We are in the midst of several crises of ecological and social destruction, , mainly brought about by our processes of extraction and pollution. Focusing only on the climate crisis can be a distraction from, or a defense against, realising how deeply we are caught in these multiple crises.
The Eco-crises include:
- Destruction of agricultural land, through mining, house building, over-use, erosion etc
- Poisoning through pollution
- Ocean Acidification
- Disruption of the Nitrogen and Phosphorus cycles
- Pollution, and loss, of water supplies
- Introduction of new chemicals and materials
- Changes in weather patterns
There are also social crises:
- of information,
- of social and political fracture,
- of wealth and power disparities, including poverty
- of political corruption,
- of insecurity of work and income for most people (what is often called ‘precarity’),
- of psychological contentment (existential crises)
- and so on.
All these various crises interact in complex ways. Loss of agricultural land, for example, will probably spur the fractures of wealth and power, increase poverty and increase insecurity.
Part of the aims of this blog is to identify the problems, the underlying causes of the problems, and the ways we might come to change our minds and actions so as to deal with those problems.
COMPLEXITY AND WICKED PROBLEMS
Complexity , ,  adds to the difficulties of solving the crises. However, complexity has to be part of our understanding of social problems.
The term ‘wicked problems’ is used for problems:
- Which don’t have a standard precedent, or standard formula for action; or the precedents and formulas appear to dig us deeper into the problem.
- With no universal formulation; every wicked problem appears to be unique.
- The people involved are in conflict, with different opinions and different aims, and there does not seem to be a possible mutually pleasing or agreeable solution. So solutions are likely to be undermined by those participating in the process, or prove unstable in the long run.
- There are many linked problems, factors, drivers and consequences. The problem branches out into the systems.
- Knowledge of the situation is obviously, and perhaps dangerously, incomplete. Some important people may dispute we have any knowledge.
- There is little certainty a solution can be found in the time available for solving.
- The problems are likely to change over time.
- Solutions can also change the nature of the problem, and create further problems.
Wicked problems are systemic problems within complex systems. They sound impossible to fix, and hence are psychologically disorienting.
However, I’d say it is very difficult to fix the system rather than impossible. But the longer we leave it to stop what we are doing to disrupt the system, then the harder it will get to ‘fix’ it – or to keep it livable for the kind of society we might like.
It is easy to forget that we have always lived in complex systems and, in general, humans survive quite well – it’s not as if ‘wickedness’ or complexity are new phenomena, just something we often don’t recognise in contemporary societies.
If we remember we live in complex systems with a degree of unpredictability and uncertainty, and need to modify actions as we go along (and observe what happens), rather than assume we know in advance, then this realisation can change the ways we act, and process the results of our acts.
Complexity implies learning as we go along, trial and error, and so on.
It can also be helpful to pay attention to other sources of information than just our standard orderings. Information is a real problem nowadays, partly because there is so much of it, and so much of it is evaluated by whether it fits in with the politics of our ‘information groups’ online or in the media, and sometimes information primarily relies on the techniques of magic.
We are currently not organised to solve complex problems of great magnitude, but this does not mean it is impossible.
People may note that many large scale societies seem disrupted by ‘tribalism’ I don’t like the term ‘tribalism’ because not all forms of organisation we call tribal, have the features people use the word ‘tribal’ to indicate, However, the UK was at one time incredibly split and diverse, with big breaks between people. Papua Niugini was likewise one of the most diverse and splintered countries ever, with more completely different languages than any other country in the world. Both those places are now reasonably together, PNG in a remarkably short time – even if there are still obviously problems. We can, and have reduced the problems of ‘tribalism’ in the past.
Consequently, I don’t think there is any inevitability in the idea that people cannot unify or recognise difference and be able to live with it.
We may need to look at more closely, is what kinds of patterns of social organisation promote ‘gentler competition,’ more cross-social empathy and a sense of unity and, on the other hand, what patterns promote faction. That has become a recurrent theme on this blog – observing the ways that contemporary political communication patterns depend on the creation of enemies and outgroups, to bond the ingroup together behind the rulers.
My suggestion is that the patterns of behaviour over the last 40 years have increased the factionalisation of the US, for example. Things can get better or worse. But if we think the world is hostile, and prominent people encourage this thinking, then we tend to retreat from being-together, into being against each other. If we think that different humans can get on pretty well in general, and there are fewer forces promoting separation, then we are more disposed to try and get on.
We have also had times in human history in which the difference between the top and the bottom of the wealth hierarchy was not that great in terms of poverty, we have had times in which living conditions improved for a lot of people, and we have had times of better social mobility than others. These kinds of conditions need to be investigated without dogma, and without trying to prove that our dominant groups are really the best ever, or that hierarchy is essential – hierarchy is common, but hierarchies can vary in depth and separation between levels.
I have this vague suspicion that if we had encountered eco-problems we face now, in the 50s or 60s of last century, we would have found it easy to do a better job of handling it. We had a better sense that we all were all in things together, that sometimes money was not the only thing – and we had a growing sense that the world was fragile, which was useful, if threatening to some people.
It is now not uncommon to recognise the issues around complex systems, once people become aware of them. It is not hard to gain an awareness of the dangers of ecological destruction. It is easy to gain some sense of the political confusion, and learn that this confusion is not necessary, if you are not afraid to take on established destructive powers and habits. There are lots of people working on these issues; they even get some coverage in some media. There is a lot of effort put into discrediting science, on behalf of profit, but we can still learn if we want to.
As implied above the first step is to recognise that we do live in a set of complex systems, and that we need an experimental politics that looks for unintended consequences, and is prepared to modify policies depending on results.
We then need to be able to live with some levels of uncertainty and skepticism towards our own understandings – which plenty of people do already. In this skepticism, it is useful to be aware of the difference between real skepticism and directed skepticism, in which you are only skeptical of the out-group’s ideas, and use this apparent skepticism to reinforce your own dogmas.
We need to be able to recognise the ecological crises are problems, and that we probably cannot survive without working ecologies, and that societies previously have seemed to collapse because of ecological crisis. Dealing with the problems cannot be postponed indefinitely.
We need to understand that everything operates in contexts, and that changing the context can change the whole system, or even the meaning that some events have for us.
We probably need to be able to perceive some things in terms of continua, or statistical difference, rather than as binary opposites – because it is more realistic, and allows greater communication.
We need to be able to recognise that people are hurting because of the social and eco-crises, and that we cannot afford to have that pain be commandeered by fascist-like movements who try and impose more dogmatic order on the world.
Talking to each other with as much respect and kindness as we can, is often a good start.
While we cannot solve the problems entirely by ourselves, and they can seem overwhelming, it is useful to make whatever start you can, by yourself if necessary.
I’ve seen books which have long lists of things people can do:
- learn as much as you can,
- cut your electricity usage and bills as much as you can,
- turn the heating down, and wear warmer clothes if possible, when its cold.
- buy food from local producers,
- buy organic food when you can afford it,
- eat a bit less meat,
- sit with local plants, get to know your local environment,
- be careful what weed killers, insecticides and fertilisers you might use,
- don’t use bottled water unless you have to,
- avoid buying plastic,
- engage in recycling even if it does not work,
- don’t use a car for short distance travel if you can walk,
- contact your local representatives about ecological and climate problems,
- sign online petitions (if you don’t sign them, they won’t count),
- engage in, or help organise, street marches or blockades. Start with the easiest first,
- talk to friends about the issues, but not aggressively,
- write about heavily polluting local industries to the owners, managers and local politicians,
- buy ecologically principled renewables if you can afford them, or get together to explore organising a community buy in, if you can’t,
- if you have superannuation, try and make sure it is not invested in fossil fuels or other ecologically damaging industries,
- if you do buy shares, buy them in beneficial businesses,
- let politicians and business people know that climate change and preserving the environment are important to you.
I’m sure people can think of other things which could make a difference in their area – even showing your support for other people who are doing the work is good.
If you are retired or young, you get extra opportunities to practice these kinds of things, and to work out what to do.
All these actions may sound trivial, but they will help a little. The greater numbers of people who act, then the greater the effect, the more it becomes part of their habits and common sense, the more it becomes part of social common sense, and the more it carries political weight, and the further sensible action will go. Find the things you can do and do them. Even better if you can join do them with others, as that helps support your actions and widens them, but the main thing is to do them.
We are helped in this process of change because of two factors:
1) small events, especially small accumulating events, can have large effects in complex systems, and
2) people tend to emulate others; so if you set as good example as you can without forcing it on others, then people may pick up the ideas and actions themselves and these actions may spread – and that builds a movement, even if it is not organised.
If you identify as part of the ‘political right’ and you think climate change is a danger, then it could be even more important for you to set an example, as people are more likely to learn from those they identify with, or classify themselves with.
There will be opposition to your protests, but that is life….
One of the main things that obstructs renewables in Australia is regulation, and I’d guess that would be a factor in most places. Markets tend to be regulated to favour those who have historically won in those markets, and those regulations often make assumptions which are no longer accurate. When something new starts, it has to fight against the established regulations. There are few markets without regulation. If there are no regulations then there might be ingrained corruption.
Anyway, finding out the regulations, finding out where they stop change, and agitating to change them, or draw attention to how they work, can also be useful. Politicians, or people in the market, may not even be aware of the regulatory problems
I’m interested in the idea of climate generosity as opposed to climate justice , . It seems to me that people living in the justice or fairness framework, often behave as if they should begin to act when it’s fair, and that other people should act first to show them it’s fair. People are always saying things like “why should we destroy our economy while they are still polluting?” and so on. Leaving aside whether action on climate change necessarily involves economic destruction, we can’t really afford to wait. So we may need to just be generous and act before others act. We might be being exploited by those others, but who cares if it encourages more people to act and we survive?
This is another reason to act, even if it seems pointless.
Generosity is quite normal human behaviour. We might give gifts to gain status, or gain advantage, but that is fine. It often feels good to be generous and helpful. How we act is up to us: we might try and gift solar panels to a community building, even better if we work with others. We might try to get our politicians to use our taxpayer funds to help gift solar panels to a village, rather than force a coal mine on them, we could try and raise money for this ourselves.
Again we might talk to people and find out what they want rather than we think they should want, and see if it’s possible to help them get it with minimal ecological damage. Gifting is fraught, but you can increase the beneficial nature of the gift, by finding out in advance whether people would like it, and whether they will accept it, and understand that no return is expected, except for them to use it and acknowledge it. There are all kinds of ways to proceed, and involve others. Most people can at least make a present of some of their time.
Generosity reputedly helps people to feel good, build relationships, creates meaning and allows action. It helps solve the existential crisis.
Sitting with, and observing, your environment can be fundamental to relating to the world, and getting a sense of how it works and changes, how important it is to you, and how much a part of it you are. Almost everywhere that people live there is some sense of environment, some form of nature.
One of the problems with renewables at the moment, seems to be that the people installing them think primarily in terms of business and money, rather than in how renewables can be installed with relative harmony, help people relate to their environment, and be socially fair and appropriate. This is partly because of the success of neoliberal ideologies in shaping people’s common sense and sense of how the world works.
THE NUMBER ONE BAD?
Neoliberalism is the idea that only important social function is business. The only responsibility of business is to make profit. People are taught that business can do anything, and that what it wants to do, must be good, that wealthy people are inherently virtuous, and that the job of government is to support established business and protect them from any challenge at all. This is usually justified by a kind of naïve Marxist idea that the economy determines everything else, so a ‘free market’ must mean freedom. But the idea is nearly always used to structure the economy to support the established wealthy, who can buy policies, buy regulation, buy politicians and so on.
A standard neoliberal process is to strip away regulation of the corporate sector, particularly ecological regulation, and try and regulate ordinary people so they cannot stop corporate action. Common tools of neoliberal economic policy include taxpayer subsidies of corporations when they face trouble, selling off public goods and profit to the private sector, tax cuts for corporations and wealthy people, and cut backs in the helpfulness of social services and making social services punitive. The main idea is that the wealthy deserve even more privilege, and the poor deserve less.
As such, neoliberalism has helped lessen the sense of possibility, and collaboration, that I referred to above. I suspect that neoliberalism, and the power relations that go with it, have done more to slow our response to the problems we face than anything else. This is not to say that free markets are not useful tools, but they are not the only tools or always the best tools, and neoliberals tend to want to structure the world so that it helps markets, rather than structure the market to serve and preserve the world. Indeed many people will argue that the idea of structuring the market to serve the world and its ecologies is tyrannical. But the basis of all economies is ecology. If we don’t make sure the ecological system can regenerate all that we take from it in a reasonable time (even, or especially, in a bad year), then we are on a dangerous path. Neoliberalism seems inherently opposed to action to stop ecological destruction , .
One reason neoliberalism is harmful, is that its supporters cannot win elections if they tell people that their primary interest is transferring wealth upwards, increasing the power of corporations, rendering ordinary people powerless, and making ecologies expendable, so they have to lie, stir up culture wars, and build strong ingroups to have any chance of victory , . Now, in the US, they appear to be trying to stop people from voting. Sadly, the end point will probably be something like fascism , , , .
Neoliberalism suggests that ordinary people have no ability to cooperate (and should not cooperate outside of their jobs), are largely competitive and selfish, poverty is a moral failing, and that money is the measure of all virtue.
Any conservative should be able to tell you:
- a) that people are cooperative and competitive, and that for good social life we want a competition which builds cooperation amongst the population rather than destroys it,
- b) people are selfish, but they are not only selfish, and
- c) virtue has little to do with money.
So we have to move on from the idea that it should be forbidden to criticise markets in politics – or perhaps more precisely, the players in those markets and the way they play. Tax cuts for wealthy people are not the only economic policies which exist.
THE PROBLEM OF VIRTUE – THE PRIME DANGERS OF RENEWABLES COMES FROM COMPANIES NOT FROM RENEWABLES
We should never assume that because a project appears to be virtuous, and we support its virtue, it will not have harmful effects. Furthermore, our ideas about the project, and how it works, may be completely wrong.
This applies to everything. Recognising that a virtuous, useful project that we completely support can have harmful and unintended consequences is fundamental to an experimental politics, and to navigating complexity.
So far the main problem we have had with renewable energy, is that we are often (although not always) carrying out the transition through the normal ways that we have carried out business and development in the past. These ways of proceeding have traditionally harmed people, and harmed ecologies, partly I suspect because they have always put development, business and profit ahead of those people or ecologies. So we have to be careful.
For example, production of solar panels can involve ecological destruction through mining or pollution. The factories can have harmful working conditions – workers can be poisoned. Disposing of old, or broken, panels can create pollution. We face the usual consequences we might expect from attempts to increase profit, without any ecological or social concern.
Biofuels have in many places resulted in small farmers being pushed off their land, loss of casual farm work for people without land, breakdown of village relationships, deforestation (which goes against the point of the fuels), replacement of food crops with fuel crops pushing up the price of food and leaving people short of food. Biofuels have resulted in greater use of fertilisers which may harm the soils and rivers, they may consume vast quantities of water which can threaten local livelihoods, if rain is rare.
It’s pretty obvious that cultivating vast areas of monocrops takes fuel burning, and making and transporting the resulting fuels can take fuel burning. As well, it usually takes much longer to grow biofuels than to burn them, so it is not immediately obvious that, unless fossil fuel consumption is significantly curtailed by these processes, that it is actually helping at all.
Likewise, wind and solar farms can involve companies fraudulently stealing land from small farmers (people I research with have observed this in action), can involve secret agreements which split townships, unclear distribution of royalties, disruption of people’s sense of the land, agreements that do not involve local people or only involve some local people, fake community consultations, use of water which is in short supply to clean panels, destruction of jobs without replacement and so on. Sometimes it can even involve organised crime, or militia’s, intimidating opposition, forcing people to sell land, or provide ‘services’ for the non-local labour that has come in to install the renewables.
Even events like attempting to conserve forests can lead to traditional people who have lived pretty well with the forests for thousands of years, being thrown out of the forests and becoming homeless.
It should be clear to anyone, that an energy transition does not have to proceed like this, but this is how normal developments proceed at the moment. Mining is often surrounded by local protest and horrendous treatment of local residents, and even poisoning. Having a large chain supermarket arrive in your town, can destroy local business, and create unemployment amongst previous business owners. However, for some reason or other, many of the people who lead country wide protests against wind farms, do not see a problem with mining, even when destroying agricultural land completely, perhaps because they think mining is virtuous. However, it is not just renewables that cause problems, it is the system. So the system needs change, at whatever levels we can manage.
The point is we need to have more care about how we proceed, and more awareness of the problems in virtuous projects without feeling we have to abandon them. If people get dispossessed by renewable companies, behaving as companies often do, we need to stop this, as they may tend to react with hostility towards the transition in general, when the problem is company behaviour not transition.
This blog aims to explore some of these effects, and suggest possible remedies. We cannot afford for business to behave like this, so renewables companies must be regulated to engage with communities.
Perhaps this means that community based renewables are a better way to go? People working as a community are more likely to listen to each other, and to relate to the place they are working in – which does not automatically mean harmony of course. If this is true, then it again demonstrates the importance of working at a local level – even in cities.
The downside is that careful processes take longer and slow progress down, but we want a liveable world at the end of it.
PROBLEMS OF FANTASY TECH
Finally, some imagined technologies like ‘clean coal,’ ‘carbon capture and storage,’ or geoengineering , ,  often act as ways to reassure us we can continue on as we are doing, and suggest we can fix everything up with a future technological add on to the process. These technologies currently do not exist safely, or are not working at the rates we need. It is generally not sensible to imagine that a working technology must appear because we need it, or in the right amount of time to solve our problems. That is just fantasy. While we should research new technologies, we also have to act with the technologies we have now, as well as we can. Further delay, because of technological fantasy, just makes the situation worse.