what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Why we disagree about "wicked problems"

For years I’ve been searching for a book which did justice – in a clear and generous way - to the complexity of the world we inhabit; and which helped us place our own “confused take” on “wicked problems” into a wider schema. Hood’s 1990 book “The Art of the State” (mentioned in the last post) is one of a handful in these.
But by far and away the best book is one I’ve just finished reading this week– Why We Disagree about Climate Change – understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity by geographer Mike Hulme.

Hulme’s book clarifies the climate debate by using seven different lenses (or perspectives) to make sense of climate change: science, economics, religion, psychology, media, development, and governance. His argument is basically that –
·       We understand science and scientific knowledge in different ways
·       We value things differently
·        We believe different things about ourselves, the universe and our place in the universe
·       We fear different things
·   We receive multiple and conflicting messages about climate change – and interpret them differently
·       We understand “development” differently
·  We seek to govern in different ways (eg top-down “green governmentality”; market environmentalism; or “civic environmentalism”)

Climate science is an instance of “post-normal science” (p. 78). In today’s contentious political context, scientists must more than ever “recognize and reflect upon their own values and upon the collective values of their colleagues. These values and world views continually seep into their activities as scientists and inflect the knowledge that is formed” (p. 79). 
Post-normal science also challenges how expertise is understood. People with varying backgrounds want and need to weigh in on important issues of the day, including climate change. Hence, natural science must cede some governance to wider society and some ground to “other ways of knowing” (p. 81). In post-normal science, moreover, people acknowledge that there is much that we cannot predict; uncertainty is intrinsic to climate change issues. The public and their political representatives may want certainty, but it is not available in regard to the behaviour of a chaotic system such as climate (pp. 83-84).

In chapter four, “The Endowment of Value,” Hulme offers an exceptionally well-informed review of debates carried on by people with very different evaluations of what ought to be done about climate change. He remarks: “We disagree about climate change because we view our responsibilities to future generations differently, because we value humans and Nature in different ways, and because we have different attitudes to climate risks” (p. 139).

Similarly, in chapter five, he maintains that: “One of the reasons we disagree about climate change is because we believe different things about our duty to others, to Nature, and to our deities” (p. 144). Hulme describes a host of competing but important views about such duties, including monotheistic stewardship of Creation, the responsibility to care for life, environmentalism as a religious discourse, the moral imperative to care for Gaia, and romantic views of nature.
Theologies of blame arise, one of which accuses individuals of responsibility for climate change, another of which accuses socio-economic systems

Hulme maps the cultural categorization scheme of individualists, egalitarians, hierarchalists, and fatalists onto ecologist C.S. (“Buzz”) Hollings’ notion of the four “myths” about nature (p. 188).
      Hollings’ myths, which describe the degree to which people think of nature as stable or unstable, are represented by four pictures depicting different arrangements of a ball in a landscape. The degree of natural stability is indicated by whether the ball is situated so as to resist change of location (nature as stable) or whether the ball is situated so as to be easily moved (nature as unstable).
·         The first picture, nature as “benign,” depicts a ball sitting at the bottom of a U-shaped landscape. According to this view, favoured by individualists, nature is capable of maintaining or reestablishing its current organization despite human influence, such as introducing large amounts of C02 into the atmosphere. Human-friendly nature will continue to operate within boundaries favourable to human life, so the risk posed by climate change is low. In other words, we do not have to “turn back the clock of technological change” (p. 190).
·         The second picture, nature as “ephemeral,” shows the ball as unstably perched atop a steep hill, thus easily thrown out of kilter by human interference. This view of nature, favoured by egalitarians, indicates that the risks posed by climate change are high, such that excessive fossil fuel use will likely lead to climate chaos and the collapse of civilization.
·         The third picture, nature as “perverse/tolerant,” shows the ball at the bottom of a deep valley formed by two hills. According to this view of nature, favoured by hierarchalists, nature is somewhat unpredictable, but also relatively resilient, if managed appropriately. Guided by scientific knowledge, we can develop predictive abilities that will allow us to formulate policies needed to limit climate change.
·         Finally, the fourth picture, nature as “capricious,” shows a ball sitting on a line. According to this view, favoured by fatalists, nature is basically unpredictable, given that its behaviour is influenced not only by human behaviour, but also by countless other factors, including many unknown to us. Climate will continue, as ever, to pose change and thus risk to humans, some of whom will cope, while others will not. For the fatalist, climate change of one sort or another will continue even if industrial civilization immediately grinds to a halt (pp.188-190).
 After entertaining the possibility of viewing climate change as either a “clumsy” problem or even as a “wicked” problem (one so complex that some proposed solutions end up undermining other solutions), Hulme concludes that climate is not a “problem” to be solved at all. Instead, it is an opportunity to transform how we understand ourselves and relate to one another.
The opportunity favoured by Hulme becomes clear in his discussion of what he calls the four leading “myths” of climate change: Lamenting Eden, Presaging Apocalypse, Constructing Babel, and Celebrating Jubilee.
All four myths are taken from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which retains some of its original animating force, even though it has become marginalized in secular Euro-American cultures. They are
     ·         Lamenting Eden is the myth adhered to by postmodern greens who bemoan the loss of pristine nature and simpler ways of life.
·         Presaging Apocalypse is the myth adhered to by traditional conservatives who depict climate change in terms of calamities that exact cosmic retribution for human depravity, notions with a long and often  critically unscrutinized lineage.
·         Constructing Babel is the myth adhered to by rational moderns who, as in the Genesis myth of Babel, seek to become like God by developing technological power. Whereas the peoples at Babylon sought to build a tower reaching to heaven, contemporary geoengineers propose technical means to gain control over climate.
·         The fourth and final myth, Celebrating Jubilee, is consistent with Hulme’s vision of what climate change can do for us. Jubilee takes its name from the Jewish Torah, according to which every 50 years “soil, slaves and debtors should be liberated from their oppression.” Metaphorically, then, Celebrating Jubilee encourages us think about climate change in terms of morals and ethics, and “offers hope as an antidote to the presaging of Apocalypse” (pp. 353, 354)
An excellent comparative review of Hulme's book can be read here.

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