Rigidity and Poverty Traps

by Howard Silverman

Sometimes we cling to habits or practices that no longer serve our needs. Or we let go, only to find that for a time no new direction takes hold.

The same patterns can play out in an organization or society. Hierarchical or bureaucratic structures can stifle adaptation. And when groups lack connectivity or leadership or financial resources, new ideas can have difficulty emerging or gaining impetus.

The Resilience Alliance folks refer to these two situations as rigidity and poverty traps. In this usage, the word trap means a persistent maladaptive state.

The conditions that lead to rigidity or poverty arise in opposite phases of the adaptive cycle. Rigidity can set in when connectivity and potential have increased, while adaptive capacity has atrophied. At the other end of the cycle, when connectivity or potential are low, poverty can result. These characteristics are described in the paper, “Adaptive Capacity and Traps,” by Steve Carpenter and William Brock.

Rigidity is not always a bad thing. In “The Evolutionary Basis of Rigidity,” Marten Scheffer and Frances Westley point to evidence of rigidity as an evolutionarily advantageous behavior. Cells, individuals and groups fix on patterns or states as a means to filter distractions and enable rapid responses. Consider the benefits of rapid response thinking over rational deliberation characterized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink. On the other hand, recall the role that rigidity plays in the fall of complex societies, as characterized by Jared Diamond in Collapse.

Energy Regime Traps
Can a system exhibit both states – rigidity and poverty – at the same time?

Take the fossil fuel regime that has driven the growth of industrial society and is the primary source of human contributions to climate change. Carpenter and Brock discuss the role of poverty traps in impeding efforts to address the situation.

In social-ecological systems, Fig. 5 [the poverty trap] resembles a situation with great turbulence of ideas, but no focus or leadership to channel the ideas toward a solution of an overarching problem. The current situation with climate change is an example. A great diversity of existing technologies could be combined to meet energy needs while decreasing use of fossil fuels. ... Through the 1990s and early 2000s, climate policy seemed to be in a poverty trap, with many ideas but no agreement on the path forward. At the time of writing [2008], it seems possible that this trap could be breaking down, as governments, corporations, and individuals become more willing to invest in actions to address climate change.

Lack of leadership; lack of investment; lack of focus, despite existing creative potential: These are characteristics of the poverty traps that have slowed the growth of renewable energy regimes.

What are the rigidities on the other end of the cycle – the factors that lock societies into fossil fuel regimes? Scheffer and Westley emphasize sunk costs, such as investments in physical infrastructure. There are also sunk costs in terms of social and cognitive attachments to ways of thinking and living that cheap and abundant fossil fuels have made possible. And there are biological factors that predispose patterns of cognition or behavior that may be maladaptive to contemporary challenges.

What others would you add?

“The stone age didn't end when we ran out of stones,” asserts an often-heard aphorism. And indeed, a transition out of the fossil fuel age need not wait for the last load of gas, oil or coal to be unearthed. But for this transition to build momentum, societies will have to navigate the rigidity and poverty traps.

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  • Productive poverty traps

    Rather than steer clear of rigidity and poverty traps, it may prove to be wiser to let them take their course. Their fates often appear intertwined and new over-arching solutions emerge from their destructive interaction effects.

    Rigidity traps can play out as excessive growth, rampant expansion, plagues of destruction or rapid collapse of habitats. Their rigidity trap's concentrated focus, single minded determination and unyielding progress creates an unstable kind of progress. The success of the growth goes beyond the upper equilibrium state of the host and sacrifices continuity of the existing system. What follows is institutional failure, economic collapse, failed states, population loss, crop loss or local extinctions of species.

    When the rigidity has gone so far as to bring about its own downfall, the productive role of the poverty trap comes into play. The scattered innovations and lack of collaborative developments delays renewal of the landscape until after the full collapse. Rather the poverty trap functions in the short term as scavengers, recyclers, composters and small scale predators. There is a leveling of the remains of the collapsed superstructure. This pattern is evident when a forest collapses and the microorganisms in the soil thrive on the fallen timber and undergrowth now exposed to lethal sunlight. Productive poverty traps are also evident in the resourcefulness of citizens in a failed state or economic depression. They solve their immediate problems to revive local food production, pedestrian lifestyles, and living by simple means. In both cases, fertile conditions are created for new coops, mutualisms, and collective solutions.

    After the scavenging of the obsolete growth, the new upstarts are small scale, distributed, resourceful, creative and resilient. The fallen forest get replaced by a meadow of staggering diversity. The industrialized economy is followed by labor intensive villages, farming, craftspeople, and service enterprises. The vitality inherent in the soil or citizenry rebounds quickly. Both traps naturally evolve into vibrant communities and higher level structures. The unstable state of over concentration, over consumption, over depletion and over expansion is avoided for a long while.

  • RE: Productive poverty traps

    Thank you for these thoughts, Tom.

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