Field of Science

The Human Dimension of Climate Change

A New York Times Magazine article raises an issue I've been thinking a lot about lately.

If you are, as I am, a scientist concerned about global climate change, you may find yourself asking, "What kind of research could I be doing to best contribute to a solution?"

According to some, it may not be to study the climate itself. We may not know enough to predict exactly what will happen when, but we do know that drastic changes are coming whose magnitude will be determined by the actions we take now. It may not even be to study technologies such as alternative energy or policies such as cap-and-trade that can help combat global warming. Because while these policies and technologies are surely necessary, global warming is a problem created by human behavior, and our behavior will need to change if we are to make the individual and group decisions necessary to mitigate it, including the implementation of these policies and technologies. It may therefore be that the most important scientific questions in the fight against global warming are questions about humans, human behavior, and what we can do to change it.

The climate change puzzle presents a number of interesting questions about human behavior. The global environment is the ultimate "commons" game: We have a shared resource, and we can individually decide how much effort to put into preserving it. Only, we don't see the fruit of our individual efforts directly; only the sum total of everyone's efforts determines how well the resource is preserved. In the case of climate change, there are further complications: the effects of our actions now may not be seen for another fifty years, and some argue that the entire problem was fabricated by misguided scientists. Combining these factors, it is not hard to understand why many people feel little incentive to take action against global warming.

The article focuses on Columbia's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, which performs experiments on people's decision-making processes. One finding jumped out at me as interesting and perhaps counter-intuitive: we tend to make better decisions as groups rather than as individuals. For example, one researcher studied decisions made by farmers in Southern Uganda as they listened to rainy-season radio broadcasts. If they listened to it in groups, they would typically discuss it afterwards and come to consensus on the best planting strategy in response to the weather. They ended up more satisfied with their yields than other farmers who listened to the broadcasts individually.

Our response to climate change will obviously involve a great variety of individual and group decisions, but it may be that if we can force more of the critical decisions to be made in group settings, where participants have not made up their minds beforehand (research shows this is crucial) we may find ourselves more able to put aside the parts of our human nature that would impede progress, and make the decisions that are in all of our best interests.

Gangs and Homeostasis

"To live outside the law you must be honest"
-Bob Dylan

I just finished "Gang Leader for a Day", a memior in which sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh recounts his days as a University of Chicago graduate student, most of which were spent hanging out in the Robert Taylor Homes with one of Chicago's most successful crack selling gangs.

My personal interest in gang culture began with my teaching days on the west side of Chicago. Over the course of my first year I gradually realized the extent to which gang affiliations were affecting the culture of my classroom and the school at large. Four sesasons of The Wire widened my interest by showing how the drug trade intersects with every other aspect of city life.

Venkatesh's story starts with an ill-advised trip to a local housing project as a first-year sociology student, in which he tries to get anyone to answer the asanine survey questions he has prepared (question one: "How does it feel to be black and poor?") He is detained overnight and nearly killed by the local gang members on suspicion of being a scout for a rival gang. But their leader, J.T., recognizes Venkatesh for the naive outsider he is, and advises him to dispense with the surveys. "With people like us, you should hang out, get to know what they do, how they do it."

The rest of the book, and indeed Venkatesh's entire graduate research, is predicated on the unlikely interest J.T. takes in Venkatesh and his project. He believes Venkatesh will write his biography (Venkatesh does little to contradict this misconception) and gives him guided tours on nearly every aspect of the gang's operations, often trying to cast himself as a philanthropic community organizer. In time, Venkatesh's research branches out to other forces in project life: prosititutes, odd-job hustlers, community workers, religious leaders, CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) representatives, and police, each playing complex and often morally ambiguous roles.

There is much of interest here from a complex systems perspective, but the place to start is probably the multiple roles the gang plays in project life.

First and foremost, the gang is a business. It exists to make money, most of which goes to the upper management. In the case of the Black Kings gang that ran the towers in this story, the business was primarily crack cocaine, though they also extorted "protection" money from other formal and informal businesses in and around the towers.

However, because of the nature of the business, it wouldn't do to have cops, social workers, and other civil servants roaming around the projects. The gang was largely effective in keeping these unwanteds out, but this meant there was a vacuum in terms of keeping order, resolving disputes, and looking after children. The gang stepped in to fill part of this vacuum. They helped negotiate conflicts between tenants, and mete justice when it seemed necessary. Sometimes they even helped clean the tower hallways. And J.T. instituted a rule that no one could join the gang unless they had graduated high school.

Despite J.T.'s talk of helping the community, the primary reasons for this behavior were financial, not altruistic. Any violence in the building would attract the attention of the cops, which in turn would disrupt operations and scare away customers. It was therefore in their interest to resolve disputes peacefully, or to administer punishment so that a wronged party would not take matters into their own hands. Keeping teenagers in school would also cut down on unwanted violence, and produce workers better able to handle money.

The relevant complex systems principle here is homeostasis: the regulation of one's internal environment. In order to compete effectively against other forces (gangs, police, etc.), the Black Kings had to reduce competition and discord within their own gang and the community in which they operated.

There's so much more to Venkatesh's story than I could possibly relate here, so I'll end by giving the book a full-throated recommendation. Although his naivite is often cringeworthy, his experiences provide a window into a complex world that operates so differently from the societies most of us inhabit.