NEWS 2019-05-07

Dancing on the vulcano

Humanity is at a crossroads. We need to understand the underlying drivers of human behaviour to avoid collapse of the biosphere and our global civilization

Radical recent developments such as Brexit, the rise of extreme nationalism in Europe, polarizing leaders, the Arab Spring, and fundamentalist movements are indications of societal discontent with the status quo. Other societal phenomena such as gender fluidity, veganism, and bartering are also associated with a perceived need to change. Such a broad set of developments may be interpreted in the light of new insights from theory of complex systems about what happens as resilience of the current pathway (societal organization as we know it) decreases.

In an article in Ecology&Society, Beijer Director Carl Folke, together with Beijer Fellows Stephen Carpenter, Marten Scheffer and Frances Westley reflect on global changes that may contribute to social destabilization, such as rising wealth concentration and environmental degradation. They continue by asking how people’s responses may be understood from a social-psychological perspective, such as the need for group identity and managing their fear of death.

Read the article

We better start doing it right

Alluding to a 70’s rock song by Genesis. “Dancing on a Volcano”, the researchers compare the lyrics to the current state of the world, where humans increasingly shape the Earth and risk pushing the planet’s climate and ecosystems over the edge. In this current human-dominated era, called the Anthropocene, variability in the political, cultural, and economic spheres seems to have increased.

“As fluctuations grow and instabilities appear there are increasing possibilities for major systemic transformations, not all of which are desirable,” the authors write.

Looking back or forward?

Many now hope that social experimentation and innovation can change the world fast enough to increase the possibilities for a sustainable future but at the same time others seem to seek an escape from the mounting complexity of our time into the felt certainty of the past.

“In a phase of turbulent experimentation, there are dangers and opportunity. Dangers include looking to the past to solve novel future problems or embracing a shiny new idea before it is tested adequately in safe-fail experiments,” they add.

Not the end of the world

The team also identify a number of trends that are forward-looking, like the “Green New Deal” in the U.S., carbon-neutral movements around the world, and various social movements. These trends range from changes in individual behaviour to broad international social movements, and as the researchers conclude, we need more of this kind of forward-looking social experimentation. For this to happen, humanity needs to avoid a kind of collective gut reaction that is common when threats to our life and way of life feel very real. In such times, we have a tendency as humans to shut down our capacities for exploration, resorting to “group thinking,” whether reactionary or escapist. This can provide an illusory sense of safety and protection, but will be a bad strategy in the long run when dancing on the edge of the metaphorical global volcano which the researchers depict.

“The plateau of change and uncertainty is not the end of the world as we know it, it is the beginning of shared work toward a better planet than we now have. Progress toward a better planet begins with open conversation about how we will share the planet with each other and all of life on earth,” they conclude.

Carpenter, S. R., C. Folke, M. Scheffer, and F. R. Westley. 2019. Dancing on the volcano: social exploration in times of discontent. Ecology and Society 24(1):23.