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Dancing on the volcano: social exploration in times of discontent

Stephen R. Carpenter, Center for Limnology, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, USA
Carl Folke, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, Sweden; Beijer Institute, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sweden
Marten Scheffer, Department of Environmental Sciences, Wageningen University & Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands
Frances R Westley, Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience and School for Environment, Enterprise and Development, University of Waterloo, Kitchener, ON, Canada


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Radical recent developments such as Brexit, the rise of extreme nationalism, the gilets jaunes, polarizing leaders, the Arab Spring, and fundamentalist movements are indications of societal discontent with the status quo. Other societal phenomena such as gender fluidity, veganism, and bartering are also associated with a perceived need to change. The context is the Anthropocene, a human-dominated biosphere challenging the resilience of a livable planet. Such a broad set of developments may be interpreted in the light of new insights from theory of complex systems about what happens as resilience of the current pathway (societal organization as we know it) decreases. Rising fluctuations characterize a phase of uncertainty and exploration, potentially leading into a transition of the system toward a new pathway. We reflect on global changes that may contribute to social destabilization such as rising wealth concentration and environmental degradation and ask how responses may be understood from social-psychological forces such as the need for group identity and managing the terror of mortality. 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.

Key words

Anthropocene; complex systems; pathways; resilience; terror management theory, transformation

Copyright © 2019 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087