By David Salt
Happy fourth of July – well, maybe not so happy if you’re the Earth system.
Last week the planet experienced its hottest day(s) in human history*. Though, as one climate professor tweeted, ‘an alternative headline might read: “We just had one of the coolest July 4ths of the rest of your life”’ because the mercury is still rising. And the rising temperatures are spawning super storms, continental scale wildfires, devastating floods and collapsing ecosystems in their wake.
Incredibly, unbelievably, irrationally, perversely (all appropriate descriptors), climate scientists of all types have been forecasting these consequences not for years but for decades. Indeed, serious discussions on climate disruptions were being had back in the 1970s half a century ago but we, as a society, have effectively done nothing in response.
Now we’re reeling from those consequences as the water laps at our doors and the smoke chokes our air. And, with all this and worse to follow, we’re still prioritising rampant economic development over all other concerns – ‘jobs and growth’ is the mantra of every politician everywhere.
What’s more, as the climate science is being ignored, climate activists are being thrown in jail while fossil fuel projects continue to ramp up with a chorus of climate denial and an ocean of misinformation drowning out any effort at a proportionate response.
How could anyone argue we’re acting rationally? But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe people think ‘rationality’ is going to save the day.
It’s a mad, mad, mad world
I understand the world through my experience, my learning and through the influence of the people around me. The people I have to come to trust, people I have worked with over time, have all had a profound influence on how I view and frame the world.
In my younger years, that understanding leaned towards rationality and a strong belief in the status quo into which I had been born. In the lottery of life, I was lucky enough to be born in a prosperous and stable country (Australia) at a time when the economic growth promised a prosperous and stable future for everyone. Business as usual was lifting me up so who was I to find fault with it.
I trained in science and fervently believed that rationality and common sense would solve the growing environmental problems rising up around me. I served as an education officer in Australia’s premier research organization (CSIRO) and worked hard to raise scientific literacy and promote science as a career option for young Australians.
I believed that technology, efficiency, research and rationality would help shift us towards sustainability. I was active in environmental education and expected that more knowledge and environmental awareness would shift behaviour and result in better, fairer decisions.
I wasn’t alone in these hopes and aspirations. But I was wrong.
With more knowledge at our fingertips today than at any other point in history, with a rock-solid consensus on the causes and consequences of climate change and biodiversity decline, with technology at our disposal like never before, we are not incrementally shifting towards a safer, stabler, fairer world; rather we’re careening at an ever increasing speed towards a looming climate apocalypse with most of the world’s wealth being tightly sequestered by a tiny minority of super rich.
Revelation – it’s not rational
This is not a rational world. It’s a mad world.
Though it only seems crazy if you believe that the world should be rational, that business as usual should still get us out of this mess if we keep believing in it.
Well, I no longer believe that business as usual – BAU – is the solution. But I get why society sticks with this belief; it’s central to our very identity.
About twenty years ago I was privileged to be invited by a leading resilience scholar, Dr Brian Walker, to write a book on an area of science that has become known as resilience thinking. I realised as I researched and began writing the book that resilience thinking is really all about how complex adaptive systems behave and that I, my family, my country and, indeed, society itself are all complex adaptive systems operating at different scales with linkages between them.
As I’ve outlined over several blogs on Sustainability Bites**, complex systems self-organise, are non-linear and have emergent behaviour. No-one is in charge of them and they can’t be held (controlled/managed) in an optimal state. Humans, by and large, don’t ‘get’ complex systems and are always trying to screw every bit of profit possible out of them by holding them in an optimal state and believing this can be done ad infinitum. We also reckon we’re in charge, and that any problems arising (as our complex systems organise around our command-and-control management) can be fixed with more technology, more efficiency, more command and control.
For me, all this was a revelation, and it has changed the way I view the world. The world is not rational, it’s complex. The world is not fair, either. The rich get richer, the poor get dispossessed. Business as usual represents the equilibrium that society has been operating on pretty much since the end of the Second World War. It’s based on continuous economic growth that vastly enriched the already rich, mediated by ‘free’ markets controlled by those same elites.
This isn’t rational or fair, but it does fit the model of how complex systems behave.
Which is not to say we should lie back and do nothing. Bowing to BAU is leading us all over a precipice.
However, acknowledging this complexity might cause us to reflect on the strategies we employ to address this situation. Rather than depending on rationality to win the day, maybe we should be applying a little complex systems thinking.
A rational response
For example, the latest IPCC report highlights key measures countries must take to avoid climate catastrophe. In summary the list says we must:
1. Stop methane emissions
2. Stop deforestation
3. Restore degraded land
4. Change what we eat
5. Accelerate renewable energy
6. Use energy more efficiently
7. Stop burning fossil fuels
8. Act now
Good list. Very rational. I get the logic and the priorities. In essence it’s saying all countries must operate in a completely different manner to how they currently operate, and they have to transform immediately. In a rational world, maybe we’d do it, it makes sense.
In the world we have, a complex world, today’s decisions are driven by past investments, vested interests, political compromises, and an overwhelming inertia not to buck the status quo. BAU rules, it’s our society’s identity.
So, rather than acting on the science, instead of acting rationally, our political leaders sign up for emission pledges down the line (beyond the current electoral cycle), promise ‘technology not taxes’, and tell us incremental increases in efficiency will set us on a course to sustainability (and peace and prosperity). Unfortunately, it’s not going to work, especially as climate disruption is already coming through our front door today. But these political responses don’t threat BAU (and neither will those pesky climate protesters as we draft up increasingly disproportionate laws to lock them away, you don’t mess with BAU!).
A response reflective of complexity would examine the drivers and feedbacks behind the actions we need to take and the blockages stopping us from taking them. A reflection on complexity would tell us the systems we depend on will inevitably crash, and we need to build up our buffers and stocks of social capital to better weather the uncertain times ahead of us.
Engaging more with complex systems thinking won’t yield any silver bullets but it will have us better prepared for the dark, hot days ahead. It will help us see the folly of forgetting tomorrow and simply bowing to BAU.
*How did humans respond to the shocking news that Earth had recorded its hottest day ever? We responded by more humans than ever jumping on planes to travel somewhere while gushing more greenhouse emissions. According to Flightrader 24, 134,386 commercial flights took place on 6 July, the busiest day for commercial aviation they’ve ever tracked.
**See A resilient world is built on humility for a guide to all my blogs on resilience thinking.
Banner image: We’ve known about climate change and global warming for over 50 years and we’ve done little to nothing about it. Now, with the water coming through our front doors, we’re still quibbling over the causes. This is not rational, but this resistance to change is how complex systems behave. (Image by Vogue0987 from Pixabay)