Linchpin Theory and X-Events

Most of us look at technological advances as one of the successes of the human race. The industrialized society has evolved on the backs of these advances and today, at least in the western hemisphere, we expect water to come when we turn the tap on, the television to play an array of images at the turn of a switch and food to be delivered, at our doorstep, with just a few clicks on a computer.

These apparently simple everyday actions rely on complex systems to function properly and that has become a common feature of every single aspect of our everyday routine. For example, food and water supply, as well as communications, finance and security, all rely on electricity to work, which in turn relies on the supply of energy (oil, coal, nuclear and from renewable sources), which relies on the manufacture of instruments that also use energy. A big complex system, where every key aspect of our lives is intertwined with the next, and if one fails, the others will fail too, like a giant house of cards.

That is analysis put forward by John Casti, an American complexity scientist and systems analyst. Casti believes that the increasing complexity of the industrialized world is not a success to be hailed, but a weakness that can prove to be catastrophic. In his view, the system is unsustainable and it will eventually lead to disaster. Especially if it is hit by the extreme scenarios he refers to as “x-events”.

X-events are rare occurrences that have an impact that goes beyond normal standards and they can be of natural or human origin. Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake and tsunami, that led to the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, are examples of x-events of natural origin. For examples of x-events of human origin, one can look at the financial crisis or at Mohamed Bouazizi’s self immolation (that sparked the revolution in Tunisia). All of these had an impact that fell out of what was considered “normal” and could not be predicted.

In all these cases, the complex systems put in place to support the city, the nuclear reactor, the financial system and the government collapsed because of their complexity. Their design accounted for smaller strength hurricanes or less radical protests that the system would have been apple to withstand. But here lies the problem when it comes to x-events: their rarity makes their prediction nearly impossible. As Casti argues, “science is mostly about the study of repeatable phenomena; X-events fall outside that category, which is a major reason why at present we have no decent theory for when, how, and why they occur”(Casti, 2012). They are one of a kind events: dependent on a set of circumstances that, most likely, will never happen again.  He adds that these events are “human nature’s way of reducing a complexity overload that has become unsustainable”(Casti, 2012).

Used in a preemptive way, one could, in theory, bring massive changes to society by creating a x-event that would work as the catalyst for change that would work in a domino effect. Think of the complex network of alliances and interests that were bound together just before World War I started. The balance of power in Europe was too complex, just like a house of cards. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria worked as the linchpin, the domino piece that made all the other ones fall in the required direction to catapult the continent into war.

I find it both interesting and frightening that this sort of model can actually be effective in changing the world. And, in theory, it can. Fortunately, however, x-events are not so easily devised and  because of their rare nature, it is impossible to accurately predict them, as well as their impact. Theoretical models are usually based on huge amounts of data and the rarity of these occurrences makes it impossible to nail “down a probability you can believe in” (Casti, 2012).

Casti intends to warn us about the existence of these paradigm changing events that can bring massive changes: electrical collapses, epidemics, wars and other natural catastrophes all fall into this category. His aim is to encourage the study of these events so that we can come up with a theory to predict them. There is, of course, a possible political use to all of this. As I mentioned, this systemic model can (in theory and only if the prediction models are perfected) be a tool for governments to use in their worldwide power struggles. It is, in my opinion, a grim perspective.


The Eurocentric Dimension of Geography

After a discussion at the office about the Eurocentric dimension of geography, we went to do some extra research about the topic. Without even mentioning the fact that Europe is always at the center of the globe, we were interested to write about the most likely origin of the world continent’s names. First, Europe. The old continent was named by the Greeks after the goddess Europa, one of Zeus’ many lovers to whom he created the constellation Taurus. It is probably the continent with the oldest name.

Regarding Asia, a word that has been used for at least 2500 years, the most popular theory is that the Greeks named the continent after deriving the Phoenician word asu, which means East, and the Akkadian word asu, which means “to rise”. In this manner, they used the term Asia to describe the territories that were in the East of Anatolia (part of modern Turkey) and where the sun rose. As regards to Africa, the most common theory is that the continent was named after the conquest of Carthage by the Romans 2200 years ago, where a Berber tribe called Afri lived. “The land of the Afri”, Africus, which the feminine was Africa, eventually was extended to the entire continent in the 15th century. In chronological order, comes the word America. The new world was named after Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian cartographer and navigator who realized that the “new world” was not part of Asia as initially thought. In the 16th century, cartographers decided to call this part of the world Americus, Amerige or America. As for Oceania, the continent’s name was literally coined from the word ocean in 1812 due simply to its geographical situation. And finally, Antarctica got its name from the Greek antarktike, which literally means ‘opposite to the north’.

Bottom line? It is quite insane to acknowledge that the entire world was named by the Europeans. We Europeans, should never forget about this, and about how much we exploited the rest of the world. After all, it would help us understand and accept why some still accuse us of being imperialists.


Today we want to talk to you about one of our homonymous. JR is a French artist, who “owns the biggest art gallery in the world”: the streets. He is an “unknown” artist, because no one knows his true identity despite the fact that there are several pictures of him. Mainly specialized in photography, he is best known for making large panels with photos and displaying them in the streets. His objective is to portrait a society, and to expose it right back at her.

One of his best well-known projects was “Face 2 Face” in 2007, which he did in partnership with Marco. In this project, he portrayed Israelis and Palestinians side by side in huge photographs, covering the Israeli West Bank barrier. In “Women Are Heroes”, he intended to put women on the spotlight for the important role they play in the society, but which is often neglected, besides of all the violences women face constantly. For instance, he imprinted large pictures of women in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, and he did the same in Kenya, in Liberia and in India. Finally, yet another example of his art is “The Wrinkles of the City”, where he exposes pictures of old people in cities such as Los Angeles, where appearances are at the center of all attentions and old people are often cast away.

JR’s photos definitely have a political meaning and can be very controversial, as one can see with the Face 2 Face project. As he says it himself, “Art is not welcome everywhere”. Nevertheless, JR’s art is very interesting and it is maybe not without reason that Fabrice Bousteau, director of the Beaux-Arts Magazine, described him as the 21st century Henri-Cartier Besson.

Korean Demilitarized Zone

The first time someone suggested that Korea should be divided in two taking as the dividing line the 38th parallel north, was when both the Russian Empire and the Japanese Empire wanted to control this area in 1896. Eventually, the Japanese Empire took control of Korea, until 1945, when it was forced to surrender it to the control of the Allies in the post-war.

After that, while negotiating what would fall under American and Soviet authority, the Americans suggested that Korea be divided following the 38th parallel north between the two powers, the territory underneath being the border. After the Korean war ended in 1953, a demilitarized zone was established between the two Koreas, trying to put a stop to any further combats. This area also follows the 38th parallel.

Despite being an area of great tensions between the two countries, where soldiers stand riffles in hand on both sides, this demilitarized zone has a very surprising feature. It is an enormous ecological reserve, a “green ribbon”, that hosts a big number of different species of fauna and flora. Even some species that have disappeared in other parts of Asia have been found there.

What is outstanding is thinking how a place that arose from war could become a biodiversity sanctuary, where peace seems to reign. It also reminds us of one of the things that will be lost if one day a war between the two Koreas breaks again. Check out pictures of this reserve on National Geographic, or read more about it here.

Cordel Hull

As we scrawled down in the Nobel Prize website, looking through the Peace laureates and trying to get some inspiration to write about this week’s personality, we learned that the 1945 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Cordell Hull.

Cordell Hull (1871-1955) was an American politician from Tennessee who held the position of Secretary of State from 1933 to 1944 – making him the longest-serving US Secretary of State. An advocate of trade liberalization, his work during the 1930s decade, is mainly known to have foster closer relations between the US and Latin America. During the Second World War years, he was of course a key figure of the US National Defense strategy. You can listen to his 1940 speech where he stressed ‘the necessity to prepare for the threat of Nazi and Japanese aggression’. Nevertheless, what distinguishes him the most is his contribution to the postwar world as he remains known as the “father of the United Nations”. When Hull stepped down as Secretary of State in 1944 because of his weak health, Roosevelt described him as “the one person in all the world who has done his most to make the great plan for peace (The United Nations) an effective fact”. The following year, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. He remains a central figure in the history of American politics.

Children Accused of Witchcraft

The phenomenon of children accused of practicing witchcraft in Africa has been around since the 1980’s. The beliefs concerning witchcraft are very present in Central sub-Saharian Africa, but as a UNICEF report claims, they are not a feature of “traditional” ways of life. Modernity in Africa seems to have given rise to accusations towards children. This is an issue that interests not only anthropology, but also psychiatry and sociology.

The stories are all pretty much the same: supposedly a child, of any age, is approached by an old person that offers him/her some food. He/She accepts it, and in return the older person says that they will have to kill someone else, to give back that piece of “flesh” they ate. Then a member of the child’s family falls ill or looses his job, and the child claims that it is because they “ate” that person during the night. Whether this is real or imagined by the children, these accounts give rise to true judgments starting by the families and then the communities. In some countries, even the courts of law can judge and imprison “witches”. They are interrogated, hit, tortured, in order to expel the darkness that possesses them. They are cast away from the society until they relinquish to their witch “powers”. Many of them eventually end up abandoned in the streets.

To understand this phenomenon one must look beyond the idea of “witchcraft” itself. We must look at African societies in the past years, to the economical, political and social scenarios that characterize them. The big African metropoles have gathered people from different ethnic origins, beliefs and backgrounds, monotheist religions have risen and evangelic churches often create these “witch-hunts” to solve the problems of a community. The most vulnerable children, those who have disabilities, those who are different, end up by being easy targets. Priests of evangelic churches offer their services at very high prices to “exorcise” the children. Some anthropologists link this phenomenon to inequalities and greed, in the sense that the societies try to find escape-goats for these problems. Witch children would be responsible for the rise of some, and the fall of others.

Whatever the cause that might underlie this issue, it is certain that it is a feature of contemporary African societies, and many cases have also been observed in Europe. Read the UNICEF Report here, or read more about it here.

Oil and Democracy

“No taxation without representation!” – This was the cry made famous during the American revolution. Not just because it has a ring to it but also because it makes sense: if the State requires its citizens’ taxes to finance itself then the citizens have the right to be represented in the State’s decisions.It is an argument that makes sense in the traditional Western State model. But what if the State no longer requires taxation to finance its activity? What if the State extracts revenue solely from the resources under its control (namely oil, gold, diamonds)?

Excluding morals from the equation, if the State no longer needs taxes it is safe to assume it will worry less about its citizens. This happens in what scholars define as “Rentier States” – States’  whose economy is dependent on “rents” from the exploration of a single resource. Rentier because it works in a similar way as when a landlord rents property: the state just owns it, does the occasional repairs and collects its share at the end of the month.

Besides being almost entirely dependent on one single resource, there are three other common traits to rentier States. The first is that the origin of the rent is external to the country, meaning the State is able to sustain itself without developing a strong and sustainable domestic sector. The second is that only a small part of the population is involved in the rent’s generation and in most of its spending. Although these rents are usually redistributed among the population, most of the wealth is concentrated in the upper classes. Last but not least, most of these revenues will be concentrated in the State.

Most oil-producing countries fall into this category and most of them are not democracies (even though some do claim to be). They have reduced or even eliminated most taxes and inverted the American revolution motto: “no representation without taxation”.

It is not easy to maintain a non-democratic regime under these conditions. However, in rentier States, a subsequent patronage system has been developed in order to assure that governments control the most influential sectors of society and keep the bulk of the population in check.

Governments fomented the rise of a new private sector that was, from the start, dependent of the State for funding and subsidies. The government also became the major employer in the country, allowing it to become the most important economic actor, intervening in both the public and private sector.  It also provides huge subsidies to the religious elites (which play a very important role, mainly in Middle Eastern oil-producing States) and spends extensively in military equipment (Saudi Arabia spends 10,1% of its GDP on its military, the highest percentage in the world). By subsidizing these pillars, the rulers of these countries assure that there is  almost no civil unrest and in the cases where protests might exist, they tend to be violently silenced.

The reality seems to confirm these theories as most of the countries that are oil dependent are authoritarian (just think of Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE). The big exceptions are the United States, Canada and Norway but, in these cases, the economy is highly diversified with other sectors contributing heavily to the country’s GDP.

Taking all these data into account it seems that there is evidence to support that oil can be counterproductive when it comes to democracy, especially, if strong state structures were not in place before these countries started collecting oil revenues. It is a grim sight that, nonetheless, comes with a hint of hope. These systems are unsustainable as populations and the number of those under patronage increase. Oil revenues have increased at a slower rate and rentier States will eventually collapse (or so I believe). Iran and its Islamic revolution are a good example of it, even if the final outcome has not been the most desired one.

Mozambique’s Re-education Camps

Just like you’re doing now, today we were procrastinating in the website Africa is a Country. Unsurprisingly as this website is truly a breath of fresh air for nowadays journalism, we learned something new about Mozambique’s past.

In case you do not know, in this beautiful country of Southern Africa, people lived a civil war from 1977 to 1992, where about one million people died and other five million were displaced. But what we discovered today was the story of the country’s re-education centres in the early beginnings of the civil war. During the first years after the country’s independence (1975), the FRELIMO government established a policy of re-education establishing thousands of camps that were spread around the country. Unemployed people, criminals, prostitutes, single moms, regime opponents, and a surprisingly important number of Jehovah witnesses, were sent as prisoners there, where their lives was marked with violence, torture, sexual harassment and hunger.  Only in 1981, due to international pressure, did Samora Machel suspend the “re-education process”.

Thirty years later, Mozambicans are finally starting to talk about this part of their past. Indeed, Brazilian-born Licínio Azevedo (1951) is telling the story of one particular camp, with his movie “Virgin Margarida”. Check it out here.

The Ibrahim Prize

Had you ever heard of the Ibrahim Prize? Until yesterday, we had not. We read this article on the NYT saying that “Again, No African Leader had won the Annual Good Governance Prize”. And so we discovered it.

Founded by Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-British billionaire who made his fortune in the telecom business, the Ibrahim Prize was established in 2007 “to celebrate excellence in African leadership”. The Prize is awarded to former African Heads of States or government, who were democratically elected, who did not exceed their constitutionally mandated term and who “demonstrated exceptional leadership”. Its most striking feature? It is the largest annually allocated prize, comprising $5 million over the first ten years, followed by US$200 000 per year for the rest of winner’s life. Chaired by seven exceptional people who dedicated their lives to public policy, the Prize Committee counts with Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize Mohamed ElBaradei, Mozambican Dr Graça Machel and Irish human rights advocate Mary Robinson.

Nevertheless, the prize was only awarded three times. In 2007, Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano was awarded the prize amongst other reasons “because of his decision not to seek a third Presidential term reinforcing the country’s democratic maturity”. In 2008, it’s was Botswana’s President Festus Mogae as his country “demonstrates how a country with natural resources can promote sustainable development with good governance”. And in 2011, it was the time for Cape Verde President Pedro de Verona Rodrigues Pires as “he transformed Cape Verde into a model of democracy, stability and increased prosperity”.

The only sad part behind this astonishing initiative? Since 2011 – the fourth time in five years -, the prize has not been awarded. This seems to confirm that the continent is lacking exceptional leadership and defenders of good governance…