What would you do with this rock?

We recently had a ‘Stockholm Resilience Centre’ Marathon, where we spent a day learning about each others’ research. It was an incredible day, at the ethnographic museum in Stockholm. Our instruction was to NOT use powerpoint. So we had role plays, songs and videos… and our group, the Landscapes Theme (because our centre is based around cross-cutting research themes) presented objects. Mine was a rock. And here is my 1 minute blurb:

What would you do with this rock? What productive function would this rock have to you?

In the high desert steppe Pamir mountains of Central Asia,  people make soil from rocks. With their own hands, they break the rocks with hammers, dynamite or other, bigger rocks, until they can throw them off their land and build a stone wall with them.  They then flood this field, once, twice, three times, usually over three seasons with the silt-laden water of the Amu Darya. After three years, they may have a mulch that is just good enough to grow some fruit trees, or if the silty flood is particularly rich, perhaps even some grains.

This landscape, is barren, difficult and desolate. One might even ask why anyone decided to live here. Increasing population and severe food production restrictions indeed beg the question why anyone still lives here at all. And it’s true, living here is difficult. But the life that does grow, is unique and astoundingly resilient. Drought resistant crop varieties, endemic fruit varieties prosper in micro-niches and the food tastes so much better.


Afghan farmer in the Wakhan Corridor clearing his land of large rocks. 3 seasons from now he may use this field of rocky mulch to grow fruit trees, or even grains. August 2011 (r) Jamila Haider

A scientist might look at this landscape and see only limits that must be overcome with technocratic solutions. But let’s take for a moment the perspective of the people who live in this valley; who have co-evolved with this landscape for thousands of years. This spirit and courage is ever present in the Afghan farmers who work hard on their land, as in this photo here where rocks are cleared before being smashed to mulch.

Just on the other side of the river, this spirit of ingenuity has been all but lost. Replaced by modernization schemes, Tajik farmers will tell us that they have forgotten how to work the land.

Monumental efforts have been made to overcome these barriers, first the Soviets, and then development organisations have tried: fertilizer inputs, massive irrigation schemes, riparian stabilization, improved crop varieties.

But most do not work. The fields are too high, the soil to difficult. People are incredibly poor with some of the worst human well-being indicators in the world. Traditional development has failed. Efforts to increase food production have in fact done the opposite. Improved wheat varieties have failed after 1 or 2 seasons, depleting the soils which cannot fallow, or not withstanding drought. These interventions have done little more than create new traps, dependency on a state (the Soviets were for a while flying in fodder), or development organizations introducing seeds that requires fertilizers. How can we regain the resilience of this landscape based on the ingenuity of the farmers and break the dependency trap?

Markhov process

I find myself in a dualistic struggle as I try to understand the realities of what I study. On the one hand, I feel as if the only way of knowing is through observing a ‘real’ phenomenon for a very long time… as an ethnographer perhaps, or a natural scientist with longitudinal data. This side of my mind is currently very active with the book I’m just finishing, With Our Own Hands: A Celebration of Food and Life in the Afghan and Tajik Pamirs, which, if it must be classified, takes an ethnoecology approach to understanding complex social-ecological systems. So the other side of my mind, mostly related to my PhD, is searching for ways to generalise nuanced understandings to more generalisable theory, and back again. Specifically with regards to traps: What are the dominant dynamics that keep systems ‘stuck’ in an undesirable state? Rather than collecting a lot of data without knowing for what, we will create a ‘toy’ model to play with in order to further our specific hypotheses.

Modelling is one (very large) group of tools to understand complex systems and to simplify complex and perhaps even contradicting realities. So here I’ll start a small blog series on learning about modelling, and ideas that spring to mind as I dabble in this alternative reality. Mostly these blogs will act as placeholder for ideas to come back to, and hopefully for people to comment on and get involved with. I am following a free online course called Model Thinking through Michigan University. Most of the time I am very frustrated with the assumptions one must take to fit the world into a simplified model to assess a system that would never occur in reality. BUT I do also really see the value in using models to push one’s thinking in a given direction. So despite all the tedious calculations and oversimplification of what is real, here I go.

Markhov process was one such model that I learned about in last weeks lectures, which I think can have cool applications in understanding traps and transformations.

The Markhov process tells us about tendencies of a system to transform. For example, more states become democracies over time than autocracies. However, every decade a small percentage of democracies do become autocracies. Given this observation, one would logically assume that over time, the world’s states will reach an equilibrium of predominantly democratic states at any given time. However, this does not happen. A different equilibrium is reached, based on transition probabilities (the probability that a state will switch). This is based on the assumption that the system is memory-less… or predictions of the future are dependent only on the current state of the system and not of the past. This is possibly really useful for understanding traps and transformation. The Markhov model tells us that we cannot change a system’s trajectory by changing the state of the system itself, but rather that we need to change the process, or technically the transition probabilities, of moving from state to state. Process over function.  I look forward to exploring this with regards to why history matters in current system stability. Institutional theory, by limiting itself to analytical snapshots may be falling into the trap of a Markhov process.

%d bloggers like this: