Sedative consumption of science

Limits, boundaries & thresholds. Real or constructed. Motive for action, or a power grab by elite scientists? The concept of planetary boundaries has become a somewhat heated polarized debate, which you can read more about from Victor Galaz on the Resilience Science blog,or Robert Pielke Jr’s blog, or Melissa Leach in the Huffington Post.

Erle C. Ellis wrote in the New York Times this week that ‘Overpopulation is Not the Problem.’ I am part of a global sustainability group, called the Balaton Group set up by Donella and Dennis Meadows (authors of Limits to Growth) in 1982 to discuss planetary issues in one of the few places where ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ scientists could meet in the 1980s, on the shores of lake Balaton. The op-ed by Ellis has sparked a lively debate amongst this heterogeneous group of scientists. We have our annual meeting later this week to discuss “Technology and Transformation—Meeting human and planetary needs.” I will present on Social, Technological and Environmental Pathways to Sustainability: Equity and sustainability in the governance of science, technology and innovation.

Many, on the planetary boundaries side, might say that this debate distracts from actually doing something about the challenges we face. On the other side, there is great discomfort about the top-down science that the concept of nonnegotiable boundaries promote.  I think the interesting challenge here is how can critical pluralism, as Andy Stirling calls it, lead to positive action? This seems to be the challenge we face: to maintain a diversity of alternative options in a democratic open space. We seem to be all too willing to give into the seduction of clean, clear boundaries that call for the change we ultimately all wish to see.

Ellis: “The only limits to creating a planet that future generations will be proud of are our imaginations and our social systems. In moving toward a better Anthropocene, the environment will be what we make it.”

Stirling: As knowledge can be power, so power tries to shape knowledge – including green knowledge. And few oppressions are more forceful than closure of imaginations. So, for all their seductive appeal; concentrated power, expert certainty and fallacies of control remain the oldest enemies. Despite pressing constraints, the great strength of green politics lies in its critical pluralism. This means hope-inspired democratic choice, not fear-driven technical compliance.

At a local scale, this is how I, with Frederik van Oudenhoven proposed igniting local imaginations for alternative futures:

We propose to “abandon the professed neutrality of pseudo-scientific paradigms in favour of the subjectivity of aesthetic ones. In other words, to turn away, if only for the purpose of reflection, from the informational, ‘professional’, or ‘academic’ (i.e. external) narratives as a basis for conceiving development trajectories, towards the singularity and aesthetics of popular stories and memories rooted in local culture. Huyssen (2003) relates the “fundamental crisis in our imagination of alternative futures” to the differential treatment of history vs. memory. Development activities predicated on memory will be different from those based on a linear account of history and, arguably, allow for greater flexibility and creativity in responding to environmental, economic or geopolitical changes.

In a development context, in one that I know well, have a read of our article on how development organizations erode the very pathways they try to build, and the subjects of development become exactly that, subjected to development. So the real challenge in creating a sustainable future is to maintain diversity in imagination.

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Dialogue Advance

Like many things do, it started on the shore of Lake Balaton. A small group of us were discussing some of the particular challenges we face as young interdisciplinary researchers/practitioners who are interdisciplinary to the point that we don’t feel like we have any discipline to fall back onto. In could have been any topic of discussion, but at some point we felt a transcendence of some sort into a different space of conversation, where we all felt we were building something new, rather than amalgamating disperse ideas together.

So over the next months, we talked about creating a space to have these types of conversations on any topic that we mutually cared about. We knew we wanted an open, creative space in which ideas could fester and have the chance to grow. And a place in which we could experiment with a small group. A few of the ideas we initially started with were: 1) Improving dialogue between humanities + natural sciences, 2) Learning for sustainability / Sustainability Literacy, 3) Storytelling/framing (as a meta-theme). What is the underlying story that we are living by? Do we need a new one/new ones? What do they look like? 4) Context (how does it affect our mental models/worldviews? or the way we think?), 5) Scale (what is appropriate scale when it comes to various cultural, social, technical, economic solutions for sustainability?), 6) Interplay between arts/science/spirituality in context of sustainability.

We had a few ideas of how we wanted to go about this. Quite early on, thanks to the suggestion of another Balaton member, we were inspired by they work of physicist David Bohm, who wrote a book called On Dialogue.

Some other ways of conversing we were inspired by:

Dialectic Reasoning http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialectic#Buddhist_dialectic

Flow http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

Accountable Talk https://www.coursera.org/course/accountabletalk

The location was a remote cabin in the North of Sweden, built by one of the co-conspirators for the dialogue’s grandfather who was an artist. The three of us invited a few more people, so we were seven in total who made the trip.

What follows are some snippets from my diary on the experience.

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Day 1

The walk to the in melting May snow was treacherous. One meter high deep snow… we were drenched by the time we reached the cabin. But at last, after taking off rubber boots in vain, in a mosaic of birch trees, we stand. It’s stunning in it’s isolation. This place. An artist’s creation, full of haunted masterpieces. Some dead, others alive.

In the atelier, we sat on giant colourful pillows on the ground, encircling candles, chocolate and tea. It was a safe space, full of energy. We began just by chatting about any issues close to our hearts, not in any formal way. In fat, we spent most of our time talking about time. And the double edged sword it is. On the one hand, we feel we have too many time constraints and too much discipline in our lives and yet on the other hand, most of us are craving some sort of disciplined space. Space in which we mediate, exercise, write, make something creative, do something with our hands everyday. A discipline. Have we become anti-disciplinary?

In the spirit of not giving away thoughts that are not my own and shared in that space, I will skip to my own reason for wanting to have this dialogue.

… I went next, in our circle of no or endless direction.  I wasn’t sure what I was going to say until I opened my mouth. But unlike lately, I actually felt I had something worthwhile to say. It came out coherently and meaningfully.

I started at the lake. The moment of insight the three of us had shaped. The need to push beyond an amalgamation of ideas. We really are among the first generation of thinkers who come from many angles, to solve increasingly complex and global problems.  But I am often overwhelmed, by which angle I should take. And get impatient with one, and jump to the next because I can. Maybe a matter of discipline.

But if a group of 6 people, each looking at a problem in a different way, can change that thought productively rather than chaotically, maybe we can come with something great. Where are the points of fusion? Where ideas fuse before they tackle the problem? How do we create new ideas and synergies in this spaces?

The second point I made was the path-dependency of ideas. And I thought of a tree. How you choose what path you want to take. Once you take that path, there is no turning back.

The way we, or at least I, was educated and trained is to have a discussion by responding to everything everyone says. Even when I don’t have anything meaningful or productive to say. I should say something because they main goal is to keep the conversation going. This is what creates Bad Ideas. I think it was Bateson who coined the term The Ecology of Bad Ideas. Maybe that’s how an ecosystem of bad ideas starts. And it happens so often.

Because new ideas are the buds of new branches on a tree. And they grow slowly, and they take time—rather than following the path of an idea already traveled.

So what I would like to learn from this Dialogue is how to STOP.

Someone else mentioned:

“The types of solutions we need to solve some the most complex problems come precisely at moments when we are not thinking about them.”

Format: we listened, allowed for silence. We did not steer the process which was difficult and confusing at times. Often ideas would spring up in my head and rather than assert them, I would keep them in my head… most them long forgotten.

Day 2

Improve, research questions, experimentation. A lot of moving in many different directions!

Day 3

Convergence, divergence, convergence.

Convergence: we meditated. An interesting thing happened. I didn’t think: oh, I need to be better at mediating, I’m so rubbish at this and everyone else around me has spent time in monasteries and must be so good at this. Instead, I found myself at times succeeding in some sort of transcendence, but most of the time I was just happily reflecting on ideas and conversations.

Align attention with intention.

Meditation is not about transcendence, it’s about allowing things to be the way they are.

Divergence

We silently took off in our own directions, walking, collecting, creating something.

I sit and look at the slender birth tree. Swaying, in silence.

Inside. Five around. All is still.

I look out the window at the tree and it sways gently in the wind. But I hear nothing.

What is the silent world? Where are all the unspoken words?

How much of life happens without me having a clue?

My world is tiny and all that matters is today and tomorrow and how I feel in this day. How I make others feel in this day.

… and my haikus…

Image

We then had lunch on the porch in scorching sun with the snow melting all around. Have you ever heard the snow melt? We had each created divergent pieces of art. Here is a summary of a few of the discussions:

  • to create and not to conserve. The courage and power of letting go of something we have created.
  • Medium: Charcoal… it’s nice not to have an undo.
  • Bauhaus sketch: Placement of elements makes the background active; making the white space active.  Slow and fast thoughts. What is behind the object? What are the things in between? As an act of design. Trust as white space… what do we have to build to keep the trust? Hurrying slowly. Can we fabricate flow?
  • Usually when we do things, the why is overwhelming. Use a typewriter, and just do it.

Through our convergence of art exchange, we came up with questions, somehow. They looked like this:

Image

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We then just rolled a dice and chose one: What is the source of action?

—-

We had an incredible discussion. The conversation went one way and then another for a couple hours and we ended up with a surprising conclusion we all agreed we never would have ended up with on our own, or in another forum. It’s really too difficult to reproduce here, but here are some thoughts on method:

  • Purest democracy I have ever seen. We all put an idea into the centre of the circle but didn’t necessarily feel the need to respond to it in anyway. After a while, certain ‘towers’ or collection of ideas were built. Some ideas gained more traction than others and we stuck with those.
  • Often when we built two towers, we would jump between them and eventually one would fall.
  • Pre-cooked thoughts are often the ones that win people over. But in this case, that did not exist. Here we really entered with incomplete thoughts and other people completed them.
  • We were able to sneak things into the heart space.
  • It would be interesting to experiment with speed and structure. We had a very slow discussion, because we didn’t want to jump in and we wanted ideas to grow on their own without interrupting with our own experience. It may have been interesting also to experiment with the speed of conversation.
  • Ideas picked up without acknowledgement and become one.
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