so” become even an option, when it’s self-evident that too much political will and too many political wills—we need to do this!—and that!—and those!—and these!—and you, you need to do even more!—are the principal source of so many of the difficulties in falling short?

Convincing criticisms that led to nowhere feasible once angered me. I took too long to realize that my “They should know better!” mirrored their “We should have the political will to do better!” No amount of my own “they should know” will change their policy advocacy. Nor do I have standing in saying policy advocates must not undertake critiques grounded first and foremost in their moral and ethical principles.

Rather, drawing recommendations from their analyses is my responsibility: I’m the policy analyst here, not them. I may not be smarter, but my analytic is different. I’d also like to think I have something to add, both by way of advice to the policy advocates and with respect to the same issues about which I am as worried as they are and for the very reasons they state.

First, I’d ask the policy advocates to push each of their recommendations further with, “Yes, but…?” Yes, the recommendation holds, but does it hold because it doesn’t go far enough? How does it need to be qualified or caveated after a point? Second, I’d ask of myself: What am I missing that is right in front of me, when it comes to their recommendations? I consider them implausible as they stand, but can I recast their recommendations in a better and more tractable way without losing their seriousness and urgency?

Let’s briefly address each question and conclude with the major implication.

Yes, but?

There is nothing wrong with recommendations that are in effect a wish-list. Wishes keep us going—as long as: Be careful of what you wish for!

Being careful requires more than establishing whether or not the references and citations in support of the recommendations actually do that job. Checking sources is needed, but that does not go far enough. Why? Because research on complex policy issues is more than likely to uncover mixed findings, some or many of which have limited scalability.

But mixed results do not mean you are stalemated into calling for more research before all else. Mixed results suggest findings may already be sufficiently differentiated by sites and cases around different means and ends. More, differentiation in means and ends implies not only that some results reflect useful work locally, but also that useful practices may be evolving over a run of the different cases.

Mixed results capture a slice in time of what is evolving over time. Insisting on “Yes, but” is one way to push the cross-sectional into the longitudinal. It’s to get at how, if at all, local differences in responses to policy and management serve as the basis for better systemwide practices across the differences.

An example is helpful here. Return to Big Polluters with their smoke-and-mirror commitments. I’m talking here about their “net-zero emission” schemes, where their emissions in one place are to be offset—promise!—by their securing equal emission-reductions in other places.

Think of the medley of carbon offsets, carbon capture and storage, direct air capture of carbon dioxide, and carbon markets, among others, whose adoption enables the polluters to continue to pollute ever more here while not, supposedly, there. Who these Big Polluters are and how these obfuscating schemes is documented in The Big Con: How Big Polluters are advancing a ‘net zero’ climate agenda to delay, deceive and deny (2021, by Jesse Bragg, Rachel Rose Jackson, and Souparna Lahiri for Corporate Accountability at: I recommend any doubters read this report.

The policy analyst’s problem starts with report’s recommendations, not with the spot-on analysis preceding them. “The cross-sectoral solutions we need already exist, are proven, and are scalable now (see “Real Solutions, Real Zero” in the resources Box),” advises the report. Going to the link in that box leads to another document with examples of climate change solutions—its term. “Many of these are already implemented at local and national levels. Several of these measures can be easily implemented directly, while others require international cooperation.” Fair enough.

But then come the listed recommendations, including:

  • Drastically target the excessive and wasteful consumption of corporations and wealthy elites.
  • Ensure just transitions across all sectors that ensure workers are able to move into new, secure green jobs.
  • Create an immediate moratorium on all new fossil fuel extraction.
  • Leave the ecological integrity of natural ecosystems unharmed and conserve biodiversity.
  • Vastly scale up ecological restoration to recover natural forests, peatlands, and other degraded ecosystems for both climate and biodiversity. .  .
  • Immediately ban expansion of airports, particularly in developed countries. . . .

Now, argument by adjective and adverb is not confined to policy advocacy (I’ve done my share), but no amount of “immediate,” “drastically,” “vastly” and such will stop the policy analyst and others from having to press further, “Yes, but”: Just how drastic or vast is this drastically and vastly? Yes, immediately means immediately, but you can’t mean immediately, right?

Note again the point of “Yes, but” is not to stymy action but rather to locate where and under what conditions moratoria on new fossil fuel extraction, bans on airport expansions, and the efficacies of different “targets” on wealth consumption have worked as really-existing practices to be modified and improved upon by others.

The second you differentiate is the second you begin treating seriously the unintended consequences of implementing blanket recommendations and macro-design “solutions”. Again: Be careful what you wish for! Which leads me to the question I must ask myself when criticizing recommendations of policy advocates.

What am I missing?

I reread the Big Con’s recommendations by cautioning myself not to stop short as I did initially with asking: Where are the data in support of all these must-do’s at the scales they are proposing? What’s also missing—more importantly in the view of this blog—are the optics I can use to recast their recommendations into more tractable ones without watering them down.

Policy optics include metaphors, analogies and counternarratives with which to redescribe or reframe a serious and urgent issue—in this case, the report’s recommendations—without diminishing their seriousness or urgency. One such optic is fairly obvious in our example, but I do not want to leave the impression that policy optics for recasting intractable issues more tractably are always there, easy to find and when found, found always to be useful. No guarantees here! But I am certain that it is the responsibility of the analyst, not the policy advocate, to search for policy optics with which to recast.

Anyone who studies wishes and wish-lists will eventually come across the story of the mythical animal skin, which in the process of realizing each new wish, shrinks smaller and smaller—until nothing is left of the hide upon which to wish further. And why would you need to make more wishes? Because, so the story goes, of all the unintended consequences in need of correction that follow from even the most well-thought-out wish.

This optic of the mythical animal skin recasts, considerably, the report’s major point: “All that is missing is the political will to advance [the recommendations], in spite of industry obstruction and deflection.” When it comes to Be careful what you wish for, political will eats itself up. Political will at the scale the report is talking about is a manifestly a finite resource, and one whose unforeseen consequences are not outweighed beforehand by the hoped-for positive.


The preceding does not mean taking a long wish-list and whittling it down to priority magic bullets. Nor does it not mean that more data, evidence and research will do the prioritizing for us. It does mean that the question we have to ask upfront is, Have we wasted finite political will when it comes to stopping Big Polluters from killing even more?

And to ask that question takes us full circle back to the need to differentiate further by asking: Where is there political will left to stop these destroyers—if not here, at least there, then, and under those conditions rather than others? Only in this way do we see what’s not on the wish-lists that are even more efficacious. Equally important, having done so treats the recommendations with the same seriousness and urgency as does the report.

One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations

–If, as novelist Henry James put it, what is real is what remains, then the playwright Samuel Beckett’s “nothing” in “Nothing is more real than nothing,” is what remains—before or after—everything has been ironized?

–What’s to be criticized when the positives are those that make room for knowing by knowing less, that at times what clarifies is blur, that good enough is to be naïve enough as an adult to see anew, that recasting categories of living and acting happens at the limits of cognition, and that thinking the hitherto unthinkable is an everyday extraordinary?

–It should be scant surprise that a species recasting its past finds it difficult to predict its future. Immanuel Kant admitted “we are dealing with beings…to whom, it is true, what they ought to do may be dictated in advance, but of whom it may not be predicted what they will do…But ‘miserable mortals,’ says the Abbot Coyer, ‘nothing is constant in your lives except inconstancy’”.

–“Collect all the facts that can be collected about the life of Racine and you will never learn from them the art of his verse. All criticism is dominated by the outworn theory that the man is the cause of the work as in the eyes of the law the criminal is the cause of the crime. Far rather are they both the effects.” Paul Valery

–The more you have to lose, the less you can take for granted. We are left somewhere between “Though to/hold on in any case means taking less and less/for granted…” and “to lose/again and again is to have more/and more to lose…” (Amy Clampitt from her “A Hermit Thrush” and Mark Strand from his “To Begin”). What to do? Elizabeth Bishop suggests–oddly?–in “One Art”: “Then practice losing farther, losing faster”.

–The unexpected event is informative. Inability to figure it out is itself information. Uncertainty needn’t be the absence of information.

–As one critic points out, reversion to the mean is not reproduction of the same.

–We’d like to believe that an idea isn’t responsible for those who believe in it, but that misses professed ideas can reflect intentions, and intentions are part of action.

–There is that sheer delight in turning catastrophism against the catastrophists. The delicious part of an otherwise dispiriting meeting on one-more-crisis comes when I get to add “. . .and of course there are the other things to worry about.” Heads look up, eyes dart, you can almost hear them thinking. If someone does ask—“What other things?”—I offer nothing explicit. We, well, can’t quite put our finger on what’s going wrong, this unease. . .

–They hanker after the old language, that of Baroque music or Mozart, and keep asking why we can’t have more, now. Yet it’s not only that the language has changed, that we can’t go back, and that new language is needed for meanings pushed further. They also want more Bach because that way they don’t have to think about the new, let alone the changes in between.

–The idea was that critique would ensure imagination was ahead of history, or in our case, ensure change is in the race with inertia.

–As the law has no eyes (said Xenophon’s Cyrus), so too for macro-design.

–“It’s the questions we ask that matter”. That’s not quite right. The hard issues–e.g., what is power?–remain hard because we’ve stopped short of pushing questions and answers further.

–If you cannot act believingly now, then belief does not matter enough, here.

–They read less as crisis scenarios in need of details than grudges passed off as threats.

–You’d think that “radical” in “radical uncertainty” would require responses other than the same-old same-old. Yet in his book on the last financial crisis, Mervyn King, former head of the Bank of England, ends up recommending the conventional: Radical uncertainty–King’s term–needs to be better reflected in economic and financial theories and practices. It seems that “radical” is dumbed down at the exact moment when needed most.

–If, as they say, need connects everything, then rarely have we been as connected as we were when isolated from each other during the pandemic.

–It’s an odd kind of a-historicism to deny utopian possibilities because we live in an endless present that forecloses on anything like a future.

–Overdetermination: too much wind-up for the pitch thrown. Resilience: the play in a steering wheel. Progress: watching Sovietology fade away. Solipsism: the last stage of society’s extreme polarization.

–To “see” the unknown unknowns means sensing ignorance through surprise and contingency. The opacity of ignorance leaves these traces and traces mean ignorance of unknown unknowns is never “placeless.”

–Sigmund Freud and H. Rider Haggard were enthusiastic collectors of carvings and antiquities to inspire their work. Freud at his improvising best gave his patient Haggard’s She to get her thinking. She, though, had already read She. (It’s said Carl Jung favored Haggard over Shakespeare.)

–How can you have “proper pricing of risk,” if you don’t know the system to be managed and the reliability standard to which the system as a whole is to be managed and, only then, can you ask: How are the risks entailed by subscribing to that standard to be managed?

–As frequently said of meditation, it’s the nature of the mind to wander, again and again.