Monday, June 17, 2013

What is a Geography Degree Worth?

The Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce has just released a document on the economic value of college majors ( . Although a US based study, the report still has relevance for UK graduates in what is increasingly an international market for the best jobs. The report also highlights gender and ethnic differences in subject areas as well as the types of employment people in different subject areas tend to get. The first clear result is that in the US any degree is better than none in terms of deferential earning power. Although classified as a Social Science, geography does quite well in comparison with other subjects in its grouping coming in fourth behind economics,statistics and political science with a median income of $54,000. Economics tends to inflate the median and average for this grouping  having a median earnings of $70,000. In the Physical Sciences, Geological and Earth Sciences have a median income of $62,000. an important consideration to bear in mind is the time scale and the position in their working life or career fro each individual in the survey. some degrees lead to a clear career path and act as entrances to major industries that can inflate the earnings fro particular subject areas. It may not come as a surprise that the highest earning subjects are Petroleum Geology followed by Pharmacy and then Administration (I do find that one a hit worrying but that may just be me!) It is also interesting that the subject areas of Counseling Psychology and Early Childhood Education are amongst the lowest earnings despite the importance of such work - an interesting illustration of the problem of  social worth versus economic value maybe? .

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dan Brown’s Inferno: Population, Resources and Socio-Economic Futures

Dan Brown’s recent book Inferno has had mixed reviews at best (e.g.,, ). You could take the view that Dan Brown, as Liberace before him, is probably crying all the way to the bank. Dan Brown in an interview with the BBC, however, shows his concern at such ‘hurtful’ reviews as he sees them but, as importantly Brown views overpopulation, the central motivating force of the book’s ‘villain’ Betrand Zobrist, as a key messge of his book.

Leaving aside the literary merits of the book (I read it in three night, enjoyed the ride and got annoyed as some of the tour book description slowed the plot, but that is just me), Brown believes he explores the central concern of overpopulation is explored from both sides, and enters the 'grey' area of suggesting a scientific solution. Brown takes a very Maltusian, doom and gloom, view of overpopulation citing the usual population increase is geometric whilst resources grow at an arithmetic rate, hence we're all doomed. Technology and science provides the resolution to the problem, although whether it is within the remit of technological solutions envisaged by Ester Boesrup back in the 1960s is another question. After finishing the book I thought there was probably a more interesting book to be written about the implications of the solution the mad-scientist comes up with and how thinking through the solution helped to identify how current socio-economic activity is tied to fertility and demographics.

For those that have not yet read the book a spoiler warning now! Betrand Zobrist, the 'villian' (or hero depending on yoru view point), is a genius geneticist who hides away from everyone for a year to come up with his solution to the problems of overpopulation. Inferno is about the hunt, after Zobrist suicide in Florence, for his genetically engineered answer. Throughout the book the reader assumes, as the pieces fall into place, that the ‘solution’ is some type of super virus, a new plague that will reduce global population to a sustainable level through mass contagion, mass death and destruction. The twist, apart from the fact that Langdon doesn’t prevent the release of the virus, is that the virus doesn’t kill people. The virus affects the genetics of the world population so that a third of the population is sterile and so perpertual population control is achieved. The third is randomly selected and the virus persists through time so that a random third of the population is always sterile. Brown seems to assume that the scientific solution is an end to his story: his two heroines jet off to the World Health Organisation in Geneva to sort out the implications. I would suggest that the scientific solution would unravel due to these implications.
The interesting thought is if such a ‘solution’ was implemented what would the world look like in ten, fifty or hundred years? What does such a vision tells us about the intertwining of socio-economic structures and fertility?
· What would be the status of the sterile third? Would they be viewed as drones to service the ‘productivity’ two-thirds of the world’s population? Would a change in status produce an effective underclass?

· Would personal relations be ‘managed’ by the state to ensure that sterile individuals did not marry fertile individuals? What are the social implications of such management?

· Expectation of fertility is an essential element in maintaining social structures. Passing on wealth and power as well as the hope for the future of your offspring is a key determinant in socio-economic relationships. If the third was truly random, i.e. your children could be sterile even if you were not, then there would be no certainty of being able to ensure this transfer of resources. What would be the socio-economic implications of such uncertainty? Why accumulate wealth if it is not to be past on or would a larger unit than the family become the focus of human emotional attachment.

· Random does not mean spatially homogeneous. As with any random process there are likely to be clusters of sterility and fertility. How would such a distribution affect power relations between nations? Would initial differences in fertility/sterility rates be magnified through time leading to a redistribution of power and economic wealth?

Inferno is a nice read (at least I think so) but the scientific solution should not be viewed outside of the socio-economic context that it would impact. The implications, left to the unseen committee in Geneva in the book, are the forces most likely to untangle the idealist solution.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Monitoring Coastal Changes in Saltmarshes: Maps or Aerial Photography?

A key aspect of the recent changes in planning legislation is that development should be preferred provided it is sustainable. On coastal margins there is an additional issue of the potential impact of sea-level change on increased development. Development behind existing coastal defences, both human and natural, seems to be encouraged within the new planning legislation as it makes use of investment already sunk into defence and implies that any future sea-level rise will be accompanied by increasing investment these defences.
Given the importance of these defences it is essential to know how the coastline has responded in the past. The rate of past change is an important indicator as to how dynamic the coast is and how it is likely to respond to increasing sea-level. A long-term, over 50 or 100 or more years, view of rates of change often makes use of historic maps to establish baselines from which change is measured. A recent paper by Brian Baily and myself ( I made the coffee again!) published in the Journal of Coastal Conservation looks at how maps have been used as sources of evidence of coastal change in the Solent (specifically Lymington, Beaulieu River, Calshot Spit, Eling, Portsmouth Harbour, Langstone Harbour and Pagham Harbour). The paper  is entitled Assessing historical saltmarsh change; an investigation into the reliability of historical saltmarsh mapping using contemporaneous aerial photography and cartographic data, a long title but a very accurate description of what the paper does. The paper assesses how these maps have been used to identify and quantify changes in saltmarsh, an important coastal ecosystem and a natural protective barrier. In current terms a key ecosystem service. Importantly, the locations and rates of change these maps suggest are compared to the rates of change that an analysis of aerial photography provides. 

The mapping of saltmarsh is full of problems that limit the reliability of the changes measured. Surveyors in the mid-nineteenth century, for example, did not have a clear and specific set of instructions about what to map above the low water mark. Inconsistencies in the accuracy and precision of saltmarsh identification and mapping are bound to arise when a surveyor was confronted with the practical and often hazardous task of trying to get into a saltmarsh and survey it. Similarly, this ecosystem was not viewed as a particularly valuable resource in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and so the incentive to get into the mud and accurately survey was not really there. In addition, the growth of Spartina spp. in this period would have made the identification and mapping of this ecosystem tricky at best in some locations. Often saltmarshes were only indicated by some symbol on a map covering a vaguely defined area of land – not the best baseline from which to accurately measure changes.

The aerial photography of the same areas provided a useful control from which to assess the accuracy of the location and rates of change in saltmarshes derived from maps. The aerial photography shows that large areas of saltmarsh were excluded from the OS maps – so major losses of a valuable coastal ecosystem can not be quantified. These areas seem to be the newer salt marshes and so areas that are likely to have provided coastal protection in the recent past as development has occurred in these coastal regions. Given that salt marshes can change in extent rapidly this suggests that analysis of rates of change in this important protective coastal ecosystem needs to be gauged against the accurate data provided by aerial photography which is only available from the early twentieth century onwards rather than from the potentially more inaccurate figures provided by historic mapping in the nineteenth century.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Actor Networks, Rare Events and Antifragility

In a recent blog I discuss some aspects of antifragility as suggested by Nassim Taleb’s recent book on Antifragility. Thinking a bit more about the nature of fragile and antifragile networks of relations could be of use in planning for rare events and their impacts. A well-aligned and well co-ordinated network of actors with a dense set of relations defining and binding their netowrk tightly may mean that the network is deeply embedded but this may be a disaster when a rare event hits. As I mentioned before, an event can illuminate the structure and relations in a network. A rare event, a major disruption, puts the spotlight on the fragility (or otherwise) of the web of relations. A well-aligned and co-ordinated network may function excellently for specific actants under ‘normal’ conditions, but in a rare, extreme event these relations may not be able to function. A dense network of relations may be too dense under these extreme conditions. The failure of one relation or the disappearance of one actant may produce a domino effect and trigger the unravelling of the whole web. A dense and highly focused actor network may be fragile to such disruption. A less dense and less well-aligned actor network may be at a disadvantage under ‘normal’ conditions but may have the flexibility to form new relations in disruptive events due to this weaker alignment and co-ordination of relations. Similarly, an actant with the flexibility to activate a different set of relations from the actor network it is usually associated with may be more able to survive and thrive in an disruptive event than a more specialist and network dependent actant or even a whole network.
If correct, then the above suggests that the density (and strength) of relations that define an actor network as well as the specialisation of actants will affect the fragility and antifragility of this network to rare events. Where an actor network has dormant relations, ones that are either unnoticed or unused during ‘normal’ periods, then there is a chance that the actor network could survive by activating these relations in times of crisis. The actor network that emerges, however, would be different from the one that entered the crisis. The dormant relations would now be known to the actants and be active rather than passive. The current banking crisis could be viewed in this light. When the crisis hit the usual sources of safety in the network failed. It was only when the dormant relationship between finance and the state was explicitly activated to prevent those ‘too big to fail’ from failing that some degree of stability was felt by the financial sector (OK oversimplifying like mad but you get the idea). But now that dormant relation is clear and present, everyone knows about it and the new financial network is being constructed with that relation in clear focus and all the issues of moral hazard and tax-payer bail-out that it brings.

There is an assumption in the above, however, that all rare events are the same. This is not necessarily the case as a recent paper by Lampel, Shamsie and Shapira (2009) in Organization Science (you need an account to access the journal). The paper ‘Experiencing the improbable: Rare event and organizational learning’ is a brief summary of the ideas in the special issue of papers on rare events and organizational learning. Importantly, they provide a four-fold classification of the types of learning that rare events produce in organizations based on the potential relevance of the event and the potential impact as in the table below.

                                                                       Potential Impact

Potential Relevance                                 High                          Low

High                                               Transformative              Reinterpretative

Low                                               Focusing                       Transitory

Table: Types of learning associated with rare events
Leaving aside the detail of the table (the subject of future blog!), the idea that a rare event has different affects depending upon the nature of the organization it impacts upon can be translated to actor networks as well. A rare event that is high on both criteria will have the potential to transform the nature of the network. In this case the points about relation density, dormant relations and actant characteristics are highly relevant. These are the rare events that can expose antifragility. A rare event with high potential relevance for a network but low potential impact (such as near-misses) can act as a means of forces reinterpretation of the current web of relations. The impetus to act on reinterpretation will, however, be determined by the interests of the actants and the ease with which the relations that define the network can be altered. Effort is required to overcome resistant to change in the absent of an event that causes transformation. If handled appropriately though this type of rare event could enable the actor network to alter and so improves its robustness or even atnifragiltiy to rare events without having to go through the pain of a transformative event. Drawing the lessons from such events and finding the will amongst key actants is however a major barrier as it is likely that no-one organziatino can affect such leanrign on its own - a sector-wide or even government-led inititative maybe required. A rare event that has high relevance but low potential impact for a network can, similarly, focuses attention on specific issues and problems within the network. Once again, however, change will depend upon who defines these problems and the willingness or ability of actants to alter the relations that define the network.

Friday, March 8, 2013

ANT and Antifragility in ‘No Man’s Land’ Oklahoma

A recent paper by Rebecca Sheehan and Jacqueline Vadjunec  (Oklahoma State University) in Social and Cultural Geography (Volume 13, December 2012, pages 915-936 you will need an account to access the journal online) on communities in Oklahoma’s ‘No Man’s Land’ is a very good demonstration of how actor network theory can be used to analyse how communities are constructed and, importantly, how they behave under stress. Sheehan and Vadjunec note how residents work together on tasks such as branding in the spring, collecting necessities in towns that could be 30-150 miles away and travelling to hospital when a ranching or farming accident happens. This neighbourly behaviour and the relations it is based on underlies what they describe as a robust actor network of relations.

I was wondering if you could go further than this and suggest that the actor network is actually antifragile? The authors point out two examples that may back up this idea that the actor network actually gains strength from adversity. Medical expenses for individuals in the community were often covered by fundraisers or anonymous donations that were also made to cover funeral expenses. Likewise, these adverse events produced responses of kindness that ranged from phone calls of sympathy and understanding to practical help of meals and contributions to ranch work. In one case the death of a farmer at harvest time resulted in the unplanned, spontaneous reaction of several farmers turning up with their combines within 36 hours of his death to help the widow to collect the harvest.

Adverse, or what seem to be adverse events, activate relations in the actor network that produce behaviour that help individuals and seem to strengthen the sense of community and the actor network as a whole. It is only by the enactment of these relations in times of adversity however that this strengthening can occur.
If this argument is accepted then a whole battery of other issues arise that only the detailed analysis of actor networks in particular locations can answer. These actor networks need to be studied before during and after adverse events to analyse which relations are activated, how and if there is any pattern to these relations. Events are the only means by which relations can be identified and their role in strengthening the actor network understood. Similarly, it is through such detailed analysis that we can begin to map out the limits to such antifragile behaviour. The strengthening behaviour in this case seems to be an organic outgrowth from the underlying relations that define and bind the community. Eroding these relations will erode the ability of the community to define itself and to strengthen itself in the face of adverse events. Understanding the type of adverse events such actor networks can cope with, absorb the impacts of and gain strength from is also an important aspect that requires further research. Communities may be antifragile in the face of certain adverse events but be extremely fragile should the nature of the adverse event change. In the case of this community, if the adverse event is a general failure of all harvests then the capacity to respond and help other members of the network dissipates. If the encroachment of ‘new’ people into the area happens then this again may weaken the underlying relations that aid community definition, eroding the capacity to activate relations in crisis events and so gain strength from the community-based respond to a crisis event. Starting to map the contours of what an antifragile actor network looks like and the limits of antifragile behaviour could be an interesting area of research.

Haddon Matrix and ‘Black Swans’

The Haddon Matrix is an extremely useful way to express the factors associated with a hazardous event and the changes that need to be affected in the host, the equipment and the environment (both social and physical). I have covered the Haddon Matrix in a previous post, in fact to date the most popular post on this blog. I am not denigrating the Haddon Matrix and its usefulness but recent publications Nassim Nicolas Taleb such a The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007, second edition 2010) highlight the potential of unexpected, rare events in systems. Taleb does not believe that effort such be wasted trying to predict these rare events but rather than robust systems should be devised to avoid the negative impacts of these events. So does the Haddon Matrix help to prevent hazards or accidents when a Black Swan strikes?

The Haddon Matrix tends to focus on specific events and their immediate impact. The ‘classic’ example often seen on the Web is a car accident where there is a clearly defined agent or host, a clearly defined piece of equipment and a fuzzy but often clearly defined environment at least in the mind of the person who constructs the matrix. The matrix is focused on a particular event usually one that is well known to the person constructing the matrix. The event is singular and derived from thinking about common scenarios of ‘what ifs’. Importantly, the event is divorced and isolated from its complex context. The event is treated as an individual example of an oft-repeated set, as an individual example of a particular kind of hazard or accident. This means that the contours of the event are relatively well know, the limited impact and the limited range of changes that need to be made to the host or equipment clearly demarcated. The event is somewhat simplified by removing it from its context.

Rare events can also be considered within the Haddon Matrix and planned for but events that have never happened or are not within the experience of the constructor of the matrix can not be considered. A series of events could be dealt with by interlinking matrices or even by using Reason’s Swiss cheese model of accidents but each matrix or cheese slice will deal only with a single event not the interconnected system as a whole not the complex and potentially unique relations that these rarities activate within the whole system of which the event identified is only a part. In this case, however, the accident or hazard itself is actually a chain or web of events operating in unison under the influence of the rare event. The exact connections in the system will give the rare event its character. Given the rarity of the event can you be sure that when it happens again the system will be connected, or rather interconnected, in exactly the same manner and so will the precautions that you take have to be exactly the same? As the complexity of the system behind the hazard or accident you are dealing with increases then the possibility that impacts will occur via different connections or pathways is likely to increase. A static Haddon Matrix may not be able to cope with such dynamism that a Black Swan generates within a system.

Black Swan events may also imply that there are two classes of hazards or accidents that need to be considered. The first is the hazard that is known about, one for which have occurred and reoccurred again and again with sufficient regularity that their characteristics can be well defined and clearly defined steps taken to prevent their escalation. The second class of hazards or accidents are those that occur so rarely that each instant is a novel and unusual case with its own set of peculiar characteristics. These events are so infrequent that no reasonable plans can be made to prevent them. It is only after they have happened that we can understand why they happened, what aspects of the system were compromised and then take steps to ensure that the same pathways to failure do not happen again, although the next Black Swan event may be so different as to circumvent our efforts.

If the Black Swan, almost by definition, falls outside the experience of the matrix constructor then is the matrix of any use in these cases? Black Swans may not be predictable but that should not stop attempts to build a robust system to manage impacts. A densely connected system is likely to transmit impacts rapidly from one part to another, maybe along channels or by connections that can be predicted as weak links or pinch points.  Ensuring that there are ‘firebreaks’ in the system, potential break-points in its connectivity, could help prevent a systemic failure even if the exact nature of the rare event is unclear and unpredictable.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

UK government not reducing pollution in line with legal limits

With all the concern over atmospheric pollution levels in China a story may have escaped notice. The UK government is facing a case in the UK Supreme Court over its failure to reduce air pollution in line with legal limits ( The government admitted that limits would not be meet in 15 regions until 2020 (London will not comply until 2025). This comes on top of the government having to issue a severe pollution warning for London this week.

The response of the government has been to say that the laws are unrealistically strict and that the EU didn’t set proper limits on pollution from diesel exhaust in the first place. Why they view these limits are unrealistic is not clear. Do they mean given the current economic situation it is not realistic to expect pollution to be tackled? Do they mean the limits are to be meet in too short a timeframe? Does the comment imply that there is an expected time lag between introducing the limits and compliance – if so why? Does the comment relate to how the government expects such changes in polluting behaviour to be tackled within the particular political and economic context of the UK.

DEFRA stated that the government has acted to reduce emissions of nitrogen dioxide through trying to encourage behaviour changes in divers via tax breaks and subsidies for low emission vehicles. Likewise, there has been investment in green bus technologies  (£75million) along with £560m to encourage local sustainable transport. This is the government response to trying to improve the atmospheric levels of PM10s and nitrogen dioxide, key pollutants from road traffic. In other words responsible for implementing and resolving the issue has been delegated downwards to the local level, indeed even as far as down the individual driver. Action is also indirect via tax incentives to which individuals are meant to respond in the manner the government thinks they should.  Rather than direct action or legislation, the government has taken a ‘nudge’ approach to the problem, developing policies and the context or environment that they believe will provide the impetus to encourage change in the direction they want. Reduction in atmospheric pollution is a side-effect, an outcome of these nudges. The question could be asked will these nudges be effective? Likewise, how can you measure the impact of such nudges to assess if they have been effective?

The threat of court action also places the complaints over Chinese pollution in a different light. It could be argued that the atmospheric pollution levels in the UK are much lower than in China and so different criteria should be applied to the problems of the UK government. The UK is not dealing with dense smogs that clog lungs and increase death rates (although calculations do suggest that traffic pollution does cause excess deaths in the UK as noted in the above report). The pollution of concern in the UK seems to be focused on road traffic and so a linear pollution source whilst the Chinese are having to deal with point, linear and areal sources as they go through rapid urbanization and economic growth.  Indeed the Chinese are having to cope with multiple sources of differing magnitudes and with both private and official institutions involved. The magnitudes of the pollution maybe of different orders in the UK and China but both are struggling to balance the needs of economic development and the pollution it produces.  So is atmospheric pollution the unavoidable price for economic development?




Sunday, February 24, 2013

Electric Cars: A Matter of Managing Spatial Scales

The UK government has recently announced that it will fund up to 75% of the costs of installing charging points for electric vehicles in garages and driveways. ( The estimated cost of installing a power point capable of charging two cars is about £10,000 with local authorities expected to contribute £2,500 towards this cost. The report says that the government estimates that it will cost between £1,000 and £1,500 to install charging points for drivers with off-street parking for power points in their garages and driveways. Rapid chargers will cost about £45,000 each. The government believes that 75% of costs is an appropriate level of incentive for individual drivers and local authorities to invest in such technology. 

This may seem like a great idea for improving everyone’s environmental quality but, as a Commons Transport Select Committee has already asked, is this the best way to use government funds. The incentive only works if people buy electric cars, can afford the additional costs of installing such power points and only if the burden on the electricity generating system allows recharging (a big surge of power demand in domestic supply overnight might not be a good idea).  Maybe installing power points maybe an answer but it is not convincing that the right question is being asked.

The question that should be asked is why aren’t people buying electric cars? Ron Adner used the EV (electric vehicle) as an example in his recent book ‘The Wide Lens’ as an example of having to undertake ecosystem style thinking about innovations and their economic development or acceptance. Reducing the issues of EVs to one key component, Adner argues that the need to buy an expensive, cumbersome, lengthy to recharge and soon obsolete battery is an important impediment to purchase. Adner uses the example of Better Place to illustrate how rethinking the ecosystem can result in a novel solution to the battery issue. Better Place envisages a system where the battery is replaced when it runs low on power through a network of battery replacement stations. The operation is a quick change over of a discharged fro a charged battery with the car driver having as much ownership over the battery as a driver does over the petrol in a petrol station ( This system transfers ownership of the battery from the driver to the battery exchange company. Better Place can now deal with, problems of obsolete batteries and charging requirements in bulk with all the benefits that brings.

The scheme was launched in Israel and Denmark that the firm believed would be ideal test sites as their relatively small size meant that a network of battery replacement stations could be established at relatively low initial investment costs. Unfortunately, extension of this novel way of thinking about EVs has not been a success in the US or Australia and the company has had to move out of these countries ( This does not necessarily mean that the idea is wrong just that all parts of the ecosystem need to be in place before successful acceptance can be achieved. The business model relies upon all potential actors in the network or ecosystem agreeing to run the battery replacement system as each actor benefits from participation in the network. Central to this set of relationships is the involvement of major car manufacturers who sign up to making electric cars compatible with the robotic battery replacement stations. Only Renualt had agreed to this. Without this key set of actors in place, the network or ecosystem had no chance of success.

The relative success of the battery changing strategy in Israel and Denmark and its failure in the US and Australia highlight the need to think about the ecosystem approach advocated by Adner and the importance of scale issues within it. Establishing a network of battery-changing stations requires investment but without this network the concept and practice of battery-changing would not catch on. The practice is only advantageous if there is a demand and supply of electric cars that in turn depends upon the ‘solution’ of the battery issue. Use of an electric car is a very personal issue with the decision to buy or not located in the individual and their specific context. Just this simplified description crosses and defines a range of scales all of which need to be aligned to enable the network or ecosystem to work. If none of these actors across the scales in this simple network can see an advantage to themselves in taking the plunge into electric cars then there is no way the system will even develop.

The micro-scale of the individual needs to be explored and barriers to adoption of the electric car clearly stated and translated into ecosystem or network terms. Likewise, the scale of the individual firm operating a battery-changing centre needs to be understood and linked to the other actors so it is to their advantage to adopt the new technology. Car manufacturers operate at a global, macro scale but with supposed sensitivity to local contexts and are driven by economic needs at these scales. Add the complexity provided by the competitive, established network of petrol stations, cars and owners, all forming an aggressive ecosystem at all the same scales into which the electric car network is trying to meddle and you have an idea of the complex cross-scale issues that need to be addressed. Maybe the government should spend funds on trying to resolve how to manage these multiple spatial scales of actors and networks to produce an economically viable, self-sustaining ecosystem for the electric car rather than putting the responsibility on the individual car owners to respond in the way the government wish to a few incentives at a single scale.



Beijing Pollution: Continuing Highs

In January and February of this year the air quality in and north-eastern China has been reported to have deteriorated to the extent that the smog so thick that it was visible from space ( The rise in pollution has reported caused increases in hospital admissions of respiratory problems and, according to the report above, even resulted in an official recognition of the problem, the article stating that the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection stating that the haze covering Chinese cities covered over 500,000 square miles. The problem has been officially identified as being caused by unregulated industries, vehicle emissions and cheap gasoline.

The identification of the ‘causes’ is interesting. The focus is upon the action of individuals with respect to vehicle emissions and the use of cheap gasoline. This implies that the cause is a matter of individual responsibility. Placing causation at the feet of individuals means that there is justification for taking action against individuals for not taking appropriate steps deemed vital to reduce pollution by authorities. The focus on unregulated industries implies that regulated industries are not contributing to he pollution level. Again responsible and fault is placed onto individuals who run firms that do not conform to state regulations. Politicians, according to the report, even closed these firms for 48 hours as well as urging individuals to stay off the road. The implication is that the pollution is an inevitable result of the outcome of ‘development’ or ‘progress’ with the individualistic bend of capitalism.  The pollution is as predictable a result of economic progress as were the dark satanic mills of nineteenth century Manchester were of progress in Britain. By implication, the more measured and responsible activities of the state have no role in producing this smog.  Despite the state setting the economic regulatory climate as well as enforcing regulations relevant to pollution production, the role of the state is regulated to a backseat in the internal pollution narrative that is emerging from these reports.

The pollution does, however, have a flip-side in the new China – the hazard is an economic opportunity for the few. Anti-pollution domes, with interiors of pollutant-free atmospheres have been jointly developed by a Shenzhen-based manufactuer of outdoor enclosures and a Calfornian-based company (UVDI) that specialises in air filtration and disinfection systems (!/p/asia-edge.html ). Combining these existing technologies it is possible to create a pollutant free environment within outdoor activities can continue. Additionally, face masks, ranging from high-tech neoprene masks to strips of cloth, have been increasingly sold to try to prevent inhalation of pollutants. Within homes air filtration units are being employed to ensure a clean supply of domestic air.  This, however, also means that there is increasingly a social, or even a class, aspect to this hazard. The emerging middle-class in China can afford to buy these new ‘must-have’ accessories to sustain urban life. The poor are left to cope using tatters of cloth across their mouths and noses to filter their domestic air.  How long before your income determines your ability to survive extreme pollution episodes?

One enterprising individual has even taken to selling cans of fresh air to hassled urbanites, for 80 cents a can. Although to be fair, Chen Guangbiao, although promoting himself says that the sale of the fresh air cans is a tactic to push ‘mayors, county chiefs and heads of big companies’ not to just pursue economic goals but also to consider the impact of their actions on the future.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lisbon trams, local self-organization and national planning framework

A recent holiday in Portugal started out with a few days in Lisbon aboard one of the city’s key tourist attractions, the Lisbon trams. With a 24 hour ticket in hand we hopped on the Number 28, a tram that did a circuit of central Lisbon taking in the bohemian Alfama district, the city waterfront and then heading out to Belem and its famous monastery (Belem is also the alleged birthplace of the Portuguese breakfast staple, the pasta del nata – a flaky pastry custard tart, delicious with a milky coffee). We hopped onto the tram just after the morning rush hour and it was soon clear that these aging, wooden trams were still a major means of transport for the local population through the narrow and winding streets of the city. Clearances of less than two foot either side of the tram in some streets made for an interesting journey particularly when a white van blocked the tramlines for 15 minutes snaring up three trams, half a dozen cars and producing a cacophony of tram bells and car horns.
White van blcoking tram

The narrow trams are small by any standards of modern public transport. There is capacity, 20 seated and 38 standing, so 58 people in total. What was fascinating was how the key problem of getting off the tram was dealt with by this crush of people. I may be wrong and would be happy to be corrected by any Portuguese out there, but as an outsider it seemed to me that the locals had developed an effective way to resolve this problem. Anyone who has been on the London tube will realise the problem of having to fight your way to your exit in rush hour pass a compress of immobile bodies. The Portuguese, young and old, all progressively moved from one end of the tram to the other as their stop was approached. An old man took his seat at the start of his journey. A couple of stops later, he moved from his comfortable leather seat to a seat further up the tram or even happily stood in the middle of the tram as his stop neared. As he moved others, whose stop was further down the route, took his place in the vacant seats. A few stops later he had moved along the bus to the wooden well at the back of the tram ready to disembark. Everyone followed this pattern seats permitting, without any one asking or co-ordinating the action. In other words a locally derived system of self-organized behaviour had evolved to resolve a simple problem.


The Lisbon transport system may have provided the context but the method of ensuring that all passengers boarded and left the bus with a minimum of fuss was locally developed (unless someone knows otherwise!) Trail and error solution rapidly converged onto a context-specific but context-useful solution. Would this work on the tube? Unlikely, more people, different context, different culture, wider vehicles and so on.  The key point is that within a specific context the local actors had developed a solution to a problem imposed by that context. Taking a modern ‘bendy’ tram to Belem a day later it was clear that the system used for the small trams was still in effect but in a dissipated form. The multiple exits and the wider tram meant it was not as important for such a system to operate to ensure that people made it off the tram at their stop. 


So what has this observation got to do with environmental geography? The recent national planning framework will become a key instrument for trying to conserve and alter the environment. Imposition of a context limits actions and, planners often assume, limits them in a way that will produce a particular result. Current UK planning law has been developed to enable, enhance development. As noted in previous blogs, the policy document highlights and, potentially, enhances the ability of local authorities and developers to encourage housing development. This context and focus could have a dramatic impact upon the environment and its use within the UK as it appears to provide planners and developers with a key instrument to alter the environment to fit their vision. The planning document, however, also has provision for the environment and, although it appears to be of lesser importance, does provide for ‘local’ or ‘neighbourhood’ actions, albeit limited by the context of local authorities plans.


This provision suggests that local actors can still affect policy but these actions may not be through the expected behaviours designed for in planning policy. In other words, local self-organization may produce locally or context specific actions and responses to the new planning context that had not been planned for by the authors of the planning policy. Local actors, left to their own devices, will operate within this context and can produce a self-organized set of behaviours unpredictable by those imposing the context. These local actors may use the new context to develop alliances and behaviours that prevent the vision of the planners and developers being fulfilled. The problem is that these behaviours can not be predicted in advance – they emerge from the constraints of the context. This means that the range of local solutions to environmental can not necessarily be planned for. As long as local trail and error in responses occurs then novel local solutions to environmental issues will emerge. This will always be a problem with trying to shoehorn planning regulations to cover every context. The flexibility needed to ensure that developers and planners have scope to try to achieve their vision also potentially permits local resistance in a diverse and unpredictable myriad of forms.


A word of caution is needed though for anyone trying to plan away this local flexibility to enable the restricted view of the planners to prevail. If local flexibility is not permitted then it may be that a more radical and context changing solution will force itself to the fore.  If these old Lisbon streets were bulldozed away, for example, then that would massively alter the transport context. Small, locally derived organizational rules or actions can be a solution to a problem but then again so can massive disruptions and removal of the context within which these solutions were developed. But then again you can not predict the outcome of these massive changes either!