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, 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…

A Disease Worse than Plague

It is hard not to admire a cleanly efficient machine. The intricate efficiency of the traditional mechanical clock, the wonderous perfection of the bicycle, the impressive busyness of a bottling plant; you name it. We especially like machines that embed a kind of art through the connection of form and function (with the road racing bicycle or the new see-through Rolex as the greatest human achievement in this regard).

People surrounded by the infinite and usually confounding complexities of our lives tend to take refuge through their admiration of machines. Here at least is one place that can stay steadfastly on track with only the occasional touch of oil or a replacement part. While the rest of the world wallows in confusion, our machines can continue on undaunted. Those connected into the true depths of confusing complex reality, like the managers of large organisations, often tend to develop solid devotions to machines where all the working parts perform on a stage of solace from the incapacity of the human world to follow suit. They might collect antique clocks as refuge after a hard day of herding cats at the office.

As organisational confusions increase through ever more elaborate corporate and government policy rules, the relentless pace of globalisation, and the dynamic infatuations of human kind to indulge in things like religious fundamentalisms, wars and various forms of tribal jingoism, it is rather predictable that some if not many managers start to imagineer the conversion of their own part of the world into something a bit more like the clocks they collect.

Wouldn’t it be nice, the deluded might think, if the university, bank, hospital, government department or pencil factory could be constrained to operate just like a clock. A clock with all the mechanicals exposed so that we can observe the workings with a satisfied sense of seeing all the bits and the whole working in undaunted harmony. The temptation must be great.

The trouble is that, like the thirst of an alcoholic, the desire for this kind of mechanical conversion of unrelentingly unruly complexity has become a disease. Managers in every space are doing far more than simply wishing for the mechanical conversion of their workplaces; they are busy forging those delusions into reality. This trend has a name. That name is ‘managerialism’. Managerialism is the attempt of a manager to squeeze out the idiosyncrasies, confusions and, really, humanness of the systems that are to be the victim of this disease. Managerialism is the delusion of managers who tremble with insecurity in the face of inescapable real world complexity that they can indeed manage the systems over which they are empowered, just like the simple machinery they wish the world could become.

It never works. Because complexity has depths that are hidden to any and all attempts at detailed exploration. And stuff from the depths can surface at any time to shake an organisation in ways that are utterly unpredictable. Any possible theory a manager might have on how the system they are managing works is flawed or incomplete at best. This applies to economists who fantasise omniscience about how economies work (and hence design economic policies accordingly) to university heads who like to release daily updates on policies on policies to keep the outburstings of their egotistical mob in check, and to every other conceivable kind of manager. The unrelenting reality of complexity confounds all manifestations of managerialism at every step. It is a war that cannot be won. But it seems to be a war that we, the victims of this plague must endure. It is a war that is waging over my own university group. It is a war that is turning into a bloodbath. Something will give, eventually. We might then get some respite or the war might turn to become a new chapter of pain.

Now here is the perversity. Just as for those who desire the mechanical conversion of the world, we, the victims of that managerialism can also look fondly on machines for solace. I look at the mechanical magnificence of a bicycle for my own respite from the tirades of unconstrained managerialism that are set to destroy everything I have achieved over the past ten years. There are no policies on policies that can guide my pedaling. Indeed, I was once told that my predilection for pedaling to work was a feat to throw my university’s policies on Occupational Health and Safety into paroxysms of pain; into an infinite meltdown loop. Which just makes me want to ride to work even more!

But I don’t want to turn the world into a bicycle. I just take refuge in my cycling. I think that this is an important distinction from those who would managerialise us to those of us who are its victims. We who would prefer to cycle through the complex world take huge pleasure through our capacity to recharge in the oasis of calm that cycling can represent. When we have these spaces, we can sustain our resilience within the wider complex world. It keeps us sane and in tune. To live with and not against the inescapabilities of those forces that so terrorise our managerialistically seduced overlords. It is the toxic fallout from the managerialist disease that makes our cyclist oasis such a nice elevated place. A place that rather seems to be attracting an ever compounding rate of community interest. Perhaps as this interesting cycle of attraction accelerates, the solace of cycling will eventually cascade into the fantasy worlds of managers who would run the world like a machine. Then we might transcend into a more enlightened world where complex reality is a universally accepted space to be aesthetically interspersed by rivers, islands and parklands of mechanical diversions. Here the machine is appreciated for what it is and not for what it can never be.