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How sexy is Kuznet’s Curve?

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

I confess. Before a colleague mentioned it, I had never heard of Kuznet or his curve. Now that we are acquainted, I think Kuznet’s Curve has a lot to tell us.

Kuznet's Curve. What could be simpler?


In short, a Kuznets curve is the graphical representation of Simon Kuznets' hypothesis that as a country develops, there is a natural cycle of economic inequality driven by market forces which at first increases inequality, and then decreases it after a certain average income is attained.

What’s interesting about the curve is not that Simon Kuznet won the 1971 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences or the storm of criticism his hypothesis continues to generate to this day. What’s interesting is the appeal of the story the curve is telling.

All cultures tell stories, and science is a culture. Stories initiate us into the beliefs of practices of a culture. In science, we learn the story of the Western Enlightenment and how the application of reason and the scientific method will lead to a better life for all. This is the meta-narrative or the ‘grand narrative’ of science; the discourse that ties all our stories together.

“Stories aren’t merely essential to how we understand the world — they are how we understand the world. We weave and seek stories everywhere, from data visualization to children’s illustration to cultural hegemony,” says Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Story Telling Animal.

The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser memorably asserted.

Serious scientists will be losing patience with all these references to poets and dreamers and grand narratives, so let us turn to the telling of science stories. Your stories.

Telling stories about science

Most of our stories begin and end as scientific papers published in academic journals. These are highly stylized stories shaped and constrained by the norms and conventions of scientific disciplines, but stories nonetheless.

It doesn’t matter what a story is about, it helps to have a good plot. In a book by the same title, Christopher Booker postulates that all stories from all cultures from all times are based on just Seven Basic Plots. Here they are, illustrated with examples from the scientific literature.

Overcoming the monster: The monster can be corruption or poor governance or lack of capacity. We overcome the monster with information. We must overcome many obstacles to getting our information into the right hands.

Venot, Jean-Philippe; Andreini, Marc; Pinkstaff, C. B. 2011.Planning and corrupting water resources development: the case of small reservoirs in Ghana. Water Alternatives, 4(3):399-423.

Rags to riches: Much of our work concerns lifting people out of poverty into riches. We offer so many ways for people to overcome their poverty. Irrigation. Rainwater harvesting. Small pumps to draw groundwater. Wastewater for urban agriculture. Improved livestock. The list is nearly endless.

Mukherji, Aditi; Shah, Tushaar; Banerjee, P. S. 2012. Kick-starting a second green revolution in Bengal [India]. Economic and Political Weekly, 47(18):27-30.

The quest: Our goal is clear. We seek an end to poverty, social justice and farming systems in harmony with nature. Like any good quest, the path is strewn with uncertainties, dangers, temptations and wrong turnings.

Molden, David. (Comp.) 2008. Water security for food security: findings of the Comprehensive Assessment for Sub-Saharan Africa. [This report draws directly from the book Water for food, water for life: a Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture].

Voyage and return: If we knew the outcome, it wouldn’t be research. Every genuine research project is a journey into the unknown. Our data may at first seem contradictory or counterintuitive or elusive, perplexing. We may feel all is lost and we will end in failure, but then a breakthrough or an insight and in the end the world makes sense again.

Rebirth: The hero or heroine falls under the shadow of a dark power (the momentum of the Green Revolution falls prey to the dark power of routine bureaucracy); for a while, all seems to go well (the funding continues); but eventually the dark power returns in full force (the donors are unhappy with our impact); and then the hero/heroine rise the challenge and overcome the dark force (the Consortium Research Programs).

Note: Feel free to use the comment box to suggest alternate and additional interpretations or to critique mine. You can ask why I left out comedy and tragedy.

Message in a bottle

In communications we talk about “messaging”, which is comms jargon for “telling stories”. We are very concerned about telling your stories because while journal articles are important, they appeal to a select audience and we need to reach a much wider audience. If we can’t convince people that what you do is relevant, useful and important, you had better start looking for alternative employment. So we need to interpret your stories in terms of plots that appeal to the need for stories in all of us.

Kuznet’s Curve is both a quest story and a meta-story. A meta-story or grand narrative is a discourse that connects the chaos of facts and events and makes larger meaning or significance in the stories we tell. Why are doing this? Kuznet’s Curve is telling a story very much within the grand narrative of Enlightenment science: reason and scientific enquiry will lead us to a better world. With the right technology, we can fix anything. Take it apart to see how it works and we will understand it.

I wonder if that’s the right narrative now that we have been reborn as the Water, Land and Ecosystems Program. I wonder if the grand narrative of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek might be a more modern, more fitting narrative for us.

We will go where no researchers have gone before. We will think in new ways to embrace more cross sectoral approaches and challenge the ‘business as usual’ models that are hampering the development of sustainable resource use across the globe. We will support social and individual progress towards harmony within societies and between agricultural systems and nature. We will respect diversity in all its forms. We will weave our ideas into something more permanent. Above all, we will tell compelling stories.