Thursday, April 26, 2012

European Conversations 2

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!

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!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

European Conversations 1

At EMCSR in Vienna: Edgar Morin

In my book ‘Systems Practice’ I apologised for my lack of engagement with systems scholarship from France, Germany etc. I thus felt fortunate to be present at EMCSR to hear a keynote address by EdgarMorin. Rainer Zimmerman on behalf of the Bertalanffy Centre honoured Morin with a Ludwig von Bertalanffy award in complexity thinking.  In his excellent address Rainer said (Laudatio: Edgar Morin at the University of Vienna, 10th April 2012):

‘Ladies & Gentlemen, colleagues & friends, dear Edgar Morin,

with some short remarks I would like to once more welcome this year’s recipient of the Ludwig von Bertalanffy award in complexity thinking. You might have already a strong inkling as to who this may be. You are right: It is Edgar Morin. And we are very happy to have him here in person today.

The Bertalanffy Centre honors with this award his outstanding achievements in the field of complex systems, not only in terms of his technical results, but especially with a view to his extremely relevant input for a sociological interpretation of these results and the perspective of practical and highly political consequences derived from it.

Edgar Morin’s biographer, Emmanuel Lemieux , once called Morin “The Undisciplined” (L’indiscipliné), and that is I think what he can be actually called, within the range of this words’ double connotation. In fact, being “undisciplined” is probably the most important pre-condition in order to eventually succeed in a project which in Morin’s case shows up as a new approach to what is classically called “Scienza nuova”.

This project is best described in a text however that is not really published yet, because it has been part of a former draft for Morin’s gigantic work of “The Method” (La méthode) of which six volumes have been printed so far. One finds the crucial passage in the originally third part of the work under the provisional title “The Becoming of Becoming” (Le devenir du devenir) conceived between 1987 and 1989, but skipped later on: [I quote in my own translation.] “We should arrive now at the point that is called epistemological, which is the point of critically examining the scientific theories under the viewpoint of their value, of their pertinence, of their coherence. This obviously implies that experience is not sufficient in order to valuate a theory, because – as it is not a simple reflexion of something given, but an interpretation that organizes knowledge – it must be examined also under the viewpoint that is evidently superior. Superior, that is to say that epistemology must be a knowledge of knowledge, a theory of theories, a science of sciences.”  Hence, we can realize immediately the explicitly interdisciplinary scope of this approach which even encompasses what Sigmund Freud once called a “meta-theory”: a scientific (indeed: onto-epistemic) theory which is able to outline the various modes of actually developing theories in the first place.

This is the reason why Edgar Morin has called this enterprise a “method”. As he clarifies in a talk given in Nice in 1980, “[this] is a method in the strategical sense of this expression that shall extract something absolutely evident, but always forgotten, ever since one speaks of scientific knowledge: the presence of the subject, that is to say of what searches, of what thinks and of what eventually discovers. Heisenberg once said [that] from now on the method cannot be separated from its object; we should complete this formula by saying that also, the method cannot be separated from its subject, that is to say from what it actually practises.”  This is the important point that is re-stated in the now third volume of the series called “The Knowledge of Knowledge” (La connaissance de la connaissance): “Each object must be conceived within its relation to the knowing subject that is rooted itself within a culture, a society, a history.”

In other words, this approach implies something that we can call “a cognitive revolution” which operates on the level of principles and modes of the organization of ideas.  Hence, what we can recognize here quite clearly is the explicit relationship to the ethical aspects of the sciences on the one hand, and the role that is played by undisciplined qualities on the other: The latter is actually what defines the route towards a becoming conception that is still unknown in the first place. Morin often quotes here Antonio Machado’s verse on the wanderer: “Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” (Wanderer, there is no way, it makes itself a way by walking.) This is a very important issue for the universities nowadays, especially for those who prefer to classify research according to the profit gained by its applications rather than leaving a space of free play for fundamental ideas that do not promise any clear results in the beginning, if at all.

In fact, unity and diversity are the main concepts from which Morin’s approach is furnished. And this is exactly where rational science meets the aesthetics of life on the one hand, and ethics on the other. Morin himself chooses a somewhat pointed formula for this in his more recent interview with Djénane Kareh Tager: “Ce qui sépare est à la source du mal. Ce qui relie est à la source du bien.” (What separates is at the origin of evil. What joins up is at the origin of the good.)  As he explains, this serves the derivation of daily life from its philosophical, scientific as well as artistic foundations, ending up in a poetical shape that represents (and unveils) love as its structural principle.

In a sense, we could say that Edgar Morin strives for the verification of life by means of an explicitly undisciplined utilization of scientific interdisciplinarity. Hence, strictly speaking, he looks for truth altogether, and he looks also for his own truth. (Note by the way that this is very much in the sense of the Italian school on what is called “anti-psychiatry” as introduced by Basaglia and Pirella in the sixties. They called this the principle of verifica.) And this is how he once answered the question for his becoming of a researcher (chercheur): “Je cherchais mes vérités. Je me cherchais. Je ne sais pas: je cherchais. C’est peut-être pourquoi je suis devenu un chercheur?” (I looked for my truths. I looked for myself. I don’t know: I searched. This is perhaps why I have become a searcher/re-searcher?).

While he was doing so, he actually produced many works for which we ourselves cannot be more than thankful: for this rich composition of ideas and conclusions whose avail and benefit is what sets us onto new lines of thinking, both in the sense of rational reflexion as well as in terms of emotional praxis. Thank you very much for that, Edgar Morin.

I found many resonances with my own research and praxis interests in the talk by Morin.  Some points from my notes include:
·        Complexity is a grade of diversity of a system
·        A system can be both greater than or less than the sum of the parts
·        A system can only be understood in the context of the environment (of the system)
·        Classical science is in crisis – our institutions do not allow a change of paradigm
·        Universities are devoid of life
·        I am in society and society is inside me – each generates the other
·        The part is inside the world and the world is inside the part
·        We are always an excitation of emotions in the moment
·        When you have passion without reason you have madness but the opposite is its own form of madness
·        Quoting Heraclitus – living by dying and dying by life
·        What can we do? We are obliged to make a decision. Each decision contains a wager on uncertainty and this limits the power of human decisions
·        Today the Earth System faces disintegration in the absence of its own regulation
·        He believes it is possible to metamorphose – the examples of Christianity, Islam, socialism, democracy, capitalism are all examples of significant social developments that came from isolated situations – all situations have the possibility of the improbable
·        Hope does not reduce uncertainty but opens up possibility.
·        There is no principle of immortality