First is the boring version of who I am.
I feel like a bad kumara when I write this, but some people want to know who I am as if it is what we have done that makes us the who. Then I’ll let you know who I really am!
Kaore te kumara e korero mo tona ake reka.
Chris Perley is a consultant and principal of Thoughtscapes, an affiliated researcher with Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability (http://www.otago.ac.nz/centre-sustainability/index.html), an activist on social and environmental issues, a member of Wise Response (http://wiseresponse.org.nz/) and a thinker, writer and commentator. His work is focused on realising the potential of landscapes, communities and their economies, and on the deeper philosophies underpinning current and potential future approaches.
He has consulted to companies, corporations, local government, central government, the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organisation, is published in academic and professional journals, and has presented papers at a number of universities and international and national conferences. He was editor of the NZ J Forestry for four years, is a past Vice President of the NZ Institute of Forestry, and was made the youngest fellow of the NZIF in 2009 in his 40s.
His professional experience relates to: forest ecology; land management across forestry and agriculture; land use integration; regional and sector strategy; policy analysis with a focus on regional issues as well as integrated environmental, social and economic systems; research in late-modern ontologies (Complex Adaptive Systems, Self-Organisation in landscape systems), resilience theory, sustainable land management in socio-ecological systems; and management.
He writes an eclectic and often irreverent blog www.chrisperleyblog.com with particular interest in changing the way we look at land, community and economics.
But if you want to know what’s inside my soul, then this is more me ……
Aspiring iconoclast. Wannabe writer. Thinker in the nature culture place space …. I think.
Because I dislike boxes, it is difficult to select one to categorise where I come from. Personally, I come from the land, and community. I have never been able to objectify them. I think we belong to them. All these dichotomies of us and them, it and us, are very much a part of the problems we face. And land – in that Leopoldian sense of all of the planet – is so much more than the biophysical. Land can sing as beautifully as a choir, and make you smile. Listen for the blackbirds in spring, or the first shining cuckoo in October.
Professionally, I come from a natural science systems background, with a very broad base of first principles, though was taught ‘resource management’, climax ecology, ‘utilitarian scientific management’ and concepts of ‘knowing’ that I no longer accept – or more correctly, I no longer accept except in a very select context. My post-grad work was a lesson in how not to do things – the technical approach to maximising agricultural production irrespective of people, place, or any wellbeing you can think of – a ‘rational’ approach to a mindless goal – like Ahab, mad in pursuit of Moby Dick and his own death through rational means … irony?
It was a shock lesson in the making of a blinkered paradigm in otherwise intelligent minds. And in the importance of context and first principles. I was a little surprised at the conformity. Some people don’t question authority and make easy fodder for Moonies – or scientific or economic faiths. Our education system, with its mindless focus on ‘standards’ will create less maverick thinkers and more obedient unthinking functionaries for the corporate collective. Well, a pox on that. Kids should be taught to think, and question, and discuss without the nonsense of do-as-I-say, think-what-I-think authority. Authorities are always wrong. At some point, somewhere.
I was a natural Humanities mind, versed in the sciences, modelling and finance, with some economics, and couldn’t help seeking and critiquing the assumptions that underlie the technocratic approaches. My upbringing in and around land and rural communities helped. They were the examples that constantly challenged what I was being taught. The people I grew up with knew things that no scientist or economist did. They acted with a natural grace which was intuitive. A good hunter (and I don’t claim to be one – especially now) or good musterer does not walk through landscapes focusing through binoculars. Too many things are at play. You focus when the time is right, a short period, and then release all your senses – and I mean ALL – until it is time to focus again. You ‘know’ what is around you without necessarily being able to articulate, never mind quantify it. Technocrats could learn a lot from that approach – be synthesisers who analyse within a wider context. Broad then narrow. Never narrow then narrower still. And never ever presume that by knowing only the smallest of biophysical bits that you can in any way determine the whole. Never presume that by reducing an individual to a selfish utility-maximising algorithm, or a farm to an agronomy experiment that you are in a position to decide what is the best and most practical choice, here and now.
But that is our way today. It has to change. We need Transdisciplinarity where the technocrats are but one voice, not the sole ‘experts’. Listen to others. Listen to the land.
A few life experiences are ‘useful’ traumas that wake the soul. There is an easy tendency to ride the slave-train: authoritarian family, school, employment, debt – and repeat. A trauma makes you question paths you may have never seen in the past. Your senses open.
Ending up unable to stand makes you see the world from a different position. Not in the mere physical sense of suddenly being shorter! The big shift is to have the ….. freedom is perhaps the only word that fits – to develop those sides of your mind and thinking that are suppressed by all the black shoes and white shirts. Taking the road less travelled does make all the difference.
By my early 30s I was working in government policy, editing a professional journal. A stimulating time surrounded by good brains, great discussions, and a dominant neo-liberal economic approach that I was never impressed with.
I think I’m a natural communitarian anarchist. I want the village, the diversity, the community, the common, laughter and dance, smiles and song, the sense of freedom from authority, the sense of people and land as never being seen as resources in a factory – and especially the awareness of and contempt for the takers, the selfish and the power-hungry. So let’s strive for villages and community with richer cultural exchanges that go far beyond ‘the market’ with no corporates or aristocrats to abuse power, whom Adam Smith detested (Neoliberal Economists please note). But we were being led through policy as if we *were* in Adam’s village (the Shire?) when the reality was closer to Mordor with all the power elites pursuing their love of more, and more.
I had always read, though I scribble in pencil now, not ink. Began studying philosophy. Did my own studies in environmental philosophy and ethics. Met some pretty cool like-minds on line (JT & SB).
Much of my professional work was to realise the potential of land – forests, farms, places with meaning for people. Not just broader landscapes, but particular landscapes at the scale of a family or a firm. Our usual approach is to ‘focus’; specialisation being the technocratic imperative – think only about the grass, etc., deal in the single dimension of cost reduction through scale.
My approach was to seek to understand patterns, connections, processes, functions, meanings, associations. Shift from the Economies of Scale approach that makes the diverse patterned meaning into a Ford factory .. to Economies of Scope, where you realise the potentials that are there. The values. The meanings. So many of these shifting associations of space are contingent, place-based, completely unknowable through quantitative methods, especially those pursuing universal regularities. You have to go into a landscape and listen to both the people who live within it, and the land itself.
All these vibrating patterns generated interest in complexity theory, complex adaptive systems, emergence, and all the philosophical paradigms of belief and how we do things. Where is the objectivity when people relate to socially-embedded ideas within natural systems they may frame in either this way or that? What objectivity? And so you ask, always ask, what do we MEAN by these words – land, water, soil, owner, property – as well as the perhaps more dangerous words like efficient, evidence, sustainable, accountable, rational.
I was dragged deeper into academia than I perhaps wanted to go. The research and reading was broad and deep. I got more than I needed from it, without the certificate. Great people, some very useful work, but my critique of the mechanical world and its piece-meal and philosophically dogmatic methods was mushrooming. Why do the STEM technocrats not take philosophy as a prerequisite?
You cannot find real solutions by small statistical experiments. That is far too shallow. You may be able to describe a small contingent relationship in time and place, but how much do you really understand if your aim is to solve a large ‘problematique’ like sustainable land use, or world hunger. The approach seemed to me like trying to create St Paul’s Cathedral one brick at a time, without any underlying concept of function and connection. Small piles of numbers with no wider meaning. A part is a part is a part. But so what without context. The result you get is not a cathedral of light but a pile of rubble, generating yet more rubble, self-justified by claims we are ‘science-leading’ our way to the light. The nails keep being driven into my technocratic faith.
Then another series of traumas, this time a big one; flesh eating Necrotising fasciitis and the desperate – “we’ll do what we can” – coma. I’ve been on the edge where life meets some weird sense of universal love. Your values are re-questioned again. Your courage takes yet another leap away from the hollowness of mere middle class expedience. Where the first trauma questioned first ontology, then epistemology, then ethics, you are now forced to consider cosmology. Is there something else beyond reason and material? Is experience evidence enough?
And knowing your place in this universe and whatever it is to which we belong, steeped in some sort of metaphysical bath, is the greatest question of all.
“Life is a journey.” Who are they kidding. Life is a maze that enfolds itself, and unfolds to enfold.
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