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.