Zero carbon action

nz-ghg.pngThe Zero Carbon Bill is most likely the most important piece of legislation to be debated and enacted in New Zealand’s history. No other law has been such a stark reminder of the existential crisis the whole planet is facing.

In signing the Paris Agreement, New Zealand agreed to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C and to make efforts to limit it to 1.5°C. In 2014, New Zealand contributed 0.17 per cent to the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. However, on a per capita basis, New Zealand is a significant emitter – the 21st highest contributor in the world and fifth highest within the OECD (other developed nations).

The proposal to be debated relates to targets of 10% methane reduction on 1990 levels by 2030, and 24-47% reductions by 2050; and establishing a series of emissions budgets to act as stepping stones towards the 2050 target of zero carbon dioxide.

However, the question is the speed and amount of action NZ will take? The Global Warming Potential (GWP) of methane over a 20 year period is 80 times higher than that of carbon dioxide, and the GWP of nitrous dioxide is 298 times than that of carbon dioxide over a 100 year period.

Agriculture is the major contributors of both methane and nitrous dioxide so the question arises whether it is moving fast enough? The science points to a high likelihood that instead of gradual heating of the planet we might see a rapid phase change, and the aggressive GWP of agricultural green house gases could contribute to a tipping point.

The target of reducing methane emissions by 10% by 2030 appears to be more of a measure the reflects interests of the agricultural lobby rather than a precautionary approach towards zero emissions based on the current scientific consensus on the reductions needed to prevent further self-reinforcing feedback loops from driving further temperature increases. The energy sector is also likely to lobby in favour of the protection of their current revenue streams.

Globally, governments are still in the early stages of exploring a transition to new non-fossil fuel economies. Currently the global economy including agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and there is a very high risk that political compromise will delay the end of outmoded practices.

Given the urgency for rapid green house gas emissions to limit self-reinforcing climate feedback loops, even a 2 or 3 year delay before embarking on a path of drastic emissions reductions may lead the climate into a territory where any attempts to limit the average temperature rise to 2°C or less become futile.

Adaptation to potentially severe climate change

In order to mitigate the risk that humanity will not move fast enough to avoid social and environmental crises, we should prepare ourselves by concentrating on our ability to adapt. The Zero Carbon Bill’s discussion document includes a section on adaptation for this purpose.

From a scientific perspective, based on the data available and the observable trends, actions to de-carbonise the economy by 2050 are likely inadequate. Firstly the time frame is not aggressive enough to prevent potentially catastrophic levels of warming, and secondly given the complexity of the climate there is also an urgent need for actions based on the precautionary principle.

In the same way that no one would allow their children to an board an airplane if the risk of a deadly crash would be 10% (or even 0.1%) we should not have blind confidence in our collective ability of de-carbonise the global economy in time to prevent severe climate changes.

Adaptive actions must consider scenarios of at least 4°C of warming by 2100 and the likely consequences of such levels of warming in terms of

  • sea level rise,
  • impact on agriculture and food production,
  • the spread of diseases,
  • increases in extreme / catastrophic weather events,
  • the ability of local communities to cope with these consequences.

Preparing for adaptation to severe climate change must seriously consider the risk social collapse at local, regional, national, and even transnational levels, and the options that are available to reduce the risk and to contain the impact.

In a global economy, when a major event of climate induced social collapse occurs in any geography that our economic supply chains depend on, we can not assume smooth continued operation of the global economic and financial system. Furthermore any de-carbonisation initiatives that depend on concepts such as financialised emission trading schemes may turn out to be ineffective.

Essential technological support for adaptation

Preparation for potentially severe climate change and economic disruption is only possible with the help of advanced economic and ecological modelling and simulation tools that don’t make implicit (hard-coded) assumptions about the way our economy works. In this context financial economic modelling techniques are best inadequate if not useless.

We need a suitable multi-dimensional economic and ecological modelling tool for reasoning about human collaboration and resource flows at various levels of scale that can be configured on demand, to reflect emergent economic and ecological practices that may differ radically from current “best practice”.

The human lens is a meta language that can be used to design a multi-dimensional modelling and simulation tool for resource flows between economic agents as well as resource flows between ecological systems and economic systems.

humanlens.png

The human lens provides thirteen categories that are invariant across cultures, space, and time – it provides an ideology independent reasoning framework for exploring different forms of human collaboration on our planet. The human lens allows us to make sense of the world and the natural environment from a dynamic perspective, to evolve our value systems, and to structure and adapt human economic endeavours accordingly.

The human lens can be used to model all aspects of the relationships between economic agents and all aspects of collaboration within economic agents. Furthermore the fractal characteristic of the human lens allows the representation of groups of collaborating economic agents and the representation of abstract relationships between such groups.

Agent based economic and ecological models can be created and populated with available data and assumptions (scenarios) about economic and ecological practices at various levels of scale in time and space, and these models can then be used

  1. to run agent based simulations of activities in the economic and ecological spheres to explore different scenarios and their implications,
  2. to generate corresponding multi-dimensional economic and ecological accounting tools that can be used to coordinate human economic activities.

In an increasingly unpredictable world that can easily be disrupted by severe climate related events, a modelling and simulation tool as described above may be essential for preventing or limiting social collapse, allowing local populations to rapidly explore the viability of new sequences of adaptive actions, before jointly agreeing on and committing to specific (and potentially radical) changes in economic and ecological practices.

Creating the right environment for adaptation

At the moment, the way we respond and adapt to climate change impacts is not well coordinated. Many of the risks, impacts and actions to adapt are dealt with across a number of different legislative and regulatory regimes.

There are gaps in our information. We have some knowledge about the physical impact of sea-level rise on our coastlines and communities but we currently don’t know much about the impact that rising rising seas and temperatures will have on our economic and ecological systems. We do not know what unwanted plants and animals might arrive and thrive as a result, or the impact of ongoing extreme weather events on production in the primary sector. There is more work to do to understand the possible impacts on our health, biodiversity and culture over time.

The Zero Carbon Bill could include requirements in law that we must take action to understand the risks and have a plan to manage them. Setting up the right tools for decision-makers would help us consider the risks to the whole of society and the economy. We could also introduce ways to encourage or require some organisations to share more information on their exposure to climate change risks.

Onwards towards adaptation and collaboration at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 7 September (Auckland) and 14 September (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.


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Aiming for continuous de-growth

The biggest challenge of the Anthropocene is the collective mind shift needed to reverse the growing ecological footprint of the human presence on this planet. It is not enough to aim for a carbon neutral economy sometime later this century.

Time and trusted collaboration are our scarcest resources. The former is a hard constraint and the latter is the critical cultural variable on which our future depends. 

The Hothouse Earth paper generated ripples in the scientific community last year. A year later countries like NZ still aim at a 2050 target for zero carbon. Change at this pace won’t shift the trajectory. It only creates an illusion of safety. Ecological collapse may catch up with us much faster than rising temperatures and sea levels.

The IPBES report on biodiversity and ecosystem services released this month highlights the rapid decline of biodiversity due to human economic activity and the lack of progress on addressing the root causes.

IPBES2019-progress.jpg

Material consumption per capita continues to rise. As a consequence living biomass extraction has doubled over the course of the last thirty years and use of fertiliser has gone up by around 60% just within the last decade.

IPBES2019-footprint

Two misconceptions stand in the way of making any significant change:

  1. Attempting to measure our ecological footprint in monetary terms
  2. Thinking that consumption per capita or GDP growth are useful metrics of social progress and human well-being

The word “collapse” can be useful to underscore the extent to which human societies need to adapt and unlearn the suicidal cultural practices of the Capitalocene. We can chose between a “collapse of human ecological footprint” based on a conscious and significant reduction of cultural and technological complexity or an “ecological collapse, including human population collapse” resulting from a perpetuation of the behaviours that are slowly but surely killing us all.

The former kind of collapse (de-growth) need not be experienced as negative, especially when being cognisant of the alternative.

Realistically both kinds of collapse will occur in parallel, and some communities may be able to avoid the latter form of collapse to a larger extent than others. The IPBES report summarises key points of intervention (leverage) that could enable transformative change.

IPBES2019

Measuring ecological footprint

The human ecological footprint can be measured directly in terms of living biomass extraction, levels of pollution released into the biosphere, and rates of extinction. Corresponding metrics are quantifiable in physical units, and the same goes for setting desirable targets and measuring progress against targets.

Attempts at translating physical units into financial metrics are unhelpful and distract from the challenge at hand. As humans we depend on healthy food, clean air and water, and any disruption or over-exploitation of the ecological systems that provide us with these life sustaining resources is best accounted for in raw physical units, as  this allows a scientific approach to managing genuinely scarce and limited resources.

Construction of financial derivatives based on physical ecological metrics firstly introduces assumptions typically made by people who are not directly impacted by the ecological degradation that is being evaluated, and secondly it creates the illusion as if the resulting number can easily be added to other numbers from very different domains to arrive at an aggregate metric of ecological health.

As humans we need to breathe, drink, eat, exercise, and sleep well as a prerequisite for physical health and other species in the planetary ecosystem have similar non-fungible requirements.

We can’t compensate for polluted air by drinking, eating, exercising, or sleeping more, in fact in polluted air, on bad days, it may be better to exercise less, but this is not a viable strategy for staying healthy in the longer term. Similarly we can’t compensate for poor quality or too little food with cleaner water. To stay healthy we need to optimise the use of multiple scarce resources simultaneously and largely independently.

Hence all the above prerequisites for physical health are non-fungible and are not accounted for in appropriate ways by any financialised econometric models.

The only way of avoiding bias and dangerous oversimplification is to perform ecological accounting in terms of relevant physical units.

Until fairly recently we did not have the technologies to keep track of all the relevant metrics and resource flows, but the situation has changed radically with the development of the internet, with advanced sensor technologies, and with the data storage and computation power that is available today.

Measuring human well-being

Human well-being can be measured directly in terms of access to healthy food, clean air and water, and via survey data relating to the social dimensions of well-being. Many of the corresponding metrics are quantifiable in physical units and the remainder depend on qualitative human self-assessment.

Attempts at quantifying and aggregating the social dimensions of well-being via financial metrics are unhelpful and misleading. It is well-known that any money beyond the level needed to have access to a healthy home, healthy food, clean air and water, and meaningful social activities does not contribute to human well-being. There is a strong case to be made to reduce the reliance on money when attempting to estimate human well-being.

In particular in developed countries many people currently perform jobs that don’t contribute to human well-being in any way, and some people are ready to admit that their work is probably making the world a slightly worse place. However, the ideology underpinning our education system teaches us that for most (all?) practical purposes humanity can be reduced to numerical models of a global financialised economy and that collaborating groups of humans can be reduced to competing individuals in a financialised global job market.

The absurdity of the construction is quite apparent when condensed to the essence. But when

  • the majority of humans live in cities,
  • and are therefore unable to grow their own food,
  • and access to shelter and other basic services is dependent on access to money,

the corruptive power of money is not to be underestimated.

We can continue to live in cities and rely on science and specialisation to develop complementary skills, bodies of knowledge, and technologies, but we will have to rethink how we collaborate and manage genuinely scarce physical resources at a fundamental level.

The use of money has a history of less than 10,000 years – a very short period of time within the frame of human evolution. Historically debt jubilees were common practice, based on people’s understanding that money is just a simple and crude tool for coordinating access to scarce resources, and that interest bearing debt in particular is an instrument for maintaining social power differentials rather than a tool that reflects value creation.

A concrete example of deadly economics

The development of the Boeing 737 MAX provides a good case study of capitalistic busyness logic.

The recipe for return on investment

  1. Letting cost cutting bean counters make decisions
  2. Replacing expensive domain expertise and safety conscious design with cheap software hacks
  3. Overconfident software developers with no interest in understanding the domain – apparently “software is eating the world”
  4. Blind faith in market forces, dumbing down the expertise of the regulator to minimise regulator costs
  5. Smart marketers who only make safety critical features available as an expensive optional extra feature and provide customers with confusing / incorrect information
  6. Greedy sales people and executives

The sections highlighted in the extracts below elaborate the synopsis above. When reading, please consider that exactly the same logic has been used for many decades to run entire economies and the global monetary system.

You don’t need to understand anything about ecology to know this story does not have a happy ending when scaled up to collective human behaviour at a global level, no matter how you set the economic dials on the CASH (Capital Accumulation Software and Hardware) engine.

The details

New York Times, 8 April 2019

Early on, sales lagged Boeing’s biggest competitor, McDonnell Douglas. In 1972, Boeing had delivered just 14 of the jets, and it considered selling the program to a Japanese manufacturer, said Peter Morton, the 737 marketing manager in the early 1970s. “We had to decide if we were going to end it, or invest in it,” Mr. Morton said.

Ultimately, Boeing invested. The 737 eventually began to sell, bolstered by airline deregulation in 1978. Six years later, Boeing updated the 737 with its “classic” series, followed by the “next generation” in 1997, and the Max in 2017. Now nearly one in every three domestic flights in the United States is on a 737, more than any other line of aircraft.
Each of the three redesigns came with a new engine, updates to the cabin and other changes. But Boeing avoided overhauling the jet in order to appease airlines, according to current and former Boeing executives, pilots and engineers, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the open investigations.

Airlines wanted new 737s to match their predecessors so pilots could skip expensive training in flight simulators and easily transition to new jets. Boeing’s strategy worked. The Federal Aviation Administration never required simulator training for pilots switching from one 737 to the next.

“Airlines don’t want Boeing to give them a fancy new product if it requires them to retrain their pilots,” said Matthew Menza, a former 737 Max test pilot for Boeing. “So you iterate off a design that’s 50 years old. The old adage is: If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

IEEE Spectrum, 18 April 2019

In the 737 Max, only one of the flight management computers is active at a time—either the pilot’s computer or the copilot’s computer. And the active computer takes inputs only from the sensors on its own side of the aircraft.

When the two computers disagree, the solution for the humans in the cockpit is 
to look across the control panel to see
 what the other instruments are saying and then sort it out. In the Boeing system, the flight
 management computer does not “look 
across” at the other instruments. It 
believes only the instruments on its side. It doesn’t go old-school. It’s modern. It’s software.

This means that if a particular angle-of-attack sensor goes haywire—which happens all the time in a machine that alternates from one extreme environment to another, vibrating and shaking all the way—the flight management computer just believes it.

It gets even worse. There are several other instruments that can be used to determine things like angle of attack, either directly or indirectly, such as the pitot tubes, the artificial horizons, etc. All of these things would be cross-checked by a human pilot to quickly diagnose a faulty angle-of-attack sensor.

In a pinch, a human pilot could just look out the windshield to confirm visually and directly that, no, the aircraft is not pitched up dangerously. That’s the ultimate check and should go directly to the pilot’s ultimate sovereignty. Unfortunately, the current implementation of MCAS denies that sovereignty. It denies the pilots the ability to respond to what’s before their own eyes.

Like someone with narcissistic personality disorder, MCAS gaslights the pilots. And it turns out badly for everyone. “Raise the nose, HAL.” “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

In the MCAS system, the flight management computer is blind to any other evidence that it is wrong, including what the pilot sees with his own eyes and what he does when he desperately tries to pull back on the robotic control columns that are biting him, and his passengers, to death.

In the old days, the FAA had armies of aviation engineers in its employ. Those FAA employees worked side by side with the airplane manufacturers to determine that an airplane was safe and could be certified as airworthy.

As airplanes became more complex and the gulf between what the FAA could pay and what an aircraft manufacturer could pay grew larger, more and more of those engineers migrated from the public to the private sector. Soon the FAA had no in-house ability to determine if a particular airplane’s design and manufacture were safe. So the FAA said to the airplane manufacturers, “Why don’t you just have your people tell us if your designs are safe?”

The airplane manufacturers said, “Sounds good to us.” The FAA said, “And say hi to Joe, we miss him.”

Thus was born the concept of the “Designated Engineering Representative,” or DER. DERs are people in the employ of the airplane manufacturers, the engine manufacturers, and the software developers who certify to the FAA that it’s all good.

Now this is not quite as sinister a conflict of interest as it sounds. It is in nobody’s interest that airplanes crash. The industry absolutely relies on the public trust, and every crash is an existential threat to the industry. No manufacturer is going to employ DERs that just pencil-whip the paperwork. On the other hand, though, after a long day and after the assurance of some software folks, they might just take their word that things will be okay.

It is astounding that no one who wrote the MCAS software for the 737 Max seems even to have raised the possibility of using multiple inputs, including the opposite angle-of-attack sensor, in the computer’s determination of an impending stall. As a lifetime member of the software development fraternity, I don’t know what toxic combination of inexperience, hubris, or lack of cultural understanding led to this mistake.

But I do know that it’s indicative of a much deeper problem. The people who wrote the code for the original MCAS system were obviously terribly far out of their league and did not know it. How can they implement a software fix, much less give us any comfort that the rest of the flight management software is reliable?

IEEE Spectrum, Comment, 19 April 2019

Very good analysis, but fatally incomplete. One really essential reason those planes crashed was that each time the MCAS triggered, it acted like it was the first time. If it added 1 degree of trim last time, it adds a second this time, a third next time, up to the five degrees that runs the trim all the way to the stops. A second reason is that, under the design still on file at the FAA, it could only add a maximum of 0.8 degrees (each time). This was raised to 2.4 degrees after testing, so only two hits could, in principle, put you almost to the stops. A third was that the only way to override the MCAS was to turn off power to the motor that worked the trim. But above 400 knots, the strength needed to dial back the trim with the hand crank was more than actual live pilots have, especially if it is taking all their strength to pull back on the yoke. A fourth was that, with two flight control computers, the pilot could (partly) turn off a misbehaving one, but there is no way to turn on the other one. You have to land first, to switch over, even though the other is doing all the work to be ready to fly the plane. A fifth was that it ignored that pilots were desperately pulling back on the yoke, which could have been a clue that it was doing the wrong thing. A sixth was that, besides comparing redundant sensors, it could have compared what the other flight computer thought it should be doing.

Naked Capitalism, 29 April 2019

One factoid that had come out in previous articles on the 737 Max was that Boeing had made a safety feature that would have alerted pilots to the malfunctioning of the angle of attack sensors an option that an airline could obtain only by purchasing a package of safety upgrades. American Airlines did buy this suite of add-ons. The Wall Street Journal article that broke this story says that getting this alert back was one of the reasons it paid up to get the safety suite.

This matters because the infamous MCAS software system relied on input from that sensor (more accurately, only one of the two angle of attack sensors at any point in time) to decide if and when it needed to push the nose down to prevent a stall. Pilots could have ascertained the sensors were malfunctioning before takeoff, or if they got an alert during flight, they could have disabled the MCAS system, or been ready to do so if the plane started to misbehave.

This basic fact pattern has been revealed to be worse than it first appeared by virtue of Boeing not having been explicit that the angle of attack sensor alerts had been disabled on the 737 Max. Why should Boeing have cleared its throat and said something? Recall that the sales pitch for the 737 Max was that it was so much like existing 737s that it didn’t require FAA recertification or pilot simulator training. But the angle of attack sensor alert had been a standard feature in all previous 737s, meaning buyers would assume it was part of the plane unless they were told otherwise. And on top of that, the non-upgraded 737 Max did have lights in the pilots’ controls for this alert. But they didn’t work unless the buyer had purchased the package of safety extras.

And the proof that Boeing was playing way too cute with its pointed silence about its deactivation of what had been a standard feature? The biggest customer for the 737 Max, Southwest Airlines, had inaccurate information in its pilots’ manual because the airline had mistakenly assumed the angle of attack sensor alerts worked as they had on earlier 737s.

New York Times, 5 May 2019

When Boeing explained to pilots in one meeting how systems on the Max worked, the company said that the disagree alert would function on the ground. In the late November meeting, Boeing told pilots for American Airlines (which had bought the add-on) that their disagree alert would have notified them of problems before takeoff.

“We were told that if the A.O.A. vane, like on Lion Air, was in a massive difference, we would receive an alert on the ground and therefore not even take off,” said Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the union representing American Airlines pilots. “That gave us additional confidence in continuing to fly that aircraft.”

But in the last several weeks, Boeing has been saying something different. Mr. Tajer said the company recently told American pilots that the system would not alert pilots about any sensor disagreement until the aircraft is 400 feet above the ground.

A Boeing spokesman confirmed this, stressing that the disagree alert does not work on the ground, and thus could not have alerted the Lion Air pilots to a faulty sensor before takeoff.

Mr. Tajer said Boeing seemed to have “provided information that was not accurate” and said the pilots have asked for clarification from the company.

Mr. Tajer, who is also a 737 pilot, said he was concerned that Boeing did not seem to fully grasp how every aspect of the Max worked.

“You better start knowing things about the airplane you’re building and selling because my life and the passengers that I carry safely across the globe depends on it,” Mr. Tajer said.

The Lion Air crash also spurred Boeing to notify Southwest pilots about the disagree light. “We thought it worked,” said Jon Weaks, the president of the Southwest Pilots’ Association. “If they knew it in 2017, why did we get to nearly the end of 2018 until the manual was changed?”

Human scale

We should not assume that we can ever fully comprehend human limitations and capabilities. Realistically adaptation to a much smaller ecological footprint will require nuanced local approaches at human scale, everything else is going to increase pain. The operating models of Buurtzorg and other non-hierarchical and distributed collaborative organisations are concrete examples of understandable and relatable human scale organisations.

getting-started.png

Regardless of what route we choose, on this planet no one is “in control”. The force of life is distributed and decentralised, and it might be a good idea to organise accordingly.

Here is a good example of the Anthropocentrism that underpins naive techno-optimism, and here is a rare example of someone who appreciates human cognitive limits, including the inherent limits of human language and the dangers of storytelling.

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson observes that small groups are the organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our “civilisation” are profound. It is time to create good company by pumping value from a dying ideological system into an emerging world.

Since the very beginning civilisation has always been more about a myth of progress than about anything that benefits local communities and families – except perhaps for the benefit of not being killed as easily by a neighbouring horde of more or less civilised people. Once the history of civilisation is understood as series of progress myths, where each civilisation looks towards earlier or competing civilisations with a yardstick that is tailored to prove that its own myths and achievements are clearly superior to anything that came before, it is possible to identify the loose ends and the work-arounds of civilisation that are usually presented as progress.

Onwards towards deep adaptation at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 8 June (Auckland) and 15 June (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.


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Towards deep adaptation at human scale

At the March 2019 CIIC workshop in Melbourne we built on results from earlier CIIC workshops and discussed the topic of human[e] scale vs Anthropocentrism, resulting in valuable mind maps and a list of links to related books and sources of further valuable knowledge.

Industrialised farming 4.0?

The workshop was followed by further online discussion amongst the participants. Jussi Pasanen noted similarities in the design patterns of facilities for animal farming, click farming, and robotics R&D. It immediately occurred to me that the same pattern is visible in our educational institutions, leading to the following collage that illustrates the unspoken values that power industrialisation in the Capitalocene:

industrialisedfarming 4.0.png

  1. Competitive games are the building blocks of the universe
  2. More is always better
  3. Diversity interferes with the game 
  4. The game is more important than biological life

All of these assumptions are of course fundamentally flawed. The first assumption is based on a flawed understanding of evolutionary theory, the second assumption only holds in the realm of abstract figments of human imagination such as money, the third assumption “produces” the fungibility needed to justify the quasi blind faith in markets, and the fourth assumption is the mental anaesthetic needed to deal with the cognitive dissonance generated by visibly deteriorating natural environments and the increasingly obvious symptoms of climate breakdown.

Within the delusion of the Capitalocene:

  • biological life is limited – ultimately it is a legacy technology that will be disrupted,
  • and competition is eternal – and must inform all our decision making.

People who run large (“super-human scale”) technology corporations with several thousand employees and many millions of users tend to be characterised by extreme levels of Anthropocentrism and seem to be blind to their own human cognitive limits. This conversation with Mark Zuckerberg is a good example. Closer to home our newspapers are full of articles that reflect the values of the Capitalocene:

Does NZ win or lose as world agriculture gets remade for a planet of 10b?

World agriculture is about to be remade, he warns. It is the Green Revolution 2.0 – cracking the problem of how to feed a planet that is going to be home to about 10 billion people by 2050 without completely trashing it in the process…

So the pressure will be on. McCauley says there simply won’t be any choice but to turn to science – advances like lab-cultured meat, factory hydroponics and genetic engineering. Human food production will have to be reinvented from the ground up.

What does that mean for New Zealand and its pastoral farming? McCauley pauses a moment to rake his hands through his rock dude hair.

Well, the country will simply get run over in any commodity market, he replies. And it better watch out even as an exporter of top-end premium products.

The New Zealand game plan – the one promoted by national advisory groups like the newly-formed Primary Growth Council – might be to feed the global 1 per cent. Bougie food for bougie people.

The reasoning is that even if the rest of the world turns to artificial meat and fake milk, there will still be a sizeable market for our grass-fed lamb, air-freighted crayfish and off-season cherries and avocados…

However simply growing a cheaper, better, lamb rack or nectarine won’t be enough. New Zealand has to match the world in the delivery of its products – its wraparound service – to reach those wealthy, but picky, 1 per centers.

It has to become expert in the online story-telling, the direct relationships, which will also be part of any agri-revolution.

Note how this news media article assumes that New Zealand must continue to operate as a significant agricultural exporter in order for its economy to thrive and note how it unapologetically endorses an approach that reinforces economic inequality and further extends New Zealand’s dependence on energy intensive industrialised animal farming – in a world that urgently needs to find ways of bringing human generated carbon emissions and other human generated waste and environmental toxins down to zero.

Capitalism 2.0?

More enlightened articles acknowledge some of the problems, but then get stuck in a tiny Overton window where the only acceptable way forward is some kind of reform of capitalism – as if it is a matter of revisiting a few implementation details.

It’s time to re-imagine our corporations – for the sake of democracy

… We clearly need to restore trust in a system of capitalism that works for all of us.

I wish there was a simple solution – a silver bullet – to fix all of this. But there isn’t. This is a complex issue and we need a range of interventions…

capitalocene.jpg

In August last year a CIIC blog post referenced Jem Bendell’s article on deep adaptation. Meanwhile activism related to ecological collapse and climate breakdown has gathered significant momentum, both locally and internationally. This month Jem Bendell wrote an open letter to business supporters of Extinction Rebellion, suggesting five ideas that could be useful to hear from business leaders:

As business leaders we recognise the following:

First, we failed. Although we tried to make businesses and financial institutions more sustainable from the inside, it has not stopped carbon emissions rising or biodiversity loss increasing. We work in the most funded and dynamic sector of society but couldn’t achieve the change we hoped for.

Second, we were wrong. We believed that working with existing systems of power, within market systems, was the way to deliver positive change at scale. While we do not know what could have been achieved by efforts going into other approaches towards climate stability and biodiversity conservation, we told people our approach was more pragmatic and scalable.

Third, we will learn. We believed that being business professionals gave us credibility in addressing issues of climate and biodiversity. Now we realise that some of the assumptions and attitudes we have learned in the private sector may not be that useful, so we are ready to learn from others.

Fourth, citizens need more influence than us. Although as individual executives we think we have been useful participants in dialogues with communities and governments, overall, the effect has been to prioritise the interests of profit-making over other concerns. Because businesses can fund initiatives, lobbyists and so on, as a sector we have had unfair influence over our societies. As this has coincided with the predicament we are in, it is understandable to conclude this unfair influence is at fault. Therefore, citizens and scientists need more influence than us in future on how to draw down and cut carbon, as well as how to manage the difficulties ahead.

Fifth, we must be made to behave. Although it is difficult for some of us to say this, it is the natural implication of where we have got to now facing catastrophic climate change. Praising individual companies doing useful things was never enough. We need state intervention to redesign the economy so we can more swiftly decarbonise and also prepare for the disruptions ahead. That means corporate support for changes in the law, perhaps even introducing a law on ecocide by corporations.

We hope that by expressing these realisations, we can find ways for our knowledge and resources to help humanity respond to our climate emergency. That may mean supporting you from a distance as organisations, but closely as individuals. Or it may mean finding ways to support you more actively with our organisations. Perhaps we can find ways to hold space open for your activism and ideas without any influence from the private sector. We will certainly work to ensure other companies do not get in your way.

The beauty of collaboration at human scale

It is obvious that for the foreseeable future – to the extent that we have one – humans will continue to live in the Anthropocene. The increasingly pressing question is how we can wean ourselves off the suicidal logic of the Capitalocene, and how we can infuse the various kinds of human institutions in various sectors of the economy with the levels of human agency that individual activists have started to exercise in their private lives.

To provide organisations with a useful sense of direction I am currently working on a book project titled “Experiencing the beauty of collaboration at human scale : Timeless patterns of human limitations”. I attempt to address the challenges of ethical value creation in the Anthropocene.

Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson observes that small groups are the organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our “civilisation” are profound. It is time to help others create good company by pumping value from a dying ideological system into an emerging world.

Onwards towards deep adaptation at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 8 June (Auckland) and 15 June (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.


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Civilisation = existential risk

global_warming_road.jpg

Global civilisation and technology have become deeply entangled.

“technology” is something that somebody wants you to submit to
Ted Nelson

We can attempt to measure the entanglement with a Civilisation/Technology Index:

CTI / (1 – CTI) = PG, where PG is the power gradient that operates in a society.

The CTI is not something we can measure directly, but as primates we are experts at coming up with guestimates for power gradients. After all we are the inventors of money and an endless variety of further imaginary status symbols, some with local currency and others with global reach and recognition across many cultures. For the purpose of studying civilisations CTI is the dependent variable in the equation above.

CTI = PG / (1 + PG)

An a[r|u]tistic journey on one breath

Around the planet (CTI = 0.0) into the Anthropocene (CTI ~ 0.5):

Anthropocentric bus[i|y]ness as usual

Towards quantification of the most liveable city and  CTI = 1.0:

stealthcities.png

Existential risk

The power gradient that shapes a particular society or civilisation could be defined as the slope of the Lorenz curve for the top 1 or top 0.1 percent of the population. Aggregate one-dimensional measures like PG or the Gini coefficient offer extreme oversimplifications that provide us with a rudimentary understanding of specific aspects of complex systems. Whilst the Gini coefficent provides a rough indication of power differentials in day to day interactions, the PG provides a rough indication of the level of centralisation of power towards the top of the primate dominance hierarchy.

Given the social learning disability induced by the dampening of feedback loops in hierarchical systems, given the global reach of capital, and given the extreme cognitive limits of all humans, we live in dangerous times. In the Anthropocene the PG measure can serve as a rough proxy (illustration) for the level of existential risk for Earth’s population.

Beyond one-dimensional metrics

We could formalise PG by attempting to quantify how much the set of decisions di of an agent ai are influenced by the sets of decisions by all other agents aj where (i≠j). The “perfect” civilisation with PG = 1 is one where there is a partial ordering of agents, such that there is one agent a0 (the most powerful agent) that influences (directly or indirectly) the decisions made by all agents ai with i≠0, and such that at the other end of the scale there is a set A of agents who do not have any influence over the decisions made by any other agent outside of A (the set of least powerful agents).

Civilisations can then be analysed rigorously. We can compare them, rank them, and visualise power structures with Hasse diagrams. Such a formalism may quickly be snapped up by the economics profession and by Smart Cities technologists, and the power gradient may be branded and sold to us as the future Living Standard Index (LSI).

Lifting people out of poverty can then be “explained” as lifting people out of set A (which includes most primates and all other forms of life), and giving people the opportunity to work their way up an infinite ladder of social strata A1, A2, … with the remote prospect of becoming the new a0 one day in the distant future, when by some cosmic cataclysm the old a0 ceases to exist.

The above may sound increasingly absurd, but it is where we are heading if we:

  1. insist on the continued belief in imaginary abstract social metrics,
  2. allow cities to be technocratically engineered from top to bottom,
  3. frame more and more of human life as quantifiable decision making problems that are ideally automated by smart technologies.

There is nothing like extrinsic motivation.

Interpretation depends on your perspective.

Recent history of social engineering

In this article on inequality Rutger C. Bregman refers to the Overton window as follows:

It seems like the window of what is politically possible is just opening up, or that what they call the Overton window is shifting. Ideas, according to theory that originated with political scientist Joseph Overton, are seen as somehow acceptable to discuss at a certain creative time, and the real political challenge is to move the window.

Bregman does not seem to mind / notice how the notion of a “window” implies the assumption that acceptable discourse must always fit within a small fixed frame – the mental metaphor of a window only allows for “shifts”, and is designed to prevent people from conceptualising a high-dimensional sphere of discourse that can not only shift, but can also contract or expand.

Note that the Overton window concept was named following the death of Joseph Overton, and young people like Rutger Bregman may not have come across any alternative concepts for describing the scope of acceptable discourse.

Overton played a key role in establishing the Center as a growing, productive and influential think tank through his direction of its research projects, staff operations and strategic planning.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonprofit institute that advances the principles of free markets and limited government. Through our research and education programs, we challenge government overreach and advocate for free-market approach to public policy that frees people to realize their potential and dreams.

The notion of “spheres” of discourse is older, and in the years before Overton, was used by Daniel Hallin for critical analysis of the Vietnam war etc.

Human primate power politics

In a primate world obsessed with social power it should not surprise that the concept of spheres was replaced with a window that can only shift. Each incremental shift can conveniently be presented as a compromise, yet via multiple increments the window can be sent onto a journey towards a destination that represents entirely new territory, especially if a powerful group of primates is determined to get there, and uses divide and conquer tactics to prevent any concerted effort to move in a different direction.

The window metaphor also provides safety for “investments” and status conscious investors, as it implies that it takes tremendous energy (and many increments) to move the window backwards or in some orthogonal direction. One of the hallmarks of cultural evolution is that it has the potential to move much faster than genetic evolution. Declaring any changes that require swift action to be a “revolution” – and therefore to be off-limits – is the same kind of mental manipulation as the replacement of spheres of discourse with a window of discourse.

This article in the New Zealand mainstream press is a good example of how slooow and gradual change has always been and will always be the perfect tool for investors.

… pave the way for New Zealand’s transition to a low emissions economy by 2050.

What a great way to be seen to be doing the right thing and to be rewarded for it. Only very few commentators understand what’s really going on.

“it’s increasingly clear that the movement has missed the bus by several decades”

Time is the one thing that investors are worried about most. They always want enough time to shift their assets into advantageous “positions” in the social paradigm that is emerging on the horizon. They are less worried about being overrun by an angry mob than being worried about transforming their assets into the next dominant abstract currency.

A world not ruled by abstract social status is completely outside the Overton window of investors.

We have convinced / deluded ourselves into believing that the window metaphor is a law of nature. The pathologisation of neurodiversity is a symptom of this social disease. The big question is whether there is a path for society to unlearn the window metaphor and to (re)learn the sphere metaphor.

In an expanding sphere we can keep all the existing discourse in one corner whilst creating a diverse multi-verse in other corners. The main barrier is the perceived loss of reach of the empire of capital. Just imagine the scenario of zones of human interaction and collaboration where capital can’t “buy” you anything, neither influence nor resources.

Can capital-free zones of social organisation co-exist with capitalism on this planet?

I am afraid this may be a question of peace vs war for one camp and a question of right vs wrong (= “who provoked the war?”) for the other camp.

The story of a local currency with negative interest rates in Wörgl is an interesting case in point.

The experiment resulted in a growth in employment and meant that local government projects such as new houses, a reservoir, a ski jump and a bridge could all be completed, seeming to defy the depression in the rest of the country. Inflation and deflation are also reputed to have been non-existent for the duration of the experiment.

Despite attracting great interest at the time, including from French Premier Edouard Daladier and the economist Irving Fisher, the “experiment” was terminated by Austria’s central bank Oesterreichische Nationalbank on September 1, 1933.

Local currencies with negative interest rates hold big potential, but they are fiercely opposed by the power elite in societies with high power gradients. Such currencies stimulate local collaboration and mutual aid, whilst dethroning money as the ultimate store of value. Money becomes a liquid like water, it can’t be magically shunted across the globe in abstract form, and unless it is put to good use locally it evaporates. A perceived nightmare for a few,  a welcome transformation for the many.

Onwards towards trusted collaboration at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 2 March (Auckland) and 9 March (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.


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Beyond civilisation, towards collective intelligence

collective-intelligence2

The era of human civilisations is coming to an end. The anthropocentric era of civilisation only lasted around 10,000 years, and has led the living planet into the sixth mass extinction – an ecological and geological transformation that is as profound as the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, currently on track to result in a planet without humans.

People talk about a global ecological crisis, a climate crisis, an economic crisis, an institutional crisis, and a mental health crisis. These crises are not isolated but highly interconnected.

To date human civilisations have always been built on stories and on the social popularity of specific individuals. This era of human gene-culture co-evolution has come to an end. Today everyone:

  1. is able to observe ecological destruction first hand
  2. is experiencing the effects of climate breakdown to some degree
  3. is confronted with the disconnect between economic dogma and the reality of severe social inequality
  4. is noticing the inability of institutions to meet human needs
  5. is affected by mental health problems, either personally or within their immediate social environment

People no longer trust institutions and the old story of civilisation. Instead people are comparing notes and are learning from those whose experiences reflect their own, via collaborative networks of tacit knowledge that are breaking out of the constraints imposed by the established institutions of our current civilisation such as corporations and nation states.

collective-intelligence copy.png

Energy intensive and sometimes deadly competition (wars, trade embargos etc.) between social groups are being replaced by sharing and (in)validation of knowledge in the public domain, and by creative collaborative exploration of new ideas at human scale – both in the digital realm and at a local level.

Human behaviour is less and less determined exclusively by institutions and authorities, and more and more by the flows of knowledge and ideas in a rapidly growing number of interconnected human scale competency networks. Trusted relationships between specific people are becoming more valuable than the technological platforms used for communication.

The overlapping crises of civilisation are impossible to address via technocratic solutions delivered within the framework of financial economics. No wonder that the institutions of our “civilisation” are becoming increasingly desperate in their attempts to capture and retain people’s attention.

The movements listed below are examples of globally networked collaborative efforts to share and validate knowledge, and to translate insights and ideas into creative collaborations at human scale.

Ecology

International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems

Established in 2015, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) works to shape debates on food system reform through policy-oriented research and direct engagement with policy processes around the world. The panel brings together environmental scientists, development economists, nutritionists, agronomists, and sociologists, as well as experienced practitioners from civil society and social movements.

The panel is co-chaired by Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and Olivia Yambi, nutritionist and former UNICEF representative to Kenya. IPES-Food employs a holistic food systems lens and focuses on the political economy of food systems, i.e., the differential power of actors to influence priority-setting and decision-making.

Related CIIC articles and results:


Worldwatch Institute


Through research and outreach that inspire action, the Worldwatch Institute works to accelerate the transition to a sustainable world that meets human needs. The Institute’s top mission objectives are universal access to renewable energy and nutritious food, expansion of environmentally sound jobs and development, transformation of cultures from consumerism to sustainability, and an early end to population growth through healthy and intentional childbearing.

Founded in 1974 by Lester Brown as an independent research institute devoted to global environmental concerns, Worldwatch was quickly recognized by opinion leaders around the world for its foresight and accessible, fact-based analysis. Worldwatch develops innovative solutions to intractable problems, emphasizing a blend of government leadership, private sector enterprise, and citizen action that can make a sustainable future a reality.

Related CIIC articles and results:


Extinction rebellion


We need to take action in the world and we need to look after ourselves. This rebellion is fuelled by our love, which is growing because we are willing to face the grief of these times. Grieving is part of our work. We hold the following to be true:

This is our darkest hour. Humanity finds itself embroiled in an event unprecedented in its history. One which, unless immediately addressed, will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come.

The science is clear:- we are in the sixth mass extinction event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly.

Biodiversity is being annihilated around the world. Our seas are poisoned, acidic and rising. Flooding and desertification will render vast tracts of land uninhabitable and lead to mass migration.

Our air is so toxic that the United Kingdom is breaking the law. It harms the unborn whilst causing tens of thousands to die. The breakdown of our climate has begun. There will be more wildfires, unpredictable super storms, increasing famine and untold drought as food supplies and fresh water disappear.

The ecological crises that are impacting upon this nation, and indeed this planet and its wildlife can no longer be ignored, denied nor go unanswered by any beings of sound rational thought, ethical conscience, moral concern, or spiritual belief.

In accordance with these values, the virtues of truth and the weight of scientific evidence, we declare it our duty to act on behalf of the security and well-being of our children, our communities and the future of the planet itself.

We, in alignment with our consciences and our reasoning, declare ourselves in rebellion against our Government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future.

The wilful complicity displayed by our government has shattered meaningful democracy and cast aside the common interest in favour of short-term gain and private profits.

When Government and the law fail to provide any assurance of adequate protection, as well as security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of its citizens to seek redress in order to restore dutiful democracy and to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future. It becomes not only our right, it becomes our sacred duty to rebel.We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.

We demand to be heard, to apply informed solutions to these ecological crises and to create a national assembly by which to initiate those solutions needed to change our present cataclysmic course.

We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now.

We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts. We act on behalf of life.

Related CIIC articles and results:

Climate

Fridays for Future


We’ve had 30 years of pep talking and selling positive ideas and I’m sorry but it doesn’t work. Because if it would have, the emissions would have gone down by now. They haven’t.

And yes, we do need hope, of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then hope will come. Today we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules. Because the rules have to be changed.

Everything needs to change. And it has to start today.

Related CIIC articles and results:

Economics

Schumacher Center for a new economics


Our mission is to envision a just and sustainable global economy; apply the concepts locally; then share the results for broad replication.

The essay “Buddhist Economics” was first published in Asia: A Handbook, edited by Guy Wint, published by Anthony Blond Ltd., London, 1966. In 1973 it was collected with other essays by Ernest Friedrich Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. The book went on to be translated into 27 different languages and in 1995 was named by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the hundred most influential books written after World War II.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, the Schumacher Center for a New Economics received requests from around the world to reprint “Buddhist Economics,” Fritz Schumacher’s classic essay, which is widely understood as a call for an economics of peace. Mrs. Vreni Schumacher, who holds the copyright to her late husband’s works, kindly extended permission to the Schumacher Center to make the essay available electronically along with its multiple translations.

Related CIIC articles and results:

Institutions

The Cultural Evolution Society


The Cultural Evolution Society is a professional scientific society that advances the theory and practice of cultural evolutionary studies. Our goal is to build capacity for researchers, educators, and practitioners to coordinate efforts.

Why a new society?

Our capacity for culture stems from our ability to receive, process, integrate, and transmit information across generations. The study of human culture and cultural change has made great strides during the last few decades in fields such as anthropology, computer science, evolutionary biology, neurobiology, psychology, and sociology. A great deal of progress has been made in parallel with the study of animal behavior in primate studies, ethology more broadly, and the various ecological sciences. Yet, the study of cultural change as an evolutionary process, similar to genetic evolution but with its own inheritance mechanisms, is only now becoming a central area of scientific inquiry that spans these disciplines and holds much potential for academic integration.

Outside the Ivory Tower, all public policies attempt to accomplish cultural change in a practical sense to reach their various objectives, yet they rarely draw upon an explicit scientific theory of cultural change. A new society is needed to catalyze the study of cultural change from a modern evolutionary perspective, both inside and outside the Ivory Tower.

The Cultural Evolution Society supports evolutionary approaches to culture in humans and other animals. The society welcomes all who share this fundamental interest, including in the pursuit of basic research, teaching, or applied work. We are committed to fostering an integrative interdisciplinary community spanning traditional academic boundaries from across the social, psychological, and biological sciences, and including archaeology, computer science, economics, history, linguistics, mathematics, philosophy and religious studies. We also welcome practitioners from applied fields such as medicine and public health, psychiatry, community development, international relations, the agricultural sciences, and the sciences of past and present environmental change.

Related CIIC articles and results:


Prosocial World – The science of working better together


PROSOCIAL is informed by three areas of science. The idea that groups require core design principles to function well is inspired by the work of Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), a political scientist who studied groups that attempt to manage resources such as fields, forests, fisheries, and water for irrigation.

Related CIIC articles and results:

Mental health

Autistic Collaboration


Members of the autism rights movement adopt a position of neurodiversity that recognises autistic traits as natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species, and a liberation from the socially constructed pathology paradigm.

Our culture is sick. We don’t even have a good language to talk about diseases of society. Instead our society cultivates a language for describing ways in which individuals are “deficient” and “deserve to be rejected”. “Treating” individuals is only addressing symptoms and not any of the root causes.

Autistic Collaboration is a community that welcomes all individuals and groups who fully appreciate the value of neurodiversity. Our website acts as a hub for mutual support, and encourages neurodivergent individuals and ventures to connect and establish long-term collaborations.

One of the persistent negative stereotypes is that we are poor at collaboration. The Autistic Collaboration community demonstrates the opposite. Collaboration can take many forms, and different people have different needs and preferences. Autistic people learn and play differently, and only have a limited if any interest in competitive social games. We communicate and enjoy ourselves by sharing information and knowledge, and not by negotiating social status.

Related CIIC articles and results:

The future

The transformation of the living planet that lies ahead will significantly alter the way we live and organise our lives. It is up to all of us to use this opportunity to collaborate on the development of human scale niches that fit our abilities and that meet the needs of future generations.

Replacing busyness with human agency

The rate of technological change has outpaced the rate at which human cultures can evolve. Being able to design, build, and use technology does not equate to understanding all the implications.

busyness2

In the meantime deeply flawed economic assumptions continue to be baked into new technologies, corporations treat climate breakdown as a bu$yness / profit opportunity, and politicians are joining the bandwagon by putting simplistic notions of “job creation” (another form of busyness instead of a focus on genuine problem solving) ahead of  addressing the existential crisis that lurks behind the concept known as the Anthropocene.

Humans have to ask themselves whether they want to continue to be useful parts of the ecosystem of the planet or whether they prefer to take on the role of a genetic experiment that the planet switched on and off for a brief period in its development. (The big human battle of this century)

In the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg:

We do need hope. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act hope is everywhere.
(School strike for climate – save the world by changing the rules)

This observation is correct – if and only if we take care not to confuse goal directed actions with the bu$yness as usual advocated by corporations and governments.

Autism and human agency

It is no accident that Greta Thunberg is autistic. Autistic people tend to gravitate to human endeavours that require perseverance, specialised skills and deep domain-specific knowledge. There is a strong correlation between autistic traits and creativity. Furthermore autistic people have a perspective on the purpose of social interaction that differs fundamentally from the social motivation of non-autistic people:

The autistic understanding of “social”

  1. Naive assumption: “social” refers to 
interaction to learn from each other
  2. Naive assumption: “social” refers to 
collaborating with others towards a shared goal
  3. An autistic individual may take decades to decode the typical meaning of “social”

The prevalent neurotypical understanding of “social”

  1. Unspoken assumption: “social” refers to negotiating social status and power gradients
  2. Unspoken assumption: “social” refers to competing against each other using culturally defined rules
  3. A typical individual may take decades to appreciate non-social interests

(Social – The big misunderstanding)

The following delightful interview of Greta and her father illustrates another characteristic social dynamic in families with autistic children and (sometimes more and sometimes less) autistic parents.

The interactions between autistic children and their parents often reverse the typical roles in learning.

Autistic collaboration involves sharing of knowledge and working towards a shared goal of generating new levels of knowledge and understanding. The individual innate moral compass mediates the tension between the desire to assist others vs the desire learn about the world.

  • These inclinations are reflected in the cultural transmission of new discoveries from children to parents
  • Education of parents by the children focuses on teaching about the focus and boundaries of individual areas of interest
  • Sharing of knowledge and asking probing questions is seen as a “natural” human behaviour
  • Adolescence is a period of intensive knowledge acquisition, where individual areas of interests are explored in great depth, and where in the absence of autistic peers with compatible interests new knowledge is often shared with parents

In contrast neurotypical collaboration involves competition at all levels of scale according to culturally defined rules, which mediate the tension between the desire to assist others vs the desire to gain or maintain social status symbols.

  • These inclinations are reflected in the cultural transmission of boundaries of acceptable behaviour from parents to children
  • Education of children by the parents focuses on teaching the cultural rules and acceptable boundaries
  • Ego and self-promotion is seen as a “natural” human behaviour
  • Adolescence is a period of socialisation, where the cultural rules transmitted by parents are incrementally replaced by the cultural rules encountered in peer groups

(Taking ownership of the label)

The role of autism in human evolution

Autistic traits are natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species that are essential for the survival of our species. The autistic minority within human societies provides a critically important counterforce to anthropocentric competitive social games by reducing the risks associated with typical social learning that contribute to spurious cultural complexity.

Technically speaking, in the language of evolutionary biology, human traits are the manifestation of multi-level group selection in human societies, resulting in a form of gene-cultural co-evolution where culture plays a very significant role.

Depending on the specific culture an individual grows up in, the competitive aspect of “collaboration” may either be significantly reinforced (capitalism, older money based societies, some religions) or weakened (hunter gatherer societies, some religions).

Autistic human traits are the glue that enables new knowledge acquisition to be scaled to the level of groups and groups of groups, providing cultures with the ability to adapt in times of rapid environmental changes.

During times when the environment is experienced as highly stable, autistic traits are likely to be suppressed by the surrounding culture; whereas when the environment is experienced as highly dynamic, autistic traits will be appreciated as a source of essential new knowledge.

(Taking ownership of the label)

Autistic agency contains the seed from which hope may emerge. Human societies would do well to nurture the seeds.

We have made a small start at the workshop on workplace culture in the healthcare sector at the HiNZ conference in Wellington last month and at the CIIC workshop in Auckland earlier this month. Social progress is overdue.

Getting serious about diversity and inclusion

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 2 March 2019 (Auckland) and 9 March 2019 (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.


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A theory of cultural evolution

In 2017 my colleague Xaver Wiesmann and I presented our perspective on cultural evolution in a poster on filtering, collaboration, thinking, and learning tools for the next 200 years at the inaugural cultural evolution conference in Jena (Germany). Given the fast transmission and amplification of opinions that went hand in hand with the commercialisation of the internet over the last 20 years, we compared the perceived benefits of storytelling with the known dangers and limits of storytelling.

evolution

In view of the need to reinvent the foundations of civilisation for life in the Anthropocene (the theme of the CIIC workshop in September 2018), it is worthwhile to dive a bit deeper into current scientific understanding and historical evidence related to the mechanisms that drive human cultural evolution.

Computer based simulations of transmissions of beliefs in social networks confirm that once 10% of a population is committed to an idea, it’s inevitable that it will eventually become the prevailing opinion of the entire group. The key is to remain committed.

To prime the simulation, scientists “sprinkled” in true believers of new beliefs into different types of networks.

These people were completely set in their views and unflappable in modifying those beliefs. As those true believers began to converse with those who held the traditional belief system, the tides gradually and then very abruptly began to shift.

“In general, people do not like to have an unpopular opinion and are always seeking to try locally to come to consensus. We set up this dynamic in each of our models,” said SCNARC Research Associate and corresponding paper author Sameet Sreenivasan. To accomplish this, each of the individuals in the models “talked” to each other about their opinion. If the listener held the same opinions as the speaker, it reinforced the listener’s belief. If the opinion was different, the listener considered it and moved on to talk to another person. If that person also held this new belief, the listener then adopted that belief.

An important aspect of the finding is that the percent of committed opinion holders required to shift majority opinion does not change significantly regardless of the type of network in which the opinion holders are working. In other words, the percentage of committed opinion holders required to influence a society remains at approximately 10 percent, regardless of how or where that opinion starts and spreads in the society.

To understand how human societies operate and how culture evolves, it is important to differentiate two fundamentally different categories of beliefs:

  1. Opinions: Beliefs that are adopted via a rapid social transmission process, without any deeper levels of understanding of supporting evidence, related domain expertise, or the origins of the belief. The process of social belief propagation can be described as as influencing or as cultural education. People engaging in such activities are often referred to as influencers. People holding opinions are unable to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels with respect to their beliefs or are unable to point to concrete evidence that can be independently verified.
  2. Evidence based facts: Beliefs that are adopted and updated slowly and incrementally, based on first hand experiences and experiments with the physical world and with other living agents. Evidence based facts are generated via creative play or via more or less rigorous application of the scientific method, by examining, (in)validating, and by refining the scientific results produced by others. The process of propagating facts and related evidence and levels of uncertainty is often referred to as scientific education. People engaging in such activities are often referred to as scientific educators. A deeper level of understanding of specific domains of interest allows educators to develop scientific theories and predictive models, and also allows them to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels.

When beliefs that represent evidence based facts are propagated via the rapid and superficial process of cultural education, the resulting level of understanding is limited to opinions, and thus the recipients remain open to further influencing from those with different opinions.

In contrast, when beliefs that represent evidence based facts are propagated via a critical self-reflective process of scientific education that is at least one order of magnitude slower than the process of cultural education,  recipients – to a certain degree – are immunised against influence from those with opinions that contradict evidence based understanding.

Belief systems and their limits

Both opinions and evidence based facts are not propagated in isolation, but as part of conceptual frames and metaphors involving a set of related concepts and beliefs.

Within complex societies the frames that are associated with opinions are aggregated into dogmatic belief systems (sometimes referred to as group identities or isms). Over time individuals adopt a multitude of dogmatic belief systems, some of which may relate to large groups and others of which may relate to small groups of believers.

The frames that are associated with evidence based facts are aggregated into belief systems referred to as scientific paradigms. A single individual may over time become proficient in the use of a variety of paradigms relating to one or more domains of empirical knowledge.

The boundaries between dogmatic belief systems and scientific paradigms are not always clear cut. In particular in the age of “big data”, the reliance on “second hand” and “derived” data is making it increasingly difficult and time consuming to verify scientific theories and associated evidence.

The potential of scientific education lies in its ability to act as an immunisation against dogmatic belief systems that may inflict serious damage on the planetary ecosystem and its ability to sustain larger mammals including humans.

The main danger of traditional forms of scientific education lies in the potential for the creation of narrow silos of knowledge. In this context transdisciplinary meta paradigms such as MODA + MODE can be assist to establish bridges and essential levels of shared understanding between knowledge silos and paradigms.

Learning vs manipulation

Both cultural education and scientific education results in learned beliefs that are of value for collaboration and co-ordination within social groups. However cultural education (and scientific education to a lesser degree, only when contaminated with tampered evidence) can also be used for social manipulation and for the perpetuation of social power gradients within stratified groups and societies, which leads to potentially dangerous levels of cultural inertia and limits the ability of a group or society to learn and adapt to changes in the environment.

The vast majority of online social communication tools have been designed to support and promote the propagation of beliefs via the rapid process of influence rather than via the much slower process of evidence based learning and education.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the role of influence within the dogmatic belief system of financial capitalism that underpins our current society.

Financial capitalism turns human life into a popularity contest where money is the most effective tool for gaining influence and social status in a primate dominance hierarchy. Instead of celebrating the innate human collaborative tendencies, financial capitalism (similar to earlier forms of human “civilisations”) systematically exploits the psychological weaknesses that humans share with other primates, and discards valuable cultural insights from earlier small scale (human scale) hunter gather societies that originally allowed humans to become more successful than other primates.

If collectively we are interested in creating a more equitable society, and in developing cultural practices and tools that improve our ability to adapt and learn to live on a finite planet, together with a rich diversity of other species within a dynamically evolving planetary ecosystem, then we can’t afford to close our eyes and ignore the abuse of influence for the purpose of  perpetuating beliefs and behavioural patterns that are systematically destroying our only life support system in the universe.

Preventing the abuse of influence for personal gain

The challenge: Where in society are we likely to find groups where 10% of the people within the group are committed to

  1. the slow and gradual process of knowledge validation and scientific education
  2. and to the prevention of the abuse of influence?

The following video clip illustrates the dominant role of influence and the negligible role of evidence based understanding in the power dynamics within modern “civilised” societies, even amongst the more honest politicians.

For corporate and government politicians who are drunk on the drug of social power, life is a popularity contest. The need for learning and deeper levels of understanding is minimised, and the lives of others become secondary considerations that rank below the objective of maintaining and strengthening established power structures.

Perhaps we should look to neurodivergent people, who are committed to learning as much as possible from first hand experience, who have above average levels of perseverance, and who are less subject to being influenced by popular opinion. Creative neurodivergent people are essential as catalysts for cultural change.

In particular autistic people tend to:

  1. apply the precautionary principle when assessing risks and making important decisions
  2. have a deeper than average levels of understanding of specific domains of interest, and as a result are able to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels, and are able pass on their first hand domain experience and knowledge to others – they act as experimenters and scientific educators
  3. be committed to updating their knowledge based on new evidence, and are not easily persuaded by popular opinions that are not backed up by evidence / local first-hand experience

Non-neurodivergent people tend to:

  1. ignore the precautionary principle as needed to maintain or increase their popularity
  2. have average levels of scientific understanding of their social and physical environment, and as a result are unable to answer “why?” questions over multiple levels – they act mainly as influencers and amplifiers of opinions and cultural practices
  3. be concerned about their level of popularity, and may swiftly adapt their beliefs to shifts in popular opinions

Judy Singer, an autistic activist who coined the term neurodiversity in 1998, frames the essence into one simple observation:

“I always used to say: There are two types of people in the world. Those who would never let the pursuit of social acceptance get in the way of the pursuit of Truth. And those who would never let the pursuit of Truth get in the way of the pursuit of social acceptance.”

From what anthropologists and archaeologists can deduce from small scale prehistoric “uncivilised” societies, the most important social norms in all such societies apparently were norms that prevented individuals from gaining social power over others.

It is time to depathologise neurodiversity and reintegrate this old wisdom into the fabric of our societies.

Collectively our preferences for either trusting influencers or evidence based learning  constitute a choice between the madness of crowds and the wisdom of crowds.

Successful cultural transformation relies on the existence of easily accessible psychologically safe and neurodiversity friendly environments in time and space (physical and virtual) as crystallisation points for knowledge sharing.

The local social environment around neurodivergent people allows the 10% threshold for the propagation of new insights and deep innovation to be reached mainly via a continuous process of creative exploration and evidence based understanding, and much less so via the easily corruptible process of social influence.

The result is a healthy form of cultural evolution that leaves adequate room for knowledge validation and the precautionary principle, and that offers less opportunities for manipulative social power games.

Releasing the handbrake on learning and collaboration

The easiest path for improving organisational learning involves reducing the influence of hierarchical power structures and bureaucracy by implementing a simple advice process. Before making a major decision that affects others in the organisation:

  1. A person has to seek advice from at least one trusted colleague with potentially relevant or complementary knowledge or expertise.
  2. Giving advice is optional. It is okay to admit lack of expertise. This enables the requestor to proceed on the basis of the available evidence.
  3. Following advice is optional. The requestor may ignore advice if she/he believes that all things considered there is a better approach or solution. Not receiving advice in a timely manner is deemed equivalent to no relevant advice being available within the organisation. This allows everyone to balance available wisdom with first hand learning and risk taking.
  4. A few simple prosocial design principles provide guidance for dealing with people who regularly ignore relevant advice (or consistently refuse to seek or give advice) and therefore regularly cause downstream problems for others as a result. Such situations are obvious for all involved. A persistent breakdown of collaboration either results in a significant change in behaviour once the downstream problems are recognised, or in the non-cooperative person leaving the organisation.

Onwards towards trusted collaboration at human scale

Join us for the next CIIC workshop on 8 December (Auckland) and 15 December (Melbourne)! CIIC provides a great opportunity for all participants to outline wicked problems they are wrestling with, and to obtain access to the perspectives and questions from others with complementary expertise and interests.


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