Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Democratic problems

A few months ago the trade journal ENDS Report solicited a piece from me based on a pitch from the publicist of my book, Ethics for a Full World, or Can Animal-Lovers Save the World? The pitch was about the impact of human cognitive errors on messaging. In the end, END Report decided not to use my piece, citing that it was too general for their readership. Maybe it is a message their environmental consultant readers wouldn't want to hear... Never one to let anything go to waste, here is the piece for a general readership anyway:

For decades, activists, scholars, and NGOs have made the mistake of assuming that once the facts were known and people and politicians truly understood, they would take action. But there are many reasons why things still don’t happen even when the facts are available and widely understood. There is a rich body of research identifying cognitive biases and other mechanisms that make people respond in weird ways to information. Coupled with well-funded disinformation campaigns and the political and financial might of opposing forces, the existence of such mechanisms go a fair way towards explaining why the dissemination of information has not gotten us further towards positive outcomes. Furthermore, if you take it upon yourself to enlighten others, all your opponents have to do is pretend that they still aren’t enlightened.

Everybody suffers from time squeeze. Nobody has time to do their job properly, or their civic duties, and there are always limited degrees of freedom left over to engage with promising new initiatives. Endless reports are produced, and languish in filing drawers. Most of the people you are trying to reach don't have the background to really understand the subject matter, and they won't realize it thanks to the Dunning-Kruger effect. The incompetent are incompetent to recognize their own incompetence. And you won’t get enough time to get them up to speed.

In our complex societies, nobody really has the power to get the important things implemented. We know the kinds of things that need to be done, but nobody really knows how to get humanity to act when we need to. Everybody is hamstrung for lack of critical mass behind a given idea. It is too easy to obfuscate, and thereby confuse large segments of the population, and divide humanity against itself. Everybody knows the frustration of not getting their message through. But often it is not really the lack of messaging, or even understanding, but the lack of ability to get anything important done. Time again: in the important matters, we don’t have time to wait. 

People push information that has unwanted implications for their worldview, their ideology, or their in-group, away. Confirmation bias makes us absorb facts and accept hypotheses much more readily when they conform to our ideology, and disregard when they don’t. Providing information that corrects people’s beliefs can even backfire by making them cling even more strongly to their mistaken notions. Start by finding some common ground, framing communication in terms of values that they already buy into, and avoid threatening their identity politics.

Popularization of complex material may also backfire: if you make it seem simple, people think they know as much as, or more than, the experts. Unfortunately, the environment and natural resource management are among those fields that the man in the street can misguidedly believe that he understands, and has a justifiable opinion of.

Make sure you are in the right game. Is this the best use of your time? Work on the right scale. Nothing undermines our credibility like “solutions” that are hopelessly inadequate in scope and execution.

Will the politicians lead, or do politicians only follow? Politicians and bureaucrats can’t be very effective if they don’t really understand. It is not just a matter of allocating money when you want something good to happen. The job also has to be done well, and some good people have to be hired to do the job properly. And hiring well is also a skill.

Politicians and bureaucrats succumb to the pressure to be seen to be acting, when the spotlight is on. Unless particularly trained, people have a tendency to completely disregard the likelihood, or unlikelihood, of particular events—one of several mechanisms behind irrational fears. Narrative fallacy: humans can form seemingly coherent narratives to most any string of events, when more likely the overabundance of sheer data causes us to understand less rather than more when we follow the “news” diligently. Normalcy bias: people have a hard time believing that something that has not happened before, or that they have never seen happen before, can happen.

People rationalize, and compartmentalize. Wishful thinking is another cognitive error. It can lull people into thinking things will be all right, even if they don’t get personally involved. These are all mechanisms that weaken our democracies and our civic engagement.

Ultimately, it all comes down to ethics, to our values. What do we really care about? 

Tormod V. Burkey is author of Ethics for a Full World or, Can Animal-Lovers Save the World? (Clairview Books)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

What do you care about?

Burkey, Tormod V. | May 16, 2017 | 0 Comments

If you’re going to dedicate your life to fighting to save the world, you need a pretty good reason why. Even people considering a small sacrifice in daily life will look for a reason. It remains a prevalent view that such arguments must be measured in terms of value to humans to be effective.


#EthicsForAFullWorld Ethics For A Full World on Facebook

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Ethics for a Full World

‘People charge that I have abandoned science to become an “activist.” What nonsense! Tormod Burkey’s brilliant concise synthesis of the sciences helps us understand why, for the sake of young people and all life on our planet, we must appreciate wisdom emanating from a broad perspective of all scientific disciplines, including philosophy and ethics.’
 —James Hansen, Director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, author of Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity. 

Ethics For A Full World Cover
‘Dr. Burkey’s extraordinary book touches on psychology and neuroscience, evolutionary biology, ecology, dynamic systems theory, statistics, economics, philosophy, ethics, conservation biology, history, law, religion and political science. A cure for narrow-mindedness, this provocative book should be required reading for politicians—and those who vote for them.’

 —Brian Czech, President, Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy, author of Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train and Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution.
Amazon.co.uk                        Clairview Books
Ethics for a Full World or, Can Animal-Lovers Save the World?

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Can We Save The World? | Part 2

Why are we not acting to save the world? Could it be that we simply don’t know how? Typically, we know the sorts of things that need to be done. What we don’t know is how to get humanity to act, even when we know that we must.

Can We Save The World

The presence of tipping points in the dynamics of global ecosystems means that before we know it it may be too late, and that doing just a tiny bit too little, or too late, is equivalent to doing nothing.


#EthicsForAFullWorld Ethics For A Full World on Facebook

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Can We Save The World?

Why are we not acting to save the world? Could it be that we simply don’t know how? Typically, we know the sorts of things that need to be done. What we don’t know is how to get humanity to act, even when we know that we must.

#action #governance #complex world #democracy #systems #tipping-points #globalization #extinction #climate #over-exploitation

The presence of tipping points in the dynamics of global ecosystems means that before we know it it may be too late, and that doing just a tiny bit too little, or too late, is equivalent to doing nothing.


Sunday, December 6, 2015

It's The Interest, Stupid!

Why banks run the world… Is this also why we haven't switched to a steady state economy?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Can We Save The World?

What: An interdisciplinary seminar/workshop/discussion on this question, to result in an edited book with the same title. Where interdisciplinary science and advocacy meets politics and global governance. “Saving the world” is of course just a shorthand for the implementation of real world solutions to large, complicated, "world threatening" challenges with tipping points (e.g. climate, biodiversity, fisheries, ocean acidification, land degradation) and international aspects. What are the problems we need to overcome to enable humanity to act? Is it possible to get humanity to take necessary and sufficient action in time? Where the deadline is perhaps uncertain? If not, what institutions are needed? If the conclusion is that we cannot move humanity to necessary and sufficient action in time (with existing institutions), that too is a powerful and important message. What institutions, with what powers and mandates, would be needed to get the required steps implemented? What processes need to be embarked upon? What can we say about our ability to solve such problems?

Why: In our busy and fragmented lives, no one, and no group, has the time and resources to take this broad view, or to take a deep look for real solutions—and by “solution” we mean a set of necessary and sufficient steps that are actually implemented; not only the changes needed, but how we can get them implemented. Nobody has brought adequate time, focus and resources to bear on this overarching question. How do we get humanity to actually take the necessary and adequate steps? Our political system is not used to tackling problems with potentially irreversible damage, the kinds of problems where it may (suddenly) be too late. A seminar-series/book may serve as a precursor to the creation of a Think Tank, “The Solutions Center”, to work on real-world, implemented solutions to major challenges of our times. We can work on finding the actual solutions to concrete problems later, but first, like mathematicians exploring a difficult proof, let’s explore whether a solution is possible or not, and perhaps what the requisite preconditions may be. We may be able to identify classes of problems that are solvable, and problems that are not. The actual problem at hand may not be that important (as long as it is a system with tipping points, and international dimensions, as these are the interesting and important problems). One might even work on hypothetical, unspecified, problems—to imagine issues without scientific uncertainty, for instance. Can we solve a problem when we know we have to?

Format: Key participants would lead the discussion on each topic, for a chapter that they would take the responsibility for getting completed. Not long presentations, but cross-disciplinary discussions/work shops. People would start out prepared before each session by having read a paper or a draft/presentation. To get important people together from far and wide, at least some of the “seminar series” would have to be more intensive, like over a long weekend at a retreat, where several “chapters” are addressed. What can we get professionals with disparate backgrounds to agree on? Some public lectures/debates might be included to engage a wider audience and stakeholders, but the actual work/discussion would be in closed sessions.

Who: Participants would represent complimentary disciplines and experiences; people picked for their expertise, skills and experiences. People with experience of governance issues, international negotiations, lobbying politicians and agencies; scientists with experience of communicating with decision makers and stakeholders and pitching solutions, working for advocacy groups, etc. Key disciplines include political science, governance and politics, economics, natural sciences where tipping points are prevalent, game theory, psychology/sociology, practical skills like adaptive management, institution building, advocacy and mobilization, etc.—generally in combination with applied, real-world engagement in problem-solving, public policy and engaging popular opinion.

Topics might include: ・“why are we not acting to save the world?” what makes a good international agreement?  the challenges of our current democratic system in dealing with questions of this nature  the description of an improved democratic model and institutions that would be up to challenges of this nature  can we know what steps are necessary and sufficient?  can we get governance institutions to act in the face of the kinds of uncertainty and dissent that will always be present?  are real solutions compatible with our current economic and monetary systems?  interacting problems: e.g. can we fix the biodiversity crisis without fixing the climate crisis or the population crisis?  can a weak democracy fix itself?  what can we learn by asking such questions? 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Who's gonna solve these problems?

Climate crisis, biodiversity crisis, population crisis, fisheries crises, extinction crisis: over-harvesting, over-population, over-exploitation, over-fishing and illegal fishing, bottom-trawling and shark finning, forest destruction, ocean acidification, habitat loss, invasive species, the problems of an economic system that requires perpetual growth on a finite planet… Who is going to solve these world-threatening problems?

Politicians are not going to solve them. They wouldn’t know how. They don’t have the knowledge, expertise or intelligence to solve them. They don’t have the right education and often very little of it. These days, politicians in most countries have no experience of anything other than being a politician. The system nowadays seems to favor politicians that are no better than the general populace. Besides, politicians are at odds with each other. Their “solutions” have to fit their ideology and their political agendas, and appeal to their constituents. Politicians don’t fit solutions to problems, they fit problems to the “solutions” they already have. And politicians are beholden to their corporate overlords, who only answer to a group of shareholders watching their bottom line, and to the voters (who are a diverse group of fickle, ill-informed, and none too bright people with commonly short-term selfish interests and limited understanding, that are easily confused and divided). Even when politicians (and their voters) mean well, their positions are marred by naïveté, fuzzy thinking, stale ideology and wishful thinking, as well as the pressure to say something, anything at all, and to be seen to be doing something, however useless. Besides, they are busy running to the next sound bite opportunity. Politicians who run too far ahead of their constituents end up being punished by the voters, or their donors.

Civil servants will not solve it. Bureaucratic fragmentation has made their jobs too narrowly defined for them to make any headway on complex and broad problems that require a multi-disciplinary approach to solutions. Civil servants are not selected on the basis of their ability to solve complex, interactive, cross-sectoral problems.

Academics are not going to solve them. Scientists are trained to describe the world, not design practical ways for doing things differently. They are busy teaching and doing research. They are measured on their publication rate. Publications have to be short and narrowly focussed. They are descriptive rather than prescriptive. Scientists cling to their “objectivity” and shrink from the noisiness, nastiness and silliness of the “political process”. Scientists commonly have very little training in communicating with a wider audience. Academics and technologists may provide ideas and technical breakthroughs that will be part of the solution, but they will not be the solutions themselves.

Conferences and seminars leave way too little time to get real work done, or to make the participants generally more knowledgeable. Typically, nearly all of the available time is spent on one-way communication, and on getting everyone on the same page, leaving no time to think ahead, solve problems and be creative. The focus, sadly, tends to be on spreading information, rather than assuming that everyone has come prepared, have the information they need, and have something useful to contribute. And sadly, the assumption that people do come ill-prepared often proves justified. When it is time for participants to participate, it is usually a two-way Q&A session, rather than a broad discussion, and many of the people that do speak out seem more interested in the attention than in actually contributing something useful. But mostly, these kinds of events are way too limited in time and scope. Large international meetings, like the various UN Conferences of the Parties (COP) will not solve issues, because the nations attending have such different agendas that any consensus they manage to reach will be so weak and watered down as to be useless—or worse.

NGOs will not solve it. They are busy doing whatever they can get funding for. Their efforts tend to be focused around “projects” because that is how funding is commonly structured. Projects are typically the wrong scale, both spatially and temporally, to get anything serious done. Anyway, demonstrating the success of such projects becomes their focus, and is what they are measured on, not finding complete solutions to major issues. This even creates a disincentive to be truthful about how effective their campaigns really are. I see campaigns by WWF (and others) to stop ivory poaching and the like. They make me think, “Excuse me, but WWF is a large organization and it has been around for a long time… Why haven’t you solved this issue a long time ago? And if you haven’t solved it during all these years, why should I think that you will solve it now?” NGOs have little incentive to ask the hard questions of themselves, or of society as a whole. 

Citizens tend not to revolt unless their own economic future is directly affected or their own personal liberties are threatened. Even when they do revolt and bring changes, what they get is quite often worse than what they had. The general public are woefully unprepared for their civic duties, preoccupied and stressed out, over-stretched with families, mortgages, jobs… Jobs filled with busy-work, almost as if they were designed to ensure that the people filling them would not contribute to finding solutions to major issues. And folks are still waiting around for politicians (or bureaucrats) to solve things—after all, isn’t that what we pay them for? This, of course, is a recipe for disaster. 

People are not trained problem-solvers. Our schools do not teach problem solving. It is quite possible to train people to become good problem-solvers. But we don’t. Why is that?

To make headway with such complex issues it seems to make sense to make a dedicated effort to come up with and analyze practical solutions. Small teams of dedicated, smart people could be hand-picked to deal exclusively with a single issue, for a specified period of time—for instance two years—after which they should submit their recommendations. Teams would be constructed to provide the necessary combinations of knowledge, intelligence, experience, creativity and specific skill sets—not only in the academic sense, but in terms of knowledge and experience of how the world actually works, currently (or doesn’t work, as the case may be): both broad and specific knowledge and understanding, access to information and networks, definitive problem-solving skills, analysis and modeling skills, overview and the ability to work in teams as well as independently. Such (a) team(s) should be housed at (a) politically independent think tank(s), that could be called something like “The Solutions Center(s)”. The teams should have access to anyone who could help shed light on, or analyze, sub-components of the analysis (specific knowledge, modeling capacity, analyses, brain-storming). They should be isolated enough to give their complete attention to the work at hand, yet have sufficient resources in terms of access to information, communications, people, modeling resources and computing power, institutions and support teams/assistance from associated personnel with specific skill sets, as needed. At times they would be able to invite others to provide specific information or inputs, participate in seminars and brain-storming sessions, assist with particular tools or provide any knowledge or experiences not adequately covered within the team itself. 

The recommendations of such teams/think tanks would not necessarily be taken up automatically by national or international institutions such as governments. However, their recommendations would be out there for all to see. They would be available for public scrutiny. They would be very hard to ignore, as they would state explicitly what approaches will not work, or will be inadequate in isolation, and they would be backed by the most comprehensive thinking and analyses of the issue available. At the very least, governments and other institutions would be pressured on whether or not they had any ideas better than the ones proposed by the think tank(s), why they were not implementing the recommendations if there were no better ideas out there, and what, if anything, was being done. Simply documenting a feasible approach to such important issues would be powerful. Moreover, if feasible solutions were not found that could be implemented in our current system, this would provide a powerful impetus to analyzing what kind of structures and institutions (systems) would have to be created in order for practical and realizable solutions to exist. More powerful still, would be the demonstration that none of the measures currently on the table or being discussed are up to the task. This might help clear away the endless bickering about minutiae and the political posturing over half-measures and inane diversions from the real issues. For the public it would be a useful counterpoint to what they are hearing from the politicians and bureaucrats.

 If someone wished to dispute the findings of such a team, they would have to conduct their own analysis and make it available for scrutiny. At the very least, the discourse would shift to comparing competing comprehensive analyses, their inputs, methods and limitations, rather than what we have now, which is simply a confusion of more or less half-baked and unsupported opinions. Such opinions are typically thrown out there with very limited analysis, and certainly without a thorough modeling of whether or not the steps suggested are necessary or sufficient. And they tend to be colored by ideology and careerism more than a real desire to solve the real problems.

An alternative, and perhaps a complimentary effort, might be to crowd-source thinking about these matters. This could be enabled by internet technology and collaborative software, such as wikis and groupware. Personally, I think this ought to be a complimentary, and preferably parallel, approach. The key requirement is to be able to allocate more focus, time, brain power, tools, creativity, critical thinking, and hard-nosed analysis to the issues than anyone has been able to do before. 

Largely, we know what needs to be done, but have no idea how to get humanity to do it. Nobody knows how to get people to act when we need people to act. It is no use pretending. Our political systems are rigged so that no major changes will occur. This is OK as long as things can generally bumble along as they always have, but it is a disaster in a crisis situation when you really need to get something done, and something major. Typically, when nations really needed to get something done, as in the case of major wars, they have tended to suspend democracy and instate executive rule. Coming up with solutions does not just require good ideas about things that can be done, but has to include how to get them implemented. It is not a solution unless it is carried out—and in time! In a sense, such teams would likely operate, partially, as all of the categories above: as politicians, civil servants, academics/scientists, citizens, activists, conferences/workshops, and NGOs.

Typically, potential solutions will be conditional. “If we can get enough politicians to do x, then…”, “If we can get enough countries to enact y, then…”, “If we can get people to support z, then…” The real question is always: how do we get people to do x, y and z? No analysis is complete before this core conundrum is resolved. Real solutions have to be modeled to demonstrate that they will be adequate, and to uncover any weaknesses and limitations and allow for modifications. Even then, implementation has to be subject to adaptive management. Solutions will have to be smart, in the sense that they incentivize countries and other actors to join in, rather than remain on the outside, disrupting. This kind of analysis is all too rare in our society, and absent from current discourse. Something major has to change, and no stone should be left unturned in order to solve the hard problems that are threatening life on earth.

The Storks of War

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Go ahead, Google it...

Google "i wish my child" and see what the auto complete gives you…

Still unable to learn from other people's mistakes?