These Little Avalanches

Visitor running down a dune in Great Sand Dunes National Park.
“If you frequently trigger small cascades, you never get really massive events, but you [sacrifice] all that short-term profit,” D’Souza explained. “If you prevent cascades at all costs, you might make a lot of profit, but eventually a cascade is going to happen, and it will be so massive it [could] wipe out your entire profit.”

—Jennifer Ouellette, “The New Laws of Explosive Networks” on Quanta Magazine

This quote, referring to a concept termed “explosive percolation,” runs parallel to best practice in fire prevention.

After decades of overzealous fire prevention (think: Smokey the Bear), we’ve ended up with a situation wherein apocalyptic wildfires have become a norm. Fire prevention, experts have come to recognize, now requires smaller burns—or, in the absence of controlled burns due to the risk involved, actively thinning underbrush and trees through human labor.

The concept of “explosive percolation” also relates to a concept we’ve explored here before, termed a “self-organized criticality,” in which complex systems maintain stability via “small avalanches” that spontaneously transition between states of chaos and order.

In schools, this confirms the notion that to maintain stability and order within a school community (or classroom) requires “frequently triggering small cascades” of new learning and activities interspersed within stable norms, rituals, and traditions that any school or teacher maintains.

In schools where order is so strictly maintained as to suffer from a “blind application of rules,”  greater disorder may await further down the line. As always, a healthy balance necessitates diversity.

Strong Social Networks Create Resiliency

DarwinPeacock, Maklaan [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
“It’s not just that money can buy more sea walls, drought-tolerant agriculture equipment, private water supplies, and other material aids to adaptation. It’s that money also tends to come along with social capital, and one of the most important findings in research on resilience is that social cohesion is just as important as technology. It is the places with strong social networks that tend to have plans, civic institutions, early warning systems, and systems of aid and support that help communities through crisis.

It is socially cohesive communities, in which people are “in it together,” that survive disaster and rebuild afterward. Places without those social networks fragment; their suffering becomes a self-reinforcing cycle.

Unfortunately, economic inequality also tends to reduce social cohesion, leading to lack of trust and fewer shared resources. So if the people who support adaptation were being honest, they would acknowledge that perhaps the first and most effective form of adaptation is to reduce economic inequality, to create more cohesive communities defined by fellow-feeling rather than mutual suspicion and resentment. That’s true on the local level and also on the national and international level, as resource transfers between and within countries will need to rise markedly to prepare the most vulnerable places for what’s to come.”

—David Roberts, “Hurricane Katrina showed what “adapting to climate change” looks like” on Vox

Endangered Species Watch: Louisiana’s Public Schools Going Extinct

It’s hard to believe that it’s been seven years since Hurricane Katrina laid waste to Louisiana and the Gulf Coast. At the time, the devastation was so overwhelming that it was impossible to zero in on any one aspect of the destruction and hold it in focus. Certainly, I gave little thought to the effect Katrina would have on Louisiana’s public schools. Not for a moment could I imagine that by 2010, a mere five years later, a Democrat-appointed Secretary of Education could call Katrina “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.”

That Arne Duncan quote is old news now. But the wholesale destruction of public resources in Louisiana remains very much on the agenda. On June 1, The New York Times reported that the state is bidding to privatize its public schools and “preparing to shift tens of millions in tax dollars out of the public schools to pay private industry, businesses owners and church pastors to educate children.” Public funding, The Times reported, will be offered to some schools that teach “bible-based math” and others that refuse to teach evolutionary theory because “all those things…might confuse our children.”

What does any of this have to do with ecosystems? Only two years after a disastrous, British Petroleum-funded oil spill ravaged the physical and economic well-being of the Gulf Coast’s poor and working-class, it’s hard to take seriously the idea that private companies are better suited than public schools to care for children. More than that though, many of the religious institutions that would receive government funding under the Louisiana plan have declared war on science itself— a frightening prospect for anyone interested in sustainable environmental policies. The Times described conditions and curricula at various schools eligible for funding under the privatization plan:

“The Upperroom Bible Church Academy in New Orleans, a bunker-like building with no windows or playground, also has plenty of slots open. It seeks to bring in 214 voucher students, worth up to $1.8 million in state funding.

At Eternity Christian Academy in Westlake…first- through eighth-grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through Christian workbooks, such as a beginning science text that explains ‘what God made’ on each of the six days of creation. They are not exposed to the theory of evolution… 

Other schools approved for state-funded vouchers use social studies texts warning that liberals threaten global prosperity; Bible-based math books that don’t cover modern concepts such as set theory; and biology texts built around refuting evolution.”

As I read these descriptions, I was struck by how miserable these school environments sounded: students sitting at cubicles or in “bunker-like” buildings without windows. For all of their rhetoric about standards and innovation, is this the future that corporate-minded education reformers envision for public schools? (If the connection with corporate-style reform seems like a stretch, keep in mind that Michelle Rhee and her StudentsFirst organization have been working with Republican governors around the country to promote school voucher and privatization plans.)

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit, Adolph Reed wrote a brilliant piece in The Nation that described the roots of the Katrina disaster. Reed wrote:

“We have to be clear that what happened in New Orleans is an extreme and criminally tragic coming home to roost of the con that cutting public spending makes for a better society. It is a shocking foretaste of a future that many more of us will experience less dramatically, often quietly as individuals, as we lose pensions, union protection, access to healthcare and public education…and as we are called upon to feed an endless war machine. ”

Seven years later, as Louisiana’s government sends the state’s poorest children to study bible-based math in windowless barracks, Reed’s words seem prophetic.