In the last blog post, I discussed the ‘two minds’ issue and the way of problem solving this suggested. In this post we move on to climate change and, incidentally, Covid-19. It is useful to have some experience with the method described in the previous post, before moving on, but there is no harm in getting more of a perspective beforehand.
The Nature of the Problems
Covid-19 and Climate Change present as what are called ‘wicked problems’. In my opinion this is a bit of a silly term, but there you are. It basically means there is a set of problems which are complex, intertwined, have multiple interacting (and probably opaque) causes, and do not have well defined solutions. People may not even agree on what the ‘problem field’ is, consequently there is almost always significant dispute over the problem, its existence, its interpretation, consequences and possible solutions – and this may become tangled in wider politics, which makes finding a ‘solution set’ even harder.
Furthermore, applying the solutions (or avoidances) we generate, can change the situation and the problems we face, often in unexpected ways – so wicked problems do not finish neatly. We might solve part of the problem and set off a landslide of other problems. In the worlds of Tom Ritchey “wicked problems won’t keep still.”
The hallmark of a wicked problem is that, even when faced up to, it doesn’t appear solvable within our current frameworks.
Even recognising the problem can be a problem, as wicked problems often become Black Elephants, foreseeable, but exceptional, crises, which no one wants to talk about – often for fear of unresolvable arguments or social exile.
Wicked problems and Black Elephants are not extreme and rare, they are normal in complex systems, and all social systems are complex systems, and not predictable in specific. Most people know how difficult predicting ‘the economy’ is, or even what will happen in politics in the next few weeks – it might be possible to predict general outlines, or trends, perhaps, but specific events are much harder – the more detail you want, the harder the events are to predict exactly. If you act, then you cannot be exactly sure what the results of your action (or non-action) will be until afterwards, and even then it can be difficult to disentangle the results of your actions from ‘background events’. Knowledge in, and of, complex systems is always provisional and uncertain, although many people try to guide themselves by dogma.
Climate change is precisely a wicked problem. It is complex with many intertwined and connected causes. To make it more politically and socially complicated, it is generated by the same processes which have made ‘modernity’ and ‘development’ possible for almost all the world’s large scale societies. These processes are disrupting and destroying ecologies, all over the globe, often in indirect ways. These processes also tend to be ingrained into our directed minds, because this is the world we have grown up in.
Solving normal problems such as development in China, protecting ‘position’ in the US, or maintaining a favourable export market in Australia, may all emit greenhouse gases which cause melting of the ice caps, rise in sea levels, rise in temperatures, drought, rain storms, death of crops, massive fires and so on. This rise in temperature can also generate collapse in the breeding of krill and plankton, which then has effects on fish populations, or on water purity, and adds to burdens on food production. Burdens of food production implies more deforestation, which exports more essential minerals to cities and from cities through waste into the sea, where the minerals become irrecoverable. Increased use of artificial fertilisers is then required, which may further denude soils. Production of essential plastics can poison people, creatures and land, and so on.
However, stopping the use of machines which increase greenhouse gas production, may mean we don’t have enough energy to replace our energy systems, and people may be condemned to poverty which, in turn, increases their precariousness in the face of climate disruption. The problems seem both endless and interconnected.
As a purely incidental remark, one of the advantages of the so-called ‘Donut economics‘ is that it provides a tool which draws attention to some of the world’s boundaries, which are ignored in normal economics. This normal lack of interest in the ecological consequences, and basis, of economic action is another problem.
Likewise with Covid, we are faced with the problem that lock-down, which is so far the only solution we have, sends businesses broke, makes people unemployed and precarious, as well as isolated and prone to mental breakdown. Lock-down encourages resentment as peoples’ livelihoods and sociality are removed. It may further increase sickness as people avoid medical treatment. The economic crash may make governments more precarious as they have less income and receive greater pressure to open the longer lock-down goes on (where it is actually going on). Rushing vaccines, as President Trump and others promote, means that the vaccines are less likely to be properly tested for safety, people are likely to avoid them, and if bad effects occur, people are likely to increase their distrust of mainstream science (confusing it with corporate science). It may be the case that Covid-19 is vaccine resistant, or mutates under the pressure of vaccination and so on. The disease also reveals which people are defined as socially unimportant (old people, sick people etc), which can increase political pressures as those people organise to rebel, or are more effectively ignored.
Both Climate Change and Covid-19 are problems which involve information overload and propaganda, and allow people hostile to particular countries, or to particular politics, to try to undermine those countries’ responses. This almost certainly adds to confusion and panic, which becomes part of the pandemic problem.
The obstacles to agreed knowledge of Covid and knowledge of climate are marked, even if probable trends are clear. What we might call ‘directed skepticism‘ (ie skepticism towards one side of the debate only) is common.
The directed mind adds to the problems, as it seems to be tempted to ignore evidence, and how others are reacting, to make things appear simple and easily solvable.
The interaction of the wicked problems of Covid-19 and Climate change has the potential to make both situations worse, as more stress is added to the system response, and the system response is further disrupted.
We can now move into the difficulties of solving problems from within the habitual directed mind. This mind is part of our social life and is largely shared or collective.
I am going to suggest that our contemporary directed mind, especially in the English speaking world, is heavily influenced by neoliberal ideology and its axioms.
This is to some extent to be expected. The corporate sector controls nearly all sources of information, directly or indirectly, so it is not a wonder if its ideology permeates our thinking practices – however much we may want to resist recognition of this, and however much they try to reassure us that we have reached neoliberal conclusions and accepted neoliberal axioms, through our individual wisdom, reflection, or gut instinct.
To be clear, neoliberalism is not a feature of every society’s common directed mind, but it does seem to affect a large portion of people living in the English speaking world. Again variation is to be expected. Not every directed mind will have all these features, but the socially prevalent directed mind cannot be analysed without reference to these axioms, standard paths, or habits of thinking. Nearly everyone will be affected by some of these.
- The directed mind, whatever society it is in, wants to preserve its habits, and use the solutions that it has used before. These habits and solution processes have given it meaning. They have generally seemed to be secure and are probably thought to avoid unknown futures and disturbances. They seem adequate and protective. They are known and familiar.
- The socialised directed mind in the English speaking world, probably considers ‘the corporate economy’ a vital part of life, perhaps the most important part of life, which should not be disrupted as that will supposedly produce poverty and challenges to social relations – “How can society survive without the economy?”. There is a habitual slip between ‘this corporate economy’ and ‘the economy,’ which halts consideration of change. Because it forms a habitual base for human life, the corporate economy gets taken into the directed mind and becomes normal.
- Taking ‘this economy’ as the most important part of social life, conceals all the other processes that humans require for satisfaction, or life in general, such as a working ecology, beauty, low levels of pollution, or human connection and co-operation. So the assumption this economy is vitally important hides information about all these other even more important factors.
- The corporate economy and its associated technology, has previously provided a route out of poverty for many. It is not quite so certain it is still doing this in the previously-developed-world, but history counts. Politicians realise that it has also provided military might and military security, and vast wealth for some small, but now powerful, part of the population. It can be felt to be good, and as providing a secure solution. It is also promoted by those who have apparently benefitted from it, partly because it helps them, and it saves them the effort and discomfort of trying to think differently.
- The corporate economy has provided the directed mind with a path whereby nothing is anyone’s fault or responsibility – so it’s morally easy to leave everything to the corporate sector. What the corporate economy delivers is supposedly always the best possible result in the circumstances. It is reputedly the best problem solving device we have, and we, and our governments, don’t have to do anything which might hurt us or our habits – and we are never to blame if things go wrong. This path allows us to hide, or deflect, many ethical dilemmas, and put them to sleep, thus producing a degree of conscious ease.
- In a counter-position, it also allows easy blame, also helping to put ethical dilemmas to sleep. Everything is the fault of other people, socialists, individual capitalists or billionaires, or possibly protestors; we are not involved.
- Life’s meaning, for most people in the previously-developed-world is generated by work, purchases and/or consumption. Anything that threatens consumption and work is a threat to peoples’ sense of meaning, their identity, and/or to their survival, so it is resisted – even if continuing is a bigger threat to survival.
- To the directed mind, buying something appears the solution for most emotional and existential problems. If we are unable to buy things, we are more likely to have to face those discomforts, and this is threatening so the market must continue.
- In this mindset, the directed mind feels we should be at liberty to do nearly anything we want. This, nowadays seems to allow liberty to proceed even if it hurts someone else indirectly, or directly, if we call them ‘bad people’. Those bad people can look after themselves, they are weak, and “we are individuals”. In neoliberal theory you are not responsible for what happens to lesser beings as a result of your actions, even when those results are predictable. Hence restriction tends to seen and felt as bad, unless generated by employment, in which case it is largely ignored and realisation is suppressed.
- As I’ve argued elsewhere, neoliberal positive thinking of the form that avoids problems and focuses on having-what-we-want now, is now a major way of avoiding problems, and pretending there is a solution without discomfort. Our directed mind often learns that we should be able to solve problems without really facing them – trusting in the corporate economy, the free market, extra consumption, or God, to solve those problems for us.
- The positive directed mind can put faith in technology, as this is a major feature of life in contemporary capitalism. However, technology cannot necessarily be produced on demand, or without disruptive effect. This axiom allows us to fantasise about ‘new nuclear’, carbon capture and storage, disruption free batteries and so on, instead of facing the problems.
- The world tends to be seen by this directed mind as a resource to be transformed by human labour and technology for our benefit, pleasure or comfort. Otherwise it is not particularly valuable. Even ‘wilderness’ has to be tended by humans and should be open to human use – such as for tourism, four-wheel driving, hunting etc.
- Things should be property and be treated as property owned by someone. If they are not ownable, they are worthless.
- This directed and individualised consciousness weakens attempts to perceive humans as part of the world, as subject to the world, or as interconnected with the rest of the world. The only recognisable interconnections allowed are economic. This promotion of lack of connection to the world-as-a-whole, may promote isolated and aggressive nationalism as part of shadow politics, as well as ecological destruction.
- The great pressure in ‘information society’ is for our conscious mind to be correct. To be right. Our status can depend on others thinking we are right. This inhibits problem solving, as we stay comfortable by staying right. This means not changing our mind and only finding evidence that supports what we already think. Real problem solving requires failure and requires being wrong, as we test what sounds plausible and find it does not work.
- In the modern directed mind, anything that disrupts our comfort seems bad, and probably a conspiracy by hostile people.
- Everything that is uncomfortable tends to become political. Hence, everyone who disagrees with us is biased, and can be denounced so we can be right. This reinforces convention in the directed mind and means that we don’t have to think about all the problems, only a fragment of the set of problems which appear friendly to us. Wicked and complex problems are best solved by leaving them alone, or turning away from them – which is reinforced by the conventionality of the directed mind and by social forces.
- These forms of action and belief encourage a shadow politics, which primarily attacks the evil scapegoats provided for us, and clings to the habits of our directed mind. It is easier to be distracted than to face the problems.
Having, a fixed set of responses, as is normal for a directed mind, limits our attempts to gain awareness of problems, and provides a false sense of comfort.
The Directed Mind; Problems and Politics
These characteristics of contemporary directed minds, which we all have to some degree, make solving wicked problems even more difficult than they already are.
For example, we can easily find people who focus on the real economic, isolation or ‘liberty’ problems of most Covid solutions, but it seems rare for these people to face up to the compounding death or disabling problems of Covid. Indeed it seems common to deny that the latter problems exist, or to pretend that the people who die would have died anyway – which renders the dying and the dead effectively beneath notice. Even those who recognise the death problem tend to neglect the disabling problems, perhaps because those are too disturbing. Those who do recognise the compounding death problem, tend to ignore the economic and isolation hardships, unless people protest hard, and they then tend to dismiss the protestors as politically motivated. In both cases the complete information is relatively difficult to process, and ‘both sides’ tend to think the other is delusional or conspiratorial, and that they have all-correct information.
The same is true of climate change. People who want to continue to live as they live now, with their current directed minds, see the economic, liberty, and disruptive constraints of dealing with climate change. They tend to think the climate change data is political or exaggerated, and they prefer more comforting data when they can find it. The fires were the result of criminal arsonists. Renewable energy is less reliable than coal or gas or oil. Extinctions are not happening. Small increases in average temperature cannot have large effects. The temperatures were not measured correctly. Scientists are socialists and benefitting from people’s fear. All we need is more nuclear energy etc. etc. The full data is ignored.
Likewise, people working to slow climate change, can think of their opposition as deluded, and political. They can ignore the problems of renewable energy transition. They can ignore the political and organisational problems. They can ignore the problem that most energy use is not electrical, and cannot be lowered by simply making electricity renewable. They can ignore how slowly the transition is happening, and think the rest of the transition can happen quickly. They can think that because it is ‘economic’ to make the transition, it will happen, forgetting the economy is political and under the sway of large established corporations who’s controllers may not want to change.
In these situations, shadow politics are easily activated, distracting from the real problems, which it is probably intended to do.
The point is, that with a complex wicked problem set, it is easy to select those parts of the problem field that you think you can solve, in the way you are comfortable to solve them, and ignore the rest. You can ignore the complexities of the situation, and the tendency of human actions to generate unintended effects which rebound through the system, changing it into a new state.
One of the further reasons for avoiding problems is that as well as being associated with a challenge to habitual thought and problem solving, the problems can be associated with, or produce, bodily discomfort, mental dislocation, trauma, threatening images and sensory experience, even to the point of feeling ill, sick or disgusted. That is why, I previously suggested that facing into these kinds of sensations may also be useful in problem solving, while warning that people should be careful if doing this without prior experience or support.
The aim of our normal activity is to preserve our directed consciousness, and our comfort. Sometimes people will use drink, drugs, consumption, unsafe sex and so on, not to dissolve the directed mind, but to dampen down the growing discomfort of the problems.
Facing the problems
As the reader has probably now guessed. I’m going to say again that we need to face these problem fields squarely and face on, as suggested in the previous post. We need to face our discomfort. Exhaust ourselves, realising that our preferred solutions do not work, will not work and ignore vital parts of reality. Argue, put solutions forward, let others destroy them. Fantasise that your opponents are right. Question your knowledge. Acknowledge your grief and pain. Feel the lack of simple and visible solutions. Dissolve what you ‘know’ to be true.
Engage your phantasy, listen to dreams.
Then step back and wait for solutions and symbols to come. Preferably recognise a solution because it is not what you wanted or expected.
It is probable that these solutions may not work either, be prepared to explore them, talk with others about them, share them. Evaluate them carefully in practice.
Treat the solutions experimentally. It is best to test them in your daily life as dispassionately as possible. Remember a persuasive solution may not work, or may work but generate unintended consequences. It may need modifications, or further procedures. And keep going.
If your solutions involve exterminations, or mass imprisonments, look out for the possibility of your having been captured by shadow politics. The same if the solution depends on ‘impossible’ technology or high improbability events such as being saved by aliens. The unconscious can be tricky.
Obviously I cannot be definitive here. There are almost certainly other problem solving techniques, and people have written a lot about complex and wicked problems, and some little about unintended consequences. Take inspiration where you find it, but use it to solve problems rather than to make yourself feel comfortable.
You might well ask “why me?” and the rather sad answer is because people who get paid to solve problems in the government and in business are not succeeding that well. They get tied into the politically possible, the pressures of fitting in, or the need to protect the State, business, or the system as it is.
You are as creative as most other people. You are as prone to mistakes as other people. Why not you? Especially if you can find support and stimulation working with others who hold the same commitment and curiosity about extending their consciousness beyond the directed mind.
Solutions have to come from somewhere. Understandings have to come from somewhere. It might as well involve you, or you and your friends.
Perhaps you might waste your time. But there is nothing more important to waste time on. And perhaps you might succeed and spread the solutions to others. Even small personal solutions might be important.
However, despite the ambition, there is absolutely nothing wrong in practicing the technique described in the last post on smaller problems first. That is, after all, how we learn, and how you will find whether the method works for you, or needs to be modified to work for you. Small steps are good.