Reimagining Science for Our Future


Complexity murmuration
Where will science be in the future?  If we argue against the excesses and anomalies of Modernity – the metaphor of the reducible machine, knowable by breaking everything into soulless bits – and we also argue that many of the philosophical ideas of the Pre-Modern have merit – connection, belonging, enchantment, virtue, the irreducibility of many though not all things – then we get a curious response.  You want to go back to the dark ages?!   One cannot step forwards perhaps.
 
One of the features of Descartes was his setting up of such either-or dichotomies; body from soul, culture from nature etc.  And so questioning Modernity apparently means we want us to go back to the past – to the Pre-modern – when what we are really searching for is something that is neither one nor the other, but new, and perhaps incorporates the best of both.
 
Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. Pre-Modern, Modern, Future.  Richard Lewontin raises this new way here in his Massey Lecture series. Lewontin - Constructing a third view.png Neither pre-modern, nor modern, but a Third Way.
 
I do think Science has to work within a wider epistemological context to avoid the trap of Modernity, and our potential destruction.  It has to get out of the trap of taking Modernity’s metaphor of a the world as a machine, and turning that metaphor into a real thing within their own minds.  Parts of our world are *like* a machine in some ways, but they are not machines.  Dispassion can be both a virtue and a vice in both searching for knowing, and in acting upon that presumed knowing.  It depends.  And it is a moral (i.e. a value) position to presume that you can frame the planet, people, even life, as inert ‘things’.
 
Besides being very clear that the machine metaphor is merely a convenient – and often contextually wrong – social construct (i.e. supposedly objective science that lives and breathes the machine metaphor is based upon an unscientific metaphysic, for those who delight in ironies), science has to embrace complexity and reject Ceteris Paribus, the idea that the rest of the world remains unaffected by the focus of the effects of shifts in variable A on variable B.  You never do one thing in a complex system.  You have to be very careful in framing real-world complexity as a simple machine.  
 

ComplexityScienceScience also has to see its place within a moral policy-making world, and within a wider knowledge system.  Once you see yourself as influenced by social context, you can judge what suits a science that advances our commonwealth of knowledge, and contrast that with a science that serves the interests of private power and a dominant idea.

 Unquestionably, one of the very worse external influences on science from that wider policy-making environment is extreme Modern versions of economics, and from that exemplar of dispassionate sociopathy – the Corporate world view.  Yet some idiot in Treasury thought corporatising New Zealand government science would be a smashing idea.  It was – smashing – in a way.  More on that later.

But back to morality and a broader metaphysical milieu.  To say that science is unconcerned about morality and metaphysics is positivist nonsense (positivism relates to what ‘is’ as a ‘fact’ – the presumed preserve of science by those called positivists – or scientism).  The questions, the framing of the methodology, interpretation; all have normative influences (what ‘ought’ to be as a ‘value’).  

Paradigms underpinned by assumptions.gif

Paradigms are underpinned by ontological and epistemological assumptions

You cannot divorce fact from value.  Else why put this particular question for science to answer if there is not a ought relating to that question?  Why this methodological framing?  Why this interpretation?  Why structure scientific enquiry in this way?  Ask down the responses – why?  why? –  and you get to values, morality and metaphysics as the bedrock.  

Take an extreme, as practiced when the machine metaphor was undiluted by social outrage.  If the animal is *just* a machine, then live vivisection is morally irrelevant, moral questions need not arise.  In modern days, which we hope are more enlightened, if genetics is deterministic and predictable, and corporate commerce is benign, then corporately-sponsored genetically engineered food requires neither moral nor strategic critique.  Only  quantitative scientific critique is relevant, and even then, only such scientific critique as is consistent with the mechanical metaphysic – in other words, only critique that confers with our unquestioned metaphysics and value framing need apply.   Objectively, of course.

But what if your metaphysics is entirely wrong?  What if mega-corporations are far from benign, and consistently deal in power games and the management of public perceptions?  What if you are dealing with a complex, inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable system?  Thirty to forty thousand human genes manifesting as over 140,000 traits would suggest that is a relevant question.  The metaphysical milieu matters.  It is integral to science as practiced.  Science is not and never has been an inert soulless rock of objectivity orbiting far above humanity.

V0017128 A physiological demonstration with vivisection of a dog. Oil

Emile-Edouard Mouchy 1832 Live Vivisection

If you want to look at extremes of normative influence – of the reality of there being a sociology or ‘political ecology’ of science – look no further than money and sales.  Solving things – a moral and policy-influencing emphasis most would contest as ‘good’ – is what science has done for us in the past, and still does in most cases.  It was once particularly good.  In New Zealand, we once had a very adaptive and well-connected knowledge system from crown research arms of government departments to policy makers (who were often departmental and professional colleagues) and to the experiential wisdom of the those of us who lived and worked within a place.

It was connected, not atomised into silos.  It was collaborative.  Today we would call it a very good ‘knowledge system’ – motivated, socially-connected and caring people, working with others to define the context and sort out a problem or examine an opportunity.  Ideas and action didn’t have to go through the administrative torture of contested bids and milestone reporting.  More efficient, more effective, more adaptable, more rewarding, more motivating, focused on solving not selling.  But the high priests of mechanical Modernity – neoliberal economists – destroyed it.  They made our science more Modern, and arguably a lot less wise with the increased competitive disconnection they created in the image of their own supposedly objective idea of mechanical market-dictates-the-good virtue.

In 1992, someone with an economics degree had the bright idea of bringing the apparently superior and much more Modern social construct of corporatism and money into the fray – to improve effectiveness of course – and we got a reemphasis on bureaucracy (because scientist can’t be trusted to care about solving things) in the interests of accountability (which was supposed to lead to ‘efficiency’ which in turn would lead to ‘effectiveness’).  They also created horror stories of inefficiency, with various reports of administrative costs of 60 percent and more to ensure those profligate scientists spent our money wisely.  Nice job, chaps.

Science in New Zealand took a step back from integrated knowledge into the competitive and uncooperative silos of Modernity, and the focus of New Zealand government science shifted from knowing and solving to emphasising business managers over scientists and creating products to sell.

science-corruptedThere is a reason why many feel that short-term commercial imperatives are the corrupter of science.  Tobacco industry science.  And that is but one example of a normative influence.

There are lessons here.  To acknowledge and work within those sociological and philosophical realities requires science to embrace and learn from the Humanities, because Science is so obviously integral to humanity and to Humanitarian studies.  What happened in New Zealand science structures cannot be defined as an objective state.  There is sociology, politics and philosophy in spades.  

Acknowledging and critiquing the reality of that wider knowledge system potential includes not just a sense and dialogue around what is ‘good’ as virtue, duty and vice (rather than what is expedient and what exploitation can be rationalised using utilitarian numbers) but also an acceptance that the practical wisdom (Aristotle’s Phronesis) of knowing what to do in this place, here, now, requires an acknowledgment of the knowing of those who are connected to a community and a place over time.  We had a certain type of science prior to 1992.  We have a much more disconnected and archetypically Modern version today.   There are all types of science.  We used to be more connected with and respectful of experiential knowing (aka, the field) understanding that it does not represent an ‘inferior’ knowing, but something integral to wisdom.  

Create a more disconnected science in the image of the Modern machine, and you create a more arrogant science, a less knowing science, a less fallibilist science ( in the sense of having the curiousity to doubt rather than believe), a more fallible science that sees only what it wants to see with disregard for the charging bull, a more quasi-religious type of scientism thats place itself on a false pedestal of knowing.  And we end up with less wisdom, and the machines of Modernity accelerating toward the thresholds we are heading toward.  We increase the frequency of mistake, and possible the severity of those mistakes.

A future science would embrace complexity and reject Ceteris Paribus, which means endorsing  fallibilism and humility as key scientific tenets ; it would see and realise its place within a moral policy-making world, and within a wider knowledge system.  Part of that would involve embracing and learning from the Humanities without any sense that the STEM subjects are either superior, or that Humanities and Art live in separate Modern atomised silos that compete with Science.  And it would completely reject the continuation of a corporate business structure for government science as a major corrupting influence on these very changes to Lewontin’s Third Way that are needed.

This is not an argument for rejecting science – and it is certainly not an attack on science, however much some will see it so –  it is an argument for a better science that serves the wider commonwealth of knowledge; a strong rejection of scientism (any idea of there being a ‘faith’ of science); a move toward a better knowledge system where science doesn’t ‘see’ (metaphysically and as a value) itself as a superior part driving some metaphorical machine of reductionist knowledge, while it creates more technofixes in response to symptoms that previous technofixes have created.

It is a reimagining.

Chris Perley

Thoughtscapes

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A Curious Proposition – to Know Something is it Better to be Separate?


To know something, really *know* something, do you have to have a deeper connection? Do you have to love it, belong to it, to know it?  Or do you do the opposite, and sit outside?
Earthcare - MerchantWe have presumed that objectifying leads us to truth. Curiously this is a metaphysical belief; no ‘objective’ truth.  It is no position that can be tested using the analytical traditions … because the analytical tradition itself starts with the very assumption we ought to question …… It assumes objectivity as a virtue. And you cannot objectively analyse a virtue.
Let’s turn the question around; to know, do you have to separate yourself and objectify? Isn’t that an incredibly curious proposition?

I have sat by a rippling stream and looked for things I don’t even know I’m looking for.  I have felt good inside. I have known children, and land.  I have known dogs and cats. I have known individual trees and forest stands.   I have watched them grow and noticed the immeasurable things that make me frown and smile.  I have gone into landscapes to see what there is to see, without any preconceived focus that sees only what it came to see.  I have known purpose and concern and all the emotions that go hand in hand with attachment.Carolyn Merchant Thesis

It is an incredibly curious proposition to say that it is better for knowing to remove ourselves from all that.

You can more easily measure, yes.  You can measure those things that stand out and say measure me, those things you came to see, so you do not sully your precision by noticing anything else about that tree, that child, that stream.

Chris Perley

Thoughtscapes

Knowing

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The Fragility of Authoritarianism


I am fascinated by our propensity to tilt toward authoritarianism in certain times. They provide a delusion of hope.  Someone promises to make it all better, and something in us is attracted to the personality cult of bullies and what we think of as ‘strong’ – read uncompromising and not particularly thoughtful or engaging leaders.

The Origins of Totalitarianism - Arendt.JPGPerhaps this is why the writings of Hannah Arendt are increasing in popularity.  Arendt wrote so well about The Origins of Totalitarianism as well as the psychology of unthinking and blindly obedient functionaries like Adolph Eichmann.  A recent article in The Conversation, The Power of Ordinary People Facing Totalitarianism, highlights the trend.  People are showing concern.

But why this tilt?   It is toward an empty hope – a delusion – because authorities represent the opposite of hope for the human spirit, or for the resilience and adaptive capacity should life throw a curve ball – which it inevitably will.  They crush thought and dissent.  Faith in authorities is not just a delusion – it is positively extinction threatening.  It builds fragility, not resilience.

With authoritarianism we almost inevitably end up with the very hubris that blinds us to the truth, and kills dialogue and diversity of thought.  And that sets us up for an inevitable fall in an uncertain world.  Our world.

I know I continue to make this particular observation, and I will continue to.  It is this; those with a propensity to encourage authoritarian hierarchies are those who see the world in a mechanical way.  The STEM subjects tend – in my view – to see such structures as natural order.  It is the Humanities disciplines that reject their rigidity and monomaniac – there is only one way to see this presumably oh so certain world – because the Humanities and Arts rejoice in questioning and putting a mirror before us all.Time lapse dance

Neoliberals and mega-corporations are the worst at this imposition of order and death of democracy.  Treasury has been responsible for the design of our public service authorities and centralisation of decision making away from dialoguing communities since 1984 – all in the image of the corporate totalitarian machine.   Democracy takes away from the ‘efficiency’ of the extractive economy, which – to the corporate and mechanical economic mind – is all.

In a sense this type of authoritarianism is like having a monocultural and monomaniac gene pool, the least resilient to environmental disturbance.  Such systems are always an evolutionary dead end. They are headed for extinction because they live in a world of presumed certainty and control, and will brook no dissent that might suggest otherwise.  They may eat their own world in the short term; they may dominate and grow large as the behemoth and think that size represents evidence of their own success as a model of life – they may even appear invincible and make it to the outskirts of Moscow.

But in scales of evolution, rather than the mere blip of a human epoch, they are doomed.

The phrase attributed to Darwin says it all …..

“It is not the most intellectual or the strongest of species that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

If you want to survive as a species, don’t presume that some ‘efficient’ structural homogeneous mechanical construct will get you there.

Resilience comes from the capacity to have foresight that a shock will happen (though we can never foresee them all), the capacity for robustness to take a hit and bounce, the capacity to adapt and shift to a new system – one that maintains the functional integrity of that system.

We have come to be danced.pngResilient lands require capacities to cope and adapt – think of flood and drought, cost rises and price falls, the sudden unavailability of one thing around which you may have built your world.  Think of building the self-organised functional integrity of a social and ecological space.  Never think of life as a sausage machine, measured ‘resources’ on assembly lines.

Resilience thinking creates social structures that are the very opposite of authoritarian constructs.  Systems that openly question, openly dialogue, work together toward a shared goal without being merely obedient and functioning cogs; social systems of belonging and where those with spark can speak a thought, where artists can reflect on a different way of looking at the world; where Humanities can constantly uphold the Ethos of the Enlightenment to challenge the accepted mechanical Dogmas of our Modern mechanical Age.

I really think this is our greatest challenge – to move beyond seeing our world as a construct of some bizarre set of mathematical universal laws where the obedient march in single file is the metaphor for life, where certainty and control reign supreme.

We need to change the metaphor of life from the march through the certainty of a machine to a wild dance that embraces life in all its flux and flow.

That’s where beauty and expression replace dull order.  It’s also the rational and sustainable way to be, not to be a cog and look upon the world as nothing more than a dispassionate assemblage of ‘things’.

 

Chris Perley

Thoughtscapes

Posted in Resilience Thinking, Thought Pieces | Leave a comment

The Systems View – But what else have you done?


Why don’t we teach our kids to think like this – in feedbacks and multiple effects, not simple lines of one thing’s effect on only one other thing?   It’s idiotic.  You never do one thing.  Especially not those things that just happen to be easily measured.  I mean for heavens sake, why would that particular property of measurability make something more meaningful?  There are soft parts of any system, which are actually harder in many ways Mechanical v systems view.pngbecause they relate to contingent and conditional shifting things, not just in the biophysical space of landscapes, but also in the psyche and sociology of sentient beings.  Create hope, and you do many things.  Lose hope and you do many things.

And who would choose in any mature and wise system to only deal with the simple things, and worse only the measurable things, when judging how we ought to act.  Aristotle’s brilliant analysis of knowledge systems so needs to replace our current Modern obsessions with the presumed mechanics of all life – Aristotle had morality as the guiding rudder, and the wisdom of knowing intimately those wider issues of context (and no, they are not the measurable things) the “queen of the intellectual virtues.”  Science, technology – all the STEM subjects – were where the wise turn for answers to specific questions.  Useful on tap.  But never on top, because the view of STEM disciplines is far too constrained to be wise.  Only a foolish world would think that their disintegrated analysis could or should replace a wider knowing.

We are that foolish world.

Because we give more credence to someone producing some simple and measurable relationship of A’s effect on B (the information in this tiny box) than all the obvious questions that arise relating to the wider world of oughts and consequences.

The disintegrated mechanical view speaks of the measured effect of A on B.  It speaks of the intricacy of the task, the necessary focus on the narrow of this technology, and the concentration and training required, as if this was a measure of wisdom and virtue.

The wise person asks, “Yes, but what else have you done.”

What is the effect on those other measured variables and other soft pathways of change that resist any attempt to make them behave like a regular and immutable cog?  The annoyingly irregular, contingent and conditional on other shifting features of the wider system.

What answer would you give; more emphasis vandana-shiva-monocultures-of-the-mindon reductionist and measurable STEM subjects, or more connection to the wider realities of this context, here and now?

We see this rise in the ascendancy of the myopic all the time.  More nitrogen (A) will increase grass growth (B).  Never mind the ripple effect to soil, water, commodity quality, overall farm economics, eventual market dominance, land aggregation, corporatisation, children swimming, further emphasis on mechanical scale.  You can go on, and on, and on.

Smacking a child leads to a red mark (variable B) – you can measure that – but also so much more that is contingent upon the child and the whole sociology and psychologies involved.  I dare you to measure and predict that.  And yet it is real, and only a fool would deny it.

Demands for ‘evidence’ – whose evidence?

If you work within the wider system space, which you must if you are to be strategic, or make anywhere near decent policy, then it is almost inevitable that some narrow technocrat (an economist or technologist unhappy with open questions about GM Food perhaps) will demands ‘evidence’ of your critique.  The fact that you critique from a broader systems space is no matter.  You must come into their parlour, because they are not opening the door to come and walk in the real world.  kremer-not-everything-that-counts-can-be-counted-you-can-count-sales-you-can-count-fans-and-followers-you-quote-1They mean provide the numbers – all immeasurables being non-existent apparently –   while the strategist may have talked of all these linkages in logical, qualitative and contingent ways.

We should try to remain calm in the face of their religious scientism (this is not easy where paradigms clash).  We can point out that ‘evidence’ is subjective (try to leave irony out of your voice), only goes so far, and that beneath their own call for a particular type of evidence they obviously value lies their own immeasurable metaphysics and epistemologies.  We could point out that those philosophical underpinning have the level of belief – especially where they remain unexamined as is the case for so many of the STEM disciplines that are not equipped to question what lies beneath … any more than they are equipped to question what lies beyond and into the future.  Those value-laden assumptions are there only because of the sociology of their upbringing and training into a particular technocracy.  Is sociological evidence OK?  It ought to be.

I confess I find it hard when faced with the challenge by those obsessed with measurable monomaniac myopia for yet another number – before they will even bother to *think* about it unless their own mechanical paradigm is bowed to with obeisance from all around – their god of method, their fundamentalist faith.   I find it hard because it is such an anti-On measurement - Hubelintellectual statement.  Thought is not just about numbers.  Thought is not just about focusing on the dynamics of a small number of variables – and only the convenient regular ones at that.

In that sense, a technocrat demanding ‘evidence’ (as defined by them) of a strategist who is connecting to deeper philosophies, breadth and the potential future ripples of any act, is like a Creationist asking for evidence within a construct only defined by their own fundamentalism.

Do you need technocratic definitions of ‘evidence’ when you say that pushing production leads to negative effects throughout the economic, social and environmental system?  How about history, or the examples over in this other land whose trajectory we are following.  It is almost irrefutable if you study the history!  How about rural sociology.  How about the philosophy and history of scientific paradigms and their own fallibility.

The Desperate Need for Humanities – they Implicitly Understand Complex Systems

Do you need technocratic definitions of evidence when you point out that abuse is immoral (and do not give me the nonsense that you only measure morality using utilitarian calculations – especially with dollars), it leads to outcomes of – where do we start – lost realisation of potential, the creation of future costs, it ripples out to others.

No, you need the Humanities.  You need exemplar and case study and thought and history and dialogue and the deeper depths of philosophy and art.  You do not understand Hamlet by counting the words.  You do not understand a forest by mere measures.  Nor a field.  Nor a farm.  Nor a community, embedded in a place.  Nor an economy.  Economists please note.

Myopia is a form of blindness.  Without the perspectives, connections, depth, breadth and vision of the Humanities, the STEM subjects are groping in the dark of this, our complex Destroying the flower.pngand uncertain world.   They certainly cannot get the potential of designing self-organised resilient complex systems.  They take a flower and dissect it into material, disenchanted and disconnected measured cogs.

And they cannot rebuild it, nor create another – whether that flower relates to a biophysical space, a community linked to land, or an economy.  They make dispassionate cogs, not the passion and meaning of flowers; of a resilient, innovative and motivated community.

We Killed a Flower, and now the Cogs are Killing More

We had this ability once.  Before the conversion of crown research in corporations we had interconnected science with policy and people in the field.  We had a knowledge systems that worked, now wrecked and ripped apart into passionless cogs by neoliberal economists, money and markets and the desire of corporations to sell things as saleable fixes rather than solve things though principles of human action.  We replaced the old wisdom we had for the myopia of corporates who can only think in the narrow breadth and short-sightedness of the market.

This is one symptom of our Neoliberal Age, this ascendancy of spreadsheets, models and technofixes creating more symptoms of dis-ease, requiring more technofixes.  I have written about this lack of systems thinking in practice in Ways of Seeing II: The Mechanical View and the Treadmill of Techno-Fixes

Here is another case: we have a nitrogen problem, so we design a chemical as an inhibitor (DCD), which leads to a chemical in the milk, which causes an international scandal, which reduces our price position internationally, which reduces prices.  Think in an interconnected systems diagram – a holon of interconnection, linkages and consequence – turning off and on in annoyingly irregular ways.  I once declined to fund DCD research within landscapes.  I declined it because it Systems effects - feedbackswas a technofix, not a system redesign.  I declined it not because I could predict exactly what would happen – DCD in the milk – but because I suspected something *would* happen – another advance on the treadmill of symptoms (“what else have you done?”) – and the underlying dysfunction and dis-integration of the base landscape system would not be solved.  No, let’s research in order to sell something, not solve something.  I had no evidence of specific concerns – I did not know the outcome – but from within a systems view the research screamed mechanical myopia, which cried consequence.

Technofixes are the very opposite of systems thinking.  They treat symptoms or single variables without any conceptual vision of the whole – the biophysical, the social, the economic world around them.

Fractals

The history, the exemplars of colonisation, system collapse, the old classical stories thatgo back to the ancients of the consequences of hubris and arrogance, the poets – for heaven’s sake, read Ozymandias – the faith without that ethos of fallibilism , so reinforced by the commercialisation of science, of DDT and the rest.  See the world in a narrow way, and you will very likely fail.  And you will probably never see the feedbacks that bite back because you will not see them from within a particular discipline – especially a STEM one.

If we are not looking at the soft parts of the system beyond the models, and the multi-functionality of actions and elements (we *never* do only one thing), and the feedbacks, especially the positive (reinforcing) ones and the connected, integrated whole ….. then we are not fully thinking.

Not thinking of linkages and root causes is evidenced by those who think a minimum wage rise *just* means a higher cost on the business books (one thing).  Not thinking is exemplified by never considering that at some indeterministic point in our future a climate can turn around and bite us (what has the climate got to do with my business Auklet_flock_Shumagins_1986accounts?).  Or that losing your soil, water, biodiversity, etc. is not a long-term viable business model (I can always buy more N and PKE, eh – and there is no effect other than more grass growth and feed, right?).  Or that repressing people is entirely divorced from social revolutions (they are there to serve me, they should feel privileged).  Or that leaving it to ‘the Lord Market’ will somehow always self-regulate to some future utopia – like a nice predictable controllable machine.

All examples of blindness of thought leading to the ball tipping out of the bowl to who knows where.

Which is why people need some Humanities – to reference back and synthesise the shifting interrelationships over space and time, to illustrate how this complex adaptive word of ours actually works – not as a machine, as a complex constantly adapting system which kicks back and shifts very dramatically when you drive the ball up to the edge of the bowl.

The Myopia to Rule them All – Neoliberalism

Our current economic model – neoliberalism – cannot predict such shifts because tulip fevers, depressions, social revolutions, and environmental collapses cannot occur in its models.  It only know self-regulating (negative) feedbacks, not trend-reinforcing (positive) feedbacks that lead to system tips.  It only include in its models all-knowing, all-powerless (ha!), selfish ‘utility-maximising’ individuals & firms outside any concept of a life-support system of a planet and a community.  A cyberspace world divorced from the real world in so many different and profound ways.  And it has taken the flower of our science and technology, and our public sector, and our communities, and our landscapes, and ripped them into cogs to match their own fundamentalist faith.

So why do we bother to listen to these model-worshipping, linear, mechanical unwise neoliberal priests?  Seriously.  Why?  Why does any Treasury or NZIER Input:Output model get given any more credence than a shaman shaking a rattle over an eviscerated dead chicken.

It is the linear reductive mechanics of life that now make most policy in NZ.  The thinkers (i.e. “dissenters” who dared to dialogue and question the priesthood) are either gone or suppress their heresies to keep paying the mortgage.  How else do you explain our completely bonkers commodity and colonisation economic model – people and land being mere cheap grist for the corporate colonial mill of course.  No likely consequences there other than – in their blind eyes – more wealth, well-being, a lovely community, and a wonderfully healthy environment – right?  If they bothered to look and think, they would only see the opposite.  And no, GDP doesn’t count.  All rationalised by silly models and complex maths.  Moby Dick madness; rationalised stupidity.

At the core, the coeur, the heart of our future in this world lies this dis-ease and disconnection, and the ascendancy it has been given to the least wise and the most disconnected.

You can give it the name Modernity.  Neoliberal economics have put it into overdrive.  And they have let loose the worse of myopias – power-motivated extractive commerce – as their attack hyenas.

I do not know which beast we deal with first; Neoliberalism, Mega-Corporations, or Modernity.  I am hopeful we can have some Glorious and bloodless revolution of thought.

And start thinking about creating the bloom of flowers to replace the grinding of cogs, with we and the rest of the world as grist in the mill.

Chris Perley

Thoughtscapes

Geometry of a flower

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The Future of Managing Water in our Landscapes – Go Local Scale


There are so many examples both past and present where taking a decentralised approach to managing water in dry landscapes provides multiple benefits.  Such examples tend to be low capital as well as suited to a particular people and place – often

Johad-concept.jpg

Johad – a crescent-shaped bund placed across the contour of sloping ground

with high social engagement.  They are all in such contrast to the large-scale industrial approaches we favour in the technocratic West.  Perhaps it is the social engagement and the contingencies of place that scare off those who live in large city offices?

The local solutions often have a history going back thousands of years, from the paddy systems of Asia, the terracing of the Mediterranean, Middle East and the Americas, the systems of Petra and the Hopi, as well as the ‘Johad’ systems of parts of South Asia that collect monsoon excesses for groundwater recharge.  A Johad is a crescent-shaped bund placed across the contour of land to catch excess run off.  They seems similar to the old pre-Columbian Native American upland bunds, check dams and contour terrace systems Aldo Leopold writes about in his visits to Sonora in Northern Mexico.

The Johads’ function is far more related to allowing the water to recharge the groundwater than in water storage itself.  And the results in some areas are claimed to be phenomenal.  Well worth looking into.  Much of this water would have flooded on down stream.  They also trap valuable soil which locals clean out prior to the next monsoon and put back on the land.

You read about these examples of ancient thinking not just in articles such as this about Rajendra Singh

rajendra_singh1.jpg

Singh has brought water back to some 1,000 villages. (Tarun Bharat Sangh)

and his promotion of johads in Rajasthan, but also in the swath of books that have come out in critique of the Western mechanical paradigm of industrial scale.  I especially like Fred Pearce’s When the Rivers Run Dry, and the recently published A River Runs Again by Meera Subramanian.

Many of these systems have applicability in New Zealand, but the dominant narrative in not just the West but amongst the technocrats of Asia, is to look for the big input solutions.  The 1950s Aswan dam paradigm that result in win:lose outcomes. Decentralised systems so often end with win:win outcomes.

Paddy hoang-su-phi-vietnam.jpg

Hoang Su Phi Paddy System, Vietnam

So much of the resistance to taking up such decentralised Appropriate Technology (Schumacher) ideas relates to the way we are taught to think – not within a wide and complex socio-ecological system, but within a mechanical view of the world.

So often the construction of Johads were not supported by central and local government, so the initiatives had to be led by a small group working within a particular local community, whose results finally spread to others.  I have no idea why this is so.  I know many within at least our own government departments that would understand the principles – but perhaps the hierarchies above are incapable of the conceptual thought, and/or disconnected from those who live within these landscapes and their potential.  Perhaps – if I were to be cynical – it is the mere fact that there is far more kudos for the CEO, councillor or minister to cut the ribbon on some single great monument to ego and largess than on all these little things that actually achieve a better world.

That is the history of so many  authorities; ego gets involved, and they simply do not get the importance of working within local communities toward a common goal which requires a level of humility and question asking.  You go in as a guest, and you do not know this land in all its intimate moods.  Authorities may know centralised technologies, but they have far less feel for the sociologies and psychologies of place, not to mention local contingencies and conditions that make the central grand plan less than workable, potentially disastrous.

But then, central bureaucrats do not particularly like it when it is the locals who know more than they do.  Hierarchies are not used to listening to their own staff, let alone actual humble people of the lands and hamlets beyond the gates.

We could have started on local initiatives involving water in drought, flood and erosion prone catchments in Hawke’s Bay like the Huatokitoki, and let the ideas and practices extend from there.  Still could with the political will.

An important point is that these solutionsFarmland-near-Wharton-Fel-006.jpg that hold water are integral to so much else, so many other environmental, economic and social issues.  Water holding is one of those classic ‘sites of action’ that ripple out in positive waves from that pebble we throw in the pond of conventional, still and immutable ideas.

When you look to holding water in soils, you build soil quality with organic matter.  You sequester carbon.  You increase its water infiltration rates as well as its fertility and biodiversity.  There is more food for beneficial birds as well as stock.  When you grow more woody vegetation and keep higher herbaceous covers to reduce evapotranspiration you also improve soil infiltration rates and provide shelter and shade, more carbon, fodder and the potential for yet more biodiversity and economic value, not to mention aesthetics.

When you build pond systems to hold excess water you create water cleansing wetlands, keep any organic matter, sediment and nutrients that run off the land, biodiversity, more permanently flowing streams, reduced impacts of floods, less drought effects, more groundwater recharge in many geographies, and the chance to sit and watch a heron or hear a bittern.  Whatever the land produces is premium by any of the mega-trends of discerning buyers – food quality and safety, healthy environment, healthy community.

Never let anyone try and suggest that economic return and environmental and social

Neil Cullen Sth Otago.jpg

Neil Cullen, South Otago

performances are mutually exclusive.  I do not wish to be unkind, but if our ‘education’ system is in any way part of reinforcing that mechanical myth, then it seriously has to look at what ideas it is educating.  There is no wisdom to the cliché, “You cannot be green if you’re in the red.”  It’s actually the opposite over time, “You won’t be in the black for long if you don’t think Green.”

I think this is the great challenge to our incredibly obtuse conventions relating to the primary land-based sectors.  When will policy, research and education – as well as the dominant corporate agribusiness models of industrialism that those three bewilderingly look to as some relevant font of knowing – realise that their current systems are both morally and intellectually bankrupt?  Mechanical constructs of our landscapes, filled in their minds with ‘units’ (people included) rather than with functions whose very integrity is increasingly at risk because they degrade what they cannot see.

Look to our water as an indicator of economic, social and environmental health.  The quality of our streams, the extent of those lengths that permanently flow, the cleanliness of our groundwater, our floods and our droughts.

The stream rules the aquifer, and the land rules the stream.  If our streams are not healthy, then you can guarantee you will have problems with the land, our people, and our economy.  And the solutions lie with the way we think, engage and act within and throughout our landscapes – not on some large behemoth of concrete and capital sitting large and arrogant, like the statue of Ozymandias, in one place.

Indian water Crisis.jpg

Posted in Land Use, Thought Pieces | 3 Comments

Weave our Philosophy around The Flux of Things


Musings from an old blog about how a forest flows.  It is a metaphor on life.  

Is thinking the way AN Whitehead argued – The Flux of Things as the essence of it all, with the observer a part of the whole experience – the step we must take in order to stop dismantled the functioning life around us as if it were some machine.  I think it is. We’ve stepped away from that wisdom and called it folk lore.

 

Think adverbs and verbs – the doing and connecting words as the defining words for life.  Emphasise less the adjectives and nouns – those words for frozen moments.

 
Edited from A Forest Flows:
View anything and it is as Alfred North Whitehead argued for all objects.  No forest or field or child or cloud or city or community has a simple spatial or temporal location. They shift, they extend, they change, they are influenced from their position within a geography, a history, and through the changing lens of humanity and other beasts.  They are complex, adaptive, alive, and beautiful.  You are allowed to use the word beautiful.  They are verbs, not nouns.  They are defined by process, not structure.  “All things flow” is what Whitehead said, as all things are integrated and connected to each other, and inseparable from the observer.
 

Is this too deep?  I would like to look into the eyes of those old kuia and kaumatua from a century past; those that lived before the western view clouded our eyes.  I would like to look into the eyes of Heremaima who people still remember from the 1950s.  This old kuia had the ways of the ancients, a knowing that made her one with things.  Heremaima would leave Te Hauke before dawn to walk thirty kilometres bathing in the mist to the battle sites at Whakatu, there to wash herself in the heavy dew she knew would be there then, before a full emersion in the Ngaruroro River.  Can you picture that?  It was a ritual of remembrance and connection.  

 If you had the privilege to look into her eyes, I think you might find Whitehead’s “ultimate, integral experience” there.

The flux of things.png

Chris Perley

Thoughtscapes

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Kill Creativity and March to Nowhere


This is inspired by a conversation with a dear friend who doesn’t hug much.

Creative peopleI have a question … well, two.  First one.  Do we make room for creativity anymore – for the synthesisers?

(My friend was one of the creative ones who ran off screaming to do VSA in the sinking atolls of the Pacific.  No question about purpose there I suppose.)

Second question.  Are we now dominated by the mechanics of things – the tasks, the instructions, the prescription, the regulation, the expected unquestioning obedience, the Newtonian banality of a functionary job, hierarchical & formulaic, where dialogue and the merest suggestion of a question or a different way is treated with suspicion and fear by those whose sole desire is to ‘do’ without thought or creativity, and to climb the hierarchy one rung at a time?  

I mean, for heaven’s sake; do people never read about General Haig on the Somme anymore?  Do people believe in the delusion that you can raise a complex and ever changing thing like a child constantly exposed to the vagaries and varieties of life, and even *imagine* their life will be complete by institutionalisation in some mechanical box?  

This is the delusion of those who are so wrapped up in making a machine of everything they see and touch that they cannot hear the music of life.  They think us insane for dancing.  We think them insane for not moving to the grove.

But the music is real.  Listening to the music of life is part of the vision.  life nietzsche-music-dance.jpg

Vision without action may be a daydream, but action without vision is a bloody nightmare!  Our country has been living more and more in that visionless nightmare – musicless! – space for decades.

The two questions – any room now for creativity, and dominance of the mechanical view – are related of course.  Structure a world as if it is a machine the way Treasury and their government lackeys betrayed the public service from  1988, and you kill creativity.

I think to be creative and a synthesiser is now a disadvantageous trait in the job market.

And that disadvantage is at a considerable cost to the integrity of the whole and therefore to us all.  We need thinkers who care about something out beyond themselves.  A dear uncle who saw the demise of his bank from decentralised judgement to Sydney-based spreadsheet formulae explained it this way.  Where in the past the A-grade people hire A-grade people, now with the increase in control from the centre the B-grade functionary who loves the presumed regularity of things is promoted and hires C-graders because the Creativity is disadvantageousB-grader’s motivation is self and control rather than outcome.   And then the C-graders hire the D-graders ……. ad absurdum.

I witnessed that shift from quality thought and an ethos of outcome (what is the greater goal) to valuing the task-tickers in the public sector dismantling of the 1980s and 90s.  “You are all selfish and utility maximising asocial automatons,” said the neoliberal priests and their scary-eyed acolytes, “The world is mechanical and rational, so we will look to instruction rather than culture (there is NO culture!), and so will design the public

Brace yourself - vogons are coming.jpg

Resistance is futile

service as a hierarchical corporate machine.”

The rise of the Vogons and their guards.  Vogons don’t dance, and they cannot produce decent poetry either.

Those with ‘merit’** will rise. And they in turn will employ people even more ‘meritorious’ than themselves. Use your imagination and roll forward with THAT sort of crap for 30 years, and what do you get?

[**Merit. Noun. Obedient. “Jane obediently performed her task and so has merit.”]

And now all our processes are out of whack.  When I went and worked at a regional council I was very surprised to find that my responsibilities did not include Outcomes, only procedures and tasks.  WTF?  Asking questions was treated with shock.

Like … What are we trying to achieve?  Que?

Why are we doing it this way?  This is what we do.

Is there another way?   Absolutely not.

Are we looking at our land and community/economy wrongly as some predictable ‘resource’ commodity machine.  We’re technocrats.  Of course the world is a machine.

Should we perhaps rethink and look at the real If you don't know where you're going.jpgworld of uncertainty and surprise, which might suggest we think about resilience and building human and environmental capacities and functions that allow us to cope with the irregular; you know, a few future bumps?   We don’t deal in silly conceptual queries.  Just do as you’re told. 

They cannot hear the music.  They cannot even imagine the dance.  And so they march across the room, with life bumping against them in an annoying fashion, resulting in constant short-term reaction, constant in the belief that the bumps were an anomaly and the march would get them to wherever they were going.  Except they are not thinking so much about where they are going …. as the march.

I found that the upper levels of hierarchy were in general incapable of deep conceptual thought.

The real creative talent was below

….. or they had fled, screaming.

Chris Perley

Thoughtscapes

 

Posted in Building Regional Economies, Thought Pieces | 1 Comment

Edible Landscapes – Away from the Factory Model


Chris Perley's Blog

There is many an idea presented as new that has its roots in days long past. We too often forget that the way things are done now was not always so.  We too often presume that the ways of today are destined to remain.

Beautiful_Reflections Jacki McCarten.jpgToday we are reinventing the old idea that we can make landscapes – farms and forests – yield many things of use to man and nature alike.  That doesn’t just mean looking at a forest or a field as more than a producer of wood fibre or grass and grain; it also means the development of a finer textured landscape where neither forests nor field dominate.  Forests of old were as much about food as they were about wood, and landscapes in older countries than ours reflect the potential of small sites rather than the singular obsessions of a narrow profession.  For those who see landscapes…

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The Future of NZ Farming… Or… If you don’t learn from your experiences …. you’re f%#!&


I have a copy of James Rebank’s A Shepherd’s Life.  It was where I first came across the word “Hefted” – of animals or humans embedded in a place – intuitively in sync and harmony with …

Source: The Future of NZ Farming… Or… If you don’t learn from your experiences …. you’re fucked

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The Future of NZ Farming… Or… If you don’t learn from your experiences …. you’re f%#!&


I have a copy of James Rebank’s A Shepherd’s Life.  It was where I first came across the word “Hefted” – of animals or humans embedded in a place – intuitively in sync and harmony with place – of it – Tangata Whenua.  I’ve used that word hefted in one of my recent blogs.

And then a friend sent me this NY Times article from Rebank, written observations of what he sees in American agriculture, suspecting I would concur.  I thought it excellent.  Here are some extracts…..

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rebanks-on-rural-america

An abandoned building in Owlsey County, Kentucky. Mario Tama/Getty Images

I traveled through Kentucky, through endless miles of farmland and small towns. It was my first visit to the United States, for a book tour. I was shocked by the signs of decline I saw in rural America.

….

for my entire life, my own country has apathetically accepted an American model of farming and food retailing, mostly through a belief that it was the way of progress and the natural course of economic development. As a result, America’s future is the default for us all.

It is a future in which farming and food have changed and are changing radically — in my view, for the worse. Thus I look at the future with a skeptical eye. We have all become such suckers for a bargain that we take the low prices of our foodstuffs for granted and are somehow unable to connect these bargain-basement prices to our children’s inability to find meaningful work at a decently paid job.

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Rebanks is writing from the perspective of an English shepherd.  His words are just as true for New Zealand.

Many of us have been writing and speaking for so long about the choices we have within land use – to continue to follow the deeply mythical, colonial, commodity, industrial, “Feed the World” model of ‘agribusiness’ where we become more and more alienated from stock husbandry and land husbandry.  Stock and land and stream become ‘units’ – and husbandry is subsumed beneath the technology treadmill which grinds everything down.  We become less husbandmen (the old name for farmers – those who *look after* land and beast) and more ‘managers’ of ‘agribusinesses’.  All the evidence is there – social, economic and environmental decline – that this path is a moribund bankrupt, but we keep treating those who continue to speak from within its sightless walls – however dim their bulbs – as the go-to commentators.  Perhaps it is the suits they wear.

empty-farmhouse

But there is another path – to value, diversity, working with the patterns of the land to create – not trade-offs between economy and environment – but multiple positives.  Land is not a zero-sum game of this against that; you can design landscapes that sing like a choir – resonating harmonies.  You just have to know how to orchestrate; to build options and diversity, to hold price, retain local ownership, build long local value chains and all the civic, environmental and economic performance that comes, provide resilience to an uncertain future where climate and oil constraints – not to mention crises of price and availability – will inevitably kick in.

That orchestration can only come through retaining husbandry as the measure of a good land user – rather than some idiot measure of gross production – as if the land was a factory – whatever the social, environmental and *even* financial cost!

Read this article.  It so relates.  And when you hear Federated Farmers or GM Food advocates spouting their illogic – look to the gutted middle America – and the dispossessed who now vote for Trump because all hope is gone.  We are 20 or 30 years action-without-visionbehind the States.  And the decay is already well advanced.  Why don’t the leaders try to understand it, rather than enthusiastically call for one and all to put the hammer down – more dams, GM Food, more N, technofixes, get bigger, a bigger mill, reduced water quality standards, the right to exploit workers ….. ?

I don’t think we are led by thinkers who seek to understand before they act.  I think they continue to react … because that is the only nightmare they know.

We should learn from the lessons of America.  It was a phrase I heard today from someone who has suffered through life:

“If you don’t learn from your experiences …. you’re fucked.”

We laughed at her outspokenness.

We also laughed because it’s true.

Chris Perley

Thoughtscapes

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