Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Scenarios for climate change adaptation

The research team working on the VCCCAR Scenarios for Climate Adaptation project have released the final set of resources developed during this project.

The aim of the Scenarios for Climate Adaptation project has been to strengthen knowledge about the most effective ways to develop and use scenario based strategies to improve climate change adaptation decision making. We have drawn on recent Victorian and Australian experience to produce a set of resources – including both a Guidebook for Practitioners and a Full Report – for Victorians involved in policy-making, engagement and planning for adaptation to climate change.

The following key project resources are available:

·         Scenarios for Climate Adaptation – Guidebook for Practitioners

·         Scenarios for Climate Adaptation – Policy Brief

·         Scenarios for Climate Adaptation – Full Report: Executive Summary

These resources as well  as the Scenarios for Climate Adaptation – Full Report and a range of additional project papers and materials are available on the project homepage.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Lacunae in the body politic

Barbara Kingsolver's novel  'The Lacuna' is a story, even metaphor, for our times.  It brings vividly to attention a complex web of injustices, wrong turns taken, pettinesses and the creation of institutions in our governance that drives out compassion, the legitmacy of others. These are the lacunae of our times. Given this interpretation it seems to me that Maureen Corrigan's review misses the point.

The basic storyline can be gleaned from this excellent review.  I concur with Schillinger's observation that:

'“The Lacuna” can be enjoyed sheerly for the music of its passages on nature, archaeology, food and friendship; or for its portraits of real and invented people; or for its harmonious choir of voices. But the fuller value of Kingsolver’s novel lies in its call to conscience and connection.'

There are some wonderful lines:

p.207 " "But newspapers have a duty to truth," Van said.  Lev clicked his tongue. "They tell the truth only as the exception.  Zola wrote that the mendacity of the press could be divided into two groups: the yellow press lies every day without hesitating. But others, like the Times, speak the truth on all inconsequential occasions, so they can deceive the public with the requisite authority when it becomes necessary". 

p.321 ""But people desire fair governmant. You say that constantly."   "They want to believe in heroes, also. And villains. Especially when very frightened.  It's less taxing than the truth.""

p.429 "Politics here now resemble a pillow fight. Lacking the unifying slogan (Win the War), our opposing parties sling absurd pronouncements back and forth, which everyone pretends carry real weight. How the feathers fly.  The newsmen leap on anything, though its all on the order of "Four out of five shoppers know this is the better dill pickle", assertions that can't be proven but sway opinion. "Dance for the crowd" is the new order, with newsmen leading the politicians like bears on the leash. Real convictions would be a hindrance.  The radio is at the root of the evil, their rule is: No silence, ever.  When anything happens, the commentator has to speak without a moment's pause for gathering wisdom.  Falsehood and inanity are preferable to silence.  You can't imagine the effect of this.  The talkers rising above the thinkers."

p.633 "Universal declaration of rights of the howlers:

Article 1: All human beings are endowed with the god-given right to make firewood from the fallen tree.
Article 2: Any tree will do. If it is tall, it should be cut down.  The quality of the wood is no matter, the tree asked for it by growing tall.  A decent public will cheer to see it toppled.
Article 3: Rules of normal kindness do not extend to the celebrated person.
Article 4: All persons may hope to become celebrated.
Article 5: It is more important to speak than to think.
Article 6. A howler must choose one course or the other: lie routinely, or do so only on important occasions, to be more convincing (The Trotsky tenet)."
Handing over conscience and control

In todays Sunday Age, Guy Rundle, in an insightful article 'Attack of the Hacks'  makes the following point worthy of further consideration:

 "The trouble is that big organisations headed by a personalty cult (and News Corpoation is surely that) work by turning people into the opposite of human beings, into gaining meaning in their lives by handing over conscience and control to the organisation, a process that occurs across News's global organisation"

 Bruce Guthrie, who has insider knowledge of Australia's News Corp, says in the same edition:

"I can save [Senator Bob Brown] and his colleagues a lot of trouble, particularly on the question of media concentration: not only is Murdoch's dominance of the print media here inappropriate, it's downright undemocratic. The Brits have been having conniptions last week over his control of 40 per cent of their newspapers. If it was 70 per cent [as in Australia], they'd be tearing down Big Ben. And, of course, they're outraged by News's trashing of journalistic ethics."

My point exactly.  
Not only does Rundle's point apply to News Corp - take the Federal Opposition in Australia and the specific case of  Greg Hunt, the coalition spokesperson on the environment.  I have been to hear Hunt speak when Malcolm Turnbull was still leader of the opposition. He spoke with wit, authority and authenticity about.....hang on...exactly the opposite position to that he and the coalition now espouse.  The old cliche of lying straight in bed at night comes to mind.  To make matters worse we are being exposed to his now carping and inane comments.  Around 6am this morning on ABC News Radio listeners were subjected to his now poverty-stricken arguments.  What lousy interviewing as well.

To paraphrase Guy Rundle: all politicians lose their humanity and integrity when they succumb to the cult of personality and attempts to gain power at any cost.  The Opposition, and Hunt in particular, have built an egotistical disdain for the moral and practical framework Australia has to build to exist in a post-carbon future.
Adam Curtis: Revise and Resubmit

Controversial British film maker Adam Curtis has created another thought provoking television trilogy: All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which was screened on  BBC2  beginning on Monday May 23rd.  As with his former series, The Trap, he touches on systems and cybernetics and gives them a strong critique - some justified but much intellectually spurious.  However, let me say from the outset that it is good that these programmes are made.  I only wish there was more TV that engaged with the important themes that preoccupy Curtis.  That said, television is problematic as a medium for material that purports to be intellectually serious.   Had these programmes been academic papers submitted for publication I would have recommended 'revise and resubmit'!

Curtis's meta-theme is compelling: that theoretical positions and associated narratives are taken up and institutionalised in uncritical ways - and in the process we have been seduced into believing we have no agency for creating purposeful change.  These theories, or explanations, become the new orthodoxies of the times and the understandings that arise shape technological designs, the ambitions of the designers, generate new research programmes and create adherants and prosletysers.  Although he does not say it in these terms explanations if accepted change who we are.  Curtis's example in his third programme, The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey, about Armand Denis's films that told the world about Africa particularly his 'fanciful stories about Rwanda's Tutsis being a noble ruling elite originally from Egypt, whereas the Hutus were a peasant race', is a compelling example of how explanations are taken up and become institutionalised in our practices with, as in this case, appalling unintended consequences.

Similarly Curtis' example of the ecosystem concept explored in his second programme, The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts is a fascinating story except that the surrounding scholarship is shoddy and, from my perspective, leads Curtis himself into proferring explanations as worthy of critique as those in his spotlight.  

As I outline in a recently published essay, there is "replete within the academic literature confusion over the concept ‘system’ and whether ‘system’ is an epistemological device, a way of knowing about the world and thus a choice to be made in context sensitive ways, or an ontological claim i.e. a claim that systems are ‘real’ and thus describable objectively.  This confusion extends to the concept ‘ecosystem’ itself.  The term ecosystem was coined in 1930 by Roy Clapham to mean the combined physical and biological components of an environment. British ecologist Arthur Tansley (1935) later refined the term, describing it as "the whole system, … including not only the organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call the environment". Tansley regarded ecosystems not simply as natural units, but as mental isolates.  In Tansley’s original conception ‘ecosystem’ was a neologism coined to work as a conceptual or epistemological device, and which, like all systems involves boundary judgments – a bringing forth – by an observer.  However, over time the concept ecosystem has come to be reified as existing independently of those who make the boundary judgments that distinguish any system of interest."  In pursuing the common practice of making concepts real we deny our own capacity for learning and change, and thus agency.

Curtis' scholarship breaks down because he fails to see how explanations and their reification operate in social systems - through institutions and social and artifactual technologies.  He is also somewhat out of date in his critique of systems and cybernetics, as are many others.   Perhaps it is the demands of TV that  consistently takes Curtis into profering conspiracies or conspiracy-like scenarios.  Like Curtis I deplore many of the explanations that we have conserved, sometimes over decades if not centuries, and that plague contemporary life and our abilities to be political in a small 'p' sense.  Curtis's own strategies for resistance (his films aside) are rarely made entirely clear and the inklings we are offered hardly seem inspired.  His own theoretical, epistemological, possibly theological, and ideological  commitments are never clearly articulated.  Hence the ground on which he chooses to stand to offer his critique is  hidden from view except that he rails, in a limited way, against the failure to take power into account, to believe that we can make the world a better place and do politics. 

An up-to-date enagement with systems scholarship, as exemplified say through the OU's new MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice, would reveal for Curtis that other pathways to resistance (in the Foucauldian sense) are possible - and in my view more productive than framing all possibilities through a limited lens on power.  Curtis reminds me of some current and former academics I have known who in their concerns about power consistently enact the very theories that concern them: the world seen through a narrow lens of power predisposes practices that are all about power games rather than say cooperation, mutual concern and accommodation of difference. 

From my perspective Curtis would do better to highlight the lack of epistemological and systemic awareness and pluralism that creates a perverse scientism - as exemplified by Dawkins et al - and the lack of reflexivity in just about all that we do.  These limitations also apply in the systems and cybernetics fields, as I outline in my recent book.  For that reason members of the systems and cybernetics communities would do well to view Curtis's latest offering and use it as a trigger for reflection on what it is they do when they do what they do!