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”

Mercator’s projection

For who makes rainbows by invention?
And many standing round a waterfall 
See one bow each, yet not the same to all, 
But each a hand’s breadth further than the next.   
                             Gerard Manley Hopkins

What good is trial and error learning when a system’s massive error means no trials possible thereafter? You do not want to push an infrastructure’s control operators into prolonged unstudied conditions and then wonder why they aren’t reliable.

Some think this concern a 21st century Luddism. “First off,” the project designer tells us, “I’m always working in unstudied conditions on every new project. I’ve got to make all manner of assumptions…” I counter: Surely, the challenge of the project designer and like professionals is to find out what are the better practices for starting off complex project designs? These are the practices that have emerged and been modified over a run of different cases and shown to be more effective.

Someone still pipes up, “But how can a field or discipline grow if it doesn’t move into unstudied conditions by doing something the first time…” This is often said as if it were established fact. Here too better practices are to be first searched for. Or where they aren’t found, then, yes, systemwide innovation should not be undertaken if it reduces options, increases task volatility, and diminishes maneuverability in real-time complex system operations.

“But, there always has to be someone who does something for the very first first-time, right?”

Dutch bluntness is now called for: “That in no way absolves you, the professional, from the burden of proof that when you say you’re doing something for the very first time it indeed is the very first time it has ever been do. . .” You’re an adult; get a grip; this is a planet of 7 plus billion, after all. You don’t get to buy indulgences to lapse where others have learned better.

“But still,” our friends, the economists, interrupt. “What about the pivotal role to society of the innovation economy—of creative destruction?” Well, yes, that’s important–yet so too are the infrastructures upon which capitalism and the innovation economy depend. To treat innovation as more important than the infrastructures without whose reliability there wouldn’t be most innovations risks Mercator’s projection: It distorts by over-enlarging the already large.

Innovationists don’t see it that way. The risks they take end up the price few of the rest of us ever thought we’d have to pay.

What to do when policy articles keep ending where they should’ve started

At some point, you’ll have read hundreds of articles that end where they should begin. In an analysis of 35 recent literature reviews on security implications of climate change, the authors point out-

A frequently voiced recommendation in reviews of the climate–conflict literature concerns a need for increasing methodological diversity and rigor. This research priority has multiple dimensions and, at the core, applies as much to the wider research field as to any individual study, given inherent complexities of combining diverse research methods and epistemologies within a single integrated analytical framework. Common calls include (1) application of mixed-methods research designs, (2) in-depth analysis of influential data points to trace the causal processes at play and to (3) triangulate and validate findings from the quantitative empirical literature, as well as (4) out-of-sample prediction to evaluate the generalizability of particular results and to explore long-term implications of alternative scenarios.

Calls for methodological diversity in the study of complex policy issues are a fixture to such an extent you have to wonder why new research doesn’t begin with that observation and follow through. Instead, the calls are a repeated finding to be dealt with whenever.

–One reason is that no such research could be funded for or undertaken by researchers as singletons. Not only would you need that imaginary of the interdisciplinary team with that long-term commitment, you’d need the funding of large foundations or government agencies that are worrying about other things.

What could be more worrisome, you ask, than complex issues of climate change and conflict? Foundations and government agencies suspect, if not already know, that major research programs routinely identify more questions than answers. “It turns out we’re not even asking the right questions. . .,” so goes the key finding.

So, what’s the upshot? Are there useful things we can do now?

Experience tells us there are at least five upshots right in front of us but often not seen:

1. Don’t forget the big-five prism.

People’s perceptions of a complex policy problem vary by their: age, education, income/class, gender and race/ethnicity. Of course, the categories are socially constructed (e.g., some governments do not gather data by “race”). But they are meaningful precisely because of that. Other factors, like sexual orientation, language, or handicap are as important, if not more so, for contexts as differentiated as they are.

You can’t assume your audience and even other policy types appreciate the importance of these demographic filters.

2. The status quo is always an alternative, just as are better practices developed elsewhere and modified for the case at hand.

It’s too often said that “because the status quo is untenable, we must find an alternative.” Actually, “maintain the status quo” is among the alternatives to be evaluated.

The status quo is “business as usual,” not the “Do nothing” option. Under the status quo (e.g., the agency continues to do what it is already doing), one option is whether the activities already underway could achieve the ends sought, eventually. This is important because of that other probability–not just possibility–when implementation of new option leads to conditions worse than the status quo.

Also, it would be astonishing in a planet of 7.5+ billion persons that people elsewhere were not thinking about the complex issue in question or had already moved on to practices that deal with it or like issues.

In short, if you are searching for a radical alternative to the status quo, first satisfy yourself that there aren’t status quo’s already radicalized and modifiable for your purposes.

3. Some complex policy problems are complex because not everything is in a trade-off.

Just as with “risk,” “trade-off” has become such a naturalized term of policy-talk that people ask right off, “Well, what are the risks and trade-offs involved?”

But talk of trade-offs is premature for a number of hard issues. Infrastructure high reliability assumes a theory of nonfungibility, where nothing can substitute for the high reliability and safety without which there would be no markets for goods and services, at least for right now for the economically allocative decision. Economics, in contrast, is a theory of substitutability, where goods and services have alternatives in the marketplace.

4. Evaluations of complex policy interventions find mixed results but less frequently identify trade-offs over “what’s enough?”

Because policy analysis has been from its inception an interdisciplinary profession, it is also multi-criteria for the purposes of assessing options before implementation and evaluating results afterwards.

The more criteria that options are evaluated with respect to–efficiency (benefits over cost), cost effectiveness (e.g., largest benefits for a given cost or budget), political feasibility, administrative feasibility, legality, and others (e.g., equity, sustainability. . .)–the more unlikely straightforward success is achieved. The common response has been to reduce the number of criteria or insist some–efficiency and cost-effectiveness, most notably–take priority.

Yet a very different reaction to typically mixed results is to insist that, where trade-offs do exist, they are about having enough of each. More, the second you admit into decisionmaking questions of “what is enough?,” feasibility criteria rapidly focus on: Which alternative, if implemented, can keep decisionmaker options open for unpredictable changes ahead?

5. Nothing is implemented as planned (but often not for reasons you think).

Hardly news, the reasons given for the gap between what’s planned and what’s implemented typically refer to politics, dollars and jerks. Even where so, the statement needs to be pushed further, with conditions being as differentiated as in complex issues.

A fuller explanation for the shortfall is that policy formulation is usually based on cause-and-effect analysis, while implementation is usually undertaken in terms of means-and-ends considerations. The gap to be worried about is not so much between plan and implementation as it is between cause-and-effect thinking and means-and-ends thinking.

People on the ground implementing don’t see themselves as “the effects” of “external causes”. They hold themselves to be actually existing human beings with really existing goals requiring real means to achieve them. This is also why experience with implementation and operations is so important: We can never assume things will get implemented by means and ends if analyzed or predicted in terms of cause and effect.

–A concluding point about that “experience with implementation.” More experience does not mean less inexperience with complexity.

To repeat earlier entries, the more experience with complexity we have, the more aware we are of how inexperienced we remain and of new difficulties ahead. As a wit would have it, such is peer-review by reality. Always having new questions to ask is only an epiphenomenon of persisting inexperience and difficulty.

Principal sources

von Uexkull, N. and H. Buhaug (2021). “Security implications of climate change: A decade of scientific progress.” Journal of Peace Research 58(1): 3 – 17.

Previous blog entries: “What am I missing?,” “Poverty and war,” “Some answers,” “Inexperience and central banks,” “Difficulty at risk and unequal”

Predicting the future

[Ulrich] suspects that the given order of things is not as solid as it pretends to be; no thing, no self, no form, no principle, is safe, everything is undergoing an invisible but ceaseless transformation, the unsettled holds more of the future than the settled, and the present is nothing but a hypothesis that has not yet been surmounted. (Robert Musil, novelist)

–The future’s unpredictability is not something up ahead or for later on, but is instead present prospection. One implication is that to predict the future is to insist we manage the present in different ways.

Indeed, the notion that what will save us ahead has yet to be invented misses the point that pulling out a good mess or forestalling a bad mess or taking on different messes today is the way to change tomorrow. The only place the future is more or less reliable is now, and only if we are managing our messes, now.

–This also means that the microeconomic concepts of opportunity costs, tradeoffs and priorities, along with price as a coordinating mechanism make sense–if they make sense–only now or in the very short term, when the resource to be allocated and alternatives forgone are their clearest.

Now: What’s a good mess to be found in this huge uncertainty and unstudied conditions? Do we assume, by way of an example, Global Climate Change is going to affect all insect species? How would we model that? Insects may not matter to you, but they do matter to millions and millions of other people. Yet, some 1 million insect species have been identified in a world of possibly 30 million insect species.

–Yes “of course,” Planet Earth is a closed system, but equally closed with respect to everything? In my view, the mess we’re in–and it’s a good mess–is that this global crisis, like others, can’t be about the planet and science, all the way down. All the way down takes us quickly to all manner of “yes, but. . .”

Safety, like much in democracy and intelligence, is not a noun but an adverb

“Safety” is its most problematic when more a noun than as adverb. Safety, if it is anything, is found in practices-as-undertaken, i.e., “it’s operating safely.” If the behavior in question reflects a “safety culture,” that noun, culture, is performative and not something in addition to or prior to “culturally.”

Safety is no different from democracy or intelligence. They too act adverbially—“behaving democratically in that s/he, e.g., votes in elections, pays taxes and more”—and “thinks intelligently” (whatever that means in practice). To believe safety, democracy and intelligence are otherwise is like thinking you make fish from fish soup.