Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why so little systemic sensibility?

I have already bemoaned the absence of a systemic sensibility amongst many keynote speakers at the recent Planet Under Pressure conference in London. Having been UK based now for over a month I find the absence of a systemic sensibility assails me almost everywhere I look or listen. Of particular concern is the BBC, as exemplified by the 10pm News on BBC 1 or the Today program on Radio 4.  Take last week for example where the reportage on two issues stood out as lacking systemic sensibility. These were the conflict in Syria and fracking in England.

Most reporting on Syria has descended to a simple narrative of good versus evil.  I have yet to see in the mainstream media any nuanced account of events that situates what is said in the ethnic and religious complexity of Syria and how this is played out demographically both in the country as a whole and in particular locales and cities. What is reported is less intellegent and certainly less nuanced than most computer games dedicated to the struggles of good and evil. Of course I am not the first to notice this lack.

Britain is somewhat behind the US and Australia in coming to terms with what fracking is, and appreciating its systemic implications.  For example, fracking had clearly slipped past the concerns of one of my close colleagues who knows lots about environmental issues. Last week a report was released essentially giving the go-ahead to fracking.  This is a great tragedy. And the early reporting of what is at issue has not helped. My exception is a good interview with Caroline Lucas this morning on Radio 4.   So what was missing from the reporting that leads me to claim it lacks systemic sensibility:

1. Reporters do not critically examine how commissioned reports are framed.  The framing adopted for Syria is to tame, in the words of Rittel and Webber, a 'wicked problem'. In the case of fracking it has largely been framed as a technical issue, subject to risk apppraisals.  It is also framed as a practice that can help to secure the UK's energy future.  In all instances these are inapproporiate framings.  Fracking is best understood as a human activity not a purely technical activity - and we know that human systems are different and regularly fail.  Over time I would claim they always fail. Risk is also an inadequate framing; I prefer danger because the systemic consequences of fracking are dangerous and when they go wrong are irreversable.

To think that shale gas is part of a solution to the UK's energy future rather than an exacerbation of the problem of carbon pollution, is to fail to adequately appreciate and resolve the social purpose of fracking.   As Caroline Lucas outlined the current institutional arrangements should be such that no company or bank in their right mind would invest in fracking because it was a social and thus economic dead end.   Instead we need investment in technologies that advance a post-carbon future.  Doing the wrong thing righter does not secure the future.

2. Reporters do not critically examine through their questions the systemic implications of boundary judgments that are made through discourse, terms of reference, membership of review panels etc. In the case of fracking look at the terms of reference, also the panel membership and then ask questions about the potential implications of fracking failure (i.e. heavy metal contamination of waterways and aquifers + insurance liability for subsidence). Of course behind this observation lies the systemic failure of our governance arrangments because they fail to generate practices that formulate strategies and actions, such as reviews, based on multiple partial perspectives. 

Fortunately not all media reportage lacks a systemic sensibility. Mariana Mazzucato in her Guardian Article ' Without State Funds there'd be no Google or Glaxo' makes a lot of systemic sense.  But she is an academic and not a reporter....and a heterodox economist to boot!

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