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What do we mean when we say "volatility" and "volatile" in this project? Here are some pointers...

In a much-debated article from 2008, hydrologist Chris Milly and colleagues proposed that water management as we know it is no longer tenable. Fluctuations in water flows no longer stick to the standard deviations that decades of scientific observations had established. With a warming climate and ubiquitous human interventions, water has become too volatile to be contained in a “stationarity” paradigm (Milly et al. 2008). 

During the same year, 2008, the world economy was shaken by a financial crisis, which induced levels of volatility in the stock exchanges that had been unseen since the Great Depression (Schwert 2011). But this was only an extreme instance of a configuration – global financial markets – that fluctuates incessantly, often exacerbating the economic effects of other instabilities, such as crop failures or political shifts. 

Sixteen years earlier, Colonel Richard H. Mackey Sr. at the U.S. Army War College had considered strategic decision-making in a “period of tremendous change.” He argued that without the stability provided by the Cold War, military strategists must learn “the skills and vision to operate in an environment that is characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity” (Mackey 1992, 2). What came to be known as the VUCA principle has been widely adapted into management and governance worldwide. 

Hydrologists, economists, soldiers and managers have made volatility a leading principle for understanding and intervening in today’s world. I want to propose that it can be a useful concept for the environmental humanities, too. Volatility refers to more-than-human dynamics of uncertain vicissitudes that develop quickly and have far-reaching consequences. It is the opposite of plannable futures that advance gradually by foreseeable transformations. 

Understanding the world as socially and materially volatile can help us to look beyond the structures and stabilities that we have come to take for granted, and that lately have begun to evidently crumble if not collapse. However, the volatility that the above experts have recently diagnosed may not refer to the same phenomena as the volatilities that have long structured the everyday lives of many. While volatility is indeed ubiquitous, it is also situated. 

Geographer Nigel Clark (2011) has argued that humans have always inhabited a “volatile planet.” Whereas this has been fundamentally ignored in mainstream social theory, it has nevertheless conditioned human sociality from the beginning. In Clark’s account, volatility is both a challenge to and an enabler of human life as we know it. Pointing at the vicissitudes and radical transformations that characterize our world and that human activities often accelerate and amplify, volatility is a productive term for the environmental humanities. It is also a challenge for the environmental humanities to re-claim the term from its neoliberal connotations and embed it into situated, more-than-human encounters.

Alongside the gigantic forces of plate tectonics and climate, our planet is volatile along many other lines that the middle-class theorists of the Global North have long been able to ignore. In part, this blind eye has been facilitated by economic regimes that outsource risks, chaos and violent conflicts to the inhabitants of former colonies. In part, the illusion of stability has been engineered into omnipresent infrastructures designed to contain the radical fluctuations that social and ecological life undergoes. Volatilities and uncertainties were seen as epitomes of inadequacy and deficiency, rather than as the way the world works.

Despite these blinkers, it is becoming increasingly evident that volatility is a core characteristic of life on earth. This insight is progressively seeping in from the postcolonial margins: fluctuations in Australian bird populations (Robin, Heinsohn, and Joseph 2009), spatiotemporal variability and uncertainty in African rangeland ecology and management (Scoones 1999), inherently unpredictable water supply in South Asian megacities (e.g., Björkman 2015), or high-tech fishing methods catering to price developments in the world sushi market (Telescea 2018).

It is also from these margins that we catch glimpses of what inhabiting and embracing a volatile world may entail.  We learn of water values in Australia (Gibbs 2010), African experiences of work beyond framings of crisis and desperation (Makhulu, Buggenhagen, and Jackson 2010), or practices of the urban poor (Das and Randeria 2015). But we also learn that what counts as volatile for differently situated people may radically differ from what hydrology, economy and military experts identify as volatile.

For example, we learned a lot about volatility during fieldwork with the inhabitants of the Mackenzie Delta in the Canadian Arctic. Some of the area’s Inuit and Dene inhabitants choose to settle in the delta more permanently during the twentieth century when the fur trade, the Cold War and the hydrocarbon industry took turns in providing income. Indigenous people were instrumental in facilitating these global processes in a region that seemed hostile and uninhabitable to the settler governments. 

But their ways of life were systematically devalued and incapacitated by these governments, which institutionalized a residential school system whose stated goal was to “take the Indian out of the child.” Against these odds, the original inhabitants of the delta and its surroundings successfully won their land claims and are currently finalizing self-government negotiations. 

These sweeping political and economic fluctuations are accompanied by a more-than-human landscape that appears similarly daunting to any observer from a temperate, urban background. Populations of caribou, fish, furbearing animals and migratory birds, on which delta inhabitants depend, change their routes, abundance and compositions from one year to the next. The delta is covered in ice and snow during half of the year, when temperatures can reach –50°C, and made up of a watery labyrinth in the summer, when it can be as hot as 30°C. In spring, it is prone to flooding – but climate change seems to jeopardize anything that ever appeared like a reliable pattern. This goes even for the ground itself, which is beginning to disintegrate as the permafrost is thawing.

In short, as far as the expert eye can see is volatility: climatic, political, geological, cultural, economic. It appears like sheer chaos, perpetual catastrophe, insurmountable difficulty. For delta inhabitants, however, this is not so clear-cut. Yes, there are problems: unemployment; alcoholism; high prices for food and fuel; low school attendance; little demand for wild fur. But these are not foremost problems of volatility in the expert’s eye.

Research throughout the Circumpolar North has indicated that what experts call volatility spells catastrophe and chaos mostly for those who attempt – often in vain – to predict what will happen (e.g., Bates 2007). Unpredictable fluctuations belong to Inuit ways of life (e.g., Hastrup 2009; Tejsner 2013) so much that their children grow up to expect the unexpected (Briggs 1991) and success depends on “a person’s ability to be open to surprise and uncertainty” (Nuttall 2009, 303). Given the Western fascination with the “harsh” Arctic environment, many of these observations relate to ecological instability. But they also apply to political, economic and cultural dynamics, which may not seem volatile to outsiders, but manifest as such for delta inhabitants. 

Volatility characterizes many processes that make up our social and material worlds. It is not the exception, but the rule. This does not mean that anything goes – it often implies hard work, and frequent disappointment. But neither does it necessarily spell catastrophe. We must embrace the fundamental uncertainty (Scoones 2019) of inhabiting a world in formation. We must be humbler in our plans and predictions. And we must learn to appreciate the more-than-human relations that enable life on a volatile planet, which also means extending our own capacities to support others.


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Björkman, Lisa. 2015. Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millennial Mumbai. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Briggs, Jean L. 1991. “Expecting the Unexpected: Canadian Inuit Training for an Experimental Lifestyle.” Ethos 19 (3): 259–87.

Clark, Nigel. 2011. Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. London: Sage Publications.

Das, Veena, and Shalini Randeria. 2015. “Politics of the Urban Poor: Aesthetics, Ethics, Volatility, Precarity: An Introduction to Supplement 11.” Current Anthropology 56 (S11): S3–14. https://doi.org/10.1086/682353.

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Hastrup, Kirsten Blinkenberg. 2009. “Arctic Hunters: Climate Variability and Social Flexibility.” In The Question of Resilience: Social Responses To Climate Change, edited by Kirsten Blinkenberg Hastrup, 245–70. Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab.

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Makhulu, Anne-Maria, Beth A Buggenhagen, and Stephen Jackson, eds. 2010. Hard Work, Hard Times: Global Volatility and African Subjectivities. Berkeley: Univ of California Press.

Milly, Paul CD, Julio Betancourt, Malin Falkenmark, Robert M Hirsch, Zbigniew W Kundzewicz, Dennis P Lettenmaier, and Ronald J Stouffer. 2008. “Stationarity Is Dead: Whither Water Management?” Science 319 (5863): 573–74.

Nuttall, Mark. 2009. “Living in a World of Movement: Human Resilience to Environmental Instability in Greenland.” In Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions, edited by Susan A. Crate and Mark Nuttall, 292–310. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Robin, Libby, Robert Heinsohn, and Leo Joseph. 2009. Boom & Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country. Collingwood, VIC: CSIRO PUBLISHING.

Schwert, G William. 2011. “Stock Volatility during the Recent Financial Crisis.” European Financial Management 17 (5): 789–805.

Scoones, Ian. 1999. “New Ecology and the Social Sciences: What Prospects for a Fruitful Engagement?” Annual Review of Anthropology, 479–507.

———. 2019. What Is Uncertainty and Why Does It Matter? STEPS Working Paper 105. Brighton: STEPS Centre.

Tejsner, Pelle. 2013. “Living with Uncertainties: Qeqertarsuarmiut Perceptions of Changing Sea Ice.” Polar Geography 36 (1–2): 47–64.

Telescea, Jennifer E. 2018. “Volatility.” Theorizing the Contemporary. Fieldsites . June 27, 2018. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/volatility.