July 15, 2015
By Paul Voosen
Subject. Patron. Source. Siren.
For social scientists, the state can play many roles. As long as researchers have studied humanity and the systems we create, they have struggled to define their relationship with power. And in the United States, since World War II, that tension has centered especially on the military and its spy agencies.
The dangers of that relationship came into high relief late last week, with the release of a report detailing how the American Psychological Association, a century-old scholarly group, had colluded with the U.S. military to shield practitioners of torture a decade ago. The report painted a small group of leaders as beholden to its military patrons, eager to “curry favor,” whatever the long-term cost.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Joy Rohde, a historian at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who studies government and its relations with social science. Yes, personal coordination happens. Yes, orchestrated decisions happen. “What is so shocking in this case,” she said, “is that you’ve got all of these things combined, and they’re so systemic.”
This should put researchers on notice, added David N. Gibbs, a history professor at the University of Arizona who studies the CIA’s influence on academe. The surge of financing that attended, especially, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan might be alluring, but it can come with a cost.
“I’d like to hope that this would be a wake-up call about the dangers of collaboration with intelligence services,” he said.
The APA’s misdeeds join a list of controversial interactions between social scientists and the military since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the wars that followed. Most notably, they include: the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System, recently ended, which saw anthropologists deployed in war zones to study the local population; the Minerva Research Initiative, a grant program for university social scientists to study regions of strategic importance to the United States; and the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholars Program, which finances the education of future spies.
But while those programs have provided rallying points for protest, they are only the most visible manifestations of the deep ties between social scientists and the government. It’s a relationship that has been collaborative, confrontational, or often both at the same time. But at its base, it balances on a simple tension: Modern democracy believes that good policy should rest on expert knowledge. But how can that knowledge be conveyed, and employed, without biasing researchers or undermining democracy?
It’s not an easy question, though researchers sometimes attempt easy answers. University professors are a cosmopolitan, polyglot group, often suspicious of the exercise of U.S. military might. Debates turn political and ideological, resorting to metaphors of cancer, rather than remaining on ethics, said Ron Robin, a historian and senior vice provost for global faculty development at New York University.
“I don’t think that ties with government necessarily corrupt,” Mr. Robin said. “They can corrupt.”
Risks attend the fallout from the APA report, added Joseph S. Nye, a former dean of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
“If you have academics saying, ‘Don’t do anything with the government, keep it at arm’s length,’ you won’t have that kind of scandal,” he said. “You will have something else instead.”
The Cold War ushered the social sciences into the national-security world. Bolstered by the Popperian view that neither democracy nor science was possible without the other, academics shuttled down from Cambridge or Princeton for two decades, advising the Defense Department or CIA on their operations. In 1956 the U.S. Army opened its Special Operations Research Office on the campus of American University. The patronage helped legitimate social science within the academy, making it less a junior partner to the “hard” sciences: By 1961 a physicist told Robert McNamara, the defense secretary, that World War III, if it came, “might well have to be considered the social scientists’ war.”
Psychology presented a particular allure to the military. Most prominently, given the nature of war, the military has a vast need for the services of the discipline’s practitioners in caring for its troops, a truism that has grown only stronger over time. But beyond that, nearly every aspect of psychologists’ remit could be seen through the lens of war: Motivation. Communication. Belief. By 1964 the Defense Department was investing $31 million in psychological research.
“It’s stunning, the array of research and advice sought from psychologists by the military and intelligence agencies,” said Mark Solovey, an assistant professor of history at the University of Toronto who studies Cold War social science.
This best-and-brightest consensus wouldn’t last. Auguring the conflict was Project Camelot, a military-financed study of why revolutions occur that would have been the most expensive social-science project of its day, including fieldwork from Bolivia to Nigeria. It included more than 30 academic consultants, and its work would not be classified. But in 1965, after American involvement in Vietnam increased, countries began to protest Camelot researchers’ appearing on their shores. The project became a controversial flash point and was ultimately canceled.
“We got a black eye out of that,” said Neil J. Smelser, an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley who was one of Camelot’s consultants.
It was the start of academic social scientists’ turn away from the military. In 1969, American University kicked the Army off its campus. By the mid-1970s the Church Committee’s investigation of the intelligence agencies seemed to seal off the idea of collaboration for good.
But as Ms. Rohde’s research has shown, the government was already sold on social science. It hired researchers in droves, and began to rely on a network of independent research centers dependent on their federal patrons. The backlash, in effect, helped push research underground. And those same centers remain primary feeders of social science to this day.
“They’re still there,” Ms. Rohde said. “And with the war on terror, we’ve seen those same group of people orient their research in that direction.”
In many ways the relationship between social scientists and the military and intelligence world remains a hidden affair. An unknown number of academics consult with federal security agencies on the side. Universities and disciplines differ on their policies allowing such classified contract work. Anthropology tends to look askance at such work, while political scientists are more sanguine about it, Ms. Rohde said.
“As far as I can tell, it’s very broad spread,” said Mr. Gibbs, who opposes such work. He knows people on his campus who have done it. “It’s not something that seems to cause significant damage to your career,” he said.
Working with the intelligence services demands that academics hold themselves to strict ethical codes, added Mr. Nye. Under his watch, the Kennedy School saw educating CIA officials as part of its work, but they were treated like any other student, he said. Most important, that meant no classified material could be discussed.
“To keep the ability to speak openly and freely about research or ideas, we can’t deal with classified information,” he said.
There’s no telling if the more visible engagement with the social sciences that the military and intelligence world have pursued will remain. Such efforts tend to wax and wane against the backdrop of the agencies’ own internal needs for expertise. The federal-budget sequester hit defense financing for social science hard, and several champions, including Robert Gates and David Petraeus, are now long out of government.
“More than anything, the Defense Department has moved on,” Ms. Rohde said. “The kind of intellectual systems they were trying to build — let’s say the rhetoric far outstripped the capacity.”
As for the APA? If it continues to exist, it will have a tough road to climb to prove its continued independence from the military, Ms. Rohde added. “This report should lead any expert community with close ties to national-security agencies or powerful state actors to question the extent they can rely on their expert community to make independent decisions.”
Psychology, added Mr. Solovey, has to ask hard questions about its principles, foremost among them: “Have psychologists become hired guns to do whatever agencies want to do for some price?”
There was another way the APA could have gone, perhaps best seen in the American Anthropological Association, whose members, beginning in 2006, spent several years debating military collaboration, with advocates for and against such work included in a commission. It was a grass-roots effort, and while far from perfect, anthropologists found ways to talk, said David H. Price, a professor of anthropology and sociology at Saint Martin’s University who participated in the effort.
The result was guidelines that weren’t about “good agency, bad agency,” Mr. Price said. They were about good practice, bad practice — opposing secrecy, doing no harm. It was that later point that led the association to condemn the Army’s Human Terrain System.
Of course, such a stand carries costs. As last week’s report makes clear, in 2006, the APA was following the anthropology debates while mulling a proposal that it should base its guidelines on international human-rights standards. The head of psychological operations for the U.S. Army Special Operations Command warned against such a move. If they did so, he warned, “we run the risk of becoming as impotent as anthropology.”
JULY 17, 2015, GUEST AUTHORS
First, a huge thank you to the (Dis)order of Things and especially Antoine for organizing this forum and to each of the contributors. It’s been a huge honor to have my work read so carefully and responded to so thoughtfully and I welcome the opportunity to try to clarify some of my work and acknowledge where the contributors have pointed out helpful areas for future research.
As Pablo K and others noticed, Bodies of Violence it is not meant to be a general theory of embodiment in IR (I’m not sure such a project is feasible or politically desirable in any event). It is a more specific intervention with a different ambition: both to speak to ‘mainstream’ concerns about theorizing violence, particularly forms of political violence associated with the ‘war on terror’ and to make not only a theoretical argument about how we might or should theorize embodiment and violence, but also to show that understanding these different ‘modes of violence’ necessitates such an understanding of the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence. My rationale for using feminist theory to think about the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence in IR was not meant to be exclusive: certainly (other) people working with concepts of biopolitics as well as anti-colonial/anti-racist theorists, disability theorists, phenomenologists and more also have much to say on this topic, some insights of which have been very important in my analysis, if not as fully fleshed out (if you will) as my engagement with feminist theory is.[i] For me, it was a particular reading of feminist theories of embodiment, not solely based on Butler, but on a particular feminist problematic in which women, as a category of those constituted, as Pablo K put it, the “improperly bodied”, are politically disenfranchised and generally excluded from their status as a fully human subject that served as a starting point, but far from an ‘ending’ for thinking about the subject of embodiment. Rather, it is, as Kevin noted, “the specific tradition of trying to think through women’s subordination in terms of the relationship between bodies, subjects and power” that feminist theory entails that I wanted to use to think about violence and embodiment in ways that I hope will speak not only to feminists in IR but also to other critical and the more pluralistically and trans-disciplinarily minded scholars in IR and beyond as well.
However, this brings us to some of the drawbacks of feminist approaches to violence and embodiment. Ali’s point about the violence of feminist theory is a particularly good one. Feminists working in IR tend to be quite aware of the uses of feminism for violent aims: the Taliban’s oppression and abuse of women in Afghanistan as a rationale for war by the US and its allies being supported by NOW and the Feminist Majority is a well-known example. Ali’s point about the violence of some feminism(s) against trans-people is also well-taken; though Butler is hardly a ‘TERF’ by any means, her work has been critiqued by trans-theorists for a number of reasons. For the purposes of this book, I don’t necessarily see a conflict between trans-theory and Butler’s theory of the materialization of bodies and the limits of intelligibility as being relevant to the ways in which security practices work to materialize only certain bodies as ‘real,’ often excluding trans- people and constituting them as threats. In general, I agree with Ali that we should welcome feminist scholarship and practice that is less defensive in regards to the ‘mainstream’ of the discipline and more willing to seek alliances and interlocutors from a broader range of scholars, both in the spaces of IR and outside doing work on violence, power and embodiment.[ii]
Forum contributors also provided some excellent provocations for thinking about aspects of embodiment or ways of addressing the thorny question of embodiment that my book did not focus on. Pablo writes, “It is a book thoroughly about bodies, but not therefore necessarily a theory of bodies and embodiment. And it is theory of em-bodies-ment that we may in need of.” On a somewhat different note, Kevin wonders what might happened if the embodied subjects of which I write “could have a more audible place in the analysis.” Of course, it (should) hardly need mentioning the great amount of work influenced by feminist and postcolonial theory that strives to bring the voices and experiences of embodied subjects, particularly of marginalized peoples, into IR as a disciplinary space. I would point, for one example, to the work of Christine Sylvester and others on experience as an embodied concept for theorizing war. However, as Kevin points out, my book has a different, and I would hope, complementary aim: to show the explanatory and critical value of theorizing bodies as both produced by, and productive of, practices of violence in international politics. It is the last point, that bodies are productive of violence, which speaks more to Pablo’s concern about bodies ‘mattering’.
While Bodies of Violence is perhaps most influenced by Butler’s project, as Kevin, Ali and Pablo K have all noted, theories of embodiment (or at least the relationship between discourse and materiality) such as Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodiesand Barad’s ‘posthumanist performativity’ as well as Donna Haraway’s work are perhaps more of an influence than appears in the published version of the book, which takes as an overarching frame Butler’s concepts of normative violence and ontological precarity. These other works are concerned, in their own way, with the ways in which matter ‘matters’ or the ways in which embodied subjects exceed their materializations in discourse.[iii]
It is the ‘generative’ or ‘productive’ capacities of bodies that is an engagement with ‘new materialisms’ or ‘feminist materialisms’ if you like. One of the aspects of Barad’s work, whom Pablo mentions, that is most appealing is the insistence of intra-activity, with the implication that we cannot meaningfully separate matter from the discursive, as phenomena only exist by virtue of ongoing assemblages and reassemblages of matter and discourse. Bodies ‘matter,’ they do things, they have what Diana Coole refers to as ‘agentic capacities’. One reason that Bodies of Violence focuses on actual instances of violence perpetrated on and by bodies in international politics is precisely to take bodies seriously as something other than ‘representations’ or ‘abstractions’ in IR. An example of bodies being ‘productive’ in the book are the ways that bodies ‘speak’ which might exceed the intentions of ‘speaking subjects’. Antoine’s discussion of my work on the hunger striking body in Guantanamo Bay (which I also discussed earlier here on the blog) makes reference to this point: the body in pain as a call for recognition. This is something the body ‘does’ that is not reducible to the intentions of a fully constituted subject nor the words spoken by such subjects (this is in addition to the ways in which hunger striking prisoners such as Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel have spoken eloquently about their experiences). And yet, while this body’s actions may have certain implications, enable certain politics, etc, this cannot be understood without understanding that the body’s capacities are already subject to prior materializations and their reception will also bear the marks of prior political assemblages as well.
A key example of this from the book is the embodiment of drone operators, or perhaps more accurately, the legal/technological drone assemblage. While this form of embodiment is what might be termed, following Haraway, a ‘material-semiotic actor’, it is a body, or form of embodiment, that is necessary for the kind of ‘death-world’ that enables the killing of suspected militants as well as those people who can only be named innocent or militant in the aftermath. Both bodies of drone operators and the people who are killed by drone strikes are intimately connected in this way: the embodiment of drone pilots is productive of the bodies of targets and the ‘uncountable’ bodies whose deaths remain outside of the epistemological framework enabled by this drone assemblage. Thus, there is less of an explicit engagement with ‘new materialisms’ per se than an acknowledgement (one that has been part of feminist theory for decades) that one cannot determine or write bodies ‘all the way down’ and that, in the words of Samantha Frost and Diana Coole,’ nature ‘pushes back’ in sometimes unexpected ways, but in ways that are nonetheless subject to human interpretation.
Antoine concludes the forum on a forward-looking note that also recalls Ali’s point of the various forms of critical literatures that have much to offer our thinking about bodies and violence beyond feminist literatures: “a growing task of critical scholars in the future may therefore also be that of attentiveness to new forms for the sorting and hierarchizing of bodies, human and otherwise, that are emerging from the production of scientific knowledges.” I agree and (some of) my current research is aimed precisely at the question of gender, queer theory and ‘the posthuman’. While I am wary of certain tendencies within some of the critical literatures of affect theory, ‘new materialisms’ and the like that suggest either explicitly or implicitly that feminist, anti-racial or other such critiques are outmoded, scholars like Rosi Braidotti and Donna Haraway have read the feminist politics the ‘posthuman’ in ways that engage the shifting materialities and discursive constructions of gendered and sexualized bodies. I’m working on a project now that pursues the question of embodiment and ‘drone warfare’ future to consider the politics of the insect and the swarm as inspirations for military technological developments, in the manner that Katherine Hayles describes as a double vision that “looks simultaneously at the power of simulation and at the materialities that produce it” in order to “better understand the implication of articulating posthuman constructions together with embodied actualities” (Hayles 1999, 47). This is to say both discursive constructions of insects/swarms in culture (particularly their association with death, abjection and the feminine) as well as the material capabilities of insects and their role in the earth’s eco-system and its own set of ‘death-worlds’ can and should be thought in tandem. The parameters of this project are yet not fixed (are they ever?) and so I’m grateful for this conversation around Bodies of Violence as I work to further the project of taking embodiment and its relationships with subjectivity and violence seriously in thinking about international political violence in its myriad forms. These contributions are evidence that work on embodiment in IR and related disciplines is becoming a robust research area in which many possibilities exist for dialogue, critique and collaboration.
[i] Also, feminist theorists such as Butler, Grosz, Haraway and Ahmed all engage in a variety of traditions as well, from psychoanalysis, Foucauldian theory, phenomenology, postcolonial theory, and more, so the divisions between ‘feminist theory’ and other kinds of critical theory is far from given, and a much longer piece could be written about this.
[iii] I agree with Pablo K that Butler’s work is ambiguously situated in relationship to the so-called ‘new materialisms’: I make a brief case in the book that it is not incompatible with her approach at times, but I don’t explore this at length in the final version of the text.
JULY 9, 2015
Anita Guerrini, Horning Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History at Oregon State University, discusses the fascinating research which she presented at Objects in Motion: Material Culture in Transition.
Although the human skeleton was well known as a symbol before 1500, the articulated skeleton does not seem to have come into its own as an object – scientific and artistic as well as symbolic – until the time of Vesalius. Curiously ubiquitous, since everyone has one, but yet largely invisible, anatomists revealed the skeleton to view. The well-known illustrations of Vesalius were plagiarized over and over for two centuries after their publication in 1543.
Vesalius was the first to give detailed instructions on how to make a skeleton, for although it was a natural object, it was also a crafted object whose construction entailed a lot of work. The human body became an object in motion as it travelled from the scaffold to the dissection table to the grisly cauldron where the bones were boiled to remove their flesh. While artists and anatomists employed skeletons for instruction, little evidence of their collection appears before the mid-seventeenth century, when they begin to appear in cabinets and collections. Both the Royal Society and the Paris Academy of Sciences owned several. At the Paris Academy, André Colson, described as an “ébeniste” or furniture maker, was charged with the making and maintenance of the skeleton room, while the physician Nehemiah Grew, who catalogued the Royal Society’s collections in 1681, may also have made its skeletons. By the end of the seventeenth century, a vigorous skeleton trade flourished across Europe, and they often appear in auction catalogues alongside books, works of art, and scientific instruments. At the same time, relics, both old and new, retained their potency in both Catholic and Protestant countries.
After Vesalius, detailed instructions for making a skeleton appeared in many anatomical texts and manuals as part of the education of a physician or surgeons; in the eighteenth century, William Hunter took it for granted that each of his students would need to construct a skeleton for his own use and in addition procure “several skulls.” While such a process would seem to confer anonymity to the finished skeleton, provenance and even identity often clung to the bones along with religious resonances. Most skeletons were of executed criminals, some of them widely known. The skeleton of the “Thief-taker General” Jonathan Wild, executed in 1725, still hangs in the gallery of the College of Surgeons in London, and Hogarth’s famous 1751 “Fourth Stage of Cruelty” shows the skeletons of other malefactors on display in niches at Surgeons’ Hall while a cauldron awaits the bones of Tom Nero, who is being dissected by the surgeons after his conviction for murder.
Widespread demand and changing scientific contexts expanded the market for skeletons (as well as skulls) beyond Europe to encompass much of the known world by the mid-eighteenth century. The prodigious collector Hans Sloane received skulls and bones from contacts throughout the world, including native bones that his Jamaican contacts apparently stumbled across in caves. Sloane’s meticulous catalogues of his collections allow one to trace the provenance of many of his human specimens though other collectors and agents. Such catalogues, along with account books, advertisements, and illustrations, reveal this worldwide commerce in skeletons alongside a continued trade in skeletal relics. Traveling across time and place, skeletons embodied beauty and deformity, crime and punishment, sin and sanctity, science and colonial power, often simultaneously.
OMAR EL AKKAD
MIAMI — The Globe and Mail
Friday, Jul. 17, 2015 5:50PM EDT
Last updated Monday, Jul. 20, 2015 11:59AM EDT
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is a strange-looking beast. Its south runway, unveiled last September as part of a $2-billion expansion project, rests like an overpass atop six lanes of highway traffic. Across the road, facing the vast turquoise sweep of the Atlantic Ocean, is Port Everglades – home to some of the largest cruise ships on Earth. Between them, the bustling terminals handle a significant portion of the human cargo that fuels Florida’s $70-billion-a-year tourism machine.
Easily lost in all this bigness is a temporary water feature – a large puddle by the side of the road near the foot of the elevated runway.
“This is just from rain,” says Lee Gottlieb, an environmental activist and 40-year resident of South Florida. “I don’t think it’s rained here in five, six days.”
But the rainwater pools anyway. Virtually all of South Florida is only a few feet above sea level. “They elevated the runway,” Mr. Gottlieb says, “but all the terminals …” he pauses, exasperated. “Obviously, if we had a major deluge – this is a flood area.”
It has become increasingly commonplace for politicians at every level of U.S. government – from small-town mayors to the President himself – to describe climate change as the single most important challenge of the coming century. Such rhetoric is buoyed by myriad crises, from sinking land mass in southern Louisiana to historic droughts in California. In low-lying Florida, the culprit is the rising sea level. Should the ocean crawl just one more foot up the edges of this peninsula – something that’s projected to happen in the next two decades, by some estimates – most of the canal systems that keep the saltwater out of the area’s drinking wells would cease to function. A few more feet, and entire towns suddenly turn neo-Venetian, the roads flooded, the infrastructure almost impossible to salvage.
But beyond the dire warnings, something else is happening in South Florida. Here, for the first time in North America, the conversation is no longer just about what climate-change countermeasures or conservation initiatives to pursue – taking shorter showers or subsidizing electric cars. It’s about a much more existential question: What if it’s too late?
Scientists are starting to suggest that, in the long run, much of South Florida cannot be saved and that policymakers should begin planning for how to best deal with a massive northward exodus in the coming decades, as some of the most iconic real estate on the continent begins to succumb to the sea.
“Sooner or later, this city, as you see it right now, won’t be like this,” says Henry Briceño, a water-quality researcher at Florida International University. “Miami and the whole of South Florida is not going to be like this any more. So we have to develop a way to plan and supply services in a changing scenario, and that’s not easy. And then, sooner or later, we’ll have to move. Most of the population will have to move.”
Imagine a prohibition on fossil fuels, effective tomorrow. Every gas-guzzler off the road; every coal plant shuttered; every source of greenhouse-gas emissions brought under control.
Even then, by some estimates, the atmosphere would experience residual warming for another 30 years. That, in turn, would continue to heat the oceans for about another century. The warming ocean would melt the ice-packs in Greenland and Antarctica. And, finally, those melting masses of ice would raise the sea level.
“We’ve missed the boat, so to speak, on stopping serious warming in a way so we can turn it around real quick,” says Harold Wanless, chair of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. “That’s gone, we’ve warmed the ocean too much. So we’re in for it now.”
Very few people in Florida have spoken as passionately – or for so many years – as Prof. Wanless about what the irreversible mechanics of rising sea levels are likely to do to the southern half of this state. The son of a geologist, he has been talking to anyone who’ll listen – community organizations, high schools, even the religious TV program The 700 Club – since the early 1980s.
Back then, projections estimated that sea levels would rise by about four feet by the end of the coming century. Today, that number is in the low to middle segment of U.S. government projections, which run as high as six feet.
“That’s going to eliminate living on all the barrier islands of the world,” he says. “It’s going to inundate major portions of the coastal delta in China, India, the U.S. and elsewhere. That’s where a huge amount of agriculture is.”
At six feet of sea-level rise, roughly half of Miami-Dade County will be under water. Given the impact such land loss would have on vital infrastructure, it may well render the area totally uninhabitable.
Few places are as geographically ill-equipped to deal with rising water as southern Florida. Not only is much of the land barely a few feet above sea level, it also sits on a bed of porous limestone and sand, making measures such as dikes far less effective. Higher sea levels would eat away at the barrier islands that buffer the coast against powerful storms – which is hugely problematic, given that more powerful storms are one of the hallmarks of climate change. The rising water also threatens to slip inland and contaminate the wells that provide much of the region’s drinking water.
“The biggest stress on the system is water supply,” says Doug Young, a long-time environmental activist who moved to Florida from Montreal 24 years ago. “We’re just about the most susceptible place in the entire world. The salt water pushes in from the ocean and gets into the aquifer. It’s happening as we speak.”
But even as experts tried for years to explain these looming catastrophes to South Florida residents, showing them maps of how much land would be lost with every foot of sea-level rise, often they would encounter the same response.
“They’d look at a map and say, ‘Oh, my house will still be there,’” Prof. Wanless says. “Yeah, but the infrastructure has totally collapsed, you just happen to be in a little high spot. There’s no sewage, and there’s probably no reliable electricity or anything any more. You’re just camping out there on your little hill.”
The response illustrates the central hurdle for climate-change activists: The changes will unfold over the better part of a century. In geologic terms, it’s a blink of an eye. But in human terms, where the standard unit of measurement is often a 30-year mortgage cycle, it’s easy to dismiss rising waters as a problem for a future generation to face.
Indeed, advocating for billion-dollar conservation measures – to say nothing of planning for an outright evacuation in several decades’ time – is lonely work in a place where the tourism and real-estate industries are doing brisk business. Countless condos are going up in Miami-Dade County alone, and new beachside hotels are popping up all along the southern coast. Of these, the closest thing to a forward-looking project is a proposal by a Dutch company to build a community of multimillion-dollar mansions that float.
Perhaps as a result, scientists here have had a particularly difficult time convincing the state’s leadership to treat climate change as a priority – or even a reality. In March, allegations surfaced that officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were being ordered not to use the terms “climate change” or “global warming” in any official capacity.
The state government flatly denies that accusation. “The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has no policy banning the use of ‘climate change,’ ” says Lori Elliott, a spokesperson for the DEP, adding that the department is running a number of multiyear sea-level-rise monitoring and adaptation projects. “In fact, the department constantly monitors changes we identify in Florida’s ecosystems and works with other local and state agencies to ensure Florida’s communities and natural resources are protected.”
Regardless of where state authorities stand on the issue, rising sea levels pose another fundamental problem: unpredictability. So the prospect of oceans rising in a uniform, linear fashion – in a way that can be accurately approximated and planned for – appears unlikely.
A time-travelling cartographer, standing on the southern edge of the Florida peninsula some 18,000 years ago, would have seen a land mass roughly 160 kilometres wider than the one today. There used to be far more of this place, but the sea swallowed it.
What’s left of that land is a series of old beach ridges. Scanning the underwater ridges produces a timeline of how the land was drowned. Instead of a gradual rise, the spacing of the ridges indicates that the land loss happened in what Prof. Wanless calls “pulses.” Somewhere, a massive ice sheet would disintegrate, and over the following hundred years, a relatively huge sea-level rise would follow. The gradient was less akin to sliding down a smooth curve, and closer to falling down an uneven staircase.
That’s what worries scientists – the prospect of shocks, of sudden changes. And not just geological ones.
On a clear April day, Mr. Gottlieb, the environmental activist, drives to a seawall near Ft. Lauderdale. It is new, rising about three feet in the clearing between a sandy ocean beach and the road. It was built with flooding in mind, after rain from Hurricane Sandy inundated the roads here. The base cost of the seawall is about $10-million a mile. It is yet to be seen whether the wall will withstand, in any meaningful way, a direct hit from the next major hurricane.
Rising waters may eventually consume large swaths of South Florida, but sudden storms will likely change the geographic and economic landscape first. “Insurance companies are already increasing flood insurance premiums,” Prof. Briceño says. “There is a point when insurance companies will say ‘no more.’ And if you are unable to insure a property with a mortgage on it, your property is worth nothing.”
It is those sorts of shocks – uninsurable properties, credit-rating declines, crippling storm-damage bills – that a growing number of policymakers are trying to avoid. Tired of waiting for the state to act, a group of counties that occupy some of the most vulnerable ground in South Florida have formed a task force of sorts to figure out how to best address rising sea levels.
“We should be building for transition,” says Philip Stoddard, a professor at the department of biological sciences at Florida International and the mayor of South Miami. “We should be elevating areas to make it possible for some business activity to remain as the water comes up.”
But even with such measures, Prof. Stoddard has little doubt that, 20 years from now, many communities will begin fading away. “We’ll be depopulating,” he says. “You can either depopulate in a frantic, disastrous fashion, or you can do it methodically according to people’s risk tolerance. I’m all in favour of doing less damage as people head out the door.”
But Prof. Stoddard’s work is further complicated by the fact that nobody really knows just how much sea-level rise to expect. Models from 20 and even 10 years ago are looking increasingly conservative. And some new estimates are producing numbers that make the previous projections look trivial by comparison.
A few years ago, climatologist James Hansen suggested a sea-level rise of about 16 feet by 2100 – a number far higher than most other projections. The estimate was based in part on the idea of “amplifying feedbacks.” For example, ice reflects almost all solar radiation, but open water absorbs it. So as an ice sheet melts, it has a reinforcing effect, increasing the melting rate. Several of those feedbacks had not been incorporated into other climate-change models. Accounting for them, Dr. Hansen argued, pushed the numbers up.
The projection was met with skepticism. To test it, Prof. Wanless recently decided to see if the melt rate in Greenland was consistent with Dr. Hansen’s projections. Looking at satellite data, he found it was not – it was melting at an even faster rate.
Lee Gottlieb stands on a pristine beach a few kilometres north of Miami, observing his creation – a set of rolling dunes, anchored in place with sea oats. The grass is thin and shivers in the breeze. The structure is a sacrificial lamb; a major storm surge would likely destroy it. But it would still serve as a buffer, protecting the infrastructure farther inland. Mr. Gottlieb has been trying to convince municipalities and private developers to support the dune project. Some prospective partners have been receptive. Others declined, complaining, in one case, that if the oats grew too tall, they might ruin the ocean view from a condo’s mezzanine-level pool.
“Do we really think [the sea oats project is] going to save the day? No,” Mr. Gottlieb says. “But we need to bring people’s attention to the issue. We can’t afford to wait another 10 years.”
Exactly what South Florida will look like a decade from now is anyone’s guess. It’s impossible to predict whether another hurricane will devastate the area, or at what point insurance companies might balk at the risk.
Meanwhile, not everyone wants to discuss the notion of long-term evacuation. There’s the prospect of plummeting home values, of the massive public and private costs. And there’s a decidedly human factor: Some people don’t want to leave the places they call home, come hell or high water.
“People think that everywhere we live has always been there, and that’s just not true,” Prof. Wanless says. “Every community is so afraid of facing the reality that you have to move on some day, and honestly plan for it.”
Omar El Akkad reports on the United States for The Globe.
July 7, 2015
by Aaron Vansintjan*
Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).
The word “Anthropocene” has become a rallying cry, to many signifying the urgency of action on climate change. The question now is whether we should keep using it.
‘Good’ Anthropocene or ‘Bad’ Anthropocene?
The types of opinions that cluster around the Anthropocene vary. In the book The God Species, prominent environmental writer Mark Lynas argues that, since we are entering into a new, never-seen-before era of human control of the environment, we have the responsibility, duty, and possibility to control it further. He argues that precisely because we are seeing unforeseen problems at a greater scale than anything we’ve ever seen, we will need to use all tools at our disposal. That includes nuclear power and genetic engineering.
Recently, Mark Lynas joined a cohort of other pro-tech scientists, writers, and environmentalists, and helped pen an “eco-modernist manifesto” The authors claim that “modern technologies, by using natural ecosystem flows and services more efficiently, offer a real chance of reducing the totality of human impacts on the biosphere. To embrace these technologies is to find paths to a good Anthropocene.”
Richard Heinberg at the Post-Carbon Institute calls this the “we’re-in-charge-and-loving-it” attitude. To him, this “techno-Anthropocene” argument signifies a brand of scientist who embraces the Anthropocene simply because it gives humans full license to keep terraforming the planet. Heinberg proposes his own version: the “lean-green Anthropocene”, since any feasible techno-solution will be powered by more energy, not less.
Somewhat surprisingly, the term has been eagerly adopted by critical theorists—perhaps too uncritically. Bruno Latour often likes to use the term as a launching point to discuss the new politics that these crises require. Recently, he pushed back against the eco-modernist manifesto, complaining that “to add ‘good’ to Anthropocene was a ridiculous thing to do”. According to Latour, there is only a ‘bad’ Anthropocene. But there is no doubt that there is an Anthropocene.
Prominent political ecology scholars Laura Ogden, Paul Robbins, and Nik Heynen reference the term to support their own arguments that grassroots organisations are the key to resilience and political resistance in this new era. In another article on this blog, Robbins and Sarah A. Moore suggest that while political ecologists and eco-moderns may have differing views, they are both reactions to the reality of the Anthropocene. Slavoj Zizek suggests that the Anthropocene, and the scientists that propose it, make us ask new questions about humans’ relationship to their environment, and our culture’s obsession with the ever-present apocalypse. In another essay, Dipesh Chakrabarty partly challenges the term from a postcolonial perspective, but ends up endorsing it, since it means that everyone (the colonisers and the colonised, the rich and the poor) will be affected by the coming disasters.
I say surprisingly since these same theorists would hesitate to use the words democracy, development, or progress without “scare-quotes”—they specialise in questioning everything under the sun (and rightly so). For them to endorse this new word so uncritically is perhaps the best indication of its widespread appeal.
The politics of climate science
Yet, in the past year—especially the past months—a flurry of critiques of the Anthropocene concept have appeared.
The first key issue is scientific.
Since Paul Crutzen first proposed the term (he suggested it started with the industrial revolution, but then changed his mind claiming that it started with the testing of atomic bombs) scientists have struggled to define what it is exactly and when it started. There is currently no consensus.
The vagueness of the term led to the inability to pin down what it would actually look like, and how it could be measured. Leading scientists have posed the question whether the Anthropocene is really just a ‘pop culture’ phenomenon, or a serious issue of concern for stratigraphers.
Consequentially, these scientific conversations are political in themselves. For many scientists involved, there is a feeling that those advancing the concept are interested more in highlighting the destructive qualities of humans to encourage action on climate change than to define a new scientific term. As such, the Anthropocene once again reveals that science—often claimed to be objective—is driven by, and subject to, personal and political agendas.
Blaming humans, erasing history
But it’s not just because the Anthropocene is politically charged and difficult to pin down that we should think again about using it. There are more troubling issues with the concept that we should be aware of.
First is the concern that the Anthropocene concept ‘naturalizes’ human’s impact on the earth. What does this mean? Essentially, that by saying that this is the ‘epoch of humans’, we are suggesting that all humans are the cause. In other words, that there is something intrinsically bad about humans, where we will always and inevitably leave an imprint on our environment.
At play here is the (very Western) idea that humans are separate from nature, and that either we get back to it or we rise above it. The alternative, as environmental theorist Jim Proctor suggests, is appreciating that the Anthropocene is not ‘because’ of humans. It requires acknowledging that these processes and events are many and they are intertwined—there is no clear separation between nature and culture, between human desires and natural forces.
But what forces should we blame? In all of the climate change research, we are told that it is definitely ‘man-made’. Arguing against this could bring us dangerously close to the denialist road.
It is at this point that we might want to select option (C): ask a historian. James W. Moore, a professor in environmental history, has asked whether we really ought to point the finger at steam engines, atomic bombs, or humanity as a whole. Instead, he argues for a different term altogether: the ‘Capitalocene’: the geological era of capitalism.
In short, it is not because of the steam engine that we saw unprecedented use of fossil fuels—it is rather a system of governance and social organisation that led to the global alterations we are seeing today.
It is strange to see the extent to which these kinds of wider social dynamics are totally obscured in the Anthropocene debate. Many have argued that the invention of fire was the first spark that would inevitably lead to the immense footprint that humans place on the earth. This idea is endorsed by, for example, Paul Crutzen, Mark Lynas, and John R. McNeill.
But to say that the control of fire was a necessary condition for humanity’s ability to burn coal is one thing, to argue that it is the reason why we are currently facing a climate crisis is another. Many Anthropocene proponents tend to reduce complex social and historical processes to simple, reductive explanations. But climate change is not just a matter of humans vs. earth.
Neither is the Anthropocene ‘the new reality’ affecting everyone. Actually, as Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg point out, because of existing power relationships, the ‘new reality’ will be more ‘real’ for some than for others. For most people, it will mean increased hardship and a fight for survival, while for some there will be easy lifeboats.
In this way, Malm and Hornborg suggest that Dipesh Chakrabarty, the scholar embracing the concept from a postcolonial perspective, should rethink his position: climate change is not, in itself, a universal levelling force, but may instead further exacerbate inequalities between the rich and the poor.
This leads to a final issue: the problem of politics. If, as many Anthropocene enthusiasts argue, the concept helps people understand the extent of human involvement in the earth’s systems, it also could lead to a promising political conversation, finally alerting those in power that something needs to be done.
But depending on your personal beliefs, the Anthropocene concept will lead you to different conclusions and calls to action. As Ian Angus from Climate and Capitalism argues, ecomodernists have hijacked the term for their own uses. But perhaps it’s the concepts own vagueness that has allowed it to be co-opted in the first place. It’s likely that this vagueness has played at least a small part in both the struggles of scientists to define the term and its chameleon-like ability to fit anyone’s agenda.
Is the term still useful?
It’s hard to say if the term is, on average, inimical to good debate or if it encourages it. But after considering the twists and turns the concept has taken since its inception until its current use, it’s worth taking the critics seriously.
Yes, ‘Anthropocene’ can be useful to tell the history of life on earth. It can also illustrate the extent to which humans have modified the earth’s systems. It also suggests that we can no longer go back to a ‘pristine’ nature that existed before humans, as cultural critics have long suggested. The term is incredibly appealing from a geological perspective, highlighting the fact that humans have made so deep an impact on the earth’s crust that future inhabitants of the earth, when digging, will come across a layer of soil that has ‘human’ written all over it. This geological fact is a useful tidbit to highlight all of the above.
But it doesn’t necessarily, as many have argued, help challenge the systems that perpetuate climate change. Because it applies to humans as a whole, it does not indicate that our problem is political, resting on the uneven distribution of power. In leaving the starting date of the Anthropocene undefined (some say 50 years ago, others say 400 years ago, yet others say 10,000, still others say 50,000), the word fails to highlight the primary actors of today’s ecological crisis.
Like ‘sustainability’, ‘development’, ‘natural’, or ‘green’, the term is so vague that it can be used by anyone, whether they want to challenge the powers that be, just want to make a quick buck, or score a research grant. While the term can be used to support arguments for action on climate change, it can just as well be used to support digging more oil wells (“oh what the heck, we live in the age of human superiority anyway!”).
You might ask, isn’t this the case with all words? Not true. There are plenty of terms that the climate movement is using that are both powerful and are not so easy to appropriate: degrowth, climate justice, ecocide, ecological debt, and 350ppm are just few.
Unfortunately, the term ‘Anthropocene’ fails to adequately frame the current situation, and in-so-doing allows anyone to co-opt it for their own solutions. While it has certainly got many people talking, it is neither political nor precise, and therefore may not lead to a very good, or challenging, conversation. And right now we need to have challenging conversations.
*Aaron Vansintjan studies ecological economics, food systems, and urban change. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth and enjoys journalism, wild fermentations, decolonization, degrowth, and long bicycle rides.
A version of this article originally appeared on Uneven Earth.
July 13, 2015
The Human Terrain System  (HTS) – a U.S. Army program aimed at helping U.S. and allied military forces understand the people around them in Iraq and Afghanistan – is dead. And anthropologists are dancing ritualistically around its corpse .
The idea behind HTS was simple and promising: embed social scientists with military units and give them the resources to unearth operationally relevant socio-cultural data and findings. Its founders, Dr. Montgomery McFate, an anthropologist by training, and former Army officer Steve Fondacaro stood the program up and served as its leaders and missionaries for its first few years of existence. At the height of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan most ground-holding brigades and special operations units had Human Terrain Teams (HTTs) supported by Human Terrain Analysis Teams (HTATs) at the division level.
So what went wrong? When Tom Vanden Brook broke the story of the death of HTS  he focused on fraud, racial and sexual harassment, as well as ethical issues related to the program’s roots in anthropology. His sources for the story, his most recent of several on the program, were a predictably bland statement by an Army spokesman, Dr. Roberto Gonzalez – an anthropologist at San Jose State University who, like many of his disciplinary colleagues, has been a consistent critic of the program, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif), who has waged war against HTS for years.
I was surprised and disappointed that Brook did not dig a little deeper. He did not get any of the hundreds of people who worked for HTS to comment on the record, even though a number of us write for public consumption these days and probably would have been happy to talk to him. He did not reference any of the four major studies (briefly reviewed at e-IR by Michael Davies ) that sought to assess the program’s effectiveness. He did not seek out any scholars who have conducted pathbreaking research on HTS, such as Christopher Sims  who recently finished his doctoral work at the King’s College London War Studies Department on this very subject.
Instead, Brook went to an anthropologist who had no association with the program (but wrote a stinging critique of it in 2009 ) and a Member of Congress who is a known foe of the program. He tried to go to the Army and it is unfortunate they did not offer anything substantive.
One cannot get at why HTS failed without looking at all the information at hand. This actually matters because understanding socio-cultural issues in war zones remains an important endeavor. I spoke to several of my former Human Terrain System colleagues, some of whom I did not actually get to know until after I had come home, to identify the seven deadly sins of the program from an insider perspective. What were they?
- Calling it anthropology
One of the program’s founders was McFate – a trained anthropologist who was also involved in developing Field Manual 3-24 on counterinsurgency. When the program started receiving media coverage in 2007 as an anthropological program, the American Anthropological Association was livid. They called it “an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise ” and launched what amounted to a jihad against HTS.
Anthropology is a valuable academic discipline that has helped to shed light on diverse cultures around the world, however it tends to attract and foster those with opinions on the far left of the political spectrum. At the risk of over-generalizing, Western anthropologists as a group are skeptical of the U.S. military and generally politically opposed to U.S. wars. This is a cultural departure from the earlier history of the discipline, which some say was overly intertwined with imperial projects and ambitions – a legacy that is deeply regretted by many present day scholars of this discipline and feeds their skepticism of many western military operations.
It was therefore no surprise that the American Anthropological Association came after the Human Terrain System with everything they had, even producing a highly critical 73-page report on the program  in 2009. But HTS was not an anthropological effort and never should have been called one or defended on that basis. HTS officials spent a great deal of focus trying to “engage” with the anthropological community and make nice. HTS leaders insisted the program was not an intelligence effort (also untrue, as I discuss below) to appease crunchy academics. But that was an unwise and unnecessary effort.
HTS drew on social scientists from a variety of disciplines (not, as some think, primarily because of its rejection by the anthropological community) as well as historians. Field research and ethnography are not the exclusive domains of the anthropologist. And HTS personnel did not even have the time or opportunities to do proper ethnography (as discussed eloquently by David Edwards ).
So what were they doing?
- Denying it was an intelligence program
HTS leadership constantly denied that it was an intelligence program (read this semi-ridiculous FAQ ) to the media, representatives from the anthropological community, and those of us who went through HTS training because someone decided that “intelligence” is a dirty word.
HTS was absolutely an intelligence program and the Army and HTS leaders should have embraced it from the start. All “intelligence” means is information gathered and analyzed at the institutional level to inform decision-making. What’s more, the program fell under the G2 (“2” indicates “intelligence”) at the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). This U.S. Army budget document called it a “Military Intelligence Program .” As an HTS employee (and Department of the Army civilian), I fell under the Defense Civilian Intelligence Personnel System  (DCIPS), as did my HTS colleagues. Many Human Terrain Teams, including my own, worked closely with and were embedded within the intelligence staff sections in the brigades they served. Does that mean we were involved with lethal targeting? No, of course not. But we absolutely collected and analyzed information that informed military operations.
- Flawed recruitment
There were generally three types of people who joined HTS. The first were people who believed in a mission (although not necessarily the ones our forces were in Iraq and Afghanistan for) and wanted to contribute to it. The second were people who saw such a deployment as an opportunity for self-actualization, escape, or adventure. The third were people looking to make a buck (HTS was a well-paid gig, even after the program switched from employing contractors to government personnel).
All three categories had their problems. You had special ops-wannabes, a guy who had previously worked in Afghanistan (and got kicked out) but wanted to return solely to get some locals funding to build a doll factory (no joke), another guy who wanted to introduce Christianity in Afghanistan… I could go on.
My job interview for HTS was a joke. It was two ten minute phone interviews and, as far as I know, they followed up on exactly zero of my references. I have no reason to believe that this was not typical, especially once I met some of the people with whom I was in training, to include fantasists and fraudsters who routinely and obviously embellished their experience (many – but not all – of the worst were weeded out during training and did not make it to deployment). Once one made it past this ridiculously low hurdle, we were hired as contractors and told to show up at Ft. Leavenworth, where we would be trained and, eventually, “transitioned” into the ranks of the Department of the Army as civil servants.
What they did not tell us was that this transition process was actually a whole separate job application process. Once we arrived in Leavenworth, we were told we had to apply for the government version of the job and if we did not make it through, we would be sent packing. I accept that they couldn’t just let us into the ranks of government service without some sort of process, but they should have told people ahead of time that this would be the case. People had left their jobs and even sold their homes with the expectation that they had a real job.
As it turns out, the government application process was also absurd (but far more cumbersome) and we were told pretty directly by a Department of the Army civilian official that they would not have the time to check our references. Still, many people were weeded out at this point. Unfortunately, they were often the wrong people. Most Afghan-Americans and Iraqi-Americans in the training program did not make it through this process. One colleague who had done his graduate work at Oxford got turned out at this point because Oxford was not recognized by the Department of the Army (no joke). Some of the wash-out survivors were the most troublesome and the biggest perpetuators of sexual harassment.
Take a breath before you attack the contracting companies that brought in misfits and oversaw an ineffective recruitment process. They were executing the contract as it was written and it was written poorly. True responsibility sits with the Army.
- Awful training and deployment processes
Maybe two weeks of useful training was spread out over five and a half months. Our training schedules changed on a daily basis, introducing a frustrating element of unpredictability that did not set HTS trainees up for success. We also received way too little language training. And for you taxpayers out there, the entire time we were in training, we were staying in nice hotels, had rental cars provided for us (complete with reimbursed gas), and received per diem on top of our generous salaries.
Training would have been a great opportunity to assess the strengths and weaknesses of candidates. While efforts were made along these lines, they were ineffectual. One huge missed opportunity was the failure to capitalize on prior in-country experience by U.S. military personnel and civilians in HTS. People with experience in one part of Iraq or Afghanistan should have been enabled to go back to those areas, where they would have had the most value. No efforts were made in that direction. People did not usually know where in Iraq or Afghanistan they were going until a couple weeks before they deployed, which deprived them of a chance to do in-depth research on the provincial and district levels of analysis – which is where HTTs did all their work.
- Deploying personnel who were unprepared to survive in a combat zone
Up until at least late 2010, HTS trainees received no practical training on how to safely use firearms and to survive in combat, despite the fact that many of us would be expected or given the opportunity to carry firearms and get shot at. The official line was we could be trained and certified for these sorts of things downrange by the brigades we were working with – a form of on the job combat training.
One former HTTer conveyed an all-too-common experience to me:
My on the job training in Afghanistan included: riding in an MRAP for the first time; riding in a helicopter for the first time; shooting an M4 and M9 for the first time. I “qualified” on an M4 at a strong point overlooking an abandoned village by shooting at a house with a suspected sniper inside. Luckily he wasn’t shooting back at the time. The first time I wore NODs [night observation device] was on a night time patrol and I’m lucky I didn’t fall on my face let alone step outside the cleared path.
While I had fired rifles and pistols a few times before HTS, I had never been that into guns. While in training, I went to the range with current and former military personnel in my training class who kindly showed me the ropes as well as they could. I also spent a sizeable amount of my own money to fly to the U.S. Shooting Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma during my pre-deployment leave to take a private class with a former recon Marine on handling and firing a carbine and a pistol. Luckily, I had an amazing and responsible team leader (an Army reserve officer) who insured once we were in Afghanistan that those of us who wanted to carry firearms (I carried an M9 on most missions) were trained and appropriately equipped to do so.
After my training was complete, HTS started to send its people through more rigorous training at Ft. Polk.
- Broken leadership and organizational culture
This is a bit misleading, because to call the HTS organizational culture “broken” implies that it was once whole. It never was. There was a pervasive sense that leadership did not care much for the well-being of the people in the program during training and especially once they were deployed. Sexual harassment was a big problem, both in training and downrange, but it should be noted that this was (and remains) a broader U.S. military problem – not just an HTS problem – yet the fact that accountability mechanisms in HTS were so messed up (and sometimes just absent) made it worse.
- Trying to become the COIN poster boys and gals hid the real success stories
The problems of HTS were rooted in the early public narrative on the program, which started with the major media attention it started to receive in 2007. HTS advocates in and out of the Army tried to sell the program as the thing that would make counterinsurgency work. You know those hearts and minds you are trying to win? Well here are the folks that will help you see inside them and tell you what you’ll have to do. This was never a realistic aim and it was rooted in a fundamental misconception of how and why counterinsurgency operations can be successful (read my chapter in this book ).
Human Terrain Teams were never going to “fix” counterinsurgency or make it work, but at their best, a functioning team could provide a sharper lens through which their brigades could see their area of operations. The saddest part about the Human Terrain System legacy is that many teams were successful at this (as confirmed by four authoritative studies of the program) and provided real value to their brigades, but this was all lost in the public discourse because so many mistakes were made in recruitment, training, management, and everything else I discuss above.
I am proud of the work I did in Afghanistan on a Human Terrain Team and so are most of my HTS comrades. It is crucial that we understand the seven deadly sins of HTS, but I hope journalists also talk about the good things. They happened too and they matter.
Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks . He worked as a U.S. Human Terrain Team social scientist in Helmand province from November 2010 to August 2011.
By Clifton Green | July 01, 2015
The U.S. Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS), a program that embedded social scientists with deployed units, endured a rough start as it began deploying teams to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007.1 These early experiences had a lasting impact on the program. Although critics have written extensively about HTS struggles with internal mismanagement, most accounts simply cataloged problems, yielded little insight into the organization’s progress over time, and ultimately gave the impression that HTS was never able to make needed corrections. Far from being a failure, though, HTS is a remarkable turnaround story and should serve as a case study for how organizations can implement fundamental organizational changes. Even more importantly, the reformed version of HTS provides a template that could significantly improve existing Department of Defense (DOD) support to deployed civilians, thousands of whom have provided critical services to war-fighters around the globe.
Civilian Expeditionary Workforce member engages local business owner in discussion regarding poultry feed production, Kandahar Province (Kentucky National Guard/Dallas Kratzer)
Inception to Government Transition. HTS was developed as a response to concerns about mismanagement of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular the lack of cultural understanding of these countries demonstrated by the U.S. military. Soldiers, commanded by leaders with limited cross-cultural experience, were being asked to navigate a complex foreign environment with little or no training, and they were failing.
Prior to U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, cultural research and analysis had only a small place in the Army thought process. HTS changed that. Designed to provide a better understanding of indigenous populations in these countries, it was hoped that HTS would help U.S. and allied forces reduce violent misunderstandings and dampen the insurgencies. In 2006, the Army, facing progressively worsening situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, needed new ideas and thus backed a $20 million, five-team HTS proof of concept. Even before all five teams had been deployed, early reactions from theater commanders were favorable. Within a year, the requirement for Human Terrain Teams mushroomed to 26 teams as the price tag surpassed $100 million annually.
In the mad dash to fill positions, HTS hiring standards ranged from minimal to nonexistent. In many cases, new employees were not even interviewed. When combined with high starting salaries, this lack of selectivity caused HTS to attract a peculiar mix of highly qualified personnel, absolutely unqualified personnel, and everyone in between.
As the number of workers swelled at the HTS base of operations in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, two distinct camps emerged. Army Reservists, with varying levels of military experience, formed one group, while contractors formed another. Although it is contractors who typically play a supporting role to government and military personnel, in the early days of HTS it was the military members who lacked a clearly defined role. The vast majority of deployed team members and support staff were contractors, while HTS acquired Reservists with no plan to integrate them. In some cases, military personnel battled the contractors for control, but the HTS support contract required that contractors administer most daily operations. This difficult situation was exacerbated by the fact that HTS’s program manager and its contract oversight were both based a thousand miles away in Virginia.
To deal with these problems and provide better government oversight, a deputy program manager was appointed at Fort Leavenworth in late 2008. His role was to oversee the work of both contractors and military personnel. It was a difficult task. HTS’s highly matrixed organization, internal rivalries, and lack of controls had created a dysfunctional work environment, which operated in an ad hoc manner in almost every way. Policies and procedures were virtually nonexistent, and most work was done by key employees with narrow areas of expertise. Mid- to senior-level managers were, in too many cases, absent or ineffective.
Some HTS managers who did work hard to address the program’s problems were overwhelmed. When decisions were made, they were often inadequate to resolve the problem or simply too late to matter, and the staff required to implement the decisions was insufficient. Such problems were largely due to management officials who had difficulty navigating the unstructured work environment. Instead of establishing systems and frameworks to deal with problems, managers generally approached each problem as a unique circumstance. At the same time, the lack of structure enabled many employees to perform poorly and face few consequences. Without structure to regulate behavior, HTS employees often succumbed to a kind of organizational attention deficit disorder. This combination of factors created serious deficiencies for HTS quality of support.2
In late 2008, these problems were compounded by a new looming crisis. The United States and Iraq had signed a Status of Forces Agreement that put U.S. contractors working in Iraq within the jurisdiction of the Iraqi legal system. Panicked that Iraqi police (or insurgents masquerading as Iraqi police) might arrest employees, HTS initiated a plan to convert all 150 Human Terrain Team (HTT) members from contractors to government employees. To facilitate the process, a government transition assistant was assigned to manage the conversion from Fort Monroe, Virginia, with HTS designating several personnel to assist. All HTS team members had to become government employees by May 31, 2009, or return to the United States.
The conversion, which seemed simple in the abstract, quickly became a nightmare. HTS employees, a notoriously vocal workforce, were bewildered by the turn of events. They deluged the transition assistant with thousands of questions, complaints, and pages of paperwork, and productivity in theater declined while employees wondered about their futures and haggled for better terms. At the same time, numerous other issues, from travel orders to timesheets, required HTS to establish a large number of new internal processes. Like HTS managers, the transition assistant had no system to handle the volume and was quickly overwhelmed. As the situation deteriorated, it was unclear whether the deadline could be met, or if HTS would be forced to embarrassingly remove all personnel from theater.
Fortunately, through furious last-minute efforts by HTS and U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) staff members, the conversion process was completed on time. However, tremendous damage had already been done to HTS credibility, and dozens of employees (over one-third of the HTS deployed workforce) had quit. Bureaucratic infighting caused several staff principles, including the deputy program manager, to depart in mid-2009, and a large portion of the organization was suddenly moved from Fort Leavenworth to Virginia. Although HTS had survived the crisis, many inside and outside of the program began to question HTS’s fundamental level of competence.
Wandering in the Wilderness. After the conversion debacle, HTS drifted. The decision to relocate several sections of the organization caused further division. At the same time, the lack of strong management limited the organization’s ability to make necessary changes. Competing HTS staff elements struggled to fill the vacuum, resulting in a critical lost year.
In the middle of the conversion process, the HTS program manager created a Program Management Office–Forward (PMO-Forward) in both Iraq and Afghanistan in response to real problems, including the lost accountability of employees in a war zone. The role of the PMO-Forwards, however, was never clearly established, and HTS staff members generally viewed the PMO-Forwards as deployed staff elements. The PMO-Forwards, by contrast, considered themselves deputy program managers. Mutual mistrust inhibited collaboration, and a months-long standoff ensued. In spite of the need for internal cooperation, HTS program management never publicized or enforced clear guidelines for how the PMO-Forwards should interact with the staff. Staff meetings between PMO-Forwards and U.S.-based support staff devolved into uncomfortable stalemates. The ensuing discord severely restricted HTS capacity to improve support processes and fed into the HTS culture of dysfunction.
Human Terrain System member speaks with Afghan during Key Leader Engagement in Kandahar Province to discourage locals from hiding contraband for Taliban (DOD/Crystal Davis)
Once teams were staffed with government employees, HTS found itself poorly equipped to meet the needs of its workforce. Contractor-to-government transition planning had been exclusively focused on the conversion process; little preparation had been made for actually supporting government civilians. As contractors, HTS personnel had been supported by corporate human resource (HR) and finance sections, but now those organizations were out of the picture. While regulations and support agencies already existed for government civilian HR and finance issues, those agencies were unequipped to deal with the range and complexity of issues presented by HTS employees.
HTS needed experts to create processes and integrate systems. Lacking both, the newly formed HTS HR Directorate was drowning in problems. For instance, the HTS finance section was staffed by one timekeeper, a Soldier with no background in civilian finance. The lack of support caused the number of pay problems to snowball over time, damaging morale and productivity. Meanwhile, employees in theater had received virtually no training on proper pay practices and would regularly claim to be working in excess of 12 hours per day, 7 days a week. This led to real integrity problems for the organization. While the tempo of operations in theater was certainly high, reports suggested that not everyone was being truthful on their timecards. One team leader did implement significant restrictions on the number of hours employees could claim and was immediately hounded from theater—“fired” by a PMO-Forward who had no legal authority to fire anyone. With no one controlling payroll and a generally lawless atmosphere, team productivity was highly variable. Unfortunately, there is little doubt that some HTS employees took advantage of the situation to pad their timecards while doing little work (a practice that was regrettably common among deployed Federal workers in Iraq and Afghanistan, not just at HTS).3
HTS was simply not operating in accordance with established rules. However, with the government transition complete, it had inherited a rather large rulebook. At the same time, HTS often lacked clear lines of authority within its mix of military, civilian, and contract workers, all of whom were led by a program manager who served on an Intergovernmental Personnel Act agreement, an unusual employment arrangement that further confused matters. The lack of administrative clarity created an overall impression that HTS had no rules, and large numbers of disgruntled HTS employees soon found their way to the inspector general, various elected representatives, and Equal Employment Opportunity offices. Between late 2009 and early 2010, Congress had withheld tens of millions of dollars from the HTS budget and had directed the Center for Naval Analyses to perform an assessment of the program. Other investigations, including an Army Regulation 15-6 inquiry and an internal audit by the TRADOC Internal Review and Audit Compliance office, were bubbling up as well. HTS’s flaws had become impossible to ignore.
Reform. Virtually every HTS employee acknowledged the need for change. The real question was what shape reform would take. Many wanted the program to simply break away from the intrusive rules and regulations, and believed that most problems could be solved if HTS left TRADOC, which they viewed as both unhelpful and adversarial, and moved to U.S. Army Forces Command or U.S. Special Operations Command. Others thought this analysis missed the point. In their view, HTS would have to adapt to the Army and to civilian employment law regardless of which command it fell under. Resistance was not only futile but also destructive and would only cripple the program. HTS would have to learn how to follow the rules.
This conflict had remained unresolved for most of the program’s history. The HTS program manager had often made a point of emphasizing the program’s uniqueness and claimed that this made HTS incompatible with the Army’s existing bureaucracy. TRADOC, which provided oversight of HTS activities, represented that bureaucracy, and as a result was often perceived as an existential threat and met with hostility within HTS. This animosity was at times mutual. Many viewed HTS fiscal wastefulness and poor internal regulation as something of a threat as well, since it would be TRADOC—not the HTS itinerant workforce—that would be left to clean up after HTS failures. TRADOC managers also found HTS’s grandiose plans, such as a training directorate with more staff than students, to be exasperating. These conflicting perspectives caused the relationship between the two organizations to sour over time, and TRADOC found itself confronted daily with the question of how much leeway to give HTS. With the United States engaged in two concurrent wars, there was no easy answer.
Nevertheless, several abortive efforts to clean up aspects of the program from within had taken place. Unfortunately, each had been hindered by a lack of expertise or a failure to follow through. While HTS had a large staff, most staff members were unaware of the mechanics of how the program functioned. The few “old hands” who understood the nuts and bolts of HTS typically tried to fly under the radar amid staff infighting. When ideas did coalesce into concrete proposals, HTS staff principals were generally unable to implement changes due to being overwhelmed by problems and uncertain of the second- and third-order effects of any proposed solution. HTS program management had done little to encourage organizational discipline of any kind. This created an environment largely free of formal consequences, such as reprimands or terminations, even in the face of egregious behavior. To become more legally compliant and effective, HTS would need to irritate many of its longtime employees, who had become accustomed to the consequence-free environment. Taking them on, however, risked pushback from both employees and other managers, so most managers found it safer to do nothing.
Because HTS was overseen by TRADOC G2 and had, over the course of several years, proved unable to effectively self-manage, TRADOC gradually took on a more active role. Unfortunately, the logistics of this relationship were problematic. Most of HTS was physically remote from the TRADOC G2 offices. TRADOC G2 lacked experience overseeing a program such as HTS, and it had both limited access to what was going on within the program and limited manpower. Additionally, HTS sometimes attempted to replicate TRADOC management functions within itself, creating confusion and making cooperation difficult. These factors prevented TRADOC G2 from being able to implement reforms unless HTS was an active and engaged participant. Unfortunately, because HTS leadership generally viewed TRADOC with suspicion, there was little in the way of productive dialogue.
In early 2010, a small group of HTS personnel and TRADOC G2 management officials operating out of Fort Monroe, Virginia, began intensive work on overhauling the program’s administration. The group had detailed insight into the workings of HTS and significant expertise in civilian HR and finance. Over the next few months, a number of policies covering a range of issues were drafted and sent to HTS program management for review. At the same time, the group received additional manpower and was able to improve payroll processing, eliminating a backlog of over 80 pay-related complaints that affected most deployed employees. Unfortunately, implementation of other policy changes was limited. Although the proposals provided a clear and legally compliant model for managing the program, they remained in limbo, neither approved nor rejected. The HTS program manager was simply not enthusiastic about institutionalizing the program.4
By mid-June 2010, the pressure of the investigations and HTS management’s continuing resistance to reform brought the situation to a breaking point. Two key changes, however, appeared to signal a fresh start for the program. First, the position of program manager was eliminated. Second, an Active-duty Army colonel, who had previously served as the TRADOC Deputy G2 and was thus familiar with the HTS program and its difficulties, was named director. The new director had longstanding and positive relationships with TRADOC G2 staff members and thus understood how to balance the considerations of TRADOC with the goals of HTS. Most importantly, she was more pragmatic than her predecessor, who had generally declined to focus on day-to-day management issues.
Anxious to implement change, the HTS director gave the green light to a number of the policies drafted by the Fort Monroe group. The group also gained authority and leadership support in a number of significant areas, including program administration, program development, payroll, travel, hiring, and separations. These changes significantly improved efficiency, transparency, regulatory compliance, and internal controls. New guidance documents eventually covered dozens of topics, and improved internal processes gave managers better insight into how well HTS was running. In addition, new HTS policies established a change management structure that allowed the program to continue to improve. Finally, more discipline was imposed on the hiring process, resulting in more accurate recruitment targets and 61 percent lower attrition in training.5 As positive change continued, many employees expressed relief that HTS was finally turning a corner.
Not everyone agreed, however. For example, although travel privileges had been significantly misused, some supervisors were annoyed about having to ask for permission under the new, more accountable procedures. Timesheet reviews turned up cases of excess that, when addressed, created some hostility. The PMO-Forward positions, which lacked accountability to other staff elements, were abolished and replaced with the position of Theater Support Officer, which reported to the HTS director of operations.
Afghan girl peeks around door as U.S. Special Forces and Cultural Support Team speak with her father, Uruzgan Province (DOD/Kaily Brown)
While process improvements occurred rapidly, improving the HTS workforce took longer. Because HTS had been willing to hire almost anyone in the early days, it had a large number of unproductive employees. Other employees were competent professionals but had a contentious relationship with the program as a result of the years of mismanagement. By 2012, however, a combination of changes had significantly improved workforce quality. These included better management, the termination of more than a dozen employees, more stringent hiring criteria, and a requirement that most employees separate from HTS at the end of their deployment. Employees wishing to deploy again could reapply just like anyone else. This not only improved workforce quality, but it also enhanced the program’s ability to fine-tune recruiting requirements. By 2013, terminations for cause had declined greatly, reflecting an increasingly stable and professional workforce.
Although HTS had made remarkable internal transformations, media coverage of the program was stuck in 2009.6 HTS’s most frequent critic, a blogger named John Stanton, had written numerous articles that reflected extensive employee disgruntlement and captured some of HTS’s chronic mismanagement.7 As things improved, however, critics either minimized or failed to notice the changes made in the program. While this may have been intentional, it seems more likely that they simply were not aware of what was happening. The HTS of 2009 was wide open to the media, a decision that did not serve the program well. To combat this, HTS post-2010 was more closed. Public relations and other outreach efforts continued, but other forms of openness diminished. At the same time, investigations into HTS’s 2009-era failures were being broadly disseminated on the Internet. Even though the program had significantly improved, HTS critics had few ways of discovering this, as they received most of their information from public sources and disgruntled employees. Given the lack of information, they assumed that little had changed.
They were wrong. HTS had, in many ways, become an example of how to do things correctly. A 2013 external review pointed out progress toward institutionalizing the program.8Subsequent internal reviews, audits, and investigations conducted during 2013 and 2014 found an effectively managed organization that complied with regulations. This was verified by a comprehensive audit conducted by the Army Audit Agency in 2014. The HTS experience offers important lessons that can shape the way DOD deploys civilians during the next conflict. It also offers broader lessons about how to improve the government’s employment practices.
Centralizing Support for Deployed Civilians. While poor management limited HTS during its early years, the program was also hindered by DOD’s ineffective civilian deployment system. The U.S. military is capable when deploying uniformed Servicemembers, but its civilian deployment process is minimal and poorly integrated. For small organizations, or units with only a few civilians, this is a nuisance to be endured. For HTS, which deployed civilians at a larger scale, the system’s weaknesses created massive challenges to mission accomplishment.
The effects were significant. The U.S. Government spent almost $800 million on HTS from its inception through the 2014 Afghanistan drawdown, a period of over 7 years. During much of that time, mismanagement, excess attrition, inflated salaries, and poor support practices wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. Furthermore, assuming HTS provided value to battlefield commanders, the years it took to fix these issues and field more effective teams may well have cost lives and worsened the outcomes in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some might argue that waste was an inevitable byproduct of the program’s rapid creation in the middle of two conflicts. There is truth to that. However, if a civilian deployment infrastructure had existed prior to the creation of HTS, the program could have used it directly. Instead, HTS, like other programs that deploy civilians, had to figure everything out, build its own infrastructure, and endure numerous failures on the road to getting things right. That was a phenomenally inefficient way of doing business. It was also completely unnecessary.
DOD should establish a program to manage the recruitment, training, deployment, and sustainment of government civilian personnel in overseas environments. This centralized program would enable deployed forces to quickly obtain needed civilian skills to augment their capabilities. At the same time, it would allow programs and supported units to focus on core competencies rather than administrative distractions. Finally, such a program, by eliminating inefficiencies, could save the government hundreds of millions of dollars during future conflicts. While that may sound like an overstatement, the HTS experience demonstrates that cost savings of this magnitude are not theoretical.
Soldiers from Charlie Troop, 2-38 Cavalry, and DA civilians, Human Terrain System, with local Afghan villagers during Key Leader Engagement in Kandahar Province (DOD/Crystal Davis)
While HTS provided civilian cultural expertise in Iraq and Afghanistan, future wars may require wholly different and unexpected types of knowledge. In the past, such needs were often filled through the contracting process. However, government civilians may be preferable to contractors for several reasons: they are more cost effective; they fall under the direct control of government authorities; and they can perform inherently governmental functions. In other cases, the use of contractors is unnecessary because the desired expertise already exists within DOD’s permanent civilian workforce. This capability was previously leveraged through the Civilian Expeditionary Workforce (CEW) program, which provided opportunities for existing government civilians to deploy. Regardless of the source, though, experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan prove that such skills will be required.
Unfortunately, civilian personnel are often inadequately prepared to deal with the military deployment bureaucracy, which is focused primarily on military personnel and contractors. As an example, HTS employees who received care at military treatment facilities in theater would often be categorized as “contractors” simply because there was no option for “government civilian,” creating unnecessary challenges to medical support. Civilians drawn from the private sector had even greater difficulty adapting to the military’s way of doing business. These distractions made them and their organizations less productive and increased the amount of turnover. The HTS experience demonstrates that an entire program’s operations can be hobbled by the investigations, negative publicity, and employee issues that accompany deficiencies in administrative support.
A centralized DOD civilian deployment program would provide support throughout the entire tour, from the receipt of notice to deploy through to the end of the deployment. Programs and units sending civilians downrange would use this program’s centralized support capabilities and expertise. It would prepare civilians for deployment, ensure coordination with deployment centers and receiving units, account for them in theater, ensure a smooth redeployment home, and provide accurate administrative, finance, and logistical support throughout the entire process. It would also ensure that deployed civilians received proper assistance and care, while making certain they performed the work they were hired to do.
Such a program would need to accommodate itself to the reality of defense budget cycles, expanding and contracting as required. During peacetime, it could be sustained by a minimal number of employees; during wartime, it would expand by using limited-term government employees and contractor support. The program would serve individual deployers as well as large organizations and would centralize functions currently duplicated across DOD, paying for itself by eliminating waste. As a “one-stop shop,” the program would encourage consistent support of deployed civilians while maintaining administrative best practices, reducing the amount of waste and fraud committed during deployments.
Naturally, there are always concerns about the use of government employees rather than contractors. First, government hiring is an extremely slow process. To circumvent this issue, HTS developed a hybrid contractor/government hiring process that utilized the strengths of the private sector to augment government hiring methods. Contract recruiters were able to find large numbers of potential candidates with needed expertise. The candidates were screened and their names were then submitted for government qualification. If qualified, the candidates attended a training class prior to being sworn in as government civilians. This approach allowed HTS to provide a volume of personnel that would never have been possible using normal government recruiting methods.
The second main issue with government workers is the concern that they become permanent employees who are difficult to remove from service. This is not the case. Term-limited appointments allow management to decline employment extensions as needed. Term employment thus makes adjustments to the size of the workforce relatively easy, avoiding the need for a reduction in force, and provides a mechanism to release underperforming employees while avoiding the difficult and emotionally draining termination process. Employment can end with the expiration of an employee’s term rather than through termination, allowing the employee to save face and ensuring that he or she is able to file for unemployment. Unfortunately, however, termination can be necessary in some cases. At HTS, 18 employees were terminated over a 5-year period, a rate considerably higher than normal for the Federal Government. This was possible because of effective coordination between HR, supervisors, and program leadership. An effective civilian deployment program could provide supervisors with the necessary expertise to separate employees with performance or behavioral issues.
Clearly there is an unmet need to improve support for deployed civilians. While the CEW program performed some of the functions mentioned above, it was limited in scope and served mainly as a matchmaker, posting deployed positions that individuals could apply for. Although it filled a useful role, CEW did not provide the kind of “cradle to grave” support that is necessary for maximum workforce effectiveness.
DOD must act quickly to improve support before more institutional knowledge is lost. A 2012 Government Accountability Office report outlined how DOD neglected to learn from civilian deployment experiences in Bosnia, which led to costly and preventable failures in Iraq and Afghanistan just a few years later.9
Sadly, history seems to be repeating itself. In March 2014, the CEW Web site announced that the program would no longer provide a “sourcing solution for joint civilian requirements,” and that this function would instead be performed by the Army G1.10 (The remnants of the CEW program have since migrated to U.S. Army Central Command.) With drawdowns continuing, cuts to CEW were inevitable. Unfortunately, it appears that this migrated function, now renamed the International/Expeditionary Policy Office, will provide fewer capabilities than CEW did. A less effective organization is not the answer. Senior leaders must understand this challenge and recognize that supporting civilians properly is not just the right thing to do; it also improves effectiveness and makes sound financial sense.
Pay and Performance. Prior to the 2009 HTS conversion from contractor to government workforce, deployed team members typically made between $250,000 and $400,000 per year. While this rate of pay was not unusual for deployed contractors at the time, large salaries alone were not sufficient to recruit top-quality personnel for Human Terrain Teams. In some cases, team members lacked even basic social science and research skills. Despite these shortcomings, individuals were uniformly paid large salaries, with highly inconsistent results.
Over time, the salaries paid to HTS employees gradually diminished. After the government conversion, the salary range for HTS employees dropped to roughly $180,000–$300,000 per year. Not only was this less than they had made as contractors, but as government civilians every dollar of salary was taxable as well. (Contractor salaries enjoy significant tax benefits.) In addition, the team leader and social scientist positions that had been graded as GG-15 were reclassified as GG-14, cutting the top end of the salary range by another 15 percent.
In 2013, sequester restrictions forced Army commands to implement restrictions on overtime work for all employees, including deployed civilians. While these restrictions were not well enforced by many units in theater, TRADOC G2 implemented meaningful restrictions on overtime use. As a result, the average annual salary of a deployed HTS team leader, which had hovered around $400,000 in 2008, dropped to around $200,000 in 2014. Although HTS employees were generally displeased with these changes, support to deployed units remained consistent, and internal assessments showed that commander satisfaction remained high.
Despite this dramatic cost savings, there is no evidence that HTS employees in 2014 were any less capable than employees in 2008. While comparing the two periods is difficult due to the lack of verifiable metrics from 2008, deployed commanders and staff who responded to internal surveys in 2014 almost uniformly agreed that HTS products were relevant, aided decisionmaking, and added to the unit’s sociocultural understanding of the environment. More importantly, HTS, which in the early years suffered a significant number of team implosions, mutinies, and cases of job abandonment, saw a substantial decrease in these types of incidents. Furthermore, while HTT members in 2008 often lacked basic competencies (human terrain analysts were sometimes considered suitable only for vehicle washing duties), by 2014 the average HTT member was significantly more capable.
How was HTS able to cut salaries in half and yet still achieve superior results? First, the exorbitant salaries of 2008 were simply part and parcel of the military’s institutional culture at the time. With Congress appropriating hundreds of billions of dollars as part of the late war surges, budget discipline was significantly relaxed. Unfortunately, while those excessive salaries lured few serious academics, they did attract a wide variety of individuals who were more interested in cashing in than achieving the Army’s goals. At the same time, HTS’s no-rules internal culture imposed significant costs on supervisors who tried to conscientiously enforce restrictions. When HTS team members were contractors, the company lost money if personnel were not deployed and claiming long hours. At the same time, the HTS leadership team believed that it needed to fill teams at all costs. The incentives within HTS were strongly arrayed against any kind of internal restrictions, with all of the attendant disciplinary problems. As a result, HTS quickly earned a reputation as a haven for problematic personalities, which harmed future recruiting efforts and created a negative feedback loop.
Over time, as salaries shrank and regulations governing conduct increased, the greedy gradually departed. While this was a positive step, the large salaries set at the beginning severely limited the ability to hire employees at the proper wage. It also ensured higher program costs throughout the program’s lifespan. While the excessive salaries of 2008 may have enabled HTS to build its workforce more quickly than it could have otherwise, it is unclear that employees obtained this way were worth having at all. The HTS experience demonstrates that high salaries are not necessarily beneficial for hiring and that they can be more destructive than helpful, both financially and operationally.
Process Defeats Politics. During its early years, HTS was an organization driven by personalities, not procedures. When difficult or unusual situations involving HTS employees arose (an almost everyday occurrence), staff members would many times quickly defer the question to the program manager, who was not physically present and likely would not make a decision. This was a symptom of HTS’s broader challenge wherein the organization’s decisionmaking process had failed to evolve in the face of rapid growth. Because the program had few policies or guidelines, even a minor variation to a routine procedure created decisional gridlock. As a result, every decision point became an opportunity for organizational politics or simple inertia to run the program aground.
To meet this challenge, HTS generated internal policies, an employee handbook, a pay and allowances guide, and more than a dozen internal “bulletins” that explained the nuances of complex issues such as workers’ compensation and emergency leave. Because of the continuously changing nature of the HTS program, a fixed catalogue of policies would have been inadequate. Documents were thus revised as necessary to ensure that they remained relevant, sensible, and responsive. In addition, HTS policies were designed in such a way that they were not only enforceable, but would also actually be enforced. This proved crucial to making the changes work. Where possible, consequences were applied automatically rather than at the discretion of a manager. This limited accusations of favoritism and ensured fair treatment across the workforce.
As these reforms were implemented, some within the program argued that a policy-centric and enforcement-based approach was too heavy handed. Unfortunately, HTS’s toxic environment required far greater articulation of the rules and far more comprehensive enforcement strategies than would ordinarily have been required in a program of its size. Employees, supervisors, leadership, and support sections all possessed limited faith in one another’s abilities and motives. Additionally, the “short timer” mentality of many employees, a high turnover rate, and a lack of coordination all enhanced this lack of confidence. When employees asked a question and received an answer they did not like, they had learned to simply ask another decisionmaker until someone provided the desired answer. Leaders often had trouble saying no to reasonable-sounding requests that were, in fact, not reasonable. By establishing clear and enforceable written policies, HTS significantly reduced this deeply ingrained and disruptive pattern of behavior. Given the complexity of government personnel rules and the volume of turnover, merely establishing informal guidelines would not have been effective.
This approach benefited HTS in numerous ways. The amount of attention from management that was required to administer the program declined significantly because routine matters could be handled at a lower level. In addition, rather than having to bargain for everything, employees could review HTS policies and understand what they were and were not entitled to. As a result, when disgruntled employees disagreed with established policies and filed complaints, it was relatively straightforward to have the complaints dismissed. Finally, once the values animating those policies became entrenched, a cultural change took hold and HTS became a radically different place at which to work.
While HTS may be remembered for its chaotic early blunders, the program’s later, quieter years demonstrate the effectiveness of its turnaround. Although the program may not survive in today’s difficult fiscal environment, future sociocultural research efforts will likely be institutionalized in new and different ways. However, there does not appear to be any equivalent effort to improve DOD’s poorly functioning civilian deployment system. It would be a shame to throw away $800 million worth of hard-won experience. After more than a decade of counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare, leaders must recognize the important role civilians will play in winning future conflicts. JFQ
- For a detailed account of Human Terrain System (HTS) history, see Christopher J. Lamb et al., Human Terrain Teams: An Organizational Innovation for Sociocultural Knowledge in Irregular Warfare (Washington, DC: Institute of World Politics Press, 2013), which is detailed, even-handed, and accurate. Unfortunately, it does have some blind spots, but this article fills in some of those.
- Ibid., 147. Lamb et al. reference three types of Human Terrain Team (HTT) members: “ne’er-do-wells,” “fantasists,” and “workers.” While these categories are crude, they are also quite accurate. Within the HTS staff, the vast majority of personnel could be categorized as ne’er-do-wells or fantasists. Even if new arrivals did not begin their tenure with HTS in one of those two frames of mind, the environment tended to have a negative effect on those exposed to it. Workers were rare.
- It is important to note that timecard exploitation was routine for civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. To HTS’s credit, team members never approached the excesses of deployed Department of Justice employees, who often claimed to continuously work 16 hours per day, 7 days a week. See Department of Justice, Office of the Inspector General, An Investigation of Overtime Payments to FBI and Other Department of Justice Employees Deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 2008), available at <www.justice.gov/oig/special/s0812/final.pdf>.
- Lamb et al., 73–74.
- Based on decline in attrition from HTS training, from 2009 to 2013.
- Tom Vanden Brook, “Army Plows Ahead with Troubled War-Zone program,” USA Today, February 28, 2013, available at <www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2013/02/17/human-terrain-system-iraq-afghanistan/1923789>.
- John Stanton’s articles were the product of numerous sources within the program, but were also largely based on second-or third-hand rumors. In many if not most cases, his specific allegations were inaccurate. However, his articles often did accurately reflect the tone of internal dissent within HTS.
- Lamb et al., 78–79.
- Government Accountability Office (GAO), Afghanistan: Improvements Needed to Strengthen Management of U.S. Civilian Presence, GAO-12-285 (Washington, DC: GAO, 2012), available at <www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-285>.
- Department of Defense, “The Civilian Deployment Experience,” available at <cpms.osd.mil/expeditionary/home.html>.
July 8, 2015 by Rex
Both Counterpunch and Inside Higher Ed ran stories recently on the end of Human Terrain System or HTS. What was HTS? A program run by the army and employing social scientists, including some anthropologists, to help them learn more about the people (i.e. ‘human terrain’) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Booted up in 2005, the controversial program attracted massive criticism from anthropologists, including a report from the AAA and a formal statement arguing that it was fundamentally unethical. Now, a decade after the idea for embedded social scientists in American’s invasions was first floated, the program has officially folded.
There were many problems with HTS. Not only was it unethical, the quality of work it produced was, iirc, pretty lousy. Moreover, it actively supported American military action which was not only morally wrong, but a tremendous strategic error with an enormous price tag in dollars and lives. According to Counterpunch, HTS’s slice of the pie was US$725 million dollars. It’s hard to see HTS as anything except an object lesson in ethical and scientific failure. It didn’t even engage interesting ethical questions about collaboration with the military, applied anthropology, and ethics. It was just fail. Anthropologists everywhere can be glad it has now been relegated to ethics section of anthropology syllabi.
Perhaps one good thing that has come out of HTS is that the AAA managed to show strong ethical leadership throughout this period. This is in stark contrast to the American Psychological Association, which colluded with the CIA to produce ethical standards that made facilitating torture acceptable to its members. To be honest, I’m not really sure this indicates the strong moral fiber of the AAA so much as its lack of relevance to American actions abroad, at least until a network of concerned anthropologists pushed it to act (or, perhaps, to act in and through it).
At the end of the day, anthropology took a stance against HTS, and history has born this stance out. Goodbye and good riddance to HTS.
May 29, 2015, by Rex
(This invited post comes from Ståle Wig, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Oslo. In the past Ståle has also run an excellent two part interview with Paul Farmer here on Savage Minds, so check that out as well. When asked about his interests, Ståle writes that he “never became a proper Africanist, and is currently preparing Ph.D. fieldwork in Cuba.” -R)
On an August afternoon in 2008, around 50 first-year students gathered in a dusty old movie-theatre that was turned into a lecture hall, near the University of Oslo. As we came in to find our seats, an elderly man observed us curiously from a wooden chair under the blackboard. I had seen him before, in our assigned textbook, with his engraved features and unmistakable, soft white moustache.
That day I had come to my first lecture in anthropology. Fredrik Barth had come to give his last.
Much like our new subject, there was a mystique to the man by the blackboard. We were told that he was an influential anthropologist. Some of us had heard that in his golden years, his ideas engaged big shots like Giddens and Bourdieu. That he was at times strongly criticized, but also hailed as a reformer of the study of social life. But as we sat there waiting, none of us knew why, and what all that really meant.
Thanks to a new book by Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Fredrik Barth – An Intellectual Biography (Pluto Press), the Norwegian veteran will appear less of a mystery – and yet ever more captivating.
An anthropologists’ anthropologist
In 1951, 22-year-old Fredrik was invited to join an archaeological expedition to present-day Iraq. When his colleagues had finished digging and went back home with hammers and brushes, he stayed behind chatting to the Kurds living in the area. Thus began a 60-year long career as an ethnographer. In his new book Hylland Eriksen follows Barth’s journey, from the deserts of the Swat valley to the plains South Persia, from coastal Norway to south Sudan. After a pit stop among his academic tribes, he’s off again, to secret initiation cults in the misty highlands of New Guinea, and onward, to Bali, Oman, China and Bhutan. Most anthropologists agree that ethnographic research is the core of our discipline. But none have hammered the point home quite like Barth. It is said that there are three types of anthropologists: Those who have done fieldwork in one place, those who have done fieldwork in two places, and Barth.
The 60s A-team
Based on source material from formerly unpublished interviews, as well as some conversations with the main character, Hylland Eriksen paints a sympathetic portrait of Fredrik Barth. The book also gives life to a cast of characters who shaped British social anthropology, and partly also the discipline as it is known today: The arrogant but razor sharp Edmund Leach, who Barth in his own words «fell in love with» at first sight. Evans-Pritchard, who was his antagonist and likely played a part in refuting his doctorate at the University of Oslo. The radical Gluckman of Manchester, the mighty Fortes of Cambridge, and the gang’s diplomatic middleman, Firth, who stayed friends with all without having to take sides.
It was Firth who ensured that Barth gave the first Nuffield lecture at The Royal Society in Britain in 1965, representing social anthropology for the first time among other sciences. In Hylland Eriksen’s words, the Norwegian stepped onto the podium as the «flag bearer» of British social anthropology. Barth has called it the highlight of his career.
«Study process, not form»
Part of what he argued for at the RSA is today taken for granted. He was skeptical of «deep structures», be they social, cultural or mental, as found in Radcliffe-Brown, Geertz or Levi-Strauss. He was one of the most vocal – but not the first – to depart with the notion of culture as a bounded entity. It was, Barth argued, the processes of social life that should be understood, not its hardened form. What meaningful strategies do people follow? What set of concrete opportunities and limitations influence their behavior? And out of this, what aggregate phenomena emerge?
These ideas lay behind his introduction to Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (1968), which was for years on the top 100 on the social science citation index. Here, Barth proposed that there is no one-to-one relationship between cultural differences and ethnic differences. It seems so obvious today: Ethnic identity does not grow naturally out some shared cultural mass. It is rather the result of a social process of inclusion and exclusion.
For better or worse, Barth didn’t have much interest in «cultural stuff», and the interpretation of symbols, which so excited Geertz. When Barth became head of the Ethnographic Museum in Oslo, a rumor has it that he suggested that they sell the whole collection of artifacts and rather spend the money on sending anthropologists to the field.
For all his inductive reflexes, however, Barth seemed to assume one thing: that most human behavior is based on the same basic logic: we are goal-seeking animals, prone to act as we see best. Hylland Eriksen discusses the critiques that have been leveled at this position. When opponents charge Barth for relying on a formalistic notion of homo economicus, theyare wrong, argues Hylland Eriksen. Barth claims not that humans per definition are egoistic and strategic, but rather that «it is strategic behavior, done by persons in some capacity or another, which generates regularity and social form» (p. 202). People will everywhere try to do the best out of their situation. But what makes up «the best» varies immensely, and is for the anthropologist to figure out.
Hylland Eriksen spends little time on the personal aspects of Barth’s life. The book describes briefly the marriage to anthropologist Unni Wikan, which he claims made Barth «less macho, more ambiguous», and directed his curiosity towards knowledge and rituals rather than economy and politics. It does not offer any wholehearted account of Barth’s inner life. Which is quite all right. What makes the book a good read is not its scant psychologizing, but the way it narrates – with some of the same adventurous spirit as its protagonist – the bewildering breath of an anthropological career.
Lessons to be learnt
The biography argues implicitly that there is something important to learn from Fredrik Barth. I agree. For one, he has a refreshing distaste for academics that align themselves too closely with pre-empirical projects. In a seminar in Lund University in Sweden in the 70s, Barth is said to have exclaimed to a self-proclaimed Marxist student: «You don’t need fieldwork, you have the answers already!»
Barth’s inductive attitude is reflected not only in his texts, but also in his reference lists. In an essay collection that sums up his life’s work, there are only five pages of references, many of which are to his own texts. This of course has to do Barth writing in a different time, with different norms for publishing. Besides, he went to places where few had gone, and there were fewer texts to quote. However, it also serves as a reminder: To be theoretically ambitious is not the same as having an endless reference list. Open a monograph today and one encounters 15 to 30 pages with references to other texts. At times, it seems that empirical patterns are in danger of collapsing under the weight of the quotations of fashionable thinkers. As students we are told to «apply» theory on our materials. Barth would have it another way. He trusted his own observations more than established theory.
His attitude was apparent in more than just writing. In the early 60s Barth turned down a professorate at Columbia University in order to build up a new anthropology department in the peripheral Norwegian town of Bergen. Soon, Bergen was no longer peripheral. Hylland Eriksen observes that a much-used textbook from 1968, written by Marvin Harris, holds the two great power centers in current anthropology to be Paris, under the leadership of Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Bergen, under Barth.
Watching and wondering
86-year-old Barth is now retired from academic life. I visited him some months ago to talk about plans for fieldwork in Southern Africa. «Good luck», he replied, and added friendlily: «But don’t become a ‘proper Africanist’. Remember that it is the general questions that push our discipline forward. And those you can find anywhere».
In the end, I think this is what we can learn from an old-timer like Barth: To be more concerned with watching and wondering than with conceptual fashion walking. To rely more on our observations than the concepts of others. And to define the frontier of anthropology not only by reading new books, but by going to new places.
I can still recall how Barth ended that lecture back in 2008. He had spent two hours telling us about the characteristics of anthropological research: The power of understanding people on their own terms; of regarding every new finding as a provocation, and a call to rethink our assumptions and our models. But beyond this it was an open question as to what social anthropology should be in the future. Barth looked at us freshman students and said: «It is for all of you to find out».
Fredrik Barth – An intellectual biography is already available in Norwegian, and will be published in an English translation by Pluto Press in June 2015.
What becomes of conservation—a field that has long defined itself as protecting nature from humanity—in a time when human impacts reach every corner of the planet?
Many conservationists, it seems, would argue that the defense of natural spaces has never been more urgent than it is now. As Michael Soulé puts it, “The worth of nature is beyond question and our obligation to minimize its gratuitous degradation is no less.” Others, however, are disillusioned with the notion of pristine nature and have instead embraced the idea that we live in a “postnatural” world. “Conservationists,” they argue, “will have to jettison their idealized notions of nature, parks, and wilderness […] and forge a more optimistic, human-friendly vision. […] [We] need to acknowledge that a conservation that is only about fences, limits, and far away places only a few can actually experience is a losing proposition.”
No single factor can account for the emergence of postnatural conservation—resilience theory, postequilibrium ecology, ecosystems services, climate change, and the Anthropocene proposal itself all come readily to mind. But, whatever its causes, the postnatural turn suggests the prospect of new common ground with environmental social scientists, philosophers, and historians for whom nature has always been a problematic category. This is, after all, similar to what we’ve been saying all along.
But is the “new” conservation really what we had in mind? In their new article, “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures,” geographers Collard, Dempsey, and Sundberg raise several important concerns about conservation’s postnatural turn and offer an alternative set of conservation principles. What I’d like to do here is very briefly highlight their concerns before commenting (again briefly) on their proposed alternatives.
Collard and her colleagues’ concerns about postnatural conservation revolve around its close connection to neoliberal managerialism. Postnatural approaches to conservation, they explain, usually propose on the use of economic incentives to promote environmentally sustainable practices. Under this model, human wellbeing is the tide that raises all ecological ships, and economic optimization the standard according to which competing tradeoffs are weighed. Meanwhile, postnatural conservation breaks with traditional conservation by orienting itself toward the future rather than the past. Its focus is not on restoring degraded landscapes to a past condition or addressing the historical roots of contemporary problems, but rather on looking hopefully toward a prosperous, globally integrated future.
This combination of anthropocentrism, instrumentalism, futurism, and globalism make postnatural conservation an excellent fit for neoliberal managerialism, not for critical environmental studies. As a result, “new” conservation may actually reinforce the “old” political-economic system at the root of our global ecological crisis. These concerns strongly resonate with those I have raised in prior posts.
What, then, is the alternative Collard and her colleagues envision? I will not attempt a full summary here—the article itself is a great read! Instead, I will offer a few comments on how their vision of conservation fits into the themes that emerged through our recent Habitation in the Anthropocene project.
History: As a corrective to the ahistorical futurism and market triumphalism of postnatural conservation, the authors center their approach on addressing the accumulated experiences of social and ecological suffering that characterize the Anthropocene. Instead of bracketing ecocide, they propose looking back to past nonhuman abundance as an aspirational benchmark for the future. Likewise, they cite work being done by a host of social and environmental justice movements and call for “political struggle grounded in decolonizing” (p. 326). Not unlike Asa’s post about the “multitemporal” nature of human-environment interactions, the “Manifesto” conditions future habitability on dealing with the complex inheritances of the past.
Future: Like postnatural conservation, Collard and her colleagues seek to foster a sense of hope that the future will be abundant (as per the definition in their abstract). Their hope, however, is not for a future dominated by economic rationality, but for a plurality of futures where less instrumental and anthropocentric standards for good living have a chance to define abundance in new ways. In particular, they highlight Leanne Simpson’s work on the Anishinaabeg concept of mino bimaadiziwin, which denotes “promoting life” or “continuous rebirth” and suggests an “alternative to worlds that are enacted through utilitarianism and extraction” (p. 328). Finally, they do not look to managerial, market-based solutions within the current global system, but instead insist that “creating conditions for abundance necessitates enacting alternatives to imperial capitalism” (p. 323).
Agency: Against the human exceptionalism of postnatural conservation, they make “multispecies entanglements” foundational to their approach. They tie the wellbeing of humans to that of nonhumans and, in so many words, propose a relational ethics for multispecies cohabitation. Although they join postnatural conservation in rejecting the concept of wilderness, they seek to preserve that of wildness so as to recognize “animal autonomy,” meaning “the fullest expression of animal life, including capacity for movement, for social and familial association, and for work and play” (p. 328). Finally, they advocate “acting pluriversally”—an ontological orientation that aims for radical openness to different ways of bringing the world into being. In this way, their vision leaves open possibilities for multiple, self-determined futures in a way that postnatural conservation does not.
Limits: The authors acknowledge the material limits to habitability—and in particular how these have been reached as a result of capitalist imperialism and experienced most acutely by politically marginalized humans and nonhumans. However, as my comments above should make clear, their vision focuses mostly on moral limits to habitability, particularly those involving social justice, animal autonomy, and self-determination.
I hope that “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures” will be read widely. I share with its authors the sense that the Anthropocene is at best “a spark that will light a fire in our imaginaries” (p. 326) and their hope that we can again achieve “a world literally filled to the brim with different creatures” (p. 321).
Posted: 07/16/2015 8:15 pm EDT Updated: 07/20/2015 1:59 pm EDT
You don’t have to strip down to your birthday suit to celebrate NYC Bodypainting Day, but it’s something you might want to consider. Here’s why:
It’s FreeMichael Loccisano via Getty Images
All Are WelcomeAndy Golub
People Of All Races And Colors Will Be All ColorsAndy Golub
It’s Clothing Optional (Sort Of)Andy Golub
It’s A Great Way To Enjoy New York CityASSOCIATED PRESS
It’s About Free Artistic ExpressionTIMOTHY A. CLARY via Getty Images
It’s About Body AcceptanceASSOCIATED PRESS
It’s A Great Way To Meet PeopleASSOCIATED PRESS
You’ll Definitely Fit InAndy Golub
It’s ArtAndy Golub
And, of course, The Body Is BeautifulMichael Loccisano via Getty Images
. . . In All Its FormsBuck Wolf
Listen to the Weird News Podcast for a full conversation with Golub, Aponte and Alston-Owens.
A temperatura do planeta Terra subiu em junho, superando os recordes de calor tanto para o mês de junho quanto para o primeiro semestre do ano.
Jessica Blunden, climatologista da NOAA (Administração Nacional Oceânica e Atmosférica dos EUA), junho foi o quarto mês de 2015 a marcar um recorde: “É quase impossível que 2015 não seja o ano mais quente da história”.
Temperaturas excepcionalmente altas estão se tornando algo que se repete todos os meses, segundo Blunden. A agência calculou que a temperatura média mundial em junho chegou a 16,33°C, superando em 0,12 graus o recorde anterior, do ano passado.
Geralmente, os recordes de temperatura são superados em um ou dois centésimos de grau, não em quase um quarto de grau. E a situação se mostra ainda mais dramática quando se levam em conta os semestres.
Os seis primeiros meses de 2015 foram um sexto de um grau mais quentes que o recorde anterior, marcado em 2010. A média de temperatura foi 14,35°C. O recorde anterior do primeiro semestre do ano foi marcado em 2010, a última vez em que ocorreu o fenômeno El Niño, um aquecimento do oceano Pacífico central que modifica o clima mundial.
Mas em 2010, o El Niño foi fraco. Este ano os serviços de meteorologia preveem que o El Niño vai se intensificar. “Se isso acontecer, a temperatura vai superar todos os recordes”, disse Blunden.
O mês de junho foi quente em quase todo o mundo, com calor excepcional na Espanha, Áustria, partes da Ásia, Austrália e América do Sul. O sul do Paquistão sofreu uma onda de calor em junho que matou mais de 1.200 pessoas e que, segundo um banco de dados internacional, foi a oitava mais letal no mundo desde 1900. Em maio, uma onda de calor na Índia deixou mais de 2.000 mortos e foi classificada como a quinta mais letal da história.
A temperatura em maio e março também superou os recordes mensais de temperatura, que são registrados há 136 anos. Inicialmente, a agência calculou que fevereiro de 2015 foi apenas o segundo fevereiro mais quente da história registrada, mas, segundo Blunden, foram recebidos novos dados indicando que foi o mês de fevereiro mais quente já registrado.
A Terra superou recordes mensais de calor 25 vezes desde o ano 2000, mas desde 1916 não supera um recorde mensal de frio. “O aquecimento global antropogênico é assim: mais e mais calor”, disse Jonathan Overpeck, codiretor do Instituto do Meio Ambiente da Universidade do Arizona.
Tradução de CLARA ALLAIN
July 20, 2015
Monday’s new study greatly increases the potential for catastrophic near-term sea level rise. Here, Miami Beach, among the most vulnerable cities to sea level rise in the world. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
In what may prove to be a turning point for political action on climate change, a breathtaking new study casts extreme doubt about the near-term stability of global sea levels.
The study—written by James Hansen, NASA’s former lead climate scientist, and 16 co-authors, many of whom are considered among the top in their fields—concludes that glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica will melt 10 times faster than previous consensus estimates, resulting in sea level rise of at least 10 feet in as little as 50 years. The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, brings new importance to a feedback loop in the ocean near Antarctica that results in cooler freshwater from melting glaciers forcing warmer, saltier water underneath the ice sheets, speeding up the melting rate. Hansen, who is known for being alarmist and also right, acknowledges that his study implies change far beyond previous consensus estimates. In a conference call with reporters, he said he hoped the new findings would be “substantially more persuasive than anything previously published.” I certainly find them to be.
To come to their findings, the authors used a mixture of paleoclimate records, computer models, and observations of current rates of sea level rise, but “the real world is moving somewhat faster than the model,” Hansen says.
Hansen’s study does not attempt to predict the precise timing of the feedback loop, only that it is “likely” to occur this century. The implications are mindboggling: In the study’s likely scenario, New York City—and every other coastal city on the planet—may only have a few more decades of habitability left. That dire prediction, in Hansen’s view, requires “emergency cooperation among nations.”
We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.
The science of ice melt rates is advancing so fast, scientists have generally been reluctant to put a number to what is essentially an unpredictable, nonlinear response of ice sheets to a steadily warming ocean. With Hansen’s new study, that changes in a dramatic way. One of the study’s co-authors is Eric Rignot, whose own study last year found that glacial melt from West Antarctica now appears to be “unstoppable.” Chris Mooney, writing for Mother Jones, called that study a “holy shit” moment for the climate.
One necessary note of caution: Hansen’s study comes via a nontraditional publishing decision by its authors. The study will be published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, an open-access “discussion” journal, and will not have formal peer review prior to its appearance online later this week. The complete discussion draft circulated to journalists was 66 pages long, and included more than 300 references. The peer review will take place in real time, with responses to the work by other scientists also published online. Hansen said this publishing timeline was necessary to make the work public as soon as possible before global negotiators meet in Paris later this year. Still, the lack of traditional peer review and the fact that this study’s results go far beyond what’s been previously published will likely bring increased scrutiny. On Twitter, Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist whose work focuses on Greenland and the Arctic, was skeptical of such enormous rates of near-term sea level rise, though she defended Hansen’s decision to publish in a nontraditional way.
In 2013, Hansen left his post at NASA to become a climate activist because, in his words, “as a government employee, you can’t testify against the government.” In a wide-ranging December 2013 study, conducted to support Our Children’s Trust, a group advancing legal challenges to lax greenhouse gas emissions policies on behalf of minors, Hansen called for a “human tipping point”—essentially, a social revolution—as one of the most effective ways of combating climate change, though he still favors a bilateral carbon tax agreed upon by the United States and China as the best near-term climate policy. In the new study, Hansen writes, “there is no morally defensible excuse to delay phase-out of fossil fuel emissions as rapidly as possible.”
Asked whether Hansen has plans to personally present the new research to world leaders, he said: “Yes, but I can’t talk about that today.” What’s still uncertain is whether, like with so many previous dire warnings, world leaders will be willing to listen.