Alternatives to Conventional Economic Development: And the Philosophy of Not Realising our Potential


Reblogged because we need this debate. We are mining our legacies to make the numbers look good. “Real economic development requires first a rethink of these underlying conceptual metaphors they frame our debates.  We need a deeper discussion about the real nature of people and place, and of the key role of human values and the nature of powerful and destructive interests, and their failing ideas.”

Chris Perley's Blog

More than 20 years ago a deep thinker, Richard Norgaard, wrote a book called Development Betrayed.  What he wrote wasn’t particularly new.  Other beautiful minds from Leopold Kohr, E. F. Schumacher to the still living treasure, Wendell Berry, made similar points.  Manfred Max-Neef, the barefoot economist, walked around in the communities he was trying to help, learning about the real nature of people and place that conventional economics did not teach.

Chaplin critique of modernity

They wrote about how the dominant ideas in economic development thought are severely distorted by what economists don’t consider – obsessed as they are with quantitative models divorced from a largely qualitative and ever-changing reality.  They simplify how life, society and even our complex and beautiful planet behave, to mechanical ‘resources’, quantities and price.

In other words, ‘Modernity’; the idea that the world (including humanity) is some great machine whose future will be…

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The Commodisation of Water and Life Itself


The commoditisation of life – humans as ‘work units’, as mere ‘things’, land as capital, produce as lifeless ‘pork units’ etc.  All the meaning reduced to the most basic measure; weight or volume or cost, at its worst undifferentiated by any quality or moral perspective that presumes there may be a moral obligation.  All the connection reduced to an ‘object’, an ‘other’, outside ourselves.  The objectification of life.

Commoditising life

Sarah Lazarovic

We have to reimagine our world before the mechanics in corporate offices and in our own Treasury completely destroy the essence of life they cannot even conceptualise in their own mind.  What you cannot see, you unwittingly destroy.

And then we have water …. we ought to reject any suggestion of commoditising it.  Listen to the indigenous philosophers – including the old European indigenes before Modernity burnt them at the stake – not the corporate traders or the neoliberal economists.  Reject completely the ideas of Nestlé chairman and former CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe that evil-begins-pratchett.jpgaccess to water should not be a public right,” in justification for Nestlé’s attempts to control aquifers around the world.  Commoditisation and any semblance of a moral worldview (and I do not consider today’s dominant economic utilitarianism as a relevant ethical base for governance in any way) are not easy bedfellows, especially where there is a combination of power and the pursuit of personal gain.

I made this very point about never treating water as a measured ‘thing’ for ‘sale’ at a recent Forest & Bird candidates meeting.  Neither commoditise, nor sell.  If you sell, ownership will likely concentrate to the powerful, and that natural system to which we belong is lost to us.

Rather, assess those that apply to join our community, into our ‘common’, into our own common vessel that is all that water is and does.  If they pass the test, give them the right to be part of our water story for a time if they demonstrate the right morals as virtues or duties of care and belonging (never mind their money or measured financial ‘utility’), even levy them for the use, fine.  But never commoditise and sell.  It is that approach that is the basic of commons thinking around the world.Water Sale

But keep your filthy Neoliberal hands (to paraphrase Roger Waters) off our water.

Commoditisation of water is based on a way of seeing the world that is completely false.

It is based on a 400 year old Western myth – Modernity – that has been blown to bits throughout the 20th century though used by all the ideologies of the day – Cecil Rhodes’ Colonialism, Il Duce’s Fascism, Hitler’s National Socialism, Stalin’s State Communism, Thatcher/Reagan/Douglas/Richardson/Keys’ Neoliberal Market Liberalism.  All essentially heartless and mechanical, oh so Modern constructs of life and policy.

All are ideologies based on untrue mechanical, reducible and deterministic fallacies.  Life as a machine.  Even people as ‘other’, categorised into simple dichotomies; black and white, good and bad, etc.

Resourcism

Resourcism – It’s running out fast

Such ‘resourcism’ thinking will kill us all unless we change, because it is based on no understanding of life as it is; its complexity, uncertainty, feedbacks, thresholds, etc.  It sees only measured cogs in their factory view.  It will tip us over all thresholds – social, economic & environmental because it is too busy operating the machine to look up and see the bull charging.

This deep set philosophical debate is at the very heart of our future; the return to philosophies of belonging and an ethics that rejects dollar measures of ‘utility’.

Dame Anne Salmond says it so well.

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“To treat freshwater as a commodity is to treat it as an object, based on a Cartesian split between mind vs matter that has been undone by brain science; subject vs object which has been exploded by quantum physics; and people vs environment which is confounded by the findings of the environmental sciences.

This is old, dead science, and non-adaptive.ANNE-SALMOND-350.jpg

Treating freshwater as a ‘resource’ providing ‘ecosystem services’, as though water was created for human purposes, echoes ancient myths in which men and women were ‘given dominion’ over the plants, birds and fish, and commanded to ‘subdue the earth’ (e.g. Genesis).

Like the old geocentric cosmos, this kind of anthropocentric thinking has no scientific basis.

We need to catch up with the insights of contemporary science, and see that freshwater is a vital element in an array of complex systems, human and non-human. To degrade and pollute freshwater puts those systems at risk, with severe impacts on human health and prosperity, among other negative consequences.”  

Anne Salmond

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Simply put, if we “subdue the earth,” we subdue ourselves.

And if we commoditise and sell our water, we sell ourselves.

Chris Perley
Thoughtscapes

Chris Perley has a background in the field, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

 

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The Legalisation of Corruption – Bring back the Brown Bag Swap in the Park!


Why can’t we have the good old days back of honest corruption.  You know, brown paper envelopes filled with cash shifted between suspicious looking guys in trench coats, wearing sunnies.  Clever slights of hand in the kid’s playground at the local park, or, (Maxwell Smart voice), “ahh, the old swapping suitcases on the park bench trick.”
obviously-a-mafia-drop.jpg
Good ol’ day Mafiosi off to the Drop zone

Nowadays the unscrupulous use ‘legal’ means. It’s like a rerun of Godfather III where the Mafiosi becomes legitimate ….

And that is where Metiria Turei’s ‘illegal’ act clashes with the ‘legal’ world designed to extract from us all.  There are any number of situations.  Let’s consider:

– corporates helping to write the TPPA, or as ‘partners’ at Paris COP 21;

– or the legal tax havens, and legal transfer pricing so Apple NZ buys the right to use the Apple label from some set up in the Cayman Islands, or wherever & whatever, to ensure all the tax is paid in the Caymans, and sweet FA here;

– or the legal discussions between the Rupert Murdocks’ and the cabinet ministers to barter his good coverage for their privatisation – all legal;

– or the Saudi deals where Murray McCully and John Key make someone happy with a bundle of cash that makes sleaze just that little bit inadequate as a word, especially as Key cackles that “it’s legal! Haha” on Morning Report.

But the best one – you really have to admire those corporate lawyers who work for their Mafia and corporate clients (their combined dinner parties must be so much fun) – involves the contract in the white envelop delivered in the board room offices.  Quite legal.  Quite open.  Nothing to see here.

It’s the direct contrast with the envelope in the park.  Forget the brown.  Substitute a white A4, embossed with corporate letterhead.  Lots of countersigned signatures and legal tabs.  Sign … here.  And …. here.  And over the page …. here.  Set up a legal contract between a politician and the Oil & Gas sector for argument’s sake – I’m sure that never happens.  Here is $40K for this contractual intent.  Deliver us a report on – “oh, we’ll work out those details later.”  Nothing will be written, but it is understood that continued ‘consulting opportunities’ will be dependent upon you saying the right things in Parliament.

Because that is the way corruption works nowadays – legally.

Can we please go back to good old brown envelope honest corruption – where the trench coats are afraid of the SIS and the police?!

And then Metiria Pointing out some Disturbing Realities regarding Poverty and Dispossession

Corporate corruption.jpg

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a cartoon with a Merrill Lynch logo

Meanwhile a 23 year old silly who 24 years ago (!) struggled to feed her child and performed a sin of omission (do not tell the full story), and put her name down in another electorate to where she was living (as, from my comprehensive survey on our misspent youth – a hell a lot of us have done) – and is treated as beneath contempt because of the the view that it is all about being ‘illegal’.

It is not beneath contempt at all.  There is no need to condone it, but contempt ought in all fairness to relate much more to the morality and motivation of an act, not whether it as a status ‘legal’.  For heaven’s sake, slavery used to be legal, beating your wife and children, child labour, and never mind all the once illegal acts performed by ‘criminals’ like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Oscar Wilde.

That single criterion is far too black, white and simplistic.  That exempts us from looking deep into legal structure and root cause, at context, at the history of those who were once hanged or transported as indentured slaves for often desperate theft.  (Ahhh, good old legal slavery, how we miss that.)  We can unthinkingly avoid asking the question of what is the purpose of the law, and the question of whether it is achieving that stated purpose.

Why *do* we have the law?

That is not a rhetorical question.  It is a challenge.  The oligarchy don’t want us to think or talk about it.  They want you to repeat as a mantra “The law is the law,” as if it’s God’s stone tablet.  Their media will naturally jump all over anyone who questions otherwise.

So in open defiance, let’s talk about it.  “The purpose of the law is to protect the property classes from the mob,” was the hilarious call of the old judge in the 17th century historical comedies.

I don’t think that line is funny anymore.  Not even satirically.  I think it is becoming true … again.  In which case, the purpose of law is being once again subverted to suit the interests of the least lovely of men (in a gender neutral sense, of course – but they are, mostly).

We went from that old aristocracy where descent from a mafiosi-like William the Bastard Invader, ‘scourer of the North, mass murderer and stealer of just about everything’ is seen as some form of ‘merit’, to periods of robber barons, followed by a brief mid-20th century flowering with an actual focus on people and some semblance of a relatively enfranchised democracy, to today’s rising corporatocracy.  Naturally, corruption of that democracy is now legal again.  The law is the law, rings a little hollow in that context.

And that is very much part of the context surrounding the judgment of Metiria Turei, promoted by a media whose interests are the oligarchy (if you don’t think that is true, contrast the treatment of Mike Hosking with John Campbell – and thank heaven for Radio New Zealand, who survive despite the bloodletting).  The support for Metiria’s message while not condoning her acts is not about “you can’t have it both ways.”  It is not some hypocrisy where we do not condone illegal acts by the powerful but do condone illegal acts by the poor and dispossessed.

Firstly, Metiria has never asked for people to condone her acts.  Quite the opposite.  She did wrong, legally.  But she made the admission to highlight a context – how broken our system and our democracy has become.  She made the point of admitting and recognising the wrong without asking for anyone to condone the act, *and* without any attempt at justification based on the relative insignificance of that act.  Not once.  Meanwhile, in a boardroom done the road, someone was planning a meeting with a minister to discuss a few suggested policy tweaks, and a party donation – completely unrelated to each other of course.

And secondly, it’s not just the *illegal* acts of the powerful we ought to be judging.  People and the land are both ‘legally’ suffering for the ‘legal’ benefit of the very few and the very powerful.  And they influence legislation through ‘legal’ donations and ‘legal’ contracts.

Legal shenanigans are enough to occupy us, and frankly the more worrying because they indicate a deep and ravenous worm within the apple of our democracy.  I haven’t even mentioned their illegal tax frauds; the legal ones alone are enough to make you blanche.

 

Dorothea Lange - Poor Woman Great Depression.jpg

Depression Mother – Dorothea Lange

The powerful are rorting the system very well thank you through perfectly legal means.  If we take the view that “if it’s legal it’s fine,” then we miss that.  We give legitimacy to the immoral rort.  We conflate moral with legal; we make them the same thing when they patently are not in all cases (we would concede murder as both morally and legally aligned), and increasingly are not. We hide exploitation and dispossession behind a piece of thin paper as a veil beyond which you need not go in your mind.  That amounts to worship of rule without question; and, it follows, to the worship of whomever makes the rules, and for whomever they are made.

Behind that veil of rule and rulemaker worship, we have a system that now builds injustice.  We have those with near enough to a free ride to exploit people and the land for short-term profits (I say short, because it will not be in the long-term as such action eats its own future).  And then there are the other rules – labour rules, local democracy rules, welfare beneficiary rules, environmental rules – for the exploitees.

Our democracy has been shifting toward an oligarchy – a corporatocracy – for 33 years since neoliberalism was given its head in 1984 (which in turn gave the Hyenas of Commerce *their* head).

Take the attitude of ‘legal = good’ and ‘illegal = bad’ without consideration of context or the purpose and motivation of any act – and by association we condone the legal rorts of this world that are now – unhappily – the way the corrupt operate.

I’ll swap you One Hanmer drunk for Don Corleone – Well, not really, but I do have a Point.

The CorporationMany will remember that pathetic nobody National MP who got ‘a little wobbly’ in Hanmer (“Don’t you know who I am?!”).  Can’t remember his name, thankfully.  I’d love to know what that nice contract he had with the Oil & Gas sector actually said.

Though I’m sure there was nothing in there so incriminating as “you will further the interests of the Oil & Gas sector by all means possible via press releases, speaking in the House, representing our interests in Select Committees, keeping us informed of any government issues that may impact on our profitability and expansion within Aotearoa/New Zealand, and any other potential threat or opportunity over which you may have influence.”

No, it might be something about helping them choose the type of teaspoons recommended for the cafeteria.  And don’t worry about doing any work.  We’ll write it, and you add your signature ….. here.

Don Corleone was an honest man by comparison.  He was into good old fashioned brown-bag-on-the-park-bench corruption where there was no question regarding what it was; both morally and legally ….. wrong.  And if you cross me …. you’re dead.

And he liked cats and children.

Chris Perley
Thoughtscapes

Chris Perley has a background in the field, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

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Reimagining Landscapes I: Rejecting the Machine


How do you separate the personal from the professional?  We are taught to deal in the ‘objective’, in measured things.  But the whole idea of reimagining how we look at landscapes – our so-called ‘working lands’ of farms and forests and beyond – surely opens us to a reimagining of what is the essence of knowing a place, a piece of land, as connected, always connected, to other forms of life (bio) and the other forms of material (physical).  What is a landscape?  We have to look to the wider system because whatever we do, we do to the whole; and we never do just one thing within a complex and connected system.

Why separate?  You cannot fully know landscapes if you do.  You cannot understand, and therefore cannot make the wise decisions without that sense of a functioning whole.  If you remove the children playing, or the caddisflies in the stream, if you do not extend the effects of fertiliser beyond mere pasture growth – on to soil biology and carbon, and then infiltration rates, and then drought, and then back to economic health, for just a start (I could go on and on) – then you are less wise, not more.  Your focus is the problem, not the solution.

All those connections and functions are part of the system.  The ‘cleverness’ of disassociated agronomy cannot compensate for the trade-offs it may create when applied without context.  Without the wisdom to make the right choice instead of focusing simply on, say, increasing inputs to maximise yields, or increasing scale to reduce costs – it cannot see the consequences that are obvious to those who can connect.  Reimagining includes ensuring you look to those patterns and connections beyond a single discipline.  Ask the question, “What else have we done?”  Because there is always something else.

Lines of connection and feedback ripple out from any act.  We’ve put on a pedestal the idea that we can think and act within a measured box, when there is no box.  The cleverness of any act is as of nothing beforeThe cleverness of the act the wisdom of the choice.  Looking at land as if it is a reducible machine has turned that truth on its head.  Disconnected cleverness has come to trump wisdom, and for each problem it creates, another piece of cleverness is devised; what Willard Cochrane called “the technology treadmill,” where the economic, social and environmental health of a place degrades until we lose Arcadia.  Agronomists and other technocrats ought to read Plato.  The story of Arcadia’s loss is being repeated not because technology is bad, but because it alone cannot make the right choices without a reimagined concept of the whole.

Arcadia

So look to land as an integrated whole.  People live in it.  Animals are born and die.  Energy flows from the sun to layers and side connections through all the trophic levels, through one gut to another, including when we die.  There are water patterns; harvest patterns.  There are spatial patterns where the grassland edges to woodland, which edges to wetland, and then to a stream, each vegetation cover with polycultural patterns of their own.

There are economic patterns where the profitable pasture in one area turns to the unprofitable in another.  There are multiple values where the woodland gully is both profitable and protecting; where ecological diversity is an economic benefit, and the wetland a giver of biodiversity, water regulation, recreation, stock health and more.

There are temporal patterns seasonal and through disturbance big and small.  There are thresholds of change, feedbacks, synergies where building diversity and pattern begets improved function begets social, environmental and economic benefits.

Those patterns move far beyond the biophysical function and health of the any landscape.  They impact on humanity in so many ways, both social and economic.  That is the great shame in looking at land as a factory.  The technocrat focused on one thing is more than likely disconnected from the good life, certainly from the rural sociology of degrading communities and the real price decline of commodities.  The solutions lie in the reimagining.  A healthy landscape can create free ecosystem gifts and reduced costs, as well as a marketing narrative and a price premium.  A functioning landscape can create diversity of enterprise because there is kai moana, the pheasants and birdsong have returned, and the landscape is beautiful on a horse.  The emergence of the something new.

By being told to keep to our discipline, and ignore the context of life itself, we both turn away from seeing and thinking about potential, and unwittingly degrade not just that potential, but what we have.  Taken to a place where there is no understanding of broader context, then analysis alone creates yet more dysfunction.  It destroys the connections and the functions it cannot see outside its own analytical bubble.  It imagines this discipline competing with that one over there; a necessary trade-off rather than a potential synergy.  The economist competes with the environmental scientist, ignoring and degrading the very basis of the economy.   The pastoralist may treat soils, wetlands and the woodlands as things to ‘improve’ in their own factory-orientated way,  ignoring and degrading the very basis of a resilient farm system.

So here is a direct reimagining challenge to my professional colleagues.  It is all right to care and to love.  No parent looks at a child ‘objectively’, and no one would suggest that such a view would make a parent wiser; it’s the very opposite.  And nor ought we look at our landscapes that way.   Our analytical tradition of the last few hundred years in the West is but a tool in gaining some aspects of knowledge, but it is not the essence of knowing.  Focus on patterns, functions, ripple effects and connections, including your own.

There are solutions to the decline in our landscapes, and the people and economies they support, that run far deeper than the endless treadmill of techno-fixes presupposing landscapes as machines.  We need to become wise again, and part of that involves re-embracing connection, and what it is to belong.  Embrace the personal.  Hell, celebrate it!  Dare to write a technical paper and mention the word beauty.

Podocarp Hardwood - Totara Walk Spencer Clubb

New Zealand Podocarp Hardwood forest.  Photo: Spencer Clubb

So here is something personal.  Our life creates the lens through which we presume to ‘objectively’ see.  I grew up on land, caught cockabullies and koura in the creek, threw dead lambs into the wetlands to watch the eels come, lambed my first ewe when I was only four, knew the cold places from the warm places, knew when to avoid the magpie trees.  I wanted to study forest ecology because I loved Ball’s Clearing as a child, a Podocarp Hardwood remnant sitting beneath the Kaweka Range in Hawke’s Bay.  The experience of that place was all the motivation I needed.  The sounds of wind in the canopy, boughs creaking, birds singing; diversity in pattern, colour and light.  The grandeur and beauty of height and dance. The smell – almost the taste – of the air.  The overwhelming sense of something being alive; something being literally wonder-ful.

And then I went to university and learned many things about ecological function and links to society and economy, but I had to hold those memories within because I was not taught about the patterns of light and the smell.  Perhaps you cannot teach an appreciation of art and beauty.  Or can you?  You can at least acknowledge it.

Here is the nub.  Our disconnected and mechanical view of landscapes in New Zealand that reduces irregular complexity to measured and homogenous regularity has led to the continued degradation of those landscapes.  Along with that degradation we have lost values vital to community and local economies for the short-term benefit of a few who do not even seek a life in that place.

A reimagined view of our landscapes can do the opposite; create multiple beneficial Gestalt tree & lionsfunctions; take the Gestalt and make it both.  We can restore environmental, social and economic health to place.  We can recreate the functions of water regulation to mitigate or avoid droughts and downstream floods.  We can improve aquatic ecological systems and water quality.  We can reduce the boom/bust cycle of feeder streams.  We can improve biodiversity and with it the economic and social values biodiversity gifts to us all.  We can increase input/output productivity, even increase the great god gross production, while reducing energy inputs and building deeply functional carbon banks, and reduce greenhouse gases.  We can increase the quality of produce and reverse real price decline.  We can improve the economy and resilience of farmscapes to the irregular events of climatic extremes and market shifts.

And when we do it from a reimagined worldview, there need to be no trade-off between the land, community and enterprise; just synergies.

So why hasn’t it happened yet?  Because the Modern ideas that dominate the minds of those who consider themselves ‘objective’ are the wrong ideas.  Those ideas, oh so ironically considered ‘objective’ and value-free, are deeply embedded within the culture of New Zealand land use.

The unsettling of America Berry.jpg

Wendell Berry was right to frame the crisis in American agriculture as “a crisis of culture.”  New Zealand is no different.  Unfortunately, the culture has shifted from one mode – the Modernity of Colonial thought – to another not dissimilar mode, the Modernity of Corporate Agribusiness.  Both have an interest in mechanical and homogeneous production systems (factories); cost-efficiency through scale rather than building free ecological gifts, value or diverse resilience; increasing production and throughput of a commodity; cheap ‘resources’; and the viewing of both people and landscapes as sets of those ‘resources to utilise’, rather than ‘potential to realise’.

Both impose those subjective reducible factory beliefs on our landscapes with the justification of supposedly ‘objectively’ measured reports.

We need to decolonise and decorporatise our minds before we can decolonise our landscapes.  That is where the problems lie deep.  Changing that mythology of machine, reimagining that, is where the solutions lie, hidden from sight.

 

Chris Perley

Thoughtscapes

 

Reimagining Landscapes II: The Biophysical Agroecological Argument

Reimagining Landscapes III: The Resilience Argument

Reimagining Landscapes IV: The Microsite Economic Argument

Reimagining Landscapes V: The Market Narrative Argument

Reimagining Landscapes VI: Rebuilding Decentralised Knowledge and Value Systems

Reimagining Landscapes VII: Breaking the Policy-Education-Research-Agribusiness Nexus

Chris Perley has a background in the field, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, rural economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

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Trust … in our Economy


The current government is claiming a rockstar economy – never mind that most of the activity is a bubble (immigration, earthquake rebuilds & house price rises raising aggregate demand, while we still aim for 3rd world production systems producing cheap products with cheap labour and lowering environmental and social standards).

Meanwhile they degrade the social capital, and focus on the corporate commodity (cheap high throughput cost focus factory approach) rather than high value, long value chain, local ownership and batch processing.

And the degraded environment is exactly the opposite of what we need to sell at a high price into discerning markets. Dumb economics.  Reblogging.

Chris Perley's Blog

Trust on the mountainThey don’t think of ‘trust’ much when they talk about the economy. They split it up. They, the technocrats. They put such things as ‘trust’, ‘integrity’, ‘truth’ and ‘justice’ in the box marked ‘social’; something to deal with “after we get the economy right.”

The ‘economy’ is presumed to be about measured outputs and inputs, jobs, resources, costs, returns, GDP. The environment is even more disconnected. It’s just a set of ‘resources’. Easier to exploit when you remove moral consideration for generations to come, or of any need to understand how an environment and a society actually work in the long term.

It leads to an engineered future in a world they think is certain and controllable, to autocracy, hierarchy and obedience, to small set tasks, to the grind of life within a corporatised machine where free thought is a risk, and where expression of that thought – whether from…

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The Wisdom & Sanity of Indigenous Thinking


I read this line from a multicultural anthology of how we relate to the places within which we live.
 
“… helping us move toward a new sanity and an old wisdom in our relationship with nature.”  Barnhill, D.L. (ed) 1999, p xiii
 

I think that the raising of both “sanity” and “an old wisdom” is so interesting.  We are living within the sociological delusion (the insanity) of Modernity – all machines, reductionism, resources, predictability and determinism.  Cut up and live vivisection the mechanical dog – do not worry about the cries.  It is only the mechanics of the soulless thing emitting a sound.  All part of the machine.  

Live vivisection Emile-Edouard Mouchy, 1832.jpg

And then we do that to the land, and to communities. ‘Otherise’ and reduce everything to parts, as disconnected from self.  Ignore the cries as merely the market at work, all rationality and meritocracy.

From that worldview, there is no reason to judge the destruction and exploitation of those mere things – people, community, land, soil, water, forests, the air, fish, the sea.

Live vivisection. Emile-Edouard Mouchy, 1838

 

 
The claim to “an old wisdom” is also interesting.  Modernity presumes a superiority of wisdom.  Aristotle doesn’t agree.  His intellectual virtues put mechanical thinking many pegs below the practical wisdom of place and knowing the good goal.  It doesn’t matter how technologically clever are your ‘means’ (the whaling technologies demonstrated within Melville’s Moby Dick) if your purpose – your ‘end’ – is mad (the irrational revenge on the white whale Moby Dick).
 

Study the old pre-modern or indigenous philosophies of all the tribes – from Oceania to Asia, the Americas and Europe – and there are similarities.  An enchantment as well as a connection, a belonging.  A humility that there are bigger things outside ourselves.  They are strong on purpose and connection whatever their technologies.  
prometheus & fire
I’m not suggesting a complete return to the pre-Modern and a complete rejection of Modernity.  We have gained much.  But we have also lost much.  Modernity is at that point (the darkest hour before the dawn?) where technology sans wisdom seems all the rage – “Go STEM young man!”

It is the voluntary plucking out of eyes, led by the already blind, disconnected and unaware of the enchantment, beauty and potential of our people and place.  

Now we have the most dangerous of things; the Promethean capacity to destroy, without the wisdom of purpose and connection tempering how we act. 

The cleverness of the act

 
 

It’s what we’ve lost that may turn out to be the critical thing determining our future.  

Our connection to things, working toward appropriate ends and wisely choosing between the means to achieve them, in this particular place, at this particular time.  Aristotle’s Phronesis (Practical Wisdom).  A form of Indigenous Thinking, the prerequisite being that we belong. 

The cleverness of the act is as of nothing before the wisdom of the choice.  That’s the new sanity *and* the old wisdom.

Chris Perley
Thoughtscapes

 

Barnhill, David Landis 1999.  At Home on the Earth: Becoming Native to Our Place, A Cultural Anthology.  University of California Press


Chris Perley has a background in the field, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, rural economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

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Listening to the Discordant Harmonies of Land


I have stood on hilltops in the south and felt the bone-biting blast of Antarctic winds. I have felt the difference between that and the relief you get when you shift to a space three to four tree heights out from a shelterbelt, or mid way down the sunny lee slope. I’ve felt the climate shift from winter to spring in 150 metres.

Catlins tops.jpg

I’ve watched stock move in the morning from their night camp on the northeast of the ridge, sheltered from the winds, then work the gentler tops and spurs before heading down the face for the valley, and then back up to the ridge with the waning of the day to escape the coming frost and catch the early sun.  The face a route, not a place to be until the feed grows short on the best places.  I’ve worked with stock GPS collars and mapped the patterns on a page.  I’ve watched stock seek out shelter and shade at times, and not in others, and lamb in the dumbest places.  I’ve watched some respond by planting trees, and others who prefer “the good clean farm.”

I’ve looked at how the height, form and species of trees in a natural woodland shift with topography and edge.  I’ve seen pines grow only to the height of the dunes,

McBride Flood Taranaki

buds sheared by salt-laden gales, ancient and sculpted to the land.  I’ve seen them in the depth of dissected gullies reach for the sky.

I’ve seen cattle bogged in a wetland; desperate rescue efforts with a tractor and a chain.

I’ve been woken from a deep sleep by a big slip on a back face that should never have been in grass.  The land growls.  I’ve been woken by the sound of a grandmother Rimu falling on a calm night – just its time to die.

I’ve seen gorse cleared in gully systems for yet more grass, and the stock travel there once for every five times they

gorse on facesfeed on the ridges and valleys.  I’ve seen the gorse come back, and seen the helicopters fly to douse it again with chemicals to clear it once more – because there is a god called grass … and then again …

…. because you get no wisdom in the classroom, only the capacity – or not – to learn lessons for yourself.  Lessons that sink into your soul come from your observation, not from taught commands, and if you do not observe the patterns and music of the real world outside the theories, you do not learn.  I’ve seen those educators who open the capacity of minds and souls to see and think and be, and those that close them.

I’ve seen creek banks falling, and streams in flood snaking like a garden hose on the lawn, cutting and gouging a wadi out of the bottom lands – scouring away all that is good.  I’ve seen streams filling with soil like an arterial spurt from the land.  Blood you won’t get back in your lifetime or those of your kids.

Whitehead the flux of things

Shifting conditions in time and space. The patch dynamics of ecology.
Interrelationships. Patterns. Linkages. Multiple function and polycultural forms. Uncertainty and combinations of indeterminism and chance.

Variations and patterns in production of pasture.  Variations in woodlands and trees.  Variations in how animal and vegetable combine, in how water meets and moves.  Variations in the species mix, where the ‘weeds’ appear and where the ryegrass hold in, and doesn’t.  Patterns of birth and death.  Variations in the costs of care.  You don’t just see these patterns, you feel them.  And you can music when you feel.

Flux! Though we’re not always taught about the Whitehead the-flux-of-things-is-one-ultimate-generaliza-image-black-backgrounddominance of that integral experience of flux; the dominance of diverse pattern and interrelation creating something new with each step and breath; the difference in the combinations of things and which one drives the system – on this day, in this hour, in this patch.

Discordant Harmonies.  One of those books that makes you go “Yes!  This is what I see.

We’re told to presume in most cases a regularity, all the better to formulate, to predict, to regulate, to measure, to control, to command.  A presumed regularity in all things, which – like Dark Matter – isn’t necessarily there.

We’re told to prefer the one function, and make it one form. We’re told to push the complexity into something that suits the less patterned monochromatic view of life …. as a machine.

Chris Perley

Thoughtscapes

Chris Perley has a field experience, management, policy, consulting and research background in land use, rural economies, environments and communities, and is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

 

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Instead of Dam Thinking from the 50s, Look to the Landscape


Reblogging because this article is far less about the Ruataniwha Dam than it is about shifting our gaze away from the idea that we cannot change the paradigm of land use, and so we demand more dams, more fertiliser, more technofixes, more industrial thinking. But the solutions lie in the land. In rebuilding a healthy land. And that is good for family-owned farms as well. All the rhetoric toward the big technology solutions are motivated by a way of seeing the land and communities and the environment and what farming is, as all cogs in a factory. It is visionless.

Chris Perley's Blog

In the lowlands of the Otago Peninsula, within the hill streams that flow into the harbour, there are water wheels.  They stand as monuments to what once was, to what ‘functions’ there once were within our society, and – vitally – within our water landscape.

For these water wheels now lie within dry stream-beds, redundant, and could only function now immediately following a rain when the streams flush full.  As the bush was cleared, the wetlands (‘swamps’) removed, the tussock replaced with short English grasses, as soil and organic matter were lost from the land, so the ability of the land to slow and store water steadily reduced, and the streams flowed more intermittently.  And now when they do flow it is with a more extreme pattern of potentially flash-flood and dry bed.  The total water that exits these catchments is probably higher than it once was, but the pattern…

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Confessions of an ex-Public Servant: Watching the slow death of the Public Sector


Remember Geoffrey Palmer suggesting we need an it-is-not-power-that-corrupts-but-fear-aung-san-suu-kyi.jpginquiry into the public service in 2014?  Low morale and the fear culture which gets in the way of “free and frank advice without fear or favour” were some of the issues.  There were no surprises in Palmer’s comments for me.  I wrote this blog for The Daily Blog in Winter 2014, herewith very slightly edited.  Nothing has improved.  The underlying ideas are still prevalent.  And now we have Trump, whose own fear, and that fear he creates, corrupts.


Back in the 16th century, good Queen Bess said to her Privy Council of advisors something along the lines of: “I want your free, frank advice, without consideration of fear or favour.” In other words, tell me what you think, and don’t expect either a new estate, or a beheading. New Zealand inherited those traditions.

The public service was born.

In the New Zealand of 1988, they smothered it.

In 1988 that Elizabethan Privy Council ethos, that moral compass of professional independence and at least an attempt at recognising practical wisdom as a virtue, was subjugated to the new world order of Treasury and the quasi-religious faith in the Lord Market.

The State Sector Act of 1988 was the tool, implemented by the Lange-Douglas government of 1984-1990.  But it was only the tool.  The real culprit was the new ideas, Human Resources - the pot-bellied man Sam Mahon.pngthe new concepts through which we ought to determine policy: rational choice theory; a world ruled by personal gain, not a sense of community and individual purpose; a world in which all interactions are essentially transactional market exchanges – such as selling my obedient labour for your desired outputs – a focus on ‘resources’ and things, not people and purpose.

The Cult of Treasury was on the rise, and, lacking as that cult does in any self-reflection through the usual philosophical tests – clearly false assumptions, poor logical structure, observed contradictions in the real world, logical consequences that are untenable – it remains so.

This rigidity of dominant ideas, dominant concepts through which we see, was well articulated by Jane Jacobs[1].  She argued that the entrenched and false metaphorical concepts that underlie so much of what we assume are ‘rational’[2] processes, are only finally brought down when the real world provides the ultimate test – an irrefutable collapse.

When the consequences in the real world come slowly – over decades or even generations (think climate change, planetary resource limits, an economic theory based on false assumptions, as well as the destruction of the functional core of the public service, etc.) – then:

“it is seldom the evidence itself that is slow to appear; rather, observers are blind to evidence or emotionally can’t bear to credit it. This is why the crashing of the Berlin Wall was required as an exclamation point, after unheeded evidence of many decades reported that Marxism was untruthful as an economic theory.”

Jacobs argued that the salient mystery is when culture discards something that is vital , and replaces it with an amnesia. And then the slow decay begins, until some exclamation point or other is reached.

the-salient-mystery-of-dark-ages-sets-the-stage-for-mass-amnesia-people-living-in-vigorous-jane-jacobs-240062She thought that the situation is made worse by our change in focus within ‘education’ toward mechanical principles of measured standards, obedience, and dealing at the level of outputs rather than values.  She argued that, at least in the Anglo-American world, changes to our education systems are reducing our capacity to make change prior to an irrefutable – and potentially disastrous – wake-up call.  The mechanical technocrats have raised ‘credentialing’ (whether as ‘standards’ or degrees) above education’s purpose to further the capacity in our people to see, create, engage, dialogue and think.  They replace the culture of society with the machine.

Neo-liberalism presents itself as the champion of freedom and choice and the individual, but its modus operandi is highly centralising and controlling.  It is strikingly similar to some state interpretations of Marxist solutions in many ways: mechanical and impersonal in construct; hierarchical and authoritarian in practice; accumulative of power (though with different beneficiaries; states vs. corporates and the super rich); marginalising of alternative thought and dialogue especially where it involves critique of its inner workings; and relying upon ‘rational’ utilitarian ethics rather than concepts of socially-cohesive virtues or duties.

The question is, do we have to wait for the real-world ‘exclamation point’ to recognise the problem and change, or can we demonstrate an ability to think our way out?

Calls for reflection seldom come from within the group

Kennedy people need to be informed

The principle of being ‘free and frank without fear or favour’ is a fundamental tenet – a vital cultural norm – of both the media and the public sector – increasingly lost since 1984.

zealously committed to the era of neo-liberal reform, though we do have thought leaders who will question.  Back in February 2014, former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer called for a royal commission of inquiry into how we could make the public sector better.  He was making the challenge because the public service is not in good shape.  He specified how it was failing, and he pointed the finger directly at that State Sector Act of 1988 as the cause of that failure.  He claimed that some of the reasons why things are not good in the public service world are due to the rise of managerialism and the cult of the all-powerful Chief Executives, the loss of expertise, and the appalling morale.  Then he outlined some possible issues and options that an inquiry might consider.

 

Sir Geoffrey’s highly logical thesis caused a ripple of concern for a nanosecond or two.  A few ex-public servants got a little excited for a while.  I was one of them.  And then the damp squib went out.

Which rather highlights Jacob’s thesis above.   The dying of the damp squib of concern and the restoration of amnesia makes doubtful whether we can make any necessary change without a potentially very nasty ‘exclamation point’.

We certainly cannot expect it from Treasury.

A personal journey

Back in the 1990s, less than a decade on from the State Sector Act that started all the destruction of the public service – and I mean ‘service’ – one of my policy colleagues was a respected ex-MP.  I gently chided him over office coffee of the powdered kind that perhaps the worst thing the 1984-1990 Labour government did was enact this State Sector Act.  I know, a big call given the destruction and corporatisation of old operational departments, but hear me out.

He would politely riposte with talk of ‘efficiency gains’, ‘accountability’ and ‘greater George-Orwell Newspeak.jpgeffectiveness’; all cliché-laden Orwellian Newspeak non-thought Big Bertha PR leaflet barrages that seem highly meaningful to those that just love the metre and rhythm of 10-second sound bites. I’m unconvinced he believed any of it, but loyalty runs deep.

All this jargon was part of the conceptual framework embraced by some of the zealots of a neo-liberal economic persuasion – corporatise, deregulate, ‘reform’ by redesigning every social space using the market transaction and machine metaphors (spaces that were not acknowledged as ‘social’ but rather a collection of individuals acting selfishly), and privatise.

Key to that agenda was to bring the same principles to bear on the public sector, to rebuilt it in the image of the corporation; ‘efficient’, focused on its bottom line, delivering of its outputs as defined by the chairperson (Minister) and directed through the Chief Executive Officer (who were once called Director-Generals, Secretaries, and in local government, Town Clerks).

Stan Rodger, the State Services Minister at the time, or at least his speechwriters, put it this way:

“There is scope for improving efficiency in the public sector. This will increase our ability to reduce the government deficit, lower taxes, and provide income support and social services for those least able to help themselves. In the case of trading operations inefficiency can represent a tax on their customers. The essence of the problem is that the public sector needs to be adapted to meet the management needs of a modern economy. The present environment can be frustrating not only for those who have to deal with public sector organisations but also for those who have to work in them.”[3]

So the public service was painted as unresponsive, old-fashioned, out of touch with the ‘modern economy’ and wasteful.  There was undoubtedly scope for some better performance, even though he chose not to define what ‘efficiency’ meant.

Some challenged his view by pointing out that we could ‘efficiently’ destroy an ecosystem with a bulldozer rather than a shovel, so any concept of ‘efficiency’ had to be qualified to have any meaning.  You can be ‘efficient’ of cost by centralising all functions into one city – Wellington – better still, one building.  That may be true on the spreadsheet, and is certainly easier to control ‘human resources’ and count beans and measure their obedience, but it doesn’t make it more ‘efficient’ in a ‘quality of real world policy making sense’, nor ‘effective’ in terms of delivery and outcome.  It is highly likely to make the whole thing worse.  Well …. so it has.

Others pointed out that you can take accountability to the bean-counting point where most people employed either collect beans or count them, and that beyond a certain point of monitoring, the whole charade turned into a wasteful, rigid, non-thinking nonsense.  The early 20th century French had perfected this government bureaucracy, and here was New Zealand doing the same, while claiming it was all going to turn out as wonderfully effective administration.

Yet others pointed out that much accountability was more about covering your own butt by putting the brain in neutral and blaming the model and obedience to the assigned task rather than having any care or commitment to actual outcomes.  Heaven forbid you encourage judgment and the can-do attitude to local context and change over time when the situation demanded it.  Far from being more thoughtful, responsive, knowing, wise and engaging with the public in the face of a complex world, the public service has become less of all of those capacities. Sir Geoffrey was right to raise his concerns.

John Ralston Saul lambasted what he referred to as this ‘Dictatorship of Reason’ in his book Voltaire’s Bastards.  His examples of top heavy, hierarchically and status-orientated administrative minds stifling those with the ability to think and judge within any real localised context, are more than persuasive.  They are also darkly amusing, as long as you don’t dwell on the horror and death perpetrated by puffball Colonel Blimps.

The ‘management needs of the modern economy’ suggested by Stan Rodger now ring like a line from 1984.  You cannot help but smile in recognition, and reach for the Bullshit Bingo formdilbert-bingo[1]; similar to when someone mentions ‘trickle down’.  Stan’s cliché de jour – now so hackneyed that only those with robot-like Don Brash artificial intelligence do not smile – demonstrates a faith.  Treasury and the State Services Commission – and Stan was then Minister of State Services – believed truly that a corporate-style dictatorship staffed by people who know less and less about any specific field – whether education, health, or innovation – would create better outcomes by focusing on quantitative outputs, performance measures, obedience and rigid annual project plans.

I know this, because Treasury and State Services came and told us so.  In the most bizarre of meetings, straight out of Monty Python or Yes, Minister, we sat in a room while being told that those of us with practical and professional expertise in a field, in my case relating to the management, strategy, economics, environment and sociology of rural land use – were likely “captured by the sector.”  I wrote it down.  I had apparently transmogrified into an alternative reality, with a new set of alternative facts.  These people with their Vogon logic are still there.

We were told by those people dripping in a quasi-religious faith worship of monumental proportions, that we were not “objective” in our policy advice, because we had had dirt under our fingernails.  We might even care.  Values have got in the way.  On the other hand, a commerce degree that specialised in not questioning its own assumptions and completely ignored society or anything other than selfish utility measured in dollars …. was completely different.  Especially economics degree recipients who had never worked anywhere in the real world where they might be “captured”; give us raw potential with an honours degree, ripe for Treasury Truthspeak and the imparting of more economic ‘objectivity’ as prescribed by a model replete in untenable value-laden assumptions (which had – apparently – no corrupting values at all).  You may shake your head, but this happened.

Who needs knowledge, judgment and personal purpose of service if you are a robot to hierarchical order and you are defined by job descriptions and project plans. People became as substitutable as cogs and widgets.  You were not a person, you are a ‘human resource’, substitutable of course.

Following neo-liberal ‘logic’, poor public service performance must be so because their faith presumes that not only is the public sector staffed by individuals who have neither ethos nor purpose outside their selfish selves, but it is a service existing outside the magic influence of the Lord Market.

public_service ethos.jpg

Some of the Principles and Ethos that attracted many to the public sector … except those in Treasury of course.  They are selfish, utility-maximising, asocial, all-knowing and rational automatons in dark suits.

Never mind the evidence that the performance of the public sector relative to the goals with which it was tasked suggested that it was good in practice, it just didn’t work in theory.  It must be bad, so it is.  Using this devastating logic, the proponents within Treasury made a relatively competent public sector worse, when if they had bothered to understand the complex role and purpose of the sector – as a vital cultural ‘asset’ (to use a word Treasury might understand) in a viable democracy – it could have been made better.  But if there is no such thing as a society, just a collection of individual ‘human resources’ acting dispassionately within the economic machinery some apparently call a life, then there is little hope of any recognition that there is such a thing as ‘vital culture’, let alone consideration of it.

Sir Geoffrey’s call for reform is highly valid, but any chance of reforms achieving a positive outcome is dependent upon refuting the ideas that underpin the reforms of 1988.  That means not listening to the neo-liberal ideas of Treasury.  That effectively means reducing Treasury to counting beans, which they appear relatively competent at doing.

 

Chris Perley

Thoughtscapes

Chris Perley has a field experience, management, policy, consulting and research background in land use, rural economies, environments and communities, and is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.


[1] Jacobs, J. 2004. Dark Age Ahead. Random House, NY Chapter 4. Science Abandoned. p66

[2] By ‘rational’, Treasury prefers that there is little context involving shifting qualities or personal experience (staff with practical experience are ‘biased’, whereas those without real world context are apparently wise beyond compare) or, heaven forbid, morality beyond $-focused utilitarianism to sully the purity of the quantitative model.

[3] http://www.ssc.govt.nz/decade-of-change. Accessed 5th June 2014

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Reimagining the Potential of Landscape I: Start with the Deeper Story


This is a paper in two parts, or perhaps three.  This first part looks to some of the mechanical assumptions within New Zealand’s colonial land management, and a glimpse at the potential by shifting that view.  There is so much potential within that shift for a better economy, and for a better place within which New Zealanders can belong and create.  The second part will be practical – examples of woodland synergies in gully systems and side faces.

I may include a third part on the loss of wisdom that comes from being a colony founded in the days when Modernity was all the rage – all ‘resources’, racial destiny, and land, animals (and inevitably humans) treated as machines, one consequences being that live vivisection is somehow a defensible act.  I have spoken about how we as European colonisers rejected most of the old traditions from whence we came; those traditions that connected us to land and where the wilful destruction and degradation of the commons by the powerful was never without serious challenge and disapproval. (They could not sustain their rationalised horror of live vivisection thank goodness.)

We in New Zealand embraced a dubious destiny and made a factory mirroring the monocultures within colonial minds.  Our country – however romanticised for its declining beauty – is a most ‘Modern’ mechanical Cartesian space where life and land is reduced in meaning to one thing or another, made more so because a colony is a Tabula Rasa – a blank slate – for the dominant voices of the exploration age, importing technocratic extremes uncontested by those dreamer romantics and the wiser indigenous philosophies of either European or Maori tribes.  

The extremes of partition, othering, allocation, monocultural specialisation of this or that where combinations are seen as sub-optimal and where ‘either’ and ‘or’ leave no space in minds for ‘and’.  So we have grass from fence to fence with all the woodland cut and the wetlands drained, because – in the mind of those who cannot see potential synergies – that is the way it must be for the sake of delusion of ‘efficiency’.  And so we lose what we can not imagine.  Oh how the Modern mind blinds itself; oh how these extremes of partitioned and segregated parts – all the murdering to dissect – are now not even seen as extreme, simply normal.  It is a very strange normal in which we live.

What we have done to our country wouldn’t – I would argue – have been permitted in a Europe that – as Bruno Latour famously wrote – has never been Modern, has never fully embraced the soullessness of reducing live and land to machine of cogs. It also would not have been permitted if our own Maori cosmology and philosophy had held sway over the minds of those who cared less for belonging to this new land and its communities than for the adventures of colonial opportunism.  The colonial mind is a distant mind.  It not only doesn’t seek to belong, it positively works against the very idea of one ‘object’ being part of the other.

It’s part of the reason why we should seriously question any romanticisation of colonisation.  In the past and in its current form perpetrated by those who think only of power and money ‘legally’ taking what belongs to others, it represents a dispossession not just of the ‘natives’ of a land, but also of the sense of belonging and moral perspective of the colonisers themselves.  Decolonising is not just an agenda for the dispossessed, but for those who did the dispossessing.  

How we look at land cannot be anything other than a personal journey, and I make no apology to my profession for that.  It is the professions that need to get off their delusions that they see the world through an objective lens.

landscape-nature-mist-valley-morning-forest-farm-field-trees-hill-748x468


This is a personal story.  I think all stories are that, including the ones we present in our ascendant academic annals of objectivity and rationality.  It is best to be up-front about TRUTH-300x225our stories of how we see the world – and why – and to expose in the light what lies deep beneath any position – examined or otherwise.

Those academic annals are filled with stories too, with deep-set personalities, their ways of seeing the world. The best examine those beliefs, because truth is I think good, though I can provide absolutely no objective proof to that effect.  Lots of rationale, yes.  Proof, no.  That is what we ought to strive for I think – in my completely subjective opinion – an understanding, a ken, a knowing.

I am increasingly of the opinion that we don’t get that within any belief in the mechanics of uniformity and reduction of the complexity of life to some simple mathematical algorithm. We throw out the baby, and rationalise those things that will ensure our evolutionary end, because we have placed hard technique Where-we_re-coming-from - what lies beneathabove the wisdom of intimacy and connection.

Those ways of seeing are always a part of everything we speak and write, including the ‘professions’, perhaps especially the professions!  I was taught at university to view agricultural land in one way, but it grated like a discordant note against my own lived-in experience, intimacy and love of land.  The rationality I was taught was no more objective than the rationalising of a prior belief by an implicit appeal to the authority of an idea – partitioned Cartesian Modernity in particular.  Most people simply ignore those hidden depths, and presume they are seeing the world clearly.  They then function through an unexamined life, seeing this way because that is how we were taught.

Building the Lens Through which we see the World

My story is about digging down into the roots of how we see our land.

I was lucky in a sense.  The first learning is the experience of childhood, where you build connection and belonging.  You do not like your favourite patch of bush and the very best Tadpoles in a jartadpole pond destroyed (rationally) in pursuit of something called progress.  What do those people know about the feeling you get when you come out covered in duckweed with an Agee jar filled with tadpoles, or when you lie still in a podocarp-hardwood forest?  Isn’t that feeling part of the search for truth as well?

I started the professional life with the study of the broad sciences and first principles underlying forest systems, essentially an ecological systems view, the geography of these places, their history, their multiple functionality and meanings.   I was taught that there was no ‘right’ way to manage a forest, no right goal; that depended on the context, and on people.  What were their goals and constraints, what were their frameworks and their particular conditions.  Go seek context before you act.  It included being taught those agronomic and technical mechanics of assessing the relevant parameters of a site, its establishment, forest health, growth and harvest; but the deeper frameworks enabling strategic thinking within a context were always strong.

My experience of further studies in agriculture was in stark contrast.  I had studied for my forestry honours the complexity and connections of arboreal shelter systems within farmscapes.  At Lincoln College those shelterbelts – so essential for the risk reduction and shelterBelts Canterburyfunction of the mixed farms of inland Canterbury – were pointed at by an agronomy professor while chanting an empty and highly ignorant cliché, “a waste of good land.”  I felt as though he looked at me with a withering eye.  It was downhill from there.

There was only one prime focus and that was agricultural production – usually through more inputs – without any sense of the rhythms of land, or the environment, or the doomed strategy of commodity production to “feed the world.”  There was no thought of qualitative and broad strategy, just measured and narrow technocracy.  The point that in order to function well both science and technology needs art and a moral view, was missing.

There was no base of thought in the ways that an ecosystem dances across time and place.  No history.  No multiple functionality of land.  No social connection.  No environmental connection.  A mechanical, narrow, short term, reductionist and highly technocratic approach to one of the most complex of things in the world – land and the communities embedded in them.  Reduce land to quantifiably regular, people to measured costs, and disregard anything hinting at a complex systems view of life; the contingent and conditional.  And never mind art.

Forget the dance of land, the music of land.  Emphasise the march, and the soulless maddening drone of a single note.  It was physics envy; a search for the Newtonian laws of agronomy, the ‘rational’ pursuit of a mad end.  It is not only some economists who suffer from physics envy.  It is not only Time lapse danceeconomists that would benefit from seeing the world as a constantly dynamic, adaptive and complex ecosystem rather than some Modern Cartesian dream of the machine.  I’ve been trying to climb off the damn thing ever since.  But the machines are everywhere, welcoming you to the cubical and the assigned marching order of what some call a life.

The irony was that while the agronomic minds were convinced of their rational pursuit of positive ends, they were advocating things that had negative consequences for people, the land and the farm enterprise that I thought were obvious.  They destroyed the opportunities they could not see.  In the field, I shut my notebook often at some nonsense and looked around, while most people blithely scribbled on.

Woodlands on Farms

I was particularly interested in how most agricultural academics looked at woodlands within farms, and taught how they should be seen.  In simple terms, any woodland, whether forests or reverting shrubland, was apparently bad because it was not part of the ‘effective’ farm area.  A reverting gorse gully is ‘a waste’, not some indicator of a potential alternative to some poor grass, erosion and stock aversion.  Wetlands were in a similar boat.  Forests at least could be ‘crops’, but only if you factored in the ‘opportunity cost’ of having the areas taken out of pasture.  Pasture and agricultural crop was the baseline reference point from which all other alternatives were assessed.  That is so different and so much more myopic that a base that looks at the economic, environmental and social functions of a landscape as the reference point.

What I learned appalled me.  Lots of numbers justifying the either-or view that putting say 15 percent of your land in trees meant you would lose 15 percent of production, and an even higher percentage of your profit.  That’s complete nonsense!  Apparently, if you plant trees – or establish a wetland – you lose because it isn’t pasture, and so you have to include an opportunity cost as a charge on top of that alternative, that isn’t even there in the real world.  They failed to see the costs because so many were hidden as indirect costs when they are in fact very directly associated with any particular site.

So never mind that the the two cattle beast you lose every year in the bog – because stock losses

Gully system Northern HB.png

Wetland, Northern Hawke’s Bay, where stock once went to die

are in the ‘overheads’ column undirected to that site, so doesn’t count in the Gross Margin analysis you use that includes the $500 one off cost of a fence! You may see the one-off cost, but not the perpetual savings made – you see the $500, but not the annual loss of $3000.

The particulars of any one site are lost in the averages you presume.  Never mind that the areas put in trees by farm foresters are not the average of any farm – they are those areas where low production, high cost, land use problems and environmental sensitivity all combine, and where woodlands and trees provide shelter and other benefits.  A win-win, not a win-lose.

We can design a landscape of synergies by building a self-organised, low-input, low risk, and profitable agro-ecological system.  But first, you have to be able to see the picture smacking you in the head.

Report after report by the professionals within agriculture used an assumption of uniformity and complete disregard for landscape patterns that simply isn’t true.  You don’t get an either-or loss by putting woodlands in farm systems unless you are a complete idiot.  I knew it wasn’t true.  I had grown up with a father discussing the consequences to land and stock from over-enthusiastic land clearances, as well as the importance of stock health and therefore the environment within which they ate and sheltered from the storms and the sun.  I had been exposed to a few old and venerated farm foresters who had come back from the war and made a song out of some very hard land indeed …. with trees.

Yet all these agricultural farm-forestry reports going back into the 1970s coming out of the Department of Agriculture and the agricultural colleges that I collected all said the same thing – it can only be done at a cost.  The opportunity cost approach to trees and wetlands within landscapes.  All they saw was loss of opportunity and reduction in scale efficiencies of the ‘factory’.

Where was the reference point to healthy landscape function, to healthy land, to good land management?  I saw a similar unseeing delusion when researching and presenting on drought within farmscapes.  Many agricultural advisors simply saw drought as a function of lack of rain, resulting in less grass, so destock.  Making the land sing by managing it as a system?  What nonsense are you spouting?!

When discussing drought, I did not start with the nonsense assumption that land is some immutable factory.  I wanted to get across that there are things other than destocking that we can do.  We can make the land healthier, more whole!  So we started by asking the farmers, “What is a drought?” because if your farmscape *function* is such that no rainfall soaks in and holds, no roots reach far below 100mm, no run-off is checked by wetlands from whence it can be redistributed, and the evapotranspiration is running at 4mm/day, then you can have a drought a day after a 25mm rainfall.  Farmers sat up and listened.  Most consultants – the older the more rigid in their mechanical world – looked on suspiciously.  Don’t ever believe that the better thinkers and observers are the professions.  As a general group, we are not, especially when hidebound by numbers over shifting qualities and connections in real time and space.

Stop trying to simplify the land to some asinine machine of measured grass growth and stock and perhaps you’d be able to imagine something organic and alive.

It was through looking at such technocratic agricultural reports purporting to ‘objectively’ consider the economics of trees within farms that I realised that their presumed ‘objectivity’ and professional ‘rationality’ was entirely premised on a false view of land.  They simply did not understand.  I know this may come across as an obsession of mine; but perhaps that is because it is so pervasive in our country.  I see it in policy making, in the rationalisation of approaches that are the opposite of strategic in many primary sectors.

Symptomatic is a focus on uniformity and quanta, treating land as a sausage machine where the presumed ‘efficiency’ of the scale of one thing trumps the potential synergies of many things; or where production is everything no matter the future, or the consequences both inside and outside a particular farmscape.

We see in the ‘industrial’ structure of the New Zealand dairy sector.  We see it in the renaming of these various primary sectors through which rivers flow, birds fly and children play as primary ‘industries’.  The land framed as industrial factory.  We see it in the quite incredible lack of concern within the ‘industrial’ minds of the ‘professionals’ when the precious elements upon which the capacities and function of the land depend – nutrients, organic matter and soil – are washed down the ‘drain’ most others see as functioning streams.  They may even – in their myopia – attempt to *justify* the need to pollute in pursuit of the gross production god, mining their future and present profit as they go.

We see it in the belief in predictability and controllability rather than managing for the built-in resilience to the inevitable surprises and shocks; for the qualitative capacities and integrity of land.  There is no need to ride the storm if there are no storms considered – let us assume there will be no surprises.  We measure the wrong things, assume too much, and disregard what really counts because of we cannot count it.

Gully forest Plantings GisborneThis approach to analysis represents a disconnect between economic, social and environmental futures by either choice or by resigned acceptance of a false philosophical view as truth; one that sees only a land of averages, without variation, or pattern, or connection.   Talk about the loss of opportunity because of the unexamined assumptions of narrow technocrats!  Talk about the inevitable reduction in resilience and the actual increase in uncertainty by building a system that presumes regularity!

You shake your head at the obviousness of it all.  It is like being told that the dog is harmless while it has its jaws around your arm.  That is when I went searching.  I discounted the bullshit figures to three significant figures.  I wanted to know why they had this so wrong; why couldn’t they see?  What are they thinking that results in the rationalisation of nonsense?  What is their life and education story that justifies the answer they want to hear?  Do they even bother to question the norms?  Did they actually bother and go out and ask a farm forester?

I went searching for the refutation.  I had received a wake up call – the professionals are not necessarily the wise.  I even studied philosophy with a focus on environmental philosophy, ethics, and the history and philosophy of science as part of the quest, not for land use alone, but because there were all these other faiths trying in all innocence to rip the heart out of the world through what they presumed were rational means and the best of intentions.

Thankfully, there are thinkers amongst all professions. They are the ones that are not afraid to stray from the mantra of “this is what we do.”  There were excellent agronomists researching farmscape patterns in Invermay, outside Dunedin.  Gordon Cossens had production variation figures between paddocks.  He insisted that the range of production was 100 percent plus/minus the mean, and said the same range of variation occurs within paddocks.  And farm foresters nodded their heads when I raised it.  You ask them why they plant trees and where, and it is in those particular areas that are a drain on the functioning of the *whole* farm; those areas that create problems.  They do not deal in averages.  They deal in particulars of place, and how those areas relate to a wider view of the farm.

Matching the Patterns

The secret to understanding why farm foresters do well from trees lies in the patterns as well as the combinations and alignment of those patterns.  This is the alternative to the Farmland near Wharton Fell overlooking Lammerside Castle, near Kirkby Stephen, in the Eden Valleyuniform industrial model of land.  Production and feed utilisation varies with site.  Costs do not spread evenly over the landscape; 80:20 principles hold often where most costs of this or that relate to a smaller proportion of the land.  Eighty percent of woody weed control may occur on 20 percent of areas – usually gullies where the stock do not like to go.  We were neither taught to look for those patterns, nor to work within them, and so we worked against them.

Consider the patterns and irregularities of the following especially across the space of a farmscape, but also across time (think of the sine wave frequency of pure notes, and then think about combining them in harmony):

  • Gross pasture production;
  • Stock utilisation and preference;
  • Total cost including those costs conveniently termed ‘overheads’ rather than directed to particular sites (like labour, weed control, r&m, stock losses) where 80:20 patterns hold;
  • Returns on investment where any given investment may multiply the gain, or you lose it all for nothing other than a by losing soil, OM and nutrients to make both a polluted stream, a lower ‘natural capital’ value if you measured it, and a lower bank balance;
  • Potential for other farm benefits (shelter, fodder, retention of fertility, drought resilience, evapotranspiration reduction, stock health, soil holding, water regulation, ecosystem services, diversity of economic option, etc.);
  • Suitability for other land covers – woodland, wetland, herbaceous leys; and
  • Environmental sensitivity.

They all vary as patterns in the landscape; pure notes ……..

…….. and they all tend to align with the Sound wavelengthpotential to strike a chord or create a harmony; low production areas combine with high cost, low returns on investment, better suitability for woodland or wetland compared to pasture, and high environmental sensitivity.  These areas combining negatives represent both financial and functional black holes when kept in pasture.

In contrast, there are also alignments of high production and low cost in pasture – areas that make most of the money on any farm, give high return to investment, and are cheap to maintain without environmental risk.  Patterns and synergies; functions and dysfunctions; the potential to combine land health, water health, soil health, bank balance health, social health.

Economics and environmental benefits can align; do align. We just have to stop thinking in averages and maximums, and stop listening to the minds that promulgate such views. The narrow industrial machine view that seeks to make uniform and maximise the efficiency of one thing is death to a deeper knowing of land, and to the chance of creating a farmscape that provides the best of all worlds.

You would be far better to go and have a discussion with a farm forester instead.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a field experience, management, policy, consulting and research background in land use, rural economies, environments and communities, remains an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability, and is currently the Green Party Candidate for Tukituki.

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