Back to the future: Aristotle in the Anthropocene

We forget how longstanding is the notion of addressing each case in its own right. Here is Aristotle:

But let it be granted to begin with that the whole theory of conduct is bound to be an outline only and not an exact system, in accordance with the rule we laid down at the beginning, that philosophical theories must only be required to correspond to their subject matter; and matters of conduct and expediency have nothing fixed or invariable about them, any more than have matters of health. And if this is true of the general theory of ethics, still less is exact precision possible in dealing with particular cases of conduct; for these come under no science or professional tradition, but the agents themselves have to consider what is suited to the circumstances on each occasion, just as is the case with the art of medicine or of navigation. But although the discussion now proceeding is thus necessarily inexact, we must do our best to help it out.

my underline and without endnotes and annotation; from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

The underlined, “suited to the circumstances…” (pros ton kairon), has also been translated “as the occasion merits,” for example.

What also strikes me in this passage is the hint of improvisational or makeshift, as in: working with what’s at hand.

Source: Thanks to Otto Linderborg for directing me to this (also see his

The where and the when of social construction really matter


It’s no news that our categories for thinking are both strengths (e.g., a specialization) and weaknesses (e.g., its particular blind-spots). Nor is it news that both are social constructions morphing over time. What may be news, nevertheless, is where that social construction takes place and when it matters.

In the public policy and management, it’s assumed that major meaning- and sense-making take place at the micro, meso and macro levels–even as we admit that the scales are socially constructed (think: what we use to call international and then global and now planetary).

That micro/meso/macro are easily historicized doesn’t stop me, however, from thinking through linkages and connections between these individual, emerging and system levels.


There are instances where this usage poses no real problem to recasting complex policy issues more tractably. There is at least one set of cases where it is problematic, and importantly so. It’s where dynamic interconnections between and among phenomena determine the scale and shifts immediately thereafter.

A city water manager told us that recent improvements in the potable water system meant that, in case of emergencies, they could close down portions of physical system, segment by segment, interconnection by interconnection, thereby isolating “the scale of their problem”. At these times and for these purposes, scale follow from interconnectivity changes, regardless of the obvious that both interconnectivity and scale are social constructions.


So what?

If infrastructure operators, like those for the city water system, are not present after a disaster, then damage assessments for new funding default to the emergency management agencies. They are arguably more familiar with devastation (another social construction), as in search and rescue operations, than with interconnectivity of backbone infrastructures like water and electricity (a very different social construction), as in moving mobile generators and cell towers nearby to affected infrastructures for their initial service restoration. Again: the where and the when of the social construction matters greatly.

Shake up rather than dumb down

New York City is closer along value dimensions to Berlin than both are to their country-sides. The existence of an unfettered, reputable and authoritative news media is a modern anomaly. Reversion to the mean isn’t replication of the same. Overdetermination: too much wind-up for the pitch thrown. Resilience better thought as the play in a steering wheel.

Hegel’s “tarry with the negative” is all well and good as long as it’s tarrying. Imagination is like luck, which much of imagination is anyway: easier to focus on in the past tense. We’ll look back at “progress” relegated to the scare quotes of always-late capitalism as the easiest thing humans did in the Anthropocene. Irony is more a knowingness than knowledge, as when: quoting Wittgenstein that death is not an event in life rather than Rilke about death being the part of life turned away from us.

The certainty of uncertainty: a 21st century version of 19th century positivism? The preoccupation with failed states: a 21st century version of the late 18th century mania for European ruins? Complexity doesn’t annihilate life; it is life. Still: bring back “blunder,” as in “monstrously bungled policy,” as when: the FBI thought Jean-Paul Sartre was complicit in the assassination of JFK.

Entries for “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms”

In a loud bullshit session, I ended up saying something inane like, “Well, the whole idea is to think outside the box.” To which was shot back: “No, the idea is to think from inside different ones.”

I’ve since taken that to mean the more counternarratives, the better. When it comes to dominant policies, the challenge is to identify alternative stories that can stick better, albeit for how long is another question. Below are some recent boxes for rethinking what herders are doing, mostly in the arid and semi arid regions with which I’m familiar.

  • Pastoralisms as a global infrastructure
  • Climate justice?
  • It makes a difference for policy and management when describing pastoralism in terms of capitalism and not as a global infrastructure
  • Resilience, disaster, poverty and capitalism: different takes on pastoralism
  • Two alternative takes on recent pastoralist development narratives
  • “The elephant in the room at Cop27 is the cow” (another example of environmental livestock-tarring)
  • Drylands, remittances and the twelve rules for radicals
  • Shackle analysis: a pastoralist example
  • Recasting “land-use conflicts” involving pastoralists
  • 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
  • But what if everybody overgrazed?
  • Frustrated herders

Pastoralisms as a global infrastructure


If you think stabilization and expansion of herder outputs and outcomes–in particular household livelihoods–are central to pastoralism, then there are varieties of pastoralism. This is largely because efforts to achieve stable and expanding livelihoods vary with the critical infrastructures upon which they depend for their livestock.

Some pastoralisms depend on roads for herd transport. Others rely from time to time on helicopters. Veterinary health infrastructures have also been instrumental in various ways and it’s a commonplace to say pastoralists depend upon and configure around diverse market infrastructures differently. Migration infrastructure for those leaving their herder households and remittance infrastructures for the migrants to send income back to those households are as well patently various as they are patently evident.

The list continues, but the gist remains: Critical infrastructures do not just empirically affect pastoralist behavior; pastoralism are majorly defined through their different reliances on them.

–I’ve tried, however, to go further and make the case the varieties of pastoralism themselves should be seen a global infrastructure:

[P]astoralist systems are, in respects that matter, infrastructural; and since pastoralists and their systems are found worldwide, so too is pastoralism a global infrastructure, and importantly so. . .Pastoralist systems tender the world a key critical service (and have been doing so for a very long time): they, like other globalised/globalising infrastructures, seek to increase process variance in the face of high input variance to achieve low and stable output variance. More, they do so by managing non-measurable uncertainties well beyond the capabilities of formal risk methodologies and in the face of increasing and diversified input variabilities while still facing demands for sustained livelihoods. In this counternarrative, that key service is best understood as foundational to the world economy in times of great uncertainty and complexity.

As with other major globalized or globalizing infrastructures, pastoralist systems seek to increase real-time management strategies and options in the face of often unpredictable or uncontrollable inputs so as to achieve low and stable outputs or outcomes nonetheless. Task demands are to be matched, at least in real time, by resource capabilities, which if the match occurs demonstrates requisite variety (i.e., the principle that in complex environments it takes varied resources to manage varied task demands).


There’s an extension developed in this entry, but its point can be misinterpreted as agreeing with those who see pastoralism-in-CRISIS–that is, under attack and disappearing. Of course, such must be happening in some places (there being so many pastoralists globally and at so many different sites). But I do not see how any declension narrative can take center-place as the starting point in a varieties of pastoralism perspective.

–Start this way: Think of an infrastructure’s operations across an entire cycle: normal operations (fluctuations within formal or informal bandwidths), disrupted operations (temporary loss of system services), failed operations (indefinite loss of service along with destruction of assets), and response & recovery operations to a new normal (if there is to be one). Just as disrupted operations entail timely but not always successful restoration efforts back to normal operations, failed operations entail immediate emergency responses directed to longer-term system recovery (no guarantees here as well).

Yet here is the pastoralist literature with which I am familiar often describing systems that have failed and disappeared or are failing and threatened with more or less extinction. In contrast, from a pastoralism-as-infrastructure perspective, to end an infrastructure’s cycle of operations at system failure is to stop too early and end up in exaggeration.

How so? When it comes to a large-scale infrastructure, you have to go from failure onto to describe follow-on emergency response, which can well include first steps for recovery (e.g., damage assessments and solicitation of longer-term aid). Emergency response is a really-existing phase of operations that requires analysis precisely because the infrastructure has not been stopped in its tracks.

(In case it needs saying, there are many fine-grained analyses of pastoralist systems under stress, but rarely–I stand to be corrected–within the frame of an infrastructure’s cycle of operations.)


So what?

Return to the infrastructures key to configuring varieties of pastoralism: the migration infrastructure, the veterinary health infrastructure, the road transport infrastructure, the water points infrastructure, the livestock market and communications infrastructures, the urban arrival (employment) infrastructures for migrants from herder households, and the infrastructure for–well, the list goes on, doesn’t it?

From the perspective of pastoralism-as-infrastructure however, the preceding separate infrastructures are part and parcel of the process variance (the requisite variety) of those varieties of pastoralism. Segments of these specific infrastructures are activated or relied upon differently and at different points in the whole cycle of pastoralist operations.

Yes, critical infrastructures that underlie pastoralisms are under threat and in some cases the physical systems are very fragile or already extinct. But pastoralisms, from this infrastructure perspective, don’t wither away unless their process variance withers. This is to ask: What about the other empirically demonstrated ways to graze, herd, be im/mobile, or “be in the market,” case by case? This is not optimism or an eternal promise of requisite variety. It is being realistic.

–Again, so what? Three quick points follow from the infrastructure perspective:

First, if it is the entire cycle of pastoralist operations that is our point of departure, we should be able to investigate how routine and non-routine repairs are undertaken as part of normal operations. However, when was the last time you read about “repairing this or that pastoralist system or subsystem”? In this view, remittances back to the herder household provide the means to add management options at the site, but they also seek to repair dryland (sub-)systems that have lost labor and expertise.

Second, the infrastructure perspective suggests that instead of talking about environmental risks associated with pastoralisms (e.g., the climate risks of land degradation and methane production), we should be comparing the environmental footprints produced by the respective global infrastructures (e.g., roads globally, electricity globally, dams globally, and so on). Obviously, because pastoralisms rely on these other infrastructures, the respective footprints overlap. But the physical damage done to the environment by roads, dams, and power plants are well documented and extend far beyond pastoralist usage.

Third, much is rightly being made about the global financialization of important livelihood sectors, such as agriculture. A. major part of the critique is that increased financial flows are being diverted from the real economy investments for productive sectors into a myriad of financialized investment instruments (thereby adding to wealth disparities), e.g.,

Since the 2000s, although low US interest rates combined with no (or minimal) capital controls have dramatically increased short-term capital inflows into developing and emerging countries, this has not been channelled into productive real sector investments. Instead, these inflows have gone mainly into financial investments, which although profitable in the short term, do not necessarily increase long-run productive capacity.

Dafe, F., S. B. Hager, N. Naqvi, and L. Wansleben (2022) [see Principal Sources below]

That said, some of the investments must have been in productive sectors and indeed into livestock and mixed livelihood production in drylands (at least if the level of analysis is truly global). How much has been invested in “long-run productive capacity” is less the issue than that pastoralisms are themselves the infrastructure without which there would be no “real economy” there. In this way, wealth disparities created in the real economy must be differentiated from wealth disparities created through the accumulation of financial capital, right?

To sum up, my argument is that pastoralism-as-infrastructure is no more withering away than–as long prophesied–the state has withered away in the last century and half.

Climate justice?


Three decades ago, Jon Elster wrote Local Justice: How Institutions Allocate Scarce Goods and Necessary Burdens (1992, Russell Sage Foundation: New York). It’s of interest today because one of its enduring points has been that not only can local justice systems lead to global injustice, global justice systems can lead to local injustices. I end with a pastoralism illustration.

First, his definitions:

Local justice can be contrasted with global justice. Roughly speaking, globally redistributive policies are characterized by three features. First, they are designed centrally, at the level of the national government. Second, they are intended to compensate people for various sorts of bad luck, resulting from the possession of ’morally arbitrary properties.’ Third, they typically take the form of cash transfers [e.g., think reparations]. Principles of local justice differ on all three counts. They are designed by relatively autonomous institutions which, although they may be constrained by guidelines laid down by the center, have some autonomy to design and implement their preferred scheme. Also, they are not compensatory, or only partially so. A scheme for allocating scarce medical resources may compensate patients for bad medical luck, but not for other kinds of bad luck (including the bad luck of being turned down for another scarce good). Finally, local justice concerns allocation in kind of goods (and burdens), not of money.

Elster (1992, p4)

The semi-autonomous institutions are local in three senses: arena, country and locality. Different arenas, such as organ transplantation, college admissions and job layoffs, follow different principles: “Need is central in allocating organs for transplantation, merit in admitting students to college and seniority in selecting workers for layoffs” in the US. Allocative principles vary by country as well: “In many European countries, need (as measured by number of family dependents) can be a factor in deciding which workers to lay off”. Lastly, allocative principles can also vary by locality within the same country or arena, as with the case of local transplantation centers in the US.

In short, complexity in local justice systems comes not just from the fact that the goods are scarce, heterogeneous and in kind and that the sites of allocation may well be local in multiple senses. Local justice systems vary also because principles are tied to complex (and not always certain) arrays of criteria, mechanisms, procedures, and schemes.


Local justice systems have clear implications. Not only are they not designed to compensate for global injustices, they can actually lead to those injustices:

From childhood to old age, [the individual] encounters a succession of institutions, each of which has the power to give or deny him some scarce good. In some cases the cumulative impact of these decisions may be grossly unfair. We can easily imagine an individual who through sheer bad luck is chosen for all the necessary burdens and denied all the scarce goods, because in each case he is just below the cutoff point of selection. To my knowledge this source of injustice has not been recognized so far…. Those who are entrusted with the task of allocating a scarce good rarely if ever evaluate recipients in the light of their past successes or failures in receiving other goods. Local justice is largely noncompensatory. There is no mechanism of redress across allocative spheres….

[B]y the nature of chance events, some individuals will miss every train: they are turned down for medical school, chosen by the draft lottery, laid off by the firm in a recession, and refused scarce medical resources; in addition, their spouse develops cancer, their stocks become worthless, and their neighborhood is chosen for a toxic waste dump. It is neither desirable nor possible to create a mechanism of redress to compensate all forms of cumulative bad luck. For one thing, the problems of moral hazard would be immense [i.e. if people knew they were going to be compensated for whatever happened to them, they could take more risks and thereby incur more harm]. For another, the machinery of administering redress for bad luck would be hopelessly complex and costly.

(Ibid 133-4)

If so, local justice clearly can lead to global injustice.


But just as clearly from a local justice perspective, the global justice promised in, say, climate justice (e.g., via reparations), leads to local injustices, when the former is implemented uniformly over an otherwise differentiated landscape. One thinks immediately of how to define an “extreme event” that triggers automatic debt relief.

To expand, the more uniform the application of climate justice policies, the greater the local pressure for suitably heterogeneous applications, if not alternatives. But the more heterogeneous on the ground, the greater the chance of global injustice arising from lack of coordination and cross-learning on the ground.

In this way, just as it is not possible for local justice systems to compensate for the global injustices they create, so too it may well not be possible for global justice systems to compensate for the local injustices they create, at least in any timely way or coverage.


So what? For one thing, the continued insistence that global climate justice involves money transfers (as distinct from in-kind compensation typical of local justice systems) ends up further monetarizing a global environment that local systems take to be quite otherwise.

In so doing and arguably much more important, the insistence obscures the huge importance of in-kind compensations at the local level. Think here of the livestock sharing systems (e.g., khlata in Tunisia and mafisa in Botswana). These are local justice systems irrespective of the livestock involved being methane producers from the global climate perspective. Indeed, I can’t think of a better example of global climate justice at odds with local justice systems, globally.

It makes a difference for policy and management when describing pastoralism in terms of capitalism and not as a global infrastructure


Please take the time to read the following excerpt from a very fine study by Marty et al (2022) on Maasai pastoralists in contemporary southern Kenya:

As an adaptation process, diversification brings new opportunities for some people, but can also displace risks and bring new exposures for others, acting as ‘a socially stratifying capitalist fix providing new avenues for accumulation and market penetration’, benefiting a small elite (Mikulewicz 2021, 424)’. . . .

Our results also align with recent research evidencing the increased importance of capital relations for grazing access in the context of changing land use across Kajiado (Jeppesen and Hassan 2022), which is likely to further accentuate processes of social differentiation and associated class formation dynamics. . . .

Our findings suggest that diversification tends to promote more individualized and market-based adaptation strategies, but that the drivers and ramifications of increased integration into capitalist production systems and renegotiation of production relations are complex and dynamic. Differentiated engagements with diversification in pastoral areas are not only related to changing material conditions, but also linked to ‘intangible’ dimensions, such as changing norms and values. New social differentiations emerge through the increased emphasis placed on formal education and how knowledge influences one’s position within the community and beyond (e.g. the relation to state or non-governmental actors). At the same time, other entrenched markers of differentiation persist and are crystalized through exclusionary decision-making processes and established roles, perhaps most notably gendered discriminations. The research findings thus underscore the need for climate change adaptation planning in agrarian environments to extend beyond the dominant technical focus (Eriksen, Nightingale, and Eakin 2015), by showing how adaptation processes in pastoral environments are closely intertwined within rapidly evolving socio-political and economic transformations.

Edwige Marty, Renee Bullock, Matthew Cashmore, Todd Crane & Siri Eriksen (2022): Adapting to climate change among transitioning Maasai pastoralists in southern Kenya: an intersectional analysis of differentiated abilities to benefit from diversification processes., The Journal of Peasant Studies, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2022.2121918

I’ve left the original references in to indicate that the authors are not alone in their views–which to be clear from the outset I believe to be true as far as they go.

I want however to go further and take up the authors’ own suggestion that the adaptation processes be studied in terms of how they are now “closely intertwined within rapidly evolving socio-political and economic transformations”.


Let’s look at the history behind those “socio-political and economic transformations.”

Since there are many historians to choose from, allow me to take the most recent one I’ve read: Capitalism: The story behind the word, by historian of ideas, Michael Sonenscher (2022, Princeton University Press).

I believe he is well-regarded, but that doesn’t matter for this entry: There are plenty of histories of capitalist relations, any number of which usefully complicate the above quotes and indeed compel us to go further.

–Sonenscher starts by underscoring that the development of commercial societies preceded the development of capitalism. More, when the two histories, which do get intertwined later on, are distinguished from the get-go, it becomes altogether clear that commercial societies and capitalist societies were characterized by different features and path dependencies.

Most notably, commercial societies had markets induced by divisions of labor that preceded capitalist class formation. Indeed, terminology introduce after that of “commercial societies”, like “primitive accumulation,” have served to misdirect analysts away from the high degree of economic differentiation on and specialization in those societies–again prior to very introduction of capitalist relations for financing war and debt.

–Hopefully, some readers recognize that this emphasis on trade and markets, along with a division of labor that was differentiated and specialized in terms of trade routes and transactions, also characterized significant pastoralist societies well prior to the commonly narrated version of 18th – 19th century introduction of (Western) capitalism.


–So what? So what if these earlier commercial societies had markets and transactions for goods and services?

After all, the point underscored in the above quotes and many like them is that those earlier formations have long been superseded by capitalist relations and their accentuation/extension into what are no longer and must now be considered “former pastoralist societies.”

Really? Are we sure about that?

I can well believe processes the authors describe are going on in Kajiado, elsewhere in East Africa, and elsewhere in Africa and beyond.

What I can’t believe is that pastoralists are colonized everywhere by capitalism. You mean all (or even most?) of these people Wikipedia record are integrated in capitalist relations: “As of 2019, between 200 million and 500 million people globally practised pastoralism, and 75% of all countries had pastoral communities.”

–There are too many different types of livestock production systems, too many regional differences in the impacts of the climate emergency, too many different path dependencies historically and now into the Anthropocene to deny the following:

Just as researchers now talk about the varieties of capitalism, there all along were varieties of commercial societies, and among that latter were and still are pastoralist systems with their evolving–that is, with less ruptured than many think–divisions of labor, differentiations and specializations.

–But, again, so what? I have argued that pastoralisms are a global critical infrastructure. I now argue they have been one for a very, very long time in terms of their differentiation and specialization of services and opportunities to advance and change.

Resilience, disaster, poverty and capitalism: different takes on pastoralism

The topic here is herders of livestock primarily in the African rangelands. Below are three different redescriptions of herders and their systems: it’s resiliences, not just resilience; disasters-averted are under-recognized; and notions of poverty, capitalism and borders need serious revisiting as well.

  1. Resilience is a plural noun

–The opposite of the coping herder, who can only react to external shocks, is the resilient herder, who bounces back. But is that true? Both occur at the individual level, and the opposite of the individual is the collective (think: “team situational awareness”), not a different individual with different behavior.

We observed reliability professionals in critical infrastructures undertaking four types of resilience at their system level, each varying by stage of system operations:

Table 1. Different Types of System Resilience

  • Reliability professionals adjusting back to within de jure or de facto bandwidths to continue normal operations (precursor resilience);
  • Restoration from disrupted operations (temporary loss of service) back to normal operations by reliability professionals (restoration resilience);
  • Immediate emergency response (its own kind of resilience) after system failure but often involving others different from system’s reliability professionals; and
  • Recovery of the system to a new normal by reliability professionals along with others (recovery resilience)

Resilience this way is a set of options, processes and strategies undertaken by the system’s real-time managers and tied to the state of system operations in which they find themselves. Resilience differs depending on whether the large sociotechnical system is in normal operations versus disrupted operations versus failed operations versus recovered operations. (Think of pastoralist systems here as critical infrastructure.)

Resilience, as such, is not a single property of the system to be turned on or off as and when needed. Nor is it, as a system feature, reducible to anything like individual “resilient” herders, though such herders exist.

–So what when it comes to pastoralists? What you take to be the loss of the herd, a failure in pastoralist operations that you say comes inevitably with drought, may actually be perceived and treated by pastoralists themselves as a temporary disruption after which operations are to be restored. While you, the outsider, can say their “temporary” really isn’t temporary these days, it is their definition of “temporary” that matters when it comes to their real-time reliability.

To return to Table 1, herder systems that maintain normal operations are apt to demonstrate what we call precursor resilience. Normal doesn’t mean what happens when there are no shocks to the system. Shocks happen all the time, and normal operations are all about responding to them in such a way as to ensure they don’t lead to temporary system disruption or outright system failure. Formally, the precursors of disruption and failure are managed for, and reliably so. Shifting from one watering point, when an interfering problem arises there, to another just as good or within a range of good-enough is one such strategy. Labelling this, “coping,” seriously misrepresents the active system management going on.

Pastoralist systems can and do experience temporary stoppages in their service provision—raiders seize livestock, remittances don’t arrive, off-take of livestock products is interrupted, lightning triggers a veldt fire—and here the efforts at restoring conditions back to normal is better termed restoration resilience. Access to alternative feed stocks or sources of livelihood may be required in the absence of grazing and watering fallbacks normally available.

So too resilience as a response to shocks looks very different by way of management strategies when the shocks lead to system failure and recovery from that failure. In these circumstances, an array of outside, inter-organizational resources and personnel—public, private, NGO, humanitarian—are required in addition to the resources of the pastoralist herders. These recovery arrangements and resources are unlike anything marshaled by way of precursor or restoration resiliencies within the herder communities themselves.

–There is nothing predetermined in the Table 1 sequence. Nothing says it is inevitable that the failed system recovers to a new normal (indeed the probability of system failure in recovery can be higher than in normal operations). It is crucial, nevertheless, to distinguish recovery from any new normal. To outsiders, it may look like some of today’s pastoralist systems are in unending recovery, constantly trying to catch up with one drought or disaster after another. The reality may be that the system is already at a new normal, operating with a very different combination of options, strategies and resources than before.

–If you think of resilience in a pastoralist system as “the system’s capability in the face of its high reliability mandates to withstand the downsides of uncertainty and complexity as well as exploit the upsides of new possibilities and opportunities that emerge in real time,” then they are able to do so because of being capable to undertake the different types of resiliencies listed here, contingent on the stage of operations herders as a collectivity find themselves.

Or to put the key point from the other direction, a system demonstrating precursor resilience, restoration resilience, emergency response coordination and recovery resilience is the kind of system better able to withstand the downsides of shocks and uncertainty and exploit their upsides. Here too, nothing predetermines that every pastoralist system will exhibit all four resiliencies, if and when their states of operation change.

–To summarize, any notion that resilience is a single property or has a dominant definition or is there/not there or is best exemplified at the individual level is incorrect and misleading when the system is the unit and level of analysis in pastoralism.

2. Disaster-averted is central to pastoralist development

–My argument is that if crises averted by pastoralists were identified and more differentiated, we’d better understand how far short of a full picture is equating their real time to the chronic crises of inequality, market failure, precarity and such.

To ignore disasters-averted has an analogy with other infrastructure reliability professionals. It is to act as if the lives, assets and millions in wealth saved each day doesn’t matter when real-time control room operators of critical infrastructures prevent disasters from happening that would have happened otherwise. Why? Because we are told that ultimately what matters far more are the infrastructure disasters of modernization, late capitalism, and environmental collapse destructive of everything in their path.

Even where the latter is true, that truth must be pushed further to incorporate the importance of disasters-averted-now. Disaster averted matters to herders precisely because herders actively dread specific disasters, whatever the root causes.

The implications for pastoralist development end up being major—not least when it comes to “pastoralist elites,” as seen in a moment.

–Of course, inequality, marketization, commodification, precarity and other related processes matter for pastoralists and others. The same for modernization, late capitalism, global environmental destruction, and the climate emergency. But they matter when differentiated and better specified in terms of their “with respect to.” As one socialist critic said of a Marxist critic, such phenomena are “not even specific enough to be wrong”.

Just what is marketization with respect to in your case? Smallstock? Mechanized transportation? Alpine grazing? Is it in terms of migrant herders here rather than there, or with respect to other types of livestock or grazing conditions? How do the broader processes collapsed under “marketization” get redefined by the very different with-respect-to’s?

Claiming over-arching explanations are in fact empirical generalizations made across complex cases too often voids the diversity of responses and emerging practices of importance for policy and management that are modified case by case. Most important, appeals to generalized processes or state conditions diminish the centrality of disasters averted through diverse actions of diverse herders. This diminishment leaves us assuming that marketization, commodification, precarity. . .are the chronic crises of real time for herder or farmer. They, we are to assume, take up most of the time that really matters to pastoralists.

But the latter is the case only if the with-respect-to scenarios demonstrate how these broad processes preoccupy real time because herders have failed to avert dreaded events altogether. Without the empirical work showing that no disasters have been averted by pastoralists, the appeal to broad structural explanations begins to look less as a denial of human agency than the idealization of the absence of agency, irrespective of the facts on the ground.

–Let me give an example. Andrew Barry, British sociologist, reports a finding in his article, “What is an environmental problem?,” from his research in Georgia:

A community liaison officer, working for an oil company, introduced me to a villager who had managed to stop the movement of pipeline construction vehicles near her mountain village in the lesser Caucasus. The construction of the pipeline, she told us in conversation, would prevent her moving livestock between two areas of pastureland. Her protest, which was the first she had ever been involved in, was not recorded in any official or public documents.

Barry found this to be a surprising research event (his terms) and went on to explain at length (internal citations deleted) that

my conversation with the villager pointed to the importance of a localized problem, the impact of the pipeline on her livelihood and that of other villagers, and her consequent direct action, none of which is recorded or made public. This was one of many small, fragmentary indicators that alerted me to the prevalence and significance of direct action by villagers across Georgia in the period of pipeline construction, actions that were generally not accorded significance in published documents, and that were certainly not traceable on the internet. . .At the same time, the mediation of the Georgian company liaison officer who introduced me to the villager was one indicator of the complexity of the relations between the local population, the oil company, and the company’s subcontractors. . .

I believe the phrases, “managed to stop,” “would prevent her moving livestock,” “a localized problem,” “consequent direct action,” “generally not accorded significance,” and “the complexity of the relations” are the core to understanding that disasters-averted remain very real, even if not identified, let alone publicized, by outsiders preoccupied with what hasn’t been averted.

Should it need saying, some with-respect-to scenarios do specify how such phrases result from an ongoing interaction and dialectic between the wider processes and local particularities. I’d hope, though, you’d want to see details behind any such assertion first.

–So what? How does the argued importance of disasters-averted compel rethinking pastoralist development? One example will have to suffice: the need to recast “pastoralist elites.”

I recently read a fine piece mentioning today’s Pokot elites and Turkana elders in Kenya. When I was there in the early 1980s, they were neither elderly nor elites all. I’m also pretty sure had I interviewed some of them at that time I’d have considered them “poor pastoralists.”

My question then: Under what conditions do pastoralists, initially poor but today better off, become elites in the negative sense familiar to the critics of elites? The answer is important because an over-arching development aim of the 1980s arid and semi-arid lands programs in Kenya was to assist then-poor pastoralists to become better-off.

My own answer to the preceding question would now focus on the disasters averted over time by pastoralists, both those who are today’s elites and those who aren’t. It seems to me essential to establish if equally (resource-) poor pastoralists nonetheless differentiated themselves over time in terms of how they averted disasters that would have befell them had they not managed the ways they did.

Now, of course, some of the poor pastoralists I met in the early 1980s may have been more advantaged than I realized. Of course, I could have been incorrect in identifying them as “poor pastoralists.” Even so, the refocusing on disasters-averted over time holds for those who were not advantaged then but are so now.

Which leads me to the question which should be obvious to any reader: Since when are researchers to decide that time stops sufficiently in a study period to certify who among herders are advantaged going forward, let alone what are the metrics for determining such? When did the development narrative become “poor herders and farmers must advance at the same rate or even faster than advantaged ones?”

3. Pastoralist poverty (precarity) and cost-shifting capitalism

Poverty or precarity

I want to suggest that applicability of pastoralist strategies/perspectives/approaches now extends to richer-country settings because the goalposts for poverty reduction—not necessarily for inequality—have changed and are changing.

Here’s an extended quote from an article on North/South inequality by sociologist, Göran Therborn. His argument about the changing levels of poverty in the midst of inequalities is a way we might want to better think about what pastoralisms bring to (other) modern societies:

The problem [the decline of extreme poverty in the South is leading to inequality increases comparable to those of the North] is that poverty, unlike survival, is always relative, and after leaving one level of poverty, you may enter another one. In a world of growing intra-national inequality, this is most likely to happen to a large proportion of the population. The progress of living conditions which has taken place in recent decades is socially very important. However, it does not make up a historical turning-point, like the increase of inequality in the Global North and the decline of international and global household inequality. ‘Poverty’ has not been abolished in the USA or anywhere in Europe, nor is relative poverty being abolished in China. Living conditions in China have improved tremendously in the past decades, but the human goalposts are moving with socio-economic development. . . .

More formally, the relatively-poor in both poorer and in richer nations remain, but they are becoming “closer-alike” in their respective precarities. This is happening—again, it’s a hypothesis—even as inequality within countries (intra-national) persists or is increasing.

Where so, I’m suggesting that some—not all or only—pastoralists may be better able than ever before to have something to say to others—some but not all—who have never been as precarious as now—whatever the absolute differences between the two groups in terms of surviving their respect inequalities.

The role of cost-shifting capitalism

Think of capitalism as the shifting of costs of production and consumption from those who created the costs to those who didn’t. I’m not saying that cost-shifting can’t be found in other ways of life nor that modern capitalism isn’t other things as well. Cost-shifting, however, is central when I talk about pastoralists.

Start with the cost-shifting we know. Costs are shifted from the public sector to private or individual sources; profits made in high-tax jurisdictions are shifted to lower-tax ones; other taxes are avoided or evaded, thereby shifting government budgets; and “unintended” externalities are treated as correctible (by taxes, regulation, or “risk-shifting”) rather than as the huge costs shifted onto others of entrenched market activities, which are anything but unintended or unexceptional.

Cost-shifting means economic agents gain by imposing losses on others, and they gain more, the more the costs are shifted.

The upshot for pastoralists: If you want to say that pastoralists, like most everyone else, are imbricated in cost-shifting capitalism, I agree. What needs to be added, and importantly so, is that pastoralist cost-shifting differs from that of others just described—and the differences matter.

Case-in-point: Much has been made of the declining share of labor relative to capital in the incomes of advanced economies over the last decades. More, wages and productivity have become increasingly decoupled, i.e., a good deal of productivity’s contribution has shifted to capital’s share. These changes are often attributed to labor-substituting (“labor-saving”) technologies via the spread of neoliberal globalization.

Pastoralist systems are of course part of that globalization, but have the technologies been more labor-augmenting (“labor-intensive”), at least in some systems? All the lorries ferrying livestock and supplies, all the cellphones used in real time (not just for price-and-market monitoring but for mediating inter-group conflicts as well)—have they advanced labor’s share relative to capital in pastoralist incomes, broadly writ? Yes, the costs of production are shifting through these innovations, but to the disadvantage of labor?

For me, these and like questions deserve asking when capitalism takes center-stage in discussions of its multiple effects on pastoralist behavior.

Two alternative takes on recent pastoralist development narratives


–My starting point 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.” 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 actually-existing pastoralist practices and behaviors been in advance of two dominant development narratives concerning them: namely, the older tragedy of the commons (ToC) and the later common property resource (CPR) management.

(My own view is that a continuing preoccupation with the CPR and ToC development narratives should be treated as the key indicator of a limited ability to keep up with contemporary pastoralisms.)

Being ahead of the development narratives has for pastoralists both the downsides and upsides of avant-gardes, e.g.:

Downside: Really-existing pastoralist behavior—like that of an avant-garde—has never stopped institutions—in this case, economics and ecology—from preoccupations with reduced-form narratives like the ToC and CPR.

Upside: Actual behavior and knowledge of avant-gardes can and do diffuse into the wider society, though lagged and unevenly. For example, note how old-fashioned are the dirigiste terms of “livestock, land and labor” as factors of production in describing pastoralist developments. It’s closer to the truth to say they are in fact “real-time processes and practices for increasing options and strategies to respond to unpredictable or uncontrollable shocks across time and place…”

–So what?

The question is not only, “What replaces current dominant narratives for the purposes of better pastoralist development?,” but: “How do we catch up with and keep abreast of what pastoralists are actually doing?”

But why spend the time on catching up?

To complete the avant-garde analogy, I’m suggesting that some—not all or only—pastoralists may be better able than before to have something to say to others—some but not all—who have never been as precarious as now—whatever the absolute differences between the two groups in terms of surviving their respect inequalities.


–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 some pastoralisms are done off-site, just as what was once platform trading on the floor of a stock exchange is now done elsewhere on different platforms (e.g., the Hong Kong Stock Exchange).

Two-way analogies also mean extra-care is needed to reflect the fuller set of actually-existing practices of pastoralists:

• Not everyone would agree that pastoralist better practices include all those unofficial (read: clandestine) networks that sub-Saharan migrants to Europe and elsewhere rely on to resist surveillance and capture.

• The practices include encrypted communications, secret locations and multiplicity of efforts to counter the informatics of domination and the technologies of coercion—the latter of great concern to many other residents in Europe as well.

• Note the preceding practices fit in—uncomfortably—with the reduced form narratives of expert policy types in Africa that pastoralists are often “outside the state’s control” there.

• The above mean, among other things, that the remittance-sending household member is no more at the geographical periphery of a network whose center is an African rangeland than was Prince von Metternich in the center of Europe when he said, “Asia begins at the Landstraße” (the district outskirts of Vienna closest to the Balkans).

You can stipulate all you want that Africa ends there and Europe begins here, but good luck in making that stick for pastoralist development policies!

“The elephant in the room at Cop27 is the cow”* (another example of environmental livestock-tarring)

–A modest proposal:

Assume livestock are toxic weapons that must be renounced in the name of climate change. Like nuclear weapons, they pose such a global threat that nations sign the Livestock Non-Proliferation Treaty (LNPT). It’s to rollback, relinquish or abolish livestock, analogous to the Non Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty.

How then would the LNPT be implemented, i.e., what are the ways to reduce these toxic stockpiles of dangerous animals?

If the history of the nuclear proliferation treaty is our guide, the livestock elimination focus quickly becomes the feasibility and desirability of particular elimination scenarios. Scenarios in the plural because context matters, e.g., the way South Africa renounced nuclear weapons could not be the same ways Belarus and Ukraine relinquished them, etc.

–So assume livestock elimination scenarios are just as differentiated. We would expect reductions in different types of intensive livestock production to be among the first priority scenarios under LNPT. After that, extensive livestock systems would be expected to have different rollback scenarios as well. For example, we would expect livestock to remain where they have proven climate-positive impacts: Livestock are shown also to promote biodiversity, and/or serve as better fire management, and/or establish food sovereignty, and/or enable off-rangeland employment of those who would have herded livestock instead, etc.

In other words, we would expect–well, how to put this obvious fact?–livestock scenarios that are already found empirically widespread.

–Which raises the important question: Wouldn’t the LNPT put us right back to where we are anyway with respect to livestock? What’s the use of pigeonholing these strategies as “pastoralist” when in fact they are environmentally friendly scenarios based demonstrably in extensive livestock production?

–In case there is any doubt about the high disesteem in which I hold the notion of a LNPT, let me be clear: If corporate greenwashing is, as one definition has it, “an umbrella term for a variety of misleading communications and practices that intentionally or not, induce false positive perceptions of a system’s environmental performance,” then environmental livestock-tarring is “an umbrella term for a variety of misleading communications and practices that intentionally or not, induce false negative perceptions of a system’s environmental performance.”


Drylands, remittances and the twelve rules for radicals

–Any number of radical proposals have been made for addressing problems of the globe’s rangelands, including: the end of capitalism and extractivism, redistribution of wealth, and reparations.

In an important sense, though, these are not be radical enough. I have in mind the “twelve rules for radicals” of the late organizer, Saul Alinsky, two in particular being:

RULE 3: “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety, and uncertainty. (This happens all the time. Watch how many organizations under attack are blind-sided by seemingly irrelevant arguments that they are then forced to address.)

RULE 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules.

–By extension, use the logic of capitalism, extractivism and financial accumulation to benefit rangelands and pastoralists, e.g.:

1. Start with the EU’s Emission Trading System for CO2 emission credits. Imagine member/non-member states and companies are now able to enter the ETS to buy credits directed to offsetting GHG emissions in dryland localities committed to transitioning to environmentally friendly production systems and livelihoods based in or around livestock.

2. Start with the European COVID-19 initiative, NextGenerationEU (issuance of joint debt by EU member states to fund pandemic recovery). Imagine employee support schemes under this or some such initiative, with one aim being to augment remittances of resident migrants back to dryland household members and communities.

3. Stay with those resident migrants sending back remittances. Imagine other EU-financed schemes to improve the greening of EU localities heavily resident with migrants (e.g. subsidies to EU residents for more sustainable lifestyles in the EU). Think of this as a form of “reversed green extractivism,” in this case on behalf of dryland households by EU member states for EU-migrant communities.

Now extend this kind of thinking to the likes of G7 and many OECD countries. The aim, again, is not to dismiss current radical proposals, but to find opportunities to exploit all twelve of Alinsky’s rules for radicals.

Shackle analysis: a pastoralist example


Unlike most economists of his generation or later ones, G.L.S. Shackle was preoccupied with how economic agents make real-time decisions in situations so uncertain that no one, including agents, knows the range of options and their probability distributions upon which to decide. In answer, Shackle produced an analysis based on possibilities rather than probabilities and what is desirable or undesirable rather than what is optimal or feasible.

For Shackle, possibility is the inverse of surprise (the greater an agent’s disbelief that something will happen, the less possible it is from their perspective). Understanding what is possible depends on the agents thinking about what they find surprising, namely, identifying what one would take to be counter-expected or unexpected events that could arise from or be associated with the decision in question. Once they think through these alternative or rival scenarios, the agents should be better able to ascribe to each how (more or less) desirable or undesirable a possibility it is.

These dimensions of possibility (possible to not possible) and desiredness (desirable to undesirable) form the four cells of a Shackle analysis, in which the decisionmakers position the perceived rival options. Their challenge is to identify under what conditions, if any, the more undesirable-but-possible options and/or the more desirable-but-not-possible options could become both desirable and possible. In doing so, they seek to better underwrite and stabilize the assumptions for their decisionmaking.


Let’s move now from the simplifications to a complexifying example. Consider the following conclusion from an investigation of sedentarization among Borana pastoralists:

Although in the case of this study we can speculate generally about what has prompted the sedentarization adaptation from quantitative analysis and the narratives of local residents, we do not sufficiently understand the specific institutions and information that individuals, households, and communities have utilized in their adaptation decision making. Only in understanding the mechanisms of such inter-scale adaptations can national and state governments work toward increasing community agency and promoting effective and efficient local adaptive capacity. ES-13503-270339

Such an admission is as rare as it is much needed in the policy and management research with which I am familiar. Thus the point made below should not be considered a criticism of the case study findings. Here I want to use the Shackle analysis to push their conclusion further.


At least in this example we know where to start the Shackle analysis: sedentarization’s dismal track record.

Briefly stated, what and where are now undesirable adaptations in Ethiopian pastoralist sedentarization–by government? by communities? by others?–that: were not possible then and there but are now; or were possible then and there but are not now? More specifically, where else in Ethiopia, if at all, are conditions such that those undesirable adaptations of sedentarization are now considered more desirable by pastoralist communities themselves?

If there is even one case of a community where the undesirable has now become desirable and where the now-desired is (still) possible, then sedentarization is not a matter of, well, settled knowledge.

Recasting “land-use conflicts” involving pastoralists


Largely single-cause explanations of land-use conflicts among pastoralists, agro-pastoralists, herders and farmers have been as common as they have been discredited–it was because of inter-ethnic competition; because of population increase; because of global warming now; because of rival militarizations right now. The great virtue of political ecology, in my view, has been to complexify narratives re: scarcity-of-this-or-that-sort leads to land-use conflict.

I want to suggest, though, that even the more nuanced, multi-causal explanations can be pushed and pulled further.

In particular, I’m not sure that “conflict,” after a point, helps or aids better pastoralist policy and development. In no way should the following be construed as criticism of those writing on land-use conflicts nor is my contribution a justification for killing people. I suggest only that there may be a different way of interpreting what is going on, and if there is, then there may be other ways even better to productively rethink the policy issues involved.

To that end, I use two lenses from the framework I offered in my 2020 STEPS paper.


The first is the logic of requisite variety. Complex environments require complex means of adaptation. If inputs are highly variable, so too must be the processes and options to transform this input variability into outputs and outcomes with low and stable variance, in our case, sustained herder livelihoods (or off-take, or herd size, or composition. . .).

One major implication is that “land-use conflict” has to be differentiated from the get-go. By way of example, references to pastoralist raids, skirmishes and flare-ups that do not identify “with-respect-to” what inputs, processes or outputs are bound to be very misleading.

Consider a livestock raid of one pastoralist group on another. It’s part of the input variability of the latter group but it also part of the process options of the former (i.e., when periodic raids are treated as one means over the longer term to respond to unpredictable input shocks, like sudden herd die-offs). Indeed, some discussion of jihadist raids by young pastoralist men in the Sahel seems to reflect the changing composition and level of variance around the outputs and outcomes (as if there was something like “young-men pastoralism” whose outputs had been changed by or with jihadism).

So what? It matters for pastoralist policy just what are the process options of the pastoralist group being raided. Do the response options include that of a counter-raid, or to send more household members away from the area, or to form alliances with other threatened groups, or to seek a political accommodation, or to undertake something altogether different or unexpected? For the purposes of policy and management, a livestock raid (or such) is more than a livestock raid.


The second lens to refocus land-use conflicts is the entire cycle of infrastructure operations (I make the argument of pastoralism-as-infrastructure above and in the STEPS paper).

Infrastructures, as described earlier, have normal operations, which are decidedly NOT invariant operations; “normal” includes fluctuations and adjustments in service provision, often within formal or informal bandwidths, so as to accommodate the impacts of inevitable contingencies. Also normal operations include periods of asset maintenance and repair, routine and non-routine.

At times, however, operations–again for the continuous supply of system services–are disrupted: A disruption is a temporary loss of service that requires restoration efforts so as to return to normal level. If restoration fails, the entire system could well fail; it could as well fail for other reasons. Outright system failure means indefinite loss of system services and destruction of assets.

In the face of massive failure, immediate response efforts are triggered (e.g., search and rescue efforts). These are eventually followed by longer term recovery operations to a new normal. Nothing is inevitable or guaranteed in one stage following another, including realization of a new normal after systemwide failure.

With that in mind, different stages of pastoralist system operations also require differentiation of “land-use conflict” from the get-go. A livestock raid undertaken by one pastoralist group on another in order to repair or restore its herd numbers/composition differs from the livestock raid undertaken as an immediate emergency response to having the entire system of operations or herd disappear because of some systemwide calamity.

As for those jihadist inspired and supported raids by young pastoralist men, it’s important to determine if those raids are best understood as recovery efforts to a new normal (recovery of a failed system is much more inter-organizationally demanding–think conventional humanitarian aid–than service restoration after a temporary disruption by the system on its own). Much of the current literature on the plight of pastoralists seems as well to be equating recurring pastoralist recoveries after failures as its new normal.


Again: So what? As with the logic of requisite variety, the whole cycle requires those involved in pastoralist policy and management to first differentiate cases of “land-use conflict” before proposing or adopting policy interventions. It isn’t merely about that old nostrum: Conflict can be productive, not destructive. Rather, land-use conflicts are fundamentally different cases of different lands, different uses and different conflicts.

This is especially true if one takes a long-term perspective on pastoralist systems and their evolution. A “conflict” going on for 30 years or more is obviously one that pushes and pulls to center-stage both the full cycle of pastoralist operations across time and the logic of requisite variety at any point in time for transforming input variability into sustained (though over time changing) outputs and outcomes.

The methodological challenge of interconnected granularity in representing pastoralists and pastoralisms

Ask yourself what it means when it’s easier to identify a dominant development narrative about pastoralism—all you have to do is read the critical literature—than it is to formulate plausible failure scenarios for a proposed pastoralist intervention?

The issue isn’t just “the devil is in the details.” It’s also about identifying and describing the interconnections between and among the details of a failure scenario in ways not possible with the less granular representations of earlier pastoralist development narratives, such as the Tragedy of the Commons. (I focus on scenarios of failure because pastoral development narratives are typically pessimistic representations.)

To illustrate, take the obvious example: We know performance along the project/program cycle from formulation through design onto approval into implementation and later evaluation/redesign (if any) depend on different details at different stages for different scenarios, including those for failure. Equally evident, I argue, is that once interconnections between the details across the different stages are brought to the fore, you’ve established a very effective critique of anything like a “normal project or program cycle.”

This is because identifying and representing latent and manifest interconnectivities is methodologically the best way to highlight the role of contingencies—chance, happenstance, the unexpected or the hitherto unimagined—in unmaking even the best-intended project or program from design through to redesign. The very notion of something as distinct as “implementation” is shown to be its own reduced-form development narrative in the face of really-existing fits and starts, mishaps and sudden delays, ruptures or other discontinuities from the get-go onwards.

Details are themselves representations, such that representations are themselves interconnected through narratives and scenarios. The clearest difference between the representations in failure scenarios and those in pastoralist development narratives is the former’s with-respect-to granularity. Not only are failure scenarios typically more complex, they are often detailed with respect to better anticipating (that is, predicting and preparing for): “What happens next?”

Are detailed failure scenarios, in contrast to reduced-form development narratives, guaranteed to answer the What-Next question? Surely not. There are any number of emergency playbooks, disaster protocols and failure response handbooks whose step-by-steps exist on paper or screen only. But here too what’s often missing in the documentation are the contingent interconnectivities represented as latent, or emerging, or having become manifest, as details and events are said to unfold in this place and duration. That said, the level of granularity found in failure scenarios is, in my experience, often not found at the level of abstraction in development narratives.

Three implications about this level of granularity in development narratives are noteworthy here. One and again, it appears you can become an expert in development narratives by reading the literature or parroting similar-minded people without ever having undertaken your own field work or practice.

Two, some common property counternarratives also fail to answer the What-Next question for widely diverse sets of pastoralisms and pastoralists. Think most recently the Dasgupta Review’s formal model for managing common pool resources.

Three, globalization, marketization and commodification have indeed set into play path dependencies. But the answer to What-Happens-Next in path dependencies is, well, continued path dependence. That’s not granular enough for real-time policy and management. Different path dependencies are also represented via different levels of granularity, and it is not clear why the path dependencies of globalization, marketization and commodification are so often generalized as to be a kind of de-granularization, de-differentiation and erasure of diversity that matters for better policy and management on the ground.

An authoritative website for real-time decisionmaking involving pastoralists

–I’m proposing an authoritative website established for real-time decisionmaking concerning livestock herders and their systems.

–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 pastoralists.

  • 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.
  • Well-known U.S. example: Going online to after an initial cancer diagnosis.

–In this illustrative scenario, the policy type, analyst or manager starts her analysis on pastoralist development by searching–let’s give it a name–

  • 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 searchers, not least of whom are project and program managers.
  • It is authoritative because: (1) it is online, that is, can be kept up-to-date in ways other media can’t; and (2) it is digital, that is, can be curated for salient multimedia, including but not limited to: video, podcast, blogs, reports, articles, chatrooms, graphics-rich tutorials, advice line (“ask the professionals”), and possibly its own YouTube channel.

–Who funds, provides content, and curates such a website is, of course, the question, e.g., a consortium of researchers, centers, journals and foundations. To that end, it could also be an important deliverable for the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists 2026. Language will be an issue, insurmountable in some cases. But the broader point I’m making here remains the same:


Principal sources

–The Göran Therborn quote is at:

Barry, A. (2020). What is an environmental problem? In the special issue, “Problematizing the Problematic,” Theory, Culture & Society: 1 – 25.

Krätli, S. (2015) Valuing Variability: New Perspectives on Climate Resilient Drylands Development, London:IIED

—— (2019) Pastoral Development Orientation Framework—Focus on Ethiopia, MISEREOR/IHR Hilfwerk, Aachen: Bischöfliches Hilfswerk MISEREOR e. V.

Nori, M. (2019) Herding Through Uncertainties – Principles and Practices. Exploring the interfaces of pastoralists and uncertainty. Results from a literature review, EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2019/69, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute

—— (2019) Herding Through Uncertainties – Regional Perspectives. Exploring the interfaces of pastoralists and uncertainty. Results from a literature review, EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2019/68, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute

—— (2021) The evolving interface between pastoralism and uncertainty: reflecting on cases from three continents, EUI Working Paper RSCAS 2021/16, San Domenico di Fiesole: European University Institute

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

Scoones, I. (2019) What is Uncertainty and Why Does it Matter? STEPS Working Paper 105, Brighton: STEPS Centre.


When I first became interested in livestock herders in Africa, I was told they lived on marginal lands. Fifty years later the more common refrain is these herders are marginalized–marginalized in politics, by the economy, and now because of the climate emergency.

I hate that word, marginal.

Since the academic study of pastoralism appears to be stuck with its use and abuse, may I suggest a different, more positive analogy:

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

In short, pastoralists continue to illuminate to our advantage what others persist texting as “the margins.” How so I’ve tried to detail throughout this packet of entries on pastoralists and pastoralisms.

Pastoralism on the offense, not just defended

–Pastoralists and their herds need to be defended against state depredations, private capture and encroachment, and livestock tarring by climate activists. I can also see the need for those defenders who believe “structural problems require structural solutions,” even when leaving “the low mean cunning” (their term, not mine) to others.

What I don’t understand is the comparative absence of discussion, with notable exceptions, of pastoralisms that are in need of no defense, given the double standards operating in the relevant literatures.

–Allow me a few examples:

  • Indigenous populations and their land rights are now taken by the Left as an essential part of democratic struggles (and not just in the Americas). But where are pastoralists holding livestock and claiming their land rights in the literature on this indigeneity?
  • We hear about the need to move infrastructure change away from powerful actors towards more inclusive low-carbon futures. But where is the focus in that literature on pastoralists already practicing such futures? We hear about the methane contributions of livestock to global warming, but what about the reverse climate risks associated with curtailing pastoralism and in doing so its pro-biodiversity advantages?
  • We know dryland pastoralists have members sending back remittances from their urban areas of residence. But when was the last time you heard researchers ask of them, “Do you vote or not?”
    • Yet that question along with those related to party affiliation are asked all the time in progressive movements like the “new municipalism” (think struggles over housing in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, and Vienna).
    • Jihadists and inter-ethnic conflict in the Sahel have been more studied, I suspect, than these migrant struggles over better housing and care in the cities from which essential remittances are sent. Indeed, when was the last time you read something that started with the political lives of pastoralist households?
  • The literature on varieties of capitalism pretty well demonstrates capitalism is better understood as “an assemblage of actors (both state and market), policies and people” (in contrast to a directed project of global reproduction and accumulation), How then could pastoralisms not be intertwined with capitalisms?
    • Pastoralisms have been and remain assemblages of actors (state and market), policies and people, a commercial intertwining that existed well before the advent of always-late capitalism and the more recent late-imperialism?
    • In fact, I’d bet there are cases where this intertwined rope called “an economy” is better understood as more pastoralist than capitalist.
  • And, just to make sure we are on the same page, that “capitalist” is very misleading when it obscures understanding the signal significance of the pastoralist part of said economy. Rather “the foundational economy” (FE) is the better term, not “capitalism” or “varieties of capitalism.”
    • “The FE comprises two parts,” according to researchers writing on cases in Sweden. “Material FE connects households to daily essentials and encompasses utilities (electricity, gas and water), transport and telecommunication infrastructure, food production and distribution, as well as private banking services. Providential FE includes a subset of activities providing welfare services (education, health and care) as well as systems of income maintenance.”
    • In the literature on foundational economies, what have been called the lifeline infrastructures not only drive regional economies; there wouldn’t be any foundational economy without them.
  • This means that to declare contemporary economics “capitalist,” as if by default, occludes the similarities that pastoralist economies have with other foundational economies across time and space.

–The list could go on, but so what? I for one would wish as much time were spent on these myopic standards as has been spent on the crises of pastoralists!

Principal sources [foundational economy] [capitalisms as assemblages]

But what if everybody overgrazed?

M: You seem now to be in the paradoxical position of saying that if everyone evaded [e.g., paying taxes], it would be disastrous and yet no one is to blame. . . .But surely there can’t be a disaster of this kind for which no one is to blame.

D: If anyone is to blame it is the person whose job it is to circumvent evasion. If too few people vote, then it should be made illegal not to vote. If too few people volunteer, you must conscription. If too many people evade taxes, you must tighten up your enforcement. My answer to your ‘If everyone did that’ is ‘Then some one had jolly well better see that they don’t’. . .

Colin Strang, philosopher, “What If Everyone Did That?”, 1960

Yet 8 years later we get this familiar piece of fantasy, Garret Hardin’s Tragedy of the Common, whose answer to “What if every herder did that?” is, e.g.: “We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust–but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.”

Get real: We’ve always known the better question is: Whose job is it to ensure overgrazing doesn’t happen? Which, to be frank, continues to be the same as asking: Whose job is it to define “overgrazing”?

NB: One of the biting ironies is that Hardin’s was an explicit piece on morality that took no account of Strang’s essay, which however was among the most cited and anthologized in collections on ethics and morality at that time.

Frustrated herders

I dislike being herded into certainty

Louise Glück, Nobel poet

Inability to tolerate empty spaces limits the space available

W.R. Bion, psychoanalyst


How is it that we outsiders–researchers, NGOs, government officials–can be certain about pastoralist wants and needs? One answer is that pastoralists tell us what’s what.

Another answer, the one I explore here, is when pastoralists do no such thing. Even if they say, “This is what we want and need,” there are important occasions where they are no are more omniscient about their needs and wants than are the researchers, NGO personnel and government officials, or for that matter the rest of us.

On the upside, a continuing asking and answering can clarify the respective needs and wants–even if in unpredictable or uncontrollable ways by those involved.


So much for the obvious. I want to go on and suggest, however, that the terms, “needs and wants,” do more a disservice when it comes to pastoralists living with and on uncertainty as I understand it.

The problem is when needs and wants fit too easily in with the language game of deprivation and gratification. In this view, pastoralist needs and wants are deprivations that continue and only change when gratified. Each term implies a future, and both terms imply something can be predicted. Policy types and NGOs, I think, are more apt than not to treat needs and wants as a species of prediction, for which planning and its cognates are suitable responses.

I also think any such notion isn’t helpful in the cases with which I am familiar. The reality of contingency is that the future, let alone the present, is not predictable. In this reality, peoples’ needs are more an experiment than something to be met, fulfilled, gratified or not.

That in turn means interactions among policymakers, NGO and researchers with pastoralists are themselves to be recast as experimental. Less formally, policies, projects and programs are about how the parties concerned weather the interactions.


Let me sketch three of the policy and management implications:

1. First and foremost, frustration of wants and needs–be they pastoralist, NGO, researcher, or government–is more to the point than deprivation and gratification.

Frustration not only because needs and wants aren’t fulfilled, but also frustration over having to figure what the needs and wants really are. Researchers are frustrated, pastoralists are frustrated, NGO staff are frustrated, and so too some government officials.

The good news is when learning to handle frustrations, induced with government and NGO interventions, means having to think more about what works and that more thinking means better handling of inevitable frustrations ahead. (“When” indicates no promises that either will happen.) This applies as much to their researchers as it does to the pastoralists they study. So too for others involved.

Better handling contingent frustrations and living with/on uncertainty obviously overlap–but not completely. To my mind, a center of gravity around frustration highlights what’s missing in notions of “resilience in the face of uncertainty.”

Handling frustrations better is about what you–you, me, pastoralist, NGO staff person, researcher, government official–do between bouncing back and bouncing forward. Namely, the gap between having to be resilient and actually being resilient is, in a word, frustrating–and how to make that productively so is a core development question (pastoralist or other).

Another way to put it is that “uncertainty causes frustration” happens in ways significantly different. There are those brought up short by unexpected contingencies in major shocks and surprises and are frustrated in moving beyond them. There are others who depend on major shocks and surprises in order to demonstrate how capable they are in moving on. We interviewed emergency managers who said they were best when careful prior planning made a difference in disaster response. Others, however, felt that wasn’t enough. As an emergency planner and coordinator put it, “I think what makes a good emergency manager is you feel uncomfortable being off-balance. . .That’s one of the reasons I was drawn to the field. When nobody has the answer that’s when I feel most capable in my job”.

2. Still, saying we have to handle frustrations without being paralyzed or stalemated sounds like a bit too much like ego-psychology and self-help.

I’m arguing, though, that these frustrations are better appreciated when recast as the core driver of relationships between and among pastoralists, researchers, NGOs and government staff. Bluntly stated, this is how the principal sides know they are in a relationship: They pose problems for the other and when those problems are frustrating, the salience of the relationship(s) increases for more parties.

This is why I make it such a big issue about just who are pastoralists talking to. Are they actually frustrated with this really-existing government official or that actually-existing NGO staff person? Who in government, if anybody, are pastoralist kith and kin talking to or want to talk to? Are they in a relationship, however, asymmetrical, or is it that others are just a nuisance, if that? Is the researcher actually frustrated with the pastoralists s/he is studying and, if so, in what ways is that frustration keeping their relationship going? Here too it is important, I think, to distinguish between those skilled in riding uncertainties and allied frustrations and those whose skills in relationships or otherwise are elsewhere.

(To be clear: I’m talking about better handling frustrations by not avoiding or trying to escape them. What bothers me are those descriptions on out-migration to Europe from the Sahel where migrants who survive seem portrayed in terms of victim-as-escape artist. Some may indeed be escaping; others, I suspect, are better understood, more formally, as managing frustrations in relations that persist.)

3. So what?

I have to be careful here not to generalize. Obviously, there are many effective policy types, NGOs, researchers and pastoralists.

To me as a policy type, it’s highly problematic recommending that government officials and NGO staff be in an authentic conversation with pastoralists taking the lead, if and when those doing the recommending are not themselves in an authentic conversation with government and the NGOs. This is particularly the case where pastoralists bear all the risks if and when those recommendations go wrong.

My reading of current peer-reviewed literature suggests, by way of example, that some researchers want nothing (more) to do with status-quo governments and savior-NGOs, who in the view of the researchers would be to blame anyway were mistakes not caught beforehand during the recommended changes. Again, I do not want to be seen as generalizing here.


Which neatly segues into: Where am I in all the above? Am I taking a synoptic view above and beyond the frustrations below? No way!

I too write from frustration. I too cannot know myself, because I cannot be everyone else in relationship to me. The paragraphs above are my best take. I don’t doubt this take would be different–must change–had interactions differed along the way during my career and in my reading to this point.

The broader point, though, remains: Does any of this relate to your experience, and if so, how so?

NB. As for my reading, the books of Adam Phillips, psychoanalyst and essayist, are reflected in almost every sentence above, either by way of direct crib or light paraphrase.

Which sociotechnical imaginary?

Sociotechniccal imaginaries have been defined as “collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology”

Sheila Jasanoff, 2015. Future imperfect: Science, technology, and the imaginations of modernity. In
Dreamscapes of modernity: Sociotechnical imaginaries and the fabrication of power, ed. S. Jasanoff and S.-H. Kim, pp. 1–33. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

But then: whose visions? Even within a large sociotechnical system like an infrastructure, whose imaginaries?

Clearly just not those of the CEO and the rest of the C-suite. Nor its investors and regulators. Nor policymakers and legislators of concern.

For any large sociotechnical system has its equivalent street-level bureaucrats, front-line implementers, and middle level reliability professionals, who have their own visions and facts on the ground at variance with the others.


Consider the commonplace that regulatory compliance is “the baseline for risk mitigation in infrastructures.”

Even so, there is no reason to assume that compliance–a sociotechnical imaginary if there ever was one!–is the same baseline for, inter alios,

  • the infrastructure’s operators in the field, including the eyes-and-ears field staff;
  • the infrastructure’s headquarters’ staff responsible for monitoring industry practices for meeting government compliance mandates;
  • the specific senior officials in the infrastructure who see the need for far more than compliance by way of enterprise risk management;
  • those other professionals in the same infrastructure responsible for thinking through a wide range of “what-if” scenarios that vary by all manner of contingencies; and, last but never least,
  • the infrastructure’s reliability professionals—its control room operators, should they exist, and immediate support staff—in the middle of all this, especially in their role of surmounting any (residual) stickiness by way of official procedures and protocols–the “official” sociotechnical imaginary–undermining real-time system reliability.


So what?

These differences in orientation when it comes to, e.g., “baseline compliance” mean societal values of systemwide reliability and safety can be just as differentiated and distributed as these staff and their responsibilities are. Where highly reliable infrastructures matter to a society, it must also be expected that the social values reflected in these infrastructures not only differ across infrastructures but within them as well.

Sociotechnical imaginaries, in other words, must be assumed from the get-go to be highly nuanced forms of life.

Why the focus mostly on lives suddenly changing. . .for the worse

As if lives cannot suddenly and startlingly change for the better, but they can suddenly and shockingly change, sometimes irreversibly, for the worse.

Adam Phillips (2021). On Wanting to Change, p. 69

The epigraph suggests at least one counternarrative: Sample people–on this planet of 8 billion and more–whose lives have in fact suddenly changed for the better (without or without trauma). What might they have to tell people who insist they know the next is just as bad, and probably worse?

Phillips’ hypothesis (not his term) is that the former’s acknowledgment of positive change differs much from the latter’s knowledge of negative change. Or to recast the point: Positive change is a real-time performance than can’t be plagiarized even though you want to. Negative change is photocopied all the time, everywhere.

Thinking differently about pre-disaster mitigations


How do you choose which bridges to retrofit now and just ahead, when so many major ones here could fail in the next big earthquake?

That question is misformulated and its answers accordingly misleading.


Retrofitting a bridge pre-disaster isn’t a chancy wager on what might or might not happen to the bridge. Retrofitting is managing latent interconnectivities between bridges and other infrastructures that become manifest during and immediately after the disaster. That inter-infrastructural connections will shift and these shifts will involve bridges is far more predictable than this or that bridge will fail, unless retrofitted.

This means attention is crucial to the track record in retrofitting bridges before and after disasters, here and elsewhere. Note the implication: Retrofitting bridges has to occur in order to have a track record to monitor and learn from.


To summarize: Since there are real material and cognitive limits on controlling inter-infrastructural connectivity at any point in time, doing more by way of managing the pre-disaster latency of interconnectivities buys you more time, if only as better response.

An interviewee with engineering and management experience told us their city water infrastructure was behind the electricity utility in the adoption of automatic shut-off valves. Bringing water systems up to power’s better practices is a way of managing latent interconnectivity in advance of disaster.

Updated Table of Contents


Whose sociotechnical imaginaries?,” “Refugees,” and “What can’t be plagiarized

Most viewed 2022:

New environmental narratives for these times,” “Recalibrating politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for Andre Malraux,” “Optimal ignorance,” and “What the Thai BL series, ‘Bad Buddy,’ has to tell us about societal reset

Worth a second look:

Entries compiled for “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms” (new entries)


Some individual blogs have been consolidated and rewritten into more substantial reads. They are in order of importance for recasting complex policy and management issues:

  1. Draft Final Guide (November 2022): WHEN COMPLEX IS AS SIMPLE AS IT GETS— A New Policy Analysis and Management for the Anthropocene
  2. Complexity means today’s dominant policy narratives have counternarratives in the making: 14 examples (and the list keeps getting longer!)
  3. Ten examples from the humanities and arts in softening up difficult policy issues for fresh rethinking
  4. Ten other directions from which to view “our highly volatile conjuncture”

Some Other Key Topics

Infrastructures and reliability

Pastoralism and pastoralists

Crises and emergency management

Colin Strang versus Garrett Hardin: Which one do you believe?

M: You seem now to be in the paradoxical position of saying that if everyone evaded [e.g., paying taxes], it would be disastrous and yet no one is to blame. . . .But surely there can’t be a disaster of this kind for which no one is to blame.

D: If anyone is to blame it is the person whose job it is to circumvent evasion. If too few people vote, then it should be made illegal not to vote. If too few people volunteer, you must conscription. If too many people evade taxes, you must tighten up your enforcement. My answer to your ‘If everyone did that’ is ‘Then some one had jolly well better see that they don’t’. . .

Colin Strang, philosopher, “What If Everyone Did That?”, 1960

Yet 8 years later we get this familiar piece of fantasy, Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Common, whose answer to “What if every herder did that?” is, e.g.: “We must admit that our legal system of private property plus inheritance is unjust–but we put up with it because we are not convinced, at the moment, that anyone has invented a better system. The alternative of the commons is too horrifying to contemplate. Injustice is preferable to total ruin.”

Get real: We’ve always known the better question is: Whose job is it to ensure overgrazing doesn’t happen? Which, to be frank, continues to be the same as asking: Whose job is it to define “overgrazing”?

NB: One of the biting ironies is that Hardin’s was an explicit piece on morality that took no account of Strang’s essay, which however was among the most cited and anthologized in collections on ethics and morality at that time.


A recent review of refugee accounts stresses there are no words to describe how awful these camps are. The authors ask what I take to be the profoundly important question: “why it is that some of us write from inside the camps, and others from outside”?

Why, indeed, are they in camps and not us?

My modest proposal, then: Randomized control trials (RCTs) would be undertaken to assign people to camps (“us as them”) and control groups (“us as still us”). The random assignment would mimic, more or less, the contingency of current camp assignments.

As volunteers would be needed for the RCTs, which would bias results, the trials would need to be long-term. Replacements for those who die during the RCTs should be expected as some camps have been in existence for even longer. (You could randomized the selection of camps and add a small budget to monitor and assess the few who graduate out.) Funding would, of course, require deep pockets, but RCTs are all the rage now in elite foundations.

If indeed significant differences are found in the attitudes and beliefs about camps between those arbitrarily assigned to camps and those in control groups, then a major policy change should be considered for the continuance or termination of refugee camps: Imposing a penal draft–to randomly select citizens to serve their country as camp inmates, if only on the grounds that those outside are as guilty as those inside.

Principal sources

Ewing, B. (2018) “Socializing Punishment.” The Point Magazine Issue 17.

Swift, J. (1729). A Modest Proposal: For preventing the children of poor people in Ireland, from being a burden on their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the publick. Accessed online on March 1 2022 at

Teferra, G. and K. Reed (2022). “‘No Words’: Refugee camps and empathy’s limits.” Accessed online on March 1 2022, at