Centre for Complex Systems in Transition – two years on

Yesterday the core CST research team met to reflect on how far we have come since our first strategic retreat in about March 2015 which took place in Stanford. We met for most of the day and one of the issues discussed was progress towards achieving one of our goals, namely the founding of a ‘Stellenbosch School of Thought’. Two major papers have recently been completed by core staff, one on Complex Adaptive Systems by Rika Pelzer, Oonsid Biggs and two colleauges from the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), and the other on transdisciplinary case study research by John van Breda and myself. These papers bring together a decade of thinking within their respective fields. They provide the foundation stones for what we are calling the ‘Stellenbosch School of Thought’ – the first being our conceptual framework, and the second our methodological framework. These two, plus a set of thematic areas (cities, food, socialecological systems, governance, cell systems, entrepreneurship, complexity and systems dynamics) constitute the building blocks of a ‘Stellenbosch School of Thought’. It was incredibly inspiring to work through all these conceptual, methodological and thematic  issues, and to see how much progress we have made. I am also amazed by our impact locally, nationally and globally. We decided to try write a journal article with contributions from everyone followed possibly by an edited collection.

Mncebisi Jonas, Desta Mebratu and me at the Conference on Towards a Human-Centred Sustainable Economic and Social Systems for the 21st Century


As I said last Thursday during a session where we three were the speakers, it was a privilege to speak with two of my mentors – Desta Mebratu, from Ethiopia, who wrote a paper in 1998 on Sustainable Development that has been compulsory reading for all my students for the introductory module of the Masters in Sustainable Development for the past 16 years! And Mncebisi Jonas has since the 1980s been the model of what true South African political activism and leadership is all about – and as I told the conference, this was the man who, when he was Deputy Minister of Finance, refused a bribe of $60 million to sell the National Treasury to the corrupt power elite that has captured South Africa’s state institutions. He lost his job in April 2017.

Towards a human-centred sustainable economic and social system for the 21st Century

From 10-12 May (next week), my research centre is hosting the 14th international colloquium of a network of progressive economists who have been collaborating for some years to develop a new economic theory appropriate for the world we currently live in. The colloquium is co-convened by the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition, University of  Brasilia and World Academy of Art and Science. Click on the link below to access the programme for the colloquium. If you want to attend, please contact Vanessa on


Human potential, reconnecting to nature and the feminine


In writing a paper with a colleague who has strong views on economic and social issues but not about ecology and patriarchy, I wrote this message to him:  “This is an old debate between us, and I am happy for it to continue. But in my view the idea of human potential and social power that really energises your imaginary is only possible when humans reconnect to all life. We agree on one thing strongly: the crisis is a crisis of perception which, in turn, is rooted in human consciousness. We agree that human potential is an untapped resource that could transform the world. However, in my view there are two preconditions for this to happen: we as humans need to reconnect to nature, and we have to free ourselves from patriarchy. Both go back to the witchburnings which was the final assault by the church on a very very long history of balance between the feminine and masculine principle, with women celebrated as the origin of fertility across many cultures. The witchburnings broke the power of women in society, and established the male principle of control over the feminine principle of care. This, in turn, made it possible to define bodies and nature as objects to be controlled by men endorsed by the church. Without this, the industrial revolution would not have been possible, albeit some time later. The industrial revolution was premised on the violent disconnect from nature – the enclosure movements, colonialism as outright robbery of the land from the local people, destruction of 50% of the forests that existed at the start of the agricultural revolution, pollution of the atmosphere to the point that it is causing destructive warming. Hillman correctly argues that until we learn to see nature as beautiful, we will never fall in love with it enough to protect it. We see it as an object, much like women’s bodies are still depicted as objects. Deep ecology is about re-establishing a spiritual connection to nature as a means of liberating our true human potential. Your emphasis on human potential and social power is spot on, but without reconnecting to all life forms – both human and non-human – that potential cannot be fully unleashed. We cannot realise our potential if all around us there is genocidal destruction of non-human life on a scale not seen for hundreds of millennia. Scientists talk about the 6th great extinction, which could very well include us within the next 5 decades if this continues. This affects us deeply at a pychic level, and systematically subverts and destroys our humanity. We recover our humanity when we reconnect to nature and transcend patriarchy: both are about re-enchanting the world of inter-subjectivity where nothing is an object (not nature, not women’s bodies, not the bodies of labour) and everything is a subject. That is where the bulk of natural science has ended up, and it is where social science needs to end up. But alas, I still have not effectively articulated what I want to say about the relationship between reconnecting to nature and the realisation of human potential. I think, to put it bluntly, what kills human potential is the way knowledge legitimises turning certain humans and nature into objects which, in turn, is necessary to justify control of them. I live in a racist society – black bodies are assumed to be objects, and therefore many assume (and not just white people) that black people are not really people. This is patently wrong and objectionable. But the same applies to women’s bodies – not objects of labour like black bodies, but sexual objects. And so women, like black people, feel dehumanised in our society. Same with nature: we have a body of so-called scientific knowledge that defined nature as objects to be studied – as Francis Bacon described scientific experimentation it was, in his words, about ‘torturing her secrets out of her’ – he was a supporter of witch burning, and regarded nature as a women, and scientific experimentation as akin to torture, which he regarded as a good thing. Herein lies the origin of seeing nature as object, so it can be controlled and exploited, not appreciated and loved as something beautiful. Human potential is profoundly about recognising that I cannot be controlled and conditioned because I am not an object. I am a subject, and therefore author of my destiny. But this applies to me, to women, to black people, and to nature – all life! I can only celebrate and realise my own human potential and realize all my subjective powers if I accept I am part of a much wider web of life where NOTHING is an object – the web of life is a community of interconnected subjects whose existence is profoundly relational. That feels a bit better – I think I have said what I wanted to say.

Linking Fanon and Sustainability?

Given the rising influence of Fanon amongst the increasingly radicalised youth of South Africa on and off the campuses, it came as no surprise to me that a student has asked to write his essay for the introductory Sustainable Development module on the link between sustainability and Fanon. I welcomed this, recalling the many hours spent in my 20s reading Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, and how influential it was on my own thinking. This is how I responded: “How you find a link to Fanon is going to be interesting and challenging. In my view this link is a conception of humanism (I had given him a few weeks earlier an article on Fanon’s humanism from THES). In other words, the question at the centre of humanism is ‘what does it mean to be human?’ For Fanon, as per that article, but clearly also in WoTE, being human for the colonized is not straight forward because it means being liberated from the definition of what it means to be human imposed by the colonizer. What follows, therefore, is a dialectic of oppression and liberation that can, ultimately, lead to a new conception of what it means to be a free human that is not defined by the colonizer. That, however, is not simply a matter of identity politics – it is also a matter of economic transformation (for Fanon). If a ‘national bourgeoisie’ takes over that simply apes the behaviour of the colonizer, nothing really significant has been achieved no matter what psychological processes of liberation may have taken place. In other words, Fanon cannot be reduced to identity politics – becoming a free human is fundamentally about a structural process, i.e. economic transformation.

Rosie Braidotti, an Italian feminist/post-feminist writer, wrote a book called Post-Human which I can send you if you are interested. Her question is the same: what does it mean to be human in today’s world? She argues that Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man became THE DEFINITION of what it means to be human, that got universalised (via colonization). The Vitruvian man is white, male, alone and disconnected from nature, and perfectly proportioned. By becoming Universalised, the validity of the hegemony of Vitruvian Man was only possible by ‘othering’ all other significant relations – women were othered by sexualisation, people who were not white were othered by racialisation, and nature was othered via naturalisation. However, from the 1960s onwards paradigms emerged that challenged each of these ‘otherings’: feminism critiqued sexualisation, political ecology critiqued naturalisation, and post-colonial studies (founded by Fanon, arguably) critiqued racialisation. All three have disintegrated. This has implications for what it means to be human today. Her argument is that the essence of what it means to be human today is about a relational existence, where no gendered is ‘othered’, it is transcended; no race is ‘othered’, it is transcended; and nature is not ‘othered’, it is transcended. The result: the relational self, intimately connected to masculinity and femininity, to diversity of racial identities, and to nature in its diversity. In other words, like Fanon, Braidotti is not just about identity – becoming a free relational self (post-humanism) is dependent on a set of structural conditions that imply the collapse of capitalism, patriarchy, racism and exploitation of nature as we know it.

So what then is the link between Braidotti and Fanon? Both want to define what it means to be human for purposes of liberation. In this sense, Fanon was interested in a relational self, like Braidotti. But Fanon was writing when nature was not an issue. But one could argue that by linking identity and structure (by insisting on economic transformation), he has opened the door for taking into account any condition that has a bearing on what it means to be human. This, in turn, opens the door for a Fanonesque conception of sustainability, i.e. as a way of understanding what it means to be human not just in relation to the colonizer (a la post-colonial studies) and economic transformation (Marxist analysis), but also nature (a la political ecology), and, for that matter, gender (a la feminist studies). In other words, we use Fanon’s humanism as the point of departure and then run it to its logical conclusion in light of knew knowledge since he wrote, i.e. nature and gender matters. I think this would be a perfectly logical way to proceed.”

Fragile states and sustainability

Got an email today from my Head of Department suggesting a conference on fragile states. This was my response: “Hi, I quite like this, but I would like to include reference to the fact that the spread of fragile states is being driven by limits to our current use of strategic resources, with water, food and oil at the nexus of this crisis. Oil for example, is in trouble: to cover the costs of accessing ‘non-cheap oil’ (which is all we have left), the price must be higher – but a higher price undermines growth which reduces demand. And so the cycle goes – the Secretary of State (whose real job is CEO of ExxonMobil) is to resolve this, which is only possible with more wars to force price reductions by backrupting more countries. The issue, therefore, is not peak production, but peak demand. The result is price volatility and a growth malaise that Trump will fail to resolve. The alternative lies in the rise of renewables, now cheaper than fossil fuels in 60 countries (including SA). But for this transition to have its full effect, we may need to transcend the current model of short-termist, financialised capitalism that needs growth to avoid debt from destroying the global economy. But rising debt is what compensates for declining EROI (Energy Return on Energy Invested – from 100:1 in the 1930s to 10:1 today). Debt-based capitalism is a ticking time bomb, and the root cause of failing states. The US state as a failed state is a case in point.” (For a good reference on all this see Nafeez Ahmed’s book on Failing States)

Gathering of the clans at Centre for Complex Systems in Transition


Last Friday we brought together all the academic staff and postgraduate researchers who are affiliated to the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition in one way or another. My Co-Director, Prof Jannie Hofmeyr (systems biologist and complexity thinker), gave a history of our institutional evolution, and I introduced our intellectual project. Jannie and I see the CST as the home of the ‘Stellenbosch School of Thought’ because CST is quite unique in bringing together complexity thinking, sustainability science and transdisciplinary research. All the staff and postgraduate researchers then briefly introduced themselves and their research topics. It was a truly inspiring occasion – as the saying goes ‘build it and they will come’. Doing this kind of advanced research on African soil is a great privilege indeed. No-one can predict the synchronicities that will emerge from the connections that will be made between people with such diverse disciplinary backgrounds rooted as we all are in the challenges of the African context. But one thing is for sure, five years from now we will have made a significant impact!

The Class of 2017 completes their first module

Eve Annecke and I have just completed teaching the Sustainable Development module of our Masters Programme in Sustainable Development for the 15th time! – yes, we cannot believe it, this is the 15th year that our masters programme has been delivered. And this year the class was the largest ever, at 53 students (selected from nearly 150 applicants who qualified for entry). Of the 53, only 13 are men (mainly because of the low number of men who applied) and nearly 60% are black. More significantly, 33% of the group were non-South African – the highest ever. Of the 17 non-South Africans, 14 are from various African countries, including Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Ivory Coast and Namiba. The other non-South Africans are from The Netherlands, Spain and Australia. Most are from the private sector – 24 out of 53, followed by 11 from the public sector, and 5 from the NPO sector. Ten are full-time students, and the other 3 are a mix of consultants/unemployed. It was a high energy module, covering a lot of ground including ‘long histories’ from 13 billion years ago, to inner histories of what it means to be human in today’s transforming world. The strong non-SA African presence influenced the direction of the discussions, including questions about the implications of the Bannonist coup in the US for the future of Africa, and in particular what it means to be African in a world where racism is on the rise, humanism may be dying and environmentalism is on the defensive. We read Achille Mbembe and Ben Okri to help generate some answers to this question.

Thanks to all the wonderful people at the SI who supported us, and to the families who have supported the students as they commence a journey that is bound to transform them.

(The pics below from the top left: walking upstairs for class after the gong, sticking up pics of their respective ‘homes’, group work, class discussion, working in the gardens, Eve facilitating discussion, and end of course party in the hall.)

UpTheStairs HomePics GroupWork GroupDisInClass Gardening EveTeachingjpgFriParty