August 2015 Archives

Thumbs Down on Ecomodernization



“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”

“How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to be greater than his nature will allow.”
(Both from Mary Shelley, Frankenstein)

Earlier in this summer I wrote a post about ecomodernization in response to a new manifesto arguing that technology can and will save both our species and the Planet as well. Since then, I have read a few of the papers that were presented at a conference sponsored by the institution behind the manifesto. The sponsors invited a few skeptics and opponents to participate. I was particularly struck by the thoughts of Clive Hamilton, who likened the central themes of the manifesto to a modern form of theodicy. Theodicy is an inquiry into the reasons that good forces, like God, may and do also produce evil or contrary outcomes from time to time.

The idea came into being to explain the presence of evil in the world at a time when the belief in God was hegemonic. Here is Hamilton’s discussion about it.

Although the ecomoderns write as humanists, they construe the new epoch in a way that is structurally a theodicy, that is, a theological argument that aims to prove the ultimate benevolence of God. In Christian apologetics the proof of God’s goodness in a world of suffering was first attempted by Augustine, and later taken up by Leibniz who (in his book Theodicy) argued that evil acts, when we take a larger perspective, are necessary to the functioning of the whole. What may appear to us as monstrous crimes to which God acquiesces must be understood as in the service of his greater, if mysterious, benevolence. In Leibniz’s pithy aphorism: ‘Everything happens for the best’ or, in the troubling words of Alexander Pope, ‘Whatever is, is right’. It was a sentiment satirized by Voltaire in the shape of Dr Pangloss who, after being reduced to the status of a syphilitic beggar, clung to his optimistic outlook. His endearing personality trait became his deluded philosophy of life.

In this secular era, when God is not the ultimate creator and causal agent, her place has been taken by science and technology. Modernity began when humans started to turn to the knowledge created by science and its applications in the form of technology as the ultimate agents of change. The future produced through their agency was considered to be always good for humankind; the process describing this unfolding chain was named “progress.” And so it becomes a big problem when conditions that depart from the goodness of progress start to show up. Modernity might be said to have begun when Galileo and others sought to explain worldly phenomena other than by God’s hand, although always hedging to keep God in play. As science began to explain more and more about how the world works, God as the only agent, faded into the background. As an aside, I find it ironic that God is making a comeback in US cultural life today.

Hamilton described ecomodernization as a modern theodicy with technology as the god-like agent. Both he and Bruno Latour, who also spoke at the conference I mentioned, referred to the Frankenstein story as a paradigm example of technology gone awry. The advocates of ecomodernization either implicitly or explicitly claim that the present perverse outcomes of the hegemonic application of science and technology should not destroy the fundamental belief in its goodness, analogously to earlier theodicists worried about the perversity of evil in God’s world. The consequences of this pattern of thinking is to stay the course, but with enough tinkering to alter its direction back to the road to progress.

Hamilton and many others, including me, strongly disagree. This kind of “skim over the perversity of deep-seated beliefs thinking” might have sufficed when the troubles were small, but, on many accounts, we are already or about to enter a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. In this new epoch, distinct from the Holocene that enabled human development as we know it, human agency is overwhelming the processes that have been maintaining our Earth such that human evolution and settlements have been able follow a progressive pathway (however one defines progress). The theodictical assumption that one should hold course and not question the engine driving the boat fails in such discontinuous situations. While not using the language of theodicy, Thomas Kuhn’s paradigm theory of the evolution of science is based on the same model. Follow the same beliefs until the problems faced cannot be explained away or solved and then seek a new set of beliefs, discontinuous with the old. Modernity, as a sociological era, can be said to be just such a discontinuous event following the theocratic period of the late Middle Ages, as is the passage from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.

The ecomodernists hope to dispel fear about the consequences of this shift by adding “good” as in “The Good Anthropocene,” implying that the agency of human intervention, abetted by powerful, but benign, technology will keep things on an even enough keel to avoid serious interference or destruction of the kinds of modern life we lead. Hamilton puts a knife through the heart of this argument.

Throughout its geo-history the planet has never ‘bounced back’ from one epoch to the previous one. The Earth has now crossed a point of no return; its great cycles have changed, the chemical compositions of air and ocean have been altered in ways that cannot be undone. By the end of the century it will very likely be hotter than it has been for 15 million years. …In short, the Earth system is now operating in a different mode and nothing we can do now, even ending the burning of fossil fuels in short order, can get it to ‘bounce back’ to the Holocene. It will never look like the Holocene again, so arguments based on Holocene conditions are simply misleading. Whatever its validity at a local level, the ecomoderns’ ecosystem thinking has been superseded by Earth system thinking, and applying it to the Anthropocene is akin to making Newtonian arguments about a quantum world.

Bruno Latour, another lecturer at the conference (also by a dissenter), argues that

The ecomodernist manifesto is written entirely as if humans were still alone on stage, the only being who out of its own free will is in charge of apportioning space, land, money and value to the old Mother Nature. (The notion of “decoupling” would be loved by psycho-analysts, I am sure). But this is, as Clive Hamilton said yesterday, cruelly but accurately I think, a complete anachronism. Not content with the utopianism of modernity — rewilding, decoupling, growing, smoking healthily without smoke — the ecomodernists are also uchronists, as if they were living a time where they alone were in command.

I tried to find other definitions of uchronist, but what I did find only made me more uncertain of the meaning. But the sense of the paragraph is clear. Who put the technologists in charge? It is certainly true that technology has underpinned much of the change seen during modernity since Galileo and Descartes kicked it off. The successes of science in explaining much, but, critically, not all, phenomena, and of its applications in providing the tools and institutional structure of modern societies have as, Hamilton writes, given it a sort of god-like character to its supporters. But with that self-appropriation of agency comes arrogance and hubris. Latour, while not labeling the stance of the ecomodernists as such, argues in his lecture that the issues about what to do about moving into a new and uncertain future is fundamentally a political issue and should be discussed in a political forum, not determined by technology and its human agents.

I most heartily agree. I always add another layer to the argument against letting technology/technologists determine our future. It is that the same science that spawns all this technology works only through a reductionist framing. It can only look at parts of the whole Earth system, that is both humans and non-humans, but cannot take in the whole, incessantly changing system. It fails when the context is complex and cannot be reduced to an isolated, abstract part. The “real’ world of the Holocene or Anthropocene is complex. We cannot describe it in nice, neat formulas and rules. We cannot predict the future. The appearance of unwanted, unintended consequences is a powerful indicator or science’s inability, guided by humans, to work things out perfectly.

In other venues, Latour has defended technology as a fact of modern life. (I won’t go into his claim that we are yet to become modern as they do not bear on this situation) He wrote that we must learn to love the monster (of technology), using Frankenstein’s monster as the metaphoric source. He is no enemy to its place in the world, but he understands that it can become a monster that turns against its maker if it is not nurtured properly. My interpretation of his writings is that Frankenstein’s technological magic turned bad because it was abandoned and improperly nurtured by its maker. The ecomoderrnists claim to have the power to create a new technology that will save the Earth from doom, but fail to have the understanding that they lack the power to nourish and civilize what they create. Only if that power is shared with others through some sort of political arrangement can we avoid creating a non-fictional monster.

Again, I agree with Latour, but go further and argue that we must avoid any process of analysis and design based only on technology because it has failed us. I have much confidence that it will continue to fail us as we enter a new epoch. As I have written in this blog, the primary reason not to put our eggs in technology’s basket is the simple paradoxical notion that the world is complex. We do know how to deal with this, and it should be no surprise that the way is through what Latour calls politics. I call it pragmatism, but, at it heart, it is a “political” way to address complexity. Not any old politics, but a careful, rigorous inquiry by concerned parties tied to a consensus-building process to figure out what to do with the information they glean. Pragmatism is the antithesis of the hubristic science that fuels movements like ecomodernization.

Getting an Empty Diploma



I get periodic announcements from Mary Ann Liebert’s journal, Sustainability. Most of the time I don’t find anything I follow further, but this time one of the free articles got my attention. The subject was academic “sustainability” program. Having placed sustainability in quotes, you should guess where I am going to go. The article, “A Review of Non-Major Sustainability Programs in American and Canadian Higher Education: Trends and Developments across Institutions,” by Madeline M. Giefer surveyed some 20 plus programs at US and Canadian universities. I followed my reading by checking in at the websites of a sample of them.

The article summarized the goals, in general terms, as

…to produce students who can become change agents to further the goals of sustainability, which involve improving social and environmental welfare while balancing economic priorities. These programs are generally intended to prepare students to advance sustainability goals in their careers, whether they ultimately work in business, government, education, or nonprofits.

The first sentence in the quoted part above is simply a reworking of the Brundtland principles of Sustainable Development, which was more challenging by including the needs of future generations. My comments below are shaped by my direct experience with several programs of the type examined, but not included. I have direct knowledge of one or two of the ones in the article.

I looked in detail at the academic offerings and requirements of several. What I found reinforces my already well developed opinion that all are misnamed. They are based on an uncritical sense of sustainability and generally are predicated upon the tacit notion that current societal structures are what is to be sustained. I saw only a smattering of course offerings that could, in any way, be viewed as critical, either questioning the sustainability of modern, market economies, such as the US, or looking at alternate systems of beliefs and norms. My usual comment is to say that these programs are designed around the premise of reducing unsustainability at the symptomatic level. But that is as empty a promise as is the word, sustainability, itself.

Without a more intensive search, I am unable to comment in detail about the various curricula. They are full of the usual suspects: environmental economics, environmental science and technology, demography, policy, leadership, strategy and so on. A few offered or required courses on complexity or systems, but only a few. Most had something about preparing the students for jobs carrying the title, sustainability X. For those few students aware and concerned that the world is not working at present, that is a dead end because these jobs are invariably about maintaining the status quo by avoiding or reducing the unintended consequences produced in the course of the organization’s activities.

If I were able to design a sustainability offering, it would have some of the same subjects, but also would have some of the following courses at its core:

SUS 101 Fundamentals of sustainability (flourishing): semantic; cultural; psychological; philosophical…
SUS 102 Critical studies of modern cultures
SUS 103 Pragmatism as method (for complex systems)
SUS 104 Human ontology
SUS 104a History of the “self”
SUS 105 Culture as an complex adaptive systems (Giddens)
SUS 106 Un-neoclassical economics or the economics of empathy/care
SUS 107 Critical study of technology (Kuhn, Latour, et al.)
SUS 108 Systems thinking
SUS 201 Decision-making in complex systems
SUS 202 Management of complex adaptive systems
SUS 203 Participatory design theory
SUS 204 “Democracy” theory (a la John Dewey)
SUS 205 Introduction to brain science (with emphasis on plasticity and continuous learning)
SUS 206 Communicative action theory and practice (a la Jurgen Habermas)

I probably should add something related to the learning of patience because anyone completing a course based on these subjects is going to have to wait a very long time to find a job with the name sustainability in the title or function. Business schools, one of the slowest places to think about sustainability as I am think about it, have lots of people who know the need for parts of the kind of thinking I advocate. Systems thinkers, like Argyris, Schön, Senge, Ackoff, Sterman, etc., are part of many MBA programs because the Deans know that businesses will always face sustainability problems, writ small, focused at the enterprise scale. Organizations always face persistent problems that cannot be solved by applying methods derived from the bulk of the courses MBAs take. Only systems thinking can deal with the complexity of life in businesses.

But it is not just businesses that live in a complex world. We all do and, consequently, face problems much more daunting than businesses do. Climate change is one example. Inequality is another. Indignity is another. And so on. Why, given the scope of these problems, do we continue to think we can solve them with only the major disciplines we acquire in schools? If MBAs need systems thinking to be competent to deal with the messes and wicked problems in business, others, who want to take on the equivalent problems out in society clearly need this and much more. To send students at all levels out into society with the belief that they are equipped to deal with the problems that concern them is mischievous and worse. It is fooling both the faculties and the students.

Change is always difficult. We humans do not like uncertainty about the futures we create through acting. That’s partly why we tend to continue to apply the same old, same old to everything we do even when the problems persist. When we fail, we call in the experts who, then, apply the same old, same old with not much better results. What I have just written in the last couple of sentences is the definition of insanity according to Einstein and others. We moderns were not always insane; for some long time our actions did produce a future that we could argue was taking toward a vision or destination that we could see. But more recently, we have caught some sort of mental disease, maybe a societal form of Alzheimer’s, that has blinded us to what is going on. The parts of our societal brain that are sensitive to the real world, and that learn and use the learning to help us get back to the correct path toward our goals are increasingly non-functional. Fortunately for humanity, this form of Alzheimer’s is reversible, but we need to apply the correct remedy. The academic program I propose above would be part of it.

Get a Life



The front page of the Sunday New York Times carried a very long exposé on human resource practices at Amazon. Today, the following Monday, the CEO, Jeff Bezos, responded refuting all the claims made. If true, and much of it is likely to be more or less true, given the reputation of the paper, the article makes the term, human resources, come alive in a very unflattering light. The secondary headline,”The company is conducting an experiment in how far it can push white-collar workers to get them to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions,” added a particularly negative tone. We do not allow uncontrolled human trials on unproven drugs, why not also for work practices? I won’t comment on all the many details; you should go to the article for these.

This is not the first instance of Bezos and company exerting their muscle. They used their market power to extract tribute from those write and produce the books they sell. Their power is unusual in that it displays two forms of market domination, monopoly and monopsony. They are able, if they desire, to collect rents from both buyer and seller. Rents, in these cases, are the difference in cost or price from that to be found in a competitive situation. Walmart comes close but is more a monopsony, able to drive down the prices of its vendors, but it still must compete with many other retailers. it, too, has had a bad reputation in the ways it treats its employees.

I am appalled whenever I read about workers being treated as machines. While I do not understand or agree with everything that Immanuel Kant wrote, his command to treat humans always as ends, not means, seems inviolate. That does not mean that humans do not have to bend to the needs of our highly impersonal economic system, but it does set limits of the inhumanity of the system. I thought we, in the US, gave up the idea of the sweat shop, decades ago. At minimum, human beings should be treated in ways that serve their safety and dignity. Regarding the former, we do have regulations that attempt to keep the workplace safe from dangerous production practices, like machines and toxic chemicals. Even these exist in spite of eternal opposition from those who see the idea of worker protection as a government plot.

I interpret Kant’s imperative in terms of human flourishing as the manifest end he points to. The ultimate manifestation of human being is flourishing, a term that captures many other sub-traits, like dignity, freedom, health, and so on. Safety is a part of the broader term of health, which still is a fraught concept in business. The centrality of work as the means of gathering economic resources grows in proportion to the dominance of the free market. The freer the market, the more dependent are people on monetary resources since that becomes the only significant means of exchange. Work, as the source of these resources, dominates all others. Whether the employer should provide economic resources, like access to health delivery services, beyond wages is arguable, based on criteria like equity and efficiency. It seems to me that, as an employer demands more and more of a worker’s life, they should be more and more responsible for treating them as ends. The opposite seems to be happening. (It has ever since Esau sold his birthright to his brother.)

The article notes that Amazon demands secrecy from every employee. Secrecy is not bad per se; it is necessary to protect a firm’s competitive edge, but it has limits when that edge depends on unsavory or illegal practices. Insider trading has been a similar issue. It requires secrecy because it is illegal. But secrecy is not always required to give a firm an edge. Toyota has shared its famous production system widely with other manufacturers, counting on other competitive advantages. Toyota has argued that they grow as the reputation and quality of their whole industry does.

Should working conditions ever become so stressful that employees breakdown at their desks, as reported? Should businesses practice Darwinism, winnowing out the least “productive (whatever that means)” on some relative basis, ignoring whatever contributions have been made. Whatever process Amazon uses must be based on collapsing the capabilities and performance of someone to a number. Okay for machines, but not for humans. Deliberate Darwinism promotes dishonesty as Amazon employees are able to tattle privately about others with no ways to verify the content. Another subtle affront to dignity.

I found this next item particularly troublesome.

Company veterans often say the genius of Amazon is the way it drives them to drive themselves. “If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,” said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.…In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour. (Amazon came under fire in 2011 when workers in an eastern Pennsylvania warehouse toiled in more than 100-degree heat with ambulances waiting outside, taking away laborers as they fell. After an investigation by the local newspaper, the company installed air-conditioning.)

Becoming “one with the system” is tantamount to entirely giving up one’s dignity. It is the very same criticism we have historically made about life in totalitarian regimes. Do Kafka and Orwell live at Amazon? We know that no “system” yet invented has been able to mirror the full metaphorical essence of human being. History is full of failures of institutions that fail to enable humans to exist such as to achieve their full genetic and cultural potential. We cannot even discover what that kind of existence that is without being critical about—stepping back from—the life we do lead. Complete uncritical allegiance to the “system” dooms efforts to discover the fullness of human existence, the condition I call flourishing.

I can go on with more from the report, but I have made whatever point I am going to make. Notwithstanding all the positive arguments that were made, I find this situation to be a great starting point for those who wish to criticize raw, market-driven capitalism for its failure to accommodate human being as more than economic activity. Capitalism is supposed to be an antidote to totalitarianism. Has Bezos found a way to outsmart it?

(Kafka cartoon from the Prague Post)

Knowledge Comes in Different Ways and Forms



In my weekly digest from Newsweek, I read an interesting article about the role of science in the political campaigns, better the absence of it. It seems that the Matthew Chapman, great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, had started a project to engage presidential candidates in a debate centered on science. “Everything in my family was assessed through some form of the scientific method,” says Chapman…It was just really peculiar to see people we were going to give trust to not addressing either the scientific issues nor the method by which people assess truth in the best possible way.”

The article is mostly about his failure to create any interest among the candidates, many of whom have already expressed a skeptical or more extreme position on the importance of scientific information in political conversations and policy. Not much new so far. I found his intentions great, but not much to show for them. What did intrigue me, however, were these closing paragraphs.

Dan Fagin, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for his book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, tracks the public discourse as a professor of science journalism at New York University. He begs to differ. “There will never be a science debate, at least not anytime soon, but that’s not because of the issues are complicated. It’s because the triumph of the hard right is that they convinced too many Republicans that science is just another partisan issue, another opinion. The solution is going to have to come from within the GOP.”

As the GOP shows no signs of grappling with that issue, the endless—nonpresidential—debate grows ever more bitter. … The Pew survey found that education levels do not always correlate with trust in science, a fact scientists and their supporters might consider before assuming their adversaries are duped. “Science is not the sole source of wisdom, an oracle,” Fagin says. “It’s the most powerful tool we have for understanding the world, but individual scientists are only human and subject to error. A little more humility would do us all a lot of good.”

I completely agree with Fagin that science has become a partisan issue but only because ideology has trumped reality in the right wing of the Republican party. But I think he errs in comparing partisan differences to differences in opinion. Differences in opinion are a fundamental reality stemming from the impossibility of ever knowing everything about the world. Notice I am using the word “knowing” here, not understanding. Fagin uses “understanding” in the last sentence and that is where the troubles he is writing about originate. We possess all kinds of knowledge, each one coming from the method by which it is produced. Aristotle defined several distinct classes in this manner. In his Nichomachean Ethics, he described three different approaches:

  1. Epistêmê
  2. Technê
  3. Phrónēsis

The use of approaches is important because the main difference between these classes is the way the knowledge is obtained. Our word closest to epistêmê is theoretical knowledge obtained by our senses and abstracted into technical terms. It corresponds closely to what we now call scientific knowledge or knowing why. The method for producing bona fide scientific knowledge is rigorously defined as the “scientific method” and has become legitimated by the institution of science over ages. The word, technê, is most closely translated as craft and is derived from the acquisition of principles that relate a particular practice to its results. The context for technê is making or doing not the disinterested, abstract nature of epistêmê. It is about knowing how. Aristotle viewed technê as a less perfect way of describing nature. The third, phrónēsis is best matched with wisdom. It relates to knowledge about how to live life and how to govern the affairs of humans. He gave it a distinctly political sense.

In more recent times, the German Philosopher, Martin Heidegger, reinterpreted Aristotle’s forms of knowledge giving different weights to them. I find his interpretations much more relevant to the Newsweek and related stories. Where Aristotle placed epistêmê at the top of his ladder of knowledge important, Heidegger places phrónēsis. In place of Aristotle’s fundamental categories he uses: póiesis (creation), praxis (living), and theōria (abstracting). He argues that these represent distinct forms of human action, each of which produces different kinds of knowledge, respectively, technê, phrónēsis and sophia. (Sophia and epistêmê are often confused and are confusing terms.) Heidegger describes phrónēsis as the most fundamental in enabling human beings to live effectively in the world and to work towards achieving the fullest manifestation of our uniqueness as being human. Technê is a way of being concerned with things and principles of production and theoria/sophia is a way of being concerned with eternal principles, abstracted from their instantiated occurrences.

To these forms of knowledge, all of which have an associated method or methods, we also use another common form, ungrounded opinion. Such opinion is “knowledge” for which we cannot ground though evidence in the form of unbiased observations or reasons outside of the methods of the three above-mentioned categories. Much of life is run according to such ungrounded opinions. Philosophers like Aristotle and Heidegger have made arguments for which of these is the most important in the lives of humans beings, but in our modern world we have strayed from their exacting scales and categorical bounds. And this is very serious.

Our democratic form of government rests on many principles, but, perhaps, the most fundamental is the rule of reason. We settle disputes about differences through reasoned procedures. That means we argue with each other on the basis of grounded facts, based on knowledge, a word that signifies a truth about the world. But we forget that knowledge comes in a number of different flavors, none of which have the same origin. We have learned that scientific knowledge is the best, that is most reliable, category when it come to describing natural phenomena, but, because it is made up only from abstract findings, often fails to produce results out in the real world. Technê has in many ways come to be even more important than theōria because we tend to apply its worldly form, technology and technocracy, to solve our problems without bothering to fully know why they are occurring or what the complete impact of use of technê will be. That’s because the methods of science are inadequate to deal with the instantaneous complexity of the real world.

The third form of knowledge, phrónēsis is almost entirely missing today from our public deliberations. I find it is important to distinguish this class of knowledge from all the others and usually refer to it as “understanding.” There are methods to acquire such knowledge, but all take a lot of time and patience (a virtue in short supply). Pragmatism, as I have written, is perhaps the most codified and reliable. All require living within the system from which the understanding is to come, and observing what is happening, especially if the observers are intervening deliberately or not. Heidegger saw this as the most important as it was closest to allowing human beings to gain an understanding of the kind of beings they are. The absence of phrónēsis is to me the most critical issue about the place of knowledge, not the one made in the Newsweek story.

The rule of reason, while sounding as the best way to go forward, has several serious flaws based of the limitations of the sources of knowledge that feed it. Scientific knowledge, based on an objective world produces a singular but partial, result of what is truthful, and can be and is used to dominate arguments. Technê used without knowledge of its complete set of outcomes produces unintended consequences that can even destroy or severely damage societies as many argue is happening today. Ungrounded opinion, which is more and more prevalent today, always ends up in some form of domination because there is simply no rational way of settling differences. It is behind the winner-take-all nature of politics today.

We need to seek more understanding of our situations and issues, not more knowledge of the other types. Only through understanding can any reasoned solution emerge. Theōria has a very important place as does technê. Even ungrounded opinions may be necessary, but if they are not all concatenated into wisdom or phrónēsis, we are surely not going fulfill our historic dreams. Even those dreams need a revisitation based on more wisdom as they were originally created with a privileged place for science. The research I have done over some years suggests that the failure to be clear about the sources and kinds of “knowledge” we use in our deliberations is responsible for many of our policy failures, big and small. Only if conversations have a clear understanding about the nature of the information that is to used do they have a chance of being concluded happily. Just look at what is happening around the Globe for instances of this failure.

Need I Comment?


angry emoticon

I saw this this news morning, and thought, “The points I have been making about our addiction to technology jump out of news articles like this.” I find these quite frequently, not only about technology, but also about my other cultural bête noires: out-dated beliefs and norms. That’s to be expected because the news reflects our primary norms and beliefs. It may take you more than an instant to see the folly of creating a flourishing world by continuing to do the crazy things we do. But that’s how cultures work. I will publish more self-contained items like this one from time to time without any of my added prose. If you fail to get my message, you haven’t been reading my stuff. I would love to get more links from you to articles about mistaken applications of positive science to complex systems, both the non-human and human worlds. In this evolving Anthropocene era, the two are inseparable.

This week at Yale Environment 360, science writer Nicola Jones reports on the quest to create “super corals” that can withstand rising ocean temperatures and increasing acidity related to soaring carbon dioxide emissions. As Jones explains, scientists worldwide are employing traditional methods of selective breeding to find heat-resistant corals and then transplant them to vulnerable reefs. Coral “gardening” has been taking place for two decades, but efforts have taken on a new urgency as more coral reefs die from climate-related stress. Will genetically modified corals be next? Read Jones’ report.

The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think. (Gregory Bateson)

Taking on Complexity



In my last bunch of posts, I have noticed a pattern that seems worth making explicit. The hardest part of the work I have been doing is to come up with practical responses to the critical analyses. I have been seeing a tiny bit of evidence that the basis of my critique is catching on. Even if the specific remedies I have been proposing are not getting a lot of traction, the sense that something radical is needed is a recognition that our problems are paradigmatic, not merely malfunctions in the current modern culture and its machinery. Of course, misguided efforts like those behind the recent Ecomodernization Manifesto suggest otherwise, but, like those who deny the reality of global climate change, they have adopted much too narrow a frame. And that gets me to the theme of this post.

The problem with this approach to fix up the system is that it fails to recognize the complexity of the system that would be repaired. Whatever is to be done under their rubric is inevitably only a partial solution because the whole system is not included in their thinking. While the internal logic underlying the analysis may appear to be well-grounded, it is so only because important parts have been omitted. Opponents of such works are asked to come up with a better analysis and, too often, get drawn into a food fight as to which has started with a better set of premises. But that is the wrong result; neither can be better, a priori, as long as both fail to accept that the system being addressed is complex. Any analytical model is bound to be partial and abstract. How well it actually describes the system can be discovered a posteriori, that is after the system, modified as the models prescribe, responds. There is a better way to deal with such complex systems.

Complexity, as I will state in a moment, is the more common system description out there in the world, but our norm is to ignore this and treat everything as analytically tractable. If we are to begin to clear up the increasingly persistent problems showing up in both human societies and in the non-human world around them, we have to make a paradigmatic swerve and start with the presumption that all persistent problems are complex. This does not mean that we have to punt, but it does mean that we have to address them very differently.

The first requirement is that we try to match the real world out there with our mode of thinking. We have such a means at hand: systems thinking. Unlike analytic methods, there is no fixed way to proceed, but there are some very useful tried and effective practices. The first and most important is to make sure that the framing of the situation is not unknowingly constrained by analytic thinking. It’s important to start with the understanding that the “solutions” that are eventually chosen are always partial and the system will need constant observation and adjustments. The 10 principles created by Rittel and Webber in their timeless paper on “wicked systems” should be read every time a complex problem is being faced. I have listed and discussed them earlier in this blog. This link is to my introductory blog that presents their general argument and is followed by a series of posts that probe each of the ten principles they develop. The original paper, itself, is publicly available at this link.

Systems thinking has been around for a while as a subject in engineering and management. Some of its better known contributors are Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Stafford Beers, Peter Senge, Russell Ackoff, Jay Forrester and Dennis and Donella Meadows. Others can be found in the Wikipedia article on the subject. One name not mentioned there is Gregory Bateson. Bateson was a polymath, whose is, perhaps, best known for his work on the mind and thinking, Steps To an Ecology of the Mind. He is responsible for one of my very favorite aphorisms, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” He says in this single sentence what it takes me pages to express.

Almost all of these systems thinkers proposes a different process to address complexity. Not surprising since the intrinsic nature of the systems precludes any single procedural method. I have found that almost all can be placed in the single framework of pragmatism, a philosophical concept related to epistemology, the way we come to make sense of the world. Although complexity was not explicitly present as the subject evolved, it was clearly hanging around in the wings. The originator of the concept, C. S. Pierce, came up with it as a means to “make our ideas clear.” Clarity was determined by examining how well the ideas fitted practical situations. The more accepted methods of theoretical logic and analysis were tossed out. The importance to complexity should be obvious. If one wants to understand and interact with complex entities/systems, what matters is that the concepts being used for both explaining and manipulating the system should be effective in practical, not theoretical, terms. Real, down-to-earth performance is what matters, not some abstract set of expressions or sentences.

What we really need to know about things like climate change is how the system works and how anything we do, deliberately or unthinkingly, affects it. Pragmatism offers a more fitting approach than does positive science, which always requires some degree of abstraction and generalization. One can use scientific methods to probe the systems, but only if their limits are always in view. Bateson argued, passionately, that Western science creates hubris, a sense of (false) rightness about the world that prevents attaining real understanding and subsequent appropriate action, the components of wisdom. Systems that involve human beings (that’s about everyone that is important) are inherently complex because human action is itself the outcome of complex human beings. The Greeks knew that it took a special kind of knowledge, phronēsis, to govern human systems, distinct from knowledge about the non-human world, epistemē. The best current equivalent for phronēsis is wisdom.

The understanding of systems that come from pragmatic thinking and investigation is more like wisdom than epistemē or its modern equivalent, objective, scientific knowledge. There certainly is a lot of bona fide pragmatic thinking around, but it is rarely identified as such. The well known and widely practiced lean manufacturing system developed by Toyota utilizes basic pragmatic principles to improve the functioning of their manufacturing systems and to solve problems that arise within them. Inquiries are performed by people involved with the system, independent of their organizational status. Solutions are held as contingent, and the system is constantly monitored to prepare for the inevitable future issues that will crop up.

The Toyota Production System (TPS), as it is called, is, importantly, run along democratic principles during the inquiry processes. Developers of pragmatism, especially the American philosopher, John Dewey, wrote that whatever group carried out pragmatic inquiries toward understanding complex systems should be democratic in composition and process. Concern for the outcome trumps general theoretical smarts. Technically trained participants need to be aware of their inherent hubristic biases. In a sense, getting to know a complex system, after Bateson, requires thinking like the system might, metaphorically speaking. That’s very, very hard for scientists and engineers or other disciplinary professionals who always come into an inquiry with preconceived methods and solutions. One of the most plaintiff essays I know on our human interconnectedness with the world was written by Aldo Leopold, is entitled, “Thinking Like a Mountain.

Pragmatic processes are messier than their nice clean academic counterparts. One can never declare the process has gotten to the end. Rittel and Webber’s corresponding Rule 3 is, “Wicked problems have no stopping rule.” No more sending the consultant home after she has delivered the report. “Efficiency” hides behind much of what today goes for institutional strategies, especially those of businesses. Pragmatism/complexity demands the use of “effectiveness” instead. It is not about cheaper or faster; it’s always about some other qualitative criterion. Often, ex post assessments are simply asking if the system is working as desired. Are its normative outcomes closer or farther from its targets?

I close today with what I hope are some practical actions to take to deal with complexity. Whenever one encounters persistent problems or failures that have resisted solution via expert-based procedures, you can be pretty certain that you are dealing with complexity. Changing consultants or computer programs will not clear anything up. It’s time to switch paradigms and begin systems thinking. Then read Rittel and Webber. Then select a pragmatically-based inquiry, planning, and implementation process. Enlist a group of thoughtful concerned participants and go. Try various of the methods out there, like the TPS, or Argyris and Schön’s double loop learning, or Senge’s Fifth Discipline, or any others. Put on your patience hat. If needed, hire a skillful facilitator but, please, not another expert. When you begin to get good at doing all this, turn away from your own problems and take on the problem of (sustainability-as-)flourishing, or more to the point, the absence of stable, universal flourishing in our complex, existent, modern world.