Masters and Ph.D Opportunities

Masters and Ph.D. Opportunities

School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability (SERS), Faculty of Environment, University of Waterloo

Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience (WISIR)


BREAKING NEWS:  Full funding for one Ph.D 

 Looking for students interested in working on projects relating to environmental politics and either paganism/heathenry or preppers and off-grid survivalism (with fieldwork on the American Redoubt movement). I would also be interested in hearing from students with an interest in the Canadian fiddle music and step dancing and the political sociology of class, rurality, pioneering/settlement and First Nations in the national self-identity.


Topics: Limits to Growth, Political Economy, Spirituality & Radical Ontologies, Environmental Politics, Energy/Complexity, Indigenous Politics, Resources, reMaker society, Open-source Economics, Distributism, Transition, Degrowth, neo-Paganism, preppers and prepping

Disciplinary background:  historical sociology, social/analytical psychology, social anthropology, ecological economics, history, human ecology, pagan studies, environmental studies, radical geography, Big History

For further details contact:  Dr Stephen Quilley



Academic papers:


 Biophysical limits to growth are back on the agenda – whether under the guise of ‘planetary boundaries’ (Rockstrom et al 2009) or the possibility of global economic collapse (Turner 2014), worst-case climate scenarios (Barnofsky and Hadley 2012) and environment-related geo-political crises resulting in regional wars, mass migration and political disorder. Mainstream approaches to sustainable development (‘smart growth’, ‘ecological modernization’, ‘green-tech’, ‘social-ecological innovation’, ‘environmental governance’) have not delivered the promised paradigmatic transformation of behaviour, institutions, economic systems and values. The discourse of resilience together with the concept of the Anthropocene underline a dramatic sea-change in the ethos of modern societies. Although ‘business as usual’ continues to provide the default setting, the unthinking assumption of socio-economic progress is giving way to a growing insecurity at the level of both individuals and societies.

Applying the insights of complex systems, we use the heuristic of a gravitational landscape metaphor. Global capitalism, the consumer society and growth-driven modernization has proved to be phenomenally deep and resilient ‘basin of attraction’.  Limits to growth and climate change are making this basin shallower and less resilient. Non-linear system change may result in systemic collapse. But it may also engender a shift to more communitarian, post-capitalist, alternative forms of modernity. We are interested in developing projects that explore the latter. Specific areas of interest include:

  • The economic anthropology of Karl Polanyi: the concept of dis- (re)embedding, modernization and the relationship between state/market and individualization
  • Norbert Elias & ecological civilizing processes
  • Ernest Becker, ‘terror management theory’ and green hero/immortality projects
  • Radical ontologies, neo-paganism and ritual – and environmental politics
  • Open-source economics, craft and the Maker movement
  • T Odum, energy, complexity and civilization
  • Environmental politics and limits to growth
  • Migration, diversity and the wicked dilemmas of low energy cosmopolitan/liberal societies
  • Indigenous politics, limits to growth and an ‘alternative modernity’
  • The politics and political economy or degrowth, Transition towns
  • Environmental politics and the prepper movement
  • Radical political economy – theory and social history (guilds, Social Credit, basic income, William Morris, Chester-Belloc, Henry George….to Andre Gorz, regulation theory, anarchism, Libertarianism, Frankfurt School)
  • Social Innovation: theory and strategies for rapid cross-scale change
  • Environmental politics and non-linear change in complex systems
  • Distributism and the ‘Third Way’
  • Permaculture
  • Big History and ontological /epistemological change

 Current student projects

 Katie Kish: Wicked dilemmas of modernity and ecological economics. Katie’s research focuses on the future of modern livelihood with case studies on preppers, makers, and homesteaders.




Perin Ruttonsha: Sustainability Transition within Complex Adaptive Systems:  In her doctoral research, Perin applies concepts from complexity, socio-ecological resilience, social innovation, systemic design, limits to growth, and biomimicry discourses in considering opportunities for systems transformation along sustainability pathways. Central to her work is a process-oriented, relational, multi-layered approach to transition, which iteratively navigates conceptual, technological, and political factors. She is particularly interested in the human dimensions of change and the scaling of complexity through innovation. Website:

 Barb DavyContemporary Paganism and Environmental Politics:  Barb is interested in the role of non-rational drivers in institutional and behavioural change and ecological conscience formation. This involves a critique of the ontological and moral individualism that underlies many otherwise competing political and philosophical perspectives. The project investigates the potential of ritual and processes of re-enchantment in social-ecological transformation.  Points of departure include Turner’s concept of ‘communitas’, the political economy Karl Polanyi and Graham Harvey’s anthropology of the ‘New Animism’.


 Clay Dasilva: Anthropic Imaginaries & Biospheric Realities: Analyzing the Ontology and Normativity of Growth vis-à-vis The Natural Environment

Clay is exploring the range of different perspectives/worldviews with regard to the relationship between human activity, economic growth and the biosphere. Questions include: (1) What are the ontological and politico-normative commitments & assumptions associated with such perspectives (2) To what extent are such ontological commitments and assumptions tenable and evidence-based? (3) How do individuals and groups understand the directions in which society (variously) could, should and cannot go in light of such ontological commitments and worldviews?



Katharine Zywert: Limits to growth, health systems and an alternative modernity: Katharine’s research investigates functional models for health systems in an era of constrained economic growth and social-ecological instability. In the Anthropocene, trends such as declining resource and energy flows, fiscal constraints, the extinction of medicinal plant species, changing ecologies of disease, and aging demographics are converging to transform health and medicine. Using ethnographic methods, I aim to identify social arrangements for health systems that can secure both human wellbeing and environmental sustainability over the long-term.




Some Points of Departure  


An era of limits:

Barnofsky A.D. & Hadly E.A. et al (2012) ‘Approaching a state shift in Earth’s biosphere’ Nature 486, 52–58 (07 June 2012) doi:10.1038/nature11018

Greer, J.M. (2009) The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a post-peak world (New Society Publishers)

Rockström, J., et al. “A safe operating space for humanity.” Nature 461.7263 (2009): 472-475

Tainter, J. (1990). The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge University Press.

Turner, G. (2014) ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’, MSSI Research Paper No. 4, Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

The state, the market, the ‘I’ and the ‘We’

Polanyi, K. [Dalton, G. Ed. ] (1968). Primitive, archaic, and modern economies: essays of Karl Polanyi (pp. 9-54). New York: Anchor Books.

Elias, N. (1991) The Society of Individuals (Blackwell)

Bauman, Z. (1991) Modernity and Ambivalence (Polity)

Scott, J. (1998) Seeing like a State:  How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (Yale)

Ontology and non-rational drivers of behavior

Becker, E. (1973) The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press Paperbacks

Turner, E. (2012). Communitas: The anthropology of collective joy. Palgrave Macmillan.

Turner, V. (1995). The ritual process: Structure and anti-structure. Transaction Publishers

Whitehouse, H. (2004). Modes of religiosity: A cognitive theory of religious transmission. Rowman Altamira.

Whitehouse, H., & Lanman, J. A. (2014). The Ties That Bind Us. Current Anthropology, 55(6), 674-695.

Harvey, G. (2005). Animism: Respecting the living world. Wakefield Press.

Radical political economy

Carson, K. (2010) The Homebrew Industrial Revolution (

Pope Francis, (2015) Enciclica Laudato Si  —

Open Source Ecology (2015) ‘Distributive Economics.’ Available at – Accessed 1st Jan 2015.

Polanyi, K. 1944. The Great Transformation (Beacon)


Energy and civilization

Quilley, S. (2011) ‘Entropy, the Anthroposphere and the Ecology of  Civilization: An Essay on the Problem of ‘liberalism in One Village’ in the Long View’ The Sociological Review 59 (June): 65–90. doi:10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.01979.x.

Environmental politics

Quilley, S.  (2013) ‘De-Growth Is Not a Liberal Agenda: Relocalisation and the Limits to Low Energy Cosmopolitanism’  Environmental Values 22 (2): 261–85.

— (2012). Resilience Through Relocalization: Ecocultures of Transition. Ecocultures Working Paper: 2012–1, University of Essex.

— (2012). System Innovation and a New ‘Great Transformation’: Re-embedding Economic Life in the Context of ‘De-Growth’. Journal of Social Entrepreneurship, 3(2), 206-229.

Ophuls, William. (2011) Plato’s revenge: politics in the age of ecology (MIT Press)

Complexity and the Global Food System

Usually, our papers are written from the premise that in an era of limits, in the Anthropocene, the arc of complexification is unsustainable and thus humanity is presented with a wicked dilemma, namely:

What is the smallest metabolic scale (i.e. the flows of energy and materials sustaining society) and ecological footprint necessary to support a globally integrated, cosmopolitan, liberal-democratic, science-based and technologically progressive civilization?

We use this question repeatedly to explore the implications that our environmental choices have in relation to political economy, culture, and personality structures. If there are indeed limits to complexity (and thus growth), where should we concentrate our efforts and in what areas might we be willing to (or be forced to) change, relinquishing orders of complexity. This raises very difficult questions with regard to many cherished norms and systems in our society such as social cohesion, distribution of wealth, healthcare systems, and personal freedoms.

From a limits perspective the growth in the scale and complexity of human activities is as astonishing as it is unsustainable. At the dawn of the human Odyssey, the human brain itself was possibly the most complex entity in the universe (Chaisson 2001:139). Using a measure of ‘free energy rate density’ measured in ERGS per gramme per second, Chaisson contrasts the complexity of a galaxy (0.5), a planet (75), a typical plant (900), an animal body (20,000), a human brain (150,000) and modern society (500,000). ‘Not surprisingly a group of brainy organisms working collectively is even more complex than the totality of its individual components’ (Chaisson 2001:139). With language and culture the network of connected brains engendered a step change in complexity, in turn accelerated by writing and the integration of human societies across the planet. The connectivity of the Internet represents yet another order of magnitude increase in complexity (McNeill and McNeill 2003, Christian 2005).

What we suggest is that our capacity to manage global life support systems depends upon limiting (see: Peter Victor and Tim Jackson‘s work on ecological economics) or even reversing (see: DeGrowth movement) economic growth, either of which would require limiting the scale of human complexity. The global food system provides some useful examples of what a ‘degrowth’ economy, might involve:

Food systems have always been a significant focus for complexification during the course of human development. At each stage – from hunter-gathering, through simple horticulture, agrarianzation, the development of food markets and food processing, right through to the global agribusiness and food commodity markets – the system-wide embedded energy or ‘transformity’ (Odum 2013) associated with average food items has been rising steadily (Transformity is a measure of energy of one kind needed to make one unit of energy of another kind. It provides a way to conceive the unit energy embedded and transformed across multiple biological and cultural systems and scales in (re)production of a given order of complexity.). This is very clear if one considers the entropic cost associated with rising number of processes involved in production, processing, packaging storage, transportation and consumption of food i.e. the number of people, the quantity of materials, the complexity of the logistics – all of which have to be sustained by flows of energy. Reducing the entropy-cost of food, would in principle, increase the ecological space available for the biosphere and/or other societal functions (perhaps sustaining an Internet). At least conceptually, reducing the cost of complexity in the food system is not difficult to imagine. Such a process might involve variously:

·         reversing the globalization and even the regionalization of production and supply chains

·         a concerted re-localization of not only of food production but of the culture of consumption (including recipes, social contexts, cultural meaning etc)

·         reducing or eliminating secondary processing and packaging

·         changing the mix of vegetable, cereals and meat towards the former

·         changing the types and quantities of meat consumed as well as the manner of consumption

·         reducing or eliminating the use of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers and the recovery or organic, rotational and permacultural production systems.

·         eliminating the use of processed sugar

·         the ‘re-embedding’ of food supply into cultural, social and spiritual/religious life i.e. a reduction in the role of both state and market in food production and a recovery of household/community production systems rooted in the principle of reciprocity (in the sense of Karl Polanyi 1944, 1968; Quilley 2012).

The social and economic impacts of a degrowth food systems would be diverse. There would be a number of benefits (public health, community engagement) but also problematic consequences (more time devoted to food production, job loss in the food sector). These changes would amount to a system wide loss of complexity and a decline in global productivity. Extending this to the Greens’ idea of ‘trivial consumption’, from a systems perspective there is no ‘trivial consumption’, it all contributes to the overall function of the global system. Simplification of whole sectors of the economy would have unintended and difficult to predict feedback effects on all other areas of economy and society.

A few thoughts from reading Elias, White, and Levinas


In reading Norbert Elias (whose work I have just started to read, starting with The Symbol Theory) and re-reading the Lynn White thesis, I’ve been thinking about the role of religion, worldview, culture, and language in the ecological crisis.   I’m integrating this with past thinking I’ve done about why nonhuman others have been excluded from ethical consideration in the modern world.  Why do people categorize nonhuman others as objects rather than potentially other persons?  Why is modern industrial civilization so anthropocentric?  Lynn White Jr. suggests that Christianity is to blame.  Elias’ work suggests it goes much deeper than that, to the development of language and the first human cultures.  Elias’ work may afford some useful refinements in thinking I’ve done before about Levinasian ethics (Davy 2007).

White sees ecology as what people think about how they are related to their environments, which is fundamentally informed by religion.  He points to the switch from pagan animism to Christianity as “the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture.”  When there are no more genius loci, no more divinity in nature to placate, nature is reduced to a resource to be exploited.  He presents Christianity as anthropocentric – more so than any other religion – and a driving impetus of scientific knowledge until recently in the West.  The Christian sense of nature as not animated by spirit continues to inform scientific/secular understanding of nature, as having no intrinsic value, no rights.  White argues that we need to reject the Western Christian idea of nature as mere resource to be exploited.  He says that because the roots of the ecological crisis are religious, “the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”  This is the origin of the idea that we need to change our worldview to remedy the ecological crisis.

White’s area of expertise was technological innovation in the Middle Ages (Elspeth Whitney “Thesis of Lynn White (1907-1987)” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, Ed. Bron Taylor.   vol 2 p 1735).  He found that the pursuit of technology, and mastery of nature, are core values of Western culture (and that they are rooted in Western Christianity).  Mastery came from wanting to be like God, with science was seen as a way of coming to know the world as God does, and the goal was to master it, to have dominion, as God gave humans in the creation story in Genesis.

Core values are often not conscious, but are inculcated by religion (I could just as easily say “worldview” or “culture” as religion).  Religion sometimes makes such values explicit, or they can be “read” in ritual if not myth or doctrine.  What the religion and language arguments for the causes of the ecological crisis come down to is that our worldview, our discourse, religion, language/epistemology structure how we relate with others in the world – as resource vs. as more than human world (David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous), as gakina gegoo (Anishnabe for “everything”), through etiquette of respect for other than human persons (animism or “pan-psychism”).  Put “language” in place of Clifford Geertz’s definition of religion, and we see that the words we use are crucial to how we understand the world and our place in it.  Geertz:  a religion is

(1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (Geertz “Religion as a Cultural System” The Interpretation of Cultures.  1965.  p. 90-91)

Language is a system of symbols that establishes a sense of what is real.  It’s not as though we can shed our cultural blinkers by shedding Christianity and becoming secular, despite what many scientists, and more particularly advocates of science replacing religion suppose.  Our language continues to exert force on what we know and how we know it – most obviously about what is real and what is imagined.

Language is key to how we understand the world.  The words we use to describe and understand things matter:  having a word for “environment” tells us something about how we perceive the world and our position in it.  If we don’t have a word for something, we can’t talk about it (Elias The Symbol Theory 6).  An example not in Elias’ book, but one I’ve come across before:  in English, all shades of blue can be called blue; in Russian, and a number of other languages, there are separate words for light blue and dark blue.  While we can say cyan blue and royal blue, we are not that great at distinguishing shades, and in fact speakers of Russian are much better at discerning shades of blue than English speakers are (though this is changing as cyan is used more and more in discussion of colour for computer screens and flat panel tvs).

Similarly, if I believe in land wights, and live in a culture that has words for them I’m more likely to be aware of them and perceive them.  In a culture that lacks such concepts as land wight or genius loci, one can only suppose such ideas are fanciful, projections of “spirit” into nature.  Similarly, who is morally considerable in a given society is governed by who can be perceived as a person – in Western civilization, only humans.  For new animists, some nonhumans might be met as persons because they are classed as persons.

Without language, the world is undifferentiated, unthematized – no subject-object divide, no culture-nature divide, or human/environment divide.  To say knowledge rests on the subject-object divide misses that language structure how we know the world, not that we can’t know it without making that particular distinction.  I agree with Elias here.  He presents a post-structuralist understanding of language and knowledge.  Elias questions Lévi-Strauss’ idea that the human mind is structured in binary oppositions (see pg. 8-9, 87).  But Elias uses the distinction between living and inanimate objects as an example of the development of reality-congruent knowledge (9).  He would not share my interest in reviving animism.

Elias says that the words we use to talk about things can create resistance against new knowledge about the world, and ideas about it.  We get stuck in familiar patterns of thinking, and the words we use to conduct that thinking limit what we can think about the topic thought about (though not fully determine it – otherwise we’d never have new ideas).  To think, to speak, to know are not really distinct (85).   Elias notes that language does not completely determine knowledge/experience – we can question, as Elias does (91), and, I would add, the other can put us in question, as in Levinasian interruption.

Elias seems to have an evolutional idea of civilization progressing from magical explanations to more “reality-congruent” ones (see 94-95).  This would be problematic for those of us critical of the idea that Western civilization as more advanced or better than previous and other civilizations.  But I think he means we have evolved from our ancestral ideas, becoming more reality-congruent, without putting a positive valuation on us being “more evolved” or better than our ancestors.  I’m not totally clear on this.

Elias explains that coming to know the world is a process.  We use experimental fantasies to try out ideas, and work towards reality-congruence (96).  Thinking of them as fake or false is not helpful he says, because innovation and reality-testing are both necessary.  Also, humans have a great need for collective fantasy.  While individual fantasy can be dangerous, the human need for enactment of fantasies is basic and urgent (98).  Elias argues that fantasy knowledge filled gaps in reality-congruent knowledge for our ancestors.  While they didn’t know that a volcano was dangerous because of lava and shifts in the earth’s crust, it was important for them to know something about it to keep themselves safe.  Supposing that it was a dragon, or a demon’s smithy made them respect the danger (93).  I’m inclined to playfully question how much more useful our scientific knowledge is.  Aren’t we more likely to respect a dragon than a scientists rambling of statistics and probabilities?  We certainly don’t show any signs of respect for the dangers of climate change as a society.  Maybe scary monsters would work better.  Humans learn better through narrative than numbers.  Maybe we should personify the dangers.  Focusing on the plight of people and animals who will be harmed does not seem to be motivating unless we put a face on them, and tell the story of specific individuals.  A picture of one boy drowned at sea, or Cecil the lion, garner more attention than any number of statistics, as we recently discussed in the PhD seminar class.

An important implication of Elias understanding of language and the civilizing process, I think, is that Levinas’ description of being chez soi is not innate to humans but an artifact of a particular mindset that has become dominant.  It is not human nature to want to master the world, but a particularly pernicious way of thinking about human nature.  The idea of the rational individual is still powerful, along with associated privilege, mastery, rights, and consumption – pulling all into the realm of one’s own (being chez soi, in Levinas’ terms).

Privileged humans are taking over the whole planet, drawing everything into ourselves and transforming it into being chez soi.  It too often seems like sustainability is about how to let everyone have their household and maintain it, not about how the rich need to open their door to the poor, and stop consuming, incorporating, everything and everyone into themselves.  People who work in sustainability, like Robert Gibson, and restoration ecology, like Steve Murphy at the University of Waterloo, are actively doing something to fix the ecological crisis.  The work I am and doing, and Stephen Quilley, is more about arguing about the causes and how to get more radical change.  Ironically, though we desire deeper change we are doing less actively to get it.  The sort of change I am advocating for, at the level of language and culture, occurs at the rate of cultural drift.  (I think I heard it described that way first by Adrian Ivakhiv, but I don’t recall where.)  The question is will it be fast enough, and what can we do to speed it up?  One avenue is through religious innovation, and attempts to develop contemporary Paganism as a shallow basin of attraction, something I aim to explore in my current research with Quilley.

Maker Expo

One of the most active groups of individuals in our research are local maker groups. Through the ReMaker Society project, funded by the Metcalf Foundation, we have met with and spoken to many local makers in the Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph regions. This community of creative and imaginative people are constantly putting on family friendly event. On Sept 19. 2015 you can join them for one of their biggest events yet – Maker Expo.

Maker Expo will showcase makers, artists and organizations who share the common bond of creative celebration of DIY. The event is being hed at Kitchener City Hall and is FREE to attend.

Check our their website for more information or to volunteer for the event! We’ll see you there!

Tiptoeing towards darkness I: A response to Helen MacDonald’s H is For Hawk

Ostensibly a meditation on grief, MacDonald recounts how training a goshawk helped her come to terms with the death of her father. But the book is so much more. In part a rather self-conscious contribution to the English nature writing tradition, H is for Hawk explores the relationship between the pastoral values of countryside and the Thoreauvian idea of wildness. But clinical observation of ecology is intertwined with equally penetrating observations on the human condition – and particularly the fraught inner life of T.H. White, the creator of the most enduring 20th century version of Arthurian mythology and tortured and incompetent trainer of a Goshawk. She also ambles thoughtfully if fleetingly into disturbing territory of ‘blud und boden’, imagined community and the paradox of liberals identifying with particular places.

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The Goat Question or ‘Who Should Wipe Granny’s Bottom?’

Would you, could you…milk a goat? While small is certainly beautiful, it can also be relentless and constraining.  The re-embrace of place-bounded community, sensitive to local ecosystems, probably requires re-enchantment and the re-sacralization of every day activities and ways of being. It will be hard for us to become once again rooted, ‘small’ and also happy, unless we can recover what anthropologists call ‘participatory consciousness’ – a cosmic sense of the connectedness of all things.

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Re-Enchantment and the Land Ethic: When stones are ‘grandfathers’ and viruses kith and kin

In his essay ‘The Land Ethic’, Aldo Leopold recognized that what is really significant about human beings is less our intrinsic value as individuals, and more our habit of imputing value to others.  We have an evolved propensity to project value to anyone recognised as being part of family or community, and therefore morally considerable. All human beings perceive value in this way. What has changed through history is the boundary of community. On returning from Troy, Odysseus hung twelve slave girls for sexual misdemeanours. He did so casually, because the women in question were not perceived as being part of the community. Such brutality seems repugnant to modern readers because since Homer wrote the Odyssey, the ambit of moral consideration has been extended to include women and slaves.  In The Rights of Nature Roderick Nash builds upon Leopold’s insight to present a reading of human development as a process of progressive liberation involving the gradual extension of community. Culminating most recently with the consolidation of a universalist conception of individual human rights, he speculates that in the decades to come, this process might continue to include animals, plants and even non living entities such as stones or features of the landscape.

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Welcome to ‘Navigators of the Anthropocene’


This is a blog for helmsmen and steers-women, mappers & diviners,  explorers and surveyors, pioneers and refugees,  celebrants and mourners, for shamans and scientists, myth-makers and story-tellers, warriors and wordsmiths — for women, men and children who must find new meanings and directions in an unstable and chaotic world.

It is an invitation for you to explore with me, themes relating to resilience and adaptation to our too-fast changing world. Part of a writing project, my intention is to upload reviews and commentaries on books, from many disciplines,  which have a bearing on the political-economy, culture, psychology and spirituality of feasible society for the ‘Long Now’.  I will also post short essays on themes relating to

  • re-enchantment, ontology, ritual and earth-based spirituality
  • micro-fabrication and technics for a (re)Maker society
  • Social Innovation, social movements and politics in the Anthropocene
  • energy and civilization
  • growth, degrowth and ecological economics

Touchstones include Karl Polanyi, Norbert Elias, Mircea Eliade, Kevin Carson, Morris Berman, Ernest Becker and Karl Jung

Inspirations include Marcin Jakubowski’s experiment in Open Source Ecology (

 I hope this will be a dialogue. Please feel free to jump in and comment. I hope you find it useful.