A Cult Under Siege

It’s really a religion. A religion with more followers than for any other. It’s the world’s most destructive, insidious cult. It’s priests are busy burning us all in their furies to make us conform. It’s a religion to which the most surprising people belong. Just about all the world’s most empowered leaders, and then some. It’s a belief system that’s totally pervasive in universities, government departments, in our mega corporations and, generally without reflection, by people just like you and me.

It’s the cult of the free market. The gospel of neo-classical economics, the sacred creed of free markets left to do their thing. This is the very bedrock of those mountain ranges of government policy that direct and shape the way our world works; that defines how our leaders plan and how they react to the challenges that define and challenge the progress to which most of us aspire.

Just think about how entrenched this belief system has become. Look to any aspect of the mechanics of business, government or even sport and you will find this cult firmly entrenched. The fate of football stars, orchestras, newspapers, new technology TV’s and of our rainforests are all determined, more or less, through the battlefields of the market place. When performance fails to satiate the appetites of our market place gods, jobs are lost and systems collapse.

The market place is held to be the mechanism through which to resolve the tensions of demand and supply, to resolve the uses to which the world’s resources might be conferred. The market place is the place where all the world’s scarcities are resolved. Or at least resolved to the degree that lends the perception of credibility to the choices made, the losses we reconcile ourselves to bear, and the damages that our lifestyles might inflict. The market place is the lynch pin of economic-social (and, without recourse to a more sensible model, environmental) order. Just look what happens when the carpet of the market is removed: Zimbabwe, the genocide of Pol Pot and Stalin’s purges. We see these scary things and we renew our vows to the perceived perfections of the market place once more.

We know it’s a wild beast. We know the kicks it can inflict. It takes us in, it kicks us out. It bestows bounties beyond imagination for some, and the pleasures of rummaging for food in rubbish bins for others. It has leveled most of the world’s rainforests. It has given us global warming. It’s given us the iPod and the hegemony of the car. Money is the clothing of success; it’s lack thereof is nakedness; to be out in the cold. To be nothing. To no longer be a ‘factor of production’ in the economic machinery of the state.

Our faith in this cult is a heavy trip up-the-steps-to-the-headchopping high priest indeed. The blood sacrifices are a torrent through which we wade. Waterfalls of blood wash down the sacrificial steps of this high economic temple.

‘Yes, but…’ says the high priest. ‘We know the market place is less than perfect. That’s why we have politicians and leaders’. Their job is to – ‘keep hold of the reins and keep the saddle of the state out of the dust’. Economics is not, they’d claim, as clinically mechanistic as my rhetoric would suggest. Actually, the main job of economists, they’d say, is to work around all the damages that our wild free market rides incur; they make informed choices, give prescriptions for damage control. Their job is to hand out bandaids to the crowd fleeing the path of their rampaging market bull. Better the bull you know than the anarchy you don’t. Did we mention Zimbabwe?

This is my own personal tipping point out of the economics game. I was an economics professor before my market value declined to zero…(‘rightly so’, my critics would claim: ‘see the market works!’ they’d exclaim…). I refuse to play the game of apologetics. I prefer to trip a reset button on my 25 years of economics teaching and research to enable the space for a more lateral view. I am definitely not alone. I’ve known thousands of economics thinkers who take a more agnostic view; but by and large, they sit up the back and are removed from the influence their skepticism might otherwise inspire.

This is not the place for even more lengthy diatribes. Suffice it to say that my prescription is for a different role for those who seek to rein-in the wild horses of the market place.

Step 1 is humility. No one, no group of ones, no group of hundreds and certainly no enclave of priestly savants can ever, ever, know all there is to know about how markets work and why. It’s complexity theory at work. Market economics, despite the disciplinary fantasies of economists, is a nexus blending place of sociology, psychology, botany, … engineering, physics, Information Technology, history, … flag waving and bell ringing… all.

Knowing this, and few would deny, why, then do we continue to fantasise that markets work like machines? The most stupid manifestation of this particular delusion is the proposal to manage global warming with the nonsense of carbon credit trading schemes; to fight a fire with the fire that caused the fire that now enflames us all. Carbon trading is the response one would expect from a high priest seeking only to keep his job; to retain control over a problem that his profession, fundamentally, caused.

It’s time for leadership to be reborn. We need brains in charge. Not poll-driven puppets dancing on strings lynched to the thumbs of their high priest economics advisors. We need a purge of the bureaucracy. We need to purge all those with fixed minds. We need to purge all those who subscribe to the notions of command and control; to the management of our economies as a machine. We need to open the doors to the vastness of ordered open discourse. Deliberative democracy 2.0. We have the tools. We have the opportunities like never before to facilitate open-communicative planning and decision making; for community building around the needs and leadership of communities that are sensible as communities to the communities involved. Grass roots-up community building through open collaborative engagement. Powered by Web 2.0+

Step 2 is to engage collective vision. Communities engage to develop vision. Vision determines the limits to the machinery of the market place. Not the priestly pronouncements from economics 101.

I forsee a world where value is redefined. I forsee a world where grass-roots up community building will admit the premiums of the locally hand-made; where local is first and globalisation recedes to ever emergent, always reconfiguring strategic partnerships to value add what we do locally; and not the other way around! My vision admits the reinterpretation of a sustainable future, where sustainability becomes a composite construct of regionally comprehensible economic-community-environmental balance, contexted by the emergent pathways chosen by neighbors and neighbors of neighbors separated out to the full six degrees. The machinery that matters is collective dialogue, not a cult of unreflexive economic theory.

Every day, in every way, I see policy makers around the world striving and seeking to implement the vision I hold; to the degree that they are able before their insecurities of departure from the market-first cult re-seizes their minds. Cleverness keeps on creeping in. Sneaking in when it should arrive with a shout instead. Which is why I consider our current Global Financial Crisis to be such a wonderful opportunity as it leaves the legions of market-cultists stranded and floundering as the hurricane of their ill-conceived beliefs has left them high, dry and exposed. These are the times for new mental models to take shape and shape the world to come.

Changing the Climate

…the Climate Conference in Copenhagen is essential for the worlds climate…
Copenhagen 2009 Climate Conference web site

And so the hubris begins…

Have you ever built a building out of Lego? If you did, then you’d know all about building a structure from bits. Obvious, I know. OK. Now let’s build in the local neighborhood around our lego house. A couple of trees here, a nice blue painted trench for the local river over there. Maybe a Lego car plonked here and there on our local Lego roads. And then there’s the train station. We might add a lovely railway diorama with plaster mountains and plaster tunnels. Perhaps you’d like to convert this exercise into a life-fulfilling passion that goes on for years, and years, and years. Then, when you’re done with your world building, you’ve probably filled a basement, or maybe a shed. Then, you can reach for your controller’s hat and turn the dials. You can run the trains and switch on the plastic garbage trucks. You can keep the trains on track and move all the little people around. Endless fun.

Perhaps you’d like to build a model on your computer instead. Perhaps you’d like to build a world model of – say – how the weather works. Perhaps then you can site back and play with simulated storms and the like. Or predict stuff for the Weather Bureau. Or predict the patterns of climate change. Where the Lego world works with little plastic bricks, the climate model works with maths. But they are both models and you can play the role of ship-captain-in-charge with each.

A long time ago (a couple of years ago, anyway) I used to teach a subject called Advanced Farm Management. We used to focus on the concepts of farming systems management. Which means that the object was to work out the complexities of how one things influences another, and then another, and onwards and onwards until, ultimately, stuff starts to push from behind and the whole show lights up like a mad electric circuit diagram. The aim was to explore the complexities of ‘how the system works’. It’s obvious pretty quickly, to just about anybody playing the game, that no matter how much detail we might contribute, we are never going to capture all the detail. Ever. No matter what. Indeed, the main aim was to demonstrate just how convoluted are the relationships that can drive this crazy farming ship. The lesson was about the management of complex systems. Management, there, is redefined. Management becomes a process of deep observation, keeping your eyes open and creative flexibility. The game of management here is as far away as you can get from the role of ‘a machine manager controller’ pushing the right buttons on a cityscape built from Lego. The real world cannot be controlled like a machine. The controller of a Lego City is an engineer running the machinery of an artificial state. The controller of a real world living system is a facilitator of learning; a facilitator of communication. Not a spinner of dials and a mover of cogs.

And so we come to this forthcoming world-changing climate change summit event. This is going to be a summit of experts; of little men wearing captain’s hats. It’s a summit of the world’s leading shakers and movers, our elected and technical elites. They’re all going to meet; hammer out an agreement or two, and then chain the tiller of State to a course that causes the least offense. This is leadership the bureaucracies can understand. Wisdom distilled up heirarchies of experts to brew in the still of political compromise. Yes, as the PR for the event says, we’ll all be saved…

Yes, this is to be the world summit of Lego Land controllers seeking to oil the machinery of the State of their own self-interest. As though our actions and their consequences can be partitioned behind the firewalls of human political geography. Yes, they’ll be going for improved gizmos, cogs and gadgets. Our leaders are going to ratify statements of intent; they’re after manifestos and polished policies as trophies to the high art of human-centered political compromise.

It’s all a complete waste of time. It’s a journey up the wrong road. It’s all about running the planet like a railroad in Lego Land.

No one, no group of ones, no mass of ones, can understand, let alone control, the astounding complexity of climate. Control is entirely the wrong idea. The Copenhagen Climate event is the child of heirarchical machine management death-diving into the surface of the sun. It’s also an event that’s entirely inevitable. It’s the only possible outcome from the way we humans have chosen to imagine the world as the workings of a mechanical clock.

Negotiations over matters such as climate change can not, should not or should ever be negotiated by an heirarchically elevated elite. That model presumes an upward filtration of learning and knowledge that is simply flawed to the core. Our leaders are not, as this model would imply, the ultimate experts of all matters pertaining to climate change. Playing the game of hierarchical elites is utterly flawed. Where the real need is for breathtaking breadth of perspective through which to inform the actions we take, this Conference will work through a process that’s utterly upside-down. It’s a conference that’s designed around a Copernican view of the world. The universe is to revolve around the decisions these elites may choose to make. They are there to empower, re-empower or simply energise their parochial domains of control.

I agree that a summit is certainly required. But it should be scripted to an entirely different plan. This should be a world summit of leadership, yes. But it should be a summit on how to lead.

Global Warming is the consequence of leadership failure. It’s leadership that’s gone wrong. Global warming is the consequence of a generic failure in the assignation of personal responsibility to the contributions we each make and have made to this problem that now threatens us all. We are all playing like small children in a sandpit with too few toys. The culture’s all gone horribly wrong. Through the hierarchies of our government systems, we have elevated both power and blame. If something goes wrong, it’s the responsibility of those on the plateaus above to fix the problems we personally have caused. How else could it be that we can so profoundly hide from personal blame when we each drive cars, consume coal fired power and in every way, and every day, consume way too much? As things stand, It’s the system at fault, not the fault of little old me! It’s the folk in charge of the system who have the responsibility to fix what’s gone wrong. Hierarchies of elevated responsibility are an ever so comforting routine through which to shift the blame.

The hoped for outcome from Copenhagen is, I would bet, a series of PR-spun targets and profound statements that will look fashionable to the cause, but which will save us from taking any personal pain. If the result were otherwise, governments will fall! There’s no other outcome that could come from a game to be played this way.

In the context of addressing issues like climate change, the real need is for leadership focused around the catalytic inspiration of cultural shifting individual change. Leadership needs to be re-defined. Leadership needs to be about running the real world rather than a world constructed in Lego Land. As my students of farming systems management came to understand, we can never run real world systems like the machinery of a clock. Leadership needs to be reconstructed from the role of engineer-in-charge to one that focuses on the high art of facilitated communication and learning. We need to ignite a tsunami of attitude shifting change in the connection we each perceive between our actions and their environmental consequences. We need a leadership shift that can use new and improved tools of communicative learning. We need a revolution in cleverness and talent through which to ingnite a wildfire of ecologically re-centred cultural readjustment.

A summit for purposes such as that would be a noble and important summit indeed! But that’s not the script drawn for the event upon which we all now seem to be pinning our hopes. What’s planned is a global jamboree for climate change managerialism. A summit for the oiling of cogs and the configuration of improved remote controls.

The only possible outcome from the Copenhagen event as it’s currently construed will be signoff on something like a series of targets. Because target management is the only possibility when you attempt to run the world like a machine. Targets are the only things machine managers can understand. I can see it now. The breathtaking outcome will be a global agreement to ‘do something’. Perhaps to hold more meetings. And a universal agreement to reduce emissions by, say, 2% by 2020. When judged from the perspective of running the world like a machine, an orgy of self-congratulation will be the order of the day. In our mass-delusion, we can all, then, feel calm and re-collected with our conviction that the machinery of state is back on track. We can all resume our position as disciples of the Cargo Cult belief that our problems are there for others to fix.