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 has 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).”

–Tansley is, however, important to us for another reason. Not only was he a founder of the British Ecological Society (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.

We see few if any ecologists today take human desires as nothing less than 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.

Recasting the traffic mess, linearly

–Traffic congestion is habitually described as a mess, but rarely analyzed for the different messes that it is.

–To see how, start with a simplified assumption to be problematized shortly: The net monetary value of any transportation system aggregated across all car users increases with the number of cars using that system up to the system’s carrying capacity for cars, which if exceeded leads to a decline in net value. This is shown in Figure 1’s net monetary value curve, AA’, which falls after reaching the system’s limit in carrying more automobiles (CC):

Assume the only value of interest is the value of the transportation system to car users. Assume initially that CC is fixed and that the current number of cars on system roadways exceeds that value. It may be possible to add new roads and new lanes over time, thus moving CC to the right (“supply management”). It may also be possible to reduce the number of cars to the left of CC by congestion pricing, vehicle taxing, and other tolls (“demand management”). Assume, however, that such interventions are not possible anytime soon (or if possible, their effects are not to be realized soon).

What can the transportation professional do instead in the face of congestion?

–Further benefits follow from other ways to increase the value of the transportation system, even when it is not possible to increase the number of cars on the roads, e.g., through reducing average car size or narrowing lanes. Value also increases, ceteris paribus, when the number of passengers in a car increases (this being, the important issue of increasing shared mobility and/or the number of uses to which the car is being put by its users).

Once other net benefits are added, the net monetary value curve rises, illustratively, to AB in Figure 1, with a gradual, delayed decline after CC being reached. More multiple-use vans on the road replacing existing vans and vehicles increase the value curve before carrying capacity is reached. Once carrying capacity is exceeded, the time lost being stuck in traffic will be offset for some period by being able to do more things in one’s vehicle than before.

Diagrammatically, the increment in value between AA’ and AB, particularly after CC, is the value car users attach to a good mess coming out of the bad mess of the formal transportation system.

This is the value car users attach to producing a mess (AB) better than the one (AA’) that would have happened instead. Other things equal, the aim of transportation professionals is to enlarge that increment. For example, not only do professionals want people “to get their best ideas” while stuck in traffic, they want more people to do so.


–The simplified figure suggests two other ways to change net value. One is to redefine carrying capacity; the other is to redefine the “transportation system” and its services of interest. Carrying capacity has been a popular concept in modeling traffic congestion, its intuitive appeal being that there must be a limit to the number of cars that a system can accommodate, other things constant. As other factors are rarely constant, carrying capacity is necessarily a variable rather than a given.

This leads to the second way to alter net value. Just what is the “transportation system” being evaluated in terms of a good or bad mess? It need not only be the “official” system discussed so far. It is possible to redefine the transportation system of interest by changing the scope and knowledge bases for the “system” being analyzed and managed.

How to do this?


–Imagine you are a professional in the Regional Transportation Authority. You have just undertaken a stratified random sample survey of RTA residents as to what they perceive to be locally successful transportation interventions about which they have first-hand knowledge. Focus groups and public meetings have subsequently been held, identifying other perceived successful interventions in the region.

Assume the current list identifies interventions that include traffic calming sites in some RTA neighborhoods, increased off-street parking in others, widening streets at different sites, adding bicycle lanes in another set, and so on. Your task is to determine an implied or de facto “transportation system(s)” that link these discrete (groups of) sites together.

–The implied systems, if any, are more than street networks that connect the sites concerned. The existing availability and distribution of garages for cars, both above and below ground, connects sites as well. Yet the RTA does not consider the de facto, informal network of public and private garages to be a major point of intervention in improving the formal, official transportation system.

Your challenge in the constructed example is to ask, What are we missing by focusing only on the formal transportation system and in answer to see what could or does connect sites of successful interventions into a system or network that can be supported by transportation professionals.

–One such informal system is illustrated in Figure 1. Here the transportation system is an informal one, i, implied by the connected sites, with its value curve ACi and its carrying capacity, CCi (which would now be recast in terms of local knowledge and familiarity with specific traffic patterns).

Diagrammatically, ACi is the net value car users attach to a good mess that could go bad at some point near or after CCi. If traffic professionals cannot squeeze good messes out of the bad mess that congestion has become (i.e., realize and increase a value increment between AA’ and AB), they can identify, protect and enhance different systems that are not (yet) bad messes.

–What should the professionals do if there are neither informal systems to be improved nor any value increment to be realized in the formal transportation system? The “best” they can do under such circumstances is to try to keep Figure 1’s AA’ as “close” to the left of CC as possible or on the non-declining portion of AA’, should it exist, after breaching CC. Barring either, the professional is left with trying to halt or delay the further decline of AA’.


Four kinds of good messes are, in other words, to be distinguished in the constructed example. They are the product of two states and transitions, namely, what start out as good or bad messes and what end up as more of a good mess or less of a bad one. Table 1 summarizes the four positions:

Table 1: Four Types of Good Messes in Traffic Congestion

In case it needs saying, each is a good mess in its own right, though perceptions and expectations about the four cells vary considerably.

The entire point of revolt may be revolts

–For Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, 18th century German Enlightener, the point is not for the sculptor or painter to portray a crisis at its climax, when visualizing a single moment. Better to choose a moment before or after the apex of destruction, so as to allow the viewers’ imaginations freer rein over what is to come. That way, Lessing argues, the narrative continues in an arc of reflection that is not cut short by any climax’s overpowering intensity:

[S]ince the works of both the painter and the sculptor are created not merely to be given a glance but to be contemplated. . .it is evident that the single moment and the point of view from which the whole scene is presented cannot be chosen with too great a regard for its effect. But only that which allows the imagination free play is effective. The more we see, the more we must be able to imagine. And the more we add in our imagination, the more must think we see. In the full trajectory of an effect, no point is less suitable for this than its climax. There is nothing beyond this, and to present to the eye what is most extreme is to bind the wings of fancy and constrain it, since it cannot. . .shun[ ] the visible fullness already presented as a limit beyond which it cannot go.

Instead of picturing Ajax at the height of his rage and slaughter, better he be depicted afterwards in the full realization of what he has done and in the despair leading him to what must come next.

–One problem with today’s crisis scenarios is the preoccupation with or fixation on a visualized climax. Obviously post-apocalypse can be pictured as even deadlier, but the point holds: In today’s catastrophe scenarios, the worst is imagined and imagination stalls there–like shining deer at night–in the glare of it all.

–What to do?

Any disappointment that one or more revolts–Occupy, Yellow Vests, Hong Kong protests, Arab Spring, the Extinction Rebellion–have not (yet) culminated into “far-reaching substantive change” is but one scenario only. More, the climax scenario may not be the most fruitful, suggestive moment to focus on anyway, let alone be overawed by.

Time is on our side, if you will, outside the glare.

Principal source

Gaiger, J. (2017). Transparency and imaginative engagement: Material as medium in Lessing’s Laocoon. In: A. Lifschitz and M. Squire (eds) (2017). Rethinking Lessing’s Laocoon: Antiquity, Enlightenment, and the ‘Limits’ of Painting and Poetry, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK: 279 – 305.

What dollars are actually saying

–Aren’t there better stories to tell our people? At one end, after three decades of grounding (down) macroeconomics into microeconomics, there are the legion of still-breeding Lord Voldemorts and their trillions in wealth destruction. At the other extreme are the neo-Keynesian Mad Hatters, where the worst possible thing you can do when things get bad is to save for when things go worse and the best possible thing to do is to spend wads of money you don’t have.

–My counter-story starts this way:

You don’t know it, but each dollar bill talks and what it talks about is how it passes from hand to different hand, multiplying its uses and impact. The dollar bill reports so many stories, each of which reads differently but all of which sound the same–that is, to the economy.

The economy, you see, is stone-dumb to any of this, assuming the dollar bills behind follow the dollar bills ahead, as if those ahead must know what they’re doing. And this, the economy calls, always-late capitalism.

If the economy listened to the dollar bills, it might learn something. Like what? Like dollar bills are all about ensuring that things be diverse and not end any time soon (i.e., ensuring that in the long run there’s just more short runs).

Now, of course, if the economy weren’t so dumb it might insist that this state of affairs just can’t go on forever. But the dollar bills are saying, in their cacophonous way, that the buck doesn’t stop here–or anywhere for that matter. Always-late capitalism has been going on for so long, it might be better to assume what stops first will not be late capitalism but calling it such. . .

A few things I learned about regulation from the Financial Times

Re-regulation of banking after the financial crisis adds significant costs to the economy and thus reduces growth, while the pre-crisis light-touch regulation undermines the very financial infrastructure necessary for economic growth.

What were indicators of positive economic growth under light-touch regulation—rapid uptake in home mortgages—were indicators of regulatory failure later on. Mortgages were a relatively safe asset for banks to own, until they were the source of unimaginable losses.

Overregulation is nowhere better illustrated than in comparing the Dodd-Frank nearly 2000 pages of legislation to the less than 20 pages of the Depression’s Glass-Steagall Act—but under no circumstances are our regulators to repeat the 1930s! Whatever, those who lobby for simplifying regulation end up making it more complex.

It’s a bad thing for regulation to try to squeeze too much risk and complexity out of banking, especially when fresh risk reduction—less leverage, more capital reserves—is itself too risky a strategy. Regulation discourages risk taking and only with risk taking do we have innovation, except when too much innovation and risk taking are encouraged as in the deregulated finance sector up to the 2008 crisis.

New financial instruments, particularly derivatives, flowed to where they were not regulated, but regulated financial instruments always increase opportunities for perverse arbitrage and loopholes. If the last financial crisis showed anything it’s that we need systemic risk regulation and macro-prudential policies, but, to be sure, it’s individuals and organizations, like Alan Greenspan’s Fed, that were to blame for things going terribly wrong.

Regulators must always have the best information, even when those regulated—the banks and investment firms—haven’t a clue as to their current real-time positions. Regulators will never have the capacity to know the real-time positions of actual firms, except in those cases where firms, like Lehman Brothers, insisted regulators did have the real-time information.

Global business and supply chains are great, except when the firms are too big to fail. Country defaults are horrible, except where they work through being regulated de jure as in Argentina or de facto as in Mexico.

Global markets are a permanent fact of life, but we must never suppose that the drive to regulate them for the better is just as permanent. Markets are best at price discovery, except where market efficiencies are realized because of lack of transparent discovery, as in unregulated dark pools.

In sum, what I’ve learned from the Financial Times is that capitalism is in crisis because of the shambolic understanding of regulation.

Overlap and difference between “keeping it complex” and “keep it simple”

–There’s less a gradient between “Keep it simple!” and “Keep it complex!” than a considerable overlap. “Keep it simple!” and “Keep it complex!” are both admonitions; both are more complicated than they first appear. “Keep it complex!” has one saving virtue, however: It readily accommodates, reflects and answers to the complications.

–First, keep it simple. To adapt points from an essay by the critic, Michael Wood:

  • When someone commends, “Keep it simple!,” you might respond by taking it more as sounding out what you think rather than affirming you don’t have to think further.
  • “Keep it simple!” is one of those instructions that seems to know us without having to know each of us. It becomes the demand to decide–Keep it simple!–without knowing if demand is decidable.
  • When “Keep it simple!” is responded to as “Keep it simple?,” it looks more like a speculation. At that point, it doesn’t even begin to approximate a closed argument.
  • There is also a sense in which we respond to “Keep it simple!” as if it were a parable about how to act. It makes seeking out exemplars irresistible, but exemplars are always easy for someone else to undermine.

–Of course, the very same reservations about “Keep it simple!” can be made for “Keep it complex!” But what sets “Keep it complex!” apart is having to think through the complications. “Keep it simple!” acts as if it wants to win the argument without much further ado. “Keep it complex. . .” knows the “it” is about finding complex arguments that stick, at least for a while.

Principal sources

Stirling, A. (2010). ‘Keep It Complex!’, Nature Comment, 23/30 December, 468: 1029-1031

Wood, M. (2005). “Seven Types of Obliquity”. In Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (The Empson Lectures, pp. 95-127). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Information overload and cognitive under-comprehension are not the same

Two drivers of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty are often conflated—information overload and cognitive under-comprehension—and the conflation increases the sense of more complexity in policy and management.

–Think of information overload as the “right” information is actually there but hidden in the glut before us. Cognitive under-comprehension, in contrast, is our cognitive limitation to recognize anything like “the right information.”

Overload means we would be high-performing analysts and managers if only we were to tease out the right information from all the noise obscuring it; under-comprehension means we are held to such high-performing standards we couldn’t possibly know the right information, even if it were visible before our very eyes. “I could do my job if only I had the right information” is not “No one could do the job I’m tasked with, whatever the information available.”

–For example, making sense of the masses of Big Data requires algorithms no human beings on their own can comprehend. To that degree, what was information overload ceases to be that by triggering cognitive under-comprehension. Or consider regulators who suffer the double-whammy of information overload and cognitive under-comprehension: They have more information for use but not enough cognitive capacity and skill to extend their limits of cognition on using it.

–Two upshots deserve highlight here.

First, at or beyond the limits of cognition, not only is prediction and forecasting difficult, so too is identifying the counterfactual conditions, not least of which is what would happen if overload and under-comprehension were assuaged.

Second, arguments presented to us as policy relevant solely because of their diamond-sharp clarity rarely get beyond the joke stage. You only see a photo-clarity if misdirected from the murk of overload and under-comprehension.

Principal source

Sartori, G. (1989). Undercomprehension. Government and Opposition 24(4): 391–400.

Disaster averted is central to pastoralist development (updated)

I dislike being herded into certainty.
                  Louise Glück, Nobel poet

My argument is that if disasters averted by pastoralists (and farmers, for that matter) were more identified and differentiated, we’d better understand how 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 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. Instead, we are repeatedly told that what matters more are the 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.” But let’s start closer to the beginning.


–A young researcher had just written up a case study of traditional irrigation practices in one of the districts that fell under the Government of Kenya’s Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (ASAL) Programme. (We’re in the early 1980s.) I remember reading the report and being excited. Here was detailed information about really-existing irrigation constraints sufficient to pinpoint opportunities for improvement.

That was, until I turned the page to the conclusions: What was really needed was a country-wide land reform.

Huh? Where did that come from? Not from the details and findings in the report!

–Reference to the pernicious, when not totalizing effects of marketization, privatization, commodification, financialization, globalization, and like (e.g., monetization, mechanization, marginalization. . .racism, colonialism, militarism, imperialism. . .) appear from beginning to end in development publications, and never more so—it seems to me—than in paragraphs that detail case-specific complexities one would have thought worked against generalizing processes across cases.

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

BUT they matter when detailed and differentiated in terms of their being “with respect to.”

Just what is marketization with respect to in your case at hand? Smallstock? Mechanized deliveries? Alpine grazing? Is it in terms of migrant herders here rather than there, or with respect to other types of livestock or environmental conditions? Where so, the under-acknowledged methodological issue moves center-stage: How do the broader processes summarized as “marketization” get redefined by the very different with-respect-to’s?

Or back to where I was that day: “What kind of land reform for whom and under what conditions at your research site?,” I should have asked.


–This leads to my main speculation: Claiming that over-arching explanations are empirical generalizations made across complex cases too often voids the case-specific diversity of responses and emerging practices of importance for policy and management.

Why? Because appeals to processes or state conditions generalized as “marketization,” “commodification,” “precarity” and the like run the risk of diminishing 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 show how these broad processes are chronic and how they preoccupy real time because herders have failed to avert dreaded events altogether.

–Here’s an example of what I am trying to get at. Andrew Barry, British sociologist, reports in his article, “What is an environmental problem?,” a research finding from his work 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 of my argument here.


–But, so what?

I recently read a fine piece mentioning today’s Pokot elites and Turkana elders in Kenya. I confess, this made me smile. 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.”

So my question: What happens when some of the poor pastoralists of then are better off now? Is there a point at which better-off pastoralists are no longer poor enough for the researcher’s concern?

More formally as above: “Under what conditions do pastoralists, initially poor but today better off, become elites in the negative sense familiar to criticism of elites?” This is important because an over-arching development aim of the first-generation ASAL programs was to assist then-poor pastoralists to become better-off.

My answer now would focus on the disasters averted over time by the now-elites compared to those who remained poor in the same period. It seems to me essential to establish if equally (resource-) poor pastoralists nonetheless differentiated themselves over time in terms of how they (and others with them) averted disasters that would have befell them had they not managed or coped the ways they did. Practices underlying their intentions, choices and actions are what interest me.

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.

Principal source

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


We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians. Massimo D’Azeglio at the dawn of Italian unification, 1860

The artist as the created; Mona Lisa’s Leonardo, Beatrice’s Dante. Curious concept. Guy Davenport in a letter to Hugh Kenner, 1963

–America’s Americans? Trump’s Trump?

If I talk about “Gatsby’s F. Scott Fitzgerald,” I could be saying that part of Gatsby which based on Fitzgerald himself. Or, if I talk about “the fairytale’s teller,” I might be pointing to how the common structure of fairytales sets the course for their telling.

Or, if I am talking about Satan’s Milton, I might be thinking that the poet, John Milton, worked out his own theology by having to dictate that Satan into Paradise Lost. All of that is known or can be easily appreciated. What I want to explore is something more complicated and more open-ended.

–To what extent has our composite creation, this networked palimpsest called “America,” or for that matter those composites called “Trump,” ended up creating openings for those who identify as Americans or as Trump to rewrite themselves?

Just as the entire point of “an average man” is that no specific individual matches a demographic mean, so too America’s Americans and Trump’s Trump are more ideographic because the overarching narratives and palimpsest are more overwritten and punctured.

–How so? Undertake a thought experiment (the idea for which comes from another letter of Davenport’s to Kenner).

Imagine two parallel worlds so alike that they would have been the same, were it not for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. One world has the line, “I am thy father’s spirit;” the other instead has, “Ich bin dein Papas Spook.” The former world does not know of the latter; nor does the latter world know the former’s line. Both readings and their respective commentaries, however, lurk as possible, because Hamlet’s complexities are multiple.

–By extension, to say we live in a less scandalous world of “spirit” rather than “Papa’s Spook” is true only as far as it goes. That is, counterfactuals are scandalous when the way things are read at present stops well short of all the rest.

Here’s a scandalous counterfactual–this of the 18th century Enlightener, Denis Diderot–with which to nudge even our own spirit times:

What if the virgin Mary had been the mother of pleasure, or even the mother of god, what if it had been had her beautiful eyes, her beautiful breasts, her beautiful buttocks which had attracted the Holy Spirit [on]to her and if this had been written in the book about her history. What if the angel Gabriel were extolled there for his handsome shoulders, what if the Magdalene had had some affair with Christ; what if at the marriage of Cana, Christ between two wines, a bit nonconformist, had caressed the breasts of one of the bridesmaids and the buttocks of Saint John, uncertain whether he would remain faithful or not to the apostle whose chin was hidden by a slight down; what would then have happened to our poets and our sculptors. With what spirit would we have described the charms which play so great and marvelous a role in the history of our religion and our God, and with what an eye we would regard the beauty to which we owe the birth, incarnation of our Saviour and the grace of our redemption.

Trump’s Christ?

Principal sources

Manuel, F. E. (1967). The Eighteenth Century Confronts The Gods. Atheneum, New York, NY.

Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner. Edited by Edward M. Burns, 2 volumes (Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA; 2018).