According to a new study, humanity is currently “dancing on the volcano” of a changing global society and increasingly fragile life-support systems. The researchers ask how people’s responses to such changes may be understood and how to manage them. Photo: L. Rychvalsky/PxHere

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Dancing on the volcano

Humanity is at a crossroads. We need to understand the underlying drivers of human behaviour to avoid collapse of the biosphere and our global civilization

Story highlights

  • Humanity is currently “dancing on the volcano” of a changing global society and increasingly fragile life-support systems
  • In such situations we humans have a tendency to shut down our capacities for exploration, resorting to “group think,” whether reactionary or escapist
  • Understanding such underlying drivers of human behaviour is the beginning of open conversation and shared work toward a better planet than we now have

An article entitled ”Dancing on the volcano” that quotes the lyrics from a 1970s rock song might not be what you would expect to find in a scientific journal. Nonetheless, this is exactly what four of the leading researchers in resilience thinking and social-ecological systems research do in a study recently published in Ecology and Society.

In the article, Stephen Carpenter, Carl Folke, Marten Scheffer and Frances Westley first reflect on global changes that may contribute to social destabilization such as rising wealth concentration and environmental degradation. Then they continue by asking how people’s responses may be understood from a social-psychological perspective, such as the need for group identity and managing their fear of death.

“The emerging image is that of a society engaged in multifaceted experimentation. Maintaining such experimentation may help inspire novel pathways to desirable futures, but there is a risk of societies becoming trapped in backward-looking narratives that threaten long-term sustainable outcomes,” they write.

We better start doing it right

The rock song referred to above is “Dance on a Volcano”, released by the Genesis in 1976. Its last verse, which is quoted in the new article, goes like this:

The music’s playing, the notes are right
Put your left foot first and move into the light
The edge of this hill is the edge of the world
And if you’re going to cross you better start doing it right
Better start doing it right
You better start doing it right
Let the dance begin

The researchers compare the song to the current state of the world, where humans increasingly shape the Earth and risk pushing the planet’s climate and ecosystems over the edge. In this current human-dominated era, called the Anthropocene, variability in the political, cultural, and economic spheres seems to have increased.

“As fluctuations grow and instabilities appear there are increasing possibilities for major systemic transformations, not all of which are desirable,” they write.

Our societies, and the natural ecosystems they depend on, are called complex adaptive systems. One of the signs of such a complex system being close to the edge is a pattern of flickering. The variable shifts in the abundance of fish and plankton in lakes that are close to a tipping point from clear to a turbid system, is one example. In a society, something similar can be seen as increased prevalence of rapid but shallow enthusiasm referred to as fads or crazes. This kind of diverse, variable and unpredictable behaviour is a sign of the current system becoming more fragile and approaching a tipping point. The question remains whether this increased flickering will result in widespread collapse or if we can “start doing it right” and transform into new more sustainable pathways for development.

Looking back or forward?

Many now hope that social experimentation and innovation can change the world fast enough to increase the possibilities for a “good Anthropocene”, but at the same time others seem to seek an escape from the mounting complexity of our time into the felt certainty of the past. The authors list Brexit, Trump, nationalist parties and fundamentalist movements, as examples of such an attraction to memories of the past.

“In a phase of turbulent experimentation, there are dangers and opportunity. Dangers include looking to the past to solve novel future problems or embracing a shiny new idea before it is tested adequately in safe-fail experiments,” they conclude.

Altogether, the turbulent situation of a changing society and increasingly fragile life-support systems is what the authors describe as “dancing on the volcano”. And this is currently associated with both fear and hope and search for new meanings.

In our view, dancing on the volcano, as a state in which worldviews or religions have lost their compelling quality, makes humans vulnerable to re-experiencing their terror of death.

Stephen Carpenter, lead author

What they suggest is that with traditional identities undergoing change, global challenges will be experienced even more intensely than usual as “death primes.”

Not the end of the world

The four researchers also identify a number of trends that are forward-looking, like the “Green New Deal” in the U.S., carbon-neutral movements around the world, and various social movements. These trends range from changes in individual behaviour to broad international social movements, and as the researchers conclude, we need more of this kind of forward-looking social experimentation. For this to happen, humanity needs to avoid a kind of collective gut reaction that is common when threats to our life and way of life feel very real. In such times, we have a tendency as humans to shut down our capacities for exploration, resorting to “group thinking,” whether reactionary or escapist. This can provide an illusory sense of safety and protection, but will be a bad strategy in the long run when dancing on the edge of the metaphorical global volcano which the researchers depict.

“The plateau of change and uncertainty is not the end of the world as we know it, it is the beginning of shared work toward a better planet than we now have. Progress toward a better planet begins with open conversation about how we will share the planet with each other and all of life on earth,” they write.

Read the full article here

Published: 2019-05-02

Related info

Carpenter, S. R., C. Folke, M. Scheffer, and F. R. Westley. 2019. Dancing on the volcano: social exploration in times of discontent. Ecology and Society 24(1):23.

Link to publication

Carl Folke is the Chair of the board and co-founder of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. He has extensive experience in transdisciplinary collaboration between natural and social scientists and is among the most cited scientists in the world on resilience thinking


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