Category: Complexity

I want to respond to Kroeber’s recent argument that, “the Chinese state is not fragile.” it instead a “strong, increasingly self-confident” regime “without organized opposition.” After trying to turn conventional wisdom…

Politics Resilience Umbrella Movement

I was intrigued by a link on Twitter concerning a paper that was “sweeping” awards at the American Political Science Association conference this week, with the title The Missionary Roots…

Complexity Development Education Inequality


I watched The Island President last night and was surprised to see Mark Lynas play a role in the documentary. To be honest, he wasn’t a fully fleshed person to me before the movie. He was just someone making weak arguments about the value and need for genetically modified food and getting a lot of traction for those arguments because they came after an about-face from an equally weak position. He came across as a far more sympathetic character in the documentary, as someone genuinely concerned about global warming and who understood that how we approach global warming policy is far cry from “adequate.”

The issue, as he said in the documentary, is not just that we need to slow the growth of carbon – we actually need to “put carbon back in” to the Earth somehow to have a much lower carbon dioxide parts per million (ppm) count than we do today. One of the tensest scenes came when President Mohamad Nasheed met with his advisers, of which Lynas had become one, to announce his decision to back down from his 350 ppm demand once he saw the way negotiations in Copenhagen were going. Lynas resisted: 380 ppm was simply insufficient to help the Maldives in any meaningful way. Earlier, he was even seen resisting Nasheed’s interest in switching Maldivian energy production to natural gas – as it would harm his pledge to go carbon neutral.

I am convinced, then, of Lynas’s commitment to this issue. And I also don’t mean to specifically pick on Lynas, but as his reviewer says, he’s “wonderfully cogent” and he does spell out exactly where he stands. He’s intentionally putting himself out there as an intellectual punching bag by making statements like, “global warming is not about overconsumption, morality, ideology or capitalism.” So the problem seems to be his theory of change in so much as we see statements like that being about the future rather than past (i.e., we don’t need to change our capitalist or our consumption). Specifically, his theory of change is that hope for the future lies in modernizing our institutions and practices. In Peter Forbes’s review of The God Species, he says Lynas explains:


…why organic farming is not an option globally and why we need genetically engineered crops. The natural limit to food production is set by nitrogen which, in a form usable by plants, is rare in nature. We owe our present 6.9bn population to the 100-year-old Haber-Bosch process of nitrogen fixation to produce fertilisers. Take that away and the current population is already twice the Earth’s carrying capacity. Our best hope for the future is to genetically engineer a nitrogen-fixing plant (the green kind) to replace nitrogen-fixing plant (the heavy industrial kind).

Agriculture Politics Resilience

Agriculture Asia China Development Economics Inequality Resilience Uncategorized

I spent all day Saturday at the Comparative Education Society of Hong Kong 2013 Conference at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The theme was “Educational Reform and Social Change: East-West Dialogue.” I had originally planned to present some of my research findings, but changed titles to present instead on “Situation in Resilience in the Context of Educational Reform: Lessons for Planners and Curriculum.”

I’ve been intrigued by the idea of adaptive cycles, and thought I could argue that the the rise and fall Michelle Rhee‘s reforms in the DC school district could be seen in that context. This starts by seeing the conditions of school failure and concurrent entrenchment of old regime actors as being an educational system in “late K” – unable to adapt to increasing demands for higher performance, and the costs of maintaining the system extremely high (externalized to student learning, morale throughout the system, paying for entrenched but ineffective teachers and administrators). This created the conditions for a release stage with the election of a mayor who ran on a platform of comprehensive reforms of the school district.

During a short reorganization phase, old actors were politically marginalized while new school district chancellor Rhee set in motion sweeping, radical reforms. She made it to a growth stage, pushing ever more radical (in comparison to the prior regime) reforms and firing hundreds of teachers.  But popularity for the reforms plummeted and the system went back into a release phase, where the old regime actors took over the system again when the mayor lost re-election. A few years later, we’re either in the conservation or growth stage of a hybrid system with some of Rhee’s reforms still in place.

America Complexity Education Politics Resilience

The discussion on complexity and development continued on Twitter. I said that in my my previous post on complexity and development didn’t go far enough to raise what I think is a often a very overlooked point by complexity ‘theorist’ – which is that both good and bad things arise from emergence and self-organization. As it pertains to development, I think some of the most pressing problems like vulnerability, poverty, hunger, inequality, and corruption are persistent precisely because they’re deeply embedded inside complex systems. More specifically, they’re resilient – even the most powerful, well-funded interventions fail spectacularly.

As with the previous post, I think Owen is still feeling out the exact position he’s staking. I applaud him for being willing to get his hands dirty, as it were, by continuing the discussion and amending his argument as it unfolds. His response to the above idea was that, “poverty is the ‘no system’ situation.  Non-poverty requires a complex adaptive system…” He later backed down from the ‘no system’ claim.  He nuanced the claims later with, “many people live in systems which are not complex in a way which delivers them a good life,” and agreed with me that, “not all adaptation is positive. But you can’t end poverty without it. Complexity is necessary but not sufficient,” and that “rich countries and poor countries [are]… just a different kind of complex.”

This begs the question: what are the units of analysis? I agree that there are ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ socio-economic systems that either promote or hinder capabilities and positive freedoms. A baby born in Canada is likely going to have a longer, happier, wealthier, healthier life with a much wider array of opportunities than if it were born in rural Somalia. I agree with his main point, which has been raised by others, that healthier socio-economic systems are emergent properties of complex systems. There’s no one single key to having a society like that. To reverse engineer the emergence, I would say that it’s the result of having a society where desired action is encouraged with successive layers of positive feedbacks, and negative action discouraged with negative feedbacks. Social safety nets are in place to make sure individuals (or entire demographics, as it often happens) don’t become stuck in endless poverty or crime cycles.

Complexity Development Economics

Capacity Complexity Development Economics Uncategorized

The debate that this essay was inspired by came from the proposition that banning guns was a common-sense approach to fixing the problem of gun violence. The previous section argued…


I had a late night debate with several friends over the merits of gun control and realized, in the process, that it’s an almost perfect test case for adaptive co-management…