A Very Necessary Revolution

Pardon my noise… But just like everyone else, I have an opinion on the taxing state of carbon that is at least as partially informed as anyone else’s. Perhaps slightly less so, given the investment of a quarter of a lifetime in the ecological economics game. Perhaps not. You don’t have to read this after all…

As some might know, the current Australian Federal Government (to provide all its capitalisations, despite the fact that that Government is really nothing more than a Coup…) has recently launched itself into the carbon tax game. The aim is to deliver the world’s first and best testimony to political responsibility following the occasion of the failed Copenhagen Climate Change Summit of 2009.

But the negotiations thus far to sequester a policy on carbon pricing are much more of a testimony to the failures of human kind when it comes to humans paying any kind of mind to humans other than their individual selves. Self interest, in other words, is rising to the top in these discussions just like the sludge in an overused septic tank. Self interest applies here just like it does to the passage of traffic through a roundabout. The rules of roundabouts and the rules applying to this particular exercise in policy making go something like this: ‘I am here. I matter most. Give Way applies to everyone but me’.

Now in the classical economics game, we have a long track record in ascribing all kinds of powers to the objective force of the marketplace. Let the market rule. The marketplace will sort things out. Rewards go to the most efficient, and appropriately undisguised signalling (think of an oncoming steam train) goes to those who need to get out of the way. Once upon a time, an economic instrument like, say, a carbon tax, would simply be imposed and, if the policy settings that underpinned it were even vaguely well-considered, the market would head off approximately in the direction intended. More or less. With policy tuning via legions of bureaucrats to steer as we go. We know any policy will be incompletely considered as even economists know less than all that’s needed to be known about the situation at hand. Thus, we expect the repair-as-we-go approach is what will happen. That’s why we spend billions and billions on those legions of bureaucrats who weave and cast their way though the fertiliser of tax payer tenured salaries.

But as politicians find themselves in ever more marginal electoral positions, their bravery to launch policies of the more experimental kind diminish in direct proportion with the margins they hold. So, given that this current Australian Federal Government is one of the most precarious of recent times (being a Coup founded on alliances between Labor, a Green Party completely unused to be taken seriously and a bunch of intellectually feeble independent nutters – an assortment of religious and rural fundamentalists) you’d have to wonder at the strategic merit of launching a policy of such heroic proportions as a carbon tax. It must have been obvious from the start that any policy made in an environment such as this will be more bandaid than a thick skinned instrument through which market forces might wield their way.

A bandaid policy is what it has become. So much so that you really have to wonder at what madam Prime Minister’s actual intentions might be.

Right now, that great fundamental bulldozer of human-caused climate change, the coal industry, is making a case for its exemption from the tax! The sheer unmitigated gall of that pox of an industry to take such a stance is simply breathtaking; but completely expected. The problem is that under present circumstances of enfeebled government empowerment, the Coal Industry is likely to get its way. But there is more! All those wonderful family folk out there who fume up the environment with their cars are to be exempted as well. As will be any ‘small business’ operating in situations of less than carbon neutrality (what ever that might mean). So, who is this tax actually going to impact on? And what was the point of such a policy in the first place?

Let’s go back to basics. The entire point of delivering an instrument of change into a marketplace that generates climate changing ‘externalities’ is to mitigate those externalities to some kind of a lesser degree. The idea is to make it more expensive to gas up the planet, and reward practices and lifestyles that are of a more environmentally agreeable nature. Putting it another way, the idea is to change the behaviour of all players in the climate change game – that is, you, me, and the coal industry, just to name three. The idea of an economic instrument is to bluntly exert influence through the pain reception centres of the hip pocket nerve. This saves all that appealing to the ‘common good’ and related moralising that would seek to change behaviour if we chose to work outside the machinery of the marketplace. Because, after all, it’s way too hard to build policies that appeal to our sense of right-doing, right-thinking as the primary motivating force. We know the difficulties likely through such a course whenever we enter a roundabout…

But with all the fragility of the current political marketplace right now, our Prime Minister may actually do better by appealing to the moral virtues of her constituents than proceeding with what will be one gigantic bodged blight of a patchwork policy as this carbon tax is going to become. I, for one, will simply seethe with resentment as I watch the plutocratic coal and oil industries smirking at us from the bogs they are making of a planet we and every other species currently share.

Personally, I would vastly prefer to attack the climate change problem set outside the instruments of that very market place that created the issues we face in the first place. Any policy instrument as bandaided as that with which the Australian Government is currently involved is likely to make matters worse; by taking the heat off that now almost comatose sense of self-responsibility that has caused human-caused climate change in the first place. With ‘households’ (or ‘family’s, with whom our Government appears to be endeared), the coal industry, the oil industry and every other major agent of destruction involved in this current environmental war taken off the hook, we, the actual perpetrators can sit back and blame whoever or whatever the residual industry this new tax will actually hit once all the power haggling is done. We can revert to now officially sanctioned complacency for ever more (until the seas rise and the tropics take over the alps…). Rather, what needs to be done is to rub the noses of ALL users of our global climate roundabout to the fact that every single player is facing a Give Way sign, all at the same time. There’s a few good ways to catalyse change of this kind. The easiest is to let the system fail and hope that the survivors will, finally, find an existence that actually works with the Gaia our generation has despoiled. Or, we could start to actually use the power of engagement that current communicative technologies have enabled. Maybe it’s time for a new era of deliberative democracy, powered and empowered through a grassroots surge of serious self-responsibility taking. If that sounds a bit arcane, the opposite actually applies. All this means is that we need to dismantle the failed old-school top-down managerialist model of big policy making and empower the bottom-up instead. Grass roots revolutions of the most necessary kind. Arab Spring. Cultural shifts. We all face a Give Way sign when it comes to managing the planet we share.


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.


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.