7 item(s) found.

Editorial: The 'Governing in the Nexus' issue

Editorial: The 'Governing in the Nexus' issue

Zora Kovacic

Over the last 4 years, the MAGIC team has engaged with policy-makers in the European Commission, European Parliament, national and local governments, establishing a dialogue about the challenges that the nexus poses to governance. Some recurrent questions are: How can we make sure that improvements in one area (say, support for agricultural production) do not negatively affect other areas (for example, water supply and water quality)? How can policy-makers identify the synergies and handle the trade-offs created by the nexus?

We have come to learn that the governance of the nexus is not just a matter of identifying and managing trade-offs, but often requires a balancing act between different policy goals. For this reason, in the project we now speak of governance IN the nexus. The interconnected nature of water, energy, food, climate and biodiversity policies creates challenges of governance that include, but go beyond, the negotiation of multiple interests that any policy faces. In this issue, we suggest that the nexus creates a new situation in which governance has to let go of the paradigm of control – and act in an adaptive way in a changing world.

In order to grapple with the complexities of governing in the nexus, some articles of the present issue refer to works of literature, seeking for alternative guiding principles to the “prediction and control” paradigm. Other contributions assess some of the tools of governance, such as pricing externalities and the use of indicators. Collectively, the articles point at the importance of critically assessing the narratives that support decision-making.


By referring to the novel Ishmael by Quinn, Renner and Di Felice reflect on the role of narratives in sustainability policy and suggest that paradoxes may be a helpful tool in breaking unconscious thought patterns, which they refer to as “epistemic boundaries”. Some paradoxes already exist in EU policy: the notion that economic growth can be decoupled from resource use – or abuse, as the authors suggest – is highly contested by biophysical economists, and supported by neoclassical economists. They conclude that adopting the complexity paradigm requires accepting value pluralism and engaging with creative dialectics – just like conversations with the gorillas do in Quinn’s novel.

Manrique, Cabello and Pereira critically reflect on the Illusion of Control theory, by psychologist Langer. They argue that the reliance on technology gives such illusion, sometimes by turning a blind eye on the unsustainability of the current economic model. The authors analyze the issue of water scarcity in the Canary Islands, which is “solved” by producing alternative water resources, through the use of technologies such as desalination and reclaimed wastewater. While the technologies may help overcome scarcity, the techno-fix overlooks underlying sustainability issues, such as: population growth, strong competition among economic sectors (industrial, tourism and agriculture), and the gradual decrease of the average annual rainfall, anticipating the effects of climate change. The article argues that alternative water resources create overconfidence in technological solutions and create the illusion that the status quo can be sustained.

Jones and Sindt take a closer look at how the nexus is governed in the reductionist paradigm, and explain that the market is used as the main mechanism to internalize externalities. This mode of governance relies heavily on scientific advice. Targets and benchmarks for climate change mitigation, for example, are established through scientific models, and are defined outside of the political system. Scientists, however, are not accountable to the public in the same way as politicians are. As a result, the authors argue that the nexus poses a problem of accountability – not of complexity. This is why it is so important to critically assess the narratives that guide decision-making. By examining narratives, it is possible to identify the assumptions on what should be valued, thus improving the accountability of scientific advice to policy.

Völker and colleagues take a closer look at the use of indicators in the governance of the nexus. Based on interviews with policy-makers from the European Commission, this study shows that indicators are seen as a way to make the nexus visible by relying on scientific evidence – but at the same time, the creation of indicators leads to a managerial approach to the governance of the nexus, which is reduced to governing metrics: setting targets, monitoring statistical data, and so on. The article is an extract of a recent publication of the MAGIC project, which can be found in open access at this link.


In line with the spirit of this issue, the coordinator of the MAGIC project, Mario Giampietro, wrote an opinion piece on the current coronavirus crisis. The coronavirus is, unfortunately, a clear example of both the limits of the paradigm of control, and of the difficult balancing act required of policy-makers when faced with trade-offs: how should a country balance public health emergencies and the menace of an economic recession? Giampietro takes us through some reflections about the fragility of our identity, the risk of societal collapse and the need to rethink the role of science in governance.

How do we tackle nexus governance?

How do we tackle nexus governance?

The Magic Nexus team

The nexus between water-energy-food can be defined in many ways, as a matter of interconnections, trade-offs and linkages. But perhaps one of the most important ways it should be conceived is as a governance issue. The institutions, coordination and rules concerning sustainability problems across the nexus are crucial to its effective governance. This issue explores some of the questions that arise from the understanding of the nexus as a policy challenge: how do water, energy and agricultural policies impact each other? How can policies be coordinated and harmonized at the European level? Which type of evidence can be used to govern the nexus? How are statistical indicators linked to governance? With this issue, we will be sharing with you some first-hand insights gained from our conversations with European policy makers.

The first article asks: “Where do we govern the nexus?”. Although decisions made in distinct policy areas affect each other, there  is no single European Commission (EC) body that governs the sectors of water, energy, food and the environment together. In this article, we share with you the information we learnt talking with policymakers from the EC and related agencies as part of the MAGIC Nexus project.

In the second article, we explore the role of numbers in governance. Numbers matter. Achieving robust quantitative analyses to measure policy effectiveness requires a great deal of time, money and institutional support. But are we paying enough attention to how metrics are influencing governance processes? This article takes a look at quantification through a governance lens to understand how our choices of quantification may affect governance outcomes and what we need to think about to ensure quality metrics when it comes to the nexus.

In our third and final article, we elaborate on one of the main themes of the MAGIC project: Governance In Complexity (the “GIC” of MAGIC). Everybody agrees that the nexus is complex: but what does complexity mean for governance? This article presents some reflections on what it means to govern when knowledge is incomplete, contradictory or even contested. A model of governance that expects to apply “solutions” to clearly identified “problems” assumes that the world is simple. Complexity means letting go of the ideal of command and control.

These articles are aimed at initiating a discussion on the governance challenges of the nexus. We welcome any comment and contribution to the discussion. You use our discussion forum, write to us or follow us on Twitter.


The origins of the “nexus”: a water governance concern

10 December 2018

The origins of the “nexus”: a water governance concern

Zora Kovacic

The “nexus” has become a buzzword (Cairns & Krzywoszynska, 2016), used in many different contexts for many different purposes. It indicates the interlinked nature of resource management, and is used as an inclusive tool to address environmental, climatic and land use issues. The most popular formulation of the nexus refers to “water, energy and food”, but the term is used with reference to a broad range of topics. In this article, we trace back the emergence of the term “nexus” and ask: what did the concept mean to achieve?  The term “nexus” hails from the water community, and although it may be seen as a means to articulate concerns and policy priorities of actors involved in water governance, we also show that the term was used in many different ways from the onset.

The term “nexus” was put forward by the '2030 Water Resources Group', which was founded in 2008 and brought together companies from the food and beverage industry, including the likes of the Barilla Group, Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé, SABMiller, PepsiCo, New Holland Agriculture, Standard Chartered Bank and Syngenta AG (Leese and Meisch, 2015). The idea of a “water-energy  nexus” was mainstreamed through the Bonn2011 conference organized by the World Economic Forum Water Initiative. In its early formulations, the nexus was tied to business concerns of a variety of corporations, whose interests ranged from securing access to water resources, to using water resources “efficiently”. Shaped in this way, the nexus has been presented as a means to ensure economic growth that is compatible with resource availability, which Leese and Meisch link to the green growth agenda.

The nexus has also received considerable attention from modellers. Shannak and colleagues (2018) provide an overview of the models that analyse the nexus, and find that most modelling efforts are centred on water. Such models include: the Water Evaluation and Planning Model (WEAP); the Global Policy Dialogue Model developed by the International Water Management Institute; the “water energy and food security nexus” developed by Hoff (2011), which is centred on water availability; the Climate, Land, Energy and Water Strategies (CLEWS) that estimates the suitability of different crops and biofuels under rain-fed and irrigated conditions for current and future climates; the “Diagnostic tool for investment in water for agriculture and energy” developed by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Water is often an “invisible” input needed to produce other goods, such as food, or used in production processes that require cooling, washing, etc. The “virtual water” approach also highlights the importance of taking into account water uses embedded in other products. For this reason, modelling the nexus can be seen as a useful tool to give visibility to water use.

Also with regard to public policy at the European level, the term “nexus” can be found in the realm of water governance. For instance, the MAGIC project responds to the call “WATER-2b-2015 - Integrated approaches to food security, low-carbon energy, sustainable water management and climate change mitigation” which asks proposals to “develop a better scientific understanding of the land-water-energy-climate nexus” (https://cordis.europa.eu/programme/rcn/664566_en.html).

The term “nexus” has emerged in policy and academic parlance as recently as the early 2010s, and it has been a buzzword almost from the onset.  The term does not necessarily lack definitional clarity. Rather,  it is associated with many definitions and used in many contexts. Some see the nexus as yet another rehearsal of older debates about interdisciplinary research, questioning the novelty of the idea. We suggest that the popularity of the term may in some ways help meet the aim of rendering water use more visible, and mainstreaming resource management in business practices. At the same time, the term “nexus” may acquire a life of its own, becoming a new problem in need of governing, requiring new metrics and models, and new institutional arrangements that make it possible to work “across silos”. As the nexus becomes an issue in its own right, it may or may not be a good ally to water governance.


Cairns, R., & Krzywoszynska, A. (2016). Anatomy of a buzzword: The emergence of ‘the water-energy-food nexus’ in UK natural resource debates. Environmental Science & Policy, 64, 164-170.

Leese, M., & Meisch, S. (2015). Securitising sustainability? Questioning the'water, energy and food-security nexus'. Water Alternatives, 8(1).

Shannak, S., Mabrey, D., & Vittorio, M. (2018). Moving From Theory to Practice in the Water-Energy-Food Nexus: An Evaluation of Existing Models and Frameworks. Water-Energy Nexus, April 2018.

WHERE do we govern the Nexus?

WHERE do we govern the Nexus?

Kirsty Blackstock, Kerry Waylen, Alba Juarez-Bourke and Keith Matthews

In Europe and beyond there is a growing interest in how we might manage and govern the water-energy-food nexus. The nexus is complex, contested, and difficult to resolve with existing solutions. Therefore, understanding and intervening in the nexus not only requires new diagnostic methods and combinations of technical innovations, but also needs decisions to take account of its many interconnections.  This is a challenge, as most policies deal separately with different aspects of the nexus.

To address this challenge, within the Horizon 2020 MAGIC-Nexus Project, we are assessing how policy-making at the level of the European Union may create opportunities to allow people to ‘govern the nexus’. Policies made by the European Union are a central influence on how we first perceive and then govern the nexus. In MAGIC we focus on five policies which have a direct link to the nexus: the Circular Economy, the Common Agricultural Policy, Energy Efficiency Directive, Natura 2000 – the Habitats and Birds Directives, and Water Framework Directive. These provide the greatest opportunity to ensure that ‘nexus-thinking’ shapes how land and waters are managed across Europe in the context of climate change and delivering sustainability.

Based on initial analysis of policy documents and interviews with those in the European Commission, it is clear that there is interest in the nexus approach. Yet, the nexus is a concept that no single entity has a direct mandate to deliver.  Therefore, coordination will be needed. There are several structures set up to encourage cross-fertilisation of ideas between Directorate General (DGs), to ensure that policies are coherent (in other words, there are no direct conflicts or unintended consequences that prevent policy objectives being met). These include the ‘Inter-Service Steering Groups’ (ISSGs), which ensure internal consultation across the Directorate-Generals within the Commission and these ISSG consultations inform the impact assessment of any policy proposal.  Furthermore, the role of Vice Presidents has also been created to encourage working across DGs at the highest level. There are also other potential venues for promoting a nexus approach, such as the Commission’s in-house think tank – the European Policy Strategy Centre, whose mission is to “innovate and disrupt”.

The policy formation and revision involves organisations outside of the Commission.  Could these help introduce the nexus concept into policy? Unfortunately, again, the nexus is relevant to many, yet central to none of them. Policies proposed by the European Commission are scrutinised by the European Parliament and Council of the European Union as co-legislators; and the Committee of the Regions, and European Economic and Social Committee as consultees. Within each of these structures, there are multiple committees, councils or sections, which tend to mirror the division of policy between agricultural, environment and development, so issues related to the nexus might be split across several committees. Likewise, these bodies are informed by Civil Dialogue Groups (CDGs) and at least three of these (CAP, Rural Development, Environment and Climate Change) are relevant to the nexus but there is no specific CDG with a focus on the nexus. Finally, the European Environment Agency (EEA) has an important role in informing policy making across the nexus through its European Environment - State and Outlook reporting. However, the EEA does not initiate policy and can only advise and support.

Overall, our initial analysis reveals that the space for governing the nexus is ‘everywhere and nowhere’. The formal procedures for development, evaluation and revision of policies at the EU level do ensure some coordination and a cross-fertilisation of views. However, at present no existing formal procedures drive a nexus-first approach to policy making. There is resilience in having multiple spaces from which interconnections can be considered, but there is also the danger of fragmentation and marginalisation especially if there is no influential body or formal process to which the nexus is central.

As previous editions have noted (see Nexus and the CAP) the policy process offers opportunities for both change and maintaining the status quo. Further research with those working within the European Commission will be required to understand under what circumstances we can shift to taking a nexus perspective. Would it be useful to create a new process that starts from a nexus perspective, with direct link to existing policy processes that shape our environment? Or would this become confusing given the already complex and crowded landscape of policy processes? As the project moves forward, and we start to discuss the results of the Quantitative Story-Telling approach with those responsible for the five main policies of interest, we will also explore strategies for using existing spaces, or developing new spaces, to help ‘govern the nexus’.

The idea of governing the nexus is still quite new, so it is exciting to be at the forefront of trying to overcoming these challenges.

The paradox of efficiency: Can uncertainty be governed?

The paradox of efficiency: Can uncertainty be governed?

Zora Kovacic, Louisa Jane Di Felice and Tessa Dunlop

In a world of limited resources and increasing human impact on the environment, using resources more efficiently seems sensible. Many policies see efficiency as an important instrument to achieve their goals. In the case of energy policy, the EU has published in 2012 a directive on energy efficiency and in June EU energy ministers agreed to support a 30% energy efficiency target for 2030 as part of proposed legislation to improve the EU's electricity market. In water management, efficiency is seen as a means to deal with water scarcity in arid regions. In waste management, resource efficiency is pursued as a means to reduce waste production. But does efficiency guarantee that less resources will be used? Does it guarantee that resources will be used better? The Jevons paradox suggests that the answer is not so straightforward and that efficiency policies may not achieve the desired results.

In 1865, William Stanley Jevons observed that increased efficiency in coal engines led to an increase in consumption of coal in a wide range of industries. The improvements in coal engines made it possible to use engines not only in coal mines, but also on rail and sea transport. Jevons concluded that, contrary to common intuition, increases in efficiency do not necessarily reduce resource consumption because they also open up for new applications and uses and ultimately new demands. This is called “the Jevons paradox”. This paradox is one of the many ways that complexity displays itself. In a complex system, if a part is changed or taken out and substituted with a different part, interactions within the system may change and lead to surprising and paradoxical changes throughout the entire system. The Jevons paradox suggests that efficiency policies may not lead to the desired outcomes, because the economic system will adapt to increased efficiency and technological improvements.

A similar concept has emerged also in economics, called the rebound effect. The rebound effect is the reduction in expected gains from increases in efficiency, because of systemic responses to the increase in efficiency. While the rebound effect recognises that systemic responses may offset the benefits of technological improvements, it does not presuppose changes in the essential workings of the system. The rebound effect can be calculated through mathematical formulas, which assume that the interactions between the parts of the system remain stable. There are sometimes varying definitions, but scholars generally differentiate between 1) direct, 2) indirect 3) economy-wide and 4) transformational rebound effects, with the latter most comparable to the Jevons paradox. From the point of view of complexity, however, the rebound effect is different from the Jevons paradox in as far as changes in complex systems cannot be precisely calculated.

What this means is that the rebound effect essentially leads us to do more of the same thing, while Jevons paradox leads us to do something different. To make this distinction clearer, we can draw a parallel with diets. If I am trying to cut my calories to lose weight and decide to buy fat free yogurts, I may end up eating two fat free yogurts instead of a regular one – leading overall to a higher caloric consumption. This would be the rebound effect. On the other hand, I could also eat a fat free yogurt and then, feeling that I have saved on calories, I could take the bus instead of walking, or go out and eat a slice of pizza. This would be the Jevons paradox. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one should stop buying fat free yogurts, or stop improving our efficiency, but it does have implications for governance.

The existence of direct rebound effects is uncontroversial, with quantitative evidence in a large number of studies. The possible effects of the Jevons paradox and how to measure it, however, are in dispute. But rather than focusing on technicalities, the Jevons paradox reveals an important philosophical dilemma regarding complex systems. Because it focuses on unforeseen changes in the interactions between the parts and the identity of the whole, the paradox cannot be modelled nor predicted with precision. Therefore The Jevons paradox and the rebound effect have different implications for policy, and cannot be treated as equivalent. The rebound effect suggests that gains in efficiency can be estimated and that efficiency policies are a means to govern complex systems (although these are not as effective as one may hope). The Jevons paradox instead suggests that complex systems cannot be controlled, and that increases in efficiency may not produce the expected results. Given this uncertainty, which theory should policy rely on for advice? If one takes the Jevons paradox seriously, governance is as much a matter of relying on evidence as it is about taking into account uncertainty.



Sorrell, S. Jevons’ Paradox revisited: The evidence for backfire from improved energy efficiency. Energy Policy. 37 (2009) 1456–1469. (footnote for paradox being in dispute)

Greening, L. A., D. L. Greene, and C. Difiglio. 2000. Energy efficiency and consumption—The rebound effect—A survey. Energy Policy 28(6–7): 389–401.


Complexity in Nexus Governance

Complexity in Nexus Governance

Roger Strand

Whatever the water-energy-food-environment Nexus is, everybody tends to agree that it is complex. Unfortunately, nobody agrees what it means to be complex. In this piece, I claim that more time ought to be spent on serious discussion about what complexity is and what it entails for our possibilities to achieve some kind of governance of the Nexus. By serious discussion I mean not only that current knowledge on complexity theory and other relevant sciences are taken into account but also to be willing to admit when things are difficult and not going well, for instance when policy goals are far from reach or seem mutually contradictory.

Definitions of complexity abound. A useful approach to complexity is to define simplicity, which is easier (Strand 2002). A simple system consists of identifiable parts that interact with law-like regularity. The parts are stable and have a limited number of measurable properties, and their interactions are linear. There is no controversy on what counts as the borders of the system, the number and identity of their parts, and the number and identity of their relevant properties. This allows scientists and citizens to believe that the knowledge is objective. You may get to different concepts of complexity by negating different parts of the concept of simplicity, focussing on features such as nonlinearity, stochastics, fuzziness, radical openness or contextuality (Chu et al 2003). In post-normal science, one has often focussed on “emergent complex systems”, defined as systems that include intentional, sense-making agents (such as humans). Funtowicz and Ravetz (1994) showed how such systems in general are cannot be predicted and may have multiple legitimate descriptions that are in contradiction with each other.

When one tries to know something, one approach is to perform two conceptual partitions – literally, two mental operations. The first is to distinguish between “I” or “we” on one hand and everything else, “the external world” on the other. The second is to divide the external world into a “system” of interest and everything else, “the environment” on the other (Rosen 1994):

If the world were simple, this approach would have allowed us to obtain perfect, precise and objective knowledge of the external world. Indeed, this approach is known as “Modern Science” or the “Scientific Method”, celebrated in Europe and beyond for centuries. The only mystery that remains for it, is ourselves. Ever new sciences try to mentally externalize and objectify aspects of the “I” – body parts, genes, neural circuits, mental processes – to smoke the genie of out of the bottle and eliminate the mystery. Such a perfectly known world can also be perfectly governed. Francis Bacon (1620) famously pointed this out: “Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, for where the cause is not known, the effect cannot be produced.” A philosophical problem is the question of where that “I”, that human subject, resides, and if it can be trusted. When finally fully objectified, no human subject is left to rule the world and governance must be left to God or to a self-evolving Artificial Intelligence. Francis Bacon’s contemporary, René Descartes (1641), tinkered on the Christian (and Platonic) solution to this intellectual problem and located the immutable human soul (res cogitans) outside the physical universe and therefore beyond the scope of the Laws of Nature.

The Nexus, whatever it may be, is not simple. Some people think of the Nexus as something physical: The Nexus is the socio-ecological natural system of waterways, soils, aquifers, mountains, villages, acres, roads, food stores, kitchens, sewages, animals, plants and humans all interconnected in nonlinear ways, exchanging energy and matter but also information and meaning, as when episodes of water scarcity leads to political measures that again lead to anger, protests, conflict or perhaps even war, all with its own feedbacks into air, water and soil. The Nexus in this sense is nonlinear, stochastic, fuzzy and radically open and accordingly its future trajectory cannot be precisely predicted or governed by a command-and-control type of logic. It is also clearly an emergent complex system. However sophisticated the science, the Nexus will have multiple legitimate descriptions that depend on the framing of the system and its relevant and valuable properties. Accordingly, one should not expect consensus about the knowledge base. Indeed, as nicely demonstrated by the piece by Blackstock et al. in the Nexus Times, there is no “point of nowhere”, no neutral stance or position from which to observe and govern the Nexus. Both knowledge and action depends on the place (country, region, institution, location in the ecosystem) of the knowing and acting subject.

This leads us to a central insight: We are inside of the so-called external world and we are part of it. It is an illusion to believe in governance of complexity, or governance of the Nexus. What we actually can achieve, is governance in complexity (Rip 2006). It is to be expected that things don’t go well and that policy targets are not met. Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, Bacon insisted, and in complexity, inside the Nexus, there can be no perfect knowledge and hence no perfect power.

The lack of perfect power of a command-and-control type is not the same as powerlessness. We all know that, in our own lives as private individuals and family members. In the political institutions in modern states, however, the acknowledgement of imperfection is sometimes accompanied with a sense of disbelief, disempowerment and a peculiar type of dishonest, desperate optimism: If we only do some more research and some more expert groups, we are going to know what to do (Strand 2002). One pretends that scientific knowledge allows us to predict the consequences of public decisions and that things are “under control”. When things then go wrong, this is explained away with reference to external disturbances (which are ubiquitous, because the Nexus is radically open), or calling for more research, or more action. This is why I called above for a serious discussion on complexity. Over the years, I have talked to so many serious and reflective individuals inside of governmental institutions who are well aware of complexity but still find little room to articulate its implications within the institutional setting in which they work. Instead, they feel compelled to take part in policy discourses and practices that implicitly assume that the world is a simple system.



Bacon, F. (1620/1994) Novum Organum; with Other Parts of the Great Instauration, Chicago: Open Court Publishing.

Descartes, R. (1641/1971) Discourse on Method and the Meditations, Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics 1971.

Chu D, Strand R & Fjelland R. (2003) “Theories of Complexity”, Complexity, 8:19-30.

Funtowicz, S & Ravetz, JR. (1994), “Emergent complex systems”, Futures, 26, 566-582.

Rip, A. (2006) “A co-evolutionary approach to reflexive governance - and its ironies” in J-P Voss, D Bauknecht, R Kemp (eds), Reflexive governance for sustainable development, pp 82-100, E Elgar.

Rosen, R. (1991), Life itself: a comprehensive inquiry into the nature, origin, and fabrication of life, New York: Columbia University Press.

Strand, R. (2002) “Complexity, Ideology and Governance”, Emergence, 4:164-183.



Opinion: The Awakening from the Cartesian Dream?

Opinion: The Awakening from the Cartesian Dream?

Mario Giampietro

The current coronavirus crisis has succeeded where climate change has failed: it has made us aware of the shortcomings of the Cartesian Dream of prediction and control. The idea that our society is able to control events by using science and technology has suddenly lost its credibility. In the Church of the Carmine in Naples the Crucifix of Miracles, used in 1600 to protect the city against the black plague, has reappeared on the main altar. For some, the crucifix has become a more effective means to combat the stress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic than the scientific advice given by experts. As the virus directly threatens our own life, the implausibility of the claim that ‘everything is under control’ has become evident. The coronavirus has shown us just how fragile our society is. We have now come to realise that everything that is dear to us, like visiting family or having a coffee with a friend, can suddenly change or disappear.

However, an important lesson we can take away from the COVID-19 pandemic is that, if need arises, it is possible to make changes to our lifestyle and, more importantly so, in a very short period of time. At present, society is enduring the restrictions imposed by governments in the hope of controlling the virus and returning to normality. But what if there will be no return to normality? What if this crisis will bring about lasting societal changes (another “black swan”—Taleb, 2007); changes that will not be determined by the grand narratives and plans about how to fix the world (e.g., the European Green Deal) but by a forced need to adapt to new circumstances? This looming possibility adds to the current feelings of unease and fear.

The Cartesian Dream of prediction and control is exactly what has prevented us from making changes to our social practices in response to the threat of climate change. In fact, it is currently unthinkable for us to adopt new solutions without assuring ourselves that we will be able to control them. But what happens if society is faced with the realisation that ‘total control’ is simply impossible? Are we condemned to do ‘more of the same’—technological fix after technological fix—until our system collapses and we will be forced to accept alternative solutions? 

The fragility of our identity

Our contemporary identity—I like to call it the ‘cyborg identity’—is imposed on us by our capitalist economy, as well as by media and influencers (hyper-cycles of self-referential messages). It no longer reflects the culture and traditions passed down through generations. As a consequence, our identity has become increasingly shallow and vulnerable to perturbations such as the COVID-19 pandemic. We are becoming less and less capable of handling ‘the tragedy of change.’ In order to fight, resist and adapt to change, we must have a clear and shared understanding of who we are and where we want to go. A fragile identity hinders decisions about what we are willing to lose in order to preserve what we would like to retain. We are increasingly unable to see, let alone thread the difficult path through change.

Technology is no match for nature

In the 1953 movie The War of the Worlds, Earth is attacked by spaceships from Mars. The US army employs its best weapons but cannot compete against Martian technology. After several defeats, the US army decides to drop the best they have—an atomic bomb—but, unfortunately, also this last resort fails. When humans are resigned to their fate a miracle occurs.  The Martian ships start crashing to the ground, their occupants having succumbed to a viral infection. The narrator concludes the movie by saying: “[…] the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth…”; a virus! The morale is that technology is no match for nature. Descartes’ vision of humankind as ‘masters and possessors of nature’ must be modified by Bacon’s maxim: ‘nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed’[1]. Friend or foe, viruses are part of nature and we need to accept to live with them.  

Can we avoid the collapse of complex societies?

The inability of our health care systems to handle the COVID-19 crisis in a ‘prediction and control’ mode confirms Joseph Tainter’s (1988) concern regarding the risk of over-complicating the functional structure of society. It is impossible for societies to guarantee absolute prediction and control over all potential future perturbations. As a consequence, allocating resources under such assumption may not be a wise choice. It may be more useful to govern society using strategies based on: (i) monitoring and anticipating by considering non-equivalent perceptions of our interaction with nature based on feelings and concerns held by the extended peer community (not only based on data generated by scientific experts); (ii) preserving the diversity of social practices in society to boost adaptability.

The role of science in governance

Apart from satisfying our curiosity, science is expected to provide society with useful information to guide decision-making processes and in this way to reduce stress for its citizens. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown that science not always lives up to this expectation. It can provide us with essential information on the mechanisms of the epidemic outbreak, but it does not provide us, for example, with a solution on how to deal with the shortage of ventilators needed for treating COVID-19 patients. Science cannot help us decide whose concerns, fears, and needs to prioritise. In the Cartesian Dream, science is purported to reduce stress by controlling the world and calculating risk. It does not acknowledge that danger (e.g., death) is an unavoidable part of life (Saltelli and Boulanger, 2020). To date, science has been predominantly used to selectively improve the quality of life of some social groups, providing them with an edge on the competition, and replacing religion as the source of legitimization of their power. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the expectations about science are losing their credibility, even for the selected few. As a result, the more reflexive citizens have begun to re-think the validity of the Cartesian Dream, while others have stocked up on toilet paper.

Further reading:

Waltner-Toews D, Biggeri A, De Marchi B, Funtowicz S, Giampietro M, O’Connor M, Ravetz JR, Saltelli A & van der Sluijs JP (2020). Post-Normal Pandemics: Why Covid-19 Requires a New Approach to Science.

Saltelli A & Boulanger PM (2020), 'Technoscience, policy and the new media. Nexus or vortex?', Futures, vol. 115, 102491, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.futures.2019.102491.

Tainter JA (1988), The collapse of complex societies, Cambridge University Press.

Taleb NN (2007), The Black Swan, Random House Publishing Group.

[1] Quote from Jerome Ravetz, personal communication.