Tansley’s ecosystem

The term, “ecosystem,” comes to us through A.G. Tansley’s 1935 article, “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms.” He has been criticized for his role in colonial British ecology, but here Tansley is of salience for two other reasons.

First, ecosystems for Tansley make no sense without taking humans and their interactions with the landscape into account. “We cannot confine ourselves to the so-called ‘natural’ entities and ignore the processes and expressions of vegetation now so abundantly provided us by the activities of man. Such a course is not scientifically sound, because scientific analysis must penetrate beneath the forms of the ‘natural’ entities, and it is not practically useful because ecology must be applied to conditions brought about by human activity,” he wrote.

This might seem to be pushing at an open door today, but Tansley deployed a discourse quite different than his contemporaries, the U.S. ecologists. Theirs were just-so stories about “climax communities” evolving on their own—if and only if devoid of human beings mucking things up. Two commentators on Tansley’s work (Laura Cameron and John Forrester) argue that his “principal contributions were, in contradistinction to American ecology, to emphasize the systemic interrelations of human activity and botanical phenomena—he sees no real difference between those ecosystems which are natural and those which are ‘anthropogenic’ (nature ‘produced by man’, as he glossed in 1923).” “A well-defined localized human community is the kernel of an ecosystem,” Tansley reiterated in an address to the British Ecological Society in 1939.

Tansley is, however, important to us for another reason. Not only was he a founder of the British Ecological Society (the precursor to ecological societies in many countries) and the Nature Conservancy, he was also well-known and respected member of the British Psycho-Analytic Society, having been analyzed by Freud for nine months in 1922 and 1924. For Tansley, humans and their desires (“energy”) were and are never far away from ecosystems in a profound way.

Whatever the reader thinks of Tansley’s dated terminology, we see few if any ecologists today take human desires as anything but The Enemy. Such, I’d like to think, would have appalled a Tansley who took desire and ecosystem to be inseparable. He’d be the last person, I suspect, surprised or shocked by large critical infrastructures, created to satisfy desires and wants, as having environmental impacts, bad and good.

Principal source: John Forrester and Laura Cameron (2017). Freud in Cambridge. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK. This is a massively informative volume and its footnotes alone are an entire education.

It’s better between the James brothers

In the first decade of the 20th century, sculptor Hendrik Anderson and architect Ernest Hébard conceived of a World City unprecedented in scale and purpose. They promised a far better way to solve what was wrong with humankind and their designs and plans were eventually published as Creation of a World Centre of Communication. In the final stages of preparing the volume, Anderson wrote his friend, novelist Henry James, seeking the latter’s help in reviewing and improving the work. James was appalled by the enormity of the project:

“. . .[W]hen you write me that you are now lavishing time and money on a colossal ready-made City, I simply cover my head with my mantle and turn my face to the wall, and there, dearest Hendrik, just bitterly weep for you. . .I have practically said these things to you before—though perhaps never in so dreadfully straight and sore a form as today, when this culmination of your madness, to the tune of five hundred millions of tons of weight, simply squeezes it out of me. For that, dearest boy, is the dread Delusion to warn you against—what is called in Medical Science Megalomania (look it up in the dictionary). . .What I am trying to say to you, gentle and dearest Hendrik. . .[is] that you are extemporizing a World-City from top to toe, and employing forty architects to see you through with it. . .Cities are living organisms, that grow from within and by experience and piece by piece. . .and to attempt to plant one down. . .is to—well it’s to go forth into the deadly Desert and talk to the winds.”

The language may not be yours, but the point remains all ours: Cities work only beyond design. More, they work because of their complexity. Betterment, if you will, works on the other side of blueprints for progress and economic growth.

Henry James also provides what may be the first glimpse of the importance Americans were to give to “high reliability” as the apogee of what can be achieved beyond design. He writes in the third person about his experience at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria early in the 20th century,

“The amazing hotel-world quickly closes around him; with the process of transition reduced to its minimum he is transported to conditions of extraordinary complexity and brilliancy, operating—and with the proportionate perfection—by laws of their own and expressing after their fashion a complete scheme of life….a synonym for civilization. . .[O]ne is verily tempted to ask if the hotel-spirit may not just be the American spirit most seeking and finding itself.”

His brother, William James, American psychologist and philosopher, had a different take on what made him better off, but resonating with his brother’s letter to Anderson. For William James, “hotel-spirit” went too far:

“A few summers ago I spent a happy week at the famous Assembly Grounds on the borders of Chautauqua Lake…Here you have a town of many thousands of inhabitants, beautifully laid out in the forest and drained, and equipped with means of satisfying all the necessary lower and most of the superfluous higher wants of man. . .You have, in short, a foretaste of what human society might be, were it all in the light, with no suffering and dark corners….And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: “Ouf! what a relief! Now for something primordial and savage. . .to set the balance straight again.”

I’d like to think that somewhere just ahead of William James’s “set the balance straight” and just before Henry James’s hotel-spirit of “extraordinary complexity and brilliancy” is where you find betterment as good enough.

Optimal ignorance

When I started out in rural development in the early 1970s, one challenge was to manage for optimal ignorance: Professionals should manage to the point where what they are learning is not worth knowing. Learning need take them only to where what they don’t know doesn’t add or subtract value for their acting now. Managing for optimal ignorance and its variants got a good deal of press from a range of writers at that time, notably social scientists Warren Ilchmann and Norman Uphoff, the development scholar Robert Chambers, and Peter Berger the sociologist.

The appeal of optimal ignorance waned considerably when I implemented projects that I had helped plan. On those occasions, I’d find myself mulling over what my first boss, the district commissioner, told me when I arrived in rural Botswana: “A piece of advice, my dear boy. Either stay in the kitchen all the time or never go in.” Nothing major gets implemented as planned, and only by staying in implementation (later, management) did I appreciate how little I knew with my formal education in public policy analysis. 

My view is that “optimize” should be banned, as a term, from policymaking and management. Like the dog returning to its vomit, optimality criteria are never satisfied in the imperfection of circumstance. But I didn’t fully understand that until later when I started researching large critical infrastructures, their control rooms and control operators. These large sociotechnical systems are so complex that their managers cannot really “know” what are inevitably unstudied conditions and their real-time inexperience and difficulties are permanent reminders of this. Optimizers with whom I’ve worked, on the other hand, seemed to think it’s better to burn the building down to save the rest of us the trouble of repairing it.

Yes, of course, studying and adapting to unknown unknowns are important and that’s why the idea of “chipping away at ignorance” is not all just hubris. But control room operators are attuned to stay out of unstudied conditions not because some things are not worth knowing but for the opposite reason: No way can these professionals afford to be in prolonged ignorance when the safe and continuous provision of critical services, like water and electricity, is paramount. “[I]f the grid fails and there are blackouts, people die,” one control room executive told us. Control rooms put up with uncertainties they can live with in order to avoid unknown unknowns they can’t or mustn’t tolerate.

But you press: What could be more respectful of complexity than managing and learning adaptively? Change course as uncertainties are reduced and more is learned. No one can be against learning, right?

That may be true as far as it goes, but even then it doesn’t go far enough. Here’s a story from my time as an advisor in Kenya. I had oversight responsibilities for a handful of integrated rural development projects in Kenya’s arid and semi-arid districts. One of the worst projects, in my judgment, was fixed around soil and water conservation measures. You asked villagers there what their three most important development priorities were and they’d say: water, water, water. Water for drinking, water for cooking, water for their livestock, water for everything that mattered in their daily lives. Here instead the donor was spending a fortune on ditches and bunds to prevent soil erosion on the hillsides primarily for crop purposes, without any direct increase in water supply for the households.

Unsurprisingly, villagers just wouldn’t “participate” in the project: Food-for-work schemes didn’t work, giving them hoes or such didn’t work, nothing worked. Later on, I tracked down one of the project’s designer and asked: “Why ever was the project designed that way? Absolutely no one there was for soil and water conservation.” It was like he’d been waiting years for someone to ask him that question. He leaned forward, “But who can be against soil and water conservation?”

So too for managing adaptively: Who, really, can be against it? Why, that would be like arguing against the scientific method or evidence-based policymaking, worse yet trial and error learning.

Yet, as with soil and water conservation and other projects, we must ask: managing adaptively for what? And here too, what is often desired is its own version of high reliability water, water, water—reliable water for urban use, for agricultural use, for ecosystem rehabilitation and the environment; for ports, for shipping lanes, for recreation, for hydropower, for…you name it, water is needed for it. And a very great deal of that provision depends on large-scale water supplies, electricity supplies and other infrastructures—which is why I keep coming back to their importance.

Obviously, control room operators of large infrastructures (and not all critical infrastructures have control rooms) are from time to time pushed into the unknown unknowns by contingent events. But it’s too easy to confuse being pushed into ignorance unwillingly with a much valorized albeit half-blind trial and error learning that places a premium on “testing” unstudied conditions intentionally. (Not to worry when being “fully creative, imaginative, and inspired” means being bereft of vigilance and self-reflection at the same time!)

For control operators, real time is too important to experiment in when their first error ends up being our final system trial. The last thing we want is our airplane pilots “to embrace failure” mid-flight, notwithstanding all those anodyne business and management articles on the virtues of error, failure and unstudied conditions. Too much of that privileging borders on modern-day priestcraft, miracle-mongering, and the criminal.

Jorie Graham’s systemcide

In an earlier entry I liken one of our common challenges to that of reading Hardy’s “Convergence of the Twain” as if it were still part of the news (it had been written less than two weeks after the sinking of the Titanic). So too the challenge of reading the first sequence of poems in Jorie Graham’s Fast (2017, Ecco HarperCollinsPublishers). This is an extraordinary 17 pages, not just because of the moral and intellectual pulse driving her lines, but also for what she evokes. In her words, “we are in systemcide”.

To read the sequence—“Ashes,” “Honeycomb,” “Deep Water Trawling,” and five others—is to experience all manner of starts—“I spent a lifetime entering”—and conjoined ends (“I say too early too late”) with nary a middle in between (“Quick. You must make up your/answer as you made up your//question.”) Because hers is no single story, she has no need to explain or explicate. (Anyway, need and want fuel this ecological-environmental-human crisis.) By not narrativizing the systemicide into the architecture of beginning, middle and end, she prefers, I think, evoking the experience of now-time as end-time:

“no place to rest—you/need to rest—there is nature it is the rest—…”

“action unfolded in no temporality—>anticipation floods us but we/never were able—>not for one instant—>to inhabit time…”

She achieves the elision with long dashes or —>; series of nouns without commas between; and questions-as-assertions no longer needing question marks (“I know you can/see the purchases, but who is it is purchasing me—>can you please track that…”). Occasional enjambment and lines sliced off by wide spaces also remind us things are not running smoothly.

Her lines push and pull across the small bridges of those dashes and arrows. To read this way is to feel, for me, what French poet and essayist, Paul Valery, described in a 1939 lecture:

“Each word, each one of the words that allow us to cross the space of a thought so quickly, and follow the impetus of an idea which rates its own expression, seems like one of those light boards thrown across a ditch or over a mountain crevasse to support the passage of a man in quick motion. But may he pass lightly, without stopping—and especially may he not loiter to dance on the thin board to try its resistance! The frail bridge at once breaks or falls, and all goes down into the depths.” (Translated by Charles Guenther)

The swiftness with which I cross her bridges is not about my understanding how Graham feels or what any other reader may understand. Rather it is my experience of the rush of crisis, dashes and arrows. I even feel pulled forward to phrases and lines that I haven’t read yet. Since this is my experience of systems going wrong, it doesn’t matter to me whether Graham is a catastrophizer or not.

It’s invidious to quote a passage of Valery and only a composite of Graham, so let me stop here. I would need to quote an entire poem in the sequence for you to achieve the feeling(s) I am asking you to undergo. Worse, my quoting her selectively is as if I have made them my own words to describe a scene from a movie I want to tell you about. That doesn’t do justice to the scary brilliance of the sequence.

Graham has little good to say about the new or news in this sequence, and there is an irony in my being gratified with this new experience she evokes. I disagree about the crisis—for me, it has middles with more mess than beginnings and ends—but that in no way diminishes or circumscribes the insistent sorrow and anger I feel from reading the lines.

Anyhow, she’s right when it comes to systemcide: “You have to make it not become/waiting…”

Catastrophized cascades

The upshot is: Infrastructure cascades and catastrophizing about infrastructural failure have a great deal in common and this has major implications for policy and management.

An infrastructure cascade happens when the failure of one part of the critical infrastructure triggers failure in its other parts as well as in other infrastructures connected to it. The fast propagation of failure can and has led to entire systems failing over quickly, where “a small mistake can lead to a big fail.” The causal pathways, however, in the quick succession or chain reaction of interconnected failure are often difficult to pinpoint, let alone analyze, during the cascade, and even afterwards.

For its part, catastrophizing in the sense of “imagining the worst outcome of even the most ordinary event” obviously has some overlap with this notion of cascade, but by and large the imagining in catastrophizing is written off as irrational—the event in question is not as bad as imagined—while infrastructure cascades are real, not imagined.

We may want to rethink any such weak link when it comes to infrastructure cascades and catastrophizing failure across interconnected infrastructures. Consider the insights of the recent book by Gerard Passannante, Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster (2019, The University of Chicago Press).

In analyzing cases of catastrophizing (in Leonardo’s Notebooks, an early work of Kant and Shakespeare’s King Lear, among others), Passannante avoids labeling such thinking as irrational and favors a more nuanced understanding. He identifies four inter-related features to the catastrophizing from his material.

First (no order of priority is implied here), catastrophizing probes and reasons from the sensible to the insensible, the perceptible to the imperceptible, the witnessed to the unwitnessed, and the visible to invisible. Accordingly, the probing and reasoning involve ways of seeing and feeling as well. Second and third, when catastrophizing, an abrupt, precipitous shift or collapse in scale occurs (small scale suddenly shifts to large scale), while there is a distinct temporal elision or compression of the catastrophe’s beginning and end (as if there were no middle duration to the catastrophe being imagined). Last, the actual catastrophizing while underway feels to the catastrophizer as if the thinking itself were involuntary and had its own automatic logic or necessity that over-rides—“evacuates” is Passannante’s term—the agency and control of the catastrophizer.

If so, the features of catastrophizing take us much closer to the notion of infrastructure cascades as currently understood. In catastrophizing as in cascades, there is both that rapid propagation from small to large and that temporal “failing all of a sudden.” In catastrophizing as in cascades, causal connections—in the sense of identifying events with their beginnings, middles and ends—are next to impossible to parse out, given the quick, often inexplicable, processes at work. And yes, of course, cascades are real, while catastrophizing is speculative; but: The catastrophizing feels very, very real to, and out of the control of, the catastrophizer as an agent in his or her own right.

In fact, one of the most famous typologies in organization and technology studies—that formalized by Charles Perrow in terms of coupling and interactivity of complex technologies—sanctions a theory that catastrophizes infrastructure cascades. The typology’s cell of tight coupling and complex interactivity is a Pandora Box of instantaneous changes, invisible processes, and incomprehensible breakdowns involving time, scale and perspective. This is not a criticism: It may well be that we cannot avoid catastrophizing, if only because of the empirical evidence that sudden cascades have happened in the past.

The four features, however, suggest that one way to mitigate any wholesale catastrophizing of infrastructure cascades is to bring back time and scale into the analysis and modeling of infrastructure cascades. To do so would be to insist that really-existing infrastructure cascades are not presumptively instantaneous or nearly so. It would be to insist that infrastructure cascades are differentiated in terms of time and scale, unless proven otherwise. That, in fact, is what our research suggests. At the risk of tooting our horn:

“Much of the more sophisticated network analysis of interinfrastructural interconnectivity suffers from the same defect as sophisticated quantified probability assessments—both assume that if an infrastructure element (node or connection) is not managed, the system is not managed. One clear objective of recent network of networks modeling has been finding out which nodes and connections, when deleted, bring the network or sets of networks to collapse. Were only one more node to fail, the network would suddenly collapse completely, it is often argued…

“But ‘suddenly’ is not all that frequent at the [interconnected infrastructure] level. In fact, not failing suddenly is what we expect to find in managed interconnected systems, in which an infrastructure element can fail without the infrastructure as a whole failing or disrupting the normal operations of other infrastructures depending on that system. Infrastructures instantaneously failing one after another is not what actually happens in many so-called cascades, and we would not expect such near simultaneity from our framework of analysis.

“Rapid infrastructure cascades can, of course, happen….Yet individual infrastructures do not generally fail instantaneously (brownouts may precede blackouts, levees may seep long before failing), and the transition from normal operation to failure across systems can also take time. Discrete stages of disruption frequently occur when system performance can still be retrievable before the trajectory of failure becomes inevitable.” (E. Roe and P.R. Schulman, Risk and Reliability, 2016, Stanford University Press, pp. 28-29)

Let me leave you with another extension inspired by Passannante’s analysis. If infrastructure cascades, when catastrophized, have endings entailed in their beginnings (leaving in between only attenuated middles or no middles at all to speak of), the catastrophized cascade turns out to be the entailment of “just before” and “immediately after.”

That is, we are to believe we are in a state where disaster avoidance is no longer possible and disaster response has yet to start and remains unavoidably ahead. We are expected to experience cascade-as-disaster as all too close at hand for us to think about anything else. But the point is: No one experiences time and scale as an excluded middle; what is unimaginable is real time operations without duration and depth.

The missing drop of realism

Economists long insisted that the heroic stakes were framed around Market Competition versus State Planning, with Competition clearly winner of the palm. Who needs Illiquid Government when you have Liquid Markets?

Odd then that economists began to agree that the maintenance of the storied perfect competition (all price takers and constant returns to scale) would have undermined entrepreneurial capitalism as actually practiced. Odd that one winner of always-late capitalism would not have been possible without imperfect competition (some price makers and increasing returns to scale) and an important role for—guess what?—government policies to foster technological change. Odd that, after all those storylines about the rising tide of market liberalization lifting all ships, it turns out that liberalized capital markets continued to be associated with rougher seas of financial instability.

Even odder is that implacable criticism economists levelled against price-setting by planners who couldn’t possibly process all that complexity when everyone knows that price discovery through markets does so much better. In the aftermath of 2008, however, economists told us that even core market mechanisms like auctions—Léon Walras must be turning in his grave!—can’t work because of the sheer complexity of the instruments of financial economists to be auctioned—which meant the defamed planners had to get involved anyway. Odd that economists also told us we needed dark pools and out-of-sight markets because price discovery, rather than being the raison d’être of markets, is merely a public benefit that markets may, but need not, provide.

To be fair, markets manage some risks better than government, but only those risks and certainly not the uncertainties that can come with their managing those risks through markets. The management of the latter has been placed in the hands of government and regulators.

There’s probably no part of the economic stories told us that even an eye-dropper’s worth of realism wouldn’t have improved.

Short and not sweet

–There had to cheaper ways for the U.S. to get oil than undertaking two wars in Iraq. The lesson, denominated in US standards: Don’t do stupid with room-temperature IQs.

–People think of real-time economic stability in comparison to the past record. How stable before is the retrospective view. Prospectively, that economy is only as reliable as the next downturn ahead. This holds because the reliability of society’s critical infrastructures is foundational to that stability or growth. Economic growth has prospective reliability to the extent critical infrastructures and their link to productivity are the driver.

This means the relationship between the economic short run and long run changes with the development of infrastructure and mandates for their reliability. For, if you cannot manage an electricity system—or water, public health, or other foundational infrastructure, now when it matters—why ever should we believe your promises to manage better and reliably over the longer term?

–Have you attended those presentations where engineers propose all-benefit-and-no-cost innovations in design and technology of such fantastification as would bring a failing grade to any student in public policy and management? The slides on their own are like a tableau vivant of Revelation pulling the “thing” out of Nothing, with thingamajiggery then sacralized as Invention.

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

–Consider those business schools that provide modern-day equivalents to Mirrors for Princes, the early Islamic and European guides for leaders in the Land-Where-Leaders-Reign-Better? Their curricula: More like the “instructions for travelers” used by 16th century returning travelers to write up their journeys. Their outputs: Little better than travelogues to dynasties legendary. The scariest are the students who think they shine in the reflected glory of the exoticism.

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

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

–Writer, James Baldwin, wrote that the “the purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” In policy and management where the Big Question is “What’s missing that’s right there to be seen?,” the challenge is to uncover answers that have been obscured by all the other questions.

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

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

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

–Two sets of opposing pressures drive the anxiety: the centripetal pressures of closing in on what we think we really know (or can know) and the centrifugal pressures of opening up recasting what has been taken as unknowable or for granted by the person involved. The pressures and anxiety drove Victorian eclecticism, they are to be found in the complexities of mid-20th century modernists, and so too they drive policy messes. The anxiety, in case it needs saying, is over the instability that comes with the entailment of the “really know” and the changing “I.”

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

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