Initial notes as the basis for a presentation to the Hawke’s Bay Royal Forest & Bird Society, February 2013
What adaptations do we make for climate change? The question of adapting to a future that is inherently uncertain – as contrasted with some measure of stochastic risk probability we can model – leads us to all sorts of levels of response. And that is as it should be.
We can adapt at various levels: we can change our practices – for instance on the land; we can reframe our policy frameworks – to a more functional and integrated view of land, community, transport, energy, economic focus, social justice, etc.; we can change our political power structures – decentralised with increased levels of local resilience where the outside elite don’t capture the gains and socialise the costs; or we can change our whole core belief systems – ideas of what constitutes knowledge and where it resides, of what is ‘good’ and what we ‘ought’ to do, what things and relationships we acknowledge and emphasise, even how the whole cosmos works.
That’s a challenge to a whole ‘world view’, not some technofix within a paradigm we think is fine (“business as usual, but better”). It is a challenge to us all. We all have a world view, loaded with prejudgments and beliefs and ideas of what represents good and bad, success and failure. Most of us don’t even acknowledge we have that internal space within which we implicitly and subjectively define in our own minds what we presume to be ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ (subjective objectivity – ah, yes), preferring not to contemplate on the meaning of life. Being gets in the way of doing. And we think the solutions, and the sensible thing, is to do, not think; to simply act without considering the significance of it all. And so we do.
Assimilate into the collective. Once there, you won’t even know you’ve lost your individuality, and will resist being unplugged. You will be happy. We will feed you reality TV, and a thing we call ‘current affairs’, propaganda so subtle you will think it the truth, various forms of Huxleyian soma to sedate us. We will call it “civilisation” to differentiate it from those more barbarous alien savages over yonder water. In the choice between an overtly authoritarian Orwellian future of 1984, or the more covert authoritarianism of Brave New World, Huxley has won the argument. We are at risk of making ourselves and our children slaves to a non-thinking, non-participating approach to life. Erich Fromm and Theodore Zeldin do a great job of dissecting the human condition. Or if you feel like a more radical dissertation, check out John Zerzan or Edward Abbey.
Herein lies the dilemma. In order to adapt fully to climate change, to change ourselves, we need a sea-change in our core beliefs, and with them (whether before or after) the politics and power structures of economics and knowledge that currently prevail.
So how? If we actually want to achieve long-run solutions then we have to go deep to that core. It is from that core of ideas and beliefs from which are generated the power, politics, policy and practice that creates and perpetuates the problem. They are all linked, as Levin & Lewontin argue. In some connected dialectic of action – reaction, where the central idea has priority. Where that central idea acts as the generator. One field of thought influences the other in a self-organising cycle – the education begets the policies, which begets the science, begets the practice, begets the markets, begets the advertising, begets the demand, begets the money, begets the politics, begets the education ….. and so it moves on. In the case of land use, it is accelerating – a focus on production leading to industrial ideals, leading to more energy inputs, leading to energy dependency, leading to money for suppliers, research around the symptoms and problems generated, PhD factories, vested interests, commodity products, the promotion of the myth that we are doing “God’s work” to feed the world starved by geopolitics not low production, over-producing, reducing prices, marginal economics, environmental mining of soils, biodiversity, water quality, life-supporting capacities, free ecosystem services, generator of NOx and CO2, pressure to amalgamate and homogenise for ‘efficiency’s’ sake, lost diversity, lost high-value opportunities, lost communities, wealth concentration to the corporates at the expense of the local people, more demand for irrigation and fertiliser, the denigration of less financially resourced alternatives (fringe, weirdo, unscientific, won’t feed the world, hippy, homespun, backward, peasants), no matter how much better in outcomes social, environmental and economic.
The industrial idea of land creates the practice and all the self-reinforcing cycle of perpetual motion (and emotion) that makes up a real, fair dinkum blinkered, purblind, way of ‘seeing’ the world. There’s the trap, the cause, the problem, the invisible conceptual apparatus of the collective mind, producer of technocrats and boring cubicle-based lives, where scientists can measure poo production and fertiliser responses, or the new GM techno-fix. This industrial model of land use is analogous to a hamster on a wheel, going faster to stay still, yet still slipping backwards, pumped full of drugs and energy from a finite source, with an increasing dose, until … one day … the bearings will seize … or the hamster will simply stop.
So what is our role as individuals? As a community? We are told – constantly – that the people have sovereignty. We can influence by our ‘consumer choice’ – if you can read those words without slight queasiness. We are told we live in a democracy. Spin and advertising are merely informing us, no conditioning us. We are told, you need to read these text books by these great (irony alert, just in case you don’t get it) philosophers Rand and Friedman.
Our role? Four options perhaps – if you ignore the option of not bothering to change unnecessarily because ‘the Lord Market’ or something equally bizarre will save us. Four horsemen perhaps.
First, Levin & Lewontin might support the view that by ‘being the change you want to see’ we will influence change. Perhaps we can create a new perpetual motion/emotion machine. But without the money and the political clout, to date. That is at least a working hypothesis. And there is no doubt that enough people acting in a particular way can and have forced change.
Secondly, the rational argument. A number of scientist and technocrat colleagues believe (why?!!) in the rationality of humanity, that ‘factual’ information and ‘logical’ argument will win the day, and that all the political master who spend money on their chosen parliamentary puppets will through self-interest and a moral sense, see the light. Hmmmm. Whose paradigm? Whose facts? Whose logic?
Thirdly, a modification might be to not believe in rationality, and focus on the non-rational argument; getting the message across through the arts and humanities, those disciplines whose utility is often questioned by the technocrats. To appeal to the sense of people, not their deeper knowledge of, and trust in, mathematics and logic. I have far more faith in appealing in peoples’ sense than their use of mathematical/logical symbols.
Or, lastly, we can wait for the crisis, when all bets are off and people are in a position to ignore the powerful, and we reorder a new world view. But that better world view had better be ready, because the Terror is perhaps as likely as a new constitution between our people and our planet.
The point, perhaps, is to acknowledge the need for adaptation in all these levels of response, and to create ‘resilience’ for whatever surprise may occur, in both our physical environment and within our society. But resilience requires a new way of thinking.
Resilience involves the ability to foresee, the robustness to take a hit, the capacities to innovate and adapt, to visualise an alternative system, and to collaborate for change. That is a whole new world of relationships and understandings, and requires completely different thinking than the Brave New World collective we have been seduced into accepting.
The very idea of a ‘Resilient’ landscape and society is in itself a challenge to a hierarchical and authoritarian order – in both corporations and government organisations. It is a challenge to those that feed the hamster on the wheel and profit by it. Resilience demands thought, debate, innovation, and the collaborative group- and self-motivation to shift direction quickly, not keep this, and only this, wheel turning. That sits at odds with a corporate world where people are far more focused on the obedient performance of pre-set tasks than thought and debate relating to what outcomes we need and in what way we ought to achieve them. We need urgently the thought and debate, not the compliance of pale wan men and women living life in a physical and emotional cubicle.
Uncertainty has replaced predictability; the idea of a Complex Adaptive System has replaced mechanical determinism, presumably knowable through reduction to the essentials; socially-inclusive ‘transdisciplinary’ knowledge systems have replaced the idea of top-down instruction from the ‘experts’; judgment that takes into account local conditions is replacing the idea of universal ‘laws’ of practice; non-linear threshold effects, emergence, self-organisation and new attractor points (many not so attractive to humanity) have replaced the idea of an inevitable linear progress to heaven on Earth; the limits of our planet is replacing the idea that “the market will provide” (though the priests are not listening); and an intolerance of exploitation is replacing the idea that we can do nothing about it.
The best practical step, at least, is to act within those new ideas ourselves, in our own particular place, and to stand up against any ideas that prescribe any attempt at universal thought and action. The days of Newtonian mechanical God-given laws are nearly over.
3rd March, 2013
Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.
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