Other radical proposals for the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists 2026

I

Any number of radical proposals have been made for addressing acute and chronic problems of the globe’s rangelands, including but not limited to: the end of capitalism and green extractivism, redistribution of wealth, and reparations.

In an important sense, these may not be radical enough. I have in mind here the “twelve rules for radicals,” proposed by the late labor organizer, Saul Alinsky. I focus on two of them:

RULE 3: “Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy.” Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety, and uncertainty. (This happens all the time. Watch how many organizations under attack are blind-sided by seemingly irrelevant arguments that they are then forced to address.)

RULE 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules. (This is a serious rule. The besieged entity’s very credibility and reputation is at stake, because if activists catch it lying or not living up to its commitments, they can continue to chip away at the damage.)

https://sliwainsights.com/saul-alinskys-12-rules-for-radicals/

II

By extension, among the many proposals for IYRP2026, some can use the logic of capitalism, extractivism and accumulation to benefit rangelands and pastoralists in ways that the latter know and understand better than the former.

Here are three illustrations:

1. Start with the EU’s Emission Trading System (ETS, a cap-and-trade market for CO2 emission credits). Imagine member/non-member states and companies enter the ETS now to buy carbon credits directed to offsetting emissions in Global South localities committed to transitioning to environmentally friendly production systems and livelihoods.

2. Start with the European COVID-19 initiative, NextGenerationEU (issuance of joint debt by EU member states to fund pandemic recovery). Imagine employee support schemes under this or some such initiative augmenting remittances of resident migrants back to their dryland household members.

3. Continue with those resident migrants who are sending back remittances as an integrated part of the dryland household well-being. Imagine then EU-financed schemes to improve the greening of those EU migrant-resident localities (e.g. subsidies to local residents for more sustainable lifestyles) as a form of “reverse green extractivism,” in this case on behalf of dryland households but in Europe and by EU member states.

These illustrations are based on my reading of others work and could, I believe, extend to the likes of G7 and many OECD countries.

III

Of course, there will be those who say that any such suggestions reinforce the very conditions that need to be removed. I could as well counter that they seek to accentuate the contradictions.

So to repeat: My principal point here is not to dismiss proposals to reverse global drivers of damage to pastoralists and rangelands, but instead to use IYRP2026 as opportunities to probe and practice all twelve of Alinsky’s rules for radicals.

Policy optics as prompts and probes to recasting: 16 brief examples (new #10)

Policy optics are concepts, analogies, methods and counternarratives used to recast issues currently defined as intractable. Recastings, if they work, remake (redescribe, recalibrate, reframe, revise) an issue more tractably. I seek to explain and describe how this is done in When Complex Is As Simple As It Gets: Draft Guide to New Policy Analysis and Management in the Anthropocene.

But policy optics also function as prompts when they pose new but important questions and as probes when they reach for answers, even if both redefined questions and answers fall short of full-blown recasting. Below are 16 short examples of prompts and probes, in no order of priority, culled from the blog. Though some touch on topics in the Draft Guide, all are new material and considerably shortened from the original entries (where references can be found).

1. Unions and unionized

Assume evidence can be generalized as follows: Unionized firms as compared to nonunionized firms have lower rates of productivity, employment creation, and investment, other things equal. Even putting aside all the contrary evidence, we still ask: So what?

The preceding are generalizations only. Localized scenarios in which the opposite holds are possible and counter-cases available. Considerable evidence suggests that the ‘‘union/nonunion’’ dichotomy masks great variability in collective bargaining laws and wage arrangements across countries and regions.

That variability suggests we take a deeper look at the macro-design standpoints with respect to unions or not. What human rights, for instance, are at issue when one talks about unionization? One quickly realizes that the rights concerned relate less to any ‘‘right to unionization’’ and more to established rights of collective bargaining and freedom of association.

The latter as the point of departure surfaces an issue missed by some observers: Focusing on different rights illustrates just how narrow is the earlier focus on empirical generalizations about unionization. We should also be looking at the evidence related to economic growth and collective bargaining arrangements, generally and specifically. We would then better understand why local conditions are so variable with respect to ‘‘unions,’’ now variously defined and found.

2. Complex: other concepts and methods

When I and others call for better recognition and accommodation of complexity, we mean the complex as well as the uncertain, unfinished and conflicted must be particularized and contextualized so as to analyze and manage case-by-granular case.

When I and others say we need more findings that can be replicated across a range of cases, we are calling for identification not only of emerging better practices across cases, but also of greater equifinality: finding multiple but different pathways to achieve similar objectives, given case diversity.

What I and others mean by calling for greater collaboration is not just more teamwork or working with more and different stakeholders, but that team members and stakeholders “bring the system into the room” for the purposes of making the services in question reliable and safe.

When I and others call for more system integration, we mean the need to recouple the decoupled activities in ways that better mimic but can never reproduce the coupled nature of the wider system environment.

When I and others call for more flexibility, we mean the need for greater maneuverability across different performance modes in the face of changing system volatility and options to respond to those changes. (“Only the middle road does not lead to Rome,” said composer, Arnold Schoenberg.)

Where we need more experimentation, I and others do not mean a trial-and-error learning where the next systemwide error proves to be the last trial destroying systemwide survival.

Where others talk about risks in a system’s hazardous components, I and others point to different systemwide reliability standards and only after to the different risks and uncertainties that follow from the different standards.

3. First: differentiate equality

Much of the debate over equality has been and remains at the macro-principle node. We all have equal rights; we all should have equal opportunities. Yet from the very beginning, exceptions have been in the form of specific contingency scenarios read off the macro, e.g., people are in principle equal but people are not born with the same and equal potentials. Contingency scenarios qualifying the reading of macro-principles litter debates over equality.

As the genetics we are born with are of course not everything, we also find vast differences in human-by-human particularities. Equal at the macro level, the most obvious fact at the micro-level is how unequal each person is in so many ways. Macro-principle, principle-based contingency scenarios and micro-experience are, however, not the only nodes around which equality debates organize.

The gap between macro-principle on paper and system behavior in practice is also everywhere evident. Systemwide pattern recognition, our fourth node, is populated by all manner of trends and statistics that show, e.g., just how unequal income, wealth and consumption distributions are within and across countries. Indeed, the difference between equality as professed and equality as realized is benchmarked by this gap between macro-principle and the recognition of systemwide patterns.

So what?

Put plainly, the macro-node in equality debates formalizes as principle what others cannot help but seek to informalize more through exceptions and contingency scenarios. The micro-node informalizes what others cannot help but seek to more formalize when they talk about systemwide patterns emerging across different cases. Equality, in this way, can’t help but be a messy project.

Nothing stops privileging one over another, or some over others, even though all four nodes are interconnected. Doing so, however, exaggerates. There is a world of difference between privileging one node from the get-go versus answering the question, “What do we do here and now with respect to this case of (in)equality”—after, however, first assessing the four nodes with their conflicts and examples.

4. Recasting 9/11 and its impacts through a Gerhard Richter painting

In a 2002 interview, painter Gerhard Richter was asked if he would paint the 9/11 aircraft terrorists (as he’d done earlier with Baader-Meinhof members): “Definitely not. This horrific form of global terror is something I cannot fathom”.

“September 11 bothered me more than I expected,” Richter admitted later. By 2005, when an interviewer asked about a small painting appearing to show the World Trade Center’s towers, Richter said: “These here are only failed attempts. I couldn’t get this stereotypical image of the two towers, with the some billowing out of them across the deep blue sky, out of my mind.” He went on to say that the painting in question “couldn’t work; only when I destroyed it, so to speak, scratched it off, was it fit to be seen”.

–Below is his September, a 2005 photo-painting of the event and relatively small at approximately 28” x 20”:

The image you are seeing was rendered from a photograph showing the south tower of the World Trade Center as it was hit. The specific photo was, in Richter’s words, “very typical…Colorful—red, yellow, fire” “I painted it first in full colour, and then I had to slowly destroy it. . . ”
“I failed,” he told a friend; the painting “shows my helplessness. In German, my scheitern, failure.”

–A failure? Really? What do you think? Is the painting in a failed state?

Look at September again. Do you see the active, living absence of the deep red and yellow that initially tripped Richter up? By extension, do you see the active, living absence of the new democracies to come into being this century from presently failing states, including—dare we say—parts of the US?

None of that, by way of comparison and conclusion, can be read from Joanne Bartlett’s first-person witness painting of that day, Goodbye Bill,

5. A major policy issue is clearcut only until the next counternarrative

The removal of rescue boats and the increase of the utilization of drones is used by Frontex to detect and prevent migratory flows at an early stage, as migrant vessels are recognized in pre-frontier areas. In fact, the Frontex Situation Centre is a unit in charge of monitoring the external borders and the pre-frontier areas of the EU. . .The investment in drones has increased considerably in parallel with the deterrence of external rescue operations and the withdrawal of some naval missions in the Mediterranean. . .Therefore, vessels that are capable of helping migrants and asylum seekers are replaced by drones that can only observe. In consequence, the agency has not the obligation to intervene neither rescue them.

from a report accessed online on July 6 2022 at http://centredelas.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/WP_DronesFrontex_ENG.pdf


. . .beyond reasonable doubt they want to make sure no one can be rescued by them (positively formulated, they don’t want to become part of the business model of human traffickers)

from a friend’s email in response to the above quote

6. Apocalypse and tax havens

Novels and scenarios about post-apocalypse are dystopian when it comes to the climate emergency: Nothing will be as it was before. Even so, it’s that “nothing will be as it was” that bothers me.

–An example, and one the reader can relate to: tax havens. Once you have an inkling of what to look for, the numbers loom massive.

In one year alone (2016), multinational corporations (MNCs) were estimated to have shifted USD 1 trillion of profits to tax havens, with an estimated USD 200-300 billion in lost tax revenue worldwide. (The Cayman Islands, Luxembourg, Bermuda, Hong Kong and the Netherlands are among the most important tax havens.) Another study estimates multinational enterprises shift close to 40% of their profits to tax havens globally. As for regions, the main European banks are reckoned to have booked EUR 20 billion (close to 15% of their total profits) in tax havens. In Germany, by way of one country, MNCs there are said to have shifted corporate profits of some EUR 19 billion to tax havens, with an estimated tax revenue loss of roughly EUR 5.7 billion.

Now, post-apocalypse. The Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Hong Kong and the Netherlands? Under water. MNCs? They should be so lucky! Tax havens and forgone tax revenues? After the apocalypse, what taxes?

In other words, the bad of tax havens, pre-apocalypse, is corrected post-apocalypse.

–Why ever then are we spending time and resources on reducing the use of tax havens when all our energies—all our political will—should be directed to averting the climate-induced apocalypse? From this perspective, today’s tax havens are visibly part of opportunity costs of deadly climate inaction. Reducing tax havens is worse than meaningless unless the generated revenues are directed to mitigating the impacts of climate change—and even then the prospect of “too little too late” looms.

Or is it too little too late in quite another sense? For surely part of being in the apocalypse means we have to manage global climate change far better everywhere than we (can) manage tax havens here or there, and now. If so, we are on the losing end either way: managing (or not) tax havens won’t get us to the climate change mitigation needed. . .

Unless of course, we imagine that getting rid of these tax sinkholes for the rich and already-undeserving—the enemy of both populist and cosmopolitan citizenshipare among the few things that are truly urgent, like the climate emergency.

7. What the Thai BL series, “Bad Buddy,” tells us about “societal reset”

“Reset” is a popular term for our “starting over” (as if from clean slate) or “starting again” (as if restarting from where we are). But there are other ways to think about “reset” as it applies to wider society.

One such way will be unfamiliar to readers: the current response to a Thai BL (Boys’ Love), “Bad Buddy.” It’s a twelve episode series, now moving to the 11th “cursed” episode: According to the trope, things must get worse in the next to the last episode (just) in order to get better at last.

–I’m not going to describe the history of BL tv series (they’re not Greek boy’s love or pedophilia), nor how Thai series differ from BLs in, say, Japan, Taiwan, or South Korea, which themselves differ. For those interested, a sinkhole of web-links awaits you (by the time you get to the history of China’s censorship of BLs and its current wink-wink “bromances,” you’ll have learned a great deal).

What I want to focus on here is one major response of YouTube viewers to “Bad Buddy” (with its millions and millions of episode views and tens and tens of thousands episode comments): This series represents, right now, a “reset” of Thai BLs.

I want to argue that the “reset” talked about in YouTube comments (at least those in English) is an optic through which to think about calls to reset specific contemporary politics and society.


One of the first things “Bad Buddy” viewers comment about is the great acting and chemistry of the two male leads, Ohm and Nanon. Just say it’s astrophysical. The higher-quality of storyline, filming and direction, original sound track, and pacing are also singled out for note. All and more are clear in Episode 5’s lead-up to roof-top scene, where in the language of many Asian dramas Ohm confesses his feelings and they kiss.

That last sentence in no way conveys the intensity of what we viewers actually saw and what that embrace conveyed. There is something very fitting in the reset being triggered the moment Ohm utters a mai (“no”) unlike any before.

One BL convention has been that these be straight actors kissing according to a storyline written by a female author for a largely female audience–where the kiss would more often than not be two sets of closed lips compressed momentarily on to each other. Not so in “Bad Buddy.”

Other BL conventions have also been bumped out of the way by “Bad Buddy.” Most invidious to international viewers has been the question of “who’s the top, who’s the bottom?” or husband/wifey in the relationship. “Bad Buddy” makes it clear the protagonists see themselves as boyfriends. Nor is there’s the usual, “He’s the only guy I’d ever love.” Nor are the females cyphers for “funny” or “incidental,” as has often been the case.

I could go on about why I’m such a fan, but suffice it here: At the time of writing, many of the YouTube viewers agree they are witnessing what they take to be a bigger reset of cultural conventions at least in the BL industry.


It seems to me that this type of “reset” is not one of resetting Thai society views of LGBTQ+ communities there or elsewhere. Nor is the reset one of setting a gold standard or benchmark for future BL tv series.

The reset I take away from the comments–that is, the reset I believe I’ve been witnessing through to Episode 10—is more akin to shaking the kaleidoscope of BL conventions and then making a new twist. The different colored shards—those conventions and tropes—don’t disappear but are being reconfigure anew. YouTube viewers of “Bad Buddy” are recording, participating in and energizing just such a reset. In conventional terms, expectations are notably changing and viewers are managing the changes and those expectations.


So what?

For someone living in the United States now, the economy is narrativized almost always into top and bottom. The top shafts the bottom; rich and poor are all having to take it up the ass. “A lifelong Democrat/Republican, this is the first time ever voting for my man, Trump/Obama.” This drama of ours is cursed to end early.

The notion that top and bottom could be “friends,” that the other half aren’t to be dismissed, that even when we’re fucked up and down, it’s more complicated, and that even if society can’t be remade from newer or altogether different shards, our current representations and conventions can be twisted to make them work differently—well, that’s one imaginary too far in the US!


If so, then I take the positive upshot to be: Focus on kaleidoscopes that can be twisted. (This is what “Bad Buddy” does for me.) Two examples as far away from BLs but ready, I believe, for a “Bad Buddy” reset will have to be illustrative.

Once you refocus, philanthropy needn’t be viewed as the city’s rich helping the city’s poor; urban-generated remittances needn’t be seen as one set of family members helping other family members elsewhere. Both philanthropy and remittances twist into something else when it’s “urban citizenship”—its duties and responsibilities—that come into better view through these very transactions.

Another example. A conventional configuration of dryland herds as assets is being twisted into a newer configuration of herds as global environmental liabilities. One consequence of the latest twist is to exclude pastoralists from being considered part of the near-global asset boom in rising prices of stock, bonds and real-estate.

Yet, at some point in the further twisting ahead of what patently is a kaleidoscope of very different configurations of herd assets and liabilities, it will be clear that a big question was missed in the earlier twist: Who benefited when public attention was distracted by reclassifying cattle as global environmental liabilities from recognizing instead that their owners/managers were (continue to be) entrapped in capitalist asset bubbles, and on a global scale?

8. One recasting not to favor: Anthropocene as wartime

. . .[T]he concept of wartime itself suggests a processual and extendable temporality, rather than a straightforward binary. This is the case since the division between wartime and peacetime is never as clear cut as any formal cessation of hostilities or signing of a treaty would suggest. World War I clearly did not end with the Armistice, and neither did it cease with the signing of the Versailles Treaty. For some, the World War has never really ended at all given that its promises of meaningful forms of (particularly racial and gender) equality as recompense for serving one’s country have still failed to materialize. The war had an enormous impact both upon the fabric of the earth and natural resources, while its legacy for the ways such categories as state, democracy, representation and capitalism, have become fixed parts of Euro-American political thinking, has been equally profound. It might therefore be productive to think about the Anthropocene as a form of ‘deep-war time’, both practically and intellectually. This means considering the Anthropocene as an ongoing battle over what it means to think across both planetary and global perspectives, and across the arc spanning World War I and into the present. D. Kelly (2022). Wartime for the Planet? Journal of Modern European History (DOI: 10.1177/16118944221113281)

Emergencies are one thing, like that for the climate. But not all emergencies are wars.

If the Anthropocene is recast as its own wartime, then how is this war different than all the other wars, namely, as massive engines of unpredictable, unimaginable and ungovernable contingencies? Why ever would we say wartime better captures there being no real boundary between war and peace, when the Anthropocene is also about neither human war nor human peace only?

If the “planetary” is as much a human construction as “local” and “global” are—or if you prefer, planetary and global and local are not thorough-going human constructions (remember “the irreducible particularity of being”?)—then we’re well advised not to dismiss policy and management as if they were the low and mean cunning of local and global alone.

In fact, cunning looks much the viable option when compared to: This war has to be different! Failure is not an option! We just have to have the political will to make it happen! These claims to exceptions deny that we can better prepare for other unavoidably broad patterns we see and other unavoidably local scenarios we face, when both clearly contradict “There is no alternative but to do it this way and no other way. . .”

9. Redescribing “alert distraction”

–It is said attention implies an economy of attention: As you can’t attend to everything, you must focus. It’s better, I think, to say attention implies a reliability in attending: Attention is more a sweeping searchlight that is continuous and secure even when distracted. Having to focus misses the importance of distraction’s role in refocusing to elsewhere.

Jean Dubuffet, the painter, talked about distraction as an occasion for “attentive inattentiveness:” “[I]n this distracted state. . . it is a matter of paying great attention to inattention, of being very attentive to transcribing as skillfully and faithfully as possible what happens when an object is viewed without great attentiveness”. To put the point my way, a reliable searchlight is one that is alert to sweeping more than fixed circuits.

–There are of course the negative distractions of others that are good for you: Never interrupt your enemies when distracted by the mistakes they’ve made, to adapt Napoleon. But what if it is about distracting you from your own dead-end focus? That would be a positive distraction, an alertness to other things that end up mattering more.

Boris Pasternak, the poet, is reported to have said that life creates events to distract our current attention away from it, so that we can get on with work that cannot be accomplished any other way.

–A classic example of positive distractions are those unplanned but productive blots and blurs of composition. Max Ernst, the painter, put it: “Leonardo observed that all such mysterious effects that we find in nature—such as the stains of humidity on an old wall—can suggest to us a landscape, a face or any other such subject…To two different artists, the same chance stain can suggest two entirely different works. . .”

So too for Rossini, the composer: “When I was writing the chorus in G Minor, I suddenly dipped my pen into the medicine bottle instead of the ink; I made a blot, and when I dried it…it took the form of a natural, which instantly gave me the idea of the effect which the change from G minor to G major would make, and to this blot all the effect—if any—is due”. Here too a kind of alertness is working here.

–So what?

Much has been made of the distinction between Type I or System 1 thinking—it is nonconscious and all but automatic, rooted in fear and emotion—in comparison to Type II or System 2 thinking that is conscious, deliberative, and not rooted in emotion or instinct.

I’m asking you to recast conscious deliberation and analysis as positive distractions, that is, diversions from acting otherwise stereotypically or worse, where we are more likely to revert to the latter when responding to unknown unknowns, inexperience and great difficulties. In this way, thinking is being more alert and attentive.

10. Macro-design is “not noticing” (from a perspective of poet, Robert Lowell)

–“Design” is a trigger-word for me, when it encourages the notion one can macro-design the micro. Anyone who has tried to implement as planned—today’s version of clockmaker God and the echt-rational—knows how plug-and-play designs don’t work, as contingency and context invariably get in the way.

To see how this matters, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and a gloss on it by Helen Vendler, the critic. Here’s the poem in its entirety, centering as it does around Lowell’s leaving an asylum after a manic-depressive episode:

Notice

The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm –
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression –
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

The doctor is forgotten now
like a friend’s wife’s maiden-name.
I am free
to ride elbow to elbow on the rush-hour train
and copy on the back of a letter,
as if alone:
“When the trees close branches and redden,
their winter skeletons are hard to find—”
to know after long rest
and twenty miles of outlying city
that the much-heralded spring is here,
and say,
“Is this what you would call a blossom?”
Then home – I can walk it blindfold.
But we must notice –
we are designed for the moment.

–I take up Vendler’s gloss when she turns to Lowell’s last line:

In becoming conscious of his recovery by becoming aware, literally moment by moment, of his new capacities for the most ordinary actions of life, the poet seems to XXX that ‘we are designed for the moment’—that our consciousness chiefly functions moment by moment, action by action, realization by realization. Biologically, ‘we are designed for the moment’ of noticing.

–What Lowell is doing in the last two lines is also revisiting, I’d like to think, the second line, “We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm” and making this point: The designs put upon us by ideas and enthusiasms differ from the noticing designed into us in at least one major respect.

We notice the ideas-that-design because noticing is not an idea. Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because noticing is a kind of momentary alertness—“Is this what you would call a blossom?”

–So what?

Macro-designs imposed upon the world are best described as forms of not-noticing. Just as the law has not eyes, so Xenophon’s Cyrus seemed to argue. I was once involved in an urban environmental project, where what college students were taught and what they found on the ground were not just different but orthogonal:

  • Vacant lots were said to be ideal for community gardens but could not be used for gardening because prior use had rendered the soils toxic (that is why they were vacant);
  • Daylighting city creeks was recommended to improve public access to a restored natural area. Local residents preferred instead leaving creeks inaccessible rather than opening them to out-of-sight criminal behavior;
  • A clean-up campaign to reduce street litter became something more when the gloves distributed for the effort were pierced by discarded injection needles; and
  • Planting more trees along the street was touted as an ideal urban improvement, but in practice doing so raised liability issues, ranging from tree roots buckling the sidewalk to cutting away those roots rendering the trees more prone to falling.

Had I taken time to notice what other people had already noticed, things might have been different.

11. Missing racism

It’s difficult to believe anything important has been missed about race and racism in the United States. What hasn’t been said? Yet we’re missing a great deal that is important when it comes to recasting them.

To see how, I focus on a past period about which we now know more than we did by way of what we missed then.

–Go back to the late 1990s to the mid-2000’s. As an optic, it’s not so far past that some readers won’t remember it, but far enough away for added perspective. Start with some statistics reported then about African-Americans:

Black Americans, a mere 13 percent of the population, constitute half of this country’s prisoners. A tenth of all black men between ages 20 and 35 are in jail or prison… (cited 2007)

Something like one third of our young African American men between 18 and 25 are now connected to the juvenile justice system or the federal justice system. They’re on probation, they’re in jail, they’re under indictment or they’re incarcerated. (cited 2002)

…the most striking thing is the high portion of black men with zero reported income: about 18 percent of black men, compared to about 7 percent for whites and Hispanics. (cited 2007)

After declining throughout the 1980s, employment rates of young, less-educated white and Latino men remained flat during the 1990s. Among black men aged 16 through 24, employment rates actually dropped. In fact, this group’s employment declined more during the 1990s (which fell from 59 percent to 52 percent) than during the preceding decade [of lower economic growth]… (cited 2004)

The most dramatic, the most unfortunate of the several disastrous outcomes is the high rate of paternal abandonment of children: 60% of Afro-American children are being brought up without the emotional, economic or social support of their fathers. (cited 2002)

Even then, though, you’d have had to ask: Why ever were we not interviewing those nine-tenths of young black men who were not in prison, those two-thirds who were not enmeshed in the criminal justice system, those four-fifths who did not have zero income, that half who were employed, and those four out of ten who had not “abandoned” their children—all in order to find out what they are doing right?

–One well-meaning observer said that, if he had a magic wand, he’d wave it so that every black would have a master’s degree, as degree holders were more likely to have higher incomes, better health and more positive outcomes. Before I waved any such wand, I’d want to know what kinds of educations were to be made missing.

12. Doing more in the climate emergency

Anyone who studies emergency management in large disasters and catastrophes, at least in the US setting, knows recovery is the second part of emergency management. The first, very formidable phase is immediate response. This matters because: Just what is immediate response in the climate emergency?

One article starts with: “The climate crisis calls for a massive and rapid retooling of our economy and society.” Yes, surely that and more; but what do we do immediately?

In answer, I don’t think I’m doing an injustice to those who insist what we should do now, and in a very big way is: stop using fossil fuels, stop cutting down trees, stop polluting the seas, stop using these befouling planes, vessels and vehicles.

We could respond, “Just how immediate is immediately?” Here though, let’s take these “Stop’s!” as sufficient calls for now-action.

Which means in the US setting, activating a city or county emergency operations center and/or incident management teams at the department level to coordinate immediate response efforts. States also do the same with respect to their own EOCs, IMTs or equivalent.

This activation is done all the time, when high winds, ice storms, wildfires, heat dome effects, flooding and their combinations take down essential services, particularly backbone infrastructures of water, electricity, roads and telecoms.

–Now the thought experiment: Activate the EOCs and IMTs, or at least the ones which know we are the climate emergency. And who are the distressed peoples and sites? Well, that’s not something you can answer a priori or universally. It’s up to the EOCs and IMTs, who recognize the climate emergency is leaving local people hungry, making local spaces uninhabitable, taking away local employment. . .

In thinking these things through, the stakes become clearer for both recovery and for immediate response.

First, much of what outsiders recommend for now-now clearly belongs more under “long-term recovery” than immediate response, e.g., those net-zero emissions promises or those altogether different, more resilient infrastructures. Note what many others have said about this longer-term: It is inevitably political with many stakeholders and in little or no way has the same logic, clarity and urgency that immediate response has, e.g., disaster declarations that trigger immediate release of government funds.

That said and second, those aforementioned “stop-this-and-that” immediately hit a major obstacle. In really-existing emergency response, fossil fuel is needed to evacuate people, ship goods and services to distressed areas, keep the generators running when electricity fails, and so on. Cutting down trees, distribution of water in plastic bottles, and wide use of readily available gas-guzzling vehicles, in case it needs saying, are not uncommon.

–Rather than focusing concern around the greater reliance on petrol or like, we might instead want to think more productively about two empirically prior issues.

First, where are those EOCs and IMTs activated in response to the climate emergency? The aforementioned activation for wildfires, flooding and abrupt seasonal events have been increasing and increasingly responded to by all manner of city, county, state and agency EOCs and IMTs. These are climate emergencies—lower-case speech matters in a polarized US—even for those would never say the phrase, “Climate Change,” out loud.

Second, where EOCs and IMTs have been or will be activated, are they responding in ways that are climate-friendly? Or to put the response challenge correctly: Where are the logic, clarity and urgency of the climate emergency requiring immediate eco-friendly response even before longer-term environmental recovery?

I ask the latter question, because it seems to me much more thought has been given by far many more people to the use of eco-friendly stoves, toilet facilities, renewable-energy generators, and like alternatives. Years and years of R&D have gone into studying, prototyping and distributing more sustainable options.

Shouldn’t we then expect and want their increased use in immediate emergency response as well, especially when (not: “even if”) expediting them to the distressed sites and peoples means, e.g., using petrol to get them there?

13. COP26 and intermittence

COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, was for many (myself included) a failure to do the needful in limiting temperature rise. Let’s say that is true (at least up to that point).

Even then, the crux is not: “Thus,” alternative voices were left out and alternative politics side-lined. You can no more essentialize those voices and politics than you can essentialize the conference. For it first has to be asked: Which COP26 failed?

Such a conference is never altogether there, if only because those attending in Glasgow are being themselves in one venue while being other selves in other venues there. COP26 is and was riddled with this intermittence and who’s to say the earlier or later versions between October 31 and November 13 2021 are not its upside?

This intermittence (like surprise) carries with it a great deal of information. (These shifts have in the parlance, “high-level informativity.”) Which is to say: I’m sure I’ve left far too much out in stopping short at COP26 as an overall failure.

14. There is no workaround for improvisation

–Consider the quip of a fund manager in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis: “The fact that the risk was diversified was a good thing. Now everyone is panicking because they don’t know where it is”.

But what kind of “it” was this risk? What kind of “diversified” is it if the risk includes unknown-unknowns?

–As the answers are not clear, what reformulation could produce more useful insights? One answer: a reformulation of the situation entailing different messes, differently good and bad than those posed by the fund manager. As in: one that did not revolve around “knowing where the diversified risks are.”

What could such a reformulation look like? To that end, undertake a thought experiment. Assume we are actively in the lead-up to another huge financial meltdown and fund managers are making the same or similar points as in the last one. Ask now: What would be success or effectiveness for these managers under the now-current conditions?

–There are many possible answers. The one I highlight is that of a senior emergency manager who recently told us: “Success in every disaster is that you didn’t have to get improvisational immediately. You can rely on prior relationships and set up a framework for improvisation and creativity.”

More formally and back to our thought experiment, management success in this lead-up to the next financial meltdown is no longer just one of preventing that meltdown from happening. It’s better to think that this lead-up is its own disaster and now ask: Where is effective emergency response gong on presently or should be going on?

Part of that answer is identifying where sets of working relationships (and allied resources) are in place for better matching now-and-here resource capabilities to the now-and-here task demands of financial management, today as you read these words. In other words, you’d expect to see a great deal of collective improvisation under these circumstances requiring real-time requisite variety.

Of course, there are their own messes that have to be managed in seeking to real-time requisite variety on the task demand and resource capability sides. (In fact, that’s the point!) But in this reformulation you’d be drawing from a cumulatively diverse and established body of literature on responding to socio-technical emergencies rather than relying on, say, “macro-prudential regulation of systemic financial risk.” (Is that even a field by way of comparison, let alone a craft?)

While the devil is in the details, what could this “immediate emergency response” look like on the ground? No detailed failure scenarios are possible here, but the thought experiment can be extended in illustrative ways. For example, assume all or several of 12 US Federal Reserve Districts and their respective Banks officially activate as Emergency Operations Center under the Incident Command System. Each Bank retains its mandates for price stability, maximum employment and interest rate regulation within its specific, widely varying regions. What then could/would/should each Bank-EOC do differently in the next two months?

–So what’s the bigger point?

In this reformulation, “knowing where the diversified risks are” is in no way dispositive for requisite variety or improvisational behavior. All that more knowledge on the risk management side brings you is greater recognition of just how transparently complex are the risks and uncertainties in the lead-up. But that is not the point from the perspective of this reformulation.

Which is: When it comes to immediate response to this disaster called the lead-up to the next financial meltdown, there is and can be no workaround for improvisation.

15. Rethinking emergency management through the shipwreck metaphor

–What has been called the “shipwreck metaphor” is actually several that have evolved from Roman times (if not earlier) to the present. To simplify, in crises we are like:

  • spectators safe on the shore looking out to the storm-tossed ship; or
  • survivors trying to keep afloat by clasping onto a plank or other debris, only later to be tossed up on the shore, if at all; or
  • those who keep rebuilding the ship while at sea, storm after storm, as returning to port is not possible nor is finding a nearby shore.

These, and their variants, are used here to rethink and extend in new ways some of the proposed responses by the key infrastructures (water, electricity, telecoms, and road transportation) to a magnitude 9.0 or greater earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone just off Oregon and Washington State.

–Five points about infrastructure operations come into rapid view via the shipwreck optic:

(1) Clearly, there are major occasions when infrastructure staff and emergency managers grab whatever is at hand and improvise a solution, just like they undertake workarounds during normal operations or temporary disruption of services. Staff also continue to build upon already patched up infrastructures (think of the Y2K fears at the turn of the century related to the millennium bug).

What hasn’t got as much attention is how new construction for pre-disaster mitigations, say retrofitting bridges and levees, are nevertheless still patchwork learned from prior failures and–really when you think about it–little or no different from workarounds generally.

(2) When it comes to retrofitting, our interviewees have two primary views. In one, it looks more like dry-docking the ship back at port and significantly upgrading a key part. In the other, retrofitting the bridge takes place while the road infrastructure as a whole is still in operation.

But acting as if you can dry-dock the ship back at port is by definition not an option nor is that retrofitting in the sea of operations seen as patchwork or standard-normal workarounds.

To say then that retrofitting is part and parcel of non-routine maintenance and repair, given a shipwreck is always possible, is very different from claiming that retrofitting is “building in resilience” for the shipwreck ahead (as many argue).

(3) That informed people still stay at sea (and in known earthquake zones) even if they can get away tells you something about their preferences for safety with respect to the known unknowns of where they live and work versus safety with respect to unknown-unknowns of doing otherwise.

It simply isn’t sufficient to counter: Even if people could move out (and, to reiterate, many can’t), they move to new risks and trade-offs. These aren’t risks; they are unknown unknowns. Hence the counterfactual, “what would have happened if you had moved to different seas,” looks to be based in very worrisome assumptions about any ability to pre-identify, let alone specify, that “would.”

(4) A two-week readiness program (i.e., you have two weeks of supplies on hand to survive the earthquake) is hopefully one plank to grasp once the earthquake happens. On the other hand, a raft or its analogue keeping a group afloat (after abandoning ship or, if you prefer: the ship abandoning them) would be better, e.g., a neighborhood generator to be used by households on the block.

(5) Note that this shift in the unit of analysis from ship-as-infrastructure to survivors-as-individuals is major. Efforts to restore critical infrastructure services, even if temporarily during immediate response (e.g., through placement of mobile telecommunication towers), becomes a key operational interconnection between the individual as unit of analysis and the infrastructure as a resurfaced unit of analysis.

16. Revolutions and the status quo reframed

I

I’m asking you first to look and listen to one of my favorites, a short video clip of Anna Caterina Antonacci and Andreas Scholl singing the duet, “I embrace you,” from a Handel opera (the English translation can be found at the end of the clip’s Comments):

For some, Antonacci’s performance will resonate with the final scene in Sunset Boulevard, where Gloria Swanson, as the actress Norma Desmond walks down the staircase toward the camera. But intertextuality–that two-way semi-permeability between genres–is also at work. Antonacci brings the opera diva into Swanson’s actress as much as the reverse, and to hell with anachronism and over-the-top.

II

Let’s bring semi-permeable intertextuality closer now to public policy and management. Zakia Salime (2022) provides a rich case study of refusal and resistance by Moroccan villagers to nearby silver mining–in her case, parsed through the lens of what she calls a counter-archive:

My purpose is to show how this embodied refusal. . .was productive of a lived counter-archive that documented, recorded and narrated the story of silver mining through the lens of lived experience. . . .Oral poetry (timnadin), short films, petitions, letters and photographs of detainees disrupted the official story of mining ‘as development’ in state officials’ accounts, with a collection of rebellious activities that exposed the devastation of chemical waste, the diversion of underground water, and the resulting dry collective landholdings. Audio-visual material and documents are still available on the movement’s Moroccan Facebook page, on YouTube and circulating on social media platforms. The [village] water protectors performed refusal and produced it as a living record that assembled bodies, poetic testimonials, objects and documents

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/dech.12726

What if, though, the status quo in another area is itself a counter-archive? Think of the dyspeptic comments on articles about traitor Trump in the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post. Think of all the negative tweets, billions and billions and billions of them. That is, think of these status quo repositories as a counter-archive of–for lack of a better phrase–“status-quo critique and dissent.”

III

Now go one step further towards intertextuality involving a status quo as counter-archive.

It isn’t just that these status quo’s are criticisms about modernity and contemporary politics. A genre notion of the status quo as counter-archive means that today’s dissent also stands in contrast and opposition to cases from other genres, say, Genghis Khan from history and cli-fi novels from speculative fiction. (This is no more arbitrary than comparing Antonacci and Swanson.) Intertextually, today’s status quo not only looks pretty good, it is pretty good compared to both the times of Genghis Khan and the post-apocalypse–and over-the-top anachronism be damned.

IV

So what?

It once made sense to ask questions like: What should we be reading now to be as collectively agitated as were readers of Michael Harrington’s The Other America (think: the War on Poverty)? What should we viewing now as collectively agitating as was the Vietnam TV footage (think: the anti-war movement)? But the “we’s” and “agitations” have changed, haven’t they?

Today, isn’t it better to say that the “we’s” are expanding and differentiating because of agitations across now multiple different media and genres? It’s not just difficult to choose which medium to best stir things up. It’s that intermedial we’s are more difficult having been stirred up–not just by reading, writing and viewing, but sonically, aurally, tactually, sensually, and all the hybrids, all now clearly relevant to “policy and management.”

For example, if the climate emergency is violence and the Big Polluters are culprits, then violent resistance against them is a form of violence reduction if the resistance succeeds. This means the “violence” and the “resistance” are difficult to assess, evaluate and predict because our cross-media selves open up new ways of going forward. As in: “the varieties of revolution do not know the secrets of the futures, but proceed as the varieties of capitalism do, exploiting every opening that presents itself”–to render into the plural a quote of political philosopher, Georges Sorel.

V

Repeat: “every opening”–every medium, genre and intertext is to be taken advantage of–which is why “the end of capitalism,” like the “beginning of revolution,” is not only difficult to realize but also difficult even to visualize or theorize. There is no workaround for having to improvise.

Local climate responses should be treated as immediate emergency response

I

It’s striking how similar responses-from-below regarding climate change are to immediate emergency response witnessed in recent large-scale disasters. (The similarity would have been more obvious if climate change is called for what it is, the climate emergency.) For example, a Mozambican scholar-activist has

outlined three major differences between these climate actions ‘from below’ and top-down solutions: (i) participation of local actors from planning design and implementation of projects; (ii) horizontal relations and equal access to information; and (iii) non-extractivist initiatives that retain benefits within communities for local consumption, without extractions and expropriations.

A summary of the plenary points made by Natacha Bruna, director of Observatório do Meio Rural, Mozambique, on September 27 2022 at the Climate Change and Agrarian Justice Conference, Johannesburg, South Africa

Immediate emergency response to major disasters–like earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and wildfires–also feature collective action of many of the remaining people involved (and not just in search and rescue) as are featured the importance and centrality of horizontal and lateral communications (the work of Louise Comfort on emergency response in major earthquakes is exemplary in this regard). More, the collective action and joint improvisations are geared to restoring rather than depleting key services in these emergencies.

II

The similarities–I argue, equivalencies–go further. The local site, including its communities, is the pivot-point in emergency response as in climate action-from-below. Food sovereignty is mentioned as a priority in responses-from-below, and indeed localized food and water around the site becomes a priority in emergency response well into longer-term recovery.

Speaking of which, local forms of resistance to climate change responses directed from above look more like the conflict over longer-term recovery witnessed in really-existing disasters than it does conflict over a status quo ante. Why? Because recovery to a new-normal involves many different or changing stakeholders (think here: NGOs), to keep to the jargon terms.

III

So what? What’s the added value to policy and management that comes with seeing the immediate emergency response features of climate action-from-below?

Foremost, claims that the climate change has already weakened response capacities for the climate emergency need to be considered case by case. The point is: Emergency response doesn’t disappear. Collective action and improvisations will occur even in the worst emergencies.

Could emergency responses in the past have been effective? Well, yes. . .but that depends on the case you are talking about.

So too for sites and localities in the unfolding climate disasters ahead. To revert to jargon again, “pre-disaster mitigations to reduce post-disaster harm”–structural, systemic, piecemeal–are not a matter of planned design or known technology (including indigenous) or well-tested social organization, as all manner of unplanned for and unimaginable contingencies intervene, and not just because it is the Anthropocene.

III

One last but not insignificant point. Some may dismiss “immediate emergency response” and its suite of contemporary jargon as imported from the outside. It’s difficult, however, to argue that, e.g., a 1000 years of imperial Chinese flood prevention strategies and practices is incommensurable with “emergency response” as discussed above.

Related sources

Louise K. Comfort (2019). The Dynamics of Risk: Changing technologies and collective action in seismic events. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.

Pierre-Étienne Will (2020). “Introduction,” in: Handbooks and Anthologies for Officials in Imperial China: A descriptive and critical bibliography. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands.

Macro-design is “not noticing” (from the perspective of poet, Robert Lowell)

–“Design” is a trigger-word for me, when it encourages the notion one can macro-design the micro. Anyone who has tried to implement as planned—today’s version of clockmaker God and the echt-rational—knows how plug-and-play designs don’t work, as contingency and context invariably get in the way.

To see how this matters, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and a gloss on it by Helen Vendler, the critic. Here’s the poem in its entirety, centering as it does around Lowell’s leaving an asylum after a manic-depressive episode:

Notice

The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm –
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression –
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

The doctor is forgotten now
like a friend’s wife’s maiden-name.
I am free
to ride elbow to elbow on the rush-hour train
and copy on the back of a letter,
as if alone:
“When the trees close branches and redden,
their winter skeletons are hard to find—”
to know after long rest
and twenty miles of outlying city
that the much-heralded spring is here,
and say,
“Is this what you would call a blossom?”
Then home – I can walk it blindfold.
But we must notice –
we are designed for the moment.

–I take up Vendler’s gloss when she turns to Lowell’s last line:

In becoming conscious of his recovery by becoming aware, literally moment by moment, of his new capacities for the most ordinary actions of life, the poet seems to XXX that ‘we are designed for the moment’—that our consciousness chiefly functions moment by moment, action by action, realization by realization. Biologically, ‘we are designed for the moment’ of noticing.

–What Lowell is doing in the last two lines is also revisiting, I’d like to think, the second line, “We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm” and making this point: The designs put upon us by ideas and enthusiasms differ from the noticing designed into us in at least one major respect.

We notice the ideas-that-design because noticing is not an idea. Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because noticing is a kind of momentary alertness—“Is this what you would call a blossom?”

–So what?

Macro-designs imposed upon the world are best described as forms of not-noticing. Just as the law has not eyes, so argued Xenophon’s Cyrus. I was once involved in an urban environmental project, where what college students were taught and what they found on the ground were not just different but orthogonal:

  • Vacant lots were said to be ideal for community gardens but could not be used for gardening because prior use had rendered the soils toxic (that is why they were vacant);
  • Daylighting city creeks was recommended to improve public access to a restored natural area. Local residents preferred instead leaving creeks inaccessible rather than opening them to out-of-sight criminal behavior;
  • A clean-up campaign to reduce street litter became something more when the gloves distributed for the effort were pierced by discarded injection needles; and
  • Planting more trees along the street was touted as an ideal urban improvement, but in practice doing so raised liability issues, ranging from tree roots buckling the sidewalk to cutting away those roots rendering the trees more prone to falling.

Had I taken time to notice what other people had already noticed, things might have been different.

Note: politics in emergency response

–“In my experience, I’ve seen plenty of high-ranking officials who were so concerned about the political backlash or the budget that they couldn’t take a decision,” said a senior state emergency management official to us recently.

The clarity, logic and urgency of immediate response after a major disaster are seen as “tough political trade-offs” by some, e.g., when bigger cities get more immediate attention. A major city’s road transportation system was “underprepared for a longer-duration” weather event, which led to gridlock across the city and to the department being under “political duress” at the time, said a water construction and maintenance manager. It isn’t only the logic, clarity and urgency of immediate response and initial service restoration that lead to on-the-spot improvisations; political pressures can impose their own forms of guidance to improvisational behavior.

–Also, notwithstanding the logic, clarity and urgency of emergency response immediately after the disaster (i.e. prioritizing search and rescue), “it’s almost impossible” to reconstruct after-the-fact the welter of timelines and organizational scrambling during immediate response, underscored an experienced wastewater coordinator and planner. In fact, it’s by no means clear how some response actually happened. “How did that work? Great question,” said a state emergency preparedness official to us before trying to explain.

It must be as well recognized how unlikely it will be in the US setting that senior government politicians and officials–committed as they are to immediate restoration of services–will stay out of the way of infrastructure operators and emergency managers doing the needful, including on-the-ground damage assessments.

Why not more about heterogeneity and variety than just the obligatory “differentiated by gender, race and class”?

Microfinance initiatives

“The detailed review of the evidence above uncovered an even more nuanced picture, reflecting large variations across the effects of different interventions (credit only, savings only, community-based finance, mixed microfinance) and for different people in different contexts. Findings across the meta-studies were heterogeneous and often inconsistent, both within and across meta-studies, and many did not find evidence of expected or presumed impacts.”

https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/20.500.12413/14269

Criminal justice

Further complicating matters is the fact that the U.S. doesn’t have one “criminal justice system;” instead, we have thousands of federal, state, local, and tribal systems. Together, these systems hold almost 2 million people in 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile correctional facilities, 186 immigration detention facilities, and 82 Indian country jails, as well as in military prisons, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.

https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2022.html

Related structural racism

This is the case, for instance, with broad-brush rhetorical attacks on ‘structural racism in criminal justice’ that confuse the different scales of the American penal state (federal, state, county and city), overlook the hyperlocalism and administrative fragmentation of a criminal justice system that is not a system, and amalgamate the different practices of legislating, policing, pretrial detention, prosecution, public defence, plea negotiation and litigation, sentencing, supervising, court-mandated programming, incarceration, and sentence administration, each of which has layers of internal complexity, and may or may not produce looping ethnoracial disparities. . . .[“Structural racism”] replaces meticulous study with facile sloganeering, and pinpoint remedial action with vague calls for systemic changes that are unlikely to come about or to produce their expected results. In so doing, this vogue word betrays its ostensive purpose: to excavate the social conditions of possibility of ethnoracial justice.

Loic Wacquant, sociologist, a https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii133/articles/loic-wacquant-resolving-the-trouble-with-race

Digital sovereignty

The analysis identifies seven different but overlapping narratives of digital sovereignty in the German discourse that serve to promote partly contradictory political agendas. We argue that this diversity is not a bug, but a feature. Specifically, it supports rich internarrative linkages which benefit the broader resonance of each individual narrative. It also enables a broad set of political actors to enlist digital sovereignty for their specific priorities.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gove.12690

The Dasqupta Review on the economics of biodiversity

Dasgupta talks of “the economy” (a phrase used 91 times) in the singular, as if only his chosen economic system could exist – an idealized market capitalism. All variety in actual social provisioning systems and alternatives across time and space are conveniently ignored.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14747731.2021.1929007

State capitalism

The heterogeneous literature on the ‘new state capitalism’ has provoked considerable academic and popular interest in recent years, but also critique regarding how to analytically bolster the concept and enhance empirical understanding.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.1177/0308518X221083986

Contemporary time

Infrastructural time, Appel (2018b) argues, partakes of a similar temporal structure, wrapping futurity and deferral together in a bewildering, purgatorial admixture. This is how Ko Tun and many other villagers relate to developmental time: through the tense of the not-yet. While developmental time signals the mythic, utopian time-space of modernity, forged in liberal empire, the not-yet points to its manifest social worlds. Those worlds are building and crumbling, on the threshold of figuration, and fraught with uncertainty. They are heterogeneous in a way that blends modernist promises and non-linear time. In Dawei, heterogeneous time is not about premodern exceptions, but rather the differential worlds of postcolonial capitalism—in all its multiple, dissonant, contradictory actuality.

https://academiccommons.columbia.edu/doi/10.7916/4b7c-1h54

Gig economy

More specifically, I argue that the combination of the technological structure of gig work (nearly automatic, open-access employment, algorithm-driven work process) plus workers’ ability to choose schedules and hours yields an unusually heterogeneous labor force on a range of dimensions, especially patterns of work in other jobs and portfolios of household incomes. As a result, worker experiences are also more heterogeneous than in conventional workplaces. One implication is that the nexus of management control cannot be reduced to algorithmic control, as some accounts have it, but rests in significant part on the role that market discipline plays. For workers who are highly dependent on platform earnings, the fear of job loss (Bowles 1985; Schor and Bowles 1987), is an important disciplinary device that enhances technological control. By contrast, for those workers who have other jobs, pensions, and family incomes, algorithmic control and fear of deactivation are less powerful. They are able to carve out more autonomy and satisfaction in platform work. This helps to distinguish platform-based gig labor from other forms of labor relations, and clarify its novelty

https://digitalage.berlin/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Brief-3_Schor_final.pdf

Scaling climate change and response

Why don’t some things scale easily? Scaling up our collective response to climate change has been notoriously difficult because people neither agree on problem definitions nor solutions; because the effects of climate change and mitigation efforts translate into different real-world experiments depending on location; and because different constituencies in the global political economy don’t agree on how to value what. Any site where scaling is made to look easy should thus raise red flags about a likely lack of comprehension or inclusiveness of perspectives.

https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/03063127211048945

COVID-19 preparedness and response

However, these general trends mask significant heterogeneity in responses as countries neither entered nor went through the crisis alike. . . .Overall, the pre-pandemic global outlook was heterogeneous across different geographies. . .

https://www.esm.europa.eu/publications/regional-responses-covid-19-crisis-comparative-study-economic-policy-and-institutional

Cybersecurity breaches

These results nonetheless highlight the ways that data breaches can have a heterogeneous effect on brand. . . .Although data breaches have become more common according to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, there is little evidence that companies have drastically improved their cybersecurity infrastructure.

https://academic.oup.com/cybersecurity/article/7/1/tyab021/6362163

Tax havens

The use of tax havens varies considerably from bank to bank. The mean percentage of profits booked in tax havens is about 20% and ranges from 0% for nine banks to a maximum of 58%. The mean effective tax rate paid by the banks in our sample is 20%, with a minimum of 10% and a maximum of 30%. Seven banks exhibit a particularly low effective tax rate, below or equal to 15%. To better understand this heterogeneity, we analyse the use of tax havens by three banks with a relatively high presence in tax havens: HSBC, Deutsche Bank, and Société Générale. We observe a diversity of situations. . .

https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-03350725/document

Recasting “low probability, high consequence events” (substantially updated)

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake in the Cascadia subduction zone off of the Pacific Northwest coastline has been called a “low probability, high consequence event,” notwithstanding caveats that the earthquake is “scientifically impossible to predict”.

My aim here is to bring to the reader’s attention a very different way to think about Cascadia M9 earthquake (M9, for short).

The argument

Real-time experienced infrastructure operators and managers do worry–and for obvious reasons–about the effects of an M9 on their infrastructures, in this case, the interconnected backbone systems for water, electricity, telecoms and roads. These professionals, however, do not see their “what-if scenarios” for M9 framed typically in terms of probabilities and consequences.

For them, thinking through M9 has two foci: nonmeasurable uncertainties accompanied with disproportionate effects. No presumption is made that “accompanied with” is causal or correlative. The point is that both nonmeasurability and disproportionality both convey important information for their infrastructure operations before, during and after the disaster. Indeed, this information is especially significant when causal understanding is most obscure(d).

I also claim that had we an analytic framework that took nonmeasurable uncertainties and disproportionate effects as its starting point, the policy and management options would differ not only from those of experts wedded to the low-probability-high-consequence typology.

Unique properties of M9 and the experience base of infrastructure operators and emergency managers

For those infrastructure operators and emergency managers we interviewed, the Cascadia M9 earthquake will be an unfolding catastrophe of unimaginable proportions, and not just for their infrastructures. Wider society and economy are at stake. What makes M9 unimaginable is that there is no closure rule for “what-if” scenarios. For those knowledgeable about infrastructures, there’s always a new scenario that merits attention, and more so for the unimaginably bad.

Further, the impacts of M9 will be unpredictably localized with respect to the infrastructure systems as well as interconnected and amplified in unforeseen ways. “Unpredictably localized” entails having new nonmeasurable uncertainties compared to what the professionals already know about their infrastructures from past disruptions and worse. “Interconnected and amplified” mean having unforeseen effects that are demonstrably disproportionate when compared to what they already know about their infrastructures during disruptions and worse.

Nonmeasurability of uncertainties and disproportionality of effects are what their experience tells the professionals to associate with a Cascadia M9 earthquake. These are infrastructure professionals come to the M9 earthquake already knowledgeable about uncertainties and impacts, especially those that can or cannot be measured with effects inside or outside previous bandwidths and known proportions.

Informally, this means. . .

“Operating blind” with the loss of telemetry, cellphones and power is how one infrastructure operator described the experience in an ice storm. But it’s that “operating,” even then and now or ahead under worse circumstances, that the infrastructure’s real-time professionals can help us better understand. It’s their alertness we need to know more about. “I don’t know that we answer until we’re in the event in a lot of cases,” echoed a city infrastructure manager for water with respect to M9. So too “coming to those answers” is something we should want to know more about before misleadingly lapsing into conventional jargon about probabilities and risks.

“Coping with risk” is a highly misleading characterization of this behavior when an important part of that “coping” is proactive improvisations and where the unit and level of improvisation is not risk, as bundles of adjustable probabilities and consequences, but a provisional match between then-and-there tasks and then-and-there resources called “emergency response.”

Proposed alternative framework

It is important that an alternative analytic framework be based in (1) how experienced infrastructure and emergency management real-time staff see Cascadia M9, (2) import no slippery slope to conventionalized risk analysis, and (3) demonstrate the centrality of information-rich nonmeasurable uncertainties and disproportionate effects.

(My research colleague, Paul Schulman, has played the key role in developing the four element below and is in no way responsible for the Implications drawn.)

We identified four elements that our previous work on large interconnected infrastructures indicated were critical to emergency management: (1) the different types of interconnectivity (sequential, mediated, reciprocal, more) between and among infrastructures involved in immediate response and initial recovery for the backbone infrastructures of electricity, water, telecoms and roads; (2) the points (thresholds, phases, transitions) at which the types of interconnectivity shift during infrastructure failure, response and initial recovery; (3) the importance in immediate response of jointly undertaken improvisations around real-time system control variables–think electricity frequency and voltage for electricity, water pressure for potable water supplies and firefighting, water flows for ports and vessel traffic–relied upon by more than one of the backbone infrastructures—all of which are in turn managed to (4) a performance standard of requisite variety (that is, effectiveness in immediate response and initial recovery are measured against how well real-time task demands and real-time resources are matched then-and-there, if only temporarily).

If this weren’t already a long blog entry, I would now describe and justify each element. But at this point what is more important is that the reader recognize how difficult these four elements, individually and together, make it to revert to anything like the language of probabilities and consequences, Bayesian or otherwise. It is also important to recognize how nonmeasurability and disproportionality are consistent with and foregrounded by having multiple, shifting interconnectivities, improvisations and the never-before-seen by experienced operators and emergency managers.

Three framework implications will have suffice as illustrative.

Implications

First, removing oneself from Cascadia M9 interconnectivities, shifts, and need for just-on-time improvisations must be an option. This ranges from moving out of coastal Oregon and Washington State beforehand to having better evacuation strategies during and afterwards. It’s not clear to me if the states’ emergency preparedness plans and education programs present “getting-out-of-Dodge” as an option.

Second and for those staying in the coastal and western parts of the states, there is clear priority in developing and testing continuity of operations plans (public sector), business continuity plans (private sector) and what are variously called devolution plans and orders of succession (i.e., who will do what when the positions for “being in charge” are suddenly vacated). It is not clear to me how current modeling and tabletops exercises around M9 incorporate prototyping and ground-truthing very different scenarios for public and private continuity and succession arrangements.

Third, the framework calls for majorly rethinking the role of “improvisations.” To characterize something like topping off a fuel tank for a back-up as a one-off incidental or side work is to miss entirely the point, namely: Improvisations, especially those involving more than one infrastructure during immediate response, cannot be isolated from the interconnectivities and shifts they occur within and give arise to, especially because (not: “even if”) they revolve around momentary matches in requisite variety.

Last point, for now

Some readers will object: “Whoa! Moving to and living in another area involves new risks and with it weighing. . .And what about the poor or vulnerable who can’t move? . .”

But you are not balancing risks or probabilities or consequences when choosing to move out because of a Cascadia M9 earthquake, at least from the experienced-based perspective of the framework. From the experience base described here, the drivers are not risks, but the interconnectivities and important shifts in nonmeasurable uncertainties and disproportionate effects.

That those we interviewed appear not to be moving out of western Oregon and Washington State tells us, I think, a great deal about the professional reluctance to move into (another set of) unstudied or unstudiable but nevertheless interconnected conditions.

“AI ethics” reframed

I

A good friend of mine wasn’t being provocative when he told me that a field was most innovative at its boundaries with other fields and that a sure sign a field had lost that energy was when its discussions were dominated by ethics. As his example of the first was Herbert Simon’s move into artificial intelligence, let’s look at today’s discussions on “AI ethics” through the lens of the latter.

No matter how sacrosanct one takes ethics, it’s hardly original to point out that one consequence of the hotly contested debates over AI transparency and fairness has been to continue with business as usual until the ethicists, to put it crudely, get their shit together and agree.

Since that is not going to happen (and even if it did?), the search instead becomes one of identifying really-existing practices to ensure the creativity and innovation going on are not as harmful. That this is a huge challenge should go without saying, if only because creativity is so privileged and valorized. It’s tested practices we need that highlight the why, when and how in taking the “no” in innovation seriously.

II

But, as a thought experiment, let’s take my friend at his word: Is it that AI is now a moribund field in ways not commonly supposed?

Has the innovative energy–again, far from a priori benign–been at the boundaries of fields that don’t get the same kind of scrutiny as ethicists are giving to their versions of “AI”? As the ethicists are also talking about sub-fields like machine learning (ML) and algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM), are these also moribund in ways we–that is, those of us who become instant experts in AI by reading the secondary literature–do not comprehend?

For example, rapid obsolescence of software and equipment used in ML and ADM is a topic that, at least to this point (and I stand to be corrected), hasn’t been given as much attention as readers might expect. To my mind, this topic is more important that transparency or fairness, since obsolescence changes the “with-respect-to-what’s” of the latter.

Yet doesn’t a focus on obsolescence immediately throw me into the realm of “sustainability” and its science and ethics debates?

III

I think we shouldn’t be too quick to name where we look for more appropriate forms of creativity and ethics.

Indeed, a few moments of added thought suggest a more suitable context is not “sustainability,” but the Anthropocene in which we find ourselves–and especially as the Anthropocene will make obsolete so many things that matter to us and future generations.

A better question, then, to ask is: What’s the (continuing? changing?) role of a “AI” obsolescence in the Anthropocene?

IV

One answer can be found in treating the Anthropocene’s drive to render so much obsolete as its own policy palimpsest.

If a policy palimpsest is most notable because of its erasures and effacements of past policy and management narratives when assembling current arguments for or against a very major issue, then the palimpsest about “obsolescence” can be reframed as its own form of reflectivity on erasures and effacements in and for the entirety of the Anthropocene.

How would this work?

Practically, the businesses and enterprises of ML and ADM–and those in the less visible or more granular sub-fields collapsed unhelpfully under the rubric AI–are a reflection more of the-out-of-date than what’s-ahead. In the Anthropocene, everything existing is already an anachronism. In the Anthropocene, each new innovation–bad or good–isn’t an innovation unless it can be superseded as conditions change–and change they will because this is the Anthropocene. Every thing in the Anthropocene has, if you will, a temporary work permit.

Yes, but so what? It means that the statements in the preceding paragraph are, if not now then later, also obsolete. Indeed, what is erased or effaced now could be resurfaced later in a context of missed opportunities. Otherwise, surprise itself would have to become obsolete and, far from being erased, not worth the hard work that often follows from surprise, right?

V

But that’s too little too late, some say. The surprises are all bad, you press. Indeed, the post-apocalyptic novel–and doomer lit generally—nail home that we don’t need to instill widespread fear and dread of Global Collapse so as to provoke remedy or even some progress, because, well, their versions of “we” no longer believe in either.

Yet that the latter position–“it’s no better than clay hardpan below and parched hardscrabble on top”–has a hallucinatory precision no way evident everywhere in the Anthropocene. Where critique has indeed run out of steam, difference and particularity haven’t–of that I am confident.

Here, I must make a confession. The delicious part of an otherwise dispiriting meeting on another crisis comes when I get to add “. . .and of course there are the other things to worry about,” and leave it that. You can almost hear the others thinking, Should we ask him? If someone does—“What other things?”—I offer nothing explicit. The real worry, I say, is we, well, can’t quite put our finger on what’s going wrong. . .

Principal sources

Fortmann-Roe, S. and E. Roe (forthcoming). “Key Dimensions of Algorithmic Management, Machine Learning and Big Data in Differing Large Sociotechnical Systems, with Implications for Systemwide Safety Management.” Chapter forthcoming in Safety in the Digital Age (Eds. J-C LeCoze and S. Antonsen, tentative title), Springer.

Munn, L. (2022). “The uselessness of AI ethics.” AI and Ethics (accessed online on September 21 2022 at https://doi.org/10.1007/s43681-022-00209-w)

Climate migration as contingent, complex and alert

–Contingency and complexity affect both intention and consequence. It’s not just that my good intentions sometimes end up achieving the opposite; it’s not just my thoughtlessness may save others or myself from worse. It’s being uncomprehending in any case. The self-cure for this is to be preoccupied by other things.

–To be distracted from these preoccupations means hesitations and scruples over: what we know and do not know; what we experience as inexperience; and what we come to know as different kinds of difficulty. This is the alertness in finding something complicated that nonetheless resonates, even if for a moment.

–An example: It’s said climate migrants are driven out, but have nowhere else to go or wherewithal to do so. What’s missed is not just all manner of evidence that they don’t see themselves as victims but their alertness in acting so.

Updated announcements and short table of contents

I. If you are revisiting or new to this blog, “Four Big Reads” are the best place to (re)start:

1/4: When Complex Is As Simple As It Gets: Draft Guide to New Policy Analysis and Management in the Anthropocene (updated September 2022)

2/4: Policy optics as prompts and probes to recasting: 16 brief examples (updated October 2022)

3/4: Some policy optics best serve to soften up intractable issues for a second look (seven examples from the humanities)

4/4: Novel policy palimpsests for recasting: total control, AI ethics and national politics (new September 2022)

These consolidate and update entries on the multiple uses of policy optics–fresh concepts, methods, counternarratives, analogies and thought experiments–for identifying better policy and management. The three best illustrate the title and theme of this blog and I will add new material to each from time to time.

II. One topic that has long interested me is that of herders, livestock and rangelands in Africa. For those interested as well, please see the following four updated entries with new material:

Pastoralism as a global infrastructure” (updated September 2022)

Additional points for ‘A New Policy Narrative for Pastoralism‘”

An altogether different view of pastoralists and pastoralisms

It makes a difference for policy and management when describing pastoralism in terms of capitalism and not as a global infrastructure

Additional blog entries include: “Interconnected granularity as a key methodological challenge in representing pastoralists and pastoralism,” “More radical proposals for the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists 2026,” and “Environmental livestock-tarring.”

III. New blog entries for this week: “Recasting local climate responses (“climate action-from-below”) as immediate emergency response,””Recasting ‘low probability, high consequence’ events (updated),” and “‘AI ethics’ reframed.”

–You can use the blog’s keyword search function to find the above, along with related entries and others on altogether different topics grouped under the subject headings below:

  • More recastings in policy and management
  • Not-knowing and its proxies
  • Ignorance and uncertainty
  • Distraction and sensibility
  • Risk, resilience and root causes
  • Emergency management and improvisation
  • Regulation
  • Infrastructures
  • Environment
  • Rural development
  • Pastoralist development
  • Catastrophe and crisis
  • Policy and management mess, good and bad
  • Betterment and good-enough
  • Policy palimpsests and composite arguments
  • Economism
  • More on methods
  • Longer Reads, including some of my favorites: “Ammons and regulation,” “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “Pastoralists and Pastoralisms,” and “Proposed National Academy of Reliable Infrastructure Management”