Thursday, April 26, 2012

Navigating the Anthropocene

If you are a climate skeptic, or one of the great 'switched-off', then my heading for this post may anger you, or merely fail to make sense.  Last night I watched the 93 minute movie called 'Home' which provides a comprehensive overview of the contemporary human condition as I understand it.  It is done in visually startling ways.  I recommend you watch it.  Given my background and interest there was for me nothing greatly new in the different elements of the film, but the totality is compelling.  Of course how I and the makers of 'Home' understand our situation is clearly not shared by governments and the majority of citizens otherwise we would be doing something else - and doing it with more urgency. 

LikewiseWilliam D. Nordhaus' article 'Why the Global Warming Skeptics Are Wrong' in the New York review of Books (March 22, 2012) ought to be compulsory reading for all Parliamentarians...and climate skeptics!
I also found Decca Aitkenhead's interview with Abhijit Banerjee in yesterday's Guardian thought provoking - his book, 'Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty' co-authored with  Esther Duflo is clearly worth engaging with, especially as I am now involved in designing and facilitating the 'Learning Project' as part of the AusAID - CSIRO Africa Food Security Initiative. I liked the following points in particular:
  • "When aid is carefully designed to navigate the specific socio-cultural landscape of its recipients' lives, it begins to deliver the sort of results [Jeffrey] Sachs claims."
  • "there is no Big Idea or golden bullet, so we should stop thinking about "Aid", and start thinking about "aid". 
  • "When studied closely, it becomes clear that people who live on less than a dollar a day are not uniquely mysterious, but subject to the very same psychological and behavioural patterns as the rest of us"
  • "the real single biggest difference," Banerjee agrees, "is that the state has delivered a whole bunch of stuff for us, and we forget how much is enforced and sustained by the state. The poorest person in the UK drinks extremely high-quality water, and this is not something that is just God-given;"
  • "Weaker states cannot deliver, nor can they expect therefore to have the right to restrain"
  • "There's an inconsistency in time between your self in repose and your self in action, and that's a permanent tension we live in all the time."
  •  "Nobody wants to be told that there's actually just a thousand small problems, and you'd better figure out how to solve all of them. That's not a good message to deliver to anyone." 
  • "I think the real value of aid is in promoting and digging deep into something, and committing to generate innovations," he explains. "And that's what a national government has a hard time doing. Why? Because it's something that requires the willingness to fail, many times."
  • "We need to learn to work with political systems that are not perfect instead of taking the view: let's first fix the politics, then we'll fix the rest." 
    Given the  attention being paid to this book I would have welcomed more critical scrutiny of the authors research methodology i.e., the use of randomised control trials produce the evidence base, emulating the pharmaceutical industry. To my mind this is a trap that leads to a dead-end.  Drug trials on humans, who basically have the same physiology can, if ethically defensible, produce 'solid evidence' that enables action with some confidence, but as we also know environmental or contextual variables can effect interactions that even the best designed RCB experiments cannot deal with.  When the situation changes from humans to development 'experiments' then the situation is 'wicked' or characterised by uncertainty, complexity, interdependencies, multiple stakholders and thus perspsectives and possibly conflict. Hence the ex poste studies of these authors can say very little about what should be done in future - that will depend, as they seem to realise, on  activity carefully designed to navigate the specific socio-cultural landscape of  recipients' lives.  This is what reflexive systems thinking in practice sets out to do.
    The danger in these authors' methodological approach is that policy makers will take the evidence and convert it into blueprints - rather than to see it as inputs into careful, long-term contextually sensitive design and adaptation. This lack of reflexivity leaves the approach, as noted by Aitkenhead, open to accusations of underestimating the importance of power.  Such critiques are valid but I wish those who make them would articulate how they conceptualise power and thus what the praxis is they would have as a response to power as they understand it!

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