Saturday, January 30, 2016

Unethical systems practice?

Systems practice in and of itself is neither ethical or unethical as all practice is in the hands of the practitioner in a given context. What is, or is not, ethical is always situated. My musings on this question has been triggered by reading material on 'transformative scenario planning' by Adam Kahane.  Kahane became known based on his leadership of the Mont Fleur Scenario exercise in South Africa in the early 1990s, an exercise that many claim helped in positive ways to transition to a post-apartheid state as well as shaping some of the ANC's early political and economic strategies.

Anyone who has more than a passing aquaintance with systems scholarship knows that scenario planning was mainly developed within the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. It was the adaptive scenario work done by Pierre Wack in the early 1970s, 'envisaging' the 1973 oil crisis, that led to scenario planning being institutionalised in Shell.....and presumedly other companies, including other oil companies.  Wack's work enabled Shell, one of the weakest of the infamous 'seven sister's who dominated the oil industry, to emerge from the 1973 oil shock as one of the strongest.

According to Kahane, scenario planning in Shell developed under the leadership of Ged Davis and Kees van der Heijden. Kahane, who was a Shell employee when he went to South Africa, attributes his own learning of scenario planning to these 'two masters'. Shell was also a pioneer in the use of SSM (soft-systems methodology) and Kees van der Heijden was an important player in this activity - as examples written up in several of Peter Checkland's books testify.  SSM can be used as a form of scenario practice and Kahane's 'transformative scenario' practice seems replete with systemic thinking and practice.

With this as background my musings turn to the question of how scenario planning has been used, particularly in the oil industry, in the 45 or so years since Shell began using it.  For example, was it used in the move by BP into 'beyond petroleum' and then the rather rapid departure from that set of narratives and commitments?  Why did most major oil and energy companies abandon their diversified portfolios, including renewable energy assets, in the early 2000s?  Were these decisions guided by an undisclosed 'Big Tobacco' scenario? Or a 'make hay while we can' scenario? Or an 'exploit our social operating licence to the full - till we are stopped' scenario?  My musings are prompted by news of an inquiry that may be gathering steam in California:

"Activist Tom Steyer’s comments followed reports that California attorney general is looking into what the world’s biggest oil company knew about climate change........into allegations that ExxonMobil spent decades lying to investors and the public about its knowledge of climate change."

It is clear that practices informed by systems thinking and practice can be used to good effect; whether the practice is ethical or not is another question. When framed in terms of Heinz von Forster's ethical imperative:

...."act always so as to increase the number of choices" or "I always act so as to increase the number of choices".......

then the actions of oil companies, should it be shown that they deliberately set out to prolong their business model in the face of overwhelming evidence about climate change, have clearly acted unethically. Collectively they will have acted to limit the choices we humans have as we move into a climate-change world. 

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