Why does Oregon thrive and Arkansas dive?

When I got up to Meadowcreek yesterday, the dorm kitchen garbage can was almost full.  I was surprised since we’d only had one event since I was last up here.  But some groups do generate a lot of trash.  So I tied up the bag and put it in my truck to dispose of.  That’s my main job at Meadowcreek, taking out the garbage.

Our oldest resident really likes me because I clean up the garbage at the Blue Hole.  Since its open to anyone, we attract all types of folks there.  Some just leave their babies’ disposable diapers, their cans, their tshirts, bras, underwear or whatever they don’t want to carry out.

After major summer holidays, i get to carry out a lot of stuff, sometimes. I rank the severity of the visitor’s trashiness by the number of dirty diapers they leave behind.  A two diaper day is pretty bad.  The worst was a five diaper day earlier this summer.

I do not like five diaper days.  But i do like to see the 1600 acres free of such trash.  So I gladly pick it up.  Besides my self-organized job gives me a good excuse to go swimming as soon as I get to up to Meadowcreek.  Yesterday it was kinda cool for swimming with temps in 40s overnight and raining.  But I love it no matter what the outside temps.  The water is always a balmy 55.

Despite the fact I like being the garbageman, it’s troubling in a more universal sense that people can come to a pristine place like Meadowcreek, throw out their trash and just assume someone else will pick it up to keep the place nice for the next time they want to go swimming or have a potluck at the dorm.

The downfall of all systems is the free rider.  The parasite.  The one who takes from the system and does not give back to it.  Why don’t the affected systems recognize the free rider as a parasite and jettison him?  Unless you get rid of them, they will accumulate until the system collapses.  Such is the case with all systems.

Someday I may go on strike.  I may quit taking out the garbage. I may quit picking up the dirty diapers.  That’s what unions do.  They just let the garbage sit until their demands are met.  To succeed, they have to be able to just let the garbage accumulate.  I can’t do that.  So I guess they will continue to take advantage of me.

Meadowcreek is in one of the poorest counties in the nation. A couple of hours away is a booming area, Fayetteville/Springdale/Rogers and up to Springfield, Missouri is growing as fast as any in the nation with high incomes getting higher.  Our Stone County is losing jobs and on a steady downhill trajectory on most economic indicators.

Why?  Lots of folks are interesting in getting an answer.  They want economic growth and good jobs. They are on the wrong track.

Resilience research indicates economic growth can be bad as well as good.  Exponential economic growth can be a boom followed by a bust.  If WalMart or Tyson, or JBHunt had an implosion or relocated headquarters, the region would have a lot of foreclosed houses and vacant office buildings. NW Arkansas is too reliant on a few large businesses.  If any failed, the area will see major problems.  NW Arkansas needs more diversity.  A broader range of companies.  Then they’d be more resilient, less likely to take a dive.

Not to mention the damage Tyson and WalMart are doing to communities all across the nation and the world.  But that’s a topic for a different essay.

Every state in the nation has areas that once were prosperous and now are ghost towns.  Perry County, Arkansas, was once one of the richest in the state.  After the lumber was all cut, it became what it is today: poor as church mice.

The Delta was once the richest region of Arkansas, today it is the poorest.

We focus so much on high incomes, high paying jobs.  Everyone wants those.  But what is sacrificed to get them?  Often future resilience is sacrificed for money today.

Perry County sacrificed all its timber with no sustainable resource management or value-adding to the timber.  It got high paying jobs and then it lost them all.  The Delta had farmers with extremely high incomes and still does, but the region is poor, poor, poor because the farmers today extract wealth from the land and send it off for inputs produced elsewhere and for their own homes in West Little Rock, Lake Ouachita and the Ozarks.  Sam Walton had his first success in the Delta, but was run out of Newport, Arkansas by the local power elite.  Newport is still in decline, losing population.

Some say we need more good entrepreneurs,  By definition.  But others point out, it takes a village.  A businessman doesn’t make his business by himself, they note.  It depends on the larger system having a structure which permits, encourages and rewards his ideas and his motivation.  But to say he didn’t build the business is a travesty.

Individual innovation and motivation is crucial to resilience.  Some have both and succeed. Others don’t and fail.  That much is undoubtedly true.  Ecosystems, however, don’t speak of motivation.  All systems in an ecosystem are motivated; death is just around the corner; survival doesn’t happen for the unmotivated.  We can be unmotivated, listless, depressed.  It’s possible for animals to be depressed, and they die.  Depressed animals are less adaptive than others and picked off.  Ecosystems always chew up the unmotivated.

We decry social darwinism for good reason.  Individuals doesn’t succeed alone. Believing they do leads to destruction of the group.  We see that in the ongoing decline of the once vibrant United States.

Individual selection isn’t true, never has been.  But scientific orthodoxy is that evolution operates at the level of the individual.  Superficially  that is true.  It is the individual that dies and doesn’t reproduce.  But a resilient group is what makes an individual more likely to survive and have offspring.

Left-leaning political orthodoxy goes too far in the opposite direction.  They will ride the ideology that the individual doesn’t build anything or control his fate until it ruins the country.  Ironically, they do so because they are following their innate tendency toward personal survival and glorification.  They want desperately to win.  Nothing else matters to the selfish parasite.

But they won’t win, at least in the long term. Complex adaptive systems (CAS) are systems that are characterized by complex non-linear dynamics and an adaptive capacity that enables them to rearrange their internal structure spontaneously whether in response to an external shock or to some internal or self-organised criticality.  Systems which adapts to changes outside will survive, have resilience.  Some politically orthodox can’t adapt to the world outside the elite colleges they grew up in.

They are great examples of hysteresis.  That’s the dependence of a system’s output on past inputs. This path dependence is reflected in the effect of abstract, impractical, nonecological education on politics. Get on that path and you get destruction.  Unless something derails the train.

A resilient person or a resilient regional economy will reconfigure, that is adapt, its structure (firms, industries, technologies and institutions) so as to maintain a sustainable growth path in output, employment and wealth over time.

This is all about what some call agency.  Agency is conservative innovation which the system either encourages (freedom within boundaries) or doesn’t (rigid control).

All resilient innovation is within the bounds of the system. Resilience is ultimately moral, in a sense.  Laws by which we live, thrive and prosper.  But these laws are not imposed on people or other subsystems.  They are qualities which emerge in all resilient systems.

As a result of their interconnected structure, CAS also exhibit unexpected emergent properties – these are structures or patterns  that form in the system spontaneously.  At every scale, resilient systems show the eight qualities we discuss in our book. One such emergent property is local self-organization.  At the regional economy scale, this means that social structures are generated spontaneously by the individual decisions and interactions of the local people themselves and without centralized direction. Influence is thus dispersed and decentralized.

To repeat: the dynamics of complex systems  exhibit evolutionary trajectories which generate path dependency or local rules of interaction that means history uniquely shapes how the system develops into the future.  Periodically, there are also critical transitions or regime shifts at a system level when normal cyclical processes are stressed creating tipping points – moments when structures collapse and innovations or new developments take off. Creative destruction. These are not predictable phenomena and small changes can have effects which seem hugely out of proportion.

All these properties are emergent in the sense that complete knowledge of the individual agents is not sufficient to infer the details or timing of the aggregate properties.

Creativity and motivation of entrepreneurs at the scale of the regional economy is the inventive and exuberant experimentation noted by Buzz Holling, the father of ecological resilience.

Can a region may be resilient in certain respects (e.g., in relation to its firms), but not in others (e.g., its labor supply)?  Nope. Impossible.  If subsystems are not resilient they will die and system will have to make do without them.

It’s plain silly to think that a system can destroy a subsystem it needs to survive and still survive.  It’s impossible.  Only whole systems are resilient. This is not to say that resilient subsystems do not have modularity.   They will be able to function on their own if some external inputs cease.  But not when whole subsystems collapse which are integral to system functioning.  Only the whole system is resilient, not just one part.  Firms cannot surive without their labor supply.  Laborers cannot survive without their families.  Families cannot survive without food systems.  Food systems cannot survive without inputs (nutrients, sunlight, good air, key micro-organisms).  Yet the most basic subsystems also depend on the higher scales to provide what they need to perform their functions.

So I keep  collecting the garbage.  I find cool shirts now and then.  I find oyster mushroom trees flushing. I find people who need inspiration.  All of these float to the surface in the Meadowcreek system.


The above was partly inspired by the failings of a great paper by Bristow and Healy, published in 2013 and called Regional Resilience: An Agency Perspective.  Email us and we’ll send you the pdf.

Other equally great, but flawed papers also contributed to the evolution of this essay.  See Martin and Sunley, 2007. Complexity thinking and evolutionary economic geography, Journal of Economic Geography 7, 573–602 and Martin’s more recent, 2012 paper, Regional economic resilience, hysteresis and recessionary shocks, Journal of Economic Geography 12(1), 1–32.


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