Table of key entries

Most Important: “What am I missing?,” “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Power,” “Interconnected?,” “I believe,” “Wicked problems,” “Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “Keeping it complex. . .,” ““Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism”

Recasting big policy issues: “Poverty and war,” “Second thoughts on income inequality,” “Surprising climate change,” “COVID-19,” “Missing racism,” “Healthcare,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene, ” “Culling sustainability,” “In a failed state,” “Revolts,” “A colossal inheritance,” “Wicked problems,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination’,” “Government regulation,” and Longer Reads (below)

More recastings: “Policy narratives,” “America’s and Trump’s,” “Recastings #1,” “When the light at the end of the tunnel is the tunnel,” “Loose ends, #3,” “Public Policy Analysis, c.1970 – c.2020: In Memoriam?,” “Sound familiar? Here’s why,” “A grammar of policy analysis,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion”

Not-knowing and its proxies: “Seeing unknowns,” “Inexperience and central banks,” “Managing inexperience,” “Difficulty at risk and unequal,” “By way of distraction…,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter”

Ignorance and uncertainty: “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Uncertain superlatives,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene”

Risk, resilience and root causes: “A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Three easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios,” “Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios,” “Half-way risk,” “Central role of the track record in risk analysis,” “Resilience isn’t what you think,” “Root causes,” “Frau Hitler, again,” “With respect to what?”

Infrastructures: “The real U.S. infrastructure crisis,” “Innovation,” “Take-home messages,” “Who pays?,” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about,” “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Catastrophizing cascades,” “Healthcare,” “Interconnected,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “Achilles’ heel of high reliability management,” “Where distrust and dread are positive social values,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Government regulation”

Environment: “Nature,” “Tansley’s ecosystem,” “Radical uncertainty and new environmental narratives,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Dining on gin and consommé,” “Culling sustainability”

Catastrophe and crisis: “Catastrophizing cascades,” “Jorie Graham’s systemcide,” “The shame of it all,” “Next-ism,” “The future is the mess we’re in now”

More mess, good and bad: “A different take on the traffic mess,” “Happiness: The mess,” “Who pays?,” “Misadventures by design,” “. . .and raise my taxes!,” “Loose ends, #2,” “Top-of-the-list thinking,” “Take-home messages”

Betterment and good-enough: “Betterment as ‘yes-but’ through ‘yes-and’,” “It’s better between the James brothers,” “Good-enoughs,” “Good-enough dreamers,” “Professional, amateur, apprentice; Or, As good as the fingernails of Manet,” “‘at sea,’ ‘from on high’,” “Betterment (continued)”

Policy palimpsests and composite arguments: “Take home messages,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Reflection and sensibility,” and other Longer Reads (below)

Economism: “Economism,” “Keep it simple?,” “Loose ends, #1” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “Short and not sweet,” “The missing drop of realism,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about”

Longer Reads: “Ammons and regulation,” “The next Constitutional Convention,” “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “A consultant’s diary,” “A different take on The Great Confinement”

Something less complex?: “Red in tooth and claw,” “What kdrama has taught me,” “The irony of it all,”

Culling sustainability

–Readers advocating sustainability are familiar with a policy narrative that runs roughly as follows:

Sustainable land uses—e.g., hunting and gathering or, later, traditional pastoralist systems of mobile (“nomadic”) herders and livestock —have been more beneficial to the environment than are today’s large socio-technical systems, which have exploited and degraded that environment. Dams and hydropower have caused irreversible damage and have long displaced the earlier, more sustainable uses. Pastoralist herding systems, for their part, continue to be edged out of existence by encroachments that are themselves unsustainable.

Making matters worse, those electric grids, water supplies, and transportation systems are preoccupied with real-time operations to the detriment of longer-term sustainability. As these and associated “developments” have spread and circulated throughout the arid and semi-arid lands, the effects on and damage to dryland ecology have been acute and pernicious.

What to do? Minimally, we have to institute and abide by sustainability principles, criteria and indicators. While it is no longer possible to restore much of the landscape to its pre-disturbance state, we must ensure indicators are in place to tell us how fast we are moving away from or back towards sustainability.

–How to assess and evaluate this policy narrative?

The obvious strategy has been to criticize it, point by point. Just what do you mean by “traditional”? Why aren’t overgrazing and overstocking identified as unsustainable features of so-called traditional livestock systems? Are there no cases where large water supplies or electricity or improved transportation have helped rather than harmed the semi-arid and arid lands? More, why ever in 2020 are you focusing primarily on dryland ecology? And anyway, just what do you mean by “sustainability” and where is “context” in all of this?

The questions are easily augmented, with—you’d assume—narrative death following in due course through a thousand such stings. But these narratives don’t drop dead the way some of us hope. We think we’ve amputated their legs, and they still walk the earth

— I suggest there is at least one more way—and more useful than criticism on its own—to evaluate that dominant narrative: parsing it through sustainability narratives that already exist.

The aim in this case is seize on already-identified sustainability narratives that enable you to identify and focus on the weakest links in the dominant narrative. In contrast to a full-blown, point-by-point critique, you want a narrative that more clearly shows not only what is wrong (more than less) with the dominant narrative, but also how to proceed ahead instead.

Let me illustrate what I mean.

–Those who read the sustainability literature have also, I believe, come across such statements as:

. . .So, while sustainability has been shown to be a key existential issue, less acknowledged has been the fact that many sustainability indicators currently mis-specify the system to be sustained. . .

When I read such a statement, I mentally cut it out of its surrounding text. This way I create moments not just to guess what the author is going say next (that last “. . .”), but how I would fill in a text before and afterwards now that it’s opened to my own recasting.

–On reflection, statements like that just italicized remind me that indicators are always indicators with-respect-to-something. Asking with-respect-to-what? forces me back into the author’s text to search for just what is the specific system or system behavior that deserves monitoring in the author’s view.

This is important, because the sustainability literature I’ve read includes far too many instances where the indicators recommended have no such specifics or priorities. Instead, having an indicator for each thing that might matter has become the mirror reflection of critiquing every point equally.

–So what?

Let me cut to the quick by continuing to fill in the last set of ellipses my own way:

. . .currently mis-specify the system to be sustained. This mis-specification of sustainability indicators occurs along many avenues. Most important, indicators must always have bandwidths when it comes to high reliability performance at the system level.

By bandwidths, the reliability literature means upper and lower ranges of, or limits on, actual group behavior, the breaching of which triggers adjustment responses among the group. In this way, normal operations at the system level are not static but fluctuate within tolerance levels.

Or, if you prefer, resilience without bandwidths isn’t resilience, and that resilience—fluctuations within bandwidths and adjustments back when breaching bandwidths—is the starting point for working out sustainability under mandates of high reliability. Most important, “adaptive capacity” or “flexibility,” to the extent they are unbounded or left unconstrained, do not capture this key bandwidth feature of resilience. . .

In contrast, note how a good number of sustainability advocates would conclude that earlier phrase, “currently mis-specify the system to be sustained” with some variant of “. . .which today is global if not planetary,” thereby begging the question of the extent to which the bounded versus unbounded features to be monitored determine the scale rather than the reverse, which presumes scale determines the appropriate indicators.

–This isn’t the place to argue the merits of any such alternative reading, The bigger point here is that instead of treating the dominant pastoralism narrative—and let’s be honest, in a world of this many pastoralists, versions of the dominant policy narrative as well as counternarratives must be expected—as if its/their every assumption could be major and all major assumptions require major attention, we are doing something very different by means of the italicized rewrite.

We’re relying instead on already-existing sustainability narratives to hone into what primarily matters, at least from their perspectives. In our case, what matters as a priority is better thinking through measures (qualitative/quantitative, broadly writ) of acceptable group behavior under conditions of high uncertainty across multiple scales.

–Which then raises the question: How do I know I’ve identified the “right” sustainability narrative from the many out there with which to parse the dominant narrative?

But that is the wrong question. There is no right choice; there are only more or less useful ones. Or probably closer to the truth: There is no right choice, but many wrong ones.

By way of example, it’s more useful for me with respect to my policy and management perspective, if at a practical level, I ask: Just what are the bandwidths associated with, say, place and time in the herding itinerary?

I’m thinking here of the very useful insight of Saverio Krätli that pastoralism is a “livestock based livelihood/production system specialised in taking advantage of variability and centered on managing grazing itineraries at a variety of scale”. Does that scale, presumably both spatial and temporal, imply bandwidths of a particular kind?[1]

More, if such bandwidths do exist, they are not set by the control-imaginaries of rangeland ecologists, water point engineers or livestock veterinarians, but in practice by those following such itineraries—where “practice” here is more consonant with, say, pastoralist participatory gaming and simulation exercises than with credentialed experts isolating their grid maps and log frames.

[1] Geoffrey Grigson, the poet, writes: “I am a walker. I like the walker’s broken and restored rhythm. I take paths, including animal ones, which permit latitude, are uneven, allow pauses. My walk varies the variation of what is given.”

Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism

–So much of what we hear and read about major policy issues sounds like short-termism. Why aren’t more people taking the long-term seriously? Where’s the widespread recognition that temporizing doesn’t address—nor can any short-termism address—the fundamental issues driving these crises, be it global climate change (GCC), global financial meltdowns, pandemics, income inequality, others?

A starting typology. Consider a 2 x 2 typology. One dimension is your ready-made about short-termism versus long-termism.

The other dimension captures two distinct features of the long-term that characterize crises: the long-term conceptualized as the concatenation of discrete or punctuated short-terms versus the long-term as continuously unfolding trends and interactions segmented into (short-term) periods.

Rather than label each, representative statements for each cell are summarized:

Key typology implications for long-terms and short-terms. Foremost, what differentiates “time” is not the “long term versus short term.” It’s better to say some crises are pegged to more than one “short/long” cell.

For example, take the healthcare crisis in Cell 2 (basically, “Increases in healthcare costs are unsustainable”) and now rescript it through the other three cells: “The problem in healthcare is that we can’t predict the kind of innovations necessary for adapting to the multiple futures we face here and today” (Cell 1); “Healthcare continues to be characterized by just a series of hardware and digital upheavals, one after another” (Cell 3); and “It’s not if the next pandemic of an unknown virus will happen but only when” (Cell 4).

Time is always more complicated in crisis scenarios than long-term v. short-term. In the topology, time varies for two primary reasons: because, as we just saw, the same crisis can reflect multiple short/long preoccupations and because the matching of crises to different cells is a major way the passage of time emerges and is tracked.

Different timelines, in effect, track different trajectories of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty. The latter look very different if, e.g., that “second surge” of COVID-19 is conceptualized in Cell 2 or in Cell 3 terms. In Cell 2, we have learned something by the time the second surge takes off; in Cell 3, so much may have worsened as a result of COVID-19 and so changed are the initial conditions that any “second surge” may well imply starting to learn all over again.

Even then, a Cell 2 focus—one US secretary of state called foreign policy one damn thing after another—has the great virtue (and I really believe it is a virtue) of reminding people that there are cases where predicting the future is difficult precisely for the same reasons learning from the past is: Both require low environmental instability, stability in organizational goals and objectives, and institutional memory, among other factors.

–To some the absence of these preconditions is negative; to me, even where negative, these highlight that the many other policy areas where the preconditions do exist to varying degrees of not-knowing, inexperience and difficulty.

For example, some regional climate change modeling is of such a high resolution today that model results can be and are in some cases disaggregated in ways that cross several of the above cells. It’s now possible to project estimates for rising sea-levels, storm surges and inland flooding in, say, 20-year increments to better reflect already existing near- and longer-term cycles for region-based infrastructure equipment/plant depreciation and longer term investments, among others. These cycles may overlap but by no means necessarily coincide.

Does this mean uncertainty about climate change impacts is reduced in this case? Of course not. The point is that model disaggregation increases the confidence of decision-making by helping to triangulate (no guarantees here!) on what has already been planned using fewer factors and methods.

The typology’s very major implication for short-termism. Another feature of the typology is subtler but more important for rethinking any complaint about short-termism in crisis response: In all cells, the future is a hypothesis we have yet to finish with.

The Cell 1 hypothesis is that the crisis comes about because we know we can’t predict the future; Cell 4 hypothesizes its crisis is due precisely because we know and can predict the future. Cell 2 conjectures that because we know the present we know the future will differ significantly; while Cell 3 puts forward that we already know that present and future will be alike and importantly so.

But why, “hypothesis”?

A core issue moves to the fore when we focus on the nature of the present in any of the four cells. Where, specifically, in discussing the long and short terms does “not knowing the present” come into play? (Go back to the typology’s four cells and ask of each: “What are the implications of not knowing the present stipulated in this cell?”).

–Whatever your answer, one implication is very clear: Not knowing the short-term we’re in scarcely constitutes short-termism. In fact, conventional short-termism—the present matters more than the future, period—requires more certainty and confidence than warrantable by the respective hypotheses. Our challenge remains “to foresee the present,” as Turgot, the 18th century French economist and statesman, put it long ago. Trying to foresee the present is not short-termism.

Major implication for theory and practice. There are also major implications for theory and practice at the same time. One example is indicative. Any number of theories predict very major disasters are headed our way, which haven’t yet appeared because it hasn’t been long enough for them to do so.

Nuclear power plant explosions will eventually be normal occurrences because their irremediable technological tight coupling and complex interactivity makes disaster unavoidable. We haven’t seen enough of them to realize that. Global financial meltdowns and market contagions lead to herd behavior and mob violence, eventually bringing the system down. That there haven’t been more of this shouldn’t dissuade us from seeing what’s coming.

–Long enough, you tell us, and all of this will be abundantly clear—UNLESS, you underscore, we act now to prevent their occurrence.

Well, ok, sure.

But, humor me: Just what cells are you talking about?

Are you saying that nuclear plant explosions and market meltdowns are inevitable because of the long-run trends (Cell 2)? Or are you saying that since these disasters could happen in any of the four cells, they are “more likely” to happen? (No need, you say, for anything like a χ2 test for our 2 x 2 to know that!) Or are you saying something else with respect to your preferred cells?

“Actually. WHAT are you predicting?”

Principal source: This is a much augmented, revised section from my “Licking the sharp edge of the sword,” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management (2018) 27(1): 1–7.

Betterment (continued)


Henry David Thoreau put it in his Journals, “I do not know that knowledge amounts to anything more definite than a novel and grand surprise, or a sudden revelation of the insufficiency of all that we called knowledge before. . .”

Assume this is so and go on to ask, How can a politics, policy and management infused through and through with not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience be effective?

Effectiveness means those occasions for rethinking (recasting, redescribing, recalibrating, redefining) categories of politics, policy and management lived and worked by, including “regulation,” “failed states,” “politics,” and “betterment” itself. This happens when you (plural) realize how much depends on advancing to the decision point of “Yes but” and “Yes and.” Betterment pushes complex truths further.


Earlier definitions of betterment figured in versions of the 18th century European Enlightenment. The term was used interchangeably with “improvement” or “progress,” though from time to time singled out as its own unit of analysis (most famously in economist Adam Smith’s “the great purpose of human life which we call bettering our condition”).

The variety of Enlightenment thinkers, however, made it inevitable that not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience would be touched upon specifically. Voltaire discusses not-knowing in the entry “On the Limits of the Human Mind” of his Philosophical Dictionary; David Hume, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, grappled with the acknowledged idea of “not-knowing as the key to the contented life,” according to one commentator; in the view of another, Adam Smith expressed “an open skepticism about the possibility of knowing definitively what it is we are really doing;” while Immanuel Kant notably wrote about “the unknowability of things-in-themselves.” “Full recognition of the importance of uncertainty and the unknowable in analysing economic processes is an eighteenth-century heritage. . .which cannot be emphasized too often. . .” writes a third observer.

As for difficulty, historian Jonathan Israel sketches its central role in the Radical Enlightenment: “Theories of progress, however, contrary to what many have assumed, were usually tempered by a strong streak of pessimism, a sense of the dangers and challenges to which the human condition is subject. The notion, still widespread today, that Enlightenment thinkers nurtured a naive belief in man’s perfectibility seems to be a complete myth conjured up by early twentieth-century scholars unsympathetic to its claims. In reality, Enlightenment progress breathed a vivid awareness of the great difficulty of spreading toleration, curbing religious fanaticism, and otherwise ameliorating human organization, orderliness, and the general state of health was always impressively empirically based.”

Nor was the role of inexperience remote to versions of the Enlightenment: “In the light of the triumph of Newtonian science, the men of the Enlightenment argued that experience and experiment, not a priori reason, were the keys to true knowledge,” writes historian, Roy Porter, where inexperience ironically became a touchstone for criticizing French Enlighteners: “Above all, critics complained, in politics the philosophes lacked the quality they pretended to value most: experience.” Yet, the almost universal priority given to education by Enlightenment advocates across a wide spectrum reflected their acknowledgement that more education meant, acutely, more experience.


These earlier nods toward not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience take us to today’s “and-yet” betterment of yes-but and yes-and. For their growing centrality has brought useful complications to Yes versus No when it comes to a good-versus-bad politics and policymaking.

The ethnographer and writer, Michel Leiris, writes about the need “to merge the yes and the no.” “Between yes and no” is the title of an early essay by Camus. Nietzsche “said no to life as long as it was easy, but yes when it took on the form of the impossible”. The work of Elizabeth Bishop was “perhaps more a quiet no than a great big yes,” according to another poet. More severe, “Herman Melville praised Nathaniel Hawthorne: ‘He says NO! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie’”, records the critic, Christopher Ricks, who then asks: “But what about saying, ‘Yes, but…?’”

Ricks is spot-on. In the same way as dark energy and dark matter are said to make up the vast portion of the universe, politics, policy and management are grasped only because of—not in spite of—the not-knowing, difficulty and inexperience, all around and in between.


This betterment is not possible unless you (plural again) recognize how exaggerated many stopping points are in decisionmaking. For example: To govern is to choose. But choose between an irresistible-Yes and an unmovable-No? Better to say, as many have before: No one governs innocently.

Kant’s Enlightenment exhortation—Dare to know! (Sapere aude!)—is taken from the Roman poet, Horace: “Dimidium facti qui coepi, habet: sapere aude: Incipe ( “To have begun is to be half done; dare to know; start!”). Some highlight not only the dare-to-know, but the charge in the word, “Incipe,” as in: “Get started now!” My eye, though, gravitates to that first clause,“To have begun is to be half done”. Far too much of our truth-telling stops short of the indispensable push ahead.

Dining on gin and consommé

Thornton really got started. “One of the first things the new university president did was to establish the All Campus Organizing Council. All-COC—which it is not—has many mandates. For my part, I chaired The Interdisciplinary Team milked for an interdisciplinary seminar here, a cross-disciplinary conference there, you know what I mean.

“Now, it was my turn on behalf of TIT to attend an event we funded. Peter, you remember the oldest unit on campus? Well, the seminar series I’m talking about took place in there in the College of Agriculture, Resources and the Environment. CARE, which it did not, has produced, among other distinctions, the stay-soft (all-mush) peach, the BetterLife (Bet-her-life!) household insect sprays, and the workerless irrigation technologies (WITless to critics).

“If we are to believe the College, a dollar of their research leads to more than two dollars return on investment in terms of increased agricultural productivity and blah, blah, blah. What the research actually has done is immiserate farmworkers, help obliterate family farms, and concentrate wealth into corporate infamies. The media eventually sniffed some of this out and went into its Brownian motion, the legislature hemmed, a court case was decided, and CARE found itself having to.

“What were one day CARE’s long-standing departments of insecticides, farm technology, industrial forestry, and crop production become the Department of Life Sciences. Programs were ‘rebranded’ environmental. Sotto voce cries of ‘we want evolution, not revolution!’ were heard from faculty. Meetings found their social scientists hectoring insecticide faculty, ‘Well, at least our research doesn’t kill farmworkers!’ The economists, ever their own, shouted back, ‘When was the last time you lot published in Mathematica?!’

“Time passes, the College publicized its ever-so socially and environmentally responsible initiatives, including—no joke here—its Smallholder Land Access Program (SLAP). With these diddles as the front-door, the College repositioned itself to continue its back-door research in genetic engineering, agricultural biotechnology, pharming and the like. A win-win for College banditti. . .”

“Thornton. . .,” Dick cautioned. “My dear boys, believe me, you can’t make this up! So,” Thornton pressed, “TIT was asked to come through the front-door and sponsor the Dean’s Seminar Series: “What are natural resources?” The idea was a simple one, as you might expect. Ask members of the College’s departments to answer from their own discipline’s perspective.

“Whatever, they expected us to fund the Series, and we did. No, Peter, I brook no criticism. None. You two had to have been there. The sight of any kind of money, well, it was like shining deer at night.

“Now, I found myself at their seminar, ‘What are natural resources? The perspective of a humane biotechnologist.’ Acedia thickens. Four people in the room. I ask the perfectly obvious question, absolutely no malice intended, so I put forward, with the obligatory preamble of not being a scientist, correct me if I’m wrong, etcetera: ‘. . .but let me ask you this, just what is natural about agricultural biotechnology?’ I mean, it is the title of the seminar. The presenter was gobsmacked—had I cursed?—and responded: ‘But. . .what’s more natural than a gene?’

“I was unnerved. Enough said. I knew then and there these people needed surveilling.

“So, when out of nowhere, the university president taps me to chair a very hush-hush committee on the scandal involving CARE’s new dean, I accepted posthaste. The president needed, how to say, a man of singular disposition to make sense of the unholy mess into which the dean had gotten himself and the College.

“I now introduce CARE’s Dean Pitt Maxwell. You may have met him when you were there, Peter. He was a senior faculty member—from one of those prairies that still calls itself a state. Before becoming dean he had held The University Walters’ Grapefruit Chair in Anti-Communist Political Economy.”

Peter snapped his fingers: “Not the Max?” “The very one.” Peter rushed on, “His first proposal as dean—right?—was to privatize the College’s entire agricultural extension faculty into ‘the second generation e-business solution’ at—omigod—”

Distaste flashed across Thornton. “Where to start? During CARE’s reorganization wars, the earlier dean tried to create a new Department of Social Studies by merging College faculty for park and nutritional sociology with CARE’s existing department of economics. It had only been Maxwell’s abrasiveness that saved the latter. ‘You can’t do that,’ he stormed. ‘They’re economists, for Christ’s sake, not social scientists. . .’”

Thornton paused. “Actually, one of his award-winning articles argues that the solution to the lack of government transparency is to auction off government’s right to tax. That way, there’d be little left for government to be transparent about. To this man, it is transparency this, transparency that—Maxwell said it so often it was the surest sign that here was one, very bored man. I mean, I do have my own defects, but his transparency, this bubble of thin consommé and straight gin? Never!”

To be continued as it hasn’t ended

In praise of new bottles for old wine

–At some point in their careers, people are struck by the same-old same-old. New problems turn out to be the old ones for which new terms—jargon? fads?—have been (re)invented.

The point I make below is that even if new bottles for old wine, that bottling is necessary for those pushing complex policy, management and politics further. What is jargon, after all, but terms that prematurely cease to go far enough, at least for you?

–My perspective on being a policy analyst and researcher is, I believe, unexceptional in three ways that hold for other careers as well:

  • I work from within pre-existing structures (language, organizations, networks, the hardwired brain, my profession. . .) that I did not create;
  • My perspective on these structures, however, is not wholly determined by them, since I and others are also products of contingencies (accidents, luck, happenstance, conjunctures, chance); and
  • Our perspectives do matter, but differently. Some bear witness to that which they cannot change; some criticize and critique conditions that must be changed; some provide longer-term alternatives to work toward, even if shorter-term interventions prove infeasible.

That no one avoids his or her times and contingencies would be a banal observation, were it not each generation having to discover the fact as its own.

–What bothers me, though, is the dismissiveness typically attached to that term, “new bottles.” In contrast, my experience has been that new terminology and concepts are essential when it comes to some of the unidentified perspectives in the third bullet. Unlike those listed there, my field aims for far more effective short-term interventions to what looks intractable now.

New bottles for the old wine are essential in at least two ways. First, common terms are useful when taking on new or more nuanced meaning(s): When I use “risk,” I am not subscribing to the ISO 31000 definition; when I use “contingency,” I do not mean the way, say, Louis Althusser positioned it; when I call for “humility,” I mean to include a vigilance others do not single out; by “ignorance” I mean not just an engineer’s unstudied conditions, but also a philosopher’s unstudiable ones.

Second and far more significant, new or more nuanced terms specify a greater level of detail with respect to what matters, now. I use “policy palimpsest” instead of its seeming synonyms—“language games,” “discourse systems,” or “dispositif”—because a policy palimpsest is always with respect to a specific policy or management issue or complex of issues, e.g., failed states, and at a level of granularity and detail that matter for changing the issue(s) now, and not just later.

Of course, the other strategies of bearing witness, permanent critique, and long-term planning remain valid. The point is that they are not the only ones. Even when classic theories—Marxist, structuralist, post-structuralist, more—get us a good distance along, they fall short of where policymakers and practitioners are to go, case by case.

America’s and Trump’s

We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians. Massimo D’Azeglio at the dawn of Italian unification, 1860

The artist as the created; Mona Lisa’s Leonardo, Beatrice’s Dante. Curious concept. Guy Davenport in a letter to Hugh Kenner, 1963

America’s Americans? Trump’s Trump?

“Satan’s Milton” prompted William Blake, poet and illustrator, to write that John Milton was of the Devil’s party anyway, irrespective of his Satan in Paradise Lost. Many people are so used to thinking of the Devil as a systematically misleading expression—a noun with no literal referent—that we forget the “Devil’s party” exists in the same way “America’s” or “Trump’s” exist as a network of narratives or, better yet, a networked palimpsest of overwritten narratives for those who take their purchase from them.

If I talk about “Gatsby’s F. Scott Fitzgerald,” I could be saying Fitzgerald’s creation is based in good part on Fitzgerald himself. Or, if I talk about “the fairytale’s teller,” I might be noting how the shared structure of fairytales sets the course for their telling.

Or, if I am talking about Satan’s Milton, I might hypothesize that the poet worked out his own theology in greater detail by having to think about and dictate that Satan into Paradise Lost. In fact, it is unexceptional to argue that context makes the person and the person the context: Join a bullshitting organization and you become a reinforcing bullshitter. Take active part in a bullshitting nation and, surprise, not only are its leaders bullshitters.

All of that, again, is known or tacitly appreciated. What I want to explore is something more complicated and accordingly more open-ended.

To what extent has our composite creation, this networked palimpsest called “America,” or for that matter our composite narrative called “Trump,” ended up creating openings for those who identify as Americans or as Trump to rewrite themselves in more specific terms?

Just as the point of “an average man’s man” is that it’s not just men being talking about and that no individual ever matches a demographic mean, so too America’s Americans and Trump’s Trump are more ideographic because the overarching narratives and palimpsest are more complex than assumed.

How so? Undertake a thought experiment (the idea for which comes from another letter of Davenport’s to Kenner).

Imagine two parallel worlds so alike that they would have been the same, were it not for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. One world has the line, “I am thy father’s spirit;” the other instead has, “Ich bin dein Papas Spook.” The former world does not know of the latter; nor does the latter world know the former’s line. Both readings and their respective commentaries, however, lurk as possible, because Hamlet is complex enough as a text to accommodate both—and more for that matter.

By extension, to say we live in a world of “Papa’s Spook” than of “spirit” is true only as far as it goes. It’s only good enough when we push our re-readings further.

For example, it is little recorded that some early English colonists to America either ran away to live with Native Americans or refused to return from captivity when given the chance. As one early writer put it, reluctant colonists enjoyed the “most perfect freedom, the ease of living, [and] the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes which so often prevail upon us”. Native American practices were also adopted by other colonists who remained firmly in the Western tradition. Famously, an early French Jesuit found Native American customs “afforded me illumination the more easily to understand and explain several matters found in ancient authors”.

Just imagine the entire lot of colonists ran away to live with Native Americans, once realizing that better practices had already been found and that colonization was a ghastly prospect by comparison. Now that’s a counterfactual worth more re-readings!

Principal sources

Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner. Edited by Edward M. Burns, 2 volumes (Counterpoint, Berkeley, CA; 2018).

Spicer, A. (2020). “Playing the bullshit game: How empty and misleading communication takes over organizations.” Organization Theory 1: 1-26.

Government regulation

–Here’s my starting point on government regulation (from our 2016 Reliability and Risk):

. . .as long as infrastructure regulation is equated with what regulators do, society will have a very myopic understanding of how regulation functions for critical infrastructures. The regulation of infrastructures is not just what the regulators do; it is also what the infrastructures do in ways that their regulator of record could never do on its own.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, it is not a criticism of regulators to say they never have the same timely information as do those operating the critical infrastructures being regulated. It’s a statement of the obvious cast as a negative. Restate the obvious, but now as a positive: those who have the real- time information must fulfill regulatory functions that the official regulator cannot fulfill. How well they are fulfilling the regulatory functions depends on (1) the skills in real-time risk management of their reliability professionals and (2) where those professionals are located, which for our purposes means the infrastructure control rooms and their respective support units.

From our perspective, it makes little sense for critics to conclude that regulators are failing because formal regulations are not being complied with, if the infrastructures are managing in a highly reliable fashion and would not be doing so if they followed those regulations to the letter.

To summarize, of course regulations, once published, need to be altered in light of emerging better practice; otherwise, they’d be a wheelbarrow without handles, hardly fit for purpose.

–Several inter-related points follow, I believe:

  • The regulator of record ideally searches for those (emerging) practices that enable infrastructure control rooms to avoid moving into their respective precursor zones of potential failure or, if already there, exiting these zones quickly and safely. In this way, regulators of record are the guardians of real-time operational redesign and learning from setbacks in control room reliability management. The specific mandate of the regulator of record here would be to mitigate the need for prolonged just-for-now performance of the regulated infrastructure.
  • The twofold nature of regulating for high reliability becomes clearer from the perspective of the regulated infrastructure: (1) To what extent does regulation by the regulator increase control operator options and reduce volatility for the critical infrastructure and (2) to what extent is any regulation of that regulator, which inadvertently reduces operational options or increases real-time volatility for the control rooms, corrected by the regulator of record as soon as possible?
  • There is not just the risk of regulatory non-compliance by the infrastructure, there is also the infrastructure’s risk of compliance with defective regulations. That importance of time from discovery to correction of error reinforces a process of dispersed regulatory functions: Unless otherwise proven, the shorter the better. A shorter time to error discovery has the advantage of discovering errors that would have propagated into much larger ones if left uncorrected.
  • In all the talk about the need for systemic risk regulation (e.g., macroprudential regulation of the financial services sector), few seem to have understood that the larger and more complex the critical infrastructure to be regulated, the less the management of known or expected risk will take center attention in that regulation. Management attention will unavoidably be consumed by trying to address the new surprises and unknown unknowns well outside frequency distributions and worst-case scenarios that come with increased system complexity. Indeed, to equate system uncertainties with “systemic risk” is a disaster to forestall rather than inadvertently hasten by the regulator of record.
  • Inter-regulatory activities might be better directed to identifying and ensuring the efficacy of better practices and regulations that prevent cross-infrastructure failure cascades, especially in cases where (1) each infrastructure’s reliability management cannot prevent being pulled into its respective precursor zone of potential failure, but where (2) the infrastructures must manage together so as not to be pulled across their respective edges into joint, interconnected conditions of few options and high task volatility.

Note the issue here is about the regulator knowing specifics about the real-time systemwide management by the infrastructure regulated. The truism that the regulator of record can never be on top of all that the regulated infrastructure does is, as a criticism, rather wide of the mark.

–All that said, an open question remains: What are the jointly shared standards of reliability, if any, to be managed to (and regulated for) when it comes to shared control variables?

It is easy enough to imagine one infrastructure’s precluded events standard conflicting with another infrastructure’s avoided event’s standard, both of which are interconnected in real time by shared control variables: Emergency water releases from dams in order to prevent their breaching (a precluded event) threaten reliability mandates downriver for levees, water supplies, hydropower, and waterway shipping, which can only seek to better avoid consequences of releases it can’t prevent. High reliability management with respect to shared, interinfrastructural control variables remains a very important research topic for regulators as well.

While that question cannot be answered a priori and must be settled case-by-case, our framework suggests it would be better that joint field inspections (by infrastructures and by their regulators) be directed, as a matter of priority, to those sites where the chokepoints of individual infrastructures are collocated.

The irony of it all

–I can’t quote them because Heidegger was a Nazi, Pound a Fascist, Sartre a Maoist, Eliot an anti-Semite. I don’t read Foucault because he didn’t care if he infected guys and I don’t read that mystery writer because she’s a convicted killer. I don’t go to baseball games because of the players’ strike way back when and I refuse to watch that man’s films because he’s said to have messed with his own kid.

I don’t buy Nike because of the sweatshops, listen to Wagner because he was a Jew-hater, or have a TV because it makes children violent. I can’t eat tofu because of genetically modified soybeans or cheese because of genetically modified bacteria. I don’t listen to Sinatra because he was a nasty little man or Swarzkopf because she was a collaborator. The U.S. government’s been screwed since Johnson and the Great Society (no, since FDR and the welfare state (no, since Lincoln and the Civil War (no, since Jackson and the Trail of Tears (no, since Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase (no, since Washington and his plantation slaves…)))).

I don’t trust Freud because he didn’t understand women, Klein because she couldn’t get along with her own daughter, Bettelheim because he’s said to have hit kids, or Laing because he too wasn’t nice. I think we were never further away from nuclear war than during the Cuban Missile Crisis (only afterwards did Brezhnev insist on nuclear parity). Plus it’s a good thing Japan has lost decades of economic growth or they’d’ve been re-armed by now. I do wish Jodie had come out like Martina did. (Do you really think Jesus worried about who licked what where?)

From time to time, I’ve wondered if Socrates could go to heaven. Speaking of which, why is Adam painted with a belly button, where in the Bible is the turkey that keeps showing up in those pictures of Eden and at Noah’s Ark, and for that matter why do shadows first show up in early Western art only? Dying means my total annihilation into endless nothingness: Too bad for eternity, I say—it doesn’t know what it’s missing. Still, little gives me quite the exquisite pleasure as knowing my secrets and shadow die with me.

Which makes me wonder: Other than the streets, where do squirrels go to die? And whatever happened to pineapple upside down cake and Saturday drives? I also have to wonder, did Wittgenstein read Rabelais: “Utterances are meaningful not by their nature, but by choice”? Can there be anything more mind-numbing than a sentence beginning, “In hunting-and-gathering societies. . .”? And just who did say, Freedom is the recognition of necessity (Hegel, Engels, Lenin, who)? E Pluribus Unum: Isn’t that Latin for “Follow the dollar”?

Whatever, every morning I wake up and thank heaven I wasn’t born a minority in this country. If I had a magic wand, I’d solve America’s race problem by giving everybody a master’s degree. I’d also make sure they’d be white, married, professionally employed, and own their homes. (BTW, every person in China should have a car; with all that ingenuity they’d have to come up with a solution to vehicle pollution.) But then again, I’m quite willing to say that the entire point of human evolution is there hasn’t been any worth speaking of. As for the rest, I suppurate with unease. It’s probably—possibly, plausibly?—wise not to think too much about these things. . .

Don’t you think?

–If you do think about it, irony is not what we know. It’s more a knowingness than knowledge. Or, if you want, irony is the side of unknowledge we think we see. As when people are more wont to quote Wittgenstein’s point that death is not an event in life than they are to quote Rilke about death being the part of life turned away from us.

To-do’s in the Anthropocene

–Let’s insist the Anthropocene’s rotten core is modernity—international capital, American consumerism, global urbanization, The Enlightenment Project—while in the same breadth insist all this is best described in the very terms of modernity: Anything and everything is at risk; all thinkable risks are premonitory; any can be catastrophic. Ensure this free-floating anxiety has no closure, nothing prevents the proliferation of worst-case scenarios, the dose makes the poison, how then to plan…

Oops, did I write, “plan”? Since when are epochs a planning horizon for anything? And here you thought policy and management in the Holocene were difficult!

–Economists will have to give up their discounting the future into present value terms, as the future is Anthropocene shockSHOCKs. Engineers and ecologists push resilience and adaptive capacity, as if bouncing back or forward is optimal over a longue durée that by definition can’t be optimized. Our predictions—and we do insist on previsioning!—will be as effective as predicting the next poem from the poet’s body of work.

We’ll look back at “progress” relegated to the scare quotes of always-late capitalism as the easiest thing humans did in the Anthropocene. At the same time, a slurry of alarmism fills the vacuum left behind by lack of remedy-and-implementation at a level of granularity that global and planetary explications of cause-and-effect do not have. Consequently, unfold any old postlapsarian analogy, write ad lib, and then declare or confirm a crisis.

–The crux is this: The long-term and the planetary are deployed so as to nail home the centrality of interconnectivity. Everything is connected with everything else—without however acknowledging this must also mean nothing is completely reducible to anything else. Relations stop nowhere, novelist Henry James put it, but they are still discernible relations. We can’t ignore irreducible particularity just as we cannot ignore interrelatedness. The burden of proof, however, is on the universal interconnectionists to detail why and how and in what forms this particularity—and its allied notions of “case” and “context”—arise and endure.

It’s truer for you to say that in this complex of particularity and interconnectivity the only point at which you really know you’re in a crisis is at the end. Is this too late? Not when—remember complexity?—many major decisions can’t help but take a long time coming and then end up made only suddenly at that.

–What to do at sea in the Anthropocene? We recast how we think about the complexities.

First, we need to de-dramatize the untraceably-thin disaster-mongering going on, call out the chop-logic of global crises scripted solely through analogy, rake away the catchpenny phrases and inlay rhetoric, and resist the cretinism and outright weirdery that come with. . .what? Believing the truly valid way forward is planetary over an epoch?

In other words, specifics matter more than ever.

Below I consolidate points made elsewhere in this blog on the blast-power that comes with a more granular focus on real-time operations of key critical infrastructures within a regional context—especially if your concern is as environmental as those that drive the Anthropocene:

  • Granular because risk and uncertainty are always with-respect-to specific failure or accident scenarios—and the devil is in the details of the scenarios;
  • Real-time operations because the measure of effectiveness is to manage effectively now, not over the Anthropocene;
  • Operations of key infrastructures because the reliability and safety of these large socio-technical systems—think critical energy and water supplies—are not only vital to society, right now as you read these words, but are often based in ecosystem services mandated for restoration or sustainability; and
  • Within a regional context because Global Climate Change modeling and other types of environmental modeling accept the region, as the unit of analysis for near-term planning and risk management. (High-resolution models using LIDAR data and other GIS approaches already exist that provide climate-related flooding and wildfire information useful for critical infrastructures when it comes to their nearer-term cycles, e.g., for investment and depreciation purposes.)

To conclude, we make ourselves ridiculous when doing otherwise, and being ridiculous is radically beside the point in the Anthropocene.