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.


Adding Up to Insanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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