Time, but not timelines, in emergency response

–For all that clarity, logic and urgency of emergency response, “it’s almost impossible” to reconstruct after-the-fact the welter of timelines and organizational scrambling during immediate response, underscored an experienced wastewater coordinator and planner. In fact, it’s by no means clear how some response actually happened. “How did that work? Great question,” said a state emergency preparedness official to us before trying to explain.

–Also, it is unlikely in the US setting that senior politicians and government officials–committed as they are to immediate restoration of backbone services–will stay out of the way of infrastructure operators and emergency managers doing the needful. One thinks most immediately about on-the-ground damage assessments. Timelines of interventions are the least of real-time worries.

Could-isms and etcetera-ization reduce crisis scenarios into empty signifiers

By empty signifiers I mean crisis scenarios which have been emptied of content but which haven’t subsequently disappeared. They continue to float around claiming policy attention. I focus on two phenomena–could-isms and etcetera-ization–which signal the active gutting of crisis content in scenarios.



The best way to explain this phenomena is diving anywhere into the crisis literature. Here is one from many:

Our expert-interview exercise with leading thinkers on the topic revealed how climate technologies can potentially propagate very different types of conflict at different scales and among diverse political actors. Conflict and war could be pursued intentionally (direct targeted deployment, especially weather-modification efforts targeting key resources such as fishing, agriculture, or forests) or result accidently (unintended collateral damage during existing conflicts or even owing to miscalculation). Conflict could be over material resources (mines or technology supply chains) or even immaterial resources (patents, soft- ware, control systems prone to hacking). The protagonists of conflict could be unilateral (a state, a populist leader, a billionaire) or multi- lateral in nature (via cartels and clubs, a new “Green OPEC”). Research and deployment could exacerbate ongoing instability and conflict, or cause and contribute to entirely new conflicts. Militarization could be over perceptions of unauthorized or destabilizing deployment (India worrying that China has utilized it to affect the monsoon cycle), or to enforce deployment or deter noncompliance (militaries sent in to protect carbon reservoirs or large-scale afforestation or ecosystem projects). Conflict potential could involve a catastrophic, one-off event such as a great power war or nuclear war, or instead a more chronic and recurring series of events, such as heightening tensions in the global political system to the point of miscalculation, counter-geoengineering, permissive tolerance and brinksmanship. . . .

States and actors will need to proceed even more cautiously in the future if they are to avoid making these predictions into reality, and more effective governance architectures may be warranted to constrain rather than enable deployment, particularly in cases that might lead to spiralling, retaliatory developments toward greater conflict. After all, to address the wicked problem of climate change while creating more pernicious political problems that damage our collective security is a future we must avoid.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211467X22002255 (my bolds)

Let’s be clear about this: All such “coulds-as-possibilities” do not add up to one single “must-as-necessity.”

The only way “could” leads to “must” would mean that the article began with the last sentence’s “must avoid” and then proceeded to demonstrate how to undertake really-existing avoidance with respect to said-research and the could-events.


Please note what I am saying. There may indeed be really-existing cases–the article suggests so–where that demonstration of “must-avoid” has been or is being made. In these cases, there is no seriatim “might, can, perhaps, possibly or potentially” qualifying this plausibility or outright demonstration.



Today it is easy to demonstrate all manner of etcetera-ization of factors said to be structurally operative at the micro-meso-macro levels of policy and management: racism, sexism, neoliberalism, militarism, imperialism, nationalism, populism, consumerism, extractivism, colonialism, along with globalization, financialization, urbanization, marketization, commodification, automation, and all the etcetera-etcetera I “should” list out but don’t.

The problem of course with such et-al lists is: Your micro-meso-macro and my micro-meso-macro are not the same. We differentiate levels of analysis differently and these different granularities have important policy and management implications.

Example. In Botswana, activities around livestock boreholes were once seen through a three-fold lens: at the site, within the locality, across the inter-locality. Cattle moved between village and cattle-post seasonally, cattle management differed if the livestock watering borehole were in the sandveld or the hardveld, and real-time management at the borehole site depended on contingent factors like whether the borehole was operating and who was doing the herding.

Now, of course, that same borehole had other levels of analysis: the district, the country, Southern Africa and all the way up, though these were more loosely coupled to real-time livestock activities than factors at the site/locality/inter-locality. Again please note that I am not dismissing any of these structural factors, be they mentioned explicitly or collapsed into that ubiquitous list-end, “etc.”


So what?

If you leave out differences that matter on the ground, how then can you identify the run of different cases over which really-exiting better practices evolve, if any, to deal with these structural factors and which, as practices, can be modified in light of new but likewise specific factors identified?

What are sustainable ways to anticipate future environmental crises while coping with the ongoing ones?

As I see it, the benefit of rethinking this question in terms of path dependencies (plural) is not only that their durations differ, but the with-respect-to’s are highly variable as well. Path dependencies already in place for sustainable futures are commercial or institutional or legal or technological or behavioral or climatic–and more.


So what?

To my mind, the value-added of First differentiate path dependencies! is considerable. The three most interanimating of importance are:

1. Further differentiation forces attention in environmental crisis management on comparing and contrasting the “with respect to what?” With respect to this as distinct from that path dependency? These versus those? And if so, attention first here rather than there? . . .

2. Further differentiation forces management attention to the specific failure scenarios of interest and the levels of granularity at which they are said to be actionable. At least two types of failure scenarios are of interest: those for how the crisis unfolds and those for how the crisis responses fail.

Specifying action-levels of granularity is also important because the answer to the “What happens next?” question so central to on-the-ground crisis management has to be more than “What happens is, well, more path dependence. . .”

3. Further differentiation forces, in other words, management attention on cases of interest in terms of their failure scenarios, different both in terms of their with-respect-to-what and the action-levels of granularity for management purposes.

This means “cases of interest” must as well be differentiated from the get-go, e.g., “cases out there in reality” as distinct from, say, “the case emerging from your interaction with issues of concern” (Charles Ragin’s typology of cases, for example)


But so what practically?

I can now answer one of the three key questions posed for an upcoming symposium on environmental crisis management:

  1. What are reasonable and feasible ways to anticipate future sustainability crises while coping with the ongoing ones?

My answer derived from the preceding is, I believe, best posed as another question;

If we can’t differentiate path dependencies by better focusing on case-level, variably granular failure scenarios in and for environmental crisis management, how are we ever to better anticipate future sustainability crises while coping with the ongoing ones?

Imagination: Always ‘lively.’ Be on guard against it. When lacking in oneself, attack it in others. To write a novel, all you need is imagination.

–Global crises are often posed like Warhol’s 1963 Lavender Disaster. Here in acrylic, silkscreen ink, and pencil on linen you see the same electric chair repeated, each in its mauve mist.

There’s a one-dimensionality to the block-on-block depiction, both in Lavender Disaster and in crisis narratives–and intentionally so. This is because the flatness invites viewers to fill in the rest with the worst they can imagine. And by “imagine” we should think in terms of the quote in this blog’s heading from Gustave Flaubert, novelist.

Indeed, what would global crisis narratives be without all this imagination! Yet, still: “What we have here is a failure of imagination,” intone the policy critiques of the day.

–Note how difficult it is for anyone, subject matter experts let alone others, to come up with plausible details about the crisis response structure to be in place after the losses incurred by said crises or to prevent said crises from happening. To do the latter requires deep knowledge and realism—that is, far far far far more than the touted imagination.

Absent knowledge and realism, we are asked to treat many crisis scenarios seriously until proven otherwise, when those offering the scenarios are unable to specify what it takes to disprove the scenarios or prevent their recurrence.

Consequently, whether or not the relevant literatures differentiate anything like conditions for “effective imagination” must be left to the readers to guess. Having to undertake that task may, of course, cure us of one or two of the crises.

Localizing the global and illiquid


Liquidity in financial markets has a great deal to do with adaptive equifinality under just-in-time performance. Here finance professionals are able to assemble funds or other resources if only at the last moment–albeit not the same way or with the same options all the time even under similar conditions.

Illiquidity can be seen as the drying up of adaptive equifinality, where the flexibility to assemble options under the pressure of time dissipates. Illiquidity in recent financial crises has been exemplified by the inability of credit markets to meet their basic reliability requirement of providing credit at any time, including just-for-now.


So what?

The climate emergency portends all manner of illiquidity, not least of which are today’s critical infrastructures being tomorrow’s stranded assets. Power plants for coal generation will stand empty of any use, the paradigmatic illiquid asset.

The status of “asset,” however, implies uses that have been stalled, not stopped permanently. Who sees “stop” that far ahead?

Take the sentence: “It is obviously a highly complex phenomenon that needs global cooperation as a response as well as a holistic approach because the potential collapses are interrelated”? Each word is written as if it were illiquid, resolute, placed there to resist being pushed around or over. In fact, the sentence offers no such prospect or certainty. To shift to a more liquid metaphor: Each word is a cowpat to be stepped into and distract us from the fact, namely, that different paths, as muddy as they are, may have better stiles for climbing over. In particular, paths have to take somewhere, and it is necessary to localize the global.

Things we don’t hear in pastoralist development or, Why not these utopian imaginaries rather than others?

1. We must fight for the expansion of pastoralism as a universal public infrastructure, just as is now being done for universally available electricity!

2. Government agencies and donors working in pastoralism ask to be overhauled so as to meet pastoralist needs faster and more effectively. (“The C.D.C. director, Rochelle Walensky,. . .called for her agency to be overhauled after an external review found it had failed to respond quickly and clearly to Covid.”)

3. Pastoralists explain their responses to government and donor initiatives this way: “We corrected a few things on the ground. Our job, after all, is to protect you.”

4. Pastoralists, government and donors agree that, when it comes to pastoralist development, answers are known. Making streets safer and more reliable, for example, is known to include: “stricter enforcement of speed limits, seatbelt mandates and drunken-driving laws; better designed roads, especially in poorer neighborhoods; more public transit; and further spread of safety features like automated braking.”

In like matter, making pastoralist development more reliable and safer is known to include:. . . ”

5. Researchers on pastoralism agree that the people and areas they study are usefully marginal and marginalized. In point of fact, pastoralisms provide the only valid commentary on the center where researchers, among so many others, are routinely to be found. As with earlier commentators:

The illuminators [of medieval manuscripts] enriched the margins of the page, conventionally an empty space, with figurative, vegetal or abstract elements. Sometimes the marginal images were merely decorative, at other times they functioned rather like visual footnotes or sidebars, as serious or comic commentaries on the text. . .

Jed Perl (2021). Authority and Freedom. Alfred A. Knopf: New York

6. We refuse to play the game conjured up by herder analyses that start with tables and numbers of livestock. The follow-on question, almost immediate, is who owns the livestock and, sooner than a blink of the eye, we are down to: But what about the old woman with 5 goats or fewer?

As if to ask: What are you going to do about these inequalities? And leaving us hardly any time to reply that, well, the most ethical thing in response is to see if there are more effective ways to think about this problem than one starting with livestock owned and held.

Could it be that productive answers are to be offered up from really-existing contexts of complexity than what we am pressed to offer from our armchairs?

“balancing opposing fates with each other” (fatis contraria fata rependens: Vergil)


The scope of the challenges we face—from racial inequality to the climate crisis to
the care crisis—cannot be addressed by the market. Only direct government intervention can affirmatively build the economy we need at the scale and speed we need. To explain and win this broad agenda, we need to change our approach and move beyond consumer-first governance.

Suzanne Kahn (2022). More than Consumers: Post-Neoliberal Identities and Economic Governance. The Roosevelt Institute (accessed online at http://rooseveltinstitute.org)

Yes, markets may manage some risks better, though not the risks of managing that way. The latter management belongs to government regulators. But is that enough?

“Government,” after all, intervenes directly in many different things at many other different levels. Isn’t it better to say government should first do more of this and less of that? This includes regulation.



One space spreads through all creatures equally –
inner-world-space. Birds quietly flying go
flying through us.

Rainer Maria Rilke


They spoke to me of people, and of humanity.
But I’ve never seen people, or humanity.
I’ve seen various people, astonishingly dissimilar,
Each separated from the next by an unpeopled space.

Fernando Pessoa


If this article is any guide, surely the response to its headline, “Uncertainty is not our friend,” is: It’s more complicated than that.


That modern scholars have managed to propose more than two hundred different reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire strongly suggests that conventional academic focus on just a single case is simply a dead end, and that comparative analysis of a process occurred so many times in history promises far more compelling results.

Ian Morris and Water Scheidel (2016). “What is Ancient History?” Daedalus 145 (2), Spring: 119.

And yet there’s that other dead end,

If only the elites could get their shit together, if only they would truly decide to act in the public interest, if only our political dysfunctions could be suspended in the name of a common cause, if only we could elect smart officials with the right ideas, a new era of prosperity and power awaits the United States. But the political dysfunction is only a symptom of the underlying economic disease. So there will be no policy solution to the problems America—and the world— faces, because no such solution, at least on the national level, exists. But of course, that’s what war is for.

James Merchant (2022). “Endgame: Finance and the Close of the Market System.” The Brooklyn Rail (https://brooklynrail.org/2022/03/field-notes/Endgame-Finance-and-the-Close-of-the-Market-System)


Novelist E.M. Forster’s exhortation: “Only connect!” Literary critic Frederic Jameson’s exhortation: “Always historicize!”

OK, if you put it that way, but still. . .Vergil is a better bet (the Latin above).

“Soon, no human will know the answer”: AI ethics


A good friend wasn’t trying to be provocative when he argued that a clear sign a field had lost its energy was when its discussions were overtaken by ethics. If it’s energy you’re looking for, he went on, look to the edges with other fields in competition with it. His example was Herbert Simon’s move into artificial intelligence.

So, as a thought experiment, let’s ask: With all this attention to AI ethics, is AI actually a moribund field in ways not supposed?

As ethicists are also talking about sub-fields like machine learning (ML) and algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM), are these moribund in ways we–that is, those of us who become instant experts in AI by reading the secondary literature–do not comprehend?


For example, rapid obsolescence of software and equipment used in ML and ADM is a topic that, at least to this point (and I stand to be corrected), hasn’t been given as much attention as readers might expect. To my mind, this topic is more important that transparency or fairness, since obsolescence changes the “with-respect-to-what’s” of the latter.

So what? Just what analytic purchase do we get parsing AI ethics through the lens of obsolescence?


Well, one thing you get is a track record. Here is W. Daniel Hillis, computer scientist and inventor, writing in 2010:

I want to be clear that I am not complaining about technical ignorance. In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don’t bother asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.

Soon, no human will know the answer.


Exactly the kind of not-knowing that AI portends has been going on for years.

What then is the record of all this and other such software being replaced or upgraded? Is it that the software was no longer working or that something better came along, or both or something else altogether? In short: How would studying this track record not contribute to really-existing AI ethics?

A different long-run for policy and management: As intertext of archive and counter-archive


I’m first asking you to look and listen to one of my favorites, a short video clip of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Andreas Scholl singing the duet, “I embrace you,” from a Handel opera (the English translation can be found at the end of the clip’s Comments):

Antonacci’s performance resonates with the final scene in Sunset Boulevard, where Gloria Swanson, as actress Norma Desmond, walks down the staircase toward the camera. But intertextuality–that two-way semi-permeability between genres–is also at work. Antonacci brings the opera diva into Swanson’s actress as much as the reverse, and to hell with anachronism and over-the-top.


Now bring semi-permeable intertextuality closer to public policy and management. Zakia Salime (2022) provides a rich case study of refusal and resistance by Moroccan villagers to nearby silver mining–in her case, parsed through the lens of what she calls a counter-archive:

Oral poetry (timnadin), short films, petitions, letters and photographs of detainees disrupted the official story of mining ‘as development’ in state officials’ accounts, with a collection of rebellious activities that exposed the devastation of chemical waste, the diversion of underground water, and the resulting dry collective landholdings. Audio-visual material and documents are still available on the movement’s Moroccan Facebook page, on YouTube and circulating on social media platforms. The [village] water protectors performed refusal and produced it as a living record that assembled bodies, poetic testimonials, objects and documents


What, though, when the status quo is itself a counter-archive? Think of all the negative tweets, billions and billions and billions of them. Think of all negative comments on politics, dollars and jerks in the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. That is, think of these status quo repositories as a counter-archive of “status-quo critique and dissent.”


So what?

A genre notion of the status quo as counter-archive raises an interesting possibility: a new kind of long-run that is temporally long because it is presently intertextual, indefinitely forwards and back and cross different genres.

For example, if the climate emergency is violence and the Big Polluters are culprits, then violent resistance against them is a form of violence reduction if the resistance succeeds. This means the “violence” and the “resistance” are difficult to evaluate, let alone predict, because the long-run over which they are to take is itself a current but unavoidably changing intertext. The long-run seeps acrosscounter-archives as much as archives. As in: “the varieties of revolution do not know the secrets of the futures, but proceed as the varieties of capitalism do, exploiting every opening that presents itself”–to paraphrase political philosopher, Georges Sorel.

“Pastoralists and Pastoralisms”: List of key entries

The principal blog entries are:

Seven examples of the value-added by “thinking infrastructurally” about pastoralism and pastoralists

Assetizing pastoralism-as-infrastructure

Curating publics rather than facilitating development is a better answer to “So what?”

Other entries of possible interest include:

  • What happens when their wastelands are taken out of our proleptic ruins
  • Climate justice?
  • Probes and proposals for the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists 2026
  • Keeping up with herders
  • Colin Strang versus Garrett Hardin: Which one do you believe?
  • “The elephant in the room at Cop27 is the cow” (another example of environmental livestock-tarring)
  • The methodological challenge of interconnected granularity in representing pastoralists and pastoralisms
  • An authoritative website for real-time decisionmaking involving pastoralists
  • Marginal?
  • Pastoralism on the offense, not just defended
  • Things we don’t hear in pastoralist development or, Why not these utopian imaginaries rather than others?