By Professor Steve Lansing

Date & Time: Friday, 23 September 2011, 4.30pm
Venue: HSS Conference Room (HSS-05-57), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Along a typical river in Bali, small groups of farmers meet regularly in water temples to manage their irrigation systems. They have done so for a thousand years. Over the centuries, water temple networks have expanded to manage the ecology of rice terraces at the scale of whole watersheds. Although each group focuses on its own problems, a global solution nonetheless emerges that optimizes irrigation flows for everyone. Did someone have to design Bali’s water temple networks, or could they have emerged from a self-organizing process?

This talk describes a series of fieldwork projects triggered by this question, ranging from the archaeology of the water temples to their ecological functions and their place in Balinese cosmology. Water temple networks are fragile, vulnerable to the cross-currents produced by competition among male descent groups. But the feminine rites of water temples mirror the farmer’s awareness that when they act in unison, small miracles of order regularly occur, as the jewel-like perfection of the rice terraces produces general prosperity.

Three models shed light on different aspects of this process at different time scales. The first model emerges from the tradition of game-theoretical studies of the emergence of cooperation, but changes the payoff matrix to include ecological feedback relationships. The second derives from a systems-ecology approach to the ecology of watersheds, but adds adaptive social parameters to assess the feedback effects of local systems of management. The third begins with genetic markers tracing patterns of settlement and migration, but focuses on emergent community structure and relatedness networks.


Professor J Stephen Lansing is Director of the Complexity Institute and professor in the Asian School of Environment at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. He is also an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute and the Vienna Complexity Hub, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona, and a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.