Sunday, December 09, 2012

News from Institute for 21st Century Agoras.

Ken Bausch has made contact to advise that their  'Global Agoras' website was down for a few days while they repaired it from a Russian hacker attack; it is now operational again he said - but unforunately my attempts to create links have failed, so I can only assume the website is still down.   Included in Ken's email was reference to:

Good New Videos

'Jeff Diedrich has produced the best short explanation of our dialogue process ever claims Ken. 

I note that the process used is similar to what might be used as part of a social learning approach to governance - something our research has focussed on for over a decade or more.  It is a very uplifting clip but also raises some questions such as (i) how did participants come to participate?; (ii) what was done with the outlcomes/learning that happened?  (iii) was the process, or could the process, be situated in a conducive, systemic governance process and set of institutions?  (iv) Did the process design have the wrong starting point? Does it assume a desire for co-existance, or the presence of governance processes and institutions that make a trajectory towards coexistance possible?
Ken goes on:

Yiannis Laouris has created two videos around an international youth colaboratory in Cypress. In the first, Yianniis explains the power of the colaboratories with youth participation.  In the second, young people describe the experience. 

Friday, December 07, 2012

IFSA Wrap-up - Great cartoons

Post-symposia greetings from the IFSA 2012 Local Organizing Committee

"Dear collegaues.
The local organizing committee wish to thank you all for a very rewarding and satisfying symposia. It was a great joy and inspiration for us to be with you during the four days of the symposia in Aarhus. We hope that you all got back home without any trouble. Even though that we are very enthusiastic about how IFSA 2012 went along, there might be things that could have improved your experience at the conference - there might also be things which actually worked well and was worth considering on another occastion. If you have any comments on our organization of the symposia, we would very much appreciate your perspective on what we should learn from the symposia. Please send us an email at with your comments.

At the closing session, the Danish cartoonist Niels Roland presented his drawings inspired by the issues discussed at IFSA 2012. You can now see
Rolands closing session drawings on Youtube. We hope that you once again will enjoy Roland's satirical exploration of prominent issues discussed within the IFSA community. We are also working on supplying you with images from the symposia. We have of course been taking a lot of pictures, which will be uploaded shortly, but we will very much appreciate if you would share some of your own photos from the symposia - do not hesitate to send us copies of photos which you think should be shared among the other participants."

Water issues and food production systems

Recently in The Age  there was this stark warning:

' LEADING water scientists have issued one of the sternest warnings yet about global food supplies, saying the world's population may have to switch almost completely to a vegetarian diet over the next 40 years to avoid catastrophic shortages'

The claims are from a report by Malin Falkenmark and colleagues at the Stockholm International Water Institute.  Meawhile in the US, water issues are confronting many in light of the major drought. Work at the New England Complex Systems Institute claims that:

'Recent droughts in the midwestern United States threaten to cause global catastrophe driven by a speculator amplified food price bubble.'

For most Australian's the responses canvassed in the New York Times article are not new and much has been learnt in Australia about how to respond.  However, memories tend to be short; governments backtrack in the mistaken belief that it is possible to return to a 'past normality'.  Despite over 10 years of intense drought there is, in our Australian practices and institutional arrangements, still much room for improvement both now and into the future. In California half of summer domestic water use if for lawns water on lawns; Californians cannot imagine doing without them.  In Santa Fe lawns are prohibited.  In preparing for the future places like Melbourne would be better conceptualised as a semi-arid city and green, temperate grass lawns abandoned as well.

This issue, like any systemic issue has many facets.  I for one can no longer condone ruminant animal production practices (i.e., mainly cattle) that create biological inefficiencies of the sort associated with feeding concentrates and other human edible food to animals.  In San Francisco recently it was good to see many restaurants advertising on their menus that animal products were grass fed (which is what ruminants evolved to do - convert grass).   Australia should abandon all feedlot operations that have come to be developed around the spurious notion that rumen biological efficieny is the driving factor in production system development. As The Age article notes:
'Adopting a vegetarian diet is one option to increase the amount of water available to grow more food in a climate-erratic world, the scientists said. Animal protein-rich food consumes five to 10 times more water than a vegetarian diet. One-third of the world's arable land is used to grow crops to feed animals.'  

Strict vegetarianism is probably not for everyone; an intermediate step could involve all, or some, of the following:
  1. reduce animal production that is dependent either directly or indirectly on irrigated production systems;
  2. reduce embodied-in-global-trade water exports in terms of crops used to feed animals - as is  typical of much of European agriculture - this could return more water to enviromental flows and protect areas in Brasil and Argentina from over exploitation and biodiversity loss;
Writing a Viewpoint in the latest edition of the Farmers Club Journal, Liz Earle, a co-founder of Liz Earle Naturally Active Skincare, a comapny with over 500 staff and a multi-million pound turnover in over 100 countries says:

'I believe the best options for our health as well as our planet are red meats and dairy products from mainly grass and forage-led ruminat animals such as cows and sheep'.

Andrew Campbell in a series of articles points to the potential for systemic failure arising from Australia not continuing to invest in irrigation research for food production. I support fully his claims that:

'... the proposal that we simply shift our irrigated agriculture north “to where the water is” does not stand up to even a cursory analysis. Similarly, the suggestion we can cost-effectively pipe or pump or ship the water south “to where the people are” ignores basic physics and economics.'

However, I was not sure that he made the point strongly enough that water must be used for maximum biological as well as social efficiency - so no more irrigated dairy pastures or forage for feedlots and more opportunistic annual cropping please.

Not ethically defensible

Australia's policy position in relation to Sri Lanka has not been tenable for many years; in public policy terms it is a classic systemic failure.  More recently it has become a farce.   I am in agreement with Bruce Haigh: it's just not cricket playing with oppressive Sri Lanka writing in the most recent edition of Crikey when he says:

"Who would have thought that in the space of 17 years, Australia could have gone from being a leading champion in the worldwide fight to end the racial discrimination of apartheid to siding with the corrupt and venal government of Sri Lanka in the genocide of Tamils.

Australia has former prime minister John Howard to thank, with the raw racism and political expediency embodied in "we will decide who comes here", the policy of turning back the boats, mandatory detention and temporary protection visas -- all directed against asylum seekers. Unfortunately Labor prime ministers Rudd and Gillard embraced at first the essence, and now the substance of his policies."

The mainstream media and public in general are also lacking, seemingly, in awareness and discernment and thus responsible action.  Australia, and the rest of the world for that matter, should not be engaged in sporting ties of any sort with Sri Lanka; all future cricket matches should be cancelled until such time as responsible and ethical government returns.  

This article by Lyse Doucet Chief International Correspondent, BBC News says  it all:

"Hundreds of thousands of Tamils ended up trapped in a tiny strip of land.  The United Nations failed in its mandate to protect civilians in the last months of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war, a leaked draft of a highly critical internal UN report says.

"Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond to early warnings... during the final stages of conflict," it concludes.

The government and separatist Tamil rebels are accused of war crimes in the conflict, which ended in May 2009.

The war killed at least 100,000 people.

There are still no confirmed figures for civilian deaths in the last months of battle. A UN investigation said it was possible up to 40,000 people were killed in the final five months alone. Others suggest the number of deaths could be even higher. 

Former senior UN official Charles Petrie, who headed the internal review panel, told the BBC the "penultimate" draft the BBC has seen "very much reflects the findings of the panel". He is now in New York to present the report to the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Sources say an executive summary, which sets out the panel's conclusions in stark terms, has been removed in a final report which will number about 30 pages.

There was no immediate response from the UN, which does not comment on leaked reports. But senior UN sources say the secretary general plans to publish the hard hitting review, and act on its wide-ranging recommendations in order to "learn lessons" and respond more effectively to major new crises such as Syria now confronting the international community. 

'Systemic failure'

The UN's investigation into its own conduct during the last months of the conflict says the organisation should in future "be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities".

It identifies "systemic failure" in a number of areas, and describes the internal UN crisis-management structure as "incoherent".

The panel questions decisions such as the withdrawal of UN staff from the war zone in September 2008 after the Sri Lankan government warned it could no longer guarantee their safety. 

Benjamin Dix, who was part of the UN team that left, says he disagreed with the pullout.

"I believe we should have gone further north, not evacuate south, and basically abandon the civilian population with no protection or witness," Mr Dix told the BBC.

Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians remained in the war zone, exploited by both sides: forcibly recruited by Tamil Tigers or used as human shields; or under indiscriminate government fire, or at risk of arrest.
"We begged them, we pleaded with them not to leave the area. They did not listen to us," said a Tamil school teacher now seeking asylum in Britain, who did not want to be named. "If they had stayed there, and listened to us, many more people would be alive today." 

Despite a "catastrophic" situation on the ground, this report bluntly explains that in the capital Colombo "many senior UN staff did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility - and agency and department heads at UNHQ were not instructing them otherwise".

It says there was "a sustained and institutionalised reluctance" among UN personnel in Sri Lanka "to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist". 

'Culture of trade-offs'

Citing detailed records of meetings and reports, the review highlights how the UN did not publish mounting civilian casualty figures even though they had "been verified to a good standard". Under severe pressure from the Sri Lankan government, it also did not make clear most deaths were caused by government shelling of "no fire zones" designated as havens for civilians.
The government repeatedly denied it shelled civilian areas. 

How did the UN failure happen? The report explores at length how senior staff in Colombo "had insufficient political expertise and experience in armed conflicts and in human rights... to deal with the challenge that Sri Lanka presented", and were not given "sufficient policy and political support" from headquarters. It also points to the Sri Lankan government's "stratagem of intimidation", including "control of visas to sanction staff critical of the state".

The result was a UN system dominated by "a culture of trade-offs" - UN staff chose not to speak out against the government in an effort to try to improve humanitarian access. 

Edward Mortimer, a former senior UN official who now chairs the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, says UN staff left when the population needed them more than ever.

"I fear this report will show the UN has not lived up to the standards we expect of it and has not behaved as the moral conscience of the world," Mr Mortimer said.

"There was a responsibility to protect in Sri Lanka but unfortunately it didn't get publicity like in Libya. The north of Sri Lanka was destroyed field by field, street by street, hospital by hospital but we didn't get that kind of reaction - Sri Lanka doesn't have much oil and isn't situated on the Mediterranean."

There were no UN peacekeepers in Sri Lanka but this report says the UN should have told the world what was happening, and done more to try to stop it. 

In New York, "engagement with member states regarding Sri Lanka was heavily influenced by what it perceived member states wanted to hear, rather than by what member states needed to know if they were to respond".
During the last months of war, there was not a single formal meeting of the UN's top bodies.

The executive summary of the draft report highlights how "the UN struggled to exert influence on the government which, with the effective acquiescence of a post 9/11 world order, was determined to defeat militarily an organisation designated as terrorist". The Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, are a proscribed terrorist organisation in many capitals.
Frances Harrison, who has just written a book "Still Counting the Dead" on the last months of the war, told the BBC "the only way now for Ban Ki-moon to restore the UN's tattered credibility on Sri Lanka is to call an independent international investigation into the slaughter of tens of thousands of civilians in 2009". 

"What haunts me is the outcome of this dreadful conflict might - just might - have been different if the UN had at the time publicised the independent eyewitness testimony and casualty data its staff meticulously collected that indicated the bulk of killing was the result of government shelling," says the former BBC Sri Lanka correspondent.

Springer Books - Christmas Sale

My contact at Springer says:

'We've just been informed of the following Christmas sales initiative - we've not yet been told if there are any other sales in the pipeline.

Springer are offering a £20-off voucher on any eBook from from 10-26th December to all visitors. This is on-top of any other existing discount which the user may have (e.g.,. a Springer author 33%  discount).   From the 10th to 26th, those using this link will see the voucher applied during your session on the site.

The only stipulation is that the eBook can’t be £20 or less before the voucher is applied.'

Monday, December 03, 2012

In the Drakensbergs

Two days for muscle recovery was a small price to pay for doing the Tugela Gorge walk in the Royal Natal National Park in the central Drakensbergs.  It was also a delightful setting for designing and running an interactive session for about 50 people as part of the recent International Conference on Fresh Water Governance for Sustainable Development: 

Ison, R.L, Pollard, S., Biggs, H. Du Toit, D., Colvin, J.D & Wallis, P. (2012) More Systemic, More Adaptive: The way Forward for Water Governance. Special Workshop Session, International Conference on Fresh Water Governance for Sustainable Development, 7th November, Central Drakensburg, South Africa.

This session was very well received by those who attended. 

Foucauldian-style resistance

Foucault, that popular French theorist wrote of resistance in 1982:

"I would like to suggest another way to go further toward a new economy of power relations, a way which is more empirical, more directly related to our present situation, and which implies more relations between theory and practice. It consists of taking the forms of resistance against different forms of power as a starting point. To use another metaphor, it consists of using this resistance as a chemical catalyst so as to bring to light power relations, locate their position, and find out their point of application and the methods used."

More recently a journalist in the Scotsman newspaper wrote about her daughter trying to choose the best university to get her degree. In Scotland, she would not be charged fees but in England she would have to pay thousands of pounds in fees and finish with a large debt. However, the daughter thinks it might be better to go for a "top" university and pay the fees as it would get her a better job and there are more "top" universities in England than in Scotland to choose from. My friend and colleague Drennan Watson, in the spirit of resistance, wrote the following letter to the Scotsman paper in response to this issue:

Research no guide to educational standards
Published on Sunday 21 October 2012 19:17

Christine Jardine rightly focuses on the question for her daughter of “which university will provide the best springboard for her future” (Perspective, 17 October). But, mistakenly, she then focuses on the Times Higher Educational World Reputation Rankings as a guide.

This claims to assess universities on teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook by drawing on the assessments by “senior, published academics”. Valid assessors of the quality of training of their graduates are their employers in government and industry and the graduates themselves. According to supporters of the Times’ system, the only graduates assessed are postgraduate students in the universities. Assessing educational performance on this small, non-random sector is statistically laughable.

 As Ms Jardine says: “Universities are judged across the world on their research record.” That is the problem. The idea that research output of a university is a measure of quality education and degree offered by it is bogus. Many a “distinguished” academic whose lectures appear baffling because he is brilliant is simply an incompetent communicator.

 Before gaining a university post in which research is a key activity, a candidate must gain a good, honours first degree then a PhD as a three-year training in research. The appointee is then unleashed to lecture and teach undergraduates with little or no training in education. The results are inevitable.

As an undergraduate, I ranked my lecturers competent if they could be heard beyond about the fourth row and then found intelligible by students when heard. One-third failed.

I taught in a range of universities and institutes of higher education in UK. The problem remains. Accounts from current students strongly indicate matters are worsening. Government, by scoring university performance basically on research output is making matters worse. I co-authored a paper in the prestigious journal Nature. That would merit points. I co-authored a 350-page, well-reviewed textbook for undergraduates, but that would merit none.

Ms Jardine is rightly concerned at the need to properly fund education in universities, particularly in the face of the rise in student numbers. Equally important is to introduce proper training in educational skills among those paid to teach our undergraduates. Government should insist on it as a condition of funding. Research and education are equally difficult and complex activities requiring, to a considerable extent, different skills and personal qualities – frequently not found in the same person, particularly in academics. What other profession would be permitted to exercise such a critically important, skilled, social function without proper training and proof of performance?

We do not trust the education of children in primary and secondary school years to untrained, unassessed staff. Why do we do it to them in vital years of adult education?

R Drennan Watson
Forbes Alford, Aberdeenshire

Vale Frank Fisher

Life certainly has its circularities.  Last week whilst cleaning out my office in the Menzies Building at Monash University (Clayton) I came across notes that I had made when Frank presented a talk at the University of Sydney on the 4th August 1988.  I noted that Frank came from the Graduate School of Environmental Sciences at Monash and that he had formerly been an Electrical Engineer.  My notes are an eclectic array of terms that have littered my own writing and scholarship over most of the intervening time.  Examples include: '3rd generation thinking'; 'epistemology'; 'reductionism'; 'utilitarianism'; 'understanding comes from interaction with others'; 'dialectic'; 'the edge of madness - feeling an indoor plant to see if it is real'.

As outlined in an earlier post Frank died from complications associated with an inoperable brain tumour on 21st August 2012.  Since his death there has been a very moving public memorial service - more a celebration than a mourning - in a packed BMW Edge at Federation Square in Melbourne. Also a launch of the ebook 'Everyday Transcendence: The Influence of Frank Fisher' that was put together and completed (if not published) just before Frank's death.  The book can be downloaded from Frank's legacy website, 'the Understandascope' and there are also video segments from the memorial service and the book launch.  Please explore them and appreciate why Frank was loved by so many and why so many were transformed through knowing Frank.

Frank's obituary appeared in The Age on Monday September 24th, 2012.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Systemic failings in Higher Education

Yet more compelling evidence that forces currently driving the HE sector place it on a trajectory towards systemic failure.

"Focus on innovation is backfiring, Brussels conference hears

The pressure on scientists doing basic research to produce innovative results is undermining researchers’ credibility, two prominent scientists told a conference in Brussels last week.
Mathematician Martin Andler, co vice-president of grass-roots scientists’ group Euroscience, said there was tension between the need for researchers to do basic, blue-sky research and the requirement for their work to be innovative and have an impact. He says he is concerned that researchers feel under pressure to claim their work will have a big effect when often it is not possible to know whether that will be the case.

“It’s wrong to force people to lie,” he said, adding that the issue is one of research integrity.
Andler explained that such dishonesty could take two main forms. In one, researchers flesh out funding applications with details of activities they have already completed. In the other, they exaggerate the likely impact of their work to make their research seem more relevant to funders.
Robert Winston, broadcaster, Labour peer and professor of fertility at Imperial College London, described a phenomenon he calls “the science delusion”, where scientists approve of their work being marketed as much more important and influential than is actually the case. As an example, he cited the mapping of the human genome, which has not lived up to expectations that it would, for instance, revolutionise our ability to manage diseases.

“Scientists need to be more modest,” he said, explaining that two worrying consequences of these tendencies are that scientists permit their work to be overhyped and fail to admit that they have emotional biases that can influence their science.

The comments were made in presentations at SciTech Europe, an event held in Brussels on 22 November."

Monday, October 15, 2012

NECSI analysis makes sense

The New England Complex Systems Institute in their project on ethanol use for fuel are producing relevant insights:
They 'make three key statements to enhance understanding and communication about ethanol production's impact on the food and fuel markets: (1) The amount of corn used to produce the ethanol in a gallon of regular gas would feed a person for a day, (2) The production of ethanol requires so much fossil fuel energy that its energy benefit is only about 20%, and (3) The cost of gas made with ethanol is actually higher per mile because ethanol reduces gasoline's energy per gallon.'

Saturday, September 15, 2012

New Sustainability Exchange

I am advised by colleague Mark Yoxon that the Sustainability Exchange is a central point and community for colleges, universities and sector service providers, sharing best practice, knowledge and resources on sustainability – all online.
 Extract from their press release:
Education organisations unite to launch pioneering centralised knowledge bank and community on sustainability.

Leading organisations from across the further and higher education sector have joined forces to create the ‘Sustainability Exchange’. Combining resources and experience from 23 of the country’s top sustainable development and education bodies, the Sustainability Exchange will pioneer the UK’s first centralised information portal and online community for the sector, sharing a wealth of information that is available to everyone.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Recent good news: a new research project

With Chris Blackmore and Kevin Collins from the Open Systems Research Group we have had news of success as part of an international research consortium  for a project entitled  “Climate change adaptation and water governance: reconciling food security, renewable energy and the provision of multiple ecosystem services” (CADWAGO).  One of 15 shortlisted proposals to the Europe and Global Challenges Call released by a trio of European Foundations (Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, Compagnia di San Paolo and VolkwagenStiftung), the project will develop the knowledge base and capacity to adapt to climate change through improved water governance approaches. It builds on several earlier projects including the well-known SLIM project coordinated from the OU in 2000-2004.  A grant of 9.000.000 SEK (equivalent of about 1.000.000 Euro) has been set aside for the project over three years.

There were 76 proposals from international consortia for the call. Fifteen were short listed and invited to proceed with a main proposal and hearing. Only four were selected from the 15, as despite extra funds being available, these were the only ones achieving a consensus from the external panel.

The VolkwagenStiftung  has a record of funding innovative systems-based research having in the past made funding available to the
Club of Rome leading to the well known ‘Limits to Growth’ study. Whilst this proposal is focused on the nexus between climate change and water security, it has implications for other global challenges. There is a crucial link between good water governance, food security, renewable energy and the provision of multiple ecosystem services in contexts characterized by controversy and uncertainty. CADWAGO brings together 10 partners from Europe, Australasia and North America who have extensive social science research experience in climate change adaptation and water governance issues, thereby extending the collective global knowledge base through sharing methods and findings.

CADWAGO builds on the lessons from on-going research cases to create a forum and dialogue between researchers and stakeholders at different scales. The lessons from the cases will be synthesized and used in the adaptation of key European policy processes and governance actions that have a global impact. High impact peer reviewed publications and practitioner orientated publications will also be focused on as key project outputs.

Wicked, as in 'great'

Nice post from Roger Jones taking an uber 'technical rationalist' to task.  Also this one from David Hodgson who reports on what seem very positive urban developments in  Adelaide.  If only the current lot in Melbourne (i.e. State Government) could embark on something similar.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Big Boys Gone Bananas

I take it back.  In my last post I suggested that the Enviromental Film Festival Melbourne might on the whole not run to uplifting, if not quite humerous material.  I was wrong.  Last night I went again and saw Big Boys Gone Bananas.  It is an uplifting film and shows what can be achieved when individuals, groups and institutions support morally relevant action.  It did however take a Swedish culture to support the outcome, and unforunately we do not all have that.  It is almost enough though to suggest moving to Sweden.

The movie, by Fredrik Gertten, (2011,Sweden; 1 hour 30 mins) is worth watching:

"What happens when a large, multinational corporation senses a threat to its reputation? A Swedish filmmaker inadvertently found out after producing his film BANANAS!*.

This documentary explores the true story about this filmmaker and a banana corporation, and the dirty tricks, lawsuits, manipulation used to silence him.

Ultimately, it explores the price of free speech: Dole spent a lot of time and money trying to kill the story of BANANAS!*. As Dole's own public relations company stated, "it is easier to cope with a bad conscience than a bad reputation.""

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Surviving Progress

Last night I went to the screening of 'Surviving Progress'  at the Environmental Film Festival Melbourne (EFFM).  The organisers are to be congratulated as they have put together a solid and varied program.  Unfortunately taking it all in would be too intense for me.  In this vein I overheard an audience member say last night 'where are the environmental comedies'?

'Surviving Progress' makes it clear that our situation is no laughing matter - an implicit message of the film is that we are in a type of evolutionary cul-de-sac and it will be a real test of the evolutionary gifts bestowed on humans as to whether we can get ourselves into a new, viable, trajectory.  As one commentator said, when civilisations failed in the past there were other models in the wings. At the moment it is not clear that any such models exist.

The movie is a Canadian production:
'Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks, 2011 (Canada)
Produced and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada
1 hour 26 mins

Surviving Progress presents the story of human advancement as awe-inspiring and double-edged. It reveals the grave risk of running the 21st century's software � our know-how � on the ancient hardware of our primate brain which hasn't been upgraded in 50,000 years. With rich imagery and immersive soundtrack, filmmakers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks launch us on journey to contemplate our evolution from cave-dwellers to space explorers.

Ronald Wright, whose best-seller, "A Short History Of Progress" inspired this film, reveals how civilizations are repeatedly destroyed by "progress traps" � alluring technologies serve immediate needs, but ransom the future. With intersecting stories from a Chinese car-driving club, a Wall Street insider who exposes an out-of-control, environmentally rapacious financial elite, and eco-cops defending a scorched Amazon, the film lays stark evidence before us. In the past, we could use up a region's resources and move on. But if today's global civilization collapses from over-consumption, that's it. We have no back-up planet.

Surviving Progress leaves us with a challenge: To prove that making apes smarter was not an evolutionary dead-end.'

I particularly liked the challenge posed in the film to contemporary economic and financial models, especially how debt has been manipulated by a global oligarchy.  Given how economics and finance models failed in the GFC (and continue to fail) it is disturbing that so many young people want to study economics.  Diane Coyle writes that:

 'According to UCAS figures (UK), 7,800 students began an undergraduate degree in the subject [economics] in autumn 2011, and more than 50,000 applied to do so. This represented an increase in student numbers of 8.5 per cent since 2010, compared with a 1 per cent rise in the total number accepted to UK universities.'

This concern is particularly valid given the evidence that:

'The messages from employers are consistent, be they in the public sector, investment banks or consultancies. Young economists do not know enough economic history, or enough about the intellectual history of their own subject and the continuing debates about methods. Although they are technically adept, they are too narrow in how they approach the problems they face at work.
Scandalously, many economics students also leave university without two essential practical skills for employment as economists: the ability to find and use data correctly, and the ability to communicate their technical knowledge to non-specialists.'

Coyle, an economist and employer of economists, goes on to argue that:

'Economics [has] also become very abstract, taking no account of institutions such as hedge funds and standards of behaviour that, with hindsight, were so obviously important........As far as undergraduate economics is concerned, one important change needed is to introduce more interdisciplinarity into courses. Among other things, this would help to teach that both inductive and deductive reasoning can be applied to the same problems. Economics has become too narrowly deductive and theory-based. Exposure to other social sciences can correct this' 

I was less enamoured with the ways in which 'Surviving Progress' dealt with our propensity to seek out  'miracle innovations' that will resolve our collective dilemma. In other words to extend the models of thinking and acting that underpin our current trajectory rather than opening up new, radical possibilties. The material devoted to J Craig Ventner I found disingenous and systemically flawed.  Colleagues have recently drawn my attention to articles which typify what I mean, including this one in Ventner's own domain of genetics.  In the language of the film, these susgestions are merely attempts by the existing oligarchies to maintain their hegemony! They also reflect the systemic failure of our governance processes as is vividly portrayed on the front page of today's leader in The Age:

'Australia's highest-emitting brown coal electricity generators are between $400 million and $1 billion better off than they would have been without the carbon tax, according to new modelling.

In terms of what to do next 'Surviving Progress' has little to offer that is new, an argument echoed in this review. We have known about limits for some time.  Also of the need to reduce consumption (though one part on this was well handled and deserves a YouTube slot of its own). One way the film could make a real difference is if every senior managment team (including Universities) put it on the agenda of their next away day and treated a viewing like a book club exercise.  That said, it would probably require a few non-board invitees to keep the conversation going beyond 10 minutes!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Around Alice Springs

I recently made my first visit to Alice Springs - in fact my first to Central Australia (if one does not count Broken Hill in far-western NSW). It was a work trip so we had limited time to look around.  These are a few of my better photos.

Acknowledging the OU EDM Programme

In 1997 we set up a new Post Graduate degree in Environmental Decision Making (EDM) at the Open University (UK) because we wanted to move beyond the mainstream understanding of Environmental Management (EM). In particular we wanted to move the focus away from 'an environment' that needed to be managed to a focus on how all decisions took the environment into account.  Thus EDM was a different form of practice (praxis) to the prevailing EM paradigm.  As first Director of the program it was always difficult to know how much impact our program had. None-the-less it got off to a good start and has had a strong stream of students ever since. 

Now, in its wisdom, the OU is rebranding all its Environmental offerings under the rubric of Environmental Management (following expensive advice from external consultants).  We shall see how this unfolds.  Rebranding of course does not mean that the usual high quality teaching will cease, nor that a systemic perspective, as was developed in EDM, will be abandoned. In fact Systems academics at the OU are making significant contributions ot the rewriting of undergraduate EM courses.

Recently I had occassion to read a paper by Andrew Halliday and Marion Glaser (2011) A management perspective on social ecological systems: a generic system model and its application to a case study from Peru Human Ecology Review 18 (1) 1-18.  This is a thought-provoking paper.  It was good to see in the acknowledgements the following:

'The first author wishes to thank members of the project team of Pro Naturaleza’s Manu Project for their friendship, insight, and stimulating collaboration, and acknowledge his debt to the Open University’s post-graduate course Environmental Decision Making — a Systems Approach, which pointed the way towards the view of social-ecological systems outlined in this paper.'

Monday, August 27, 2012

Update on Limits to Growth

I am grateful to David Ing and Nicolas Stampf for alerting me to a useful update and overview on ‘The Limits to Growth’.  As David says:

‘what was the message of Limits to Growth? A web video updating the work, in "current language" (e.g. "Human Ecological Footprint" wasn't a phrase they used)'..... has been prepared by the Club of Rome, who developed the original research funded by the Volkswagen Stiftung.

A winter school for 61 young researchers has been funded in Germany in November-December to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publication of Limits to Growth.   Imagine, forty years!!

An open Herrenhausen symposium is also planned to mark this important milestone. Entitled "Already Beyond – 40 Years Limits to Growth“ it will be held on November, 28 and 29, 2012 in Hanover, Germany. Scientists from all over the world are invited to participate. Registration is open until October 31st, 2012.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

China - a systemic update

William Pesek had a systemically illuminating article entitled 'Today's Chinese proverb: he who craves wealth joins the party'  in yesterday's business section of The Saturday Age. His, possibly tongue in cheek, conclusion is that 'if the rich keep getting richer at the expense of the poor, China may actually need to go communist'.  It is telling that the Gini coefficient for rural China was 0.3949 late last year, close to the 0.4 threshold that UN analysts suggest is the warning level for social unrest.  He also claims that China 'hasn't devised a strategy to cut pollution' nor made its leaders more accountable. This is a useful update on reflections of my own posted in earlier blogs.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Frank Fisher - cybersystemicist

Colleague and friend Frank Fisher succumbed to the effects of a brain tumour and passed away Tuesday last (21st August 2012).  Fortunately there was time for some celebration of Frank's achievements  before his death (held on June 25th though sadly I was not in Melbourne at the time). This included the preparation of a collation of 'Frank Stories' in the form of a book which he had a chance to see and comment upon, although the final version is yet to appear.   One of his legacies is the Understandascope website.

When I thought about who I might invite to launch my book, 'Systems Practice: How to Act in Climate-Change World', at the Melbourne Writer's Festival in 2010, Frank was an obvious choice.  He was one of the few people I knew in Melbourne who appreciated and enacted cybersystemic understandings.  As in all things Frank brought his own idiosyncratic style to the event. 

Various postings with their associated comments demonstrate that Frank has significantly influenced the lives of many - he was an educator with the capacity to transform, and transform for the better.  In their book 'The Western Intellectual Tradition' Bronowski and Mazlish said (p.353) ' is the men out of sympathy with the existing university education and government who make the new science'.  Whilst they referred to the late 18th century industrial revolution and the Lunar Society Frank's life is testimony that this tradition of critical questioning and acting persists. It is to be hoped that in the not too distant future we can claim that he was a man ahead of his time and at the vanguard of a new form of scholarship more appropriate to our circumstances.

Planet Under Pressure - resources

Since attending the Planet Under Pressure conference in London in March more resources have been posted to the website.

New Systems book

A new Systems book, The Manager's Guide to Systems Practice: Making Sense of Complex Problems [Hardcover] co-authored by Frank Stowell and Christine Welch, has just been published.  Any feedback?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Achievement as avoidance

One of the most delightful moments for me at the recent ASC/BIG conference (which I blogged about earlier) was the acceptance speech of Susan Rose Parenti when awarded the ASC's Warren McCulloch Achievement Award.  In her acceptance speech, which she cannot have had long to compose, Susan reframed achievement as avoidance taking a very cybernetic spin on the subject.  I commend her speech to viewing.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Puritan Gift

The late Russ Ackoff wrote a foreward to the paperback version of 'The Puritan Gift' (published 2009),  written by the Hopper Brothers.   The book, which first appeared in 2007 as 'The Puritan Gift: Triumph, Collapse and Revival of an American Dream' was named by the Financial Times one of that year’s Top Ten Business Books. Whilst recommended to me, I have yet to read it.  I wonder to what extent it could be claimed that the Hopper Brothers take a systemic perspective?

I note in this review it is claimed that the Hopper brothers argue that: 'As for the bad kind [of capitalism], the brothers blame post-war American business schools, particularly after the 1970s. As curricula became dominated by “financial engineering,” profit and performance were prioritized before all else.'

ASC produces new resources

Ranulph Glanville,  ASC President writes to advise that:

'at Asilomar the ASC  celebrated Klaus Krippendorff's 80th birthday by publishing a linked  directory to his most significant publications that you can download .
You can find an online video of Klaus' Asilomar keynote presentation  (including the cutting of his birthday cake towards the end). 
We also posted a scan of Klaus's dictionary of cybernetics.

Claudia Westermann made high quality scans of the few issues of  Cybernetic that we published in the 1980s. This was an experimental  journal that attempted to work (30 years early and in print) as if it  were an online journal!

Finally, we asked each member of the ASC to try to introduce at least  one new member each year.'

Howard Silverman - reflections on ISSS

Just prior to the ASC/BIG and ISSS conferences I became aware of Howard Silverman's excellent blog called Solving for Pattern.   My awareness came from feedback Howard provided on some of my own work.  Then we had the chance to meet and chat at the two Californian conferences. 

In a reflection on these, Howard writes:

'I appreciate your call at the [ASC] cybernetics conference for greater attention to authentic conversation. That's a high bar -- and by that standard, both conferences fell short. Yet at the same time, i did really enjoy them both, and found them both very welcoming.

ISSS seems kind of quirky to me. Can't quite escape the shadow of its founding giants. Somewhat burdened and exasperated by the ambition to develop a system of systems. Missing a process for incorporating fields -- like, say, network theory -- that have emerged since the Bertalanffy/Boulding era. Split between the positivist-leaning system engineering folks and the more interpretive/critical folks. Yet, despite it all, the power of the original vision attracts new participants, and the opportunity to share a space in that shadow seems to offer ongoing value. It was certainly valuable for me.

By the way, i posted the slides from my talk. One of the main themes i'm exploring is how context shifting -- across organizational, social, and ecosystem contexts -- affects the application of systems approaches.'

Monday, August 13, 2012

Positive media stories: towards 'tipping points'?

I was somewhat taken aback over the weekend when I read in The Weekend Australian an excellent article by Paul Cleary entitled 'One law for the mines...'.  It is neither the type of story or perspective I associate with Murdoch's main Australian paper.  Cleary's central argument is a good one that goes to the core of on-going systemic failure in governance that, in particular, relates to the biophysical environment. He says:

'As governments have begun approving mega-mines and risky coal-seam gas [CSG] developments, the number of conditions attached to each project has risen inexorably.

Extensive lists of conditions make for impressive press releases from ministers approving projects. Interestingly, though, the mining companies don't complain about the conditions, largely because they know governments rarely enforce them. The reality of Australia's "world's best-practice regulation" is that both state and federal governments lack the willingness and capacity to enforce the environmental limits set out in their approval criteria.'

Regulation is easy to put in place - as are many other traditional policy prescriptions - but as we have shown in our decade or more of research on social learning (an alternative form of governance to that of regulation, education/information and fiscal or market mechanisms) these are hard to monitor, police and enforce.  This is why Australians, or citizens of any country where a coal seam or shale gas rush is breaking out,  would be well-advised to heed Cleary's arguments. Cleary is a writer for the Australian and author of the new book Mine-Field which 'plots the dubious networks created and greased by mining companies to get their projects through, and exposes regulatory gaps that must be addressed to prevent enormous and irreversible harm to our society and environment.'  As he notes in his article, which draws from his latest book: 

'In a race to the bottom, mining regulation in Australia is a case of one rule for the miners and gas companies, and another for everyone else.'  ......'Drug disasters like thalidomide were quick in their impact, and governments responded, but the potentially damaging effects of CSG projects on groundwater may take decades to show up.   In the meantime, state governments will be cashing in on their share of the production revenue via royalty agreements.    And, at present, they can't authorise new projects fast enough.'

The assault on the Earth through CSG, the accumulation of toxic wastes, fracking of shale deposits and the like constitute a 'theatre of war' in the Anthropocene. The irony is that it is war with ourselves and one in which all of us humans will ultimately be losers.

In London does the success of Ten Billion – a scientist's one-man show on environmental woes – which has has been an unexpected sell-out hit augur well for a tipping-point breakthrough, or is it yet just another performance in the theatre of the resistance?

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

'I Have the Honor to be, Sir'

After a good many years of research I managed late last year to complete another book in my family history research series:

Ison, R.L. (2011) ‘I have the Honor to be Sir.  The Coleman family and their Irish origins’. Self Published. 597p. (ISBN 978-09551270-1-4).

These works are as much about social history as they are about family history. Copies have been placed in the main, relevant Libraries in NSW, WA, Victoria, Tasmania, Canberra, Galway, Dublin, Missouri and London.

From the Preface:

This document is built around the family of Joseph Coleman, my Irish great, great grandfather.  It begins in Australia and delves back to Ireland before moving via the USA back to Australia.  To a lesser extent, this research is also about the spouses of the Coleman men and women, particularly, for example, Isabella Mercer, my Scottish great, great grandmother and Annie Darcy, wife of Joseph’s brother Daniel Coleman.  Despite considerable documentary evidence both of my great, great grandparents, remain somewhat elusive characters – no family members in any of the many branches appear to have compiled or recreated the story of our Coleman ancestors, either in writing or orally.  To some extent each generation was the bearer of secrets they did not wish to be known or told.  Joseph's arrival in Australia in the 1850s and some aspects of his Irish origins remain a mystery.  However, my research has shed considerable light on Joseph’s father, Edward Coleman, fortuitously wounded at the Battle of Akbar in Egypt in 1801.  I mean fortuitous in the sense that it gave rise to records which I was able to find.  But more importantly it entitled him to a pension which may have been the means by which he and his family survived the famine. 

A table of contents follows:

             614Table of Contents
Part 1                                                                                                                                                     
1. Joseph and Isabella Coleman                                                                                                           
1.1.        Introduction                                                                                                                            
1.2         Early years in Australia
1.2.1      Joseph Coleman - arrival   
1.2.2      Joseph Coleman – early records                                                                                     
1.2.3      Isabella Mercer                                                                                                           
1.2.4      In Tasmania - about 1859 to 1863                                                                       
1.2.5      Policing at Fingal                                                                                                   
1.2.6      Death of Joseph’s father in Ireland                                                                      
1.2.7      Leaving Tasmania                           
1.3               Teaching in NSW - a summary          
1.3.1      The organization of schools in NSW                                                                   
1.3.2      St James’s training school and the Church of England schools                             
1.3.3      Joseph’s first appointment         
1.4              Denominational school at North Kurrajong                                                                   
1.5              Ryde Church of England Denominational School                                                       
1.5.1      Conflict between members of the school board and Isabella Colman                
1.5.2      Escape to Tasmania                                                                                                
1.5.3      Applying for promotion                                    
1.6               Richmond Church of England Denominational School                                              
1.6.1      The history of the Richmond Denominational school                                           
1.6.2      At Richmond – the benign early years                                                                   
1.6.3      Disturbing times at Richmond                                                                              
1.6.4      Reflections on Rev. Dr Woolls                                                                           
1.7               Moorilda Public School                                                                                                  
1.7.1      Appointed as local postmaster                                                                                   
1.7.2      Attending to school matters                                                                                    
1.7.3      Building and making repairs to the school                                                              
1.7.4      Difficulties with promotion                                                                                      
1.7.5      Reports relating to Isabella's illness                                                                         
1.7.6      Influential friends                                                                                                     
1.8         Mortdale - Joseph's final school                                                                                       
1.8.1      Joseph and the Mortdale school                                                                                
1.8.2      Promotion problems again                                                                                      
1.9.        Isabella's death and Joseph's remarriage                                                                         
1.9.1      Joseph's new family                                                                                               
1.9.2      Inspections and other incidents                                                                                
1.10       Retirement                                                                                                               
1.10.1    Joseph's will - and the much talked about legacy                                                   
1.11       Unresolved questions                                                                                                        
1.12       Main references                                                                                                        
1.13       Appendices                                                                                                                    
1.13.1    Joseph Coleman Family Tree                                                                               
1.13.2    Glossary of Terms associated with Schools in NSW 
Part 2                                                                                                                                                  
2. The Coleman Family in Ireland                                                                                                 
2.1         Edward Coleman, soldier                                                                                                     
2.1.1      North Mayo Militia muster and payroll records                                                   
2.1.2      Edward and the 13th Foot                                                                                     
2.2         Coleman records in County Mayo                                                                                       
2.3         Edward Coleman, farmer                                                                                                     
2.4         Edward Coleman, husband and father                                                                                 
2.4.1      The D’Arcy family and Clifden Castle                                                                     
2.4.2      Back to the family records                                                                                       
2.5         Hyacinth D’Arcy and the ‘evangelical milieu’ of Clifden                                                   
2.6         The famine in Clifden                                                                                                         
2.7         Summing up                                                                                                                         
2.8         Appendices                                                                                                                           
2.8.1      Search of National Archives PROCAT, Sunday 17 October, 2005                       
2.8.2      Posting by Maria Feerick on Genforum:                                                                  
2.8.3      Continental officers killed, captivated, wounded, and missing, in the
               actions of the 16th and 18th of August, 1780 (American War of Independence)             
Part 3                                                                                                                                                 
3. Daniel Coleman                                                                                                                              
3.1.        Early years in Australia – marriage to Annie Darcy                                                          
3.2         In Tasmania - about 1863 - 1871                                                                                          
3.3.        Bootmaking and family life in Ballarat                                                                               
3.4         Children of Daniel Coleman and Annie Darcy                                                                     
3.4.1      Joseph Jeremiah Coleman                                                                                         
3.4.2      Annie May Coleman                                                                                                
3.4.3      Margaret Coleman                                                                                                     
3.4.4      Edward Daniel Coleman                                                                                          
3.4.5      Edith Marian Coleman                                                                                             
3.4.6      Gilbert John Coleman                                                                                              
3.5         Daniel’s remarriage – Emily Wigley                                                                                    
3.6         Coleman and Shiells, ink manufacturer                                                                             
3.7         Retirement to Melbourne                                                                                                     
3.8         The children of Daniel’s second marriage                                                                          
3.8.1      Alice May Coleman                                                                                                 
3.8.2      Harry Richard Coleman                                                                                          
3.9         Concluding thoughts                                                                                                           
Part 4                                                                                                                                                 
4. Brothers and Sisters of Joseph and Daniel Coleman                                                                   
4.1         Edward Coleman                                                                                                                 
4.1.1      The Liberty Non-Sectarian Mission                                                                         
4.1.2      Sorting out the available records                                                                             
4.1.3      Edward and Catherine’s children                                                                          
4.1.4      Other records of interest                                                                                         
4.2         Ann Coleman                                                                                                                       
4.3         The children of Edward and Bridget Conneely                                                                   
4.3.1      Patrick Coleman                                                                                                  
4.3.2      Thomas Coleman                                                                                                  
4.3.3      Margaret Coleman                                                                                               
4.3.4      Daughter (?) Coleman (Mary Anne?)                                                              
4.3.5      Stephen Coleman (?)                                                                                              
4.3.6      Val Coleman                                                                                                             
4.3.7      Mary Ann Coleman                                                                                                 
4.4         Loose ends and unanswered questions                                                                               
Part 5                                                                                                                                                 
5. Edward Hyacinth Joseph Coleman                                                                                               
5.1         Following in his father’s footsteps                                                                                     
5.1.1      Becoming a pupil teacher                                                                                       
5.1.2      Pupil teachers in NSW                                                                                           
5.2         Upper Colo and Wheeny Creek                                                                                         
5.3         Mount Macquarie                                                                                                                
5.4         Trunkey Creek                                                                                                                      
5.4.1      Applying for travelling expenses and a new stove                                                   
5.4.2      Complaint against the teacher                                                                                 
5.4.3      Leave to attend mother’s funeral                                                                             
5.4.4      Arbor day enthusiasm                                                                                              
5.4.5      Dissatisfaction with current situation                                                                      
5.4.6      Complaints about cruelty 1893-94                                                                            
5.4.7      Horace Coleman becomes a pupil teacher                                                               
5.4.8      Ill-health                                                                                                                  
5.4.9      Running into debt                                                                                                     
5.5         Mulgoa Forest                                                                                                                    
5.6         Arcadia                                                                                                                                  
5.6.1      Correspondence from the files                                                                                
5.6.2      Insurmountable debts                                                                                             
5.6.3      The ‘great swindle’                                                                                                 
5.6.4      The final unravelling of a 27 year teaching career                                                 
5.7         Retirement and death                                                                                                           
5.8         The family of Edward Coleman and Lavinia Gee                                                            
5.8.1      Horace Coleman                                                                                                       
5.8.2      Lavinia Josephine Coleman                                                                                     
5.8.3      Edward Vere Coleman                                                                                            
5.8.4      [Edward] Hyacinth Rupert Coleman                                                                        
5.8.5.     Evelyn Coleman                                                                                                    
Part 6                                                                                                                                                 
6. Augustus Horatius Arthur Coleman                                                                                               
6.1         Gus's birth and early years                                                                                                   
6.2         Gus's teaching career - a summary                                                                                    
6.3         Teaching - the early years                                                                                                    
6.3.1      The first school                                                                                                        
6.3.2      Blackfriars, St Peters, Hurstville                                                                            
6.3.3      The Mila incident                                                                                                     
6.3.4      Transfer to the central coast and Hunter region                                                        
6.3.5      An interest in stories and poetry                                                                               
6.3.6      Stories from Black Hill                                                                                            
6.4         Marriage and family                                                                                                              
6.4.1      Other events at Black Hill                                                                                         
6.5         Leaving NSW and teaching in Western Australia                                                                
6.5.1      Belltrees - Gus's last NSW School                                                                           
6.5.2      Death of Margaret McKimm                                                                                  
6.5.3      The move to the West                                                                                               
6.5.4      To Mogumber                                                                                                           
6.5.5      Troubled times                                                                                                          
6.5.6      To Nannine                                                                                                               
6.5.7      To Rottnest Island                                                                                                    
6.6         The return East and the final illness                                                                                     
6.6.1      Matters concerning the children and other correspondence                                    
6.6.2      Gus's death and funeral                                                                                           
6.7         Widowhood and condolences for Jenny                                                                             
6.7.1      Working to support the family                                                                                  
6.8         Concluding remarks                                                                                                             
Part 7                                                                                                                                                   
7. Joseph Coleman’s Second Family                                                                                                   
7.1         Florence Gibbons Smith                                                                                                       
7.2         Eustace Charles St Clair Coleman                                                                                        
7.2.1      Becoming a Minister                                                                                                 
7.3          Gladys Josephine Coleman                                                                                            
7.4         Joseph and Florence’s grandsons                                                                                          
7.4.1      Frank Joseph Charles Marjason                                                                                
7.4.2      Leonard Cecil Marjason                                                                                            
7.4.3      Kenneth William Marjason                                                                                      
Part 8                                                                                                                                                   
8. The family of Gus Coleman and Jenny McKimm                                                                          
8.1         Isobella Dorothy Maude Coleman                                                                                        
8.2         Lilian Margaret May Coleman                                                                                              
8.3         Arthur Joseph Robert (Bill) Coleman                                                                                   
8.4         Edward Victor John Coleman                                                                                             
8.5         Constance Rebecca Mary Coleman