Introduction: Pastoralism and Global Uncertainties – PASTRES

In the PASTRES project, we are exploring what we can learn from how pastoralists respond to different kinds of uncertainty – from climate change to markets to changing land regimes. We think that there are potential lessons for many kinds of systems, actors and institutions.

This page introduces some ideas about uncertainty, and suggests how pastoralists could help us understand uncertainties in different domains: financial systems, critical infrastructures, the climate, disease outbreaks, migration, and how conflict and security are governed.

Browse the sections below to find out more about uncertainties in each domain.

1. What is uncertainty?

Uncertainties are everywhere and dominate our everyday life. They emerge as both idiosyncratic shocks, but also systemic stresses – and very often a combination of the two. Yet too often we do not embrace them; instead we assume we know the array of possible outcomes and their likelihoods, and so close down to a focus on risk.

This is the argument of Andy Stirling, who identifies three other dimensions of incertitude:

  • uncertainty, where possible outcomes are known, but not their likelihoods;
  • ambiguities where outcome possibilities are disputed, even if the likelihoods of each are known;
  • and ignorance, where we simply don’t know what we don’t know.

The simple diagram below shows how these different aspects of incertitude relate to our knowledge about what may happen and how likely it may be.

Uncertainty diagram

In many settings, closing down to risk is misleading and sometimes dangerous. Navigating the diverse forms of incertitude is essential.

But there are professional, methodological, institutional and political processes that run against this. The appraisal methods we use, the models we deploy, the policy measures we apply or the institutions we operate in may end up hiding from view the dynamics of uncertainty.

By learning lessons from pastoral societies who live with and indeed from uncertainty, we hope to uncover some of the principles and practices that can help us navigate incertitude in all its dimensions. Through developing a conversation with other domains where uncertainties are central, we can begin to open up a debate about how to embrace uncertainty in policy and practice to address global uncertainties.

2. Financial systems

A crowd of anxious traders at the New York Stock Exchange in 2008
Wall Street (thetaxhaven / Flickr cc-by 2.0)

In his 2009 paper, Rethinking the Financial Network, Andy Haldane, the then Executive Director for Financial Stability of the Bank of England, argued:

“Securitisation increased the dimensionality, and thus complexity, of the financial network. Nodes grew in size and interconnections between them multiplied. The financial cat’s-cradle became dense and opaque. As a result, the precise source and location of underlying claims became anyone’s guess. Follow-the-leader became blind-man’s buff. In short, diversification strategies by individual firms generated heightened uncertainty across the system as a whole”. 

The result, argues Haldane, was the global financial crash. With others, he makes the case that we need to rethink regulatory systems and the assumption that individualised firm diversification will increase network stability. Instead, we need to understand networks better, increasing transparency and collective accountability, and focus on people – and their cultures and practices – not just the technical elements.

PASTRES argues that pastoral systems can tell us a lot about market and commodity networks, and how they manage uncertainties in relation to network structure, regulation, practices and cultures. Although bankers and commodity floor traders don’t look much like pastoralists, they might just learn a thing or two!

3. Critical infrastructures

Nuclear reactor control room panel with dials and controls
Reactor B Control Room (sharkhats / Flickr cc-by-nc 2.0)

What do the control rooms of electricity supply systems, nuclear power plants or air traffic control have to do with pastoralism? Emery Roe argues that all are trying to deliver products and services reliably, and that system design and management is geared to this aim. Surprisingly perhaps, there are many parallels.

Despite an outward appearance of precise engineering design, hierarchical management and top-down control, in practice reliability in critical infrastructures emerges through the practices of ‘reliability professionals’. They are frequently unrecognised and underappreciated, yet offer a crucial role of tracking between on-the-ground realities and wider system changes, and can spot problems early and respond to them. Experimentation, innovation and adaptive response are essential, a theme highlighted in the literature on 'experimental governance'.

Who then are the 'reliability managers' in pastoral systems, how do they operate, and under what constraints? What lessons can we learn from their practices and experiences?

4. Climate change

Satellite image of a hurricane
Hurricane Harvey by NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre (Flickr cc by 2.0)

Major climate events appear on the news almost daily. Droughts, floods and hurricanes devastate livelihoods, often of the most vulnerable. Climate science points to the heightened climate variability and the increased frequency of such extreme events.

The connections between long-term, anthropogenic climate change and particular events are complex. It is difficult to predict what will happen when, even with more and more sophisticated climate models. The consequence is that people living with climate change, especially in the most vulnerable areas, must cope, adapt and respond to these uncertainties.

Perceptions of climate uncertainties among vulnerable populations are complex, intertwined with other livelihood priorities. This makes standard responses often miss their mark.

Climate insurance for livelihood assets (crops, livestock, homes) has become a popular intervention. It assumes xxxxx, but xxxx (Ryan Isakson xxxx).

Pastoral areas are characterised by non-equilibrium ecologies. Droughts or major snow falls mean that standard approaches to range and livestock management do not work. Opportunism, adaptation, mobility are essential. What can we learn from pastoral areas, where living with uncertain climates has forever been central, for wider climate policy interventions?

5. Responding to disease outbreaks

Congregants with blue surgical masks praying in a cathedral
Praying for health / Eneas de Troya (Flickr cc-by 2.0)

Avian influenza, SARS, Ebola, Zika all have hit the headlines in recent years. Disease outbreaks seem to be more and more common. As people mix with domestic animals and wildlife, as environments and land use change, as migration and movement between areas is more common, and as densely-populated urban conurbations expand, the risks of disease outbreaks increase.

How to respond to the emergence and spread of infectious diseases, especially those of zoonotic origin, is a hot issue in global health policy. The focus is on developing early warning and rapid response systems that can contain outbreaks at their source; predictive models aim to estimate the potential spread and impact of a disease outbreak; and investment in vaccine and drug development is accelerated.

Yet despite all this, still disease outbreaks take us by surprise. No-one knows where the next ‘big one’ will come from and when. Uncertainty prevails.

A big lesson from the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa was that embracing uncertainty, and engaging at the local level is essential. The early models predicted many more deaths than in the end occurred. Why? Because local responses – rooted in local practices and cultures – helped prevent the spread. An integrated ‘One Health’ approach is therefore a way forward, looking together at ecosystem, animal and human health, and taking local cultures and contexts seriously.

In pastoral settings, such integration is essential, and part of how pastoralists manage uncertainty. Sectors and disciplines are irrelevant, and where there is no data, predictive models are impossible. Instead, uncertainties must be responded to through local cultural logics and practices. Do these provide a basis for response, and how can they intersect with more formal assessments?

6. Migration policy

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7. Conflict and security governance

Conflicts in pastoral areas are intensifying. This has been exacerbated by the extension of investments into remote, sparsely populated regions traditionally occupied by pastoralists. Seen as ‘idle’ or ‘underutilised’ land, ‘grabs’ of resources occur, enclosing formerly common property resources. This may result from investments in irrigated agriculture, wildlife conservation and tourism, renewable energy, such as wind or solar farms, or oil, gas and mineral exploitation.

Pastoralists have been incorporated into nation states not on their terms. States have borders that do not respect migration and trade routes, and pastoral peoples very often straddle national territories. As states assert control, focus investment and extract taxes, such pastoral margins become increasingly contested, resulting in the eruption of conflicts. High levels of insecurity are made worse by the extent of arms available in some pastoral areas, the consequence of past armed conflicts in these regions. With pastoralists very often having a different ethnic-religious identity to the settled populations very often in power, identity-based conflicts may emerge, sometimes accentuated by secessionist movements, criminal gangs, militias and networks linked to wider conflicts, such as groups linked to Al Shabaab in the Horn of Africa.

Approaches to peace, security and governance in pastoral areas need to respond to such complex and uncertain settings. Standard approaches do not work, and can make matters worse. Hardening borders, formalising tenure arrangements, creating exclusions, and securitising such regions can exacerbate conflict. Instead, approaches that tap into longstanding approaches to conflict management may have better results, based on cultural norms and local negotiation. Such ‘vernacular’ approaches to peace building and security may provide important insights to living with uncertainty of wider relevance in a world where conflicts – and the material, social, psychological uncertainties they create – seem ever-present.