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, climate change, disease outbreaks, migration & mobility, and how conflict and security are governed.

Click to expand the section below for an introduction to uncertainty.

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.

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.


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

Financial systems

A crowd of anxious traders at the New York Stock Exchange in 2008
Wall Street (thetaxhaven / Flickr cc-by 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/cE6wjA

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!

Critical infrastructures

Dam control room
Hartwell Dam (Flickr) - https://flic.kr/p/c8rntd

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?

Climate change

Satellite image of a hurricane
Hurricane Harvey by NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre (Flickr cc by 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/WNPa8k

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.

Climate insurance has become a popular intervention (crops, livestock or homes), but insurance instruments reduce the challenge to risk assessment, rather than embracing uncertainty. Index-based systems allow payments to be made after droughts are experienced, but act to financialise relief and support in agrarian settings, creating new vulnerabilities.

While climate models have improved in predictive power, their ‘downscaling’ to particular sites is challenging given the uncertainties involved. Huge investments in drought early warning systems have occurred, but very often messages are ignored and responses are late, undermining trust in their efficacy. Vulnerable people perceive the climate in complex ways, intertwined with other aspects of their lives and livelihoods. This makes it difficult to apply standard, technical responses and early warning systems based on risk models.

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?

Disease outbreaks

Congregants with blue surgical masks praying in a cathedral
Praying for health / Eneas de Troya (Flickr cc-by 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/6iskn5

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?

Migration and mobility

Migration and mobility have always been part of human existence. Most national borders are the product of political upheavals, colonial impositions and wars; geographical features play a role, and deserts and mountains, typical pastoral territories, are often crossed by frontiers.

Mobility has shaped human history, spurring exchanges and economic development. Processes of economic and cultural globalisation encourage this further. Even though the search for greener pastures is considered an engine of societal development, boundaries and mobility control are imposed. Too often, in fact, migration is seen as a bad thing – especially on the receiving side.

Today most national as well as regional economies are reliant on migrant labour, and on people mobility of people – legal and illegal. Take the European countryside: as local people are increasingly abandoning marginal rural areas, migrants from elsewhere in the Mediterranean have taken on the vital roles of herders, shepherds and foresters, bringing new skills and expertise and sustaining the economy, managing natural resources and preserving local traditions.

Pastoralists across the world have long relied on mobility – including transhumance and nomadism – to respond to the uncertainties of rainfall and rangeland production often across borders, connecting kin and others along market chains. Mobility is essential to the pastoral economies – for the search of pastures, the exchange of products, or the escape from animal diseases or to the challenges of conflict or war. Diaspora connections are vital too in pastoral economies, as traders spread to different locations in response to opportunities.

Can we learn from pastoralists whose livelihoods have long relied on mobility as a way to respond to economic and resource uncertainties to rethink our policy perspectives on mobility and migration?

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.