What kinds of stories are we telling one another these days about the fall of civilizations? The idea that the decline of a civilization is without narrative causality is itself a narrative. This is the unacknowledged ideology of historian Niall Ferguson’s recent piece for Foreign Affairs. Here Ferguson abandons the typical causality of historians and opts for a different account, based on complex systems theory. Continue reading “The decline of civilization – sudden or gradual?”→
Chatting with my young son this evening it occured to us that superheroes require certain types of cities, certain kinds of urban form, in order to thrive. Spiderman needs tall buildings closely packed in order to leap between them. The Hulk needs impressive edifices to knock down. Only certain types of urban form are fit for superheroes.
There’s a new documentary about the rise and fall and return of Detroit. The director of Requiem for Detroit? , Julien Temple, was fascinated by the idea that Detroit was at the leading edge of American urban for many years, leading the rest of America into the future. Now Detroit is doing it again, showing us what the first post-American city looks like.
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”→
In reply to Matthew Taylor’s question over at his RSA blog:
“how can it be true both that there are some social environments which encourage particular attitudes and behaviours (which could be said broadly to fit an egalitarian outlook) while, at the same time, in relation to any specific problem or decision, a set of conflicting responses (of which egalitarianism is only one) will emerge?”
1) Scale is crucial. Just as there isn’t a single rationality but four, neither is there a single scale. At one scale of operation, one of the four cultures may be dominant, and may seem to be a good fit with the landscape, but at other scales other cultural biases may be a better fit. See the work of ecologist Buzz Holling on this.
2) Similarly, time is also crucial. The social-ecological model of Holling and others in the Resilience Alliance suggests that ecological succession has a social counterpart. What appears optimal at one moment will become less optimal as time changes the environment, so that alternative problems arise, leading to alternative solutions and alternative institutions.
3) The ability to defect is also crucial. I have been quite taken with a cellular automata problem called the density classification problem. In short this seems to suggest that even in simple mechanistic systems, total knowledge is impossible. This means there is always room for the dominant answers to be wrong and for defectors from the main view to get it more nearly correct. Given that a) social-ecological systems are far more complex than cellular automata and b) evolution has fine-tuned human responses to problem solving, it seems possible that human society is an environment which rewards a dominant viewpoint without punishing too severely a minority of dissidents.