Sustainable Music


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Musical Cultures, Climate, and other Complex Systems

    In the last post, I mentioned that one contemporary application of ecology is to the management of complex systems. A complex ecological system is characterized by changes that are predictable in a general way—that is, as a trend or tendency—but where prediction is difficult or even impossible in single specific cases. Under such conditions, where general disturbances and perturbations are highly probable, but just when and where is difficult to predict, managing for resiliency appears to be the best sustainability strategy. These ideas must seem very abstract to the general reader. A chance encounter with an interview on National Public Radio a few days ago (July 25, 2011) gives me an opportunity to try to make these ideas more concrete.
    The subject of the interview was climate change. Now climate (and weather) is a good example of just such a complex system that I’m writing about. So, by implication, is the ecological system that is a music culture, but for now let’s confine ourselves to something that “everyone talks about but nobody can do anything about” — climate and weather. In fact, of course, we must do something to manage it if we are going to lessen the horrific consequences of climate change in the coming centuries. We have a chance to decrease the amount of climate change due to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases; and we have a chance to manage our adaptations to whatever climate change occurs, instead of just submitting to it.
    Weather, as everyone knows, is an example where predictions are “probable” and “likely” rather than certain; and where accuracy varies according to how soon the event is to occur (the sooner, the more accurate) and how local the observations are. You look up at the sky and see a storm approach; soon you hear thunder. Rain is very likely within the next five or ten minutes and you’d best close your windows (unless you live an air-conditioned life). You consult the daily weather report that says a thunderstorm will occur; nowadays the forecasters use mathematical models to predict the storm accurately, in a given location, to the hour, but this proves less accurate than direct and immediate observation. And yet it has value for planning. Forecasters predict even more generally that there is so much percentage chance of precipitation during a given day. And most people are aware that the longer range forecasts are less accurate than the short range.
    What was interesting to me about this interview was how and why the interviewer and the expert talked past each other. The interviewer was Terry Gross, an experienced interviewer who has spoken with scientists, social scientists, writers and artists on her NPR show “Fresh Air” for decades. The scientist was climatologist Heidi Cullen, a writer and lecturer on climate change, a professor at Princeton and author of the book, The Weather of the Future. The questions Gross asked were, I think, questions that most people are asking about climate change and specific weather events. Gross asked the expert whether climate change was responsible for this summer’s unusually hot weather, or for last spring’s bad floods and tornadoes. She asked whether there might be an upside to climate change for people in places like Philadelphia, her home town, for if it got warmer then there could be less snowfall and because she didn’t care very much for snow, that would be a good thing.
    Cullen’s replies seemed evasive. Yes, she said, human beings’ activities in the past couple of centuries, notably their release of fossil fuels into the atmosphere, have certainly caused climate change, and with this climate change certainly comes more extremes in weather—more hurricanes, more severe rainstorms, hotter heat, colder cold, more flooding, and we had better be prepared for it. But Gross wanted to know with certainty, or at least a reasonable amount of it, if this year’s unusual floods in the midwest, and tornadoes in the southwest, and the extreme heat that settled in the midwest and east this past month, breaking all kinds of records, were the result of climate change—or were they just instances of the “normal” kinds of weather extremes, the notable ones that have occurred throughout human history? And Cullen could not answer to her satisfaction.
    Why not? Again, because climate and weather are complex systems, in which predictions are probabilities, not simply cause and effect. Geologists predict that there will be a big earthquake in California in the next fifty years, but they can’t say just where although they predict probabilities based on fault lines. Nor can they predict just when. The same with climate change. Scientists know that human beings have changed the climate by burning fossil fuels with gases released into the atmosphere that have caused global warming and trapped more moisture. Scientists know that as a result, on average, severe weather events will increase in number: there will be stronger storms, more severe floods, hotter heat waves, colder cold waves, more damaging tornados, heavier snowfalls. Weather extremes will be greater. What they can’t say is that this one particular extreme weather event certainly was caused by climate change and that without climate change it would not have occurred.
    Gross found Cullen’s answers frustrating. Yes, Cullen said, in the changing climate Philadelphia was going to get warmer; but Gross’s hope for less snow would not necessarily be realized, for climate change was circulating more moisture in the atmosphere, with stronger storms as a result. After all, as long as the temperature was below freezing, this moisture would come to earth in Philadelphia as snow, and there might be more of it. Gross was not happy to hear her hopes for less snowy winters in Philadelphia dashed, and less happy still to live in the uncertainty that they might even be snowier. She turned to another subject: early spring. Surely there was an upside to the fact that spring seems to be coming earlier these days; she hates winter. Now the flowers are blooming sooner, and the grass is green sooner, and she can put away her winter clothing sooner and be more comfortable. Well, Cullen replied, the early warming is also responsible for more rapid ice melt in the mountains; the ground cannot absorb it so quickly and it results in floods like the ones that have occurred in the past decade. The implication was that early bloom and sooner put-away winter clothing was a trivial gain compared to the losses from catastrophic floods.
    What was interesting to me in this dialogue was not so much Gross’s inexperience with the kind of climate thinking Cullen engaged in on a daily basis, as her inability to put her mind into Cullen’s framework of complex systems. It is easy to say that in Philadelphia Gross experiences the natural world as someone who lives and works in a city, probably indoors most of the time, where climate is controlled, and that is why there was such a disconnect. But I think there is more to it than that. Gross is used to thinking about weather and climate—and many other things—in terms of direct causes and effects. In fact, of course, that is how we experience the world from one moment to the next. We type on a key and expect to see the letter appear on the screen. We turn on the gas on the stove and expect to see the flame and feel the heat. We turn the key in the ignition and expect the car to start, even though we know that many things have to be set in operation, whether in the computer, the stove, or the automobile.
    Complex systems thinking is something we engage in, if we do so at all, when our normal understanding of cause and effect breaks down. The appliance doesn’t operate as it should—why not? It could be this, it could be that; we “troubleshoot” and suddenly become aware of the many things that could be causing the problem, some individual and some in combination; and we imagine that there might be other causes that we don’t know. This is not an easy way to think. I know some people who are good at it, and some for whom it is as foreign a country as Mars. But it is the kind of thinking that is involved in managing for sustainability, whether we are working out strategies for resiliency, or diversity, or anything else; and whether we are attempting to manage the natural world, social organizations, household or national economies, or music cultures.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


    When I was in Portland, Oregon last February at the round table with various musicians, musicologists, acoustic planners and city arts managers I was struck by something one of them, Tim DuRoche, said when he introduced the term “resiliency” and suggested it might be a better way of thinking than “sustainability.” Tim spoke about resiliency in ecological terms, saying that while sustainability implied preservation, he wanted to manage the arts for growth and change. He spoke about improvisation in music (he is a jazz musician as well as an arts administrator) as adaptation, with resiliency a key component. I embraced that idea, commenting that “resiliency” is a term that has emerged in contemporary ecological thought, to describe management strategies for complex systems where mathematical modeling and predictability is difficult if not impossible. I added, though, that in ecological thinking today, sustainability is allied more with adaptation and resiliency than with preservation.

    Resiliency planning is a strategy for protection against unpredictable disturbances in (and to) nature and against the law of unintended consequences. It arose from a critique of the ecosystem paradigm, a way of thinking about natural worlds that stood at the center of ecological thought from 1935 when Arthur Tansley coined the term "ecosystem" until about 1970 when the critique gained traction. In my 2009 essay “Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Approach” I had noted the part of this critique that is directed at equilibrium theory in ecosystems, but I maintained that four principles from conservation biology/ecology, the principles of limits to growth, diversity, interconnectedness, and stewardship, should guide cultural policy planning for music cultures. After all, conservation biology/ecology developed beginning in the 1970s, just as the critique was making its force felt. What I had not done was explore the extent to which that critique affects those principles, nor why that critique made me think of a kind of sustainability that tilts away from preservation of cultural heritage and towards adaptation and change, the same conception that Tim DuRoche alluded to when he spoke about resiliency. And since that conversation with Tim and the others in Oregon it nagged at me that I had not done so, and that perhaps I had not yet gotten it quite right, either. I resolved to take up this line of research again this summer after the teaching semester was over. As I did so, a number of questions resurfaced, ones that I want to explore further in blog entries during the next several months.

    First, the critique. Two of the linchpins of twentieth-century ecological theory were challenged beginning in the 1970s and are largely discredited by ecologists today. One is the idea, associated with Frederick Clements in the first decades of the 20th century, that forests and other natural units, when left alone as “wild nature,” pass through successive stages toward a diverse, stable, mature, and final or “climax” stage. The second is the idea, implied by Clements’s notion of succession and climax, and associated with the influential mid-twentieth century work of ecological scientists Howard and Eugene Odum, that mature ecosystems are those in which organisms, populations, and communities exist in a dynamic equilibrium characterized by energy flows and cycles (modeled mathematically) governing birth, growth, decay, and regeneration. These two ideas not only constituted the scientific discipline of ecology but also guided conservation efforts and environmental management in the last half of the twentieth century, and provided scientific grounding for what those who write for the general public sometimes term “nature’s way” or, more often, “the balance of (wild) nature.” But today's ecological scientists no longer believe in climax theory, nor in ecosystems whose normal state is dynamic equilibrium, nor in a balance of nature.

   I make a distinction between ecological science and environmentalism. The latter is an outgrowth of the conservation movement, and it involves many stakeholders besides ecological scientists: naturalists, conservationists, eco-tourists, policy makers, organic farmers, ecocritics, landowners, and those within the extractive industries such as mining, forestry, and agriculture that wish to use and renew natural resources, not use them up. Indeed, ecological scientists are not necessarily part of the environmental movement and many have strong reservations about it. Conservation biology is a branch of ecology that is very much a part of the environmental movement, but most ecological scientists are not conservation biologists. Most lay environmentalists today still believe that nature “naturally” moves towards balance; but ecologists no longer share that belief, while their research also questions the basis for correspondence between diversity and stability in ecosystems. Indeed, the ecosystem concept itself, which once ruled ecology, is no longer at the center of the discipline. How did this happen, why did it happen, and what does it mean, for ecology, environmentalism, and sustainability? Where do conservation biologists stand on the matter? Where has ecological science moved in response to this critique, what is the center of the discipline today, and what are the implications of this change for musical and cultural sustainability? Have the four sustainability principles from conservation biology/ecology been undermined or strengthened by this paradigm shift, and how might they be modified to suit the brave new ecological world?

    A number of other questions relate to the changing nature of ecological science. How, for example, has the post-structuralist, postmodern critique of science impacted contemporary ecological thought? Is a post-normal science of ecology possible? Is it desirable? What might it be like, and is it worth doing and worth wanting? And how, for example, has the new type of literary criticism, called ecocriticism, impacted literary theory? What is the relation between ecocriticism and deconstruction, and what are their implications for ecological science, environmentalism, and musical and cultural sustainability? What is the relation between the “balance of nature” and “nature’s economy?” What is the history of these ideas and how old are they—how did they develop and when did they take their present form? Does the pastoral tradition (in literature, art, and the humanities), a genre of nature writing and representation, involve a “balance of (i.e., in) wild nature” or is it, rather, directed more toward a harmonious relationship between nature and humankind? What are the implications of chaos theory and complex systems analysis for ecology, ecosystem management and, by extension, for cultural management and sustainability? How has the “evolutionary turn,” the return to Darwin and his principle of natural selection, impacted contemporary ecological thought; is there a place for evolution in ecosystem thinking today? And what is the place of ecosystem ecology in contemporary ecology? Finally, what can we learn from developments in soundscape theory about acoustic ecology? What does contemporary research in the sounds made by insects, birds, and whales, for example, tell us about all of these things, about sustainability and nature’s economy, balance, evolution, music, language, ecocriticism, antirealism, the natural world, and the human? These are some of the questions I’m anxious to explore in the near future.