A recurrent theme I find as I look out at the world and human affairs is that many problems are not wanting for technical or know-how fixes. Moreover, large scale change or differences over time or place often seem to turn on small differences in application or implementation. This is more than a generalized idea of tipping points. More specifically, I mean that small scale points of interaction or articulation between components of human systems can matter. This is especially true in the case of collective action problems. I like to tell my students about how idiotic it seemed that at my kids’ school, no one ever pulled all the way up into the drop off zone effectively doubling the number of sets of cars that could pull up (since they would go to half way point and stop). A crossing guard was even standing there. A year later, new guard is in place who waves people forward. Voila, problem solved. My day starts with less fuming and cursing.
A recent article in Nature addresses the need to understand human systems, the stuff of social sciences (especially everything besides neo-classical economics since we have to deal with networks and aggregations of people. Sorry about that.). Ameliorating climate change is a massive collective action problem. The article quotes a sociologist:
The answer, like the problem, has to be wide-ranging and global, says Jeffrey Broadbent of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who also studies how societies affect their environments. “Its only solution lies in a level of global cooperation that humanity has never seen before.”
This wake-up call will hopefully spur more activity around looking at how networks of interaction, influence, and collective identity formation, sucha s between cities, regions, or countries, are the substrate on whcih policy takes place. Understanding this, a crucial task, is the goal of the COMPCON project. Boradbent at UMN is one of the sociologists involved. They are currently collecting cases studeis and network data to look at what happens to fill the gap between know how and implementation for climate policy. Let’s hope the answers come soon enough to keep Champagne production in France and not closer to Wales.