Introduction: Conceiving complex systems

In the next ten or so posts (!) I will try to describe what happens when humans attempt to conceive something like climate change, that is not comprehensible in detail, and how that affects our actions and abilities to cope with the problems it presents.

Climate Change is a global phenomena, beyond individual experience and beyond our abilities to manipulate easily (especially as individuals). It is what Timothy Morton calls a “hyper object” although I would prefer “hyper-process” – or simply “large scale complex system”.

Being a large scale complex system, Climate change is

  • not completely predictable
  • not completely modellable
  • not completely and easily comprehensible
  • hard to manipulate by individuals or small groups.
  • not completely separable out as a phenomena of its own. For example, climate change involves weather, vegetation, animal life, local ecologies, large scale ecologies, human social behaviour, human economic behaviour, human political behaviour and so on. Normally separate categories interact and blend.
  • prone to tipping point behavior in which things radically and quickly change from the current ‘state’ to a new one,
  • likely to appear disorderly and paradoxical. For example, some places might suffer more cold, and some more heat. Rainfall might become more intense, but occur in fewer days, and thus increase the extremes of flood and drought.
  • constituted so that actions have unintended consequences as a matter of course.

Not being completely comprehensible or predictable, when we try to conceive climate change, we tend to use what we might call the ‘symbolic register’. That is, we, as humans, tend to try and represent it by using existing symbols (or patterns of symbols), that are used to think about other hyper-processes, like life, being/existence, or even religious experience.

These symbols are not constituted as fully formed ‘scientific’ or ‘logical’ categories, but will have traces of magic or power (awe, mana), hanging around them. If you prefer, then you can think of climate change as being responded to as we might respond to “the sublime” or even to God.

This is not the same as saying that climate change is like God, in any other way than it is also bigger than us, beyond complete comprehension, and appears to be out of our control.

This is one reason why I am calling these patterns of conception, ‘myths’ and ‘symbols’; reflecting the kind of language or understanding used by theologian Paul Tillich, psychologist Carl Jung, and historian and political scientist Eric Voeglin; although I clearly am not using their systems in their full complexity, as they are not necessary for the points I’m trying to argue.

Myths defined

In this framework, myths are defined as strings of metaphors and templates for thought and experience that provide affective and narrative links between disparate things, events or processes (especially those that are overwhelming), thus producing an appearance of order. Myths, as the term is being used here, also act as rhetorical topoi, or as organisers of argument and perceptions of truth in situations of relative uncertainty, overwhelm and incomprehension.

Defined this way, myths and symbols are different from what we might call ‘signs’, where the words and the processes and objects they are applied to, are relatively easy to manipulate and understand, if we have the right technology etc. Signs and symbols form a continuum, rather than staying as fixed binary oppositions, and conceptions can slide around between the poles adding to the confusion…. but this is extra detail, not needed for the moment.

Particular uses of a mythic topos can also mark group allegiance. Using the wrong kind of mythic topoi in a discussion, might exclude a person from being listened to, or accepted by another group.

Other formulations of the problem of patterns of thinking: Marx and Foucault

The idea that our ideas are gathered around particular kinds of basic formulations is not new. Marx famously argued that ideas grow out of regular social practice, and that the ruling ideas of the time, the ideas which get most promotion and justification, are those ideas which justify and promote the rule of the ruling class, and their practice and experience. Neoliberalism, and its variants (what I will later call ‘religion of the market’), seem to be good examples of this.

If you are lucky in a Marxist world, then other classes might develop ideas which help them understand the world in terms of their practice, and act as counter-positions to, and critiques of, those ruling ideas, and allow actions against established power relations. If you are unlucky then you get the development of ideas which help the people reconcile themselves to their position, or even support their own domination – such as the sense that they are loosing out to minority groups, and their culture is being destroyed and undervalued by intellectuals, and they need more ‘free markets.’ Such positions may express the group’s practice to an extent, or they would have no appeal, but the positions may also ignore people’s more immediate problems, and propose solutions which only add further pain to their position.

Foucault, in his early work, suggested that ideas were patterned by an ‘episteme’ which linked things together in particular ways. For some reason or other (its not clear to me), the ‘episteme’ would change, and previous ideas would no longer make sense, or seem persuasive, and a new episteme would begin, which would have been incomprehensible to people working in the old episteme. For Foucault, Marxism is just another 19th Century mode of thinking that is no longer comprehensible in the current episteme, without a lot of work.

What I am suggesting is that these Marxist and Foucauldian positions are too systematic and, to some extent, ignore the force of previous developments on current popular forms of ideas.

Myths again

Myths are related to some previous patterns of ideas or tradition, and not any idea is likely to have mass appeal. There are many possible patterns of thought, not just a few, there is no extreme break between succeeding patterns, or necessary coherence between co-existing patterns.

The ‘myths’ I am discussing, are tied in with previous Western ways of understanding the world. They don’t have to mesh with each other perfectly. They can be wheeled into play when a group thinks them useful, or effective. Importantly, all these myths imply paradox or what I will call ‘counter-positions’. They imply a contradictory movement, as part of the myth’s governing dynamic. These paradoxes, when unrecognized may not help us deal with the situation we find ourselves in, they can split our energies and undermine our attempts at conceiving reality and our attempts to deal with that reality, but recognizing the paradox may open us up to new, more beneficial ways of conceiving the world.

Looking at the myths used to express Western relations to nature and disorder helps us to understand our ways of conceiving and persuading. People do not have to believe these myths, or take them as absolutely true, or nameable, for them to have effect; the myths are present in their collective history.

Here, I will discuss stories which I have classed as ‘Creation’, ‘Eden’, ‘Apocalypse-Millenium’, ‘Prometheus,’ ‘Justice’, ‘Reality is Elsewhere’, ‘The Problem’, the ‘Religion of the Market’ (see also Hulme 2009) and ‘Individualistic Rebellion’.

Although these myths are only nine amongst many, all are rife with immobilising paradox. The hope is that by realizing the source of our immobility, and being able to sit with the paradox, we may be able to move forward in a more creative way….

Next: Myths of Climate 01: Creation, order and disorder