Archive for January, 2013

Inauguration Day, Resilience, and American Society

I must admit that I’m feeling very patriotic today.  It’s a bit of a hangover from the Inauguration earlier this week.  Nothing that follows has a blatant right vs. left political agenda, so I apologize in advance for any looking for a fight over that.  I’m sure that there will still be plenty to pick apart.  Again, this isn’t a rigorous scientific study, but I hope that it’s a thoughtful editorial.  For my international friends, it will have a bit of flag-waving.  So be it.

I am fortunate enough to be in the midst of a project on how to enhance the resilience of ecosystem services with other Resilience Alliance Young Scholars.  For those that don’t know, ecosystem services are provisions and services supplied to humankind from ecosystems, generally split into provisioning services (food, wood, etc), regulating services (erosion control, flood mitigation, etc), supporting services (crop pollination, nutrient cycles), and cultural services (recreation, religious use, etc).  In a paper recently published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, we identified 7 principles seen as enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services (see Biggs et al. 2012. “Toward Principles for Enhancing the Resilience of Ecosystem Services”, Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37:3.1-28. for the details).  For present purposes, I’ll skip over formal definitions of resilience and, to the chagrin of many of my colleagues, let’s just equate this with sustainability for the moment.  These 7 principles are:

  1. Maintain diversity and redundancy,
  2. Manage connectivity,
  3. Manage slow variables and feedbacks,
  4. Foster an understanding of complex adaptive systems,
  5. Encourage learning and experimentation,
  6. Broaden participation, and
  7. Promote polycentric governance systems.

If you are interested in what these mean in more detail and getting past the jargon, please contact me and/or read the full article.

For now, let’s return to Inauguration Day.  Clearly the (These) United States face a large number of challenges.  Several of these were mentioned in the various speeches, responses, and talking head debates from both sides of the fence.  Without prioritizing, these include a slowly growing economy, climate change, a violent world, a lagging educational system, a gridlocked political system, and so on.  However, if we think about the principles above as mechanisms for sustainability and long-enduring social-ecological systems, I feel enthusiastic about the future of this country.  In particular, the United States, by its design, is built around diversity and having a unique blend of peoples, cultures, and ways of thinking.  Clearly this often creates divides and dissension (see immigration reform).  It also creates opportunities and fosters new ideas.  We have a society, a political system and a private (and third) sector focused on learning and experimenting.  This is the America of innovation and entrepreneurship – in both the private sector and public.  Our society engenders as well as depends upon broad participation.  Putnam’s thoughts on social capital aside, I remain steadfastly optimistic about this as well.  Finally, the Federal system of government, the number of collaborative governance arrangements that I encounter in my regular research, and the vitality of the NGO community nationwide, provides evidence of polycentric governance systems of great breadth and depth.

Granted, there are a great many problems to fix, and the work is never-ending.  The US faces great difficulties, particularly in understanding and responding to complexity (witness the responses to climate change), but I believe these United States are, were, and will remain resilient.

The Stresses of Academia?

Recently, CNBC put out a report on the ‘least stressful jobs’ (found here  Number one on the list – University Professor.  Since then, my Facebook and Twitter accounts have exploded with comments about this absurdity.  Several referenced the following blog entry:

This follow-up piece hits on a lot of the key refutations of the CNBC study.  CNBC clearly misunderstands what university faculty do for a living – that research is a huge part of it, that the demands on our time can be overwhelming, and that the work doesn’t stop with the end of the semester.  These points, and many of those raised in the responses from my colleagues, resonate with me.  However, there are a number of points that deserve to be revisited.  Some of this has to do with the number of academics that haven’t spent much time outside of academia.  With that, I’d like to focus on two aspects of the debate that have gone undocumented – one in the CNBC study and one from the rebuttals.

Other aspects of academia that the CNBC study doesn’t grasp include the two biggest stresses in the profession – finding a job and securing tenure.  It’s well documented that there is an overabundance of academics.  Is it because it’s less stressful?   Perhaps, but I’ll get back to this in a moment.  With more doctoral candidates than traditional university professorships, we often end up competing for positions with (literally) hundreds of other candidates for a single spot.  Clearly, there is competition for jobs in many fields, but few have such barriers for relatively low paying entry-level positions.  Similarly, academics are forced to go to the openings.  Fat chance for those desiring to live in specific locations, and for those in a two academic household – good luck with those job searches.  Additionally, the year to year fluctuation on the number of openings in a given research area can vary enormously.  Because of this, we see huge numbers of qualified candidates stuck in adjunct positions, post-docs, or working as barristas.  This is the starving actor model of career development, with a dozen years of university work on top.  Universities continue to take advantage of this through an increasing reliance on low-paying part-timers with no benefits.  But that’s a subject for another column.  Once we find a position, the tenure clock starts ticking.  This is an up or out mentality, similar to that in consultancies, law partnerships, and investment banks.  It’s hard-core, cutthroat, and, yes, stressful.  The issues with tenure are ripe for their own column.

At the same time, the academic response to this perceived insult fails to understand a few things about stress and the job itself.  Once we obtain a tenure-track position, the CNBC study isn’t that far off.  Yes, the time requirements are excessive, and the expectations are high.  And there is a U-shaped curve for education and pay (more education can lead to declining salaries).  But let’s look at the job in more detail.  First, we have more flexibility than the vast majority of jobs.  Going in at 10 or leaving at 4.  Working at home or taking time off for holiday breaks or summers traveling.  Yes, I know that most are working a tremendous amount through these time periods, as well as late into the night and early in the morning.  But guess what…so are most other professions.  We have the ability to work around our personal schedules a lot more than most.  We can travel and work remotely, have the summers to pursue our own independent research, can secure grants to pay for it, are expected to travel for conferences, workshops, and meetings.

Next, let’s talk about “stress”.  Much academic stress is self-imposed.  Reading yet another paper or writing yet another article.  Likewise, the deadlines are often self-imposed.  Part of our challenge is that, as academics, our minds never shut off.  Face it, many in the profession have their own closet neuroses driving them to succeed.  Try to find an academic without a bit of OCD sometime.  But this is self-imposed and personal, aside from the job.

The work is what drives us into the field.  Most of us love what we research.  We read this stuff for fun.  If we work too long, toward crazy self-imposed deadlines, we’re doing it, in part, for the love of what we do.  Let’s contrast this with “stressful” jobs.  I’ve worked driving a lumber truck, on an assembly line in a foundry, as a mechanical engineer, and as a business consultant.  These all had their own stresses.  Businesspeople face the stress of million dollar deals, ticked off clients, and cutthroat competition.  Manual labor faces the day-to-day stress of working their tails off to squeak out a living.  Medical workers clearly have life or death situations by the minute.  And let’s not even discuss dangerous jobs – soldiers, fishers, foresters, and so on.  That’s stress.  Those revisions that I’d hoped to submit this week…not so much.

A Research Subject that I know only as a commonsense layperson

I had a long discussion with my neighbor yesterday, a 40 year NRA member.  I realized that we had a great deal in common regarding gun regulations.  He is sick of watching innocent people die in random acts of violence.  I agree and think that we may have crossed a tipping point in which people realize that our current trajectory does not lead any of us to the society that we idealize.

The Gun Supporters Cartoon

Later that day, I saw a Facebook note with a poster showing 25 Good Guys on one side and an equal number of Bad Guys on the other side.  Both sides had guns.  The second picture showed good guys with no guns and bad guys with guns.  The third caption said, “What part of gun control don’t you understand”.  The implication and clear message for decades has been that the criminals are going to break the law anyway, so we must defend ourselves.

What I realized is that the pictures show one of the ways that the two sides of gun control continue to talk past each other.

A More Accurate (Yet Still Cartoon) Version of Our Society

What sensible gun control advocates desire is not to eliminate all guns, to stop hunting and target shooting, or to make everyone defenseless.  But let me paint a different picture from the one above.  First, let’s not make the good guys and bad guys equal in number.  I truly don’t think that this is the society we live in.  What should it be 2 to 1, 10 to 1, 100 to 1?  Let’s say 4 good guys for every bad guy, which seems absurdly low to me.  At this point, everyone still has their gun.  Now we have 25 bad guys with guns and 100 good guys with guns.  But this still isn’t a fair picture of society.  Let’s add in the “innocents” – maybe we just want to include kids in this category.  Roughly 25% of our society in the US is under 18.  So let’s add 25 kids with no guns to the “Good” side of the picture.  This seems to be a closer view of our society than the original poster.

A Reasonable Starting Vision of Gun Control

Now, let’s start with our poster with 125 good folks on one side (100 with guns) and 25 bad guys on the other side (also with guns).  Let’s say that there are some restrictions put in place.  At this point I won’t enter the debate on what this should be – maybe something with assault rifles, automatics, large-capacity clips, whatever.  Let’s assume at minimum that people will be able to keep their hunting stock, sport-shooting guns, etc.  But let’s say that this reduces levels of gun ownership hugely, say 50%, which I don’t think anyone is actually discussing.  Now the good guys have 50 guns.  The bad guys ignore the rules, but maybe it’s a little harder for them.  Instead of 50% reductions, there is a 5% reduction.  The bad guys only lose 1 gun.  Clearly, the original vision of the gun supporters is untenable.  “Good Guys” still outnumber the bad guys.  And this doesn’t count law enforcement officials at all at this point.

Does this Achieve Anything?

This isn’t my area of expertise, and I’ve done no research beyond reading the papers occasionally.  However, it doesn’t seem to make the bad guys more powerful – the leading argument from the NRA, from Charlie Daniels “Take ‘em away from the criminals first, and I’ll gladly give you mine”, and others.

But what else does it do?  If the statistics are correct, accidental fatalities are 4-5 times higher in homes with guns.  Just removing some of these weapons actually helps.  Regarding those concerned with preserving the 2nd Amendment, I pulled a citation from an article by Gregg Easterbrook, a columnist for a number of publications and no left-winger “The Second Amendment creates an individual right of gun ownership, including an individual right of lawful handgun ownership, but also stipulates that gun ownership be “well-regulated.”  Note, this is a Supreme Court decision by a conservative court.  I agree with my neighbor, we should be able to have sensible gun control in place without fearing that our government is going to convert to a totalitarian state.   Concerns for a Mao-type communist take-over or a Nazi-style fascist state seem to warrant ridicule in their absurdity.

There are a number of other points from both sides that I don’t raise here.  The only comments that I wanted to raise are that:  1) it seems simple to take action here that will protect our kids without leading to a loss of all guns and 2) the argument about leaving innocents everywhere defenseless to a massive criminal onslaught doesn’t hold water.  Finally, I’ll freely admit that this isn’t my area of research or expertise, but let’s not pretend that most of what we hear and read in the media, on Facebook, or written online in general is either.

I hope that I don’t lose any friends or relatives because of this…