Archive for the ‘complexity’ Category

Thinking on the spot: Algorithms and Environment

June 1, 2018

I may, or may not, be asked to participate in a radio show/podcast about algorithms and the environment….

This is my initial spur of the moment thinking…

I’d start by talking about the difficulties of getting algorithms for a complex system. The whole point of complex systems is that they are unpredictable in specific, while possibly being predictable in terms of trends. For example, we cannot predict the weather absolutely accurately for a specific place in 3 months, but we can predict that average temperatures will continue to rise. Initial conditions are important to outcomes in complex systems, but there are always prior conditions (ie there is a way in which initial conditions do not exist), and because so much is happening and linking to each other, there are always problems determining what is important to the model, and what the consequences of an action were. Another problem with complexity (as far as I understand it) is that it can only be modelled to a limited extent by any system which is not the system itself.

Then the model tends to be taken for reality, so we act as if we knew something and are working directly on that system, rather than working on a model which may increasingly diverge from reality with the passing of time….

Then there is the issue of power relations. We know that one simple way of proceeding with Climate change, is to phase out coal and other fossil fuels and increase the use of renewable energies. However, we can’t even do this transition at the speed we need to because of established power relations and habit (power is often the ability to trigger established pathways of behaviour) – and we cannot guarantee there will be no unexpected side effects even if we could. For example, we may not succeed in replicating something like our current social life with renewables or we construct them in such a way that it harms the environment.

We also seem to need to absorb greenhouse gases as well as cut back on emissions, but absorption can be used to delay reduction (again through power relations), and there is, as yet, no yet established way of dealing with the GHG that have been removed which is safe or long term. Algorithms cannot successfully model the effects of things we don’t know how to do…

On top of that there is the potential power consumption of the algorithms – while hopefully this will not be too bad there is some evidence that bitcoin (which is a complex algorithm of a kind) could end up being the most energy hungry thing on the planet…. In which case our efforts to save ourselves could intensify the crisis.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that computational algorithms are never of use, but that they tend to be used without testing because they depend on fictional stories which have a high level of conviction, and are treated as if they are the reality we are working with and not as models of that reality. If the model / algorithm tends to advantage some group more than others, and the appliers belong to people loyal to that group, then it will probably be harder to curb if incorrect, and be more likely to be taken for correct. The same is probably true if the model reinforces some precious group belief. The point of this is that models tend to become political, (consciously or unconsciously) because the axioms seem like common sense.

According to some theories humans tend to confuse the ‘map’ for the ‘terrain’ (to use the General Semantics slogan) almost all the time unless its visibly and hopelessly not serving them and there is an easy alternative. If so, that could be one reason why science is so difficult and so relatively rare, and so easy to ‘corrupt’ when it becomes corporate science.

If we are going to model what we do in the world then we absolutely need something like computer modelling, but we also need to emphasise that these models are unlikely to ever be totally accurate, always are going to require modification and change, will get caught in politics and could always be wrong.

If we don’t do this then the aids to helping us model what we are doing and need to do, could well make things worse.

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Donut Economics

May 17, 2018

Kate Raworth’s ‘donut’ presents a relatively new way of looking at the economy, which has attained some fame. I’ve attached the picture below.

As you approach the hole in the middle, you have an economy which does not satisfy people’s needs such as water, food, housing, relative equity, liberty, education and so on.

As you approach the edge of the image you begin to destroy the ecologies of the planet that the economy depends upon, producing events such as biodiversity loss, climate change, disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, destruction of fertile land, and so on.

Whereas without such a diagram, the capitalist economy is perceived as a matter of self-contained markets isolated from ecology, she argues that the aim of economics should be to satisfy people’s needs without destroying that planetary ecology.

Normal economic theory, can argue that inequality decreases as growth increases, and that growth cleans up economies, because the economic model looks at the world in isolated ways. Some economies appear to clean up ecologies, but they do so at the expense of other ecologies, and businesses are always happy to lower the costs of pollution and increase profit when offered an opportunity.

People may object that it is impossible to meet the needs of everyone – especially while respecting the planetary boundaries, but at least in this model it appears as something which can be discussed as a major concern. Just as we can ask “What is the economy for? What is it about?” and get a reasonably useful answer.

The old economics had an extremely confining view of human nature, it was humanity stripped of everything but the profit motive. This was a decision originally taken to distinguish economics from other fields such as history or philosophy, and to make things simpler, but it became the model of humanity. Under it we are *just* individual profit seekers. We only cooperate in order to make personal profit, we naturally destroy for profit, we have fixed preferences which we neutrally evaluate, and we have no purpose, happiness or virtue other than wealth seeking.

This view is simply not true, or adequate. Humans co-operate as naturally as they compete. We are social as much as individual, we do not naturally only value money and we do not destroy what we share. We are creatures with many purposes and many aims. Wealth is usually only important to the extent it brings about those other purposes and we are not made happy by consumption.
Raworth’s model, to me, is reasonably obvious and elegant and allows humans to be complex. It is not reductive.

It does have a few problems.

1) It does not explicitly recognise that the current economy is a mode of power, situated within frameworks of power relations, and that historical evidence appears to show that those who benefit from this mode of power will do almost anything to preserve it – including wreck the earth.

Nearly all forms of organisation are nowadays reduced to economic/capitalistic organisations. Media and information is controlled by capitalists, the law is controlled by capitalists, the State is controlled by capitalists, education is controlled by capitalists, and so on. Paying attention to the “bottom line” (measured in terms of money) is a mantra that both permeates society, and ignores reality.

It will be hard to move against inertia and the active power dedicated to preserving existing hierarchy. The model does not easily provide for the distortions that power puts into economics – any more than standard economics does. But as standard economics aims to preserve that power it is not a handicap for it, but a strength, as its users can pretend that inequality of outcome is always proportional to inequality of talent.

2) More importantly, the model does not provide a set of simple positive instructions for politicians. It does not give them an easy and painless set of action slogans and programs, whereas conventional economics does.

Conventional economics says: business is always good and always delivers, you must increase growth, nature is limitless or unimportant, commons don’t work so sell them off to business, government is inefficient so hand it over to business, rich people are talented so give them more support and protection (and pick up the rewards), reduce taxes, stop government services, increase charges, abandon poor people as they are without virtue, and individual wealth and its owners should be worshiped.

Donut economics, just says don’t destroy the world, and let everyone participate. Neither is easy under the current power relations, and these actions do not reward players in the State. The model grinds to a halt.

It needs simple and positive directives.

So time to think what those might be….

the donut

Organisational Ignorance vs Organisational Stupidity

April 2, 2018

I suspect “organisational ignorance” should be distinguished from “organisational stupidity”, even though they are related. Some level of organisational ignorance is normal and inevitable, some levels of organisational stupidity have to be cultivated.

Knowledge implies ignorance, and in some cases creates ignorance. Firstly people know what ‘knowledge’ is by its socially made contrast with what form of belief or practice serves to illustrate ignorance to the group holding the knowledge. Thus literate groups can assume illiteracy is ignorance of letters, theological groups can assume science is ignorance of God and Salvation, Platonists make Sophism an exemplar of ignorance, and so on. Groups usually do this kind of thing, to reinforce their boundaries, and to give them energy by making some other behaviour or belief ‘bad’.

Knowledge tends to create ignorance because, in complex interactive systems (and all social and ecological systems are complex), knowledge tends to be incomplete and a simplification. As such, what people know (and are supported in knowing) can actively direct attention away from areas of crisis and change, particularly if the knowledge has been successful, or associated with success (however that is measured) for a long time. We can see this with climate change; modes of waste disposal and profit acquisition which have brought success for the last 200 years are now threatening the conditions for that success. Hence many people are continuing as normal to destroy themselves, because there is no apparent alternative which delivers exactly the same benefits and distribution of benefits. This is also propelled by organisational and hierarchical stupidity, but more later.

Some knowledge is definitional and relatively easily shared once definitions are agreed, but that does not mean it is always accurate. I would claim mathematics is this kind of knowledge – so it can be very powerful as well – but I’m not particularly bothered to argue about this at the moment.

So knowledge and ignorance tend to be socially intertwined, and mastery can be a mark of status – in which case new knowledge can be dismissed if it comes from the wrong people – this is one place ‘organisational stupidity’ starts coming in.

Organisational stupidity is the active structuring of an organisation or a situation, so that new, different, or more accurate, knowledge is rejected. Punitive hierarchy is one way of generating stupidity. If people in a hierarchy routinely punish underlings for diversion from the official line, then everyone ends up ignorant and stupid actions become the norm. The more those actions become the norm, they more they seem part of the cosmos, and the more they probably become intensified to remove the chaos they generate. People at the top don’t tell people what they actually plan, to protect themselves and their knowledge. So everyone operates in a haze of fear, guesswork as to what is going on, and stupidity. This is further reinforced if mastery of organisationally approved knowledge is a mark of status, and those with status try and remove those challenging them, as those challenging them do not see “common-sense” or “understand reality”. Relatively accurate knowledge can become downplayed or even heretical and forbidden, as when Trump refuses to allow information about climate change to appear visibly on government websites.

Computer software encourages organisational stupidity when managers who have no idea what their underlings do become the consultants during requirements collection and the actual users are ignored, and have to adapt to what was thought to be an improvement.

“Siloing” is the horizontal form of this structural stupidity, in which people in different parts of an organisation do not know what other parts do, but fantasise about them, and attempt to control what the others do. For instance, when admin tries to control academics, or give them more admin work to encourage “responsibility”, or rewrites computer programs to stop necessary fudging or whatever. Getting others to do your work seems useful initially, but ultimately it stops you from having any quality control over that work.

Complexity can reinforce stupidity because, as nobody above knows what is possible in an engineering or social sense, and what is their fantasy is usually what is done, so they demand what they would like (even if it is not possible or not yet possible) and accuse people who tell them this is not possible as lacking positivity. Sales people generally don’t know what is possible either and agree to make the deal, because there is a lot of money being thrown around, and if they don’t get it someone else will. So the sale goes ahead and people get locked into the costly process of making the impossible, or the badly designed, work.

There is a sense in which capitalism furthers organisational stupidity, because;

  • 1) It’s organisations are extremely hierarchical. Even when they are supposedly level, there can be huge differences in power.
  • 2) Only the immediate small-future bottom line counts (but there are many other important things).
  • 3) Wealth becomes the only value, so plutocracy becomes the norm, and anything that produces wealth must be good.
  • 4) It depends on hype about existent and non-existent products to prevent other products being successful. So the environment is constantly full of informational falsity, even above the idea that wealth is the only measure of value and competence.
  • 5) Its managerial structures depend on managers fighting for allocation of internal wealth to allow their section to work and to give them status, and this may obstruct any observation of the external environment the company exists within.
  • 6) Elimination of costs, can eliminate worker satisfaction and competence, and leads to free-loading waste being approved without consideration of long-term consequences. Cost defined something as ‘unpleasant’, not to be observed or investigated, and to be removed forcibly.
  • 7) In takeovers, to establish power and discipline, those people who know how the victim firm works are nearly always sacked, as the victor reckons these people do not know anything, or might challenge their knowledge. So the firm begins its new career being forced into boxes and behaviours that may well not work for them.
  • The contemporary form of governance, which I call “distributed governance” which is power that is diffused through society via networks means that very few people with power have responsibility, or feel they have responsibility. Responsibility is elsewhere, so there is no need to know anything other than how to keep your own power and reinforce your own knowledge, and the chances of feedback overtly pointing out mistakes is extremely low, so managers do not learn from those mistakes. This helps reinforce stupidity.

    If these general points are correct, it does imply that decent knowledge workers may sometimes have to chose to engage in “revolutionary activity” even against their own organisational stupidity, or resign themselves to pointlessness.

    Luck as a social force

    March 28, 2018

    Contingency plays a massive part in social events, indeed in all kinds of events not just our lives; that is why we can tell its important in our lives.

    We rarely control the outcomes of much activity, and we interact with situations that we do not cause and cannot influence much, but do influence some little bit. There are important choices we make, and we may not realise how important they were until we look back on them. At the time the choices may have seemed trivial – going to a particular party, leaving to urinate at a particular time, turning our eyes away from the road, not responding to a phone call, being ill at a particular time. This sort of contingency can affect whole countries, as it affects people who make decisions. We might call it the “for want of a nail effect”, given the famous verse.

    Contingency also affects the coming together of different events at specific time, such as an infrastructure failure compounded by economic crisis and a drought, even if we may say that certain behaviours and policies make this contingency more likely. The effect of the contingent combination may not be predictable – how will people respond? It is exceedingly difficult to see, in advance, how fortuitous circumstances will allow particular social groups to gain an influence that they previously did not have because the new circumstances ‘obviously’ favoured them over others (in hindsight). Any kind of evolution is contingent on circumstances, even if organisms are not controlled by circumstances.

    I’d suggest being skeptical about any non effect of ‘luck’ in social life. The idea that luck is not important is a very convenient ideology for those who are wealthy because it implies that they are were they are, totally because of their abilities and skills, and are thus justified in having wealth while others don’t. While if success involve luck then they are were they are by luck as well as by skill.

    Complexity theory implies that we are incapable of predicting events in detail, although we can predict general trends, because of the massive interconnection of things/events and feedback between things and events. Thus we may predict the decline of the US under the pressures of successful capitalist domination, but we could not predict how it will turn out. In 2010 we could not really have predicted the rise of Trump and his cronies. Whether this unpredictability stems from the human inability to model things completely outside the system itself (so while we cannot predict specific events, if an all knowing God exists then that God may be able to predict successfully), or because it is in the nature of the system (even an all knowing God cannot predict specific events), is irrelevant for human contingency.

    Because of unpredictability and complexity we always contend with unintended effects, some of which may be good, but probably more will appear to be complications – as the number of patterns which seem disordered is far greater than those that seem ordered and beneficial. Social life is precisely about dealing with the unexpected, as well as the expected. Often people deal with the unexpected by pretending it has not happened. This retains the vision of order, but weakens people’s ability to deal with reality. The unconscious has a tendency to strike back.

    The importance of contingency does not mean analysis is impossible, but it does mean that we need to factor in contingency as part of that analysis, and look at rare events rather than be remain happy with what appears to be common. This is particularly so when we appear to be entering a realm, the Anthropocene, where we have no prior experience whatsoever.

    On Truth Part 1

    October 3, 2017

    Truth is a complicated process, which people often try to pretend is simple. And so this is a simple peice trying to pretend to be complicated.

    Firstly, I would try not to use the term ‘truth’ at all, because it is a noun which implies an existent. And people do talk about Truth as if it was an existing thing, which I think is inherently misleading. Truth may not be something you arrive at, but something you work towards….

    I would prefer to talk about the possibility (or likelihood) of making accurate or correct statements – assuming that we all roughly agree on the words employed and the intention behind the use of the words…. In other words we can ask whether a particular statement appears correct and to what extent it appears accurate. This process is not always immediately final.

    I suspect that the idea of Truth as such may tend towards promoting ego-inflation and grandiosity. Compare, for example, the statements. “I know the Truth about the world” and “I can make some correct statements about the world.” The abstract idea of Truth tends to spread; if you know something is True then knowing the Truth implies you know not just something, but the Whole Truth… This is probably harmful to both discussion and finding out what is correct.

    There may well be different types of correctness which it may also be worthwhile distinguishing.

  • Definitional: 1+1=2 seems correct by definition and by coherence with other definitions. We can talk about Goedel’s theorem later 🙂
  • Pragmatic/functional: The words we use in the statement “the dog sat down” are vaguer than in 1+1=2, but we can usually agree as to what we mean, and as to whether this statement was correct at a particular time or not if we have observed the event, or if we trust the witness. The statement is good enough for practical purposes – if we want more accuracy then we can perhaps improve the specificness of the terms (“Jane’s cocker spaniel called Fred, perched on his bottom with his front legs holding up his torso” – this refinement is possibly endless). Because the statement is “good enough”, or “not good enough” for the use we want to make of it, this comes close to being a pragmatist theory of correctness or accuracy.
  • Inter-subjective: The “trusting the witness” part in the last point, tends to imply that at least some of what we accept as correct will be inter-subjective and social. A lot of fake news seems to arise from trusting witnesses, or trusting stories which seem plausible for social (or pre-existing bias reasons). I suspect this kind of thing becomes particularly important in situations of what has been called ‘data smog’ or ‘information overload’.
  • Symbolic/poetic: Jung and Tillich (probably among others) have argued that it is impossible to talk about some important things with complete accuracy because of the complexity of the situation, or the inadequacy of human perceptual and cognitive functions etc., and hence human discourse and feeling often depends on symbols. We may always need to talk symbolically to some extent. In which case the ‘accuracy’ can be said to be ‘poetic’. Poetic accuracy seems really important (sometimes I think it is primary in any complex set of propositions, but that is another argument). Sometimes poetic accuracy can move into more ‘simply’ based accuracy (of the kind stated above) with work and testing. I suspect this happens in science a lot, as we move from fairly vague conceptions and categories to more precise, accurate and testable categories and propositions.
  • We might often still be making symbolic propositions anyway – and again if Jung is correct then this may have as much to do with human psycho-social functioning as reality. There may always be events which are distant from currently precise definition – the field may increase as we increase those areas we can define – I’m not sure, and don’t know how you could test such a proposition. (And I have a sneaking regard for the idea that most propositions we hold to be accurate should be testable in some way, or otherwise we are close to talking about things which automatically may not be correct)

    This hedging does not imply no correct statements can be made, but it does imply that it may be impossible to *only* make correct statements or false statements. In which case correctness is also a continuum or even a plane…

    How can scientists predict future temperatures when they cannot predict the weather accurately?

    September 20, 2017

    Firstly, climate scientists cannot predict the exact temperature of a particular place, in exactly 50 years, easily or at all, any more than they can predict the exact temperature at a certain time, in a specific place, in one month’s time. And while this is problem raised by ‘skeptics’, this predictive ability is not an ability claimed by any climate scientists that I have read, and is of no relevance to the ongoing issues of predicting general increase in average global temperatures.

    Weather systems form complex systems, and prediction in complex systems is notoriously difficult over length of time. We can predict climate trends such as: the average global temperature may rise by a particular order of magnitude, or that sea ice will melt and ocean levels rise, that low lying land will be flooded, and that deserts will expand, that weather will become more tumultuous, that storms are likely to get bigger, and that people will move as a result. But you cannot predict exact weather patterns for particular places. If we could, it would actually make climate change less devastating, as we could plan for it.

    You can also predict that given the continuance of the circumstances we are in, it is extremely improbable that average temperatures will trend towards decrease, or that weather will become simple and nicely warmer everywhere. Indeed the prediction that this will not happen has been born out for years, and there is no sign that such climate beneficence will happen. However, it is possible that as climate patterns change some particular places may get colder – for example, if the gulf stream stops or shifts southward, then this may happen with the UK.

    The point to bear in mind, is that climate and weather are complicated, but continuance of, or return to, the normal weather patterns of 20 years ago seems improbable in the extreme, and it is far more likely that weather events will become even more extreme than they are now, until (possibly) a new ‘steady state’ arises when the forces producing climate change have ceased. However, I am told that when we look at the last time the earth had high levels of CO2 and high temperatures (50 million years ago), massive storms may well have marked that normality.

    We might add that other factors of the Anthropocene (such as peak phosphorus), make the prediction of livability of earth systems even more complex and fraught, but that is another question.

    The Right and Climate Change

    July 28, 2017

    Not all people who identify with the mainstream right refuse to be persuaded by the evidence that climate change is real, or that its humanly generated, or that crisis may be coming. Not all climate scientists are left of centre for one, and I’ve met, and heard of plenty of people on the right who wish their party would do a little more. And, in the US, some Republicans have been getting angry about the way that established powers try to stop them from using cheaper renewable energy and so on. Admittedly you rarely see this news in the corporately owned and controlled media, but you can find it if you bother to search.

    So the question might be “why is the right party elite so opposed to recognizing climate change, and why are the committed deniers so committed to ignoring the evidence, or saying things like ‘climate changes all the time’, as if this was something climate scientists were not aware of?”

    Most obviously, we have a problem in that the build up to climate change is, in human terms slow – its taken at least 50 years (since the 1970s) to get to where we are now. However, when the system changes state it will probably do this in a fairly short period of time, after years of building up. That’s how complex systems behave.

    So until it is too late, it is relatively easy to pretend that its all normal, and the continuing series of hottest years ever recorded, glaciers melting and so on, are not doing that much harm, or are just normal, or just freaky weather events. We also get used to things being different, so people can say “we were snowed out, and thus there is no climate change”, when thirty years ago they would have spent a lot more time being snowed out. We can also spend a lot more on artificial snow for ski resorts that don’t really have the falls they used to – but it looks the same.

    There is another problem that arises, because specific predictions in a complex system are really difficult. Thus we can say the weather will probably become wilder, and significantly different, but we may not quite know in what way. So people get frustrated with some failed predictions (the general trend is more reasonably accurate, if more disturbing than expected) and assume all predictions are worthless. Especially if they are really defending something else….

    Cynics could say that the US Republican Party, or the Australian Liberal Party’s resistance arises because some of their elite are so committed to the liberty of established wealth and power. Anything which might compromise that liberty, or give ordinary people a chance, must be repelled. Indeed we can see members of that elite cheer when corporations are given more freedom to stamp on ordinary people, exploit them, maim or injure them and so on. They cheer when corporations are given extra permission to freeload on others by polluting and poisoning the world. That was almost the first thing the Republicans did when they got a President. They gave corporations more liberty to hurt people. So that position is pretty basic. We have had close to 40 years of praising free markets and corporate power and business competence, and very little has improved, unless you were wealthy to begin with, or thought more corporate power was a good thing. The mainstream right are unashamedly neoliberal in their policies.

    For these people, the problem is that it would seem that the fairly easy actions we could take to lessen the risk of rapid climate change and ecological crisis, might affect the profitability of some established powers in the sacred corporate sector. Personally, I might think they would primarily be affected if they were stupid – but that is the sort of thing you cannot say as the common sense is that business knows best.

    Parties today require funding, and so funding is important, and those established people can spend lots of money (money is power) supporting political deniers, providing dubious research, arguments from principle, or casting doubt on whatever seems real. Their allies in the media can report as if climate change was undecided, or not a threat and so on. The media can more or less ignore it as a problem, as they generally do.

    Members of the establishment probably reckon that if they keep getting wealthy at everyone else’s expense, then they will be able to survive easily enough; wealth remains power when its concentrated. So they don’t have to worry, so what if other people get hurt? They might have more to worry about personally if coal was discontinued for example. Hence we hear Exxon and members of the electricity generating industry have been aware of the evidence for global warming for decades, but did not allow it to get in the way of profit. And profit is the real god.

    For this elite, affecting profit negatively is bad. Lots of people will support this position to be on side, or to make the others evil. Hence nothing will be done, until those who currently control mainstream right parties and their media propaganda decide that profit is not everything, and that it might be nice if normal Americans or Australians had a chance, for a change…

    Self-preservation & Climate Change

    July 26, 2017

    Ideas of “self preservation” or “genetic preservation” (making sure your genes survive in your kids), have been around for a long time and seem popular in a culture of individualism, consumerism and neoliberalism, but they don’t seem to have helped us deal with climate change at all. Nothing. These ideas may even be obstacles to us doing anything constructive. After all, the mainstream right seems to regard these kinds of ideas as fundamental – you, and nobody else, are responsible for your own survival. If you stuff up, then its not in my interests to help you back up, unless I do so charitably.

    Partly I think the problem with self-preservation arises because in a complex system (and ecological and social systems are usually complex) it’s not absolutely clear what actions are in one’s self interest or contribute to self-preservation. Does it help your self-preservation to boost coal consumption as that has helped with lots of things in the past, or is it in your interests, to abandon coal and head for an uncertain future? Sure if you are wealthy and you are making money out of despoiling the world then you might think you should continue that action, as your accumulating wealth is as likely to protect you and your offspring, as anything else is. But that doesn’t help solve the problem, it makes it worse.

    That is also the case for most of our socially approved actions; they seem to be part of the problem. They seem to make things worse. So following self-preservation as your guide could well lead to unresolvable problems, problems in which you try and dump everyone else in it. That is why climate change is an existential problem. We don’t know how to exist in it. We don’t know yet how to imagine life in it.

    On top of that, because climate change is complex and existentially challenging, it can seem like everything is too big. It is beyond us. Actions we can take are actions at a local scale. Who can change the weather? Nothing we do apparently makes any difference. So we don’t do anything. We magnify the opposition, and are rendered incapable. Furthermore, it seems obvious, that individualistic action is not enough. We can only preserve ourselves with others. We depend on others. This is hard if we are focused on self-preservation. These others might free-ride on us, and hold us back.

    So, to me, it seems like there needs to be something beyond self preservation. That is why we I’m arguing that we might need generosity.

    Generosity has been around for a long time, it is a basic human configuration, and has not (as far as I know) been a feature of our cultural response to climate change, while self-preservation and justice have been. With climate generosity, we act without calculation, without fear of losing. We act to inspire. We just give what we can give, beyond what we need to give. We work towards becoming the solution, without expectation or demands on others.

    Climate Justice???

    July 25, 2017

    The idea of “Climate Justice” perturbs me. It seems self-destructive, or self- undermining.

    ‘Justice’ as it works, usually involves two kinds of processes:

    1) Defining someone as evil and punishing them for it. This requires violence for enforcement and the mechanisms for applying that violence. This is especially difficult between States, without a willingness to go to war or at the least break contact. By demanding that people be labelled criminal or evil, mechanisms of justice create both resentment and self-righteousness. It encourages projection or shadow behavior, in Jungian terms, whereby we ignore our own failings by blaming someone else. In this set up there is only good and evil, whereas in a complex ecological and social systems there is neither, there is mainly mutual implication.

    2) Appeals to fairness. But it is never fair that we have to give up anything while others benefit… hence we do nothing. Piers Ackerman was arguing the other day that it is unfair for Australia to do something when we produce so little CO2 (even thought we produce massive amounts per head of population). This is a common anti-global warming tactic, which avoids responsibility.

    Justice arguments are continually used by India and China to justify their massive expansion of coal. They are used by the Australian government to justify the Adani mine – shared prosperity for all, the war on poverty and so on. They are routinely used by people to argue that Australia can make no difference, so those people who request that we act are making unjust, or unfair, demands upon us, consequently we don’t have to act.

    As a result of these problems or co-options, it might be better to avoid ‘justice’ altogether and phrase action in terms of “climate generosity”, attempting to come from humans ‘good’ side (and through modes of status acquisition through gifting) rather than our punitive side.

    Climate Generosity requires that we do more than is necessary or just – we are generous, we act beyond what is required of us, without much hesitation. We are magnanimous, excessive.

    Climate generosity does not have to involve allocations of guilt and blame and suggests that we are ‘in this together’ and ‘working together’, and thus acknowledges the systemic nature of the problem.

    Generosity upsets the power relations based on old habits, while justice requires enforcers. Generosity combines both individual and social action, and appeals to the greater good of everyone, without demanding victory. It does not say ‘we won’t act until its fair’, it simply sets an example to be emulated or ignored. It gets on with the job, and cultivates a sense of responsibility.

    If we only do what is just then we will not do anything much, we will only go to the boundaries of what is needed – we will be continually check to make sure others are not freeloading or acting unfairly. We will not act first.

    However, if we replace justice by generosity, then we can go over those boundaries – “yes it might be cheaper and just to sell goal, but how about we help you build renewables? How about we cut back more of our emissions than would be our fair or just share? Why should we wait for others to act so that it is fair, lets be generous and act now!”

    Conspiracy Theory?

    July 18, 2017

    There is a well known argument, that faced with historical and policial complexity, people tend to reduce that complexity by implying that events arose because of secret and hidden actions. Conspiracy is something that is imagined to make the world seem ordered when its not. A recent academic version of this argument can be found at:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ejsp.2308/abstract

    Now we know that one of the results of complexity is that prediction is incredibly difficult. It is actually quite hard to make a social or political result that one wants. The pessimist thinks it is harder to get a good result than a bad result – perhaps because there are so many ways things can go wrong and so few ways they can go right. This makes the idea that the world is controlled by conspiracy unlikely. However, that does not mean there are no conspiracies

    Conspiracy occurs pretty much day to day. We all conspire with other people to get results. This is what we call decision making or self-governance. It is also pretty minor. However, it seems unlikely that powerful people do not try the same thing, planning to have effects over your lives. Certainly they like decisions to be shrouded in secrecy. You can think of public/private partnerships where the reasons for spending taxpayer’s money on corporations is often held to be “commercial in confidence”. The capitalist State is not always open, so it is unlikely other States are open either.

    So it could appear some conspiracies are not purely imaginary. The difficulty is learning to distinguish between the imaginary and the real.

    Do businesses conspire to fix prices and lower wages? It was reported by Adam Smith. The answer is probably as often as they can. It makes more money all around and that is what counts. There are known cases of price fixing, price gouging and prices moving in tandem, and, in the absence of unions, wages for ordinary workers rarely increase. So it is probable, although it may not be deliberate joining together, people may just say to themselves; that is the standard price and leave it at that. It may even be normal. The usual idea is that business does things as cheaply as possible and charges as much as possible, and is occasionally constrained by competition: if people know about it.

    Do scientists uniformly conspire to tell us climate change is real for political purposes? This seems extremely unlikely. Scientists are not politically uniform. Scientists tend to like putting other scientists down and getting noticed for being innovative. When they get money from science grants they generally don’t have to produce particular results. However, it is quite probable that fossil fuel companies conspire to make it seem that climate change is unreal, or not urgent. Climate change threatens income and profit. It requires change. These big companies have a long history of conspiracy, when it comes to preserving profit and getting rid of inconvenient political challenges. They also sponsor think tanks, who give them the messages they want – or they don’t sponsor them anymore. Again we might wonder if this is not really conspiracy, but profit leading to misinformation. However, we know Shell knew about climate change but sponsored deniers. So it seem possible it was conspiracy.

    Did the Freemasons cause the French Revolution? Harder to say. If they tried they would not have succeeded without a lot of help. They may well have worked for it, but I doubt they liked the result. Did Lenin conspire with others to produce the Russian Revolution? Yes – but again they had a lot of help – there were other people involved. indeed some people say Germany sponsored them to get rid of Russia from WWI – certainly a more intelligent strategy than Hitler’s. Sometimes they worked with people who did not like the results being gained. Complexity again.

    We can use these latter examples to make further claims. If big results came from the actions of few relatively powerless people, then big events can certainly result from the actions of a few relatively powerful people.

    So the conspiracy, no conspiracy idea needs complication. The world is unlikely to be run by conspiracies, but it is equally unlikely there are no effective conspiracies, ever, or that really powerful people do not conspire to keep in power and disadvantage everyone else – just make sure that you are really identifying who is powerful. Good questions for that include: who is wealthy, or has economic power? Who controls organisations with wealth? who controls violence? Who tells others what to do and its done? Who controls communication?