Climate Change: time to focus

combating global warmingMatthew Taylor at the RSA has recently argued that the Green movement is its own worst enemy.

This is so, he says, because in holding that ‘every little helps’ there has been a lack of policy focus on global warming solutions. This exposes a ‘scattershot’ approach to global warming (my term, not his) that has been taken so far. The One Hundred Ways to Save The Planet Right Now tendency leads to information and decision overload – “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” (Simon 1971:40).


In place of this, Taylor proposes a simple idea:

fix one policy area at a time, then move on to the next.

It’s both inspired and inspiring. The questions begged, of course, are: Who draws up the priority list? and What should be on it? Taylor thinks home energy efficiency is an obvious candidate, but who decides, and how, that it deserves top priority?
Continue reading “Climate Change: time to focus”

Making sense of the Bushfires

As predicted, the Australian Bush Fires have been the occasion of much meaning-making along the lines of the four cultures, as described by Grid-group cultural theory. This suggests we organise ourselves and one another according to four alternate viewpoints, or ‘cultural biases’: Individualist, Fatalist, Hierarchist and Egalitarian.

The Egalitarian verdict on the Bushfires came out early: they demonstrate the need for increased climate change action.

What came next was an extraordinarily vitriolic attack on environmentalists from Miranda Devine, a polemical Individualist, in the Sydney Morning Herald, and similar views in the Australian. She wrote:

“it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.”

Germaine Greer was also looking for someone to blame, and for her it was the authorities.

Meanwhile, Prof Ross Bradstock of the University of Wollongong pointed out (as if we didn’t already know) that the debate was:

“replete with predictable anecdotes, exaggeration, over-simplification, speculation and the language of fundamentalism”.

For his part, he was presenting the Hierarchist, ‘sober expert’ perspective, with an emphasis on weighing up the costs and benefits of alternative management regimes:

“On a scale of zero to 10, where 10 equates to the level of risk achieved by doing nothing and zero equates to [paving everything with] concrete, our efforts result in a ranking of 9½. If we were to double our effort, the rating might be reduced to nine. Doubling our effort would require doubling expenditure. Halving risk to a rating of five or less would require an increase of an order of magnitude or more in treatment, at a commensurate cost. Our ability to maintain such a level of spending in the long-term is questionable.”

Some might think it’s distasteful to impose our pre-existing views of the world on a situation as horrible as these fires, or indeed on any ‘natural’ disaster. But it seems we find it very hard not to. Indeed, what other views of the world have we got? We are sense-making creatures and we abhor a vacuum of meaning.

“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.” (Geertz 1973:5, quoted in Schultz 1995: 80)

Talking outside the Box? – Patrick Holden on a new agenda for organic farming

The director of the UK’s Soil Association, a peak organic farming body, has been in Australia talking about a new agenda for the organic movement.

There’s a chance to hear what Patrick Holden  said on Radio National.

Patrick Holden in Sydney Feb 2009

The   broadcast talk spoke of a ‘Rob Hopkins effect’ – referring to the impact on Holden’s thinking of the originator of the Transition movement – a grassroots push to plan for communities that will be more resilient in the face of the twin threats of peak oil and global warming.

Holden’s words are like a primer on the Egalitarian mode of understanding the world. He speaks of major threats to civilisation, of population size as a problem, of a need to change our values, not just our living arrangements. He extols the benefits of bottom-up, as opposed to top-down planning, and of localising the economy.

Towards the end he also speaks of the need for the organic movement to go beyond merely speaking to itself. And this is where the issue lies. How can an almost text-book Egalitarian agenda communicate beyond the self-imposed ghetto of Egalitarianism? Is there a way of talking outside the box of one’s own worldview?

Continue reading “Talking outside the Box? – Patrick Holden on a new agenda for organic farming”

Australian Bush Fires: the ‘ground zero’ of meaning

The intensity and scale of the Victorian bush fires stuns the imagination. The photos of those killed are heartwrenching. For Australia this is an example of what Alain Badiou has called a ‘truth event’ – a moment prior to emotional or intellectual assimilation, an interpretative vacuum as yet unready to be filled with meaning or ideology.
Fires, of course, don’t speak, and they don’t deliver messages. To seek to understand what they say to us is inevitable, though, the start of a ‘truth process’. It is to come up against ‘the Real’, as Lacan put it.
For grid-group Cultural Theory, these kinds of events are a kind of ‘ground zero’ for the ongoing creation of meaning and organisation that is culture. Watch how quickly commentators now step into the breach and start to name the un-namable.

What, so far,  is the message of the fires?
For Egalitarian scientist Tim Flannery , the message is obvious: global warming. For many politicians, the message is more traditional, if still Egalitarian: we must all pull through together, or not at all.
However, with fires at one end of the country and floods at the other, many Australians will, as ever, be filling the vacuum with a Fatalist message: nature is capricious. Keep your head down, make the best of it you can, and put the rest down to sheer luck.

How to avoid nasty surprises

by Kevin N MurphyThe company had a “uniquely entrepreneurial culture” that made it a paragon of business success. According to management guru Gary Hamel, it was ‘leading the revolution’. Unfortunately the company in question was rotten to the core and ultimately became one of the most notorious business failures of the decade. The company, of course, was Enron. Hamel later said,

“Virtually everyone inside and outside the company was surprised.”

The message of grid-group cultural theory is that a focus on one means of organising to the exclusion of all others will tend to look like success – at least to those who share that worldview. But in the long run, the pressure of reality will impinge, and what looked like an asset will be revealed as a liability. The theory holds that there isn’t just one worldview – there are four, and we ignore this plurality at our peril.
Alan Greenspan had a similar surprise at an even larger scale as the US economy began to unravel. In April 2008 he wrote that events had left him ‘surprised and appalled’, and yet

“My view of the range of dispersion of outcomes has been shaken, but not my judgment that free competitive markets are by far the unrivalled way to organize economies.”

By October 2008, though, this shaken intellectual edifice had fallen completely:

“Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity — myself especially — are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

From the perspective of the Four Cultures, Greenspan’s one-eyed, single-minded pursuit of deregulation, far from being a positive attribute, was surely going to end in tears. As Joseph Stiglitz put it,

“key regulators like Alan Greenspan didn’t really believe in regulation; when the excesses of the financial system were noted, they called for self-regulation — an oxymoron.”

Stiglitz says,

“This is not the first crisis in our financial system, not the first time that those who believe in free and unregulated markets have come running to the government for bail-outs. There is a pattern here, one that suggests deep systemic problems…”

Sadly, though, Stiglitz’s solutions to the financial crisis are cosmetic, not systemic. Worthwhile though they may be in their own right, they will do little to improve the systemic problems with a political and financial culture that refuses to see that there is more than one way – or two at a push – of doing things. Stiglitz’s approach – a financial product safety commission, a financial systems stability commission and so on – is typical of the now commonplace shift from an Individualist culture (deregulation, free-market, unbridled competition) to a Hierarchical culture (re-regulation, constrained market, suspicion of competition).

Mary Douglas, the originator of the grid-group paradigm, showed that there is far more to life than just hierarchies or markets, but neither Greenspan or Stiglitz seem able to see that. Set in proper context, markets and hierarchies are just two of a wider suite of responses to the challenge of organising.

And until we move beyond the limited range of responses currently on offer, towards solutions that make the best of all four of the cultures Douglas identified, we’ll just keep on being surprised.

See also:

Mutual alternative to markets and hierarchies

Room for One More on the Atheist Bus

The Battle of the Bus Adverts has begun in earnest. Now the Christians have taken up the challenge and responded with ads of their own, including the Russian Orthodox Church who, with tongue firmly out of cheek, produced ‘There IS a God’.

There is probably a geographical or cultural specificity to the effectiveness of these adverts. After all, one message probably wouldn’t play equally well in every city. So here’s a couple of suggestions for the atheist riposte, which is sure to come… any time now, depending on traffic conditions.

In New York:
HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU.

In Jerusalem:
TYPICAL – YOU WAIT AGES FOR ONE THEN THREE COME ALONG AT ONCE.

Any others – or is it all just too silly?

A mutual alternative to markets and hierarchies

science pendulum by midiman

The trouble with a bi-polar view of the world is that there only ever seem to be two rival ways of doing anything. The choices are strictly limited. In the midst of the financial crisis, the pendulum has swung from the private sector ownership of banks to public sector ownership, as though these were the only two conceivable possibilities.

Grid-group cultural theory offers an analytical prism through which to see that there are not two but four ways of organising (and of disorganising) anything. The Individualist approach (Privatise!) and the Hierarchical approach (Nationalise!) are complimented by the Fatalist approach (it’s all a lottery!) and the Egalitarian approach. For reeling financial institutions it’s this latter that now has great potential.

While private banks are go under and governments struggle to work out how to salvage the wreckage into nationalised institutions, the mutual sector has survived relatively unscathed and remains robust. Now it the time to consider expanding it, not least by re-mutualising the institutions that were aggressively de-mutualised during the zenith of free-market triumphalism.

The mutual option has been overlooked or denigrated for a long time because it reflects neither the Individualist nor the Hierarchical worldview. It is an Egalitarian way of organising, with owners, tellingly, being termed members.

But mutuality doesn’t really need cheerleaders. As mortgages and other forms of loans increasingly dry up, people are likely to get together to solve the problem themselves. After all, this is how the mutual sector arose in the first place. The chief question is whether or not those who are opposed on ideological grounds to Egalitarianism, will now get out of the way.

Having said this, it would surely be damaging to the overall ecology of finance if mutuality, or for that matter any other model, were to come to dominate. This is unlikely in the long term, given the fluid and dynamic nature of the environment in which it finance operates. The short term danger is that, refusing to see that we always have four options, we may seek to promote one alone, to the exclusion of all else. This is the recent history of the financial sector and it hasn’t been pretty. As the Cultural Theorists might say, the only thing worse than a clumsy but workable solution is the elegant but disastrous failure we see all around us.

See more on clumsy solutions.


Resolving the GM debate with Open Access Knowledge

Might the polarised debate over GM crops be partially resolved by freeing up the commercial restrictions on GM patents? These can make GM highly profitable but also tie in farmers and other end-users (See also How to Resolve the GM Debate).

A problem many Egalitarians have with GM crops is that they seem  to representa shifting of power from farmers towards biotech companies. And the trend seems to be towards a strengthening of these binds.

An article in the Economist referred to the issue of biotech ‘piracy’. This is supposedly compounded by weak IP protection:

‘just as with software, GMOs suffer from piracy. In Argentina and China, the hostile stance toward intellectual-property rights has been blessed by the government itself.’

Meanwhile a report into the financial implications of adopting GM in Australia noted that one of the challenges facing GM adoption in emerging economies was:

‘Strengthening intellectual property rights to enable a greater level of foreign investment in research and development.

However, this is only one possible (Individualist) approach to the issue. An alternative would be not the strengthening of IP rights, nor (as in Argentina and China), their weakening, but rather the diversification of IP models to include and expand open-source knowledge and technology. This would enable knowledge to be shared and advanced, while avoiding much of the commercial lock-in that key biotech corporations aggressively seek. For instance, the main concern of Canadian farmers using Monsanto-derived GM canola was that they had become tied into commercial exploitation in ways they previously had not been. Terry Boehm, Vice President of the Canadian Farmers Union, said:

“Farmers now are forced to largely to sign technology use agreement to pay expensive fees in order to access seeds for their canola production. There is no possibility essentially to grow canola that is non-GE, there is simply are very few known varieties of non-GE canola available and farmers are actually under the threat of legal action frequently if they’re utilising seeds, as farmers always have, saving and reusing seeds. This is forbidden with GE canola.”

The key argument against open  GM technology is that research and development costs money and no-one will pay unless they believe they will receive a return on their r&d investment.

‘commercialisation requires secrecy in the interests of appropriating the benefits of knowledge’ (OECD, 2008: 161-162).

Some arguments in favour of open access are as follows:

  • It’s happening anyway, in sub-optimal fashion, where jurisdictions have weak IP regulation. This is termed ‘piracy’. In music, software, etc it is increasingly clear that the momentum is unstoppable and that the best strategy is: if you can’t beat them, join them. In other words, the vanishing economic value of information is not destroying commercial opportunities but creating new ones, supported by new business models.
  • Monopolistic hoarding of IP leads to a stagnation of innovation. The classic example is that of the Cornish Engine. Booulton & Watt held the patents for steam engines to pump water out of Cornish tin mines. Their machines were inefficient, but for thirty years there was no stimulus to improve them, since mine owners were tied in to paying licence fees for the existing technology. Tiring of the status quo a group of innovators, gathered around Richard Trevithick, modified and improved the steam engine design, carefully avoiding breach of patent. The result was greater efficiency and lower cost. The products were not patented but were used freely by Cornish mines. The Cornish engine was the outcome of this patent-free shared innovation. Note that Trevithick was not in principle opposed to patents and indeed patented several of his inventions.
  • GM commercialisation is a good example of what Michael Heller calls ‘the tragedy of the anti-commons’ resulting in ‘the gridlock economy’.

See also:

Fourcultures on How to Resolve the GM Debate

John Wilbanks on The Future of Knowledge

Science Commons Video

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Devlopment, OECD (2008). Tertiary Education for the Knowledge Society: OEWCD Thematic Review of Tertiary Education. Paris: OECD

The climate is what we expect: the weather is what we get

sunburnt country by spoungeworthySupposedly, Mark Twain once wrote “The climate is what we expect; the weather is what we get.” Had he lived in in Australia he would surely have been even less confident.

Notoriouosly unpredictable, the climate in this driest of continents plays a large part in the dominance of fatalism over the national culture. So it’s news when climate researchers release a report claiming the origins of the long-running drought in South East Australia are even more complex than previously thought. Until now it has been held that the main driver of the weather cycle in this region is ENSO – the El Nino Southern Oscillation – a fickle two to eight year repeating pattern of temperature anomolies in the Pacific Ocean.

Now though it seems that Indian Ocean variability is more significant. Previously it was thought the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) only affected Western and Southern Australia, but the evidence now presented indicates the IOD is a major contributor to the weather in South Eastern Australia as well. This suggestion goes some way towards explaining why the ‘Big Dry’ which began in 1996 was not broken by La Nina conditions in 2007, but continues to the present. Further, the evidence suggests that there have been an unprecedented three successive positive cycles in the past three years, bringing warm, dry winds, low rainfall and high temperatures to South Eastern Australia.

This is a new piece of information. According to a news report by Ben Cubby it ‘could overturn decades of weather research’. So it’s putting it mildly to say that this requires some interpretation. What then can we say about it? Is it good or bad? Who will benefit from this new reality (if such it is) and who stands to lose out? If this counts as knowledge, what is its power? Who and what does it change? The newspaper report of the announcement gives a number of clues.

For the lead author, Dr Caroline Ummenhofer, the news is positive since it might reduce uncertainty for farmers: “There really is that opportunity to improve seasonal forecasting and seasonal predictions due to these findings, because the Indian Ocean dipole is predictable several months in advance.”

For Professor Matthew England the co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre, the news is very negative, especially in terms of climate change trends: “If these Indian Ocean dipole events do follow the trend [of more positive and fewer negative events], this is a terrible piece of information for the Murray-Darling Basin.”

Meanwhile the authorities have the situation regulated by motitoring it carefully: ‘The Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s quarterly update yesterday showed the drought there is worsening. Toxic algae blooms are expected, water storage is down by two-thirds and decent rain is months away.’

In the article you are now reading, the phrases in bold print, all except one lifted from the news report, summarise the four cultures of Grid-group Cultural theory. The theory suggests that when faced with new information, we rush to make sense of it, to fill the interpretive vacuum – but typically we do so in one of four competing ways, and we organise our environment to reinforce one or another of these ‘cultural biases’ . In the case of Australian climate science, we can see this happening in real time. Is it just an effect of journalism – to try to cover all perspectives (but then this begs the question of what counts as ‘all’)?

Why not check it out for yourself, by observing how people construct their arguments and their worldviews?

The report is to be published in Geophysical Research Letters but here is the pre-print.

Fatalism in America today

black swan event by Jurvetson

I’m still thinking about fatalism as one of the four cultures of Grid-group cultural theory.

Even in the United States, whose mascot is Lady Liberty, not Lady Luck, and don’t we all know it, there is clear evidence of fatalist activism. Continue reading “Fatalism in America today”