By David Salt
Revelations 1-3 (according to the ‘Book of Salt*’)
1. The world is not rational, it’s complex
Promoting strategies based on frameworks of ‘rationality’ without consideration of complexity invariably fail, often creating bigger problems in the longer term.
2. Good governance is the foundation of all good decisions
A good decision is more about the process of making a decision than the outcome of any particular decision. Don’t get too hung up by individual outcomes, always look under the bonnet of how that decision came about.
3. Justice and equity are central to any framing of sustainability
Ignoring the poor, the dispossessed and the marginalised in any solution is unfair. More than that, it’s unsustainable as leaving people behind, depriving them of having a say, will create a climate of mistrust and fear which will enable the spread of misinformation and hate which, in turn, sows uncertainty, division and societal breakdown.
Let me justify these assertions:
The world is not rational
The world is not rational, it’s complex. This was my first big revelation, discussed in my last blog (Don’t think this is rational – it’s a mad, mad world). The world is breaking down around us because of climate disruption while our political leaders are completely focussed on jobs and growth, and the cost of living. Scientists of all walks are screaming and begging us to respond to the growing climate crisis while our political leaders ramp up laws to more heavily punish climate activists who dare to block the traffic or disrupt an art gallery. Muck around with BAU (business as usual) and you paint a target on your back. You’ll be harried by climate deniers and ignored and/or persecuted by society’s elites.
This is madness but it makes more sense if you stop believing it’s a rational world and have some understanding of complex systems.
Scientists, on the whole, are rational beasts. They believe in evidence, analysis and logic. The world is going to hell in a handbasket. The evidence is incontrovertible; the water is lapping at our doors. The analysis is crystal clear. Human activity is changing the composition of the atmosphere which is causing climate change (and now climate disruption). And the logic that follows is unassailable, we need to modify human activity, reduce and reverse our carbon emissions to avoid societal collapse.
This is a message the science sector has been sending for over half a century, but vested interests have denied its import, obfuscated and delayed any effective response. In response, scientists have shouted louder, and raised the rhetoric to ever greater incendiary heights. Society’s response has been by and large to switch off. Then a monster weather event hits and our leaders crawl behind excuses that ‘no-one could have known’, ‘unprecedented’ and ‘1 in a 1000 year’ occurrence.
This is crazy, but it makes more sense if you stop thinking it’s a rational world and that rationality will save the day, and try to see the world as a complex adaptive system. As revelations go, I think this is a biggie. Summarising it into a slogan, on the other hand, is not so easy but I’ll give it ago at the end of the blog.
In attempting to deal with the complex world around us, I have two more revelations* that might help us navigate this complexity. They revolve around truth and justice.
Good governance = truth
Every decision announced by every government on the planet will have supporters and detractors. A new coal mine here, a national park opened over there, will aways get one group cheering and another group jeering. We judge every decision on what we think the merits of the likely outcomes will be.
Having worked for environmental decision scientists for most of the last decade, it slowly dawned on me that the outcome of any decision while important was secondary to the process by which that decision was made.
A good decision for the environment is one that is transparent, efficient and effective; that came about with real stakeholder engagement and support; that enables learning; and something that serves as a stepping stone to even better decisions down the line. In other words, good decision making is a process (a culture) rather than a destination (a specific outcome), and the keystone to good decision making is sound governance: transparency, accountability and inclusivity. And if you get the basics of good governance right, you’re also well on the way to delivering justice and dealing with uncertainty and complexity.
Real inclusion = justice
Justice is important if we respect human rights and are true to commitments we have made (through our national governments) to multiple international conventions and agreements such as the Sustainability Development Goals. We said we’d leave nobody behind so we should be working towards that end.
But ‘leaving nobody behind’ is not just about making allowances for the poor and the dispossessed through top-down decision making in which our elites decide a certain portion of the cake needs to go to the disadvantaged (because ‘we’ said it should be this way). It requires an acknowledgement of their disempowerment, their representation at the decision-making table and a genuine demonstration that the gaps between the richest and the poorest are being addressed and reduced.
Real inclusion requires these three steps at a minimum and, without them, justice cannot be delivered.
And it’s important that it is delivered not just because we said we’d do it, but because the failure to deliver real justice erodes social capital (in the form of trust, co-operation, good leadership, effective networking and communication). If social capital declines too much then society turns on itself, the worst thing that can happen in a time of climate disruption and growing uncertainty.
If you need any proof of this, consider how disinformation and conspiracy thinking ripped apart rational efforts to inoculate society against COVID. Indeed, the same bad actors are doing the same job on our efforts to combat climate change. Disinformation and conspiracy thinking, hypercharged by social media and AI, are particularly potent when significant slabs of society stop believing that governments and leaders are operating in their best interests. And this happens when they are left out in the cold with the perception that the elites are never going to share their power and that they, the dispossessed, will never have a seat at the decision-making power.
Revelations, the slogan
In truth, I think I’d need to write several books with multiple case studies illustrating my points to convince you of the validity of my three revelations; but who’s got the time. In any event, only a tiny segment of society would read them, and those people are probably too ‘rational’ to support them or would simply be out to destroy them.
In lieu of multiple books, how about a catchy three-word slogan? Superman got by on ‘truth, justice and the American Way’, an excellent case study in superpower ‘exceptionalism’ (and not in any way a viable solution to the challenges currently engulfing us).
How about ‘justice, truth and complexity’ for an enduring solution to sustainability? Nah, it really doesn’t cut it, does it? ‘Complexity’ is not an idea easily engaged with, and doesn’t work well in a slogan.
Looking back over my past blogs and readings on resilience, the word I think I’d substitute here is ‘humility’. If you accept that humans are not in control, that you can’t hold nature in some mythical ‘optimal state’, that good resilience thinking is all about understanding the variability of the natural systems around us (on which we depend) and living within those constraints – if you do all these things then you are acknowledging complexity and demonstrating ‘humility’.
So, do you want to save the world? Justice, truth and humility is the path you need to tread.
Turning this slogan into useful policy prescriptions may take a few more blogs.
*A revelation is an act of revealing or communicating a divine truth. It often has a sacred connotation. I don’t believe in a divine god so I’m using the word here to describe basic truths that were ‘revealed’ to me through my work and associations with academics working in the fields of complex science, decision science and sustainability. I use the word ‘revelation’ because when I appreciated the underlying logic of a complex systems framing of the world, everything suddenly made sense. It was an epiphany.