The siloing of approaches to discourse and narrative analyses

To begin ritualistically: Narratives for policy and management are found across the world. Less ritualistically: Ubiquitous that policy narratives are, their study continues to be siloed, without much interchange overall.

We wager policing disciplinary boundaries would be among the first things observed by a graduate student new to a comprehensive survey of the many narrative analytical approaches to public policy and management. A review of 25 years of discourse analyses around policymaking (Leipold, Feindt, Winkel & Keller 2019) notes: 

Although its name resembles Roe’s (1994) Narrative Policy Analysis, [the Narrative Policy Framework] is not part of the landscape of discourse analysis covered in this special issue. NPF scholars clearly distance their work from post-structural ontologies and methods and position NPF as a positivist alternative to the study of policy discourses and narratives. Their aim is to provide an analytical basis for an ‘empirical’ access to socio-cultural meaning structures (i.e. generated through the analysis of large sets of text data) that stands alongside established ‘positivist’ frameworks for the analysis of the policy process (for an overview of these approaches see Weible & Sabatier, 2017). . . .

with the review authors adding that “discourse analytical approaches were ‘ignored’ in political science handbooks ‘largely on grounds that they don’t follow scientific norms’ of ‘clarity, hypothesis- testing, acknowledgement of uncertainty, etc.’ (Sabatier & Weible, 2014, p. 11).”

As the passage heavily hints, the same exclusionary focus of discourse analysis to NPF is found in the NPF literature with respect to discourse analysis. Consider a recent review of decades’ work on NPF (Schlaufer, Kuenzler, Jones & Shanahan 2022). Both the latter review and the Leipold et al review call for more interdisciplinary, cross-context research. That said, the  NPF review does not pursue the facts:

  • That discourse analysis has also analyzed policy narratives in the same areas as NPF, namely, environment and energy;
  • That policy processes, a core focus of NPF, have also been a core focus of discourse analysis: “How does discourse analysis contribute to our understanding of environmental policy processes. . .?” (Leipold et al 20l9).
  • That a central place given in NPF to heroes, villains, victims and plot in policy narratives has also been a centerpiece of other narrative approaches, most notably the narrative-networks model of political scientist Helen Ingram and her colleagues, Raul Lejano and Mrill Ingram (mentioned, however, in the discourse analysis review); and 
  • That mixed methods and interviews, found to be prominent in the NPF review, are also prominent in other narrative analytical approaches. To take one from many examples, Q-methodology is used in the NPA work of van Eeten (2006), discourse analysis work of Stevenson (2019), and the NPF work of Brumbaugh & Rupp (2020).

Such studied disregard, it must be stressed, has been reciprocated. Obvious cross references are not made. Where the discourse analysis review mentions the Weible and Sabatier framework of processes, it lists by name only allied discourse approaches; the NFP review lists by name only the Weible and Sabatier processes, seeing no need to recognize others, however well-established. 

The net effect of this reinforced siloing is personal and professional. You can only imagine the astonishment of those in other narrative policy traditions, grounded as some are in case-by-case analysis, to the statement, “The NPF brought empiricism to the study of narratives” (Schlaufer et al 2022).

So what?

The reader now might expect us to argue and make the case for cross-fertilization, or at least better interchange, between and among the various traditions, including those not mentioned here for brevity’s sake. 

Certainly, the possibilities for interchange are patent. At first glance, the current dearth of macro-applications of the NPF identified in Schlaufer et al stands in marked contrast to the already many macro-applications from other narrative-centered disciplines, including those of marquee historians, political scientists, and international studies experts. 

Our aim, though, is not to set the record straight. It is more modest. We believe an important step has to be taken before ring-fencing areas of mutual benefit. 

We believe attempts at cross-fertilization are premature where the methodological reasons that render narrative analytic approaches distinctly different are not first better identified and appreciated. The differences extend well beyond conventional binaries of positivist versus post-positivist, quantitative versus qualitative, holistic versus reductionistic, incommensurable versus commensurable, and scientific versus interpretivist.

We argue specifically that greater clarity about three under-acknowledged methodological differences is empirically and logically prior to making cross-approach comparisons, let alone rendering syntheses and lessons learned from and for each other. 

A caveat. We have not reviewed the case-study literatures developed under NPF, NPA, and discourse analyses, or other established approaches for that matter. By virtue of the large numbers, there must be a fraction which offers cross-approach references in need of wider recognition, whether or not the following three points capture them.

  1. Different approaches ask different basic questions.

Return to the new graduate student undertaking their comprehensive survey of narrative analytical approaches. We also wager that among the first things they notice is how approaches ask very different key questions with respect to the use (and abuse) of policy and management narratives. 

Arguably, the best example is Narrative Policy Analysis when compared to both NPF and discourse analyses. The former asks how narratives underwrite and stabilize the assumptions of decisionmaking under admitted and recognized uncertainty and complexity. The latter approaches make no such claim. For them, as for other approaches, narratives are fundamentally stories with various purposes, including—and certainly not excluding—that of convincing others of what is already taken to be known or should be. 

Being clearer about key-question differences aids in identifying areas of useful cross-approach interchange. 

For example, the NPF review concludes: “However, not much is known about how these narratives affect the policy process or policy outputs. That is, where policy narratives originate, whom they impact, and to what effect are all important policy narrative questions that are rarely addressed simultaneously” (Schlaufer et al 2022).

That question, nevertheless, is a settled matter from the perspective of some narrative approaches. NPA has been extended to study how control room operators and emergency managers underwrite and stabilize real-time decisionmaking under turbulent conditions (Roe 2013). Failure scenarios, a type of policy-relevant narrative, always affect their real-time decisions, even if (especially because) some contingencies can’t be narrativized at that point in decisionmaking. 

Further, this well-documented real-time use of failure scenarios complicates any kind of micro-meso-macro distinction (a key feature of the NPF, for example). Stabilization, even in normal operations in large critical infrastructures, takes place frequently as team situation awareness of systemwide operations interconnected with the operations of other critical infrastructures. 

“Meso-levels” in other words may indeed become clear later on, but “emergence” entails cases where that has yet to happen, as  when real-time decisions based in failure scenarios have to be made. Nor are such insights about the lack of clarity over levels-of-analysis unfamiliar in the social sciences. “Interdependence” has long been notorious for its lack of agreed-upon empirical measures (see La Porte, 1975).

Greater methodological specificity as to the who, what and where of policy and management narratives also makes clear that not everyone who relies on narratives is a control room operator or emergency manager, or acts like one. Nor, though, are true-believing policy advocates of this or that narrative methodological exemplars of diverse narrative analytical approaches. 

  1. Methodological advances in the approaches are not cabined to scholarly confines

Comprehensive surveys of narrative analytical approaches are not as comprehensive as they may first appear. This happens when the gray literatures of practicing policy analysts, public managers and scholar-activists are not  canvassed or because the case material does not follow, say, the four-step method of an NPA or the specific assumptions of NPF. 

One example will have to suffice. A recent working paper, Understanding the role of narratives in humanitarian policy change (Saez & Bryant 2023), published by the London-based ODI (Overseas Development Institute), is explicitly produced for a non-scholarly audience and explicitly grounds itself in NPF. Yet it is not clear how the working paper’s highly original and useful Figure 1 derives in any way from the NPF,

Figure 1 particularly illustrates  how critical is the greater specificity about the who, what, where and types of the policy narratives—these are about delaying rather than promoting policy and management. This granularity facilitates not only use by practitioners (such as the ODI audience), but also use in other narrative analytical fields that don’t read working papers or such but would—not could, might, perhaps—benefit from doing so.

Here too cross-approach interchange is possible once methodological issues are clarified, albeit in granular ways that do not presume ring-fencing of disciplinary fields or pre-existing levels of analysis.

  1. The methodological challenge of evaluating different types of policy narratives. 

The term, policy narratives, is unhelpful when types of narratives are not first differentiated.  We’ve already seen the methodological need to separate out and take note of the use of failure scenarios in large sociotechnical systems. It is quite another matter, though, to single out and identify  as policy narratives the conspiracy theories that Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Vladimir Putin of Russia believe to be the case in the respective policy- and decisionmaking. 

These concerns raise the more basic question of how to evaluate different types of policy narratives, or more specifically: What are the evaluative criteria, if any, of the different narrative analytic approaches to doing so?

Suffice it to say, there are approaches that rely on the policy processes they study or prefer for making any such evaluation, while other approaches  have evaluative criteria independent of those policy processes. Other traditions, of course, don’t pretend to have evaluative criteria in their descriptions and explications.

An example helps. A better policy narrative in NPA meets several criteria, including: The narrative—its story with beginning, middle and end, or argument with premises and conclusions—is one that takes seriously that the policy or management issue is complex, uncertain, and/or interrupted by unfinished business, even if aspects are also polarized.

By way of contrast, one chief assumption of conspiracy theories is that nothing happens by accident (Barkun 2013). From the NPA perspective, policy narratives based in the latter assumption are inferior when compared to other narratives that posit accidents, happenstance, chance and luck happening far more often in and through policy processes for the very same issues.

This is not an argument for one approach over another. Rather, our point is methodological. It seems to us that policy and management in the Anthropocene entails being methodologically clearer about the evaluative criteria—explicit or implicit—used in assessing  policy narratives from each other.

It is during the actuals research and analysis process, we suspect, that the values of individual researchers shine through clearest (e.g., the values placed on deliberative democracy, emancipation or transformation in driving applications of some discourse approaches when compared to, say, the professed value-neutrality of others). 

Again, so what?

One of our mentors, the political scientist Aaron Wildavsky, asked: If planning is everything, maybe it is nothing. So too all of us might want to ask of those policy narratives said to be everywhere and important for almost everything. Are we in other words overthinking narratives? 

In particular, we believe that an under-acknowledged but major consequence of the many, mutually-exclusive approaches to the study of policy narratives has been to slight or otherwise confuse the role of narratives in actually-existing policy processes.

Or from the other direction, if you started with the variety of policy processes instead of narratives, you’d have to ask at some point what role policy narratives have in learning? More, to what extent is learning taking place around the non-narrativized or non-narratable as well? It seems to us this is an under-explored topic.

Sources to be provided

Sudden change is a performance than can’t be plagiarized

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. What might they have to tell people who insist they know the next is as bad, and probably worse?

My own view: Sudden positive change is a real-time performance than can’t be plagiarized by others. Negative change is photocopied all the time, everywhere. In Phillips’ terms: The former’s acknowledgement differs from the latter’s knowledge.

Updated Table of Contents


Key blog entries on pastoralists and pastoralisms” “The radical insistence of betterment, “and “When vulnerability analysis is misleading and what to look for instead

Most viewed so far in 2023:

Recalibrating politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for Andre Malraux,” “What the Thai BL series, ‘Bad Buddy,’ has to tell us about societal reset,” and “WHEN COMPLEX IS AS SIMPLE AS IT GETS

Most viewed in 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:

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

Some Other Key Topics

Infrastructures and reliability

Pastoralism and pastoralists

Crises and emergency management

It’s this–and not “next is worse”–we should be alert for


Many ecologists and environmentalists I’ve read and with whom I’ve worked insist that more things can go straight-out, hair-raisingly wrong than they can go right.

It is easier to mismanage an ecosystem than it is to manage it. Ecosystem collapse is more certain than ecosystem sustainability. Negative externalities are to be expected, positive ones not. Probabilities of large system failure and cascades are primed to flip to 1.0 in no time flat. Next means worse.

We must manage the planet’s resources better, but no one should expect technology to help us do so. Economic growth is never a sufficient condition for improving the environment, while economic growth’s irreversible impacts on the environment are always sufficient for precaution. Except when failure is not an option! So much is uncertain that anything is possible, which means everything must be at risk. Whatever humans touch they make worse, this Barry Commoner’s Third Law of Ecology.

Let’s call this standpoint, next-is-worse.


Of course, there are cases where next is worse. In March 1999, a colleague and I interviewed a well-known ecologist who insisted the Delta smelt would not “go extinct even if we try to wipe them out”. Then came the articles with titles like “the collapse of pelagic fishes in the upper San Francisco Bay-Delta”.

That said, this—realism, manifold anxiety, existential panic, dog-whistle alarmism—describes a world not made to my colleagues’ specification.

Nor is there a scintilla of recognition that my colleagues’ specifications to get us to do the right thing by way of the environment—namely, Stop!—pale and wither before the persisting record: Really-existing humans with real problems in real time routinely do not follow orders, even in the most totalitarian of regimes (as we now know to have been the case in communist East Germany and China).

Nor is there a scintilla of recognition that the major feature of their disaster scenarios aren’t the proleptic ruins, but the massive lack of attention to the multiple ways necessary to triangulate and increase our confidence about how specifically to respond. We’d be fools to expect geo-engineers to provide the descriptive specifics for their disaster scenarios. That can only come from others who have far more detailed counter-arguments to insist upon.


So, it’s no surprise when next-is-worse fails to create anything like a shared, collective dread pushing and pulling us to manage better.

Where so, how then can it be denial on our part to insist that all existential disasters pose difficulties, highlight inexperience, and emphasize the strategic interludes of surprise, both good and bad?

What can we be doing instead?


Start by accentuating the contradictions.

Let’s agree today’s rotten core is modernity—international capital, fossil fuel, global urbanization, the Enlightenment project—while in the same breadth insist all this is best understood in the very terms of that modernity: Anything and everything is at risk; all thinkable risks are warnings; any could be catastrophic.

In putting the paradox this way, we are like those trying to predict a poet’s next poem from their current body of work.

A more productive approach might well be to ask: What are we getting from this habituation to it-always-could-get-very-very-much-worse?

One answer: Doing so saves us all the trouble and worry of having to figure out the details. Anyway, who wants more research to sort all this one way or another when foundations and government agencies suspect, if not already know, that “It turns out we’re not even asking the right questions. . .”

A more obvious reason for habituated next-is-worse-ism is the trained incapacities of fatalism. Repeatedly said: Post-apocalyptic novels—doomer literature generally—nail home that we don’t need widespread fear and dread of COLLAPSE to provoke remedy and recovery, because, well, far too many no longer believe in or see chances of either. Less repeatedly said: But that means you are still here, reading those very words.


But what’s so special about “still being here,” when those around us are saying next-is-worse?

A familiar example: COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, was for many (me included) a clear failure to do the needful in limiting temperature rise.

Even then, the crux is not: “Thus, alternative voices were left out and alternative politics side-lined.” You can no more essentialize those voices and politics than you can essentialize the conference. For it first has to be asked: Which COP26 failed?

Such a conference is never altogether there, if only because those attending in Glasgow are being themselves in one venue while being other selves in other venues there. COP26 is and was riddled with this intermittence and who’s to say the earlier or later versions around and in between October 31 and November 13 2021 are not its upside? Next-is-worse is just one venue. What about the others?

Not to see intermittence at work and its importance is like the actor playing Hamlet, who rushed through the bedroom scene with Gertrude by forgetting to kill Polonius.


The fact that we are different selves at different times and occasions would be banal were it not for its imperative: having to listen more carefully to what these selves are saying in real time and across time. I have in mind listening to and for two positive sets of statements from policy types, namely, their references

  • “with respect to,” “under what conditions,” “this is a case of”. For example, it’s risks and uncertainties with respect to these failure scenarios and not those that we should be worried about. It’s under those conditions and not these that we take action. What we are talking about is something different, it being a case of . . .
  • “Here’s our track record…,” “Here are our measures of success…or failure,” “We’d be ok with these mixed results…”. Does what actually happened match what was originally proposed? Or, how does what happened compare to the success record of others in like situations? Or, what would have happened even had not the policy been implemented?

These statements (and variants) reduce to versions of “yes, but” or “yes, and,” and in so doing indicate the willingness and the ability of the speakers to identify differences that matter for policy and management, right now.


Accordingly, am I the only one who trembles when officials, experts, and advocates say of a particularly tricky state of affairs, “We need to clear the table and make a fresh start!” Dangerous dumbing down is occurring when you hear this and the like from policy types:

  • It’s a win-win, so who can be against it?” (when everyone within hearing distance knows winners rarely if ever compensate losers), “We just need the political will” (when obviously we’ve had too much political will in committing to any and everything), “If implemented as planned” (when the entire point is you cannot assume any such thing); “We need to take back control…,” (when we have to manage precisely because we can’t control and never have been);  and
  • It’ll pay for itself” (when costs, let alone benefits, can’t be measured, aren’t evenly distributed, nor collectively borne), “We must do this at all costs” (when what the policy types are really doing is refusing to tell you what they already know about the likely costs, including loss of lives), and “Failure is not an option” (when failure is always a very real possibility in complex situations having mixed results at best).


So what?

I remember a tense meeting in the midst of the 2001 California electricity crisis. A senior executive at state grid transmission center told the group: “My view is that we are jumping under the table and the earthquake is happening and what we have to do is to hope this isn’t a nuclear attack and that the rubble will settle and when it does, we get up and be the only ones around who know what to do.”

Now that is something we should be listening for and to.

Then and now: budgeting and policy analysis


I graduated with a master’s in public policy studies from the University of Michigan in the early 1970’s and with a PhD in public policy from the UC Berkeley a little more than halfway through the later 1980’s. I still identify as a policy analyst when asked my occupation/profession is asked.

One misconception has been the notion that in its early days policy analysis assumed problems were simpler and could be solved by the best and the brightest. That is not how I remember my graduate training.

I had the good fortune to have been a student of Pat Crecine, the founding director of the Institute for Public Policy Studies (now the University of Michigan’s Ford School) and Aaron Wildavsky, a founder of the Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley. Two different people you can’t imagine, but one insisting to his first-generation students that policymaking and budgeting were complex, while the other was the last person on earth who would say policy implementation was simple.

Another misconception has been that professionalization would get rid of the complexity’s blindspots. I remember a well-known policy academic upbraiding me that the “policy cycle” from policy formulation through policy evaluation/termination was a signal advance over early notions of incrementalism and the budgeting process. You only need implement something you planned to realize that the cycle’s stage of “implementation” is itself a lethal critique of anything like a policy cycle.


The graduate programs in policy analysis with which I’ve been familiar had their master’s degree grounded in a core curriculum, with courses in: the politics of public policy; use and role of microeconomics in policy analysis; research methods including statistics; and course work on implementation, public management, or the law, among others. Call this, the toolkit.

In practice, the overall curricula varied and could include public finance, ethics, program evaluation, qualitative methods, and GIS, to name a few. But the important point is this: At no point in my graduate training or career do I remember being told that a policy problem not amenable to the toolkit was intractable. The toolkit had space for new methods and approaches.

Perhaps public policy analysis was not as interdisciplinary as professed at the get-go. In another sense, the toolkit was never sufficient to attract decisionmaker attention.

Over my career, I witnessed the 20-page policy brief reduced to the five-page memo into a fifteen-minute PowerPoint presentation into the three-minute elevator speech into the tweet. What next on the syllabus: Telepathy? “The knowing look” in 10 seconds or less?


It’s difficult to recapture that sense of policy analysis recasting difficult problems more tractably in the same way that policy analysis originally recast public administration in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

One way I think about what has happened is to distinguish between (1) the discipline as taught in graduate schools and the profession that policy analysts think they are joining upon graduation and (2) the profession as it is actually practiced at any one time or place and the actual careers that policy analysts have across time and place.

That would be a banal observation, were it not for the fact that the starting line for effective analysis keeps changing while you are in the gaps.


For example, when I started out, it was said that 90% of a policy analysis was answering the question, “What’s the problem?” Having defined the problem meant you presumably knew what a solution would look like. Today, it’s my experience that 90% of a policy analysis—indeed of major policy practice and work—are its initial conditions, not problem definition.

In the 1970s, a key indicator of what is now called “a failed state” was its inability to publish an annual government budget that actually operated over the year. That happens all over the place today, and in parts of the US. But the point isn’t whether or not the “state” has in this way failed. It’s first about how the initial conditions have changed, heterogeneously not uniformly.

When vulnerability analysis is misleading and what to look for instead


Your analysis begins conventionally by identifying the vulnerable elements in the utility operations, such as with respect to physical structures or specific tasks (think: corrosion in pipes or “operator error”). No chain is stronger than its weakest link, so wisdom goes. In other words, if the utility doesn’t know the weakest element(s), operations could in important respect be failing to fail. (One senior risk manager in a major utility went straight to the point: “Really, just because we haven’t had a meltdown doesn’t mean our practices were effective”.)

That conventional point of departure focusing on the weaker or weakest links, however, no longer takes risk assessment and management far enough, and honestly it would be irresponsible to stop there.


There is the sense in which the strength of the utility’s operations derives in good part from its weak links, and not in spite of them. The gas operations of the utility are as reliable and safe as they are because it is known that those pipes are vulnerable that way under these conditions. Not only is the weak link frequently known, it has many eyes focused on it, particularly if it is already recognized to be a chokepoint for real-time systemwide operations.

When so, the logical and empirical prior question that the analyst isn’t so much “What are the vulnerabilities and weak points,” as: Have the utility’s reliability professionals demonstrated a real-time track record by way of managing under circumstances where (1) they didn’t know what they initially thought they knew, (2) they in fact knew more than they had first thought, (3) or both?

Is there a track record of learning-and-unlearning by utility operators and support staff around, say, meeting the challenges their equipment fires pose to system reliability and safety? Or are some utilities or their reliability staff under such pressure to change that track records of any important sort become more and more difficult to establish?


One last point. When colleagues and I started to study the reliability of large critical infrastructures—that socio-technical anchorage of the modern—a paradox confronted us: How can they be so reliable with so much that could go so wrong at any second? How could these infrastructures be managed as reliably and safely as they were with so many moving parts and potential interactions beyond human comprehension?[1]

My answer starts by shifting the focus in risk and reliability management to the track records of experience and training. But it is also necessary not to miss the performative, self-referential nature of labelling the initial question “a paradox.” In doing so, we demonstrate our own cognitive limits of understanding the systems we study. We too are in the midst of having to “manage risk” by improvising and riding uncertainty while shuttling between experience and inexperience.

[1] This paradox has been with use from early on. Here is Frederick S. Williams on the British railways from his Our Iron Roads, 1888:

This immense number of passengers and enormous bulk of goods are drawn by engines of the most complicated mechanism, held together with millions of rivets, each engine—containing an intricate network of tubes, numerous cranks, and other delicate pieces of workmanship, and the engines and vehicles are connected by chains and couplings. In every separate item of all these innumerable parts lurk elements of danger, and the slightest fracture might produce disaster. All this is done, and with what result? That there is no safer place in the world, as Professor De Morgan said some years ago, and it is still true, than a railway train.

“Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

Today we have a joint statement–actually the sentence quoted above–from the Center for AI Safety and signed by more than 350 AI experts and public figures.

Now, of course, we cannot dismiss the actual and potential harms of artificial intelligence.

But just as clearly these 350 people must be among the last people on Earth you’d turn to for pandemic and nuclear war scenarios of sufficient granularity against which to assess their own AI risk scenarios.

Key blog entries on pastoralists and pastoralisms

Subsistence agriculture and livestock: how reliability-seeking and risk-averse differ

Resilience is a plural noun

Disaster-averted is central to pastoralist development

Recasting “land-use conflicts” involving pastoralists

Reframing the latest drought in East Africa

A Shackle analysis of Borana sedentarization

Recasting national policies for pastoralist development

Drylands, remittances and the twelve rules for radicals

“Adaptable” and “flexible” are not nuanced enough to catch the place-specific nature of pastoralist improvisations

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

Which “rangeland restoration”?

Pastoralism on the offense, not just defended

Environmental livestock-tarring

Frustrated herders

Subsistence agriculture and livestock: how reliability-seeking and risk-averse differ

A risk-averse farmer keeps multiple varieties of crops, livestock and/or sites so that, if one fails, s/he has others to fall back on. The more different crops, livestock and sites a farmer can muster and maintain, the greater the chances s/he won’t lose everything. Where possible, the risk-averse farmer avoids hazards whose probabilities and uncertainties cannot be managed so as to maintain a survival mix of crops, livestock and productive sites. The risk-averse farmer faces a land carrying capacity that sets exogenous limits on the total crops and livestock produced.

A reliability-seeking farmer keeps multiple varieties of crops, livestock and/or sites because any single resource—e.g., the land that sustains the crop, site and livestock—is managed better if it provides multiple services. The more crops, livestock and sites a farmer can muster and maintain, the greater the chances s/he can meet peak demands made on his/her production system. The reliability-seeking farmer seeks to manage the probabilities and uncertainties of hazards that cannot be avoided so as to maintain a peak mix of crops, livestock and sites. The reliability-seeking farmer faces a carrying capacity whose endogenous limits are set by farmer skills for and experience with different operating scales and production phases.


Farming behavior, no matter if labelled “subsistence,” that

  • is developed around high technical competence and highly complex activities,
  • requires high levels of sustained performance, oversight and flexibility,
  • is continually in search of improvement,
  • maintains great pressures, incentives and expectations for continuous production, and
  • is predicated on maintaining peak (not minimum) livestock numbers in a highly reliable fashion without threatening the limits of system survival

is scarcely what one would call “risk-averse.”

Resilience is a plural noun

The topic here is herders of livestock primarily in the African rangelands. Below are two different redescriptions of herders and their systems: it’s resiliencies, not just resilience; and disasters-averted need to be far more recognized and capitalized on.


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 some systems—not all!—are 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.


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

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.


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.”

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?

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 that 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?”


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

Recasting “land-use conflicts” involving pastoralists


The great virtue of political ecology, in my view, has been to complexify narratives of 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 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. 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.

Reframing the latest drought in East Africa

Nothing in what follows argues against the latest East Africa drought being of catastrophic proportions in terms of human and livestock deaths and migrations. What I want to do here is contextualize this catastrophe differently in order to show what remains a catastrophe has some different but very important policy and management implications.


Start with the current debates over periodizing World Wars I and II. It’s one thing to adopt the conventional periodization of the latter as 1939 – 1945. It is another thing to read in detail how 1931 – 1953 was a protracted period of conflicts and wars unfolding to and from a central paroxysm in Europe.

In the latter perspective, the December 1941 – September 1945 paroxysm, with the Shoah and the carnage, was short and embedded in a much longer series of large regional wars. These in turn were less preludes to each other than an unfolding process that was indeed worldwide. (Think: Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the late 1940s Dutch war in Indonesia, the French war in Indochina from the late 1940s through early 1950s, and the Korean War, among regional conflicts across the globe.)


Now think of the latest East Africa drought as one such paroxysm, with drought-related conflicts leading up to and following from it. What follows from such a construction?

Well, one thing that follows is so obvious that it might be missed. This East Africa drought is not a paroxysm for pastoralism systems worldwide, let alone in the world’s arid and semi-arid lands.

Even the current climate emergency would fall short of that role, given so much regional and local variation in climate response to date. Of course, we can imagine a global polycrisis involving drought, climate change and the like, but that scenario would inevitably be but one of other potential polycrisis scenarios out there.

So, let’s return to East Africa as the unit and level of analysis, with the current drought being an indisputable paroxysm.

What follows for policy and management there?

Current emergency management lingo about this or that “longer-term recovery” would be considerably problematized when the longer term is one drought unfolding into another drought and so on. Immediate emergency response would look considerably less immediate when embedded in a process of recurring response always before the next disaster.

To be clear here, it’s an advance in pastoralist development to embed mechanisms for explicit emergency preparedness, immediate response and longer term recovery. But no one should delude themselves into believing that making explicit these stages and identifying interventions won’t highlight the ongoing and unfolding difficulties in recasting these processes in terms that policy or management narratives with beginnings, middles and ends.

What does this mean practically?

What does it mean to frame the current East Africa drought as a paroxysm that extends both the spatial and temporal terms of “recurring drought response and recovery across East Africa”?

Clearly then one major issue is government budgets (in the plural) for their recurrent operations in pastoralist areas. Or more negatively, you’re looking at the recurrent cost crises of East Africa governments–which, to my mind, far too few critics analyze as they seem more fixated on the obvious failures of capital development projects and programs for pastoralists.

My own view (and I stand to be created) is that you have to have recurrent operating budget already in place in order to get recurring drought response and recovery more effective on the ground over time.

Anything else?

One of the major reasons why “recurring drought response and recovery” is better part of government’s recurrent rather than capital budget is because pastoralists give ongoing priority to the real-time prevention of other disasters from happening along the way and the need for their improvisational behavior to do that.

Yes, the government budget for staff operations falls woefully short in helping pastoralists do so, but it is government operations we are talking about, not the log-frame of a project.


Buchanan, A. (2023). Globalizing the Second World War. Past & Present: A Journal of Historical Studies 258: 246-281.

A Shackle analysis of Borana sedentarization


Unlike many 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 national policies for pastoralist development

I propose to categorize policies according to their intended goal into a three-fold typology: (i) compensation policies aim to buffer the negative effects of technological change ex-post to cope with the danger of frictional unemployment, (ii) investment policies aim to prepare and upskill workers ex-ante to cope with structural changes at the workplace and to match the skill and task demands of new technologies, [and] (iii) steering policies treat technological change not simply as an exogenous market force and aim to actively steer the pace and direction of technological change by shaping employment, investment, and innovation decisions of firms.

R. Bürgisser (2023), Policy Responses to Technological Change in the Workplace, European
Commission, Seville, JRC130830 (accessed online at

This epigraph focuses specifically on the how to think about policies that better respond to effects of automation on displacing workers.

Please re-read the epigraph and then undertake the following thought experiment.


Imagine it is pastoralists who are being displaced from their usual herding workplaces, in this case by land encroachment, sedentarization, climate change, mining, or other largely exogenous factors.

The question then becomes what are the compensation, investment and steering policies of government, among others, to address this displacement. That is, where are the policies to: (1) compensate herders for loss of productive livelihoods, (2) upskill herders in the face of eventually losing their current employment, and (3) efforts to steer the herding economies and markets in ways that do not lose out if and where new displacement occurs?

The answer? With the odd exception that proves the rule, no such national policies exist.


Yes, yes, of course there are the NGO, donor project, and local department trying to work along these lines. But one has to ask at this point in development history whether their existence is the excuse government uses for avoiding having to undertake such policies, regionally or nationally.


A more productive exercise might be to ask: How would various pro-pastoralist interventions be classified: as compensatory, as investment, and/or as steering?

It seems to me that many of the pro-pastoralist interventions fall under the rubric of “steering policies”. The aim is to keep pastoralists who are already there, there–and better off in some regards. Better veterinary measures, paravets and mobile teachers that travel with the herding households, real-time marketing support, mobile health clinics, restocking programs as and when needed, better water point management and participation, and the like are offered up as ways to improve herding livelihoods in the arid and semi-arid lands.


Fair enough, but clearly not far enough, right?

For where are the corresponding compensation and investment policies?

Where, for example, are the policy interventions for improving and capitalizing on re-entry of remittance-sending members back into pastoralism once they return home? Where are the national policies to compensate farmers for not encroaching further on pastoralist lands, e.g., by increasing investments on the agricultural land they already have? Where are the national (and international) policies that recognize keeping the ecological footprint of pastoralist systems is far less expensive than that of urban and peri-urban infrastructures?


So what?

This missing government policies would function much along the lines government support of various “new green initiatives” are meant to: They seek to derisk dryland development by enlisting the private capital of pastoralists, agro-pastoralists and farmers via adjusting the risk/returns on their private investments in local infrastructure, such as markets and transportation. Obviously this is easier said than done and would have distributional impacts if done.


On the derisking state, see

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.

“Adaptable” and “flexible” are not nuanced enough to catch the place-specific nature of pastoralist improvisations

–Return to an old resource management typology. Its two dimensions are: (1) fixed resources/mobile resources and (2) fixed management/mobile management.

The repeated example of the mobile resources/mobile management cell has been pastoralist (nomadic/transhumant) herders. Fortunately, the truth of the matter has always been more usefully complicated.

From the standpoint of sustaining biodiversity across wide rangelands, some pastoralist systems are examples of mobile management (e.g., of grazers or browsers) with respect to fixed resources (different patches at different points and times along routes or itineraries). Indeed, this may be occurring because fixed on-site biodiversity management is too costly to undertake, if not altogether unimaginable otherwise.

–Now ratchet up the complexity. What had been mobile management must now be fixed; and what had been a fixed resource or asset now must be mobile.

Example: During the COVID lockdown, some pastoralists created informal bush markets at or near their kraals as alternatives to the now-restricted formal marketplaces. So too do formal associations of pastoralists participating in distant conference negotiations or near-by problem-solving meetings exemplify a now differently fixed resource exercising now differently-mobile management.

It’s good to remember that not only government can (and should) make their fixed-point resources–formal markets or social protection infrastructure–mobile.

–So what?

Terms, like “adaptable” and “flexible,” are not nuanced enough to catch the place-specific improvisational property of that adaptability and flexibility in undertaking shifts from fixed to mobile or mobile to fixed.

More formally, being skilled at real-time improvisation is what we also must expect of pastoralists whose chief system control variable is their real-time adjustments in grazing/browsing intensities (which can of course include adjusting livestock numbers through off-take).

Colin Strang or 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 introduce 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

Eight years later, we get Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Common, whose answer to “What if every herder did that?” is: “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 explicit piece on morality took no account of Strang’s essay, which was among the most cited and anthologized in collections on ethics and morality at that time.

Which “rangeland restoration”?


“Restore” is a very big word in infrastructure studies. It’s been applied to: (1) interrupted service provision restored back to normal infrastructure operations; (2) services initially restored after the massive failure of infrastructure assets; and (3) key equipment or facilities restored after a non-routine “outage” as part of regular maintenance and repair.

To be clear, what follows are overlapping examples, but good-enough for our purposes:

–An ice storm passes through, leading to a temporary closure of a section of the road system. Detours may or may not be possible until the affected roadways are restored. This is an example of #1.

–An earthquake hits, systemwide telecommunications fail outright big time, and mobile cell towers are brought in by way of immediate response to restore telecom services, at least initially. This is an example #2.

–A generator in a power plant trips offline. Repairs are undertaken, often involving manual, hands-on work so as to restore back on line. This kind of sudden outage happens all the time and is considered part of the electric utility’s standard-normal M&R (maintenance and repair). This is an example of #3.


Now think of “rangeland restoration” in these terms of 1 – 3, e.g.:

#1: Stall feeding, which is here part of normal operations, is restored after an unexpected interruption in its version of a supply chain. Trucking of water and livestock, which are also part of normal livestock operations there, are temporarily interrupted.

#2: Grasslands have been appropriated for other uses (the infamous agriculture), requiring indefinite use of alternative livestock feed and grazing until a more permanent solution is found.

#3: A grassland fire—lightning strikes are a common enough occurrence though unevenly distributed—takes part of the grasslands out of use, at least until (after) the next rains. Herders respond by reverting to more intensive alternative intensive grazing practices for what’s left to work with.


Now, the implications are major. Here’s one: the issue of overgrazing is often a sideshow distracting from what is actually going on infrastructurally. Because normal operations—remember, it’s the benchmark used here for comparisons—always has had overgrazing in its operations.

What, for example, do you think the sacrifice grazing around a livestock borehole is about? There is nothing to “restore” the immediate perimeter of this borehole back to. In fact, that “overgrazed perimeter” is an asset in normal operations of the livestock production and livelihood systems I have in mind.


So what?

As I read them, calls for “rangeland restoration” are a contradiction in infrastructure parlance, namely: “rangeland recovery back to an old normal.” Recovery in infrastructure terms is a massively complex, longer term, multi-stakeholder activity without any guarantees following on immediate emergency response to outright full system collapse.

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.

Principal sources [foundational economy] [capitalisms as assemblages]

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.”


For one of many examples, see

Frustrated herders

Inability to tolerate empty spaces limits the space available

W.R. Bion, psychoanalyst


How is it that we outsiders 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 question askers–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.


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 change only for the better when gratified. Gratifying needs and wants, as such, turn into as a species of prediction, for which planning and its cognates are suitable responses.

The reality of contingency is that the future, let alone the present, is not that predictable. In this reality, peoples’ needs are more an experiment than something to be met, or not.


Let me sketch three of the policy and management implications:

1. First and foremost, the frequency of wants and needs being frustrated–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. 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.

2. Still, saying we have to handle frustrations without being paralyzed or stalemated sounds like a bit too pat an answer.

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.

3. 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 for them, 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.

The radical insistence of betterment

“I in fact believe that we possess valid criteria for judging when criticism is good and when it is bad…But I also think it is a mistake to assume, and self-defeating to pretend, that these criteria are simple and obvious….To get progressively clearer to the multiple and interdependent discriminations involved requires the evolving give-and-take of dialogue…[W]hen a proponent says, ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ his interlocutor will reply, ‘Yes, but. . .'”   M.H. Abrams, literary critic

“The motto on his shield is a bold ‘YES BUT—.’” Dwight Macdonald, the critic writing of himself

“Remember, I started out learning and appreciating literature at the time of the Black Arts Movement, when people were saying, ‘Look at what’s around you. Look at the people around you. Look at all that music around you.’ I was learning poetry at that time. So I was learning poetry when people were saying, ‘We don’t need no poems about trees. We need poems about the people.’ That was one of the things that you would hear from the people who wanted a certain kind of community poetry. But see, you’ve got a guy like me who’s listening to that, and I’ve been twelve miles out on the Bermuda reef and working in Alaska. My job was with nature. So when I picked up the Black Arts Movement, I picked it up with, ‘Yeah, yeah. But—.'”  Ed Roberson, poet

But just what are the yes-buts being talked about here? We arrive at an answer when we differentiate complex policy and management more granularly.

Which present debt crisis—one, more, or all—are we talking about for managing better? Is it: that we can’t predict the kind of interventions and states of affair necessary to adapt better to future debt conditions; that increases in the public debt (including interest payments) are unsustainable even in the short-run; that our latest jargon about better budgeting vaporizes like all fads; and/or that it’s not an issue of if the public debt becomes catastrophic, but only when? The four overlap, but each of represents a different kind of “present.”

Betterment comes to the fore not by having to choose which of present (or in combination) “more accurately” represents reality. Rather it is by insisting that each must be interrogated by asking the further question: “What are the implications of not-knowing the present being identified or surmised in each?”

Doing so ends up in all manner of “yes-but.” As in: What if “not knowing the present” is the only practical way to keep ourselves open to the possibility of different long-terms with respect to, in this case, bettering ourselves when it comes to the public debt?

More specifically, what if not-knowing—not-knowing really—is the way we keep options open or in reserve, if only because we rightly insist that affairs constellating around the public debt remain difficult after three hundred years grappling with its yes’s and no’s of inexperience?


Earlier definitions of betterment figured in versions of the 18th century European Enlightenment. The term was used interchangeably with “improvement” or “progress,” though from time to time singled out as its own unit of analysis (most famously in economist Adam Smith’s “the great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition”). Indeed, betterment is the core driver for some.

The evident diversity in Enlightenment thinkers, however, made it inevitable that not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience would be touched upon specifically.

Voltaire discusses not-knowing in the entry “On the Limits of the Human Mind” of his Philosophical Dictionary; David Hume, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, grappled with the acknowledged idea of “not-knowing as the key to the contented life,” according to one commentator. In the view of another, Adam Smith expressed “an open skepticism about the possibility of knowing definitively what it is we are really doing;” while Immanuel Kant famously wrote about “the unknowability of things-in-themselves.” “Full recognition of the importance of uncertainty and the unknowable in analysing economic processes is an eighteenth-century heritage. . .which cannot be emphasized too often. . .” writes a third observer.

As for difficulty, historian Jonathan Israel sketches its central role in the Radical Enlightenment: “The notion, still widespread today, that Enlightenment thinkers nurtured a naive belief in man’s perfectibility seems to be a complete myth conjured up by early twentieth-century scholars unsympathetic to its claims. In reality, Enlightenment progress breathed a vivid awareness of the great difficulty of spreading toleration, curbing religious fanaticism, and otherwise ameliorating human organization, orderliness, and the general state of health was always impressively empirically based.”

Nor was the role of inexperience remote to versions of the Enlightenment: “In the light of the triumph of Newtonian science, the men of the Enlightenment argued that experience and experiment, not a priori reason, were the keys to true knowledge,” writes historian, Roy Porter, where inexperience ironically became a touchstone for criticizing French Enlighteners: “Above all, critics complained, in politics the philosophes lacked the quality they pretended to value most: experience.” Yet, the almost universal priority given to education by Enlightenment advocates across a wide spectrum reflected their acknowledgement that more education was to mean, acutely, more experience.


So what? Widespread not-knowing, difficulty and experience can give rise to social dread, and the response to dread is knowing what to do by way of betterment.

The large-scale systems for betterment—whether defined around markets at one end or social protections at the other—are managed in large part because of widespread societal dread over what happens when they aren’t managed reliably and safely. Critical infrastructures for energy, water and healthcare (among others) are so essential that they mustn’t fail, even when (especially when) they change. That they do fail, and materially so, increases the very real pressures that it’s far too costly not to manage them.

We of course are meant to wonder at the perversity of this. But that is the function of this dread, isn’t it? Namely: to push us further in probing what it means to privilege social and individual reliability and safety over other values and desires. We are meant to ask: What would it look like in world where such reliability and safety are not so privileged?

For the answer is also altogether evident: Most of the planet lives in that world of unreliability and little safety. We’re meant to ask—because the answer is that clear, even with (precisely because?) of the yes-buts.


Abrams, M.H. (1991). Doing Things With Texts: Essays in Criticism and Critical Theory. Edited by M. Fischer, Norton Paperback. W.W. Norton: New York, NY.

Gay, P. (1969). The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. The Science of Freedom (Vol. 2). First Paperback Edition. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, NY

Groenewegen, P. (2002). Eighteenth Century Economics: Turgot, Beccaria and Smith and their Contemporaries. Routledge: London and New York

Israel, J. (2010). A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Lloyd, G. (2013). Enlightenment Shadows. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK

Mendelson, E. (2015). Moral Agents: Eight Twentieth Century American Writers. New York Review Books: New York, NY.

Porter, R. (2001) The Enlightenment. Second Edition. Studies in European History. Palgrave/Macmillan: Great Britain.

Roberson, E. (2016). A conversation with Ed Roberson. Chicago Review 59(4)/60(1): 90-94.

Jump off or stay onboard?


Hans Blumenberg makes the point that being at sea was not the preferred state of affairs in early Greek and Roman times. Rather, that was the purpose of terra firma, as the term implies.

Now, however, even terra firma is compared to being anchored while in uneasy waters.

In this way, being shipwrecked and thrown overboard applies both to being at sea and on land. For those who don’t drown outright, survivors try keeping afloat by grabbing onto whatever is at hand. The short-term hope is improvise a raft of sorts–or to be tossed up on the shore, itself however another raft to build.

The long-term hope is to render the initial raft into something more and more seaworthy. Or better put, assembling the makeshift raft into something more reliable and safe while at sea is the long-term.


What does this mean practically?

Assume the raft we—that is, the survivors so far–have made for ourselves is a cobbled-together, patched-up critical infrastructure by this point. This is literally true. Major retrofitting bridges and levees are still patchwork learned from prior failures and–really when you think about it–little or no different from workarounds generally.

Where so, at least one point becomes clear: Why would we now jump this ship—this large scale water system, this electricity grid–and start over again? We’d do that only if we thought jumping overboard early afforded us more chances of survival, i.e., a worse shipwreck lay ahead for us if we stayed on board.

But it’s economies and societies that kill us, not infrastructures as such. Or are we to imagine that jumping overboard now means survival doesn’t also depend on improvising a raft from the debris already there? Clearly, we need different infrastructures but it is still more reliable and safe infrastructures being sought regardless.


So what?

Since realistically the counterfactuals for infrastructures cannot be the presettlement template or a settlement template without infrastructures, the implication is that alternative infrastructures said to make for “calmer conditions” (e.g., micro-grids at smaller scales) nevertheless involve their own adventures and risks.

That informed people regardless stay at sea (as in earthquake zones) even if they can get away—and many can’t—tells you something about their preferences for safety with respect to the known unknowns of where they live and work versus safety with respect to unknown-unknowns of doing otherwise.

Which, in case it needs saying, means the shipwreck we see from the safety of the shore is the least objective and most subjective of them all.

Better to say, I think, that the inevitable repair of infrastructures, be they new and old, means establishing a track record for improvisations with what’s at hand, including what’s been cannibalized from other (earlier) systems that no longer work.