Illustrating complexity’s counternarratives for racism, climate-action-from-below and ethics

It is said that “these are uncertain times” and other like phrases are often used by elites to divert attention from the certainties of their exercising power. I agree.

I push that truth further, however: Complexities–societal, political, economic, historical, cultural, legal, geographical, governmental, psychological, neurological, technological, religious, and more–ensure that counternarratives are in the making or already exist to oppose, directly or indirectly, those dominant policy and management narratives.


–We are in a time of much deeper rethinking about the roots of racism (e.g., settler colonialism) and racism’s role in other isms. Yet we have to ask: What are still missing by way of counternarratives to the hegemonic? A great deal, I would answer, and precisely because of the complexities.

Go back to the late 1990s to the mid-2000’s. It’s not so far past that some readers won’t remember it, but far enough away for added perspective. Start with 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, however, 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?

–Racism was one systemic reason why the questions weren’t asked. But that too falls short of the point. What were those counternarratives, and for that matter, what are they now?

One well-meaning observer at that time said that, if a magic wand were available, 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 different educations were to be made missing.

Climate-action-from-below as emergency response

–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 earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, large wildfires and the like also feature collective action by many of the people involved (and not just in search and rescue); so too 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 any further during the emergencies.

–The similarities–I argue, equivalencies–go further. The local site and communities are 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 also becomes a priority during emergency response and into initial recovery.

Speaking of which, local forms of resistance to climate change responses directed from above look a great deal like conflict over longer-term disaster recovery: Both involve many different or changing stakeholders.

–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?

Some of the answers you will like; some you won’t.

To illustrate how, I stay with the US setting and focus here on one primary “emergency response from below: namely, where a city or county activates its emergency operations center and/or incident management teams at the department level to coordinate immediate disaster response. This happens when high winds, ice storms, fires, flooding and their combinations take down essential services, particularly backbone infrastructures of water, electricity, roads and telecoms. It should go without saying that many of these events are today related to climate change.

–Now a thought experiment for these cities and counties: Activate the EOCs and IMTs, or at least the ones which know they are in the Climate Emergency. And who are the distressed peoples and sites? It’s up to the EOCs and IMTs to decide where spaces are being made uninhabitable and where jobs are lost and malnutrition on the increase because of the Climate Emergency there.

In thinking such impacts through, much of what outsiders recommend by way of response clearly belongs more under longer-term recovery than initial rapid response, e.g., timely construction of those altogether different, more resilient infrastructure systems. Note also that admonitions of “stop-this-and-that-immediately” hit a major obstacle from the get-go. 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.

In fact, years and years of R&D have gone into prototyping and distributing more sustainable alternatives to some of these goods and services. Shouldn’t we also 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 using more petroleum products?

AI ethics

–One of the stories I took away from my graduate training in policy analysis was that a field is most innovative at its tangencies with other fields and that one sign a field had lost that energy was when their discussions were taken over by ethics. In case it needs saying, that loss of energy wasn’t a bad thing where “innovations” had far from benign consequences (consequences being a big thing in policy analysis).

More, no matter how central one takes ethics to be, it’s hardly original to point out that one big consequence of the hotly contested cross-field debates over artificial intelligence (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 for better ethics also becomes one of having to think counternarratively. Case in point: Are the sub-fields of machine learning (ML) and algorithmic decisionmaking (ADM) to which AI ethicists are giving great attention actually moribund and energy-less in ways we–that is, those of us who become instant experts in AI by reading the secondary literature–do not comprehend? Is there a story here we could be telling instead not just about “AI ethics” but also about “AI” and “ethics” more generally?

–One counternarrative centers around AI obsolescence. Rapid obsolescence of software and equipment used in ML and ADM is a topic that, at least to the present (and I stand to be corrected), hasn’t been given as much attention as readers might expect.

To my mind, obsolescence is more important than AI transparency or fairness, if only because the former changes the “with-respect-to-what’s” of the latter two. Nor is this surprising as the Anthropocene will make obsolete many other things that matter as well, including current understandings of AI and ethics.

–So what? One answer can be found in treating the Anthropocene’s rendering so much obsolete as its own policy palimpsest.

As discussed more fully in Part II examples, a policy palimpsest is accreted over time for a longstanding policy issue and is most notable because of its erasures, effacements and abrupt supercessions of past policy and management narratives when assembling current arguments for or against that issue. Points get left out and then missed altogether as the issue is said to evolve. If so, then the palimpsest about “obsolescence” (including but not limited to AI) can be taken as a kind of reflectivity undertaken over time with respect to erasures, effacements in and for the Anthropocene. One could say the Anthropocene is already the most reflexive epoch humans and the more-than-human have ever witnessed.

This means the businesses and enterprises of ML and ADM–and those in the less visible or more granular sub-fields collapsed under the rubric AI–are better seen as having a temporary work permit than permanent citizenship. Otherwise, surprise itself would become obsolete and not worth the hard work of any kind of AI ethics, right?

–For many, however, the surprises ahead are bad or too little/too late. Worse: Doomer-lit generally nails home that we don’t need to provoke widespread fear and dread of Global Collapse so as to push for advance or remedy, because, well, the “we” no longer believe in either.

Fortunately, such a hallucinatory precision is no way evident everywhere in the Anthropocene. Indeed, ethics stand to obsolescence as surprises stand to the Anthropocene. Or at least, that is what I have learned from AI ethics.

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