Being Human

There’s no getting away from it; despite the most dedicated of management or political intention to pretend otherwise. Humans are and always will be, humans. Which means individual bundles of self-constructed world views wherein each and every single one of us sees the world from the perspective of our … individual selves. There’s no getting away from it. You can only see the world through the goggles of your individual ‘circle’ of perceptions. If it were otherwise, you could see the world through the leaves of a tree or from the perspective of an ant. Which you can’t. You might imagine yourself peering at the world through the veins of a leaf, but it’s always going to be you that’s looking through those veins. Or through the eyes of your cat. Or from the eyes of Steve Jobs, or from the eyes of that soaring eagle you might have wished you could become, at least for a day. Whatever we do, it’s still you doing the looking. If you could manage to leave yourself behind, how then would you be able to report on what it was that was seen through these eyes that are not yours? The ‘you’ in this viewing equation is like a sheet of photographic film. Nothing will be recorded if you are not there to receive the images involved.

We spend our entire lives building the perceptions from which we interpret the world around us. Just like a hugely deep, sponge-like emulsion of film. Genetics are the framework. Nurturing, schooling, and every experience we ever had come together to resolve the pixels in the fabric of the lives we live. Every pixel of light we receive is rendered via our own personal palate of interpretative crayons. We will always have fewer shades of colour to apply than there are shades to be recorded. The picture we paint will always be an abstract view of what it is that we think we see. And everyone else is rendering that same landscape through a nuance and distinction that’s at least slightly different for each observer involved.

What if you see through a palette of 128 colour crayons and I see through 256 shades of charcoal grey?

It’s all pretty scary to those who prefer to imagine a world with the capacity to be described with shared objective precision. This is the source of all arguments. This is the source of wars. Why can’t you see things the same way that I see things? Why do you hold a view that’s different to mine? Can’t you see what it is that I can see? What’s wrong with you! What’s real to me must be real, also, to you. If not, you’ve got it wrong…

Here’s where the fantasies of objectivity come undone. To see the world the way I see the world, you are going to have to refurnish your mental landscape with exactly the same world view as mine. Which means that you will have to erase the mind you have now, to take on mine. But even then, that graft might not take. The furniture of your neurones and all the other minutia of physical difference that describes me as me and you as you will provide a seedbed of difference to shape the way that mind-swap might take hold. The equatorial jungle of your mind might not take kindly to the desert space that’s the landscape by design of my own mind…

So, let’s admit defeat. Our perspectives will always be different.

So, what do we do? There’s two broad paths.

The first is to tune and lock the world to the colours that I alone can see. We can stand with our Nazi salute and insist that every one sees things exactly the way I do. Or throw dissenters into a cage.

The second is to unpack our dissentions through an exploration of difference before we even start. We need to calibrate our monitors to account for the unique values of light that colour our particular views.

Guess which approach is the highway and which is the unused goat track that few ever seek to travel? Why do you suppose there are wars? Why do we have courts? And why do you suppose that politics these days is either an exercise in dictatorship or an exercise in vacuous rhetoric?

One path is fairly flat but heads off ultimately into the hills. The other starts with a mighty climb. The first path is easy to start. But ever so hard to complete. The second is a challenge to start, but a pleasure once we get past that pass now shrouded in clouds.

The whole world is set to take the path that easiest to start. Let’s all pretend that what you see is what I see in exactly the same way. Then let those in power assume all difference away. Let’s construct our theories of the way the world should work and let the theory take the driver’s seat. That’s precisely how modern economics works. When reality diverges from theory, change reality to fit. Then when economics ultimately fails to resolve that which it has no real capacity to consider, we leave it our politicians to sort. Or to our grandchildren. Or, generally, anyone but us.

When we take the more immediately challenging high road, we must tackle the fundamentals of our fundamentalisms. We must deal with the questions we’d rather not address. We must deal with the demands of our insatiable selves; we must open our egos to the introspection of others. We need a talented guide to facilitate journeys like that. Buddhists consult their lamas. The rest of us will probably need facilitators more tuned to the landscapes of the lives most of us live. But digging we must do. Listening is the key. Communication is the power of progress. Deep listening, meaningful conversation. Collective deliberation. Deriving detachment from positions to which we may have become stuck. Like barnacles on the hull of our otherwise sinking ship. It’s not easy. It’s a tough opening climb. But the vistas open to the opened mind are vast and inspiring. Progress is the crop to reward the efforts of that early ascent.

The easier path is a path to dissension. Dissension is the reward when we close our minds to minds that are coloured differently to ours. The downward spiral is actually an unconquerable hill. Like Sisyphus, we’re stuck to push a rock that gathers mass with each additional step. All the better to roll back down over our heads when we think progress has been made; and recycle history all over again.

But that’s the path we always seem to take! History keeps repeating the traumas we think are unique to our current times. Civilisations rise, civilisations collapse, for reasons that are alarmingly the same. Just like the recycling of Sisyphus’s stone.

Surely it’s better to deconstruct the differences we each enjoy. Than to follow the car crash notion that we are all the same. But no. Instead, we have built huge mega industries of band aid denialism. Entire professions feed off the compost of our denial that we do indeed see the world as an infinite array of artistic impressions. Academia is strangled by the tyrannies of conforming with like-minded peers. Public servants tow lines of the politically correct. Corporate stoogism rules the world of commerce. Medicine is strangled by a straight jacket of conventional wisdom purpose-built to deny lateral thought. Politicians tell us exactly what it is we like to hear, rather than what we need to know. With the legal profession ready-leashed to settle the arguments that ensue. We live lives in a thermal sweatbox of deeply composted rules. Rules to constrain what happens when we disagree. Rules to adjudicate, rules to enforce conformity of view. Rules that are laws, rules of religion, rules of fashion, rules that govern procedure at every step. Rules that constrain thought. The greatest construction of mankind has been the edifice of rules we’ve built via denial of the distinction of perception that separates every mind on the face of the earth. That construction is the real Tower of Babel. Like the waxed wings of Icarus, that tower will collapse as it expands ever towards the Sun… Or strangle our view until the entire edifice falls; after apocalypses like global warming and the steady eradication of life-defining biodiversity have tipped beyond the tipping point of no-return.

Surely it’s easier to simply have a chat. To talk things through starting from scratch. Deliberate difference and go from there. There are no objective truths where only one truth can define all. Unless our individual visions can be contained via the propagation of clones. But even then, I am sure the clones would eventually head off to war. The light over here no doubt throws different shadows to what you might be seeing over there…


Educating the Borg

I remember way way back into the depths of time when I was a wee primary school lad. I remember that these were not happy times. I remember that I pathologically hated school. Or more precisely, the noxious, scathing, appalling horror of a teacher with whom we had been afflicted. Ms Fielding was her name. The School was St.Ives Primary. A nice school, except for that teacher.

I remember it all started when, for some reason or another, this terrible woman singled out a girl classmate for some misdemeanour or another. She was told to stand in the corner and not say a word. She stood there for at least an hour. She was very upset. She was also a ‘special needs’ kid, labelled, then, as being mildly mentally retarded. She wanted, she said, to go to the toilet. The teacher refused. The girl wet the floor. The class giggled, the teacher screamed abuse. The poor girl was told to go get a mop…

It was approximately from that point on that I decided I would no longer agree to learn anything at all from this dreadful woman. I went on a learning strike. I remember a meeting set up between that teacher, her Principal, the ‘School Councillor’ and my parents. I remember the Councillor telling my parents that I had a ‘learning difficulty’. I remember then being put into a ‘remedial maths’ programme wherein I had to sit up the back of Ms Fielding’s class and do my ‘special maths for stupid people’ while everyone else attended to their more usual routine. I remember a second ‘counselling’ session convened to suggest to my parents that I should consider careers in sheltered workshops and the like…

Then I remember that this teacher left the school. I recall a brand new teacher who I immediately liked (Mrs Cameron, as I recall). I recall that all the remedial programmes were dropped for me. I recall going on to excel in the School Certificate, the Higher School Certificate and then heading my year in mathematics in my undergraduate economics degree than then, ultimately, doing pretty well with a Phd and becoming a professor of economics…

All this sticks in my mind as I cringe and fume a fury of exasperation at the recent attempts of the education bureaucracy machine to assault our schools with quantitative school quality scores based on measured ‘performance in literacy and numeracy’. You can study the background story here. For current purposes, the basic idea is that the State Government is proposing to measure and rank all schools to allow parents to check the scores of prospective schools and underpin ‘informed choices’ with regard to where they place their kids.

Our polyester-suited education bureaucrat machine is telling us that parents will appreciate the ‘transparency’ that this ‘quantitative branding’ will provide. To my mind, this is a story that captures the very essence of all that’s wrong with the world these days…

There’s a disease going on here. To be technical, it’s all about the curse of an ‘objectivist epistemology’. To be less technical, it’s all about the plague of reductionism. I’ve mentioned this disease in its various forms in just about every post to this blog to date. It’s the chronic debilitation of managerialism. When the world gets all nice and richly complex, bureaucrats of this demeanour go all simple-minded by way of response. Like ostriches hiding their heads in the sand, those who would tame complexity with statistics start playing trains. They put on their engineering caps and build more rails of rules; and higher walls. They build ever more elaborate fortifications to keep all that unruly complexity out; to keep the war of chaos out of sight and (blinkered) mind. Reductionism is the key. When confronted with complexity, build a bigger wall, grab a pair of shears. Cut away all the detail and leave just the bits you want; especially those bits you can measure, and cast into improved bricks for the wall. When the world is full of so many nasty hard-to-measure things, there’s ever more fortification and cutting to do. Cut, cut, cut away until all that’s left are the bits for which the statistics look best. That’s the mantra of the bureaucratic machine. That’s the mantra of Instrumental Rationalism. Management becomes a task for the implementation of tools that fit only those cogs that can fit the tools at hand. If the cogs don’t fit, why, change the cogs! If reality does not fit the perspective we would seek to apply, the task for management becomes the task of changing reality to suit. Soon enough the world will be filled with a universal one-size-fits-all set of nuts.

To return to my childhood traumas. How, exactly, would measurement of literacy and numeracy have helped my cause? Actually, that would have simply made matters worse. The problem was a psychopathic teacher who, incidentally, was pretty good at teaching spelling and numbers. The problem was a nut beyond the reach of any tool then being applied. The problem was within the chaos of all those ‘soft unruly bits’ that are beyond the reach of any instrumental rationalist’s tools. Soft unruly bits like a teacher with a personality unmatched to the psycho-social requirements that good teaching requires.

Which leads me into a domain very close to my heart. I have a passion for the Steiner education system. Or for Waldorf schools if you prefer. I sent both my kids to such a school. This school left a mark on my soul. It left an even greater mark on the souls of my kids. It was absolutely everything that my old school was not. There was a passion, here, for all the components of learning that engage kids for life. There was joy in learning there. This is an educational system beyond the comprehension of education bureaucrats who would rather be playing with trains. Here is a school system with no walls. The chaos of all those things that merge, intertwine and spark journeys into a life to be well-lived are cherished as in a garden fertilised by all that’s good if not great about mankind. These are schools that would defy any attempt by the instrumental rationalists to measure and rank. Because all those things which make such a school truly great are outside the dimensions with a capacity to be measured.

In my view, all that we can get from the misguided efforts of our education bureaucracy to calibrate our schools, like cattle marked with fat-test-scores, is a best-fit pathway to the education of the Borg. Resistance (to the psychotic compulsions of Instrumental Rationalism) will then truly be … futile.


Seeing in Mono

The problem with people (apart from there being far too many) is that they usually only see in mono. Not glorious stereophonic, let alone in surround sound.

In case you missed it, there’s a war going on right now. It’s a war of big ideas with huge consequences, and, for once, it’s a war that has captured the publics’ attention. This one’s not some storm in the cups and saucers of the academic tea room. This one is the very McDonalds of debates (with just about as much intellectual nutrition as a Big Mac to underpin most of what’s being said). It’s the current debate over climate change. Everyone’s got an opinion, so very very few have any facts.

Like most things with which the populace gets involved, we’re all bumbling along with lots of noise and fury; sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards. But one thing’s sure: we are all now sitting in a fermenting vat of vast cultural change. And that’s a good thing! The yeast of political rhetoric, public servant pontification, academic argument and corporate spin is loosing a gas of change that’s got us all in a cycle of agitated attention. Watch the lounge loungers in any local mall: the debate has descended to something akin to a football match. ‘Is. Isn’t. Is. Isn’t’ (as in real). Watch the sage sages in the halls of academe: ‘I have six publications to say it is. I have seven to say it is not. I have eight. I have nine! Ha! You’re just an economist. Bah, you are only a botanist’. Watch the sleezy sleezbags in the Big Oil Corporate corner of town: ‘What’s the Internal Rate of Return from going green?’ What’ll the market bear from all the PR we’re going to need?’ Watch the politicians at work: we’ll deliver a 5% target. Vote for us and we’ll give you 7%. 15% over here! Commie Greenie sell-outs. We’re about Jobs, Jobs and Jobs! Ha! I’ve had dinner with Al Gore!’

Deeply insightful debate, for sure.

What’s really going on? What’s the cause of all this noise? Can we really slide towards an inspired global political consensus; scientifically informed, community supported, corporately aligned? Not a chance.

The game so far has all been about window dressing a building that was never really there. It’s all about decorating that stage-prop of a building front with nothing real behind. No one’s looking behind the curtain anymore. No one’s bothered to ask the guys stoking the boilers in the bilge below. They can see the ice berg poking through the hull. And all that water flooding in.

Speaking as someone who tried, but pointedly failed, to inspire a more creative smoothing the scientific and economic plate tectonics involved in this global conflagration, the issue is all to do with time. Economics is all about now. Our economies are engineered for the next 20 years. After that, no one cares. Officially. Because time after that is discounted, effectively, to zero. No matter what they might say. And if they do say otherwise, they are having you on. Or they’re not using conventional economics.

Ecological Science is spaced out over timeframes that are defined more by evolutionary themes. Geological time, population trends, biodiversity impacts, butterfly wings and global chaos. It’s harder to focus on humans alone when you start looking at biodiversity webs.


Just Like Cattle Crossing a Bridge

I was riding along the other day when I came up behind a cattle truck stuck in the middle of the road. It was nose up against a herd of cattle all busy balking at a bridge. Now cattle don’t like crossing bridges; they’d almost always prefer to go around, under or, generally, in any direction other than over the scary insecurity of what they must perceive of as a ramp to certain hell… Same thing goes for horses and sheep. But cattle are particularly hard to push across structures such as these. Mainly because they are so astoundingly stupid. I prefer sheep…

So, here we were, truck and bike waiting patiently while a couple of stockmen threw curses and instructions to their dogs to, somehow, break this stalemate of who-goes-first. But these steers would not shift. They turned their backs to the bridge to counter this threat of barking dogs. They bellowed and decorated the road. They stood their ground like defenders of some kind of lost cause. No one was going anywhere, at all. Until one iconoclastic hounded beast decided to head off over the closest fence; a clever mooove, I am sure, to confuse the enemy. Which it surely was. As now the stockmen have another task to perform quite contrary to their original intention.

Finally, after about 20 minutes or so, one solitary steer turned to sniff the bridge. He placed a hoof to experiment with the security of this possible path. Then another. Looking back, looking forward, our brave explorer took off up the road and, like all chain reactions of follow-the-leader, all the rest soon followed suit. At last, the herd was across and the truck could proceed. So could I, but it was not fun for my clean carbon rims…

There was something astoundingly familiar in the dramas of this scene. Looking at all the excreta on the road, the stupefaction of the target audience, all that pointless barking and shouting and all that dysfunctional milling around, I was reminded of the current Great Climate Change Debate.

The bridge is the Copenhagen Conference. The mindless mentally loop-locked bellowing crowd in-search-of-a-leader is us (well, those not possessed of bicycling mind, anyway), and that notable beast who took off over the fence in search of a better, less traumatic place to hide, is the model of our current political leadership and their advisers (chasing Emissions Trading Schemes and other worthless fantasies).

There are some exciting parallels to note. That steer that took the first step across the bridge … is the stall-buster we’ve all been looking for. The barking dogs are the frenzies of big-stick managerialism at work (wielding trading schemes and associated policy prods) – all noise and pointless confusion to the real task at hand.

The stick might work, perhaps, but all it really took is one steer to take that first step; then the job was easy! In this case, the big barking stick simply inspired that contrary escape across the fence: a diversion and futile escape from the traumas of temporary realities. No, this herd did it’s thing via the time-honoured tradition of grass-roots emergent leadership. If we can catalyse just one beast to take the first step, the mob will follow. It’s ALL about the mob. It’s all about clever catalysation; or the pulling of clever levers to get the mob to move. That’s how fashion shifts work; that’s how religions grow; that’s how social change ordinarily proceeds (except when prodded by the gun of tyrannical Managerialist psychoses from which reality-sheltered academics, public servants, and corporate machine managers seem to particularly suffer). That first hoof across the bridge is how paradigms shift. The impetus for change can come from any element in the crowd; in beautifully unpredictable, chaotic ways. But change does happen. Eventually. Even if only because we all die from the effects from far too much standing around in each other’s ever accumulating poo…

So, you see, the task at hand is not about cattle dog barking conferences, agreements and other associated over-priced diversions. The task at hand is to work on the crowd; directly, intelligently, patiently and with a degree of cleverness completely missing from the current Climate Change Debate.

The task at hand is to spark a revolution of emergent, grass-roots derived revolution of purpose and action. It’s all to do with the folk milling in the crowd at the edge of the bridge. Not with the application of big sticks, shouting and energetic cursing. Those are blunt, unwieldy, energy intensive tools to apply. Much better to get in there and ‘whisper the right words in some well chosen ears’. The task is much more a process of herding cats… or steers, than laying down some polished rails from the platforms of mega-conference ego-fests.

I am un-surprised by the herd culture most people seem to be displaying in relation to Climate Change. All these debates of denial vs. advocacy are the mutterings of a bunch of steers balking at the bridge. It’s all a noise of brays and moooing … signifying, ultimately, nothing at all. Except, via a five star irony of momentous proportion, for all the atmospheric gassing and mega ecological footprint defecation our leaders will be depositing on the bridge precipice of Copenhagen.

It really is astoundingly simple, that first step. Here’s what we each can do. Here’s what we each should do. These things are easy and cost virtually nothing. Indeed, these things are win-win for our personal wealth, health and happiness. Here’s some things for each of us to do that will collectively change the world:

  • Control population. We are all in this together. The world absolutely does not need more people. Stop at two kids per couple.
  • Reject the car. Use bicycles, or public transport instead.
  • Control consumerism. We don’t NEED all that junk!

Imagine if everyone followed this simple plan! This is stuff WE can do without the urging of policies, plots and plans. These are the steps we can take to cross the bridge. Stop watching that runaway Hopenhagen steer. We are the people who make the world work. Not the corporations, tower sitters and the machinery of state. The cause is for each and every one of us to take personal responsibility for our journey across the bridge. You, me and 6.5 billion others. Before the poo piles get far too deep.


Seeing Eye to Eye

Consider this burning farmhouse in Zimbabwe. It belongs to Ben Freeth, a farmer who’s recent life and times would take the edge of the slings and arrows that might be disturbing our own sense of personal harmony. You think you’ve got it bad!

There are various reports of the events that led to the burning of the Freeth homestead; some dry and matter-of-fact and others that paint a picture of an icon of the end-days of a civilisation in terminal decline. Some reports also show Freeth with his head bandaged. He and his family were recently abducted and beaten by those who believe there should be no white farmers left in Zimbabwe. It’s not a pleasant picture.

Without digging into the rights and wrongs of what’s happened there, Zimbabwe now is clearly a picture of the despair of dislocated, severely incompatible world views in terminal collision. It’s all along the lines of the Lord of the Flies. When different people see different things, and fail to even begin to see how and what it is that others see, you end up with situations that can spin wildly out of control. Just like in Zimbabwe, or at the root of any war.

Clearly, if by some magical transformation of psychology, farmer Freeth could transform the minds of all those who assail him to see and and to know exactly as he sees and knows, his immediate anxieties would cease. Or, if by some horrendous experiment in mind control, we had all been completely inculcated into the world views of Pol Pot or Hitler (as so many had), there’d have been less opposition to those tyrant’s plans. The point being that diversity of point-of-view is both the source and solution to power plays that get out of hand.

We all see things differently; sometimes dramatically, sometimes via subtle shades of grey. Those shades are layered via the experiences we have, genetic predisposition, social influence, or perhaps through being abducted by aliens. Whatever the source, our minds are a nightmare collage of upturned perceptual paint pots fused into blots of outrageous tonal complexity. If you want to follow that thought, give the insights of Hans Georg Gadamer a run.

If you want to understand how any particular crisis arose, to dig into the controversies that give us pain, or to simply become more informed about any issue with which you are involved, you need to dig into the minds of those with whom we are at odds.

I am perpetually amazed at the refusal of people to recognise the simple fact that different people see things in different ways. In academic, scientific or deep-policy circles, all this translates to the multiplicity of ‘paradigms’ that might apply to tell different stories about situations we might be seeking to control. I am perpetually stunned that so many ‘good scientists’ working on noble causes – like the causes of and prospects for global warming – refuse to take any interest in that ‘psychological’ side of things. They would generally know about the co-existence of paradigms that might not be quite the same as their own. But their usual interest stops precisely there. I am stunned that we can have slings and arrows of invective thrown through the medium of the media or through the ‘learned press’; without the parties ever conceding that there might possibly be multiple ‘truths’ to the situations they contest. Truths are defined within these paradigms. A truth constructed within one paradigm might be a fallacy from within the construct of another. What you might see as false might be a truth to someone else. Both contestants are arguing entirely up the wrong tree! The argument is not about the truth they each see; its over these different ways of seeing the ‘facts’. The pathway to resolution is within the layout of the stones each camp erects as a pyramid to the beliefs they each hold. We need to do some archeology of the mind to understand what’s really going on.

But, despite the fact that few if anyone would deny that different people see things in different ways, how many contestants to any debate ever bother to dig down to these fundamental layers to understand the true nature of their debate?

I’ve witnessed intelligent, informed scientists debating like hissing-spitting children in pre-school playgrounds. I’ve witnessed entire professional careers destroyed by those whose empowerment privileges their own view over the views others might hold. I can certainly attest to that; my own career as a transdisciplinary ecological economist was destroyed by the scientific myopia of un-reflexive bureaucrats entrenched through far too much power.

It almost seems that some people simply love the excitement of shouting their point of view. It almost seems that they simply don’t want to hear. It seems that they just want to hear their own voice.

When it comes to issues like the conflagration of an entire community like Zimbabwe, or the conflagration of the planet through the machinations of global warming, you’d be thinking it might be worthwhile to devote at least some time to really getting down to understand what’s really going on… Rather than to continue on with the blinkered shouting and screaming between those who occupy different squares on the war-game that climate change has become.

But no! Even in such high profile efforts as the Stern Review, there’s never any genuine discussion or consideration of the fundamental need to understand contested points of view. There’s only ever a claim for the ascendency of one view – a compressed ‘consensus view’ shaped by the hair net of selective perspectives – without the systematic de-construction of any other views that might prevail. One adjudicated, ultimately privileged view is claimed. The others are appendixed off into the crowd of the fringe. Dutifully noted, maybe, but relegated all the same. Contrary arguments are arguments from beyond the sanctum of the ‘peers’. They are arguments with nothing to contribute. All that’s at least implicit when you claim the ascendency of one viewpoint over all others. Our experts listen only to the music of their peers. How, then, do they ever explore the possibilities of lateral thinking and ideas that might transcend from the realm of heresy to the realm of the mainstream?

Remember Galileo Galilei? Remember one-size-fits all medicine bags filled with nothing but leeches?

I expect more from folk who are paid by the pound of their intelligence. I expect more from those who are paid to contribute to intellectual debate: our academics, public sector scientists and leaders. I expect a vastly greater degree of intellectual maturity; a preparedness if not a devotion to the challenges of understanding – really understanding – different points of view. I do not respect those who simply assert their views by shouting, or by privileging their positions with power. The rejection of insight from the fringes is simply cowardice or evidence of insufficient intellectual depth; or both.

The Australian Prime Minister was busy suggesting, just this month, that he is sick of climate change deniers. He’s going to declare war against them! The implication is that their views are now to be taken as heresy. Invalid. That’s substandard leadership at its managerialist worst. It’s embarrassing.

Rather, what I would prefer to hear, is that ‘leadership’ is now intent to hold deliberative discourse to debate contrary points of view to depths not considered before. I want to hear of an intent to initiate a forum of a deeper, more reflexive, shared learning kind; not for yet more public deliberation shaped on the model of expert panels and judicial arbitration. The worst case outcome from genuinely insightful, levelled-playing field, discursively accommodating deliberation would be improved understanding of the deeply-seated axioms – the very epistemological foundations – for these discursive perspectives. (Any scientist, politician or bureaucrat adviser who does not know what ‘epistemology’ means should, seriously, be sacked). Thus far, all debates concerning ‘climate change’ have been (implicitly or explicitly) conducted through hierarchically- and perspective-privileged ‘expert’ review. I do not accept that the ‘hearing of evidence from diverse points of view’ by the various and numerous ‘climate change expert panels’ we’ve seen so far have taken my recommended path. They have all been conducted as ‘enquiries’ for the adjudication of expert elites. The process of delivering insights for expert panel deliberation is not a debate shaped by the prospect for maximum learning. It’s a process more akin to the hearing of evidence in court. The learning is all one-way and increasingly filtered on its journey to the ears of politicians and those who shape policy.

There are ways and means through which fundamental debate (or debate into the fundamentals of different perspectives) can take place. The key is talented and highly systematic facilitation. Read John Dryzek, John Forester or James Bohman for some clues. Read Peter Senge’s latest text (The Necessary Revolution) for some context. There is no excuse for ignorance of the insights these authors provide. But ignorance is in plenitude. I blame those bureaucracies charged with advising our political leaders for their abject ignorance. It is not good enough for them to re-play the same game the Church played at the time of Galileo Galilei. (Yes, we did ‘get there in the end’, with respect to understanding the earth’s revolution around the sun. But the journey was a blood bath and took way way too long as a model for dealing with a crisis like global warming).

It’s time for the character of the current climate change debate to rise above the level of a scrum in a pre-school playground. We need to take a wrecker’s ball to the silos of the ‘establishments of experts’ that currently blights the ascendency of knowledge. It’s time for the human race to progress from the illiteracy of closeted expert-driven autocracy. It’s time for an age where the very concept of ‘experts’ becomes a quaint reminder of our partial-reductionist, managerialist past. We should, as I recommended in my previous post, incite a very necessary sea change for the climate change debate.

Roderic Gill holds a PhD. in Ecological Economics from the University of New England where he is also currently an Adjunct Professor. He has supervised over 18 PhD theses that have dealt, both directly and indirectly, with the issues discussed above. He has a strong interest in the capacity of internet-based collaborative learning as the foundation for ‘dealing with’ fundamentally complex environmental issues.


A Sea Change for Climate

The Great Climate Change Debate is an exercise in the management of chaos. Or, if you like, is a process akin to the herding of cats. It has all the classic symptoms, including an ever-unfolding cascade of incomplete and always non-definitive science through which to explain what’s going on. Just like chaos, the more we look the more we find to look at. There’s debate across the scientific fleet. And not all the players are identified. Just like chaos, there are dimensions wrapped around dimensions of knowledge that sometimes mix, and othertimes don’t. This is not a game that a single expert can control; because it’s a game way way beyond the understandings of any one area of expertise. But the game’s being played just like these games are always played; the old battleship fleet of expert committees and report-writing under an hierarchically-organised pecking order of authority forged in the market places of disciplinarily-exclusive, self-referentialised peer review. The machinery in charge of the whole shebang is a machinery more suited to the administration of trains.

Climate Change is wild horse with an agenda of its own. Predictions might guess the next move, or maybe not. This horse has a mind of its own.

I have attended many meetings and been introduced to much in the way of ‘cutting-edge’ scientific research concerning the directions of Climate Change. I have even written an official report recommending how at least one core government agency should organise itself around the issues involved. But the unsinkable Titanic is still in search of icebergs. The floundering ship of state is loosing the debate.

Why? Because the culture of response we are busy applying is simply out of tune to the nature of the issues at hand. The machinery we are applying to this writhing nest of issues wrapped by the logo of Climate Change, is machinery of entirely the wrong sort. Or, putting it another way, every aspect of the controversies and anxieties we now see are an entirely inevitable outcome of trying to pretend that Climate Change will respond to the methods we are now applying to its control.

This front page feature in the Australian newspaper is a flag worthy of deep reflection. It’s a siren call to suggest the need for a fundamental restructure of our way of seeing and of our way of dealing with all the issues correlated around the challenges of Climate Change.

Basically, the story flags the failure of science to retain control. The article flags a groundswell of public (community) sentiment that’s now pretty easy to find. The ‘folk’ are ever harder to impress with the magnitude of the ‘scientific facts’. The ‘folk’ are becoming like a herd of cats.

The premise of the current ‘debate’ is pretty simple: Science tells us that anthropogenic (human caused or at least, human-influenced) climate change, is a fact. We, the rest of the world, need to change our game. The experts have forged these facts through the black boxes of their expertise. The experts have organised their evidence in the usual way. Hierarchies of expertise have been erected through the scaffolding of inner-sanctum peer review. ‘Scientific Consensus’ on the issues at hand has been distilled and delivered through the best tradition of Scientific Objectivism (and even Positivism – to ensure the pyramid holds up on the broadest possible foundation). The machinery of Science (‘Good Science’) has delivered its ‘results’ (or at least its progress reports). The expected result should be an ensuing catalysation of profound change. The button has been pushed and the folk should respond. But they are not. Something else has hijacked the Scientific Establishment’s best intentions to guide the trains of state.

Now, the ‘folk’ are beginning to doubt. Worse, they are beginning to snigger. Just like this piece on the front page of the Australian newspaper. This ‘old codger’ with 80 years of connection to his local beach, has seen no rise in sea levels. He stands defiantly (in his swimming togs) to suggest, by implication, that the boffins have got it all wrong! It’s even worse. Consider the imagery here. Here he stands, a man of undefined expertise, challenging the mighty machinery of scientific expertise, without even the armour of clothes! Here he stands, near naked and defiant. That’s how tenuous the scientific community’s credibility has become, with even the most unassuming constituency of the community marketplace.

Has the Scientific Establishment now reverted to a mumbling crowd of misunderstood experts despairing that the world no longer listens? It doesn’t help that the divisions of view and dissension from the tail ends of the Scientific Community’s consensus bell curve are frequently aired in public; and held to suggest that there really is no consensus at all. Indeed, the bell curve is now pretty stretched. Community dissenters can pick and choose from any outlying scientific viewpoint that best meets their particular self-interested needs. The Oil Industry can pick customised scientific colours to recommend their own agenda of business as usual – and forever. Coal fired power generators have customised science on tap. The automobile industry plays the game of ‘gaps’. They look for holes in the Scientific Debate to recommend a refocus on jobs-jobs-jobs, instead (which really translates to profits and cash flow). Farmers, fishermen and the airlines are all playing the same game. That bell curve of scientific facts is being squashed to a parallel bar. The Scientific Establishment is eating itself. And, as the establishment of objectivism falls or fails, the ball passes to that usual crowd. The ball has now been passed to the politicians for resolution. That’s the agenda for the Great Debate in Copenhagen in December this year.

When I first tinkered with economics as an undergraduate lecturer, we all used to tell our students that ‘economics can only go so far’. At the end of the day, we’d say, when we have delivered the ‘facts’, if there are controversies of welfare to resolve, that’s the job for politicians. Not us. The best we can do is estimate the benefits and costs. It’s up to the politicians to decide what’s best from a social point of view. I always noted that this rather astounding ‘cop out’ was most readily accepted by economics-major students. But half my students were from science. My science-major audience always found that particular stance harder to accept. They’d been weaned on the harder core of Scientific Objectivism: we are there to consider and deliver the facts. Facts are facts and facts should rule the debate. The culture of ‘Expert-Driven Systems’ was the religion to which they were tuned.

It’s this culture of Expert-Systems thinking that is the core issue at stake. So far, the character of most of the debate, rhetoric and governance of Climate Change has been shaped by the culture of Expert-Systems thinking. There are facts out there to find. We shall find them. We shall deliver them. And that is the best we can do. Believe in our black boxes! We are the experts!

But consider this gentleman featured on the front page of our only national newspaper. Does he appear to be conforming to the expectations of the Expert-Systems culture of scientific persuasion? Does the newfound Cargo Cult stature of the Copenhagen conference suggest that Scientific Opinion now rules the debate? Aren’t we all, now, standing wrapped, heads raised, hoping for the manna of solutions to be delivered when our political heads meet to debate? It’s a dead-end process with which we are all now engaged. The best to come from the ‘failure of science to convince’ reasserted surge of political empowerment will be some essentially worthless spin. The best we can expect is some carefully worded statements flatulent with meaningless ‘targets’ and empty statements of intent.

Really, there are two pathways left. If there is any truth at all to the predictions of ecological catastrophe to come, path one is a cascade of extinctions and, ultimately, the extinction of all life on Earth. Path two would be to reconfigure the culture through which we will subsequently deal with the issues at hand.

Essentially, the Expert-Systems model is no good. It’s a worthless setting through which to explore and deal with issues as deeply complex as Climate Change. While I probably should establish this contention of complexity more formally than I have thus far, suffice it to say, for the purposes of this discussion, Climate Change is a perfect icon for complexity, if not chaos. The issues are astoundingly broad and transdisciplinary in scope. They are dynamic, emergent, and frequently beyond the resolution of any one’s model (model of understanding or model in a mathematical sense). We can never know it all, or predict with any degree of precision. The more we look, the more we find. We will never, ever, reach the destination of complete understanding. So stop bothering to try. That’s the nature of complexity science. That’s the science that matters here.

If there’s one thing we should have learned from our experiences with the contemporary phenomenon of internet-based ‘social networking’, it’s the power of collective engagement as a model for culture shifting change. Crowd sourcing, discursive democracy, deliberative participative process; call it what you will. When the facility of focused collective engagement is purposefully deployed, change happens of a rather definitive kind.

My thesis is relatively simple. The overwhelming confusions of the Climate Change Debate are beyond the capacities of expert process to reconcile. So, rather than continue on our current course to simplify and fantasise about definitive answers and courses of action, embrace the exact opposite. Embrace the astounding discursive breadth of the debate instead. Embrace difference, embrace perspectives not our own. Dig into viewpoints other than your own. Explore the thinking behind and underneath the outlying points of view. It’s only when we embrace differences of this kind that real collective learning can begin. Break open the black boxes of expert points of view. Air the assumptions and axioms that drive the points of view we each hold. Expose them for open-review. That’s the best way to articulate our own convictions and at least understand the convictions of others.

I keep on talking about the need for internet-based gateways. I am convinced that we need portals through which to facilitate the conversations we need to have. Without devices such as this, the field is simply too messy to comprehend. We need to organise our breadth of ‘knowing’ through the machinery of fundamentally interactive exchange. The internet provides the capacity for at least some of the infrastructure of this kind.

I am not advocating endless open-ended debate. I am advocating a clearing house and communicative highway through which to present and open our various understanding of the issues at hand and through which to outline plans through which we should proceed. We need to adopt a culture of ‘proceeding as though we are wrong’. We simply need to proceed. We need to proceed now. But we don’t yet have all the facts. We will never have all the facts. We will probably never even have half of the facts. But we still need to proceed. If we know and accept the vulnerabilities of our expertise, we can proceed with necessary humility and caution. If we share our stories and our experiences as we proceed, well facilitated open-communicative engagement can spark a ‘collective brain’ of a vastly more enlightened kind than any single discipline could ever apply. Facilitation is the key. The communication we need needs to be purposefully facilitated by people who know what they are doing Not just by simply building a web site or two! Or through holding a conference of ‘world leaders’ in Copenhagen.

After we have re-engineered our culture down to a degree that admits humility and less than perfect omniscience-in-all-things, we can proceed with an ‘eyes-wide-open’ collaborative approach. If we assume the possibilities that we might actually have some of our facts all wrong, we’d be tuned to finding those errors along the way. Errors are OK! They are a symptom of learning and learning is what we really need to be doing. And, best of all, if we do open the doors to more collective engagement on issues of this kind, we get a higher degree of collective ownership of the understandings we apply and of the pathways we choose to travel. The absence of collective ownership in relation to the phenomena of climate change is precisely the root cause of the problems we now face. The abject immaturity of the current culture of ‘your fault, not mine’ and ‘not in my backyard’ is the foundation stone for the accumulative disaster of human-influenced Climate Change. We need to deal with the issues at hand from within a culture that’s quite the opposite of that which caused the problems that now have the potential to kill us all.

This story is continued in the next post: Seeing Eye to Eye

Roderic Gill holds a PhD. in Ecological Economics from the University of New England where he is also currently an Adjunct Professor. He has supervised over 18 PhD theses that have dealt, both directly and indirectly, with the issues discussed above. He has a strong interest in the capacity of internet-based collaborative learning as the foundation for ‘dealing with’ fundamentally complex environmental issues.


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.


Adding Up to Insanity

Most people have problems comprehending big numbers. I’m not talking about accurately comprehending the number of drinks you’ve had, the kilograms you are currently overweight, or even the size of your personal domain of fame. No, I am talking about issues with comprehending really big numbers.

Remember that ploy Carl Sagan used in his Cosmos program to demonstrate the size of the galaxy within which we reside? He grasped a handfull of sand on a beach asking if we might appreciate how many grains of sand there might be in his fist. That’s a big number. Then he went on to suggest that the number of stars in our galaxy is larger than ALL of the sand in ALL of the world’s beaches. Sobering stuff for those who insist on the substantive peculiarities of their own personal existence…

How many people can really imagine the world’s entire human population? 6 going on 7 billion! How many people can really comprehend a number like that? Particularly when, for most of us, the world’s population is generally calculated more like this: (me+family+workmates+people I know personally) = (a really big number) ≤ (the number of folk in my local city) which, in turn, is approximately = reality as I understand it. All the rest [(world’s population) – (local community)] is just an abstract number. Just like all those grains of sand in all the world’s other beaches.

Carl Sagan always held to the proposition that we poor self-centred humans would never understand the relative place of our race, if not our planet, until we could see it as a tiny blue dot from outer space. Which is precisely why he convinced NASA to turn Voyager 1’s camera eye back on earth 3.7 billion miles from home to make his point:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

The importance of our local community, if not our own self-importance, if not the importance of everyone else we could ever know, was rather emphatically demonstrated at that point. Big numbers and big dimensions are humbling… or should be for such a self-obsessed species as ourselves.

All of which, I think, explains the current head-in-the-sand absurdities of contemporary arguments and denialism over the contributions of humans to global warming. This argument, so everpresent in the more conservative circles of modern society (the professorial tea parties of contemporary academia, for starters…), and amongst all the rest of us who lack an education and/or an intellect. No, most folk can’t comprehend the accumulative destruction we collectively dump on this poor pale blue dot of a planet to which we are currently confined.

The logic works like this: my own personal emissions are small. Because I can’t comprehend numbers bigger than (say) 12, the collective contributions of society as comprehensible to me (my local town, say) must also be small. Therefore, human-induced global warming must be bunk. Or at least it must be bunk in my back yard (which is, let’s face it, pretty much the whole world that’s comprehensible to most of us – everywhere else is just the stuff of marketing fancies in travel brochures…).

Here’s an extract from my motorcycle owner’s handbook (the only oil-fired vehicle I own – the other six are bicycles…):

Exhaust fumes are poisonous and can cause loss of consciousness and death within a short period of time. Always operate your motorcycle in the open-air or in an area with adequate ventilation. Triumph Tiger Owners Manual, p. 56

Consider this warning… The fumes just this one bike emits are enough to kill me. Where do those fumes go to? Do they leak into outer space and gas aliens in the Betelgeuse system? No. They are glad-bagged into the atmosphere clinging precariously to our planet. Now imagine how much a car with 2 – 3 times the engine size of my bike might emit. Now multiply that by, wait for it, 700 million (cars in the world today)! That’s an incomprehensibly huge emission of toxic fumes! Every minute of every day, day in day out, year after toxic year. Most cars are currently emitting something like 350 to 500 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre travelled. How could this kind of thing NOT harm us or our planet? That’s a big clean-up burden for those trees we have condescended to leave in the ground (an acre of forest is needed to clean up the emissions of each of those 700 million plus (and growing) cars per year, more or less…).

Putting aside the science of atmospheric dynamics et.al., I’d simply propose this simple experiment through which we can re-connect with the consequences of our comprehensibly local actions. If you live in a city, go visit a national park (well away from civilisation) for at least a week. Clear your lungs. Return to the city. Breathe in. What do you notice?! If you live in a rural place, go visit the city and breathe in the air. If that’s not enough to prove the point, take up urban cycling. Ride in traffic. You will see what I mean pretty quick smart. Your eyes will water, your lungs will scream. You will die a bit more for every second you spend in the fume tanks of our urban places. Is this not a graphic pale-blue-dot moment through which we might connect to the realities of what it is that we each do to this planet of ours? How can any person put his or her head in the sand of non-contributive innocence when he or she drives a car?

But still we deny personal responsibility! And keep on keeping on doing it despite all the oceans of government clean-up-our-act rhetorical spin. People stick to their delusion that it’s not what I do but what everyone else does that is the problem. Why and how does the individual become so separated from the notion of personal contributions to collective consequences on the occasion of driving a car?

I know how to fix the problem. Instantly. It’s a perfect cure. It’s a perfect way to connect the consequences of individual actions back to their perpetrators. Connect a pipe to the end of your exhaust pipe. Channel that pipe back in through the window of your cabin. Keep the windows up and inhale. Then cyclists will, truly, finally, inherit the earth… As Darwin’s logic would inevitably postulate.


Pilgrimage to the End of Days

What does this painting do for you (click on it for a larger view)? It’s the Pilgriage of St Isidore by my favourite painter, Francisco Goya. It is one of Goya’s ‘black paintings’; painted on the wall of his country house west of Madrid in 1821. Painstakingly peeled off that wall, this work was eventually transferred to canvas and placed in the Prado Museum in Madrid where today, you too can sit under it and contemplate the mental imagery it so furiously invokes.

There are Goya paintings all through the Prado. But none, in my view, match this. It’s wall fillingly huge. It’s breathtakingly mesmerising. It tells stories.

The story this work speaks to me is the march of our race to self-imposed destruction. A self-imposed, self-deserved march to hell… It is a black painting, after all! Do you expect that a work coloured by all the shades of hell could invoke anything else?

There are a few components of this picture that add up to the picture of misery the image portrays to me. The long chain of followers, following one-by-one in the almost dark depths of a gloom blanketed blasted landscape is the central story element. The faces of those you can see at the front of this queue tell all without the need for words. It’s not a happy picture! Nor should it be.

The mental movie this picture invokes is of a directionless, pointless march from the place we once might have called home to the homelessness of a world gone universally bad via the accumulative destruction each and every one of us has inflicted on an environment we all knew was at its limit. This is the panorama of the end-of-days to follow our hedonistic orgy of oil-burning, greenhouse emitting overindulgence in planetary exploitation. An orgy of the abject pursuit of consumerism unconstrained by even the concept of self-responsibility. This tragic parade of misery is a column of recognition that the things we each do add up, add together and come down on us like a torrent of universal pain. The folk in this plodding directionless pilgrimage to nowhere probably all, now, realise what it is that they have done. Now, at last, they are connected in their sharing of the circumstances to which they have each contributed. I see harmony in this crowd. They all share the misery that’s now their collective reward. No one is more to blame; their fate is shared.

One wonders what this crowd might then do if it could be directed backwards in time to adjust the contributions each and every one of them have deposited to their unpleasant collective fate. How would they have done things differently to preclude the inevitability of this march to hell?

Is this an inevitable fate? Is this meandering pointless parade our ultimate journey? What’s Goya trying to say? What’s this painting telling you? I believe there is a clue embedded here. Notice that this crowd is both amorphous in endless anonymity while, at the same time, is personalised via an uncensored expressive focus on the faces of those in front. This tells us that this meandering line of misery is a line of individuals, each contributing to the whole we see spread so widely across this wall. The whole is a sum of its parts. The whole is a place we don’t want to be. You can see that in the face of the few faces highlighted at the front; despite the brave display at least one of them is trying to invoke (that tragic guitarist singing a tune I suspect is as black as the scene). We can imagine that every face in the line might be of equally agonised demeanour. This reinforces the reality that the totality of any crowd is simply the accumulation of individuals. It’s what each individual does, one influencing the other via socially constructed cultures of interaction, that accumulates to the panoramic wide-screen of misery that this painting so breathtakingly presents. These pilgrims each share membership of a whole gone very wrong.

They could, conceivably, also be members of a collective with an entirely different fate. If each and every person in this conga line of shared depression could have a second chance, do you think their ultimate fate would be the same?

It’s a sobering blockbuster of a painting, this. It’s a powerful siren through which to wake us from our individual contributions to an intolerable collective destruction. This crowd needs reconfiguration. The story needs to be re-blended from scratch. If you ever get to the Prado, make sure you spend some time to hear the story it might invoke in you. I found it hard to drag myself away. I can’t recall any work of art that has produced such an impact as this. It’s worth the trip to Madrid…