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The Complexity Matters blog features the Thursday Complexity Post as well as other complexity inspired news items.


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Environments and Mindsets for Complex Change

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, October 30, 2014

Balinese farmers have grown rice in paddies irrigated through an intricate network of canals and aqueducts built around hundreds of tiered water temples for more than a thousand years. Priests in the temples and hundreds of grower collectives known as subaks evolved a well orchestrated collaboration to control pests and make sure water was fairly distributed.

In the 1980s, international development organizations introduced chemical fertilizers and re-engineered growing and harvest patterns with the goal of growing more rice. The water temples and subaks were disregarded. Several years into the program, rice yield had plunged and rats and other pests were proliferating. In his extraordinary book Aid on the Edge of Chaos, Ben Ramalingam tells the story of the subaks in Bali and the dynamic self-organization that had allowed growers to cooperate in management of complex issues related to soil quality, pest control, crop yields, and rainfall and to make continual adjustments as local conditions required. The subaks also performed social, legal and spiritual functions.

Researchers from the Santa Fe Institute found that the farmers cooperated on the basis of their own dominant needs. Those upstream were most worried about pests, and those down stream worried about water shortages. Ramalingam explains the researchers used ecological simulation models to show how humans were reshaping the ecosystem, and how cooperative behavior emerged over time. With the water temples as the nodes, he writes, the subak networks were "a particular form of social organization shaped by a process of cooperative agents co-evolving in a changing environment." By 2012, he says, the government of Bali had arranged that the subaks would be preserved in perpetuity as a vital part of the country's unique cultural, social and economic farming system.

Ramalingam believes an understanding of complexity science and complex adaptive systems can help cultivate new mindsets that will enable policy makers and program designers to increase effectiveness as they try to improve health and economic conditions, reverse adverse impacts of climate change, and build peace in war ravaged areas. He provides lucid examples and commentary on the work of many complexity scholars, including John Holland, Stuart Kauffman, Jane Jacobs, Herbert Simon, Joshua Epstein, a scholar of agent based modeling, and Warren Weaver, a mathematician who wrote an influential paper on "Science and Complexity" in 1948. He quotes Friedrich Hayek's 1974 Nobel acceptance speech in which the economist said we can't acquire enough knowledge to master complex events, so we need to use the knowledge we can get to "cultivate a growth by providing the appropriate environment" for growth the way a gardener does for plants.

Ramalingam cites several innovative development and humanitarian efforts that draw upon the concepts of complexity: they include dealing with epidemic outbreaks in Asia, water sharing in Bhutan, subsistence farming and urban change in East Africa, disaster responses in Southern Africa, and industrial production globally. This informative book is filled with memorable stories, well-turned phrases, extensive research, and a wide-ranging exploration of the insights of complexity science. While the focus is aid, the usefulness extends to just about any field.

In a section on positive deviance, Ramalingam describes the work of Monique Sternin and the late Jerry Sternin in reducing childhood malnutrition in Vietnam. The Sternins pioneered the use of positive deviance (PD) in social and behavioral change. They helped parents living in impoverished villages discover that some of their neighbors had healthier kids despite having no additional resources. The parents of the healthier children were gathering shrimps, crabs and greens that were free but generally considered unsuitable for children, and they had different mealtime practices. Ramalingam also notes the successful use of PD in reducing MRSA rates and in improving business operations. Plexus Institute led an initiative in which several hospitals using PD processes dramatically reduced the incidence of healthcare associated infections. In an interview with Ramalingam, Monique Sternin noted Plexus Institute's role in developing the science and theory behind PD and scaling up the work.

image from wikipedia

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  culture  ecology  environment  organizations 

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Human Conflict Linked to Climate Change

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, August 8, 2013

Will global warming lead to more war, crime and violence?

Scientists say an analysis of 60 earlier studies offers strong evidence of a link between higher temperatures and human conflict in all regions of the world. Solomon Hsiang, Marshall Burke and Edward Miguel of the University of California at Berkeley report that research suggests higher temperatures, drought and extreme rainfall can increase the risk of both individual and societal violence. In a paper published in the journal Science, the authors write that for every standard deviation of temperature increase, personal violence such as assault, domestic abuse and rape can be expected to increase by four percent, and societal violence such as rioting and war, can be expected to rise 14 percent. Global temperatures are expected to rise at least two standard deviations by 2050, according to a story by Ed Yong in The

Thomas Homer-Dixon, an environmental and political scientist at Waterloo University in Ontario, who was not involved in the study, told Yong the research is exceptionally strong and added that the world is likely to be a pretty violent place by mid-century if climate change continues unabated. "Our results shed new light on how the future climate will shape human societies,” Burke said in a Berkeley news release. "The findings of the study suggest that a global temperature rise of two degrees Celsius could increase the rate of intergroup conflicts, such as civil wars, by over 50 percent in many parts of the world.

Hsiang’s team looked at data gathered by 190 scholars in diverse fields that included psychologists examining the impact of temperature on aggression and archeologists looking at violence in ancient civilizations. Worldwide data stretched from 10,000 BCE to the present. A Fastcoexist story reports researchers from the University of Minnesota found the collapse of the Tang, Yuan and Ming Dynasties all followed long periods of drought or scant rainfall, and worldwide warming has been documented around the time the Tang Dynasty fell. U.S. crime statistics show more murders, assaults and rapes on hot days. Hsiang’s earlier research shows civil conflicts in the tropics are twice as likely during hot El Nino years, and Brazilian farmers are more likely to invade each other’s land during years that are extremely wet or dry.

Skeptics say climate and conflict are complex subjects, and the relationship between them is unclear and nonlinear. A Washington Post story by Brad Plumer asserts the 2000s were the warmest decade on record and also the least violent since the 1970s. The Post report has links to several stories about the new study. Economic and political conditions not always related to climate contribute to violence. When climate contributes to famine induced by crop failure, or the relocation of refugees fleeing natural disasters, proportionality of the causes may be hard to assign.

Hsiang told The Scientist that while climate and conflict were consistently linked in his team’s research, climate is only one influence. Further, his team did not attempt to show reasons for the link. Humans will inevitably be impacted in some way by climate change and environmental upheaval. In Hsiang’s view thinking about the future of climate change and its consequences can help people adapt.

Tags:  adaptive  buscell  complexity matters  environment  research 

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Youth Obesity: Not Just Gluttony Or Sloth

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 11, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why are one third of American children and adolescents obese or overweight? Recent research suggests multiple surprising causes such as plate size, a dearth of home cooking, environmental chemicals, and school schedules that keep teens from getting enough sleep.

A Scientific American story by Tara Haelle describes three studies that point to environmental factors, rather than genes or inactivity, as spurs to excess weight.

"We're raising our children in a world that is vastly different" from the world of 40 or 50 years ago, Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity doctor at the University of Ottawa told the magazine. He says obesity is the consequence of normal kids being raised in abnormal and unhealthy environments.

Jennifer Orlet Fisher, an associate professor of public health at Temple's Center for Obesity Research and Education, studied 42 second graders who served themselves in a buffet lunch line. She found that kids who had an adult dinner sized plate-10.25 inches in diameter-served themselves 90 calories more than kids who used a 7.25 inch plate. Kids with the big plates didn't always eat every bite, but they still ate far more than classmates with smaller plates. Today's dietary environment offers easy access to lots of tasty foods in big portions, Fisher says, adding, "To promote self-regulation you have to constrain the environment to make the healthy choice the easy choice."

Harvard Medical School Pediatrics Professor David Bickham led a study on the link between obesity and screen time, studying 921 teens who reported their use of TV, video games and computers. Bickam and colleagues found games and computer use had no impact on body mass index (BMI). But TV did. Three common theories say media fosters obesity because kids are influenced by advertising, they eat unconsciously, and they are not physically active while they are sitting in front of a screen. When kids watch TV, researchers found, their hands are free, and food ads stimulate desire to eat and high calorie consumption. Viewing healthy fruits and vegetables on the TV screens may not help. "Our hunger hormones have been honed after millions of years of dietary insecurity, so when we want to eat, we tend not to crave green leafy salads," Bickhamsaid. He emphasizes the relationship between TV and weight is calorie intake, not inactivity.

Another study that deemphasizes the role of inactivity in excess weight involved teenagers and sleep. Jonathan Mitchell, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues tracked sleep habits of 1,400 teens and found that less sleep translates into higher a BMI. Lack of sleep had a stronger influence on the weight of kids who were already obese. Tired, sleep-deprived kids maybe less active, he noted, but the observed link was not fully explained by inactivity. Earlier research has suggested sleep deprivation may disrupt the body's regulatory hormones, which control hunger and satiety. Freedhoff says "dozens and dozens" of environmental factors, including more fast food, sugary drinks, the ubiquity of vending machines and the tendency of adults to use food as pacification and reward all tend to make kids fatter.

The National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences has reported that certain chemical exposures may be linked to obesity and diabetes. A study by Dr. Duk-Hee Lee showed that the risk of diabetes was not increased in overweight people with low exposures to persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which suggested to her that exposure to POPs could be an even better explanation for diabetes than obesity. Several researchers have explored associations between hormone altering environmental chemicals and childhood obesity.

As Freedhoff told the Scientific American, this problem requires collaboration. It will take efforts by whole communities including parents, schools, sports teams, and businesses to "redraft" the environment of children and families.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  environment  health 

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Learning to Tend Our Microbial Gardens

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ecologist Jessica Green thinks of indoor air as a microbial garden, and she thinks architects and biologists can collaborate to make our indoor environments much healthier for humans.

In a TEDx talk, Green describes what we are doing to indoor air now. She calls it "microbial genocide.” We seal the buildings and use air conditioning and filtration systems to make sure outdoor microbes don’t get in. People come in bringing millions of microbes shedding from their bodies and they stir up the microbial dust languishing every surface. We keep the temperature and humidity in the same narrow range. And then, she says, we regularly kill every organism we can with antimicrobial cleaning products. "If you had a garden,” she says, "you’d never kill everything in it to get rid of one weed.”

Microbes—bacteria, viruses and archaea—are the most abundant organisms on earth, and while some make us sick, our bodies need many of them to protect us from pathogens, and boost our immune systems. They even influence our moods. "When you clean the organisms from an ecosystem,” she explains, "you make space for the weedy and fast growing organisms to come in and colonize those spaces.”

Green is an associate professor at the University of Oregon, and a co-founder of the university’s Biology and Built Environment Center. She began her career researching microbes in the Arctic and other exotic places. She also had background in civil and environmental engineering and she realized examining the built environment where we spend 90 percent of our time would make her research relevant to issues surrounding sustainability, design and human health. A Discover Magazine story by Bruce Barcott reports that G.Z. "Charlie” Brown, a colleague at the University of Oregon and an expert in sustainable buildings, wanted research data to influence a new generation of hospitals on how energy-saving ventilation systems could also produce healthier hospital air. Green persuaded the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to put up the money and the BioBE Center was born.

The Discover story describes Green as an adventurous scientist and a fearless athlete. She was known as Thumper Biscuit in her Roller Derby competition days. A Forbes magazine story by Bruce Upbin explains she and her colleagues have worked with architectural modeling software, genetic sequencing, and microbial ecology to map the microbiomes of the built environment. "We’ve learned that architects are impacting what microbes live where,” she told Forbes. "It’s a new dimension of their work.” Surfaces of desks, for example, foster microbial colonies that differ from the colonies living on walls near air conditioning vents.

In research relevant to hospitals, Green and colleagues compared microbial environments in rooms with open windows and sealed rooms with mechanical ventilation systems. In a TED talk, she says green buildings, designed to let outside air in, fostered a diverse microbial mix that included organisms one finds outdoors in plants and soil, and a higher likelihood of organisms that promote health. In rooms with mechanically ventilated air, the microbial populations were less diverse, and more akin to the populations associated with humans, and had a higher probability of carrying pathogens.

In microbial populations, as in agriculture, monocultures tend to be unhealthy. People eat probiotic yogurt for health, and the same principle may apply to interior spaces. The Forbes story says Ford has contacted Green about design to foster health-promotion organisms inside its cars and trucks. "There are organisms that make our skin more supple and smooth,” Green told Forbes. "I can totally see it: the probiotic steering wheel.”

Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, but only in the last 60 years or so have we spent most of our time in hermetically sealed indoor environments, Green observes. She among the scientists pioneering the research to learn what that means. One possibility she speculates, is that "We are growing a microbial monoculture, and our bodies probably have not evolved to function well in this microbial environment.” Some evidence suggests indoor living may be associated with antibiotic resistance and auto immune disorders such as asthma and allergies. Research by Green and others may lead to new floor plans, new ventilation systems, and new ways to grow robust, diverse and healthy microbial gardens inside our buildings. Green coauthored the paper Architectural Design Influences the Diversity and Structure of the Built Environment Microbiome.

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  environment  health  systems 

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Eating Too Much? You May As Well Be Running a Hummer in Your Kitchen; And Can Pollutants Make Us Fat?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, April 24, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Obesity is bad for the planet, according to a study in the April 19 issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The authors, Phil Edwards and Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, say that because food production contributes substantially to global warming, slim individuals and lean populations have lighter carbon footprints than those who are overweight. For instance, the school’s press release on their work says, a slim population, such as is seen in Vietnam, consumes 20 percent less food and produces fewer greenhouse gases than a population in which 40 percent of the people are obese. The researchers estimate that a population of one billion slim people would produce 1,000 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in a year than a population of a billion overweight people. Heavy people not only eat more, it takes more energy to transport their weight, and they are likely to drive more. And if they like the burgers and sugary drinks so many US consumers enjoy, their food choices are energy-expensive too.

Obesity may be bad for the environment, but things in the environment may also promote obesity.

Researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, have found that exposure to chemicals in plastics may be linked to childhood obesity. In a long term study of 400 girls, aged 9 to 11, in East Harlem, researchers found that the heaviest girls had the highest levels of phthalates in their urine. An April 17 New York Times story by Jennifer 8. Lee explains that phthalates, which are used to make plastic pliable, disrupt endocrines—the bodily chemicals that affect glands and hormones and regulate many bodily functions. Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, a lead researcher in the study, thinks endocrine disrupters may be a more important factor in obesity than has previously been recognized.

Al over the world, Edwards and Roberts write, humans are getting fatter. "When it comes to food consumption,” the authors assert, "moving around in a heavy body is like driving around in a gas guzzler.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  environment  health 

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World Water Safety Needs International Cooperation

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, April 23, 2009
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Hundreds of millions of people face increased risk of disease and extreme poverty because they lack access to clean water and basic sanitation, a United Nations report warns.

The report, "Water in a Changing World”, estimates that by 2030, nearly half the world’s population—and as many as 250 million people in Africa—will be living in areas of high "water stress.” In addition, between 74 million and 700 million people in arid and semi-arid places will face water shortages.

Wisely managed water supplies are considered vital to the Millennium Development Goals, approved by world leaders who gathered at the United Nations in 2000. The eight goals included cutting extreme poverty in half, providing universal primary education, a universal right to healthcare and ensuring a sustainable environment, all by 2015.

Climate change is causing extreme weather, inevitable flooding and drought, notes Jeffrey Sachs, PhD, the Columbia economist and professor of health policy and management who is also director of Columbia’s Earth Institute and a special advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. "The poor suffer most from environmental damage,” he said, adding that the millennium environmental goal as been "utterly unmet.” Sachs was among presenters at the Unite for Sight Global Health and Innovation Summit at Yale University April 18-19.

More than one billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.5 billion lack access to basic sanitation. Seth Wayne, MD, an ophthalmologist who heads the eye clinic at a teaching hospital in Ghana, described the ravages of trachoma, an eye infection that causes pain, scarring and ultimately blindness. Of the country’s 22.7 million population, he said, 2.8 million people are at risk for the disease, and a million need antibiotics to treat it. And he explains trachoma is completely preventable: it is a disease of poverty, of poor sanitation, and simply not having enough water to wash.

When water is scarce and has to be hauled long distances to homes, he said, people tend to use it for drinking and cooking rather than washing. Several speakers and UN documents note that because women are usually responsible for managing the household water supply, scarcity is especially hard on them, and the time they spend carrying it long distances takes away from other duties. Further, the UN reports that almost 80 percent of diseases in developing countries are related to water, and three million people die early deaths as a result.

Some progress has been made. Some 1.6 billion people have gained access to clean drinking water since 1990. But the millennium goal for sanitation will not be met. The Trachoma project in Ghana helped with construction of 11,434 latrines, Dr. Wayne said, but pressing need remains.

Lake Chad, once the sixth largest fresh water lake in the world, illustrates just one example of global water trouble. It once covered more than 10,000 square miles, and now it is only one fifth of its original size. Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger, where the water has already disappeared, share this lake. By 2020, some 35 million people will depend on this lake for survival. The UN stresses that international cooperation is needed for restoration efforts.

Sachs urges people not to abandon long term goals even when they are not met. "Don’t roll back,” he said. "Raise the stakes. Global commitments do achieve…We need to keep these goals alive, and hold leaders accountable. It’s our most important tool.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  environment  health 

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