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Summer thoughts 2014, “slow-life” time

Misconceptions and vulnerability / resilience issues in the socio-ecological transition

The institute is working at conceptual and operational, legal and political instruments that instaurate / restore resilient mechanisms and practices at regional levels of decision making. The transition to resilient societies (in socio-economic, environmental, financial, demographic, etc terms) has to be socially just, ecologically responsible, and society-wide (culturally) acceptable.

Resilience is defined here as the continued availability of productive natural capital through adaptive governance (legal and regulatory frameworks and dedicated institutions) and management (transparent all stake-holder practices) in a continual change context [1].
Societies and ecosystems make the pair. Are they equally vulnerable to diverse stressors ?
Biotic and social crises are creating a whole range of disequilibria with double-edge effects (for example, salinization, desertification, and algal blooms). All in all, social systems seem to be more susceptible to change than biological systems (socio-kenosis versus bio-kenosis).
We know that ecology drives evolution and evolution drives ecology based on pioneering studies at the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis, CEES Oslo.
The result is resilient and highly adaptive food webs and ecosystems. They are productive, resource- and energy-efficient, and as such calibrate the renewable resource-potential and specifics of a given territory. This biospheric set-up is the matrix of all human activities. We are far from having explored equivalent capacities in human economies. The field of Evolutionary Economics is in its infancy [2].
The comprehension of evolutionary processes (such as those dealing with social norms, economic behaviour, adaptation through learning, articulation of public / private institutions etc) can guide the history of institutions. The study of evolutionary mechanisms would make technological, organizational, and institutional trajectories more intelligible.
In brief, it is important to focus research on these lines and work with the whole range of society actors on

  • differential vulnerability/resilience between socio- and eco-systems and
  • differential vulnerability/resilience between and within socio-cultural systems.

We consider that high-tech over-consumption societies are becoming increasingly vulnerable to change. It is about, for example, impacts on living standards of middle- and low-class groups via the inter-dependently operating factors health, food, environment, education, demography etc.

Globally, we observe a reduction of the buffering capacity of ecosystems to support economic and other human activities (yield ceilings in major crops, reduction of developmental options illustrated by switching political agendas from mitigation and sustainability to adaptation strategies ; also see references [3] and [4]). We expect highly differential responses in mitigation versus adaptation in OECD, developing, and under-developed countries.

On these grounds, the political and society agendas appear biassed by a series of misconceptions, such as :

  1. The 6th extinction. It will not take place as predicted because diverse ecosystems will be less vulnerable to man-driven degradation than societies per se (bio-kenosis is less tenuous than socio-kenosis).
  2. Decarbonizing the economy. So far there are vague attempts to build a carbon substitution economy by shifting from fossil to green carbon solutions.
  3. “Saving Nature” is, according to what precedes, a childish assertion and slogan.

What are then the arguments and what are the routes to resilience ? What could be negotiated before and during COP21 in 2015, knowing for instance that at present the levels of CO2 emissions per inhabitant do not specifically correlate with GDP per inhabitant [5].
Therefore, negotiating on climate deregulation and/or biodiversity erosion makes no sense without considering an integrative transition process leading to an as broad as possible socio-economic resilience and the governance of the commons.
Such arguments have been developed during our course Bioresources and biodiversity, 2014 [6] and in the current News series here on the “societal and ecological transition”. Others will be part of the Anthropocene curriculum, HKW Berlin in November 2014 [7]. Additional sources are briefly summarised below.

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1. Tools to identify, name, and quantify critical socio-ecosystemic thresholds and state-shifts, while accurately monitoring stocks and flows of natural resources.

A recently published JRC report [8] makes recommendations on the creation of a global index to monitor the progress of climate-resilient development policies. The index would include metrics on extreme climate events, climate vulnerability, and adaptive capacity, taking into account the climate vulnerability of ecosystem services and the role of natural resources in climate adaptation. A global index for climate–resilient development would help identify countries and communities most at risk.
The Earth Genome project, and its predecessor, the Natural Capital Project [9] aim at gathering and exploring a broad range of local data (water, soil, GHG etc) all over the world in order to generate sophisticated and data-intensive indicators. Such indicators would give the needed answers to reduce human drivers of degradation through agriculture, logging, or fishing. Similar tools are in development at the European Environmental Agency [10].

2. Considerations on democracy as a resilience process

In The age of low-tech [11], Philippe Bihouix considers that the race to innovation takes us in a technically / technologically unsustainable place by masking the necessity to think in terms of making choices and radically rethinking our needs [12].
For example, by obsessively focusing on the energy issue, we are eluding the more general problems of resources. According to him and despite a general resource drain, a brutal collapse of societies is unlikely. Rather, as one can already notice, difficulties gradually accumulate in our “fast-life” : mobility, healthcare, access to proper food etc.
In the interview with John Steel [13] Sir Partha Dasgupta is critically considering how we assign value to and how we make decisions on wealth. To him, wealth means the “value of all assets from the past”. This is not only about the capital goods, but most and above all, about human capital and natural capital. Concerning the latter, “governments don’t even estimate what’s on there in terms of stock (…) not even in the most crude approximate form”. The result is that “cumulatively, (we)’re drawing down the public good”. Put it differently, “these are battles for resources”. So, there is a huge social problem in “not being able to cooperate with others”. He concludes : “collective action is required with the greatest urgency at every level”.
John Rowls sees these issues through the lens of distributive justice (rules of equity and justification). In the 1991 interview with his Harvard students [14] he was setting up the conceptual frame that rigourously justifies not only the distribution of goods, but also of power : rights and freedom, and social positions. In other words, the fundamentals of a democratic society. I would add in 2014 : a resilient democracy.

Ioan Negrutiu


A number of issues and references came to me in articles from Libération or suggested by our colleague Hubert Pinon.

Publié ou mis à jour le 19 août 2014


[1Harm Benson M and Craig RK (2014) The end of sustainability. The realities of the Anthropocene demand a new approach to environmental governance.

[2Lazaric N, Les théorieséconomiques évolutionnistes, La décroissance / Repères, 2010.

[3Barnosky AD et al, 2012, Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere, Nature 486 : 52-58

[4Stockholm Memorandum, 2011 and the “Scientific Consensus on Maintaining
Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century” 2013.

[5Wible B, IPCC lessons from Berlin (Policy Forum, Climate Policy), Science 345,p34 ; DOI : 10.1126/science.345.6192.34-a

[10Weber JL, 2011, An experimental framework for ecosystem capital accounting in Europe, EEA Technical report No 13/2011, ISSN 1725-2237

[11Bihouix Ph, L’âge du low-tech, Ed. Seuil 2014

[12Jonathan Crary, 24/7, le capitalisme à l’assaut du someil, Ed. Zones / English:24/7 : Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Verso London 2013

[13How to price a forest, and other economics problems. A Cambridge economist discusses whealth, health, and disaster. July 3, 2014

[14John Rowls for the record, (French commentary in, Desmons O, Rowls par lui-même, 3 juillet 2014.