A confession: I visited the Great Barrier Reef a couple of years ago and it was the most stunning experience of my life. The beauty, intricacy, diversity, were amazing. The experience of immersion in this underwater world was and is vivid – literally alive. But I felt profoundly uneasy participating iin the industrial system that got me there – plane flight, chain hotel, large, fast motor boat. In order to appreciate the beauty of what we’re destroying we need to destroy it a little bit more, it seems.
Environmental writer Chris Turner addresses this dilemma head on in a marvellous piece for Canada’s Walrus Magazine, The Age of Breathing Underwater.
Justice cannot be done to the piece here – you need to read it for yourself. He focuses on the work of Australian coral expert Dr Charlie Veron, author of A Reef in Time, who, as Turner tells it, fights to save the Reef, even as he affirms it cannot now be saved. Ocean acidification has gone too far already. What lies in the human heart on the far side of hope is the subject, then, of Turner’s article.
If you’ve read more than one post on this website you’ll be expecting an anaylsis of the social structures that condition such thinking in terms of a model of society called Grid-Group Cultural theory. It’s true there is ample scope for this. For example, when Veron likens ocean acidification to a loaded gun with ‘a hair trigger and devastating firepower’, he’s indulging in classic Egalitarian-speak which ought to call into question his construction of the facts (by etymology if not by modern definition facts are always constructions: facere = to make). This is not at all to deny that acidification is taking place, but to scrutinise the human meanings we assign to it. But this time I want to do something a little different. This time I want to write in terms of deviance Continue reading “How to deviate from climate change destruction – the case of the Great Barrier Reef”
Listening to Australian historian Robert Mann’s recent lecture at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on whether neo-liberalism has a future, I was struck by the deficiency of the rush to psychological explanation. In seeking to analyse the supposed inadequacies of the free-market ideology, there is an increasing tendency to rely on psychology as the master discipline, the new ‘commmon sense’ that will unlock the secrets of collective human behaviour. Just as the neo-liberals championed the perfectly rational economic actor, homo economicus, who as an individual is unrecognisable from any other perfectly rational individual, so the latest commentators attempt to correct and complete the picture by pointing out that this vision misses out humanity’s essential irrationalism, epitomised by a host of psychological quirks – which set the bounds for Kahneman and Tversky’s bounded rationality. But whether for or against the unfettered free market, these supposedly conflicting approaches share much more than they disagree on: namely a confidence that what goes on in our heads is what it’s all about. Continue reading “Why Psychology fails to explain the Global Financial Crisis”
At Crooked Timber there’s a nice reference to Italo Calvino’s great book Invisible Cities, in which there’s an allusion to the different ways we try to make sense of the world.
In his foreword to a recent collection on the social construction of climate change, Nicholas Onuf writes:
‘As a social constructon, climate change is no one thing. Instead it is an ensemble of constitutive processes, yielding an ever changing panoply of agents and insitutions, fixed in place only for the moment.’ Mary E Pettenger (ed) 2007:xv
Yet in the arguments about climate change, the subject of the arguments is often taken as a given. We forget that just as the carbon dioxide emissions are of human origin, so is the very concept.
Now Prof Mike Hulme, founder of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, has written a book about climate change as a social, cultural, political, religious and ethical phenomenon,rather than a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved’. In doing so he has drawn deeply from the well of Cultural Theory. The book refers repeatedly to the writings of Mary Douglas (especially Douglas and Wildavsky 1984), Michael Thompson (particularly Verweij and Thompson 2006) and numerous other cultural theorists, and has a Foreword by Steve Rayner. The book is much too stimulating and multi-faceted to summarise here, but in terms of policy implications the auther promotes Rayner’s idea of the need for ‘silver buckshot’ rather than ‘silver bullets’, and Verweij and Thompson’s idea of ‘clumsy solutions’ rather than elegant failures.
I’ve written from a similar perspective about climate change, and specifically on what we argue about when we argue about global warming.
Why we Disagree about Climate Change is a timely, wide ranging thoughtful and challenging contribution to the climate change debate. I think it will also stand as a highly accessible landmark text of ‘applied Cultural Theory’, much as Christopher Hood’s 1998 book on public management did a decade ago. A review will follow.
Edward Gibbon made a famous claim in chapter 3 of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that
“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”
Not many people these days would be able to do this kind of thing ‘without hesitation’ (“ Oh, yes, 96 to 180AD, I remember it well…”), but Gibbon makes a good point: we organise our lives around a concept of human happiness and prosperity. It’s very important to us both within our national economies and or household economies to know whether things are getting better or worse, and whether this trajectory, once identified, is ‘normal’ or ‘exceptional’.
Gibbon’s intuitive opinion, ‘without hesitation’ was not only that happiness and prosperity were getting worse but that this had been the normal state of the world for a period of roughly 1600 years since the end of the Roman Empire. The former view was somewhat tempered by the latter. Since decline amounted to a long-term trend, it was nothing much to get excited about.
The industrial revolution made Gibbon’s historical reconstruction with its mood of nostaligia seem ‘ridiculous’ (J.C. Stobart). Not at first, since the dark satanic mills actually produced a decline in life expectancy, at least until roughly the middle of the 19th century. But it transformed the way people in England regarded the Golden Age. Now, with new and wondrous inventions appearing seemingly every year, it was increasingly obvious that the best was yet to come, not in the afterlife, as previously, but in the here-and-now or, to be precise, the here-and-soon. We are still living in this brave new world of constant progress and the pace of fabulous change continues to increase. Continue reading “The decline and fall of declining and falling”
Marketing blogger Seth Godin has expressed his dismay that non-profit organisations don’t appear in the top 100 Twitter users. He thinks this is a tragic lost opportunity for marketing and he may be right. After all, we can guess that Twitter is working fine for the likes of Ashton Kucher, Britney Spears and Perez Hilton (although given the number of tweets Kucher has apparently made in the eight months since joining it’s surprising he’s found time to sleep. Perhaps he has an army of Tw-obots, all programmed to tweet till they drop).
But doesn’t the top 100 list itself give us some clues as to what is going on? The homogeneity of the list surely indicates something about Twitter and its users. They seem to be very interested in ‘stars’ who have music, concerts and merchandise to sell, and a pop culture ‘image’ to promote/offer. Is this really the best forum for non-profit organisations? I guess it can’t hurt to try…
A way of testing this would be to look at the top ten non-profits on Twitter, find out how they’ve used the medium and see to what extent the lessons learned might be transferable. Any takers?
One issue with all this is that of ‘early adoption’ of technology. Let’s face it, non-profit organisations have never been great at this. And it’s not clear that they need to be. If Seth is right, the first cabs off the rank will be big winners, but my guess is that the rest won’t suffer all that much. It’s not as though we are about to run out of things to be altruistic about if we don’t hurry. By backing no technology they also won’t suffer the early adopter problem of backing the wrong (or suboptimal) technology.
If they think they can get away with not Twittering, they will. Dare it be said they might have better things to do with their time?
Individualist social organisation operates on the assumption that accountability structures and measures are the problem, not the solution. They act as a brake on the forward momentum of heroic risk. Who dares wins. The only accountability required is clearly success or failure in the market. Accountability is an obstacle to success that needs to be overcome. On this view, it’s hard to see how accountability structures could be ‘reformed’. The only thing worth doing with accountability is to dismantle it.
Now that the dust of the global financial crisis is beginning to settle, one of the key lessons learned seems to be Continue reading “Accountability is the problem, now what’s the solution?”
Just as I finally get used to loving Zotero, it looks like Mendeley is set to claim my heart. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, these are on-line citation tools for academic research and writing. They use various different methods for collecting and manipulating metadata relating to books, journals, papers and websites – and then linking it all together automagically. They hold out the promise of automating activities that until now have been painstaking and laborious for researchers, and of creating new opportunities for collaboration that never existed before. But there is a down side. Continue reading “How to choose the best online citation tools”
It was a trick of course. Yesterday I used Grid-Group cultural theory to ‘predict’ the Fatalist viewpoint of Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan. But like the magician who successfully predicted the lottery numbers, it’s more about sleight of hand than about actual magic…
Despite the name, cultural theory isn’t really a theory at all. It’s a conceptual scheme – an heuristic we use, it might be argued, because we are cognitive misers and like making short cuts in our thinking. The world is big and hard to understand, so we make biased assumptions about what ‘usually’ happens, what ‘must’ happen, or what ‘really’ happens, what ‘the facts of the matter’ are, and so on. (to give just one example from millions, some more, some less trivial: Nick Cave’s deep-voiced assertion, ‘People they ain’t no good’). Moreover, we don’t just get these ideas out of our own heads somehow. They are embodied in the institutions in which we participate, from the family mealtime to the Copenhagen Climate summit, so that they are accounts of actual reality as we experience it. They really do explain how the world is – at least parts of it – so that our ideas seem like common sense. It is argued that these cultural biases or cultural solidarities coalesce into four basic ‘ideal types’, the four cultures for Grid-Group Cultural theory. But can we actually measure this? And can we really use the result to predict anything? Continue reading “Is Grid-Group cultural theory really a theory?”
The writer/trader/professor Nicholas Taleb has been puzzling a number of commentators recently and Grid-group Cultural theory also provides a clear context for his approach: he is a Fatalist activist who is looking for a political constituency that understands Fatalism. The British Conservative Party may well not be it.
From the Cultural Theory perspective, Taleb has a position that is under-represented in politics, but one that is instantly recognisable in everyday life. The three acceptable positions on climate change are:
- Egalitarian: things are getting worse and we have to come together to solve our problems collectively (but really we need to change our values too);
- Hierarchical: it’s a risk management issue and now that we have a Minister for Climate Change things are being managed better than ever. Next highlight – a global treaty; and
- Individualist: things are getting better – that’s Progress and all ‘environmental problems’ are simply opportunities for human ingenuity to shine (and make a profit). The real problem is too many rules and too many greenies.
Taleb’s position, Cultural theory would predict, is none of the above. A Fatalist position on climate change is superficially similar to the Individualist position: ‘climates change’. But whereas Individualism interprets this as meaning: prepare to find new ways of making money, Fatalism interprets this as: prepare to duck, and keep your head down for as long as it takes. Solidarity, management and skill-derived benefit are all illusions. The only hope of advancement is through luck and risk-averse opportunism. I didn’t get this from Taleb, I got it from my reading of writers such as Mary Douglas, Christopher Hood, Marco Verweij and Michael Thompson.
A bit like the magician Derren Brown who claims to be able to predict the lottery numbers, I am writing this in advance of reading Taleb’s own clarification of his position in a recent letter to the Financial Times. Now I’ll read it and see how well my prediction went… Continue reading “For my next trick I will try to understand Nicholas Taleb”