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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. Pastoralists are intermedial.

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

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

Why “intermedial pastoralist”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Pastoralism is pastoralisms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading

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

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

Pastoralists as avant-garde

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

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

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

That kind of looks like Basotho shepherds, right?

Ok, ok, let’s not be silly. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related reading

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

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

Recasting Roosevelt’s New Deal

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

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

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

–Why does this matter?

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

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

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

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

Principal sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, but?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then come the listed recommendations, including:

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

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

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

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

What am I missing?

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

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

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

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


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

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

One kaleidoscope, many twists; same pieces, different configurations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pastoralists and Pastoralisms (longer read)

As others, I’ve more to say about a topic than I put into published articles. The topic here is herders of livestock primarily in the African rangelands. My interest started with dryland projects in Botswana and Kenya during the early 1970s and 1980s. More recently, interchanges with and the work of Ian Scoones, Saverio Krätli and Michele Nori reignited that interest (references at the end).

Below are four sets of different points on herders and their systems of production (some material has been revised from earlier blogs.) It’s an all-sorts and seems exotic at first, but the more you read, the more you’ll see the points are apposite to other, more familiar issues.

1.     Resilience isn’t what you think

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.

Why does this matter? 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, offtake of livestock products is interrupted, lightning triggers a veldt fire—and here the efforts at restoring conditions back to normal is better termed restoration resilience. Access to alternative feed stocks or sources of livelihood may be required in the absence of grazing and watering fallbacks normally available.

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

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

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

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

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

2.     Disaster-averted is central to pastoralist development

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

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

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

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


Of course, inequality, marketization, commodification, precarity and other related processes matter for pastoralists and others. The same for modernization, late capitalism and global environmental destruction. 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?

Claiming over-arching explanations are in fact empirical generalizations made across complex cases too often voids the diversity of responses and emerging practices of importance for policy and management that are modified case by case. Most important, appeals to generalized processes or state conditions diminishes 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.


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, my focus on disasters-averted holds for those who were not advantaged then but are so now.

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

3.     Let’s cull sustainability

You may think I’m singling out for special criticism those who rely on wider forces as the key explanatory variables of case-by-case complexities. To be clear, there are others to criticize. There are, for example, those who continue to assert that pastoralists have special knowledge and skills in sustainable management of the arid and semi-arid lands. While certainly true in some cases, pastoralist households are too differentiated—fortunately!—to be the dryland’s elite overseer, full stop.

I suggest it’s useful to rethink issues of sustainability, when it comes to pastoralists and pastoralism.


Start with the familiar development narrative about sustainability, roughly as follows:

Sustainable land uses—e.g., hunting and gathering or, later, traditional pastoralist systems of mobile (“nomadic”) herders and livestock —have been more beneficial to the environment than are today’s large sociotechnical systems, which have exploited and degraded that environment. Dams and hydropower have caused irreversible damage and have long displaced the earlier, more sustainable uses. Pastoralist herding systems, for their part, continue to be edged out by encroachments that are themselves unsustainable. The effects on and damage to dryland ecology have been acute and pernicious.

What to do? Minimally, we have to institute and abide by sustainability principles, criteria and indicators. We must ensure indicators are in place to tell us how fast we are moving away from or back towards sustainability. . .

How to respond to this narrative, especially for those of us (myself included) who find the argument irons out all the important complexities and arrives at a wrong-headed conclusion? Even were the narrative true as far as it goes, it needs to go much further.

One way of revealing complexities that matter is to parse the argument through those other narratives about “sustainability” that already exist. Let me illustrate one example.


Those who follow the sustainability literature have also come across such statements as:

. . .So, while sustainability has been shown to be a key existential issue of our age, less acknowledged has been the fact that many sustainability indicators currently mis-specify the system to be sustained. . .

Undertake a thought experiment. Stop reading where the ellipses begin. Ask yourself, what is the author likely to say by way of finishing the thought? I suspect a good number of sustainability advocates would conclude that phrase, “currently mis-specify the system to be sustained” with some variant of “. . .which today is global if not planetary.”

I would end the sentence differently. The word, “indicators,” immediate trigger for me the need to specify the “with respect to what” for each indicator. Let me cut to the quick by filling in the last set of ellipses my own way, this time by referencing the earlier narratives on resilience:

. . sustainability indicators currently mis-specify the system to be sustained. This mis-specification occurs along many avenues. Most important, indicators must always have bandwidths when it comes to high reliability performance at the system level.

By bandwidths, the reliability literature means upper and lower ranges of, or limits on, actual group behavior, the breaching of which triggers adjustment responses among the group. In this way, normal operations at the system level are not static but fluctuate within tolerance levels.

Or, if you prefer, resilience without bandwidths isn’t resilience, and that resilience—fluctuations within bandwidths and adjustments back when breaching bandwidths—is the starting point for working out sustainability under mandates of high reliability. Most crucially, “adaptive capacity” or “flexibility,” to the extent they are unbounded or left unconstrained, do not capture this key bandwidth feature of resilience. . .

This isn’t the place to argue the merits of any such alternative reading, The bigger point is we’re relying instead on already-existing sustainability narratives, though more specific than others when it comes to resilience, to hone into what matters by way of complexity—in this case, better thinking through the complexities of group behavior under conditions of high uncertainty across multiple scales.


How do I know I’ve identified the “right” sustainability narrative from the many out there with which to parse the dominant narrative?

But that is the wrong question. There is no right choice; there are only more or less useful ones, and what’s useful depends on your being clearer about “with respect to.” By way of example, it’s more useful for me with respect to my policy and management perspective, if at a practical level, I ask: Just what are the bandwidths associated with, say, place and time in the herding itinerary?

I’m thinking here of the very useful insight of Saverio Krätli that pastoralism is a “livestock- based livelihood/production system specialised in taking advantage of variability and centered on managing grazing itineraries at a variety of scale”. Does that scale, presumably both spatial and temporal, imply bandwidths of a particular kind?

More, if such bandwidths do exist, they are not set by the control-imaginaries of rangeland ecologists, water point engineers or livestock veterinarians, but in practice by those following such itineraries—where “practice” here is more methodologically consonant with, say, pastoralist participatory exercises than with credentialed experts isolating their grid maps and log frames.

4.     Briefer points stick better with some readers

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

You can stipulate Asia begins here and Africa ends there, but good luck in making that stick for policies!

(This notion that locational borders change with-respect-to the unit of analysis would be banal, were it not for this: Both household migrants in Europe and household members in African drylands lack occupancy rights to where they live and work. No shared right of place for these people!)


Like the poverty premium, where poor people have to pay more for key services (insurance, credit, energy, shelter), people who try to fully control their uncertain task environments pay a “control premium”: Control strategies cost them more than would be the case were they able to cope ahead or manage the uncertainty better. Single-minded taskmasters are all the poorer for being control freaks (“less insured and creditworthy”).

Their control-seeking is affliction for others. When the control excesses make the lives of others difficult or worse, this doesn’t come in the form of an externality to be corrected by taxing them or having the rest of us bribe them to become better uncertainty managers. Their controlling behavior shifts the costs onto us. They might as well be demanding money with menaces from us. (More about the importance of cost-shifting below).


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

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

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

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

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


An article in The Guardian tells us, “The heart of the problem is the need to persuade herders to give up treating land and water as a free resource”. This statement is so flawed it’s not even wrong.

More or less wrong arguments are decidable within contexts of agreed-upon processes of validation and falsification. In contrast, “the heart of the problem is the need to persuade herders to give up treating land and water as a free resource” couldn’t possibly specify—in the granularity required for falsifying or validating—just what “treating as free resources” means, either as a statement or as four words. There is no respect-to-what.


Do you see the disturbing parallel between, on one hand, those who want to save Planet Earth from further harm and pain by means of seductively straightforward “treatments” like getting rid of fossil fuel or methane-producing cattle and, on the other hand, Purdue Pharma’s promotion of OxyContin as treatment for chronic pain that masked the lethal addiction with believing in this kind of “straightforward” medicine?


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

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

Cost-shifting means economic agents gain by imposing losses on others, and they gain more, the more the costs are shifted. “My principles, sir, in these things are to take as much as I can get and to pay no more than I can help…There, sir, is political economy in a nutshell,” says a character in Thomas Love Peacock’s 1831 Crotchet Castle.

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

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

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

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


Really-existing practices and processes of pastoralist households are known to be empirically more differentiated, so much so that the currently popular common property resource (CPR) management narrative no longer captures (if it ever really did) even the gist of what is going on in pastoralism(s).

What does this mean for the wider diffusion of pastoralist practices further on? Here’s one answer:

  • We might resist the temptation to think a key task ahead is to articulate policy and management narratives reflected in, whether intentionally or not, contemporary pastoralist behaviors, as if that could replace/displace narratives for the tragedy of the commons (ToC) and CPR management for better pastoralist development. What’s actually going on by way of those behaviors and their diffusion is too messy and thus too informative to be synthesized into a reduced form narrative or model.
  • The better task is to identify those handful of mechanisms that enable the diversity of pastoralist narratives on the ground. I suggested one candidate in my STEPS paper (transforming high input variance into low and stable output variance via high process variance); others are to be encouraged, e.g., the five principles/sets of practices in Michele Nori’s work (adaptive herd management, patchworks of territories and livelihoods, moving around, and social networks). The more, the better, frankly.

Why? Because the bolder task ahead, I would like to think, isn’t only to come up with transferable or modifiable practices from pastoralist site A to non-pastoralist site B. It is to identify how mechanisms in common lead to progressive policy and management implications for both A and B.

If so, the question is not, “What replaces current dominant narratives for the purposes of better pastoralist development?,” but: “How do we catch up with and keep abreast of what pastoralists are actually doing? Here I’m underscoring the need for multi-site, comparative research on pastoralist practices, management and behavior.

More, let’s be clear about high stakes in not undertaking such research. We’re then facing the same epistemic opacity criticized today about big-data algorithms and automated decision-making (ADM). Our not-knowing what pastoralists are doing better by way of managing under uncertainty—practices and mechanisms—is the mirror reflection of our trying to manage uncertainty by not-knowing the algorithms and ADM we rely on.


One last point for the time being. In my view, the chief difficulty pastoralist development faces aren’t just current reduced-form development narratives. I have in mind here:

  • standard-issue, larval CPR models as in The Dasgupta Biodiversity Review; and the herder dismissed as primitive accumulator in the just-so stories of bureaucrats and politicians intent on control-freakery; and the compulsively chronocentric chop-logics of techno-optimism in the face of coming anarchies; and
  • those long-trough narratives of depastoralizing, deskilling, disorganizing and dewebbing the pastoralist life-world (leaving behind corpse-pastoralism, mummified by inequality, buried at sea in liquid modernity, dissolved by the quicklime of disaster capitalism and speculative finance, harboring worse to come); and
  • the hangover notion that policy and procedure are at every turn subordinate to state power, that politicians and officials are nothing more than the state’s secretariat to capitalists, that capitalism has entirely colonized every nook and cranny of the life-worlds, and that we must surrender our minds entirely to politics, such as it is.

Nor is the chief problem all those misleading evaluative criteria, such as successful pastoralists are by definition those that resist outside forces of change.[1]

All that would be bad enough, were it not for those cases where the opposite of good is good intentions. I have in mind those who regret the passing of pastoralism as if it were a singular institution with its own telos, agency and life-world. It wasn’t and it isn’t, as pastoralisms are plural.

[1] As with freshwater biologists who consider Lethenteron appendix (the American brook lamprey) and Triops cancriformis (a type of tadpole shrimp) to be evolutionary success stories because the organisms haven’t evolved. They’re living fossils! In such a view, the best pastoralists are like feisty little tardigrades, those near-microscopic (read, marginal) organisms that survive in the most hostile environments on the planet.

Principal sources

–The Göran Therborn quote is at:

–The Guardian quote is at:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related reading: Blog entries for “Keeping up with pastoralists: A case for ‘Multiplatform Pastoralism’ (longer read),” “Pastoralists as avant-garde”

Unbracketing [Inequality]

World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think, 
Incorrigibly plural.
                            Louis MacNeice, "Snow"

–Start with the familiar story about income inequality:

We live in an interconnected world brought about by intensified globalization and market deregulation (liberalization, privatization)–a world whose most pressing failures include the erosion of: strong welfare states, progressive income tax structures, and social insurance mechanisms that were to mitigate or otherwise correct for rising income inequality within countries.

Evidence supports the narrative–as far as it goes. It would, however, be irresponsible not to push it further.

–Equally evident, the forces of globalization and marketization are realized differently depending on context. We would expect and do see different practices within and across regions in response to these forces and that the practices and consequences for inequality also differ.

Australia and Canada had a notably less severe “Global [sic] Financial Crisis” than did other countries. The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates a wide range of behavior in economic and social welfare response, not surprising for a world with more than 190 nations and sovereign entities.

–There are so many different programs, projects, activities and initiatives connected to “income inequality” that the immediate challenge is to compare and contrast them before drawing generalizations about anything like an [Inequality] bracketed off from really-existing variability.

The comparison challenge is not so much at the level of that country’s family support program contrasted to this country’s family support program, when it comes to a capitalized benchmark called [Inequality].

The comparison is more across many family support programs, much along the lines that no single heart is the same as another but these different and other different hearts set the stage for recognizing patterns across really-existing ones. That patttern recognition is of inequality, with a small-i.

–Note one upshot: We must also demonstrate how any macro-variable is realized through that intervening variability.

When the macro-variable is “increased interconnectivity,” as in the narrative at the outset, we are left with the hard work not only of identifying what is meant by interconnectivity, but also the different configurations of interconnectivity and their own variabilities

Which, at the risk of tooting our own horn, is what Paul Schulman and I tried to do in our 2016 book, Reliability and Risk: The Challenge of Managing Interconnected Infrastructures (Stanford University Press).

First, differentiate!

When I and others call for better recognition and accommodation of complexity, we mean the complex as well as the uncertain, unfinished and conflicted must be particularized and contextualized if we are to analyze and to manage, if only case-by-granular case.

When I and others say we need more findings that can be replicated across a range of cases, we are calling for identification not only of emerging better practices across cases, but also of greater equifinality: finding multiple but different pathways to achieve similar objectives, given case diversity.

What I and others mean by calling for greater collaboration is not just more teamwork or working with more and different stakeholders, but that team members and stakeholders “bring the system into the room” for the purposes of making the services in question reliable and safe.

When I and others call for more system integration, we mean the need to recouple the decoupled activities in ways that better mimic but can never fully reproduce the coupled nature of the wider system environment.

When I and others call for more flexibility, we mean the need for greater maneuverability across different performance modes in the face of changing system volatility and options to respond to those changes. (“Only the middle road does not lead to Rome,” said composer, Arnold Schoenberg.)

Where we need more experimentation, we do not mean more trial-and-error learning, when the systemwide error ends up being the last systemwide trial by destroying the limits of survival.

While others talk about risks in a system’s hazardous components, we point to different systemwide reliability standards and then, to the different risks and uncertainties that follow from different standards.

Principal sources

The need to first differentiate is discussed as well in blog entries, starting with “With respect to what,” “Catastrophized cascades,” and others.

Preknown, known, unknown

It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in. Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

–If we start with the commonplace that analysis and deliberation center around what is known or not, then the boundaries of the known blur not only into the unknown, but also into the preknown. The latter is the preexisting knowledge that one is born into and “takes for granted.”

In his essay, “The Well-Informed Citizen,” Alfred Schütz, the sociologist, describes it this way:

The zone of things taken for granted may be defined as that sector of the world which, in connection with the theoretical or the practical problem we are concerned with at a given time, does not seem to need further inquiry, although we do not have clear and distinct insight into and understanding of its structure. What is taken for granted is, until invalidation, believed to be simply “given” and “given-as-it-appears-to-me”–that is, as I or others whom I trust have experienced and interpreted it. It is this zone of things taken for granted within which we have to find our bearings. All our possible questioning for the unknown arises only within such a world of supposedly preknown things, and presupposes its existence.

–One consequence of ignoring the preknown, known and unknown have blurred borders is this: We end up acting as if it does not matter that it takes preknowing and knowing enough to avoid entering into the unstudied conditions of the unknown. If Schütz is right, the preknown is where we “find our bearings” with respect to the known and unknown.

–What does this mean?

It turns out that all this talk about “unintended consequences of human action” is itself unintentionally simplistic. “Unintended” when the preknown is an invisible platform that lets us find our bearings so that other factors in the known and unknown carry the weight of argument about “unintended consequences”? “Consequences” rather than the intercalated knowing, preknowing, and not-knowing we chalk up to contingency and exigency?

“Unintended consequences of human action” is a coherent phrase only by missing the rest of that overwritten palimpsest, called “human action,” off of which the phrase is cobbled together and read.

For the sake of betterment: Positive functions of social dread, blind-spots, and complication


–Here’s a conjecture. Widespread fear and dread, which were reviled by Enlighteners, have positive social functions that serve Enlightenment goals of bettering human conditions.

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 have to change.

That they do fail, and materially so, increases the very real sense that it’s too costly not to manage them. This proves true even when betterment, rather than human perfectibility, is the objective. (In fact, the enemy of high reliability is the true believer in perfectibility through macro-design.)

–I’d like to believe that if we were to read more closely the early Enlighteners who focused on the drivers of inexperience, difficulty and not-knowing in the pursuit of human betterment, we’d see that the blind-spots of negative fear and social dread are their positive functions (and vice versa).


This Janus-faced nature of blind-spots–strengths and weaknesses are inseparable–is the useful complication which erodes so many ersatz dichotomies, such as Enlightenment versus whatever.

I can, for example, make the case that the manifest marker of a globalized modernity is the betterment described in this blog. I can also make the case that modernity’s latent marker, massive tax avoidance and evasion worldwide (throw in the billions and billions of wages stolen by employers, etc), is causally related to betterment. That is not a “paradox” or “dilemma”; it reflects a blind-spot that indexes complexity to be managed, not resolved.

–Some people do not like the complications; I do.

Consider those who are stopped short by “the unimaginability of any alternative to the neoliberal status quo.” Surely that’s a glove pulled inside-out. Neoliberalism generates such contingency and uncertainty as to undermine a conventionalized “status quo.” It’s the status quo as has been understood that is unimaginable.

And here’s what’s helpful in that realization. When have status quo’s ever been as real in practice as they are in theory? (We might as well try extracting sunbeams from cucumbers as in Gulliver’s Travels.) To paraphrase the international relations theorist, Hans Morgenthau: Excuse me, but just what status quo have the people committed themselves to? They haven’t, and that must be the place to start. That is hope not worn-thin by mis-use.

Appeals to anything like prolong stability in the midst of collectively-evident turbulence have to be read symptomatically if they are be of value to something as complicated as actually-existing betterment.

Principal sources

See the blog entries, “Betterment (continued),” “Good-enough criticism,” and “Where distrust and dread are positive social values”