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Getting to grips with complexity

Centre researcher and deputy director Victor Galaz tries to make sense of increasingly complex relations between politics, finances, and sustainability issues. He’s not making it easy for himself


The world is a complicated place and in our globalised society things are not getting less complicated, let alone connected. That has implications for how we handle sustainability challenges politically. Understanding how we should be governing this connectivity and the political challenges of living in an era where humans are the main force of change on the planet is the starting point for Victor Galaz’s research.

While his PhD was in political science, Victor’s degree was a mix of social and natural sciences. He has always been drawn to a research environment where many disciplines meet and collaborate.

“Working within just one discipline provides you with a rather narrow picture of the world, and I have always been interested in the bigger picture,” Victor Galaz explains. In 2015 he became joint deputy science director, sharing responsibilities with Line Gordon and Henrik Österblom. In 2018 he was appointed deputy director.

The role as deputy science director and the subsequent has meant big changes to his day-to-day work. He now spends a lot of time thinking strategically about how research is conducted at the centre and “how best to tap into the energy and immense talents that we have here”.

Focusing only on the scientific understanding of the global challenges we face isn’t enough – without political institutions in place, how do we act on that knowledge?

- Victor Galaz

In an academic and funding structure rigged to benefit individual work and single-disciplinary thinking he finds that having the time to delve into these matters is very important. And taking a transdisciplinary approach to environmental and sustainability challenges is something Victor has found interesting right from the start.

“For some reason I always felt a need to understand sustainability issues through a political lens. And, wanting the wider perspective, I was drawn to multidisciplinary projects. It’s challenging to bring together many different research fields to work together on research questions, but I think it is absolutely necessary if we want to be able to face today’s challenges,” he says.

New political challenges

 Facing these challenges is about solving very complex problems that cut across many different parts of society, tackling environmental problems that are inherently connected to complex political institutions.

That is why a lot of his work has centred on how we can understand the new political challenges that are created by our influence on the planet. “This is a big research topic and it involves understanding the roles of international law, environmental institutions, and global networks. It’s complex but extremely important,” he explains.

The implications of global connectivity

As the world becomes increasingly globalised new kinds of connections across the planet arise. The multiple scales of interaction and influence are apparent, from international political agreements to ever growing interaction on social media. This connectivity brings with it new kinds of challenges as well as exciting opportunities. And though Twitter may seem worlds apart from pandemics, the way connectivity enables something to spread shares common elements across different topics and issues Victor explains:

”I've studied the implications of global connectivity through connected "planetary boundaries", infectious disease outbreaks, information technology, and financial systems. These topics might seem very different, but they have lot in common in the way complex global risks emerge in non-linear ways and cascade through levels,” he says.

Disease scenarios Africa maps the intricate linkages and interplay between social, ecological and technological drivers that affect zoonotic disease risks. The linkages are visualised in interactive graphics on the project's website.

Together with colleagues Victor has looked at how infectious diseases emerge due to environmental changes, how flows of financial capital shape the planet’s biosphere, and how social media can be used to detect and track the spread of invasive species.

”Another key thing that these issues all have in common and that needs to be tackled urgently is the need for adaptive and clever governance responses. There is a sort of gap between the emerging, complex challenges we face and the sometimes rigid and slow governance institutions we have in place.”

Victor calls this gap "The Anthropocene Gap", a term that is also the subtitle of the book he published in 2014 where he explores those challenges.

Financial markets influence the biosphere

More recently his primary focus has been on financial institutions, markets and how they influence the world’s already stretched natural resources. The work is part of the Global Economic Dynamics and the Biosphere programme (GEDB) at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. This programme was set up to study the economic dynamics of global change and how that affects efforts to create a sustainable future.

Economic dynamics also includes the frightening speed and magnitude of information sharing. That has implications for financial markets too. At Wall Street and the financial market at large, computer algorithms now do hundreds of thousands of transactions in a matter of seconds, outpacing any human trader by many orders of magnitude.

“The nature of these changes poses fundamentally new challenges to governance as it requires policy-makers to respond to increasing speed, complexity, and global connectivity,” says Victor. In fact, this change is so drastic that some have proposed that global financial markets have evolved into a new “machine ecology” where changes in the system’s behaviour are considerably faster than human response time. Any attempts to manage the many implications of this change have led to intense debates between policy-makers, financial actors, and non-governmental organisations. Victor intends to continue to study this development.

“Our ambition is to change the way we think about finance and sustainability. We want to really integrate the latest knowledge about resilience thinking and the Earth system into current debates in and about the financial sector,” he explains. There is a very common misunderstanding among actors in finance that ecology and environmental issues are peripheral at most to their work. This is a very dangerous misconception, Victor argues, and it is currently blocking many much-needed changes in the sector.

Published: 2017-01-25