PREGNANT PAUSE

— Remarks on the Corona Crisis —

 

We were already living in a general global crisis, but most people were only vaguely aware of it since it was manifested in a confusing array of particular crises — social, political, economic, environmental. Climate change is the most momentous of these crises, but it is so complicated and so gradual that it has been easy for most people to ignore it.

The corona crisis has been sudden, undeniable, and inescapable. It is also taking place in an unprecedented context.

If this crisis had taken place fifty or sixty years ago, we would have been totally at the mercy of the mass media, reading about it in newspapers or magazines or sitting in front of a radio or television passively absorbing whatever instructions and reassurances were broadcast by politicians or newscasters, with scarcely any opportunity to respond except perhaps to write a letter to the editor and hope that it got printed. Back then, governments could get away with things like the Gulf of Tonkin incident because it was months or years before the truth eventually got out. Continue reading

The development of social media during the last two decades has of course dramatically changed this. Although the mass media remain powerful, their monopolistic impact has been weakened and circumvented as more and more people have engaged in the new interactive means of communication. These new means were soon put to radical uses, such as rapidly exposing political lies and scandals that previously would have remained hidden, and they eventually played a crucial role in triggering and coordinating the Arab Spring and Occupy movements of 2011. A decade later, they have become routine for a large portion of the global population.

As a result, this is the first time in history that such a momentous event has taken place with virtually everyone on earth aware of it at the same time. And it is playing out while much of humanity is obliged to stay at home, where they can hardly avoid reflecting on the situation and sharing their reflections with others.

Crises always tend to expose social contradictions, but in this case, with the intense worldwide focus on each new development, the revelations have been particularly glaring.

The first and perhaps most startling one has been the rapid turnabout of governmental policies. Since the usual “market solutions” are obviously incapable of solving this crisis, governments are now feeling obliged to resort to massive implementation of the kinds of solutions they previously scorned as “unrealistic” or “utopian.” When anybody, rich or poor, native or foreign, can spread a deadly disease, anything less than free healthcare for all is self-evidently idiotic. When millions of businesses are closed and tens of millions of people are thrown out of work and have no prospect of finding a new job, the usual unemployment benefits are obviously hopelessly inadequate and policies like universal basic income become not just possible, but virtually unavoidable. As an Irish satirical website put it: “With private hospitals being taken into public ownership, increased welfare supports for the vast majority of the nation and a ban on evictions and the implementation of a rent freeze, Irish people are still trying to comprehend how they woke up today to find themselves in an idyllic socialist republic.”

Needless to say, our situation is actually far from idyllic. Although Ireland and many other countries have indeed implemented these kinds of emergency measures, when we look closer we find that the usual suspects are still in charge, with their usual priorities. Particularly in the United States, where the first to be rescued were the banks and corporations, as several trillion dollars were pumped into the financial markets without the slightest public debate. Then, when it became apparent that a more general bailout was needed, the vast majority of that bailout money also went to those same huge companies; much of the smaller amount designated for small businesses was snapped up by large chains before most of the actual small businesses got a penny; and the allotment for ordinary working families and unemployed people was a one-time payment that would scarcely cover two weeks of typical expenses. To add a twist of the knife, governors in several states have come up with the clever idea of prematurely reopening certain businesses, thereby making those workers ineligible for unemployment benefits if they refuse to endanger their lives.

The point of such bailouts is that certain industries are supposedly so essential that they need to be “saved.” But the fossil fuel industries don’t need to be saved, they need to be phased out as soon as possible. And there’s no reason to save the airlines, for example, because if they go bankrupt they can then be bought for pennies on the dollar by someone else (preferably the government) and restarted with the same workers, with the losses being borne by the previous owners. Yet these immensely wealthy and grossly polluting industries and others like them are getting hundreds of billions of dollars of “crisis relief.” But when it comes to things that lower- and middle-class people depend on, suddenly the message is: “We need to tighten our belts and not increase the federal debt.” Thus, Trump continues to push for a payroll tax cut (which would sabotage Social Security and Medicare) and he has threatened to veto any bailout that gives any assistance to the U.S. Postal Service (though UPS and Fedex have already been given billions of dollars of taxpayer money). The Republicans have tried for decades to bankrupt and privatize the Post Office — most blatantly in their 2006 act requiring the Post Office to fund its employees’ retirement benefits 75 years in advance (something no other entity, public or private, has ever been obliged to do) — but Trump’s particular vehemence on this topic at this time is due to his desire to prevent the possibility of mail-in voting in the coming election.

It shouldn’t take a genius to realize that the people at the lower end of the scale should be prioritized. Not only do billion-dollar corporations not need any more money, if they get more money most of it does not “trickle down” but is salted away in offshore tax shelters or used for stock buybacks. Whereas if each lower- and middle-class person gets, say, $2000 a month for the duration of the crisis (which would cost the government much less than the current bailouts of the super-rich), virtually all of that money will immediately be spent for basic needs, which will help at least some small businesses to remain in business, which will enable more people to keep their jobs, and so on. Small businesses also need immediate assistance (especially if they have been temporarily forced to suspend operation during the crisis) or they are likely to go bankrupt, in which case large businesses and banks will buy them up at bargain rates, thereby exacerbating the already extreme gap between a few mega-corporations at the top and everybody else at the bottom.

The corona crisis has exposed many national governments as criminally negligent, but most of them have at least attempted to deal with it in a somewhat serious manner once they realized the urgency of the situation. This has unfortunately not been the case in the United States, where Trump first declared that the whole thing was just a hoax that would soon blow over and that the death count would be “close to zero,” and then, when after doing virtually nothing for more than a month he was finally forced to admit that it was actually a serious crisis, announced that thanks to his brilliant leadership “only” around 100,000 or 200,000 Americans will die. Months into the pandemic there is still no national stay-at-home order, no national testing plan, no national procurement and distribution of life-saving medical supplies, and Trump continues to downplay the crisis in a frantic effort to open things up soon enough to revive his reelection chances.

Since his dillydallying has already been responsible for tens of thousands of additional deaths, and since he is also presiding over an economic chaos not seen in America since the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Democrats should normally have no trouble in defeating him in November. But as it did four years ago, the Democratic Party establishment has demonstrated once again that it would rather risk losing to Trump with a business-as-usual corporate tool than risk winning with Bernie Sanders. Sanders’s programs (Medicare for All, Green New Deal, etc.) were already popular with most voters, and they have become even more so as the corona crisis has made the need for them more obvious. The fact that such commonsensical reforms are seen as radical is just a reflection of how cluelessly reactionary American politics has become by comparison with most of the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, since it soon became clear to just about everyone that Trump hasn’t the dimmest idea of how to deal with the corona crisis except to showcase his amazing medical knowledge and brag about his TV ratings, everyone else has been left to deal with it on their own. Though some state and local governments have helped, it should be noted that many of the earliest, most extensive, and most creative responses have been carried out by ordinary people on their own initiative — young people doing shopping for older and more vulnerable neighbors, people making and donating the protective masks that the governments neglected to stockpile, health professionals offering safety tips, tech-savvy people helping others to set up virtual meetings, parents sharing activities for kids, others donating to food banks, or crowdfunding to support popular small businesses, or forming support networks for prisoners, immigrants, homeless people, etc.

The crisis has vividly demonstrated the interconnectedness of people and countries all over the world, but it has also revealed, for those who weren’t already aware of it, that vulnerability is not equally shared. As always, those at the bottom bear the brunt — people in prisons or immigrant detention centers or living in crowded slums, people who can’t practice social distancing and who may not even have facilities to effectively wash their hands. While many of us are able to stay at home with only mild inconvenience, others are unable to remain at home (if they even have a home) or to share so many things via social media (if they even have a computer or a smartphone) because they are forced to continue working at “essential jobs,” under dangerous conditions and often for minimum wage and no benefits, in order to provide food, utilities, deliveries, and other services for the people who are staying home. (See Ian Alan Paul’s provocative analysis of the “domesticated/connected” sector and the “mobile/disposable” sector in The Corona Reboot.)

The “mobile/disposable” workers are usually too isolated and too vulnerable to dare to struggle (especially if they are undocumented), but because most of their jobs are indeed essential, they now have a potentially powerful leverage and it is not surprising that they are starting to use it. As the dangers and stresses build up, their patience has given way, beginning with widespread wildcat strikes in Italy in March, then spreading to several other countries. In the United States protests and strikes have broken out among workers at Amazon, Instacart, Walmart, McDonald’s, Uber, Fedex, grocery workers, garbage workers, auto workers, nursing home workers, agricultural workers, meat packers, bus drivers, truck drivers, and many others; nurses and other healthcare workers have protested medical equipment shortages; workers at GE have demanded repurposing jet engine factories to make ventilators; homeless families have occupied vacant buildings; rent strikes have been launched in several cities; and prisoners and detained immigrants are hunger-striking to expose their particularly unsafe conditions. Needless to say, all these struggles should be supported, and frontline workers should be first in line in any bailout.

After months of staying at home, everyone is naturally anxious to resume some degree of social life as soon as possible. There are legitimate debates about just how soon and under what conditions it is safest to do this. What is not legitimate is to deliberately ignore or deny the dangers simply so that businesses can resume and politicians can get reelected. The most grossly illuminating revelation of the whole crisis has been seeing pundits and politicians openly declare that it’s an acceptable trade-off for millions of people to die if that’s what it takes to “save the economy.” This admission of the system’s real priorities may backfire. People have been told all their lives that this economy is inevitable and indispensable, and that if they just give it free rein it will ultimately work for them. If they start seeing it for what it actually is (a con game that enables a tiny number of people to control everyone else in the world through their possession and manipulation of magic pieces of paper), they may conclude that it needs to be replaced, not saved. “Once society discovers that it depends on the economy, the economy in fact depends on the society” (Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle).

In the links list below, you can find articles going into detail about these and other aspects of the crisis. But at this point I’d like to step back and look at what I consider the most significant aspect of this whole situation: the experience of the shutdown itself.

This experience is so unprecedented, and it is changing so dramatically from day to day, that we still don’t quite know what to think of it. We keep secretly hoping that we’ll wake up and discover that it was just a nightmare, but each morning it’s still here. But as we have gradually gotten at least somewhat used to it, it is offering its own revelations.

Any pause may give us time to reflect on our lives and reassess our priorities, but knowing that everyone else is doing this at the same time gives these reflections a more collective focus. This pause is shaking us out of our usual habits and presumptions and giving each and all of us a rare chance to see our lives and our society in a fresh light. As each day brings fresh news, things seem to be speeding up; yet so many things have stopped or at least drastically slowed down, it also sometimes seems like everything is in slow motion; or as if we’d all been sleepwalking and were suddenly awakened — looking around at each other in amazement at the strange new reality, and how it contrasts with what we previously considered normal.

We come to realize how much we miss certain things, but also that there are things we don’t miss. Many people have noted (usually with a half-guilty hesitation, since they are of course quite aware of the devastation that is going on in many other people’s lives) that they personally are appreciating the experience in some regards. It’s much quieter, the skies are clearer, there’s scarcely any traffic, fish are returning to formerly polluted waterways, in some cities wild animals are venturing into the empty streets. There has been much joking about how those who like quiet contemplative living are hardly noticing any difference, in contrast to the frustrations and anxieties of those who are used to more gregarious lifestyles. In any case, whether they like it or not, millions of people are getting a crash course in cloistered living, with repeated daily schedules almost like monks in a monastery. They may continue to distract themselves with entertainments, but the reality keeps bringing them back to the present moment.

I suspect that the frantic urgency of various political leaders to get things “back to normal” as soon as possible is not only for the ostensible economic reasons, but also because they dimly sense that the longer this pause goes on, the more people will become detached from the addictive consumer pursuits of their previous lives and the more they will be open to exploring new possibilities.

One of the first things that many people have noticed is that the social distancing, however frustrating it may be in some regards, is ironically bringing people closer together in spirit. As people get a new appreciation of what others mean to them, they are sharing their thoughts and feelings more intently and more widely than ever — personally via phone calls and emails, collectively via social media.

Many of the things shared are of course pretty modest and ordinary — reassuring each other that we’re doing okay (or not), comparing notes about how to deal with this or that inconvenience, recommending films or music or books we’ve been bingeing on. But people are also coming up with memes, jokes, essays, poems, songs, satires, skits. However amateurish many of these things may be, the ensemble effect of thousands of these personal expressions being shared all over the globe is in some ways more moving than watching professional performances under ordinary circumstances.

The simplest and most common social-media posts have been memes: short stand-alone statements or captions added to illustrations. In contrast to traditional political slogans vehemently for or against something, these memes typically have a more deadpan tone with an ironical twist, leaving it up to the reader to recognize the contradictions being revealed.

It is interesting to compare these memes with the popular expressions of another crisis just over fifty years ago — the graffiti of the May 1968 revolt in France. There are some obvious differences in tone and context, but in both cases there’s a marvelous mix of humor and insight, anger and irony, outrage and imagination.

The 1968 crisis was intentionally provoked. A series of protests and street fights by thousands of young people in Paris inspired a wildcat general strike in which more than ten million workers occupied factories and workplaces all over France, shutting down the country for several weeks. When you look at the graffiti, you can sense that these people were actively making their own history. They were not merely protesting, they were exploring and experimenting and celebrating, and those graffiti were expressions of the joy and exuberance of their actions.

Our present situation resembles that earlier one in the sense that suddenly everything has come to a virtual standstill, leaving people to look around at each other and wonder: What next? But during May 1968, when the government had momentarily backed off (since it was powerless in the face of the general strike), that meant: What should we do next? (Should we take over this building? Should we restart this factory under our own control?) In our more passive situation it mostly means: What’s the government going to do next? What’s the latest news about the virus?

The memes being shared during the present crisis reflect this passivity. For the most part they express people’s reactions to finding themselves in an unpleasant situation that they did not choose, let alone provoke. Some frontline workers are striking, but only sporadically, out of desperation. Virtually everyone else is staying at home. They may denounce various outrages, or advocate various policies that might make things better, or root for politicians who they hope will implement such policies, but it’s from the sidelines. Participation is limited to things like signing petitions or sending donations, though there are occasional mentions of things that people might do once they are free to go out into the streets again.

At the same time, however, millions of people are using this pause to investigate and critique the system’s fiascos, and they are doing this at a time when practically everyone else in the world is obsessively focused on the same issues. I think this first ever global discussion about our society is potentially more important than the particular crisis that happened to trigger it.

It is admittedly a very confused and chaotic discussion, taking place within the even more chaotic background noise of billions of people’s ongoing individual concerns. But the point is that anyone can take part whenever they wish and potentially have some impact. They can post their own ideas, or if they see some other idea or article they agree with, they can email the link to their network of friends or share it on Facebook or other social media, and if other people agree that it is pertinent, they may in turn share it with their friends, and so on, and within a few days millions of people may be aware of it and able to further share it or adapt it or critique it.

This discussion is of course far from being a democratic decision-making process. Nothing is being decided beyond vague fluctuations of the popularity of this or that meme or idea. If a significant global movement comes out of this crisis, it will need to develop more rigorous ways to determine and coordinate the actions that the participants feel are appropriate, and it will obviously not want its communications to depend on privately owned and manipulated media platforms as they do now. But meanwhile we have to work with what we’ve got — on this terrain where virtually everyone in the world is already connected, however superficially. It’s already a big first step that everyone is able to personally weigh in instead of leaving things to leaders and celebrities. To go further, we need to be aware that this is happening, aware that what is going on within us and among us is potentially more promising than all the farcical political dramas we are watching so intently.

These ideas may seem extravagant, but they are hardly more so than the reality we are facing. The International Labor Organization has reported that nearly half of the global workforce is now at risk of losing its livelihoods. That amounts to 1.6 billion workers out of a total of 3.3 billion — a level of social disruption far more extreme than the Great Depression of the 1930s. I have no idea what will come of this, but I don’t think that 1.6 billion people are going to meekly curl up and die so that the ruling elite’s economic con game can continue to thrive. Something is going to give.

Whatever else happens, it is clear that nothing will ever be the same again. As so many people have noted, we can’t “return to normal.” That old normal was a mess, even if some people were in sufficiently comfortable circumstances that they could tell themselves that it wasn’t all that bad. In addition to all its other problems, it was already propelling us toward a global catastrophe far worse than what we are going through now.

Fortunately, I don’t think we could go back even if we wanted to. Too many people have now seen the deadly insanity of this society too clearly. Organizing a different kind of society — a creative, cooperative global community based on generously fulfilling the needs of everyone rather than protecting the exorbitant wealth and power of a tiny minority at the top — is not simply an ideal, it is now a practical necessity. (My own views on what such a society might look like and how we might get there are set out in The Joy of Revolution.)

The coronavirus is simply one side effect of climate change (one of the many new diseases being generated by deforestation and its resulting disruption of wildlife habitats). If we don’t act now, we will soon face other crises, including other pandemics, under much more unfavorable conditions, after climate change and its associated disasters have crashed our social and technological infrastructures.

The corona crisis and the climate change crisis are very different in timing and in scale. The first one is sudden and fast-moving — every day of delay means thousands of additional deaths. The second is far more gradual, but also far more momentous — every year of delay will probably mean millions of additional deaths, along with a miserable existence for those who survive under such dystopic conditions.

But this shock we are now experiencing is also an opportunity for a new beginning. Hopefully, we may one day look back and see it as the wake-up call that managed to bring humanity to its senses before it was too late.

BUREAU OF PUBLIC SECRETS
May 17, 2020

The case of North Kelvin Meadows and The Glasgow Effect

meadows1

North Kelvin Meadows

Think about it. Is there another campaign at present in the city that has used its assets, common sense, media, resources and everything else to the best of their ability? Can you think of another campaign that has as good a prospect of winning, if given the right support? A project that has helped to delineate the council bosses, position clearly, of profit over people? This campaign if successful would set an example for others to follow in the de-privatisation of public land. The campaign is well run and seems to do all the right things in many ways. It would be a very important model and win if successful and as well to the encouragement of other incipient campaigns and growing spaces in the community. But remember, It could also have the complete opposite effect if it fails. It would set greening spaces back years. The city council bosses also know this, (and the Scottish government) as well as having the added incentive for development opportunities and of stocking the council coffers with the moneys involved, by the selling of this commons and many others like it, that will inevitably come into the future sights of developers .[expand title=”trigger more text”]

The Meadows, would be just the kind of win to boost campaigns of this nature all over the city. Do people in growing spaces realise how important this campaign is to the sustainability of growing and green space? I hope they do and start to come up with some ideas in supporting the campaign, learning from it and using the inspired imagination in building solidarity for the next round in defending this space and others. There is a need to keep up momentum and it should not be left only to the people directly involved at the meadows. (Or other places.) The city council, or/and the Government, will decide the fate of this space. But it will need a collective “City Peoples Council” to make sure they make the right decision and set a precedent for future community development.

Whats this to do with “The Glasgow Effect”?

Quoting from the article links below: ‘A recent report finds that radical attempts to solve Glasgow’s housing problems in the 1960s and 1970s left the city vulnerable when government policy steered investment away from housing and towards retail and other industries in subsequent decades. Walsh added: “The Scottish Office embarked on a series of policies that effectively wrote off the city – they designated it a ‘declining city’ and their plans focused on economic growth elsewhere.”
“This was a policy that went on for decades despite an awareness that this was having a massively negative impact in socio-economic terms and therefore on health.”’

Basically they are saying in the early 80s, the city stopped investing in its people and social housing and shifted its interests to business investment. Which is a big part of the reason for the so called “Glasgow Effect”.  Why the poverty levels in Glasgow, were 30% higher than other cities, such as Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, that deindustrialise at the same time as Glasgow.  You can read about this below. But it also needs to be remembered, importantly. At the same time (early 80s), as the government were de-investing in people, a group of folk in Reidvale, Dennistoun, were investing in themselves. (As the corporation were ripping down tenements and communities with them and packing families of to the schemes and tower blocks, as the corporation, geographically blighted the city space for the use of motorways and commerce.) Many of the people in Reidvale Dennison, during these clearances, said No! We want to stay in our community. Fix our houses we are not moving! And they did stay in their houses, in their community. The rest is history as the people of Reidvale, created a model for Community Based Housing Associations, that is used, not only in Glasgow, but all over Britain.

We have now suffered 30-40 years of de-investment in people. Now the car loving motorway builders are proclaiming “People make Glasgow”  If people make Glasgow, it is going to need more than a branding exercise, that has more to do with selling produce than investing in people. If people make Glasgow, it will be about making council bosses do what they are told and forcing them to invest in our kids, our vulnerable and those trapped in poverty. We need basically to make them eat their own words.

Ideas for looking forward

There is no reason “The Glasgow Effect” should not be made into something wonderful, something unique and meaningful to the people of Glasgow. Turned on its head from something that is done to the city’s people, to something that they do for themselves.

The council did not listen to the people in the community of Reidvale at that time , they were made to listen. And in the case of Kelvin meadows and other such like projects, (the city administration should really be boasting about, the achievements of its citizens, rather than taking the credit), they didn’t listen to any of them either. They were made to listen, Govanhill baths, Kelvingrove bandstand,  Kinningpark Complex, to name a few. As Glaswegian’s, we may have a few attitude problems and don’t think positively enough, as Carol Craig, et al, will remind us. But most, commonly ignore, or underestimate the states role in all of this. The systematic draining of money, resources and assets that took place during the 80s (and continues to this day) that had and is still having a massive effect on the poorest in our city. This was no news to the many who, experienced, have reported and written about it throughout. They were also ignored, and still are.

People “do” make Glasgow. If only more of them realised this simple fact.

The Meadows should become a collective meeting grounds as part of helping to create a “Dear Green Place” benchmark – for those with any interest in freeing the soil of this city in perpetuity for our kids and future generations – until the developers are completely cast off this bit of public land. Winning could be easier than we think and the effect could spread to awaken the public conscience to more ideas for looking forward. And perish the thought, there is a lot of fun to be had to.

It is not rocket science, when we look around us, to understand where the money is being spent, invested and where it is not. Do we really need reports that take years to write to tell us this? It is right in front of our eyes. Like everything else, we have just gotten used to it. So much of our attention is being diverted by, the positive thinking industry, or the  “But this is the real world” theory. So much energy put into ideas, concepts, explanations, excuses of why things are happening to us. We are all just getting used to all of it, learned to live with it and to shield ourselves from dealing with it. There was an old 60s saying that is fitting when the glut of rhetoric outweighed the practicalities. “Move you arse and your brain will follow.” Not poetic, but It has never been more apt advice, than it is at present. People make Glasgow, sure, but which people, you? Me? What are the ideas for doing it together? Because it’s not going to happen otherwise.

https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/8404/scotland-office-policies-blamed-glasgow-effect-forthcoming-report
http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/14493634.Revealed___Glasgow_effect__mortality_rate_blamed_on_Westminster_social_engineering/?ref=ebln

https://northkelvinmeadow.com

The secret History of our Streets
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04ck993

Half of it is about showing up. Frida Berrigan

 

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Dancing with Systems

By Donella H. Meadows Whole Earth  Winter 2001

People who are raised in the industrial world and who get enthused about systems thinking are likely to make a terrible mistake. They are likely to assume that here, in systems analysis, in interconnection and complication, in the power of the computer, here at last, is the key to prediction and control. This mistake is likely because the mindset of the industrial world assumes that there is a key to prediction and control.

I assumed that at first too. We all assumed it, as eager systems students at the great institution called MIT. More or less innocently, enchanted by what we could see through our new lens, we did what many discoverers do. We exaggerated our own ability to change the world. We did so not with any intent to deceive others, but in the expression of our own expectations and hopes. Systems thinking for us was more than subtle, complicated mindplay. It was going to Make Systems Work.

But self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do just what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best. We can never fully understand our world, not in the way our reductionistic science has led us to expect. Our science itself, from quantum theory to the mathematics of chaos, leads us into irreducible uncertainty. For any objective other than the most trivial, we can’t optimize; we don’t even know what to optimize. We can’t keep track of everything. We can’t find a proper, sustainable relationship to nature, each other, or the institutions we create, if we try to do it from the role of omniscient conqueror.

For those who stake their identity on the role of omniscient conqueror, the uncertainty exposed by systems thinking is hard to take. If you can’t understand, predict, and control, what is there to do?

Systems thinking leads to another conclusion, however waiting, shining, obvious as soon as we stop being blinded by the illusion of control. It says that there is plenty to do, of a different sort of “doing.” The future can’t be predicted, but it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. Systems can’t be controlled, but they can be designed and redesigned. We can’t surge forward with certainty into a world of no surprises, but we can expect surprises and learn from them and even profit from them. We can’t impose our will upon a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.

We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them! I already knew that, in a way before I began to study systems. I had learned about dancing with great powers from whitewater kayaking, from gardening, from playing music, from skiing. All those endeavors require one to stay wide awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback. It had never occurred to me that those same requirements might apply to intellectual work, to management, to government, to getting along with people.

But there it was, the message emerging from every computer model we made. Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.

I will summarize the most general “systems wisdoms” I have absorbed from modeling complex systems and hanging out with modelers. These are the take-home lessons, the concepts and practices that penetrate the discipline of systems so deeply that one begins, however imperfectly, to practice them not just in one’s profession, but in all of life.

The list probably isn’t complete, because I am still a student in the school of systems. And it isn’t unique to systems thinking. There are many ways to learn to dance. But here, as a start-off dancing lesson, are the practices I see my colleagues adopting, consciously or unconsciously, as they encounter systems.

Get the beat.

Before you disturb the system in any way, watch how it behaves. If it’s a piece of music or a whitewater rapid or a fluctuation in a commodity price, study its beat. If it’s a social system, watch it work. Learn its history. Ask people who’ve been around a long time to tell you what has happened. If possible, find or make a time graph of actual data from the system. Peoples’ memories are not always reliable when it comes to timing.

Starting with the behavior of the system forces you to focus on facts, not theories. It keeps you from falling too quickly into your own beliefs or misconceptions, or those of others. It’s amazing how many misconceptions there can be. People will swear that rainfall is decreasing, say, but when you look at the data, you find that what is really happening is that variability is increasing the droughts are deeper, but the floods are greater too. I have been told with great authority that milk price was going up when it was going down, that real interest rates were falling when they were rising, that the deficit was a higher fraction of the GNP than ever before when it wasn’t.

Starting with the behavior of the system directs one’s thoughts to dynamic, not static analysis not only to “what’s wrong?” but also to “how did we get there?” and “what behavior modes are possible?” and “if we don’t change direction, where are we going to end up?”

And finally, starting with history discourages the common and distracting tendency we all have to define a problem not by the system’s actual behavior, but by the lack of our favorite solution. (The problem is, we need to find more oil. The problem is, we need to ban abortion. The problem is, how can we attract more growth to this town?)

Listen to the wisdom of the system.

Aid and encourage the forces and structures that help the system run itself. Don’t be an unthinking intervener and destroy the system’s own self-maintenance capacities. Before you charge in to make things better, pay attention to the value of what’s already there.

A friend of mine, Nathan Gray, was once an aid worker in Guatemala. He told me of his frustration with agencies that would arrive with the intention of “creating jobs” and “increasing entrepreneurial abilities” and “attracting outside investors.” They would walk right past the thriving local market, where small-scale business people of all kinds, from basket-makers to vegetable growers to butchers to candy sellers, were displaying their entrepreneurial abilities in jobs they had created for themselves. Nathan spent his time talking to the people in the market, asking about their lives and businesses, learning what was in the way of those businesses expanding and incomes rising. He concluded that what was needed was not outside investors, but inside ones. Small loans available at reasonable interest rates, and classes in literacy and accounting, would produce much more long-term good for the community than bringing in a factory or assembly plant from outside.

Expose your mental models to the open air.

Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be shot at. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. Instead of becoming a champion for one possible explanation or hypothesis or model, collect as many as possible. Consider all of them plausible until you find some evidence that causes you to rule one out. That way you will be emotionally able to see the evidence that rules out an assumption with which you might have confused your own identity.

You don’t have to put forth your mental model with diagrams and equations, though that’s a good discipline. You can do it with words or lists or pictures or arrows showing what you think is connected to what. The more you do that, in any form, the clearer your thinking will become, the faster you will admit your uncertainties and correct your mistakes, and the more flexible you will learn to be. Mental flexibility the willingness to redraw boundaries, to notice that a system has shifted into a new mode, to see how to redesign structure is a necessity when you live in a world of flexible systems.

Stay humble. Stay a learner.

Systems thinking has taught me to trust my intuition more and my figuring-out rationality less, to lean on both as much as I can, but still to be prepared for surprises. Working with systems, on the computer, in nature, among people, in organizations, constantly reminds me of how incomplete my mental models are, how complex the world is, and how much I don’t know.

The thing to do, when you don’t know, is not to bluff and not to freeze, but to learn. The way you learn is by experiment or, as Buckminster Fuller put it, by trial and error, error, error. In a world of complex systems it is not appropriate to charge forward with rigid, undeviating directives. “Stay the course” is only a good idea if you’re sure you’re on course. Pretending you’re in control even when you aren’t is a recipe not only for mistakes, but for not learning from mistakes. What’s appropriate when you’re learning is small steps, constant monitoring, and a willingness to change course as you find out more about where it’s leading.

That’s hard. It means making mistakes and, worse, admitting them. It means what psychologist Don Michael calls “error-embracing.” It takes a lot of courage to embrace your errors.

Honor and protect information.

A decision-maker can’t respond to information he or she doesn’t have, can’t respond accurately to information that is inaccurate, can’t respond in a timely way to information that is late. I would guess that 99 percent of what goes wrong in systems goes wrong because of faulty or missing information.

If I could, I would add an Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not distort, delay, or sequester information. You can drive a system crazy by muddying its information streams. You can make a system work better with surprising ease if you can give it more timely, accurate, and complete information.

For example, in 1986 new federal legislation required US companies to report all chemical emissions from each of their plants. Through the Freedom of Information Act (from a systems point of view one of the most important laws in the nation) that information became a matter of public record. In July 1988 the first data on chemical emissions became available. The reported emissions were not illegal, but they didn’t look very good when they were published in local papers by enterprising reporters, who had a tendency to make lists of “the top ten local polluters.” That’s all that happened. There were no lawsuits, no required reductions, no fines, no penalties. But within two years chemical emissions nationwide (as least as reported, and presumably also in fact) had decreased by 40 percent. Some companies were launching policies to bring their emissions down by 90 percent, just because of the release of previously sequestered information.

Locate responsibility in the system.

Look for the ways the system creates its own behavior. Do pay attention to the triggering events, the outside influences that bring forth one kind of behavior from the system rather than another. Sometimes those outside events can be controlled (as in reducing the pathogens in drinking water to keep down incidences of infectious disease). But sometimes they can’t. And sometimes blaming or trying to control the outside influence blinds one to the easier task of increasing responsibility within the system.

“Intrinsic responsibility” means that the system is designed to send feedback about the consequences of decision-making directly and quickly and compellingly to the decision-makers.

Dartmouth College reduced intrinsic responsibility when it took thermostats out of individual offices and classrooms and put temperature-control decisions under the guidance of a central computer. That was done as an energy-saving measure. My observation from a low level in the hierarchy is that the main consequence was greater oscillations in room temperature. When my office gets overheated now, instead of turning down the thermostat, I have to call an office across campus, which gets around to making corrections over a period of hours or days, and which often overcorrects, setting up the need for another phone call. One way of making that system more, rather than less, responsible, might have been to let professors keep control of their own thermostats and charge them directly for the amount of energy they use. (Thereby privatizing a commons!)

Designing a system for intrinsic responsibility could mean, for example, requiring all towns or companies that emit wastewater into a stream to place their intake pipe downstream from their outflow pipe. It could mean that neither insurance companies nor public funds should pay for medical costs resulting from smoking or from accidents in which a motorcycle rider didn’t wear a helmet or a car rider didn’t fasten the seat belt. It could mean Congress would no longer be allowed to legislate rules from which it exempts itself.

Make feedback policies for feedback systems.

President Jimmy Carter had an unusual ability to think in feedback terms and to make feedback policies. Unfortunately he had a hard time explaining them to a press and public that didn’t understand feedback.

He suggested, at a time when oil imports were soaring, that there be a tax on gasoline proportional to the fraction of US oil consumption that had to be imported. If imports continued to rise the tax would rise, until it suppressed demand and brought forth substitutes and reduced imports. If imports fell to zero, the tax would fall to zero.

The tax never got passed.

Carter was also trying to deal with a flood of illegal immigrants from Mexico. He suggested that nothing could be done about that immigration as long as there was a great gap in opportunity and living standards between the US and Mexico. Rather than spending money on border guards and barriers, he said, we should spend money helping to build the Mexican economy, and we should continue to do so until the immigration stopped.

That never happened either.

You can imagine why a dynamic, self-adjusting system cannot be governed by a static, unbending policy. It’s easier, more effective, and usually much cheaper to design policies that change depending on the state of the system. Especially where there are great uncertainties, the best policies not only contain feedback loops, but meta-feedback loops loops that alter, correct, and expand loops. These are policies that design learning into the management process.

Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.

Our culture, obsessed with numbers, has given us the idea that what we can measure is more important than what we can’t measure. You can look around and make up your own mind about whether quantity or quality is the outstanding characteristic of the world in which you live.

If something is ugly, say so. If it is tacky, inappropriate, out of proportion, unsustainable, morally degrading, ecologically impoverishing, or humanly demeaning, don’t let it pass. Don’t be stopped by the “if you can’t define it and measure it, I don’t have to pay attention to it” ploy. No one can [precisely] define or measure justice, democracy, security, freedom, truth, or love. No one can [precisely] define or measure any value. But if no one speaks up for them, if systems aren’t designed to produce them, if we don’t speak about them and point toward their presence or absence, they will cease to exist.

Go for the good of the whole.

Don’t maximize parts of systems or subsystems while ignoring the whole. As Kenneth Boulding once said, don’t go to great trouble to optimize something that never should be done at all. Aim to enhance total systems properties, such as [creativity], stability, diversity, resilience, and sustainability whether they are easily measured or not.

As you think about a system, spend part of your time from a vantage point that lets you see the whole system, not just the problem that may have drawn you to focus on the system to begin with. And realize that, especially in the short term, changes for the good of the whole may sometimes seem to be counter to the interests of a part of the system. It helps to remember that the parts of a system cannot survive without the whole. The long-term interests of your liver require the long-term health of your body, and the long-term interests of sawmills require the long-term health of forests.

Expand time horizons.

The official time horizon of industrial society doesn’t extend beyond what will happen after the next election or beyond the payback period of current investments. The time horizon of most families still extends farther than that through the lifetimes of children or grandchildren. Many Native American cultures actively spoke of and considered in their decisions the effects upon the seventh generation to come. The longer the operant time horizon, the better the chances for survival.

In the strict systems sense there is no long-term/short-term distinction. Phenomena at different timescales are nested within each other. Actions taken now have some immediate effects and some that radiate out for decades to come. We experience now the consequences of actions set in motion yesterday and decades ago and centuries ago.

When you’re walking along a tricky, curving, unknown, surprising, obstacle-strewn path, you’d be a fool to keep your head down and look just at the next step in front of you. You’d be equally a fool just to peer far ahead and never notice what’s immediately under your feet. You need to be watching both the short and long terms the whole system.

Expand thought horizons.

Defy the disciplines. In spite of what you majored in, or what the textbooks say, or what you think you’re an expert at, follow a system wherever it leads. It will be sure to lead across traditional disciplinary lines. To understand that system, you will have to be able to learn from while not being limited by economists and chemists and psychologists and theologians. You will have to penetrate their jargons, integrate what they tell you, recognize what they can honestly see through their particular lenses, and discard the distortions that come from the narrowness and incompleteness of their lenses. They won’t make it easy for you.

Seeing systems whole requires more than being “interdisciplinary,” if that word means, as it usually does, putting together people from different disciplines and letting them talk past each other. Interdisciplinary communication works only if there is a real problem to be solved, and if the representatives from the various disciplines are more committed to solving the problem than to being academically correct. They will have to go into learning mode, to admit ignorance and be willing to be taught, by each other and by the system.

It can be done. It’s very exciting when it happens.

Expand the boundary of caring.

Living successfully in a world of complex systems means expanding not only time horizons and thought horizons; above all it means expanding the horizons of caring. There are moral reasons for doing that, of course. And if moral arguments are not sufficient, systems thinking provides the practical reasons to back up the moral ones. The real system is interconnected. No part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem. It will not be possible in this integrated world for your heart to succeed if your lungs fail, or for your company to succeed if your workers fail, or for the rich in Los Angeles to succeed if the poor in Los Angeles fail, or for Europe to succeed if Africa fails, or for the global economy to succeed if the global environment fails.

As with everything else about systems, most people already know the interconnections that make moral and practical rules turn out to be the same rules. They just have to bring themselves to believe what they know.

Celebrate complexity.

Let’s face it, the universe is messy. It is nonlinear, turbulent, and chaotic. It is dynamic. It spends its time in transient behavior on its way to somewhere else, not in mathematically neat equilibria. It self-organizes and evolves. It creates diversity, not uniformity. That’s what makes the world interesting, that’s what makes it beautiful, and that’s what makes it work.

There’s something within the human mind that is attracted to straight lines and not curves, to whole numbers and not fractions, to uniformity and not diversity, and to certainties and not mystery. But there is something else within us that has the opposite set of tendencies, since we ourselves evolved out of and are shaped by and structured as complex feedback systems. Only a part of us, a part that has emerged recently, designs buildings as boxes with uncompromising straight lines and flat surfaces. Another part of us recognizes instinctively that nature designs in fractals, with intriguing detail on every scale from the microscopic to the macroscopic. That part of us makes Gothic cathedrals and Persian carpets, symphonies and novels, Mardi Gras costumes and artificial intelligence programs, all with embellishments almost as complex as the ones we find in the world around us.

Hold fast to the goal of goodness.

Examples of bad human behavior are held up, magnified by the media, affirmed by the culture, as typical. Just what you would expect. After all, we’re only human. The far more numerous examples of human goodness are barely noticed. They are Not News. They are exceptions. Must have been a saint. Can’t expect everyone to behave like that.

And so expectations are lowered. The gap between desired behavior and actual behavior narrows. Fewer actions are taken to affirm and instill ideals. The public discourse is full of cynicism. Public leaders are visibly, unrepentantly, amoral or immoral and are not held to account. Idealism is ridiculed. Statements of moral belief are suspect. It is much easier to talk about hate in public than to talk about love.

We know what to do about eroding goals. Don’t weigh the bad news more heavily than the good. And keep standards absolute.

This is quite a list. Systems thinking can only tell us to do these things. It can’t do them for us. And so we are brought to the gap between understanding and implementation. Systems thinking by itself cannot bridge that gap. But it can lead us to the edge of what analysis can do and then point beyond to what can and must be done by the human spirit.

Donella Meadows died in the spring of 2001. This article was excerpted from the manuscript of her unfinished last book.

Ian McHarg 1920-2001 Scottish landscape architect Design with nature

Ian McHarg died this day in 2001 (NY Times obituary). He was a Scottish landscape architect who made his name in the University of Pennsylvania where he founded the world famous Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning in1955.

He was born in Clydebank in 1920 and (for those with an interest in the history of mountaineering in Scotland), was one of the Craigallian Fire men.

Arguably his most famous legacy is his 1969 book, Design with Nature. One of his pupils and collaborators in the project was the Scottish landscape architect, Mark Turnbull, who is still practising in Scotland today. His book sat on the shelves of my Dad’s study when I was growing up. He was an architect and, as a student, I thought it would make an interesting contribution to the forestry course I was doing at Aberdeen University. However, so dismal was the outlook of the staff there (there were a few honourable exceptions), that the notion of even reading such a book was regarded as too radical. I read it though and recommend it to anyone with an interest in environmental and spatial planning (McHarg invented the sieve mapping technique now standard in GIS – the European Geosciences Union awards a medal in his honour).
Keep reading article Ian McHarg 1920-2001 Scottish landscape architect Design with nature

How to untie the knot

The need for appropriate ownership and access regimes Toby Lloyd Land & Liberty Autumn/Winter 2002/3

Breaking the multinationals’ stranglehold on natural resources is vital if everyone is to benefit, but Toby Lloyd believes what is really needed are appropriate ownership and access regimes. Too often, this debate has been presented as a straight choice between private and shared property.

In 1968 the academic and author Garrett Hardin described ‘the tragedy of the commons’ like this: if everyone has a right to graze cattle on a village common it will inevitably suffer over-grazing, because it is in each individual’s interest to extract as much as possible from it, knowing the effects of overuse will be shared by everyone.

This argument has since been deployed to demonstrate private property’s merits and to justify the privatisation of socially held assets. With diminishing resources left under social ownership, attention has shifted to various ‘unowned’ resources. The atmosphere, oceans and genome are commons – assets in which we all have a notional shared ownership – and therefore, we are told, are susceptible to Hardin’s ‘tragedy’. The only solution, according to the new market fundamentalism, is to enclose the commons, creating private assets and incentives for owners to preserve them. In this way, it is argued, the ‘tragedy’ will be averted.

India’s neem tree offers a striking example of bio-piracy in action where marauding multinational corporations seek to plunder the knowledge of the global South. To market fundamentalists, the knowledge of neem’s uses is a common that should be privatised, allowing most efficient use. The flaw in the argument is that it fails to differentiate between open-access and what are often called common property systems.

Hardin’s hypothetical grazing land was an open-access system: no rules govern by whom or how much it is used. In reality, most pastures are types of shared property, owned by members of a limited group with the right to exclude non-members from using it.

No fences doesn’t mean no owners or no rules.

Complex shared property systems have evolved everywhere, governing the use of water, grazing lands, fish stocks and knowledge. Open access, common, limited shared and private property are different types of property regime – rules that govern rights of access, use, exchange and so on, and their corresponding obligations.

There are many different types of property regime and some are more suitable in certain circumstances. Open-access regimes are best for say public health information. National parks are a recognition of common property in national heritage. Shoes are best owned by individuals. More complex resources may need more sophisticated ownership regimes.

Perhaps in neem’s case common ownership combined with resource rental is best. Or perhaps a true open-access system nobody could privatise would ensure its benefits were spread as widely as possible. Yet efficient and extensive exploitation, whether privately or in common, is not the fundamental criterion. The regime must ensure the re-creation of the resource. For the products of labour, private property rewards creation. For fish in the ocean, or rain forests, that which sustains their re-creation, brings abundance.

We have to recognise common ownership as both real and valid, and resist the efforts of the bio-pirates.

www.caledonia.org.uk/commonweal