I am just back form a great workshop on critical transitions in lakes. Critical transitions mean that ecological systems, but also social, and economic systems can undergo very abrupt, sudden changes with often substantial negative consequences for humans (as the economic crisis that swept over the world in 2008 demonstrates). Lakes as one of the many ecosystem types on the world provide important services (fishing, clear water, recreation) that may be lost, once they “transition” to a “bad state”.
The workshop had interesting, stimulating and thought-provoking lectures. A major area of research is if and how we can predict when lakes (and potentially other ecosystems and entire systems of people and nature) can shift between states to potentially steer systems away from thresholds upon which they shift into a state of reduced service provisioning . Among the participants we had “believers” and “non-believers” in proposed “early warning indicators” of such critical transitions. Major conclusions from the workshop where that many of the currently proposed early warning indicators fail, and that sometimes ecosystems need thousands of years to transition between different states!
Humans generally manage ecosystems on time scales that are perceivable to us; that is, within time frames of years and decades. It follows that critical warning indicators are, given the current state of research, an exercise to satisfy academic hedonism, while being of limited value for those (managers) that implement scientific knowledge to “maintain an intact world”. What does this disconnect tell us?
The broader picture: an allegory of surrealism
Surrealism, a spin-off of Dadaism during the early 20th century, has been an artistic counter movement, providing artists an outlet to express societal issues and problems provocatively. After the workshop I was no longer sure whether I am a believer or non-believer in early warnings. More importantly, I had a light bulb moment that made me think whether we ask the right questions at all in this current science systems, which has become perverted by the intrusion of neoliberal, capitalistic models that only value how many papers a scientist publishes (and in which journals) and the money which a researcher acquires through competitive external funding sources. My uncertainty is perhaps due to having been educated in a scientific system that does no longer allow, and which in essence penalises, critical, broader, out-of-the box thinking. At the same time I become more and more convinced that this scientific system has entered “death row”. My word choice is on purpose! I have during the last years been much inspired by the arts (both visual and auditory), especially those with an extremely provocative character, but which hit the nail on the had when it comes to pinpoint problems! The arts have become a powerful allegory to envision scientific challenges.
Coming to the point: The way of how we envision management, including our views on how to assess critical transitions for management, are too egocentric from a human point of view. Planet earth is an ecosystem on its own! We humans are only part of it! We can influence its dynamics in one way but unlikely in another. That is, we can screw up the world through climate change but we will likely not have the capacity to “tailor” the world as we want it to be. Uncertainty is the only certainty we must live with. The most important question is if and how we, the humans, can adapt to, learn form and cope with, or potentially transform to live with future crisis in a “capricious biosphere”. That is, just to have the ability to say: we don´t care if a system shifts, we will be able to live and adapt to these changes. — I know! This is in and of itself very difficult to envision – it may sound like surrealism expressed through words! It´s provocative, I know, and like many of the readers of this blog I don´t have an answer myself how this question can be addressed! But by just being aware of this I hope to be able to boost my lines of thoughts and bring them on other, new paths of inquiry that may (or may not) bring us towards an acceptable answer.
I personally fell (and I do by no way mean to offend my peers and dearest colleagues) that the way we do science in this modern world becomes allegorical to many of the fantastic pieces of dadaist and surrealist art created in the former Millennium. In more practical terms this tells us that our current level of inquiry in academia, and the implications for management are not “realistic to cope with the real problems”. Surrealism and dadaism are worthy of a renaissance, given their potential to inspire quests into alternative paths of inquiry almost a century later when these movements had their apogee.