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Transcript: Understanding Resilience
Interview with Graeme Cumming, available to everyone
Transcript of episode with Graeme Cumming.
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[00:02:24] Rachel Donald: Well, Graeme, thank you very much for joining me on planet: critical. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. Could you give a little bit of background about your research, uh, for those that maybe haven't come across your work yet?
[00:02:34] Graeme Cumming: Yeah, sure. So I work on quite a range of topics. Um, a lot of my research focuses on questions around sustainability and recently. And I also spent, I'm not sure maybe 10 or 20% of my time doing what I could think of as pure ecology. So, um, I try and maintain a link to my disciplinary beginnings and ecology, but I'm also quite interdisciplinary in terms of what I work on.
[00:03:00] Rachel Donald: Why are the different fields at this stage of the climate crisis? Sustainability and ecology?.
[00:03:05] Graeme Cumming: Well, it's, um, a lot of researchers situate themselves in one particular area. So if I, if I feel that, what can I bring to the table that say a sociologist doesn't bring, um, it's a deep understanding of ecosystems and how they work. And I find that a useful starting point. So oftentimes when I'm working in sustainability, I might be thinking about a problem that's outside of ecology, but has parallels to things that happen in ecosystem. Or alternatively, I can bring insights from ecology into there into a particular problem.
[00:03:36] Rachel Donald: Hmm, could you give examples of some things that you've recently worked on?
[00:03:41] Graeme Cumming: Um, yeah. So, uh, I'll start with a pure ecology. We've been doing some work looking at seabird populations and trying to understand why they're declining and when the great barrier reef of Australia, and focusing on trying to understand differences and movement capabilities between different individuals in a population and how that might translate ultimately into the ability of that population to persist or not.
So that's an example of a much more focused, um, ecological research. Then, uh, I've been working with collaborators in Southern Africa, and we've been doing this now for about a decade, looking at protected areas and they're all in Southern Africa. Um, there's a whole different range of kinds of protected area, and we've been trying to understand what makes them resilient, what doesn't make them, you know, what makes them well-suited or poorly suited to the environment that they're in and how that affects their, their mission to kind of maintain key elements of biodiversity and ecosystem services into the future.
[00:04:46] Rachel Donald: When did this word resilience become a part of, you know, ecological study and also socioecological?
[00:04:54] Graeme Cumming: So it goes back, I think, at first earliest roots of the word, go back to like the forties or fifties when people were thinking about materials and the different ways in which materials respond to stress and a resilient material was one where you could change the shape without destroying them. And Buzz Holling picked up on that and a couple of other ecologists, uh, back in the sixties and seventies.
So that's where the, the more ecological usages of resilience come from. And back then it was originally conceived as an idea for turning to some kind of stable state. So the ball in the cup metaphor was kind of where they started. You imagine a ball that's rolling around in a cup and you can flick it and it'll roll up the sides, but it'll return to the middle, um, after some period. So, uh, curiously enough, um, I mean, there's a whole branch of ecological theory that still uses basically that definition of a return time to some stable point.
People tend to talk these days about favoring things with high resilience, but under that definition of high resilience would be a slower return time, right? The longer it takes to return the larger the metric you would get for resilience. So things have changed a bit over time. And then, uh, more modern definitions, uh, introduce a lot more complexity so I can dig into some of those if you'd like.
[00:06:21] Rachel Donald: Yes, please.
[00:06:22] Graeme Cumming: Yeah. So, um, a lot of what people think about these days is, is to do with what are the key feedbacks that maintain a system in a particular arrangement or configuration?
So in ecology, there was a paradigm shift study in the seventies. Sort of moving on into the nineties and even more recently where people realize that most ecosystems are not in any kind of equilibrium. So they're changing all the time. And there's some, uh, sort of elements that maintain a level of stability within a system, but other things that are, that are changing the whole time. A good example of that would be something like, um, if you think about vegetation cover, which is quite an important variable in a terrestrial system. As vegetation grows, it slowly gets more and more flammable. You build up a bio-mass, you build up leaf litter, you build up dead things basically that can burn, get plant matter. And, um, over time that can lead to a situation where you can support a large fire. So then you get a fire coming through the ecosystem and that returns it to some kind of a less forested or less, less vegetated state. And then classical ecology would say, well, the whole process starts all over.
So you have a system that's in a continual state of flux, if you think about it at a broader scale, um, some elements remain consistent. So you, you, in theory could always have the same species of trees and grasses and other things, um, within that system, but just different, different areas in different stages of moving back towards them, or would it stay till all being burned?
So that's one kind of way of thinking about resilience is what are, what are the feedbacks? So when I talk about feedback, um, you've got a situation there where the, the fire, uh, reduces the biomass in the, in the system, and then there's a feedback from the loss of biomass to the potential for fire, right?
So after a fire, there's much less potential to support fire. Feedbacks about things the way A influences B and B influences A. So in that example of the fire, as a process influences the growth of vegetation and that in turn influences the fire, so it's quite a potentially quite a tight feedback. In reality, you'd have all kinds of other things like herbivores in there, which are also having an impact on the vegetation.
[00:08:42] Rachel Donald: Just to stop on that for a moment, cause it's, um, I really, really love this idea that, um, you have to constantly being, you have to constantly zoom out in order to understand how things fit together. And yet I find it's kind of at, um, like this, this concept is very much at odds with, um, sort of the post-enlightenment era and science in which the idea was to atomize everything and individualize everything as much as possible. And to understand that, uh, systems are not in constant equilibrium, but rather, like that constant state of flux, has cycles. And eventually, I might be paraphrasing here massively, but balances itself out. Is that a kind of correct layman's understanding of it?
[00:09:26] Graeme Cumming: Yeah, I think that's reasonable. So, so what Buzz Holling proposed was the things go through cycles naturally. In ecology there's, for many years, starting back in the 1920s, there was this idea of succession. That you had a gradual and predictable shift from one habitat type into another. So for example, if you abandon a, an old field from agriculture, it'll gradually get colonized by weeds and then by shrubs, and then eventually lead into, back into forest. If it was originally in a forested area, that would be a typical example of succession.
And that goes back, those ideas go back to the 1920s. But Hollings inside was to take that kind of paradigm and say, well, there's also a part where you might get a fire through or some other major disturbance, maybe a cyclone, maybe, you know, the different disturbances are different to it are relative to different systems. And that, that would then kind of reset everything.
But he focused much more on that process of resetting and said, well, this is actually an important part of the day. And so he coined what he termed the adaptive cycle, where you have a, the idea of a system changing continually through time, through a process of kind of growth, and then, um, some kind of reset basically, or some kind of massive systemic change.
So he linked together with a bunch of other people who were working across a range of different systems, and they started to look for more, more of this kind of pattern. And they started finding similar things happening, you know, across a much wider range of stuff.
Basically where there was something about the way that things grew and developed, um, that ultimately led to their own downfall in a, in a strange sense, you know. So a very big company might get regulated or, or cut down in some way, um, you see the same thing in many businesses where managers get into position and then, you know, they come in with a lot of new ideas and after five or 10 years, perhaps they're getting a bit stale on the job and, you know, and then the leader, a good CEO will precipitate some kind of shakeup, move them around, give them a new position, you know, put them back in a situation where they have to rebuild and regenerate.
And so the, the conceptual parallels are appealing. You can see this happening in a whole lot of places around the world. So Holling hoped that resilience as a concept would kind of, um, capture some of this dynamic. Right. But, uh, I'd say in recent years, people have realized that the resilience on its own is not enough. So there's been increasing in interest in some of the other aspects of resilience. Two in particular itself are coming, becoming increasingly more kind of noticed at the moment.
One of them is transformation. Though, in a sense resilience is like an absence of transformation. If you transform into something new and completely different, you could say you've lost resilience, right? But oftentimes what we actually want to do is transform something quite, quite heavily to get out of a dysfunctional system, um, and into something that works much better. You know, global capitalism is destroying the environment. So we need something transformative. I, I don't want global capitalism to be highly resilient. I want it to become less resilient and actually shift into something different.
And then the other concept that, um, Hollings was well aware of, but didn't, didn't find a good way of including in the body of resilience theory, I don't think, is adaptation. So the whole time things are adapting to change and responding to change in biological systems, that's often a bit of a passive mechanism acting on diversity. You know, so Darwin's ideas, you have a lot of a high range of diversity in different species, in an ecosystem. The ones that are adapted to local conditions at any one point in time will survive and the others die out. And so that diversity plus selection gives you evolution in the kind of Darwinian framework, right.
So Holling and others thought, well, something similar probably applies more generally where you have diversity of options and that offers a range of choices in a way, and people, uh, select or, um, circumstances, in some way, select whichever solution is most effective at a given point in time.
So adaptation is a key. It's very tightly linked to resilience. But it's also, it's got some different elements, right? It's not always as well, as well, defined or as well understood as resilience on its own.
[00:13:38] Rachel Donald: I have so many questions. Surely when thinking about the complexity of systems and when thinking about their inherent dynamic state and thinking about the fact that it's multiple things, and I'm going to go with the philosophy capital P because I'm not a scientist, you know, w performing different functions, you know, just imagining all of that.
I mean, surely then just mapping that framework, um, etymologically even, and I don't know if that's correct, but it would be wiser to focus on resilience and transformation and adaptation. Like any resilient system is going to be multifaceted and have different parts of it that are responding in different ways. Because I mean, that reflects the complexity of the, the natural world. Right?
[00:14:27] Graeme Cumming: Yeah. Yeah. So there's a big branch of complexity theory, which says you need to adopt multiple perspectives. And that's quite well recognized in the field, I think. So, I think, uh, you know, some people seem to feel that there's kind of one, one concept, like the, like the dark lord's ring, you know, that's gonna gonna hold it all together. Um, and there's a lot of work showing that that's not going to be the case. And even if you take a relatively simple problem, then you've still got the observer problems.
So each of us comes to a problem either inside or outside the system of interest with our own perspective. And there's no way of saying my perspective is more valid than yours in, in any situation, right. And so that creates ambiguity and sometimes what people perceive as the problem is going to be different. So to me, it might be, um, you know, there's a Marine conservation problem, let's say, and it might be clearly to me a problem of over fishing, but to someone else, it might be some other kind of a problem that they perceive a very different issue with governance or, or some other aspect of it.
[00:15:28] Rachel Donald: This is sort of the problem with expertise today, in a sense, right? That, uh, everybody is so well-trained and has so much knowledge, and yet, and yet nobody's really been trained in hundreds of years to see the, the, the bigger picture. And even then, when you're looking at the bigger picture, you still need to fill in the gaps of experts, different teams on how to approach an issue.
I find it such, such, such an interesting thing, especially during this podcast interviewing so many other, and I have to say the experts I get on the show always tend to hold up their hands and be like, well, know, no, we don't have the one solution, but I do see on like science, Twitter, or climate Twitter, whatever, people genuinely say, right, okay, that's, it's that one thing. That is the one thing that we need to focus on and that's the solution. And then even if you look at a policy level, I mean, carbon emissions, how the hell did that happen? That that became the world's focus. That one singular greenhouse gas. Oh Yeah. If we solve that, if we managed to remove that from the atmosphere, then, um, all of our problems will be solved. The validity of subjectivity, observer problem. Quite revealing.
To go back a little bit and ask you, based on what we were saying before we went into transformation adaptation. Are we built, and when I say we, living things on this planet, given the nature of systems, given what you were saying about the fact that they tend to grow and then ultimately lead to their own decay, are we built to grow?
[00:17:03] Graeme Cumming: Yeah. So, I'm just thinking about that. Um, I, I'm not sure if there's a simple answer to that. I mean, of course there's not a simple answer. Right. I would say that, you know, there's nothing intrinsic that says you can't grow sustainably. I don't, I don't think there's an, I don't think there's a sort of philosophical reason why humanity should drive itself to extinction. You know.
I think we've already been, been quite successful in a number of ways, um, particularly at things like sequestering energy and resources. And humanity's also achieved some incredible things, but it seems like there are, um...
I just rationally, I don't think we can go on and growing forever in the way that we have historically. So there are questions around resilience where you would think some of the work that people are doing on resilience, if it could somehow enter, you know, public consciousness, more widely, shouldn't theory help to make us more sustainable?
So I, I don't think sustainability is impossible. I do think it could be very difficult for human society, as we know it now, to obtain or reach. And I think, I think getting there may be quite painful in the sense that there may be a lot of local and possibly a few global crashes of different things before people realize, you know, learn from those experiences and realize what needs to be done.
[00:18:33] Rachel Donald: I ask because it seems to me the main problem that we face, global capitalism, really good example, absolute nightmare of an economic system, clearly not working for anyone apart from a very, very small few. Um, and it would be very, very painful to dismantle that, but very good in the long run. And yet there seems to be this kind of call in the world, you know, for people to turn to nature. I mean, look at how the earth balances itself, look at the equilibrium of natural systems, um, or, you know, we're built to be collaborative, which I fundamentally agree with. And yet kind of ignoring that drive that we do see all around the world, which is for things to grow and then perhaps reach a form of not homeostasis, but to, what's the, what's the word I'm looking for... to move into a stage of slower growth, less explosive growth, and then decay. How do we align that very natural process that we see in living things with a definite necessity to contract, you know, our materials use, our energy use, our violent economic extractive system?
[00:19:55] Graeme Cumming: So I'd say, um, you know, people obviously are we're animals and we've evolved with certain limitations and capabilities. But at the same time, we're quite different from most other animals in some quite critical ways, right? So I'm not sure that we can sort of blindly take what we see in ecosystems and apply it to people in quite the same way.
You know, humans have got this complicated culture and technologies we've been able to upscale things we do in a way that no other animal has managed. And we also do things, you know, we're, we're capable of anticipating a future, for example, and acting on that quite potentially quite far ahead. Um, and we use, we use structures we're capable of, um, transmitting knowledge between generations or between individuals in a way that's, you know, far outstrips any other organism on the planet at the moment, as far as I'm aware.
So there's a whole lot of reasons why we need to recognize that we're also a bit different, um, and that we might need some, uh, particular kinds of management that that's not going to come from anywhere other than ourselves, unless we degrade ecosystems to the point where that starts limiting us. So I think, um, the problems come from humanity, but I think the solutions also lie within humanity to, to some of what's going on.
[00:21:14] Rachel Donald: Yeah, surely, unless there is a god up on high that wants to step in with a 10 point plan.
But I mean, what does, what does living sustainably look like for you in your vision of a, of a better world? What does that mean? Sustainability?
[00:21:32] Graeme Cumming: Yeah, that's a tricky one. I think, I think there's a number of things that I can see as obvious steps on the way. I'm not sure how it quite, how it all comes together. So, I guess following the model of plants and getting most of our energy from the sun, um, and then reducing our impacts on ecosystems, our direct impacts. I have a feeling that a sustainable world would be more equitable, um, with a much more even production and distribution of resources, fewer very wealthy individuals and, and much fewer very poor.
It's hard to quantify exactly. But I, I, you know, I feel like that's a bit of a prerequisite, somehow, improving equity. I think also it's not something that we can achieve, um, instantly or in the very short term. I think, I think society is going to have to go through a gradual adjustment. It could be a couple of hundred years, basically, of recalibrating values, expectations, uh, reducing population, growth rates, um, creating more sustainable agricultural systems. I think food systems are critical to the whole problem as well. So it's not enough just to get all our energy from direct from the sun, rather than from fossil fuels. But we also need to think about systems of production and distribution.
Um, and then I think, uh, I, I don't know if there's ever, you know, if there's a fair chance for it, sort of more genuinely equitable political situation or a conflict free world or those kinds of things, but I think that the challenge is going to be, to make sure that those, uh, those problems are happening locally rather than with global impact.
[00:23:09] Rachel Donald: Like conflict, mini wars.
[00:23:11] Graeme Cumming: Well, not, not just that, but also sort of, I think there's always going to be, it's quite likely that at some point somewhere someone's going to be doing something that's degrading an ecosystem, right.
[00:23:20] Rachel Donald: Yeah, yeah,
[00:23:21] Graeme Cumming: But if we think about the system as a whole and its kind of total adaptive capacity or its ability to cope with change, its resilience, um, that's okay. If things are regenerating and intact or regrowing in another part of the world.
[00:23:36] Rachel Donald: Isn't that quite a dangerous perspective?
[00:23:42] Graeme Cumming: It's a slippery slope.
[00:23:45] Rachel Donald: Because this is the thing, if you zoom out far enough, it's just, well, the whole planet's there, and as long as we save half of it or whatever, then you know, we'll be fine. And with that uneven distribution of power and resources that we do have currently. I mean, God, when you do look at how indigenous peoples are treated around the world, how their land rights are trampled all over and how their resources are stolen from them in order to fund, um, and power countries on the other side of the world. I mean, that's a, that's very much zooming out, and, uh, achieving a simplistic reduction, which alienates, um, living beings, just because they're on the other side of the planet, rather than introducing them into the complexity of the global system.
[00:24:27] Graeme Cumming: Yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, in a, in a sustainable future, what I was saying before about equity, I think you've got to have a much higher level of equality for it, for anything like that to work, right? But I'm also, I also don't believe there's like a perfect Nirvana in which everybody wanders through the woods, holding hands with lions and dancing in circles, you know, I don't think that's, I don't think that's practical.
[00:24:50] Rachel Donald: No, I don't think it's necessarily all of us want either. Hold hands with a lion, yeah. Walk through the woods forever, nope.
[00:24:57] Graeme Cumming: So some of these questions about, um, about equity and, um, about sort of more general resilience, I think it, it's hard to say, you know, what that could look like in the long-term and, and I think as we've just explored, so it's a bit of a, kind of an uncertain vision.
There is a project, um, that some of my colleagues are leading called seeds of a good anthropocene. And what they've been trying to do is to identify projects that are laying groundwork for what a future might look like, right. So, so that's, they've got a really nice website and that would be a good project to look at, um, to think about what, what a sustainable future could look like. And I think, um, a couple of things are quite obvious from that, right? It's going to be heterogeneous. So there's going to be a lot of variance in what solutions are developed and where they're applied. And I think it needs to be a lot more equitable.
Um, but it doesn't mean that all the problems go away or all the issues are resolved, you know, there'll still be infant mortality, there'll still be problems with health care, there'll still be, you know, a whole range of other, other kinds of question around wellbeing and, and, um, uh, how people interact with each other, you know, how people respect each other. All of those things are not going to be resolved overnight, but I think there's enough going on in the world at the moment that provides evidence that, um, there are a range of potential solutions that could make things a whole lot better. And if one could somehow spread those or get more of the world engaged in that kind of way, then we would certainly be on a better path. And I don't know where it takes us eventually, but I think it's a lot better than what we're on at the moment.
[00:26:36] Rachel Donald: Sure, but it's a bit of a chicken and the egg scenario, isn't it? It's in the same, you know, we have so much data. We have so much information. We have a lot of fantastic empowered individuals and communities trying things, but we also have an oligarchy. And unless they're willing to either disempower themselves, which looks increasingly unlikely, or unless, I don't know, something else happens, we seem to be in this very impossible situation of, we know vaguely what direction we need to go, and even if we don't know where we would end up, and yet we can't seem to get at the starting blocks to go there because of the inequity and inequality of power and resources and, and finances in the world.
[00:27:17] Graeme Cumming: Yeah. Well, I wonder if this whole climate change, um, situation that we're in at the moment might not offer a window of opportunity for broader social change. So, you know, I've been intrigued to see, um, European countries trying to get away from use the reliance on Russian, uh, coal and gas. And, um, you know, that kind of thing strikes me as if it's, if it's, if people start to believe it's possible, um, it can trigger more of a shift to renewables more rapidly. But more than that, there's a kind of a way in which, um, if those promises and processes are followed through and it can lead to social change and a reduction in the impact of some of the groups that have been dominating kind of global action and global. So here in Australia, I think the fossil fuel industry has a huge impact, um, on government decision-making. So I think if, if government were less reliant on those industries for income, um, you know, we might see better decisions being made.
[00:28:21] Rachel Donald: Yeah, I think one of the best overnight policies to introduce would be to cut subsidies to all of these, um, industries or in industrialized destroyers like fossil fuels, like industrialized fishing, like industrialized agriculture. Because even when you look at the, I can't remember who it was on the show, I think it might have been Jason Bradford, who said, you know, we're the only species that uses more energy to create our food than we, than we get when we ingest it. It's um, net energy negative and it's daft. Um, so if you stopped subsidizing all of these things, essentially, then the force of capitalism surely will encourage these industries and these people to make innovative decisions, even, uh, within our current paradigm to, to do better and to remain relevant as we move into the future.
But still nonetheless, you know, the amount of destruction that can be done in the interim. I mean, you work on corals. Coral was a huge part of the global dialogue, what, two years ago, I think, that was when all the coral documentaries came out and everybody was like the coral reefs are dying. And I mean, are they, is it still happening? They kind of fell off the radar.
[00:29:31] Graeme Cumming: Yeah, no, it's still happening. We just had another mass bleaching event this year.
Um, but to come back to the subsidies, uh, I would say, um, you know, there's another question there though. So someone from the other side of the fence might say, well, what's going to happen to all the people who, you know, rely on their motorcars to get around. If you cut those subsidies, it's going to have an impact on, you know, a big impact on the general wellbeing of the population.
You can't just do that without providing some alternative, know, power supplies and energy supplies. And, you know, so it's not something that can be done overnight. I don't think if those companies depend on those subsidies for their own survival. And if people depend on the products of those companies at the moment, then you've got to do it gradually.
[00:30:15] Rachel Donald: I absolutely agree with you. I mean, first of all, define survival, Uh. Fossil fossil fuel profits, certainly for, Uh, british companies and companies in Europe are sky high and they don't pay taxes in these countries and yet they get subsidized. So, um, but yes, I completely agree. And I think that that is why campaigns like just stop oil: fantastic intention from climate activists, perhaps misunderstanding the extent to which we are a fossil fuel economy and that 4 billion people would just die overnight without the capacity to heat their homes or, or feed themselves or go to work. And so these changes indeed have to be gradual and it goes, this comes back into complexity.
The subsidy thing is, is a good policy, it's a good policy idea rather than banning them, or rather than whatever, you know, you're just kind of twisting their arm. And yet it also has to be done in tandem with a whole bunch of other policies, like improving access to public transport, or introducing a universal, basic income or providing cheap, clean energy to, to, you know, a nation's most vulnerable.
And it seems to me that politically, at least, um, we are not coming up with resilient solutions to the climate crisis in the sense of the nature of the matter is so complex, it requires such a complex ecosystem of responses done simultaneously. And it almost seems beyond, um, comprehension, how to... how do I put this?
I mean, we've created a world over thousands and thousands of years, and that has exploded in growth over 500 years of a fossil fuel economy. And yet then we're trying to, in a period of just a few years map solutions directly onto that. Without the same amount of time and brains and people and networks to build a culture that we would normally have over hundreds of years. I mean, it just seems like such an impossible task, a worthwhile challenge, but an impossible task.
[00:32:25] Graeme Cumming: Yeah. Well, I mean, I agree it's a difficult task, I don't think impossible though. I think it's, I think it's plausible that, you know, we get some way better in the next 50 years. Um, exactly how, I don't know. I mean, I think, you know, I'm not an, I'm not an energy policy or, or a industry expert in that sense, but I certainly think there's a lot to be said for pooling different levels of expertise and of people from different disciplines to try to get the, you know, that some of the reports are quite clear that IPCC reports, for example, have good recommendations for what we could do now immediately, um, and what needs to be done in the side of the longer term.
[00:33:05] Rachel Donald: Yeah, could being the, the most important word in that sentence. Yes. We know things that would need to be done, um, whether or not they're going to happen is, is a whole other thing. And I just wonder if, in what you've studied, Uh, in resilient systems and ecology and ecosystems and all this stuff, is there a way to map, um, to map and assess and create complexity in a human system that we can learn from our own ecosystem from studying the ecosystems of the world?
[00:33:40] Graeme Cumming: Well, there's lots of tools for mapping out and trying to explore complexity, but there's also a problem with like, there's a fundamental limit on human cognition. You know, we can only consider up to a set number of variables at the same time, and we can feed them all into a big complex model, but then our measurement error is often, you know, more than what the, what the actual outputs of the model will tell us.
There are some very complex models, things like the global climate models that worked quite well, I think, and surprisingly effectively, um, but doing that where you've got people who make individual decisions is much more complex because of how people are. So I think values tend to be one of those things that changes quite slowly in society.
Most research says a 30 or 40 year timeframe of which values change. And, um, I think we're seeing some changes in values. And I'm curious to see what happens with, you know, the generation is now kind of late teens, um, and the way they've had to had to grow up in a world with a very different set of challenges from what I had when I was a kid. Um, and I think so my impression is we're seeing shifts in values, but also not necessarily in a direction that's, um, supportive of more sustainable solutions, right. I think we're seeing a big divergence as well, so, yeah, places like America, where it seems like society's becoming increasingly polarized in fact into different camps. And that makes it much harder to get things done politically.
[00:35:11] Rachel Donald: Well, same in Europe. I mean, look at the election results in France, Le Pen, the extreme, yeah, she was right behind him.
[00:35:18] Graeme Cumming: Yeah.
[00:35:19] Rachel Donald: What is that a symptom of, do you think, that increasing polarization, just like the disintegration of our political systems?
[00:35:26] Graeme Cumming: I'm not sure it's, I mean, there's a lot of, um, so there's some parallels in ecology where you have this kind of, um, splitting, essentially you have a process that's pretty much stochastic, it's spread all over the place, um, and then you see it forming into two groups.
So, uh, one example would be dung beetles. Um, some, some species you have, you have large and small males, um, and, and being larger, being smaller has different benefits being intermediate, um, is, is not so good, basically. So a large male is strong enough to push another one off a dung ball and take it away. And the little ones get advantages in sneaky mating and that kind of stuff.
And you can model this process as a process of evolutionary divergence and it, it shows you when you, when you enter the different, the constraints and details that you actually, you know, there's kind of a rational reason why you end up with these two different sizes. And you see some similar stuff in, for example, in brand switching behavior.
So if you've got five different brands of ketchup to pick from this, it's quite likely that there's one that everybody likes and one that people don't like, but then over time it might gradually split into two brands being much more popular than the others. You know, these kinds of processes where populations diverge are not, um, unusual in chaotic systems or, or partially chaotic systems, it goes with complexity. The question is then what, what's the outcome? If you're in one of those groups and you, and you try to, uh, overturn the demands of the other group, um, and I think that's a, that's a much trickier one because ideally an equitable solution is gonna include everybody, right? It needs to be satisfying ideally across the full political spectrum.
[00:37:14] Rachel Donald: Yes, although this is another question I've had on my mind, um, recently is the, validity or the feasibility of trying to roll out a global value system or a global political system that everybody will ascribe to, or everybody would be happy to ascribe to outside of a sense of emergency. Because we know that people do when people can, we've seen that from, you know, the long-term studies that were done during periods of war, people are really happy in an emergency to just kind of take one for the team and do whatever needs to be done. Uh, but outside of that, I'm wondering whether it's possible, whether it would be a good idea? And so I find like that concept of ecological splitting very, very interesting. I mean, do these dung beetles then learn to live two to co-exist quite harmoniously?
[00:38:02] Graeme Cumming: Yeah. So it's an evolutionary process that happens over time. I mean, the existence is not harmonious, right? Because they're competing for mates and for dung balls and as they go, it just happens that there's a stable way of, of doing that. Um, at either end of the extreme of either being extremely large, extremely small, this works well, but being intermediate doesn't.
[00:38:23] Rachel Donald: That's so interesting. And do their populations tend to remain quite balanced?
[00:38:28] Graeme Cumming: Yeah, the population as a whole remains, remains fine. And obviously if there are fewer small males that may become more advantageous to, to be small, um, and so on. So there are, uh, as is common with these kinds of processes, there are some benefits that tend to maintain that by modalism that split within the population, yeah. And I can imagine in human society as well, there may be something similar going on where it's, it's beneficial to be one or the other and not to be in the middle. But I think, I mean, ultimately, uh, I think the challenge globally is more to try and de-politicize some of the issues.
I think it's within my own lifetime, that climate change, for example, has become a political issue. You know, I can still remember a point when a conservative government might just as well have taken climate action as a, as a sort of left-wing government. I don't think, I don't think that that perspective has to be the way it is in many places in the world right now, you know? And I think it's about trying to understand the science and say, well, what does the science tell us? And whichever side of the political spectrum you fall on to realize that, you know, the validity of science. So the challenge in some ways, it's more to convince people of the validity of science. I don't think we need homogeneity in political beliefs.
[00:39:45] Rachel Donald: I agree, but I think science has also become politicized.
[00:39:49] Graeme Cumming: Yeah, and I think that's partly a deliberate, um, campaign by groups that have a vested interest in the findings of science being disregarded, you know, for example, the fossil fuel industry.
[00:40:02] Rachel Donald: The great irony being the amount of science and technology they use to, um, to do their work. Yes. I completely agree. And then I wonder if we should try and zoom out one step further and think, well, okay, so if It's not just climate change that has been politicized, not just science that has been politicized, I mean, well, arguably all of human existence now has been politicized, hasn't it?
[00:40:25] Graeme Cumming: Yeah. So one of the things I was part of the millennium ecosystem assessment, and one of the things we spend a lot of time debating there and thinking about global scenarios was, what can lead to value shift? What can lead to more, you know, global action basically?
[00:40:40] Rachel Donald: Yeah.
[00:40:41] Graeme Cumming: Um, and it's really difficult to say. I think, I think in some ways that people respond to disaster or catastrophe, but the trouble we've got with many ecological problems is that by the time catastrophe strikes, it's too late to solve the problem, right. So we're seeing with the coral reefs, for example, they're the kind of Canary in the coal mine ecosystem that's saying the world's getting too hot. The ocean's getting too warm and it's going to kill, you know, a large number of corals. And, uh, the problem there is then that, even if we were able to restore or to stop emissions today, there's still a locked in level of CO2 in the atmosphere, which is going to lead to Marine heatwaves for the next 10, 20, 30 years. Until the earth has processed that, that CO2, I think the half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere is something like 200 years. So we're already locked into an unsustainable situation from a perspective of the coral reef.
So it's no longer really about maintaining anything like the status quo, but more, um, trying to understand what we can do to help reefs adapt or respond to changes. And also to take the pressure off so that they don't degrade or decline faster than, than they have to basically, and to create a space where natural selection and other kind of natural processes can try to fill that gap. You know, there's billions of corals on the great barrier reef and billions of them are still alive. And they're obviously undergoing an extreme selective event, but it's possible that out of those billions of corals, some of them have higher natural resistance to heating, um, and may be able to survive and prosper and, and propagate and rebuild the reef. I don't have high hopes for, for human efforts to simulate that process.
[00:42:29] Rachel Donald: Yeah. 30 to 40 years to change values. What did that group then, the millennium ecosystem assessment, apart from emergency, um, did you come to a conclusion about what it does take to change values?
[00:42:46] Graeme Cumming: No, not really, or not a strong one. So we were debating it from the point of view of, um, if you want to think we were trying to develop scenarios, global futures, um, and think of alternative ways of the world could change and develop in the next 50 years, basically 20 years and 50 years. And trying to work out, so what's realistic and what's not? You know, there'd been some previous scenario exercises where people had said, well, what if you know, what if the world, if everybody just starts realizing, waking up to ecological degradation, how feasible is that? Is that possible? That we could just see a massive U-turn and a whole lot of different policies? And other people within the group saying, well, no, that's not feasible. That's never going to happen.
And so I think what we ended up with was kind of a mix where, in scenarios with a more positive kind of ending subjectively, you have some successes and some failures, but, um, it's enough to gradually change people's attitudes. But I don't think that problem's been, been resolved in the sense of, you know, and again, I'm not sure in some ways, I'm not sure I'd want it to be resolved now. I'm not sure I'd want someone to change my attitudes for me or my values.
[00:43:53] Rachel Donald: Yes, this is yet another chicken and the egg scenario where If we had a magic wand and we could change education systems and we could turn everybody into critical thinkers and give them the educational support that they need, and then allow them to become adults and make up their own minds about the world, and hopefully a vast majority of people would have a very decent value system that wasn't linked to internalized capitalism and extractivism and individualism and competition. But we don't have that time, and yet to change value systems without going down the route of education only reveals the urgency of the situation that we are in, and could also on a long-term lead to, you start changing value systems without actually teaching people, you know, that's religious doctrine and those things tend to stick about for thousands of years and get us into all sorts of trouble along the way.
So, it's such a difficult, we are in such a difficult period now leading up to 2030 of decisions have to be made and triggers have to be pulled, and how do you do it in a way that reflects the best of the future that we want to have? I don't know. Nobody knows.
[00:45:10] Graeme Cumming: I mean, I think, I think what we can say though, is that solutions need to be, uh, need to be made transparently and democratically and reflecting the diversity of society and the range of different people within society. So I think a lot of these things, um, the process is in some ways as important as the eventual decision that gets made, right?
So with the wrong processes, um, you'll get the wrong outcomes. And I think one of the things that society can start to work on or address more feasibly is perhaps getting some of the process right. You know, if it's not possible everywhere in the world, but I think if individuals within society push for correct processes and correct levels of inclusion and diversity in decision-making, I feel like that's more likely to lead to decent outcomes.
[00:46:02] Rachel Donald: That's very interesting. And do you think we have the time for that?
[00:46:06] Graeme Cumming: Well, I don't know, but we, I don't, I don't think we're going to get anywhere unless we, unless we include, you know, more people, more diverse people and find more equitable solutions. I don't, I don't think, um, positive lasting change is going to be possible without that, whatever the timeframe. Yeah.
[00:46:24] Rachel Donald: So you don't believe in the, uh, global dictator paradigm. Very good.
[00:46:34] Graeme Cumming: I was going to ask if you do?
[00:46:36] Rachel Donald: Um, no, that's complicated. I would say that, first of all, I fundamentally believe that it is impossible to have somebody with that sort of, um, like with a prefrontal cortex big enough to make all those decisions. But even if, um, that magical creature did exist, um, I think it's a very, very short term solution that has very, very dangerous long-term repercussions. Because if that's the system that you put into place a) it's like, it's like the ancient Greeks, you know, how do you replace a philosopher king? That age old problem. But also I think that the situation that we are in today, the modernity aspects of it is not just a problem of the type of fuel we use, but equity, um, and distribution and fairness.
And so I think that, ascribing all power to one person would be a hell of a backward slide, um, and result in very dangerous repercussions in the future. Even if it did save, you know, 8 billion people from dying immediately. Um, I think that if we cannot find a way to get there collaboratively, then there's not much point anyway. Which is, um, quite dramatic, but that is what I believe.
Right, Graeme, I think I've taken up enough of your time. Thank you so much for coming on the show and discussing all these very complex and wonderful things with me.
[00:48:13] Graeme Cumming: It's a pleasure. And thank you. I hope you've been able to get something, something useful out of this.
[00:48:18] Rachel Donald: Massively really, really I've taken so many notes. I have a one final question for you, which is who would you like to platform?
[00:48:25] Graeme Cumming: I'd suggest Gary Peterson might be a good person to chat with. He's based at the university of Stockholm at the Stockholm resilience center.
[00:48:34] Rachel Donald: That'd be wonderful. Right, thank you so much, Graeme.
[00:48:36] Graeme Cumming: Nice to meet you. Rachel. Take care.
[00:48:38] Rachel Donald: You too.