Abstracts for Presentations (matches Schedule)

The Truth is the Whole: A Symposium in Honor of Dick Levins
(as he nears his 85th birthday)

May 21-23, 2015


The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Friday, May 22, 2015, first a.m. panel

Steven Orzack
The dynamics and statics of human health and disease: Population biology meets medicine

I will describe ongoing work that concerns the distinction between analyzing health and disease as fixed traits as opposed to analyzing them as dynamic traits. I will also discuss how these analyses contribute to the debate over the compression-of-morbidity hypothesis.

Sandro Galea
Complexity and causal thinking in population health sciences. How does the social get under the skin?

Calls for the adoption of complex systems approaches, in the population health sciences have largely centered on the potential for such methods to examine complex disease etiologies, characterized by feedback behavior, interference, threshold dynamics, and multiple interacting causal effects. However, considerable theoretical and practical issues impede the capacity of agent-based methods to examine and evaluate causal effects, and thus illuminate new areas for intervention.  One key barrier has been the dominant guiding paradigm informing the epidemiologic approach—the counterfactual approach. This approach conceptualizes individual causes of disease, and relies on the rigor of the experiment as the gold standard for estimating causal effects of individual exposures. The exigencies of confounder control under this paradigm have led to increasingly restrictive sampling that aims to achieve comparability in our observational studies, maximizing interval validity at the potential expense of generalizability. Unfortunately this approach faces both conceptual and mathematical limitations.   In this talk I will ask two questions. 1. In order to produce generalizable understanding of the natural history of health and disease and to inform the pragmatic science of what matters most to disease distributions, do we need to shift to a focus on the underlying network of causes that produce disease events, and away from our current focus on the effects of individual exposures?  2. Do we need an alternate approach to causal thinking, one where we aim to understand, rather than account for, co-occurring causes, informed by a complex systems approach to disease causation?

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Friday, May 22, 2015, first a.m. panel

Robert G. Wallace and Rodrick Wallace
Neoliberal Ebola: Agroeconomic determinism and epizootic stochasticity

In peer-reviewed papers and populist publications alike, population biologist Richard Levins and colleagues, following Engels, Caudwell and others, have repeatedly attacked a series of false ontological dichotomies that structure much of modern science: among others, between organism and environment, the biological and the social, the individual and the social, the physical and the psychological, and dependent and independent variables. The characteristic responses to the present Ebola outbreak in West Africa and one little reported on within East Asia’s hog sector embody the whole of that Manichean list. The resulting reductionist failures aren’t just bad public health, however. In investigating another false opposition, between Ebola’s determinism and its stochasticity, we discover a cover for neoliberal expropriation, and, more broadly, a philosophical program that in and of itself acts as a selection pressure on pathogen evolution.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Friday, May 22, 2015, second a.m. panel

Harish Padmanabha, Fabio Correa, Drew Gerkey, Sean Downey
The centripetal force of community: An analytical framework for studying human adaptation of space-time allocation to changing environments

The patterns of human space-time allocation have undergone radical changes amidst transformations in technology and subsistence modes over the past few centuries. In this paper we explore the idea that reduced time allocated to social interactions within human communities has transformed basic cultural adaptation strategies that characterize our evolutionary past. In order to achieve this, we propose an analytical framework that explicitly looks at the interrelationships between spatial-time patterns, individual and social dimensions of human adaptation in variable environments. Specifically, we pose that the spatial intersection of central-place activity patterns among community members actively sustains group-level social structures that reduce environmental uncertainty. This approach allows exploration of how sources of environmental uncertainty that pressure against spending time in community (area closer to home) may reduce the incentive to sustain social structures necessary to maintain socio-ecological knowledge and cooperative action. Such factors may include scarcity of local social or environmental resources, lack of access/autonomy over local space, access to information and transportation technology/infrastructure, spatially distant kin, wage labor and schooling among many others. Through qualitative modeling and agent-based simulations we demonstrate that individuals can effectively reduce environmental uncertainty by concentrating activity space close to the community area. We label this phenomenon the “centripetal force of community”, a social rather than physical force, that nevertheless “pulls” individuals in the direction of the area where they reside. Our models suggest that individuals living in places with inadequate local resources and/or inadequate connectivity of community networks ultimately experience increased uncertainty in the inhabited environment. The results of our model are consistent with shifts in the goals of learning away from uncertainty reduction in the inhabited environment, towards learning about how to secure access to money and exogenous resources produced in global environment. We use our framework to discuss variation in cultural adaptation strategies across the spectrum of contemporary human societies, emphasizing how changes in the centripetal force of community associated with capitalism are heterogeneous, non-linear and multi-directional.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Friday, May 22, 2015, second a.m. panel

Peter Taylor
Changing science in heterogeneous environments

The two foundational developments of modern biology–theories of evolution by natural selection and genetic basis of heredity–were built from language, arguments, evidence, and practices of controlled breeding in agriculture and the laboratory.  The relationship between variation, particularity, or, heterogeneity and control provides an under-developed angle from which to view modern understandings of heredity and development over the life course and, more generally, in social epidemiology.  This paper introduces and illustrates a taxonomy of heterogeneities.  The guiding contention is that research and application of resulting knowledge are untroubled by heterogeneity to the extent that populations are well controlled.  Such control can be established and maintained, however, only with considerable effort or social infrastructure, which invites more attention to possibilities for participation instead of control of human subjects.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Friday, May 22, 2015, second a.m. panel

Brian Rubineau
From ecology to management: Applying population & disease dynamics concepts to promote peaceful and equitable workplaces

This talk presents three concepts from population and disease dynamics that I learned as one of Richard’s students that re-emerge in my own research in organizations. These concepts are the mathematical modeling of population processes,   the sensitivity of contagion control methods to differences in disease transmission and mixing, and the effects of ecological refugia on change in a population. Each concept has informed my current research aimed at promoting peaceful and equitable workplaces.

The mathematical modeling of population processes is used to reveal a population’s expected stable distribution, usually by age group. These models require estimates for the reproduction and survival rates of each population group. The phenomenon of word-of-mouth job recruitment is similar. Through it, the current generation of workers brings in the next generation. This process tends to bring in referrals who resemble the referrer and has been called “homosocial reproduction.” By modeling referring explicitly as a population process, I provided new insights that challenged the conventional wisdom about the segregating effects of referring and provided new solutions.

The sensitivity of contagion control methods to differences in disease transmission and mixing is why we seek near universal vaccination for influenza, but network-based control efforts for gonorrhea. Organizations often wish to promote social contagion as in the case of promoting a safety culture or preventing workplace violence. These efforts have been hampered by neglecting transmissibility and mixing. In an organizational field-experiment using network-based measures of likely influence, I show that organizations can manage social contagion processes successfully by learning lessons from infectious disease control.

Ecological refugia can be used intentionally by farmers to slow the emergence of pesticide-resistance. In organizations, efforts towards change often neglect behaviors that act as organizational refugia, slowing the emergence of the desired organizational improvements. Current workplace violence policies and recommendations carve out refugia for milder behaviors that preserve the conditions giving rise to violence.  I present alternative refugia-aware workplace violence prevention opportunities.

Richard models broad thinking. A broadened view to phenomena, and the methodological tools to examine them, have been treasured gifts from Richard that I hope are reflected in my own work.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Friday, May 22, 2015, first p.m. panel

Ivette Perfecto
Let’s play Azteca!: Linking the theory and practice of agroecology through gaming

Tropical agroforestry systems can harbor high levels of biodiversity. This diversity contributes to ecosystem services such a pollination and pest control. In our work we have uncovered a complex web of ecological interactions that contributes to autonomous pest control in diverse shaded coffee farms. Our research focuses on a complex ecological network surrounding a key stone ant species.  The self-organized spatial distribution of this keystone ant, its mutualist, and its associated predators and parasitoids contributes to the control of several insect pests and diseases of coffee.  Although farmers can observe some of the direct ecological interactions like predation and parasitization, complex ecological interactions that include indirect trait-mediated effects can be very hard to see and conceptualized. Companion modeling and table games are alternative vehicles to make difficult concepts of complex ecological systems accessible to farmers.  Through the development of table and computer games we intend to help farmers understand the arrays of built-in preventive strength of agroecosystems in ways that can help them interpret what they see in nature in a new light with an emphasis on ecological complexity and sustainability.

Doug Boucher
Agriculture, class and the cost of food: What do we think about the Industrial Revolution?

Leftist thought has traditionally seen the Industrial Revolution, with all its defects, as a fundamentally progressive development in human history. Its positive aspects, in this assessment, included

  • the concentration of labor power, making possible the creation of strong working-class organizations such as trade unions and political parties;
  • a great increase in the productive capacity of society, simultaneously making possible the reduction of the work week and the improvement of the working class’ standard of living;
  • and the diffusion of knowledge, both technical and cultural, among the broad mass of the population.

Thus, progressives have made a sharp distinction between the benefits of industrialization, and the class structure of modern society which has limited these benefits to the ruling class who control the means of production. The political imperative is not to reverse the Industrial Revolution, but to ensure that the benefits of that Revolution are shared by all, through a fundamental transformation of the political economy of capitalism and its replacement by socialism.

With this background, it is striking how many 21st-century progressives have apply a different standard to agriculture. In this sector they have seen the fundamental problem as “Industrial Agriculture.” Thus, developments considered to be progressive in other sectors – mechanization, the concentration of labor, increased productivity, reduced costs of production and the development of technological capacity based on a scientific understanding of nature – are not only not seen as positive, but in fact diagnosed as basic elements of the problem. By this way of thinking, it is not the control of the means of agricultural production and the sharing of its benefits that is at issue, but rather the industrial nature of agricultural production itself. Indeed, it is considered more progressive to insist that it is not pesticides, antibiotic resistance, obesity, oppression of farm workers or monoculture that is the real evil. Rather, these are all merely symptoms of the underlying problem, which is the industrial agricultural system itself.

This manifests itself in political positions that are quite at odds with progressive thought as applied to other sectors. They include:

  • the rejection of the use of machinery in favor of hand labor;
  • opposition to large-scale distribution systems based on long-distance transportation in favor of local consumption;
  • support for buying directly from small private capitalist business owners, and
  • disapproval of the habit of consuming mass-produced, processed and packaged goods, even if they are less expensive.

To see just how different this point of view is from the way that progressives approach other sectors, imagine applying it to, say, transportation. Applying the same logic to “industrial automotivity” would mean favoring artisanally-produced hand-made cars, made in small family-business workshops no more than 100 miles away from where we live, and being willing to pay considerably more for them to boot. Apply the same logic to any of the other products of modern society — e.g. cell phones, kitchen tables, shirts, apartment buildings or university education – and you can see just how different is our analysis of agriculture from the way we look at the rest of our economy.

This contradiction between how progressives analyze “industrial agriculture” and how they see the rest of the modern economy, raises the question of whether the critique of industrial agriculture is truly progressive.  Rather, we need to ask whether it is simply another example of the kind of romantic view of the world typically associated with sectors of social elites at various points in the Industrial Revolution, which though popular for a time have eventually been abandoned.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Friday, May 22, 2015, first p.m. panel

John Vandermeer
The dialectics of agroecosystem transformation

Two lines of reasoning currently inform both the history and politics of the agrarian question as envisioned today:  1) transitions that are informed by the insights of the great mathematician René Thom, and 2) transitions that are informed by the work of the great Russian economist Alexander Chayanov. It is argued that the dynamics of peasant-like agriculture (as elaborated by Chayanov) are similar to a codimension two-type bifurcation (a la Thom), leading to possible insights for political action with regard to the contemporary problematic of agricultural production. Movement towards a more sustainable agricultural system may be characterized by catastrophic jumps to temporarily stable states, one of which could be characterized as a sustainable food and agricultural system. Barriers to such a jump will be discussed.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Friday, May 22, 2015, second p.m. panel

Luis Fernando Chaves
Capitalism fuels malaria transmission: The dialectics of bednet “use” in sub-Saharan Africa  

Insecticide-treated nets (ITNs) are a major tool for malaria control. Over recent years increased ITN coverage has been associated with decreased malaria transmission. However, ITN ‘misuse’ has been increasingly reported and whether this emergent behaviour poses a threat to successful malaria control and elimination is an open question. Here, we use a game theory mathematical model to understand the possible roles of poverty and malaria infection protection by individual and emerging ‘community effects’ on the ‘misuse’ of malaria bednets. We compare model predictions with data from our studies in Lake Victoria Islands (LVI), Kenya and Aneityum, Vanuatu. Our model shows that alternative ITN use is likely to emerge in impoverished populations and could be exacerbated if ITNs become ineffective or when large ‘community effects’ emerge. Our model predicted patterns of ITN use similar to the observed in LVI, where ‘misuse’ is common and the high ITN use in Aneityum, more than 20 years after malaria elimination in 1990. We think that observed differences in ITN use may be shaped by different degrees of economic and social development, and educational components of the Aneityum elimination, where traditional cooperative attitudes were strengthened with the malaria elimination intervention and post-elimination surveillance.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Friday, May 22, 2015, second p.m. panel

Martha R. Herbert
“Neurodevelopmental Disorder” as a reductionist, idealist abstraction: From genetic destiny to chronic multi-scale, multisystem complexity

Clinical and research approaches to neurodevelopmental disorders often make assumptions about the character of the constraints that not only go beyond the facts but obscure potential routes to clinical improvement.  These include: 1) assuming that if some neurodevelopmental disorders have clear relationships to specific genetic alterations, then all neurodevelopmental disorders do; 2) assuming that the genetic alterations either are inherited, or – if they are de novo – “just happen;”  3) the idea that all clinical features of the condition are determined or mapped genetically; 4) attributing all clinical features to these putatively prenatally and genetically determined brain changes; and 5) presuming there is nothing much more to do than help with accommodation.

At present there is an alarming rise in the number of reported cases of neurodevelopmental disorders such as attention deficit disorder, autism, learning disabilities and mood disorders, with probable contributions from both confounding factors and true increases.

An emerging approach makes a different set of assumptions: 1) genetic variations play a relatively minor role in comparison with environmental contributors in these conditions emerging during developmental with no clear genetic correlate; 2) environmental contributors may induce genetic alterations; 3) many of the features may be “emergent properties” of multi-scale, multisystem dysfunction; 4) there is a two-way street between body and brain regarding what drives the problems;  5) there are many practical things that can help a lot.

Interestingly this approach is taking hold even in communities of families of children with clear genetic conditions (e.g. Down Syndrome).  Such children (as well as those with unclear genetic contributors) often have treatable physiological disturbances such as high levels of oxidative stress and inflammation suggesting enhanced vulnerability of environmentally sensitive physiology.  They also have functional issues in sensory and motor domains that appear to be actionable with appropriate techniques.  Some families report that interventions improving these problems ramify into broad qualitative increases in functionality.  The resistance of conventional medical and rehabilitative service providers to such approaches may derive from closely held belief systems that improvement is impossible.  However as data documenting these improvements accumulates, a serious challenge will be posed to present approaches to neurodevelopmental disorders.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Saturday, May 23, 2015, first a.m. panel

June Y. T. Po
Understanding how local institutions affect female smallholder farmers’ access to land resources and household food security in the semi-arid region of Kenya

Increasing severity of droughts in the semi-arid regions of Kenya urges better understanding of social-ecological resilience of natural resource-dependent communities. Research indicates that when women have better control of household resources, there is better food provision to household members. However, less is understood about the relationship between women’s access to land resources within a patrilineal society and resilience in livelihoods and nutritional security. Our research explores how formal local institutions and informal customary norms on access to land resources affect livelihood strategies for female smallholder farmers in semi-arid Kenya.

Empirical evidence from 72 in-depth interviews, 16 focus group discussions and 7 community meetings across four sub-locations indicates that customary norms governing land resources are in discord with recent constitutional policies regarding daughters’ land inheritance. Acceptance of new inheritance clauses in rural communities is low. Both male and female participants interpret these clauses with additional conditions, which enable alignment with prevailing norms that married daughters are not entitled to land inheritance from fathers. Land titling, reinforces formal access to land resources by men and weakens women’s customary entitlements. We identify possible structures and mechanisms of how local institutions and norms shape resilience within local communities as a part of their livelihoods strategies.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Saturday, May 23, 2015, first a.m. panel

Patricia Lane
Ecological skeletons:  Excavating the bare bones of community structure using loop analysis
Excavating the Bare Bones of Community Structure (PowerPoint)

Loop analysis was created by Richard Levins in the 1970s as a qualitative signed-digraph methodology to analyze complex systems of interacting variables.  The methodology is versatile both in the insight it provides for understanding complexity and stability generally, as well as the many specific applications that have been undertaken for a wide range of systems.  Besides purely theoretical development, applications to ecological systems have involved two major approaches: the more common construction of small graphs of usually less than ten variables that are based largely upon the intuition of the investigator, and the infrequent use of larger graphs of more than ten variables fitted to data sets including hundreds of species.  This paper is concerned with the latter approach for marine plankton communities.

Dick and I collected nutrient, phytoplankton, and zooplankton data on Narragansett Bay in the 1980s over a set of 10 field cruises of 24 hours duration as well as two years of mesocosm data at the Marine Ecosystem Research Laboratory (MERL) at the Graduate School of Oceanography of the University of Rhode Island.  Nine 13 m3 tanks, situated on the Bay shore,  included three controls and six (non-replicated) treatments of 1X, 2X, 4X, 8X, 16X and 32X  of daily inorganic  nutrient enrichment simulating sewage additions in a press experiment.

After aggregating the species into variables, loop diagrams were prepared for both the field and laboratory data sets by fitting the predicted changes of the models to those of the field and laboratory populations.  Each pair of variables has nine qualitative link types.   After summarizing sets of loop diagrams by variable and link type, core models were constructed that essentially constitute ‘ecological skeletons’ of these marine plankton systems.  These holistic skeletons represent rigorous arrangements of the major links or ‘bare bones’ involved in the key feedback relationships and valid pathways of effects that  produce the observed directed changes in species abundances in nature and the laboratory.  The discussion will include some comments on complexity, emergence, and self-organization as well as the urgent need to expand this methodology to the higher trophic levels of marine ecosystems.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Saturday, May 23, 2015, first a.m. panel

David Schwartzman
The dialectics of biospheric evolution

For the strict NeoDarwinian the biosphere cannot evolve in the sense that the biota evolves.  But lets explore the consequences of considering the analogues of genotype and phenotype in the biosphere itself. My six theses on biospheric evolution:

  1. The biosphere is a “complex adaptive system”, adapting to changing external abiotic constraints (e.g., solar luminosity, volcanic outgassing rate) but also self-adapting (e.g., creating new steady-states) and self-selecting (e.g., the thermophile and oxygen catastrophes of surface ecosystems).
  2. The biosphere is a self-organizing complex whole. The interpenetration of its parts and its whole includes the nonlinear interaction of the parts, its network of positive and negative feedbacks, the continual reshaping of the parts by the whole, the history of the whole recorded in its parts, transients and steady-states etc. The whole: biosphere; the parts: ocean, upper crust, clouds, surface ecosystems, etc.  The failure to recognize the dialectical interaction of the whole and parts leads to the errors of “holism” and reductionism, e.g., holism: the biosphere itself is a living organism; e.g., reductionism: there are no emergent properties of the biosphere.
  3. The genotype of the biosphere: its material inheritance, the sum total of all its parts, embodying its history (genetically coded or preserved). The phenotype of the biosphere: its activity, its metabolism, its biogeochemical cycles. The genotype of the biosphere is the cumulative product of its phenotypes since the origin of life.
  4. The history of the phenotypes of the biosphere is recorded in its parts, e.g., paleobiology and geochemistry of sedimentary rocks, and genome of the biota.
  5. The Gaian character of biospheric evolution: the tight coupling of the abiotic and biotic components, its self-regulation; Vernadskian character: progressive changes in biospheric history, “life as a geological force”.
  6. The evolution of the biosphere self-selects a pattern of biotic evolution that is quasi-deterministic. The challenge: develop a theory of the biosphere from raw material of research on epigenetics with Lamarckian-like inheritance in ecosystems, niche construction, higher level natural selection, and the metatheories of emergence, self-organization, complexity and systems. Now on the astrobiological agenda: explore and create the theory of comparative biospheres.


Levins, R. and R. Lewontin, 1985. The Dialectical Biologist, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Schwartzman, D. 1999, 2002. Life, Temperature, and the Earth: The Self-Organizing Biosphere. New York: Columbia University Press.

Schwartzman, D. 2015. From the Gaia hypothesis to a theory of the evolving self-organizing biosphere. Metascience: Published Online. DOI 10.1007/s11016-014-9979-3.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Saturday, May 23, 2015, first a.m. panel

Julio Muñoz-Rubio
Dialectics and Marxism in neo-Lamarckian theories: A criticism of neo-Darwinian fetishism

In this paper, deeply influenced by the work of Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin, I highlight and support the elements of the Neo-Lamarckian vindications of Eva Jablonka, and collaborators, applying a pro-dialectical interpretation of evolution.

Jablonka et al. present the organism as an entity endowed with an activity, in which niches and conditions of life are continuously built. They support an evolutionary model of complex space-time transitions, refuting the reductionist systems constituted of simple linear information-transmission. The integration of genetic, epigenetic, behavioral and cultural levels in evolutionary phenomena, shows a dynamics, in which synthesis and becoming processes can be explained by means of the Hegelian-Marxian-Engelsian concept of Aufhebung. It is a matter of concrete moments of the unity of the opposed, producing the conditions for their own overcoming.

Such transitions constitute the essence of constant movements or transgressions of the Limits present in the different units of living systems. Limit understood as anything that establishes and contains what lies beyond and therefore, constitute themselves as condition of their self-negation.

The integration of the aforementioned levels of evolution, as explained by Jablonka et al., means a comprehension of evolutionary process as mediated by the interpenetration of the parts and the wholes. Besides a back and forth movement of certain emergent properties as processes of quantitative-qualitative changes, and negations and self-negations, is shown.

Finally, the dialectical approaches used by Hegel in Science of Logic, and by Marx in Grundrisse are postulated as efficient tools for the study of these innovative neo-Lamarckian interpretations.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Saturday, May 23, 2015, second a.m. panel

Martha Livingston
Thinking about public health like a revolutionary: The contribution of Dick Levins

Public health is a funny field; its very name demands attention to how people live and what we need to do about it. But the nature of that understanding is a source of hot contention. In the mainstream, the emphasis is on behavior and education, and despite mainstream public health’s claim that it pays attention to the social determinants of health, the fact is, no it doesn’t. Dr. Linda Rae Murray, left physician and recent former President of the American Public Health Association, said at last year’s meeting, “Everybody talks about the social determinants of health and nobody knows what they’re talking about.”

Dick Levins knows what he’s talking about. His work is especially useful for several reasons:

  1. It’s dialectical. He gets how things work within themselves, and also how the part-whole works. As the late great Bill Livant would say, “that’s the topic; what’s the problem?” Part of the problem, as Dick has written, is the creation of disciplinary silos, crippling our ability to understand how things work.
  1. He’s left. So he clearly understands the nature of the society – and world – in which ‘health’ happens. In “Why Programs Fail,” he elucidates the global structure of capital in which programs are established, and by whom, and their limits – and the difficulty, in public health, of finding work and working on the actual problems while keeping our jobs in organizations whose mission contradicts our desires.
  1. He’s self-aware of what he has called “Our triple identity as workers, as activists, and as intellectuals,”and the contradictions we confront in these identities.

The class enemy is clear; but the distinctly non-Marxist framework of most of the very best people working in public health is less clear. These are not the bad guys; they are very, very smart, and care deeply about the people’s health. They have developed the field of social epidemiology over the past decades. One important focus has been how inequality is ‘written on the body.’ But without a clear vision of the cause of that inequality, or an activist stance on what to do about it, the work falls short, in some cases explicitly rejecting Marxist class analysis. How can the public health academy contribute to the people’s struggles for more decent, healthy, productive lives?

The distinction between intellectual and manual labor is nowhere clearer than here. Only by being deeply engaged in class struggle – whatever form that may take at particular moments – can we do the work of the public’s health.

“Everybody talks about the social determinants of health and nobody knows what they’re talking about.” Dick Levins knows what he’s talking about, and has been on the frontline of this struggle. For his brilliance, clarity and dedication, we salute him today.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Saturday, May 23, 2015, second a.m. panel

Javier André Sandoval Guzmán
Popular power and environmental governance: The Cuban approach to natural hazards and disaster risk reduction

Natural hazards represent a worldwide threat and their effects are particularly devastating in poor countries. These effects are not only evidenced in the short term by fatalities and material losses; they can also affect countries in the long term by hindering businesses and enterprises that may contribute to economic development. Finding solutions to cope with this problem is a matter of concern for countries in general, and particularly important to countries that show the worst results in these aspects. Cuba’s example of Community-Based Disaster Management (CBDM) is noteworthy not only for providing solutions that can be worldly applied. Its example demonstrates that successful approaches to natural hazards are not necessarily based on the income level of countries, nor to the degree of investment in disaster risk management. Cuba’s remarkable results in disaster management could be better explained by the socio-political context in which its disaster risk reduction (DRR) strategy is immersed.

Cuba’s outstanding approach to natural hazards and DRR is connected to the country’s environmental governance and the development model. Cuba’s development model is embedded in a socialist project, which has been historically contested by hegemonic paradigms. Therefore, Cuba’s socialist model is examined in relation to the concept of legitimacy. For this purpose, the concept of participatory or direct democracy is also analysed. This alternative democracy model emphasises representativeness and people’s participation in decision-making (popular power). Legitimacy is here considered essential by a perspective that goes beyond strictly political. Its importance is rather based on a general goal of the research: to discuss factors that can be applied worldwide to improve DRR strategies.

The research to be presented used a mixed-method approach (qualitative and quantitative) and was carried out in areas in Cuba that have been affected by natural hazards —according to available historical data of human and economic losses. The findings obtained in the selected areas were analysed within the socio-political context of the country. The consistency of these findings with national policies and popular practices allows to discuss particular aspects of environmental governance and legitimacy of alternative models of democracy.

Steffie Woolhandler
Health policy and political power

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Saturday, May 23, 2015, p.m. panel

Michael Weisberg
Finding the truth at the intersection of independent lies

Dick Levins taught us that scientists will inevitably produce a multiplicity of conflicting models for any given phenomenon, but that “the conflict is about method, not nature, for the individual models … should not be confused with reality itself.” In this talk, I consider the status of these multiple-models for complex systems asking what they tell us about nature. Should we conclude that nature is fundamentally disunified, or can we use a mosaic of models to find the truth at the intersection of independent lies? I argue for the latter, showing how a combination of formal measures of similarity and Levinsonian robustness analysis can be used to construct a reliable and truthful understanding of the world.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Saturday, May 23, 2015, p.m. panel

David L. Bruck
The terms used to describe our ideas impede the solutions to the crises we face

In 1965, John Platt published an article in SCIENCE on impending crises including water scarcity, famines, economic inequality (he didn’t call it that}, marine resources, racial, ethnic and religious (implied) conflict, pandemics, nuclear war, and CBW, where much of the danger comprised the possible simultaneous explosion of several crises within a short period, possibly even a day. Not included were biodiversity loss and effects of global climate change, which we think even a Cartesian like Platt would include today.

Most people, including world leaders, still do not seem to feel any real sense of urgency regarding these issues.   We would claim that our inability to resolve these difficulties are in part due to the lack of communication between experts, governments, and the general public, for various reasons. One of these, somewhat less discussed than the others, comprises unjustified assumptions fostered by the unqualified use of words and phrases typically used to describe political views often associated with environmental and related problems.   One example, is the preponderant view that stability (defined in some traditional way) is the usual state of a system, and a change of state in some characters, be they those of organisms, natural communities or societies, implies a change of state in all characters .   Another set of examples comprise the conventional ways of describing political views as “conservative” or “liberal”, implying necessary syndromes of whole congeries of traits, where in fact the implied associations frequently do not hold. Thus, many “liberals” and “progressives” support repressive systems of economics and education, while simultaneously supporting highly repressive societies in other parts of the world, where workers are barely involved in free discussion of solutions to political problems, let alone in the governing process. Thus also, many “conservatives” have not the slightest interest in conserving natural resources, nor in conserving the laws guaranteeing their own freedoms.

We will also discuss briefly the casual use of descriptions of nationality, as if national boundaries were immutable, and they implied religious, ethnic and socio-economic homogeneity, as well as the equally casual and counter-productive use of the word “identity”, as if such a concept were mono-dimensional, and not multifaceted, involving aspects of one’s culture, origin of antecedents, etc., as well described by Amartya Sen.

The Truth is the Whole, Levins Symposium
Saturday, May 23, 2015, p.m. panel

Jonathan Latham
Applying a Dick Levins concept to solving climate change

Dick Levins has argued the proposition that “if a solution doesn’t work for various groups the question has not been asked broadly enough”.

The problem with essentially all solutions to climate change is that either they are supply side (and so, since they don’t reduce demand, they will fail), or, more rarely, they require some kind of (usually inarticulated) social imposition and/or voluntary simplicity. However, I believe there is a solution to climate change that can meet all genuine needs (of planet, people and even politics) and which has none of these demerits. This solution has not yet been properly conceptualized because “the question” has not been framed widely enough.

I believe it is possible to show that approximately 95% of climate gas emissions do no useful work in terms of products generated to help people in their lives. Most is wasted in bureaucratic, circuitous, and gratuitous activities of disastrously inefficient large corporations. Thus most CO2 emissions are used in unnecessary packaging, advertising, accounting, lawyering, lobbying, PR, excessive long distance transport, and so on. These are all activities that small businesses rarely do. If true, this is a profound observation. It means there is no necessary trade-off between climate obligations and meeting genuine human needs (for warmth, furniture, travel, education, housing etc).

If it is true, one can also ask how did large corporations ever displace smaller and much more efficient businesses? The main answer is: subsidies, lobbying, and accounting tricks. Again, if true, this presents an obvious solution: to remove all subsidies (except those that promote social goods).

The benefits of this solution are many: 1) climate changes is solved (or at least reduced to a relatively minor problem); 2) it is a simple political request; 3) it requires no anti-democratic or dictatorial imposition; 4) it will have many side benefits beyond solving climate change. It will solve most inequality, create employment, reduce pollution of other kinds, and solve the power imbalances in our society (by destroying corporate control). We can also use the revenue. 5) As a consequence of these merits this approach has the potential for political and practical appeal to every sector of society (excepting the 1%).