AHA Member Spotlight: Bennett S. Stark

AHA members are involved in all fields of history, with wide-ranging specializations, interests, and areas of employment. To recognize our talented and eclectic membership, AHA Today features a regular AHA Member Spotlight series. The members featured in this column have been randomly selected and then contacted by AHA staff. If you would you like to nominate a colleague for the AHA Member Spotlight, please contact Julie Nkodo.

Dr. Bennett S. Stark is a retired historian and scholar. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and has been an AHA member since 2011.

Member-Spotlight_Bennett
 AHA Member, Bennett S. Stark

Current school or alma mater/s: PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison; visiting scholar at Agnes Scott College

Field of interest: global problems within the framework of complexity theory

Could you elaborate on your interests/work?

Assuredly, a most compelling challenge confronting humanity is the achievement of sustainable global governance.

The dramatic rise in world population and technological advances—those affecting industrial practices, transportation, communication, lifestyle changes, global trade and investment, and military weaponry—have heightened both the interconnectedness within and between the peoples of the world, and the interconnectedness between human systems and the environment. The effect on the latter stems from our species’ cumulative actions on the environment (including those generating global warming, environmental pollution, and biodiversity loss), which endanger civilization.

These changes have led to an unprecedented fragility of the human enterprise to both socio-economic, environmental, and governance stress with the possibility of cascading crises. The margin of error for effective governance is narrower on the national and global level, and the cost of error is likely more catastrophic, in more ways in this century than in any century during the modern era.

An abundance of incipient crises exist. Tense relations, i.e., flashpoints, already exist between a number of countries including India and Pakistan, Iran and Israel, India and Pakistan, Japan and China, and from the volatility and instability of much of the Moslem world. The magazine Foreign Affairs lists 60 nations in varying gradations as “failed states.” Environmental conditions that could set off serial disasters include dramatic shortages of water in Asia and Africa and elsewhere, flooding of low-level lands, e.g., in coastal China, Bangladesh, and India, food riots, widespread nonarable land, and mass migrations. But each could by itself generate a trajectory leading to cascading catastrophic scenarios.

The interconnectedness and fragility of the global scene including “tipping points,” known and unknown, have become pronounced during the last three decades or so, and can be studied as basic features of a complex adaptive system. Complex phenomena are evolutionary at their source and abound in the biological, and physical realms, as well as in the socio-economic and political realms. Complex systems consist of many members or units and are synergistic. As such, their behavior cannot be deduced by the behavior of its parts. They have become especially manifest in the global domain during the last three decades. Civilization as a complex adaptive system is potentially adaptive, i.e., not inherently adaptive. Thus, sustainable governance, if this is our objective, will only happen if we make it happen.

Not the least of humanity’s problems is time—the time needed to learn how to deal with varied problems, especially those ecological in nature. For example, there is a lag of about two decades between the time when existing greenhouse gases, e.g., methane in the oceans and the permafrost, manifest their adverse effects. Whatever we do or don’t do in this century may determine our collective destiny.

See my “The Global Political System: A Dynamical System in the Chaotic Phase,” Interjournal (April 2007) and a lengthy, more comprehensive, and somewhat revised article “A Case Study of Complex Adaptive Systems Theory, Sustainable Global Governance: The Singular Challenge of the Twenty-first Century,” RISC Research Paper, no. 5 (Univ. of Ljubljana & WISDOM, July 2009). Also see The Ingenuity Gap (Alfred A. Knopf, 2000) and The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (Island Press, 2006) by Thomas Homer-Dixon, and Down to the Wire: Confronting Climate Collapse (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006) by David Orr.

What projects are you working on currently?

I continue to work in the field of global problems and complexity theory.

Have your interests changed since graduate school? If so, how?

My interests have grown. My MA thesis was in the area of intellectual history. It was entitled John Dewey and Reinhold Niebuhr: Conflicting Perspectives in Social Action. At UW-Madison, my chief interest was in social-science history. My dissertation was The Political Economy of State Public Finance: A Model of the Determinants of Revenue Policy, The Illinois Case 1850–1970.

Is there an article, book, movie, blog, etc., that you can recommend to fellow AHA members?

Yes, an article by Rogers Hollingsworth and Karl Muller, “Transforming Socio-economics with a New Epistemology,” Socio-Economic Review 6, no. 3 (2008): 395–426. Complex phenomena present a new epistemology that complements the Descartes-Newtonian framework. Complex systems are synergistic and thus cannot be deduced from the behavior of their parts. The article is a detailed discussion of complexity theory and how it can be further developed. The authors believe strongly that complexity theory should be applied to socio-economic research.

What do you value most about the history profession?

I have never had a full-time, tenure-track position at the college level. I received my PhD in early 1982 during what was then the worst recession since the Great Depression—a bad time to find a tenure-track position. The UW History Department named me a “postdoctoral honorary scholar.” Several years later, I received a book, Placing Parties in American Politics (Princeton Univ. Press, 1986), in the mail from David Mayhew, the Alfred Cowles Professor of Government at Yale University. He wrote that he had made good use of my dissertation and devoted two pages of his book to a discussion of my work. Later, upon my request he wrote a reference for me stating, “Your dissertation certainly ought to be published in some form. It does an outstanding job on a subject few if any, to my knowledge anyway, have done much justice to.” The reference had no effect on my ability to get a tenure-track position.

For me, the term “profession” has more to do with self-identification than with earning a living. I continue to identify as a historian.

I was an adjunct faculty member at Madison Area Technical College and Georgia Perimeter College. I also have taught on the high school and middle school levels. More recently, I have taught at Madison Elder Hostels and respectively at Emory and Mercer Senior Universities.

Other than history, what are you passionate about?

My family: my partner, our respective grown children and grandchildren. My partner is an emerita professor of mathematics at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta, GA. (She is also a PhD from UW-Madison.) Tennis is also a passion. I am also a docent at the Bremen Museum in Atlanta at its exhibit “The Nazi Holocaust.”

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