Ecologists and environmentalists I’ve worked with by and large insist that more things can go straight-out, hair-raisingly wrong than they can go right. It is easier to mismanage an ecosystem than it is to manage it. Ecosystem collapse is more certain than ecosystem sustainability; negative externalities are to be expected, positive ones not. Nature on its own is too complex to control, but our mismanagement of nature unleashes forces we ourselves cannot control. Probabilities of large system failure and cascades are primed to flip to 1.0 in no time flat. Next means worse.

We must manage the planet’s resources better, but no one can expect technology to help us do so. Economic growth is never a sufficient condition for improving the environment, while economic growth’s irreversible impacts on the environment are always a sufficient condition for precaution—except when failure is not an option! So much is uncertain that anything is possible, and “thus” everything must be at risk. Whatever humans touch they make worse, this Barry Commoner’s Third Law of Ecology.

Let’s call my colleagues’ standpoint, Next-Is-Worse.

This—realism, manifold anxiety, existential panic, dog-whistle alarmism—describes a world certainly not made to my colleagues’ specification. There is no the slightest intimation or whiff of possibility that the decades of environmental advances since the 1960s have been a noble experiment. Nor acknowledgement it’s no surprise that if you spread environmental practice worldwide—plant more trees and such!—you spread tree diseases worldwide, and such.

Not a scintilla of recognition that their specifications to get us to do the right thing by way of the environment pale and wither before the historical record of really-existing humans with real problems in real time who routinely do not follow all orders given them, even in the most totalitarian of regimes (as we now know to have been the case in communist East Germany and China).

So where does their Next-Is-Worse leave me? It no longer surprises me that this standpoint fails to create anything like a shared, collective dread to manage better. It’s also easier for me to understand why “the environmental movement” is itself blamed for failing to stop or otherwise mitigate anthropogenic climate change or species extinction and biodiversity loss. Corporate and economic interests certainly can and do brainwash us into believing things are better than they are environmentally; we don’t need any more evidence to corroborate that! But one can scarcely credit the same interests for having brainwashed my colleagues into believing their version of next-ism.

Loose Ends, #3

–Auguste Comte, sociology’s founder, is reported to have had such an aversion to economics that he tried convincing French officials to establish a chair in the history of science financed by abolishing a chair in economics. Now that’s what economists call a trade-off!

–Large cities are the sites of poverty, pollution, wretched living conditions, racial polarization, miserable health, slums and worse, all sprawling outwards. The minute you move to the other side of the ledger—cities as sites for the demographic transition where poor women lower their birth rates and increase their education and incomes, the historical locus of democratic movements and practices, the source of much art, society, trade and technology, where even shantytown dwellers can have unexpected amounts of purchasing power—ah, then you are accused of distorting reality.

–It is an easy matter to blame China’s politics and policies for the environmental calamities caused by coal-powered electricity generators, industries, and chemical plants there. But the matter cannot be settled without knowing more about the real-time conditions under which middle-level operators and managers in  China are operating these large-scale infrastructures. Are the reliability professionals not there or are they (increasingly?) there, but (still) operating under ever more prolonged “just-for-now” conditions? If the latter, this would help explain why Chinese technocrats are so ready to appropriate innovations and technologies that have worked elsewhere: They buy more time.

–Have I read George Steiner’s final book? Will I be around to read Wittgenstein’s letters to Ben Richards or the first J.D. Salinger in decades?

That said, too much may be taken for granted in asking such questions. What counter-story would be orthogonally different in its taken-for-granted?

One thing would be to recast the past as if it were the present, but without the past’s same givens. It would be to read Hardy’s 1912 poem, “Convergence of the Twain” in light of what followed, but as if it were still part of the news about the sinking of the Titanic the month before. It would be as if my key portal to 19th and 20th century thought were my own lived, real-time thinking about and experience of reading novels of ideas, like Nicholas Mosley’s Hopeful Monsters, Bruce Duffy’s The World As I Found It, or Harry Thompson’s This Thing of Darkness (but without taking for granted child slavery at the time!). It is to see the variety and ironies of today’s “certainly” in this ancient exchange on human contingency:

Stranger: …For the dissimilarities of both human beings and actions, and the never being at rest, so to speak, of any single thing among human things—these do not allow any art whatsoever to proclaim anything simply in any area concerning all things and for all time. We do grant these things, I suppose?

Young Socrates: Certainly.    (From Plato’s Statesman as edited by Brann, Kalkavage and Salem (2012

–The philosopher of science, Roy Bhaskar took pains to stress—and before him the 18th century philosopher of history, Giambattista Vico—that humans know only that which they create—and even then one must wonder just how much even of that they know. The implication is that because we have created it and come to know it, we can’t dispense with it easily or without cost—“it” in this case being the poetry, novels and the humanities generally.

As in: When I see and hear Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Handel’s Theodora and Iva Bittova performing “Es geschah” from Schnittke’s Faust Cantata, I know God and Devil exist. When they stop, all bets are off.

–“Failure to thrive.” When I heard this from my mother’s doctor, I realized it was a warning to my mother but a threat to me. It was as if the doctor were saying to my mother: Well, from here on out it’s all up to you when you go through that final stop ahead! For me, the threat behind the last stop was made clear: What was I going to do about this?

–I just read a wonderfully provocative point (James Althucher, “To Stay Sane in an Age of Broken Politics, Admit What You Don ’t Know,” online at Quillette):

“Or just don’t vote. If a critical mass of people ‘vote’ by living a good life, others will follow their example. In which case, many of the laws and rules we argue about won’t be needed anyway”.

Now, the obvious question: Under what conditions, if any, would this hold?

One answer, to paraphrase a Bogota major: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.”

Some answers

–Virgil Thomson, the composer, put it that “a good critic does not voice opinions, he describes; if his description is succinct, accurate and imaginative, the opinion will automatically shine through.” What is this (hardwired?) compulsion to evaluate, even in description? Better yet, what is it that I am missing when describing and evaluating with no fall in between?

One thing avoided is the question without an answer to evaluate. When Robert Desnos, the French surrealist poet, says “the questions that I am willing to discuss are all unanswerable,” how would he know an unanswer if he saw it, let alone evaluate it as such? When poet, Dylan Thomas asks, “What is the metre of the dictionary?/The size of genesis? the short spark’s gender?/Shade without shape? the shape of the Pharaoh’s echo?,” why would any answer be wrong, even were none evaluated? If there is a lapse between describing and evaluating, it would be as if we are delaying completion in the sense of an answer completing a question. But what is in between incomplete and completion? “Rehearsals”? But what if it’s only ever rehearsals, as in: Weather never really starts?

–The Russian playwright, Anton Chekhov, wrote to a correspondent, “you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author. There’s not a single question answered in Anna Karenina or Eugene Onegin, but they are still fully satisfying works because the questions they raise are all formulated correctly.”

Which is a good thing for a people who get satisfaction in rehearsing small answers to perplex the Big Questions. “Whose asking?” shot back philosopher, Sidney Morgenbesser, when pressed to prove the existence of his questioner. “Why is there something rather than nothing?” led Morgenbesser to reply: “If there was nothing you’d still be complaining.”

When the light at the end of the tunnel is the tunnel

–The painter Gérard Fromanger pointed out that a blank canvas is also ‘‘black with everything every painter has painted before me’’. If also, as the painter František Kupka felt, “to abstract is to eliminate,” then stripping away the layers of black-on-black is akin to abstracting blankness. Yet how do many react when confronting opaque policy canvasses? Let’s sweep the table clear, make a clean slate, start all over again! Few see these for the dangerous abstractions they are.

–The policy and planning I’m familiar with remain very much that of trying to draw out a narrativized means and ends from the messy contingencies:

  • I can’t be the only one struck by the affinity between those 19th century novels whose plots were driven by coincidence after coincidence all the way to a happy ending and today’s crisis narratives where one mistake after another has led to certain disaster.
  • Just as a traumatic dream represents for Freud an exception to dreaming as wish fulfillment, so too catastrophism represents an exception to thinking further. “For heaven’s sake, stop all the talking! We have to save the planet! Do something!!!” As if thinking and wish fulfillment have been—or could ever be—pushed to the side. This kind of thought-free “do-something-now!” is about as policy relevant as the urgency felt by a 19th century Yankee poet to commemorate a Civil War battle.
  • Planning emerges as a defense mechanism to the real-time struggle between contingency and consequence: We plan in order to avoid having to realize that too often we confront not discrete events with causal consequences but contingencies with disproportionate effects about which we little or no causal understanding.

–To take macroeconomics seriously is to indulge children’s bed-time stories. At one end, after three decades of grounding (down) macroeconomics into microeconomics. are the legion of still-breeding Lord Voldemorts and their trillions in wealth destruction. At the other extreme are the neo-Keynesian Mad Hatters, where the worst possible thing you can do when things get bad is to save for when things go worse and the best possible thing to do is to spend wads of money you don’t have.

Yes, yes, I know: Nations are not the bone-dry wire constructions of “individual household savers and spenders.” But really, aren’t there better stories to tell our people?

Here’s one. If I’m right (see the Poverty and War blog entry below), since economies are complex, we can search for alternative stories anywhere, including from what I’m currently reading.

This afternoon, it’s been Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner. Davenport commends Charles Babbage’s Economy of Manufacturing and Machinery to Kenner, The book even “keeps track, within itself, of its own economy (cost of printing, paper, sales, advertising)” adding: “as if a dollarbill cd report on the role it plays in the total economy as it circulates.”

My counter-story is titled, “Money Talks,” and starts this way: “You don’t know it, but each dollarbill talks and what it talks about is what it does by walking that talk.” Walking the talk, from the perspective of the dollarbill, is about how it passes from hand to different hand, multiplying its uses and impact along the way. The dollarbill reports so many stories, each of which reads differently but all of which sound the same. The pathways walked also talk, and from their view, the dollarbills behind follow the dollarbills ahead, as if those ahead must know what they’re doing. The dollarbills know that the infrastructure needs to be there to produce them and the pathways know that the infrastructure needs to be there so that dollarbills can circulate. The economy, however, doesn’t know any of that; in fact, the economy is stone-dumb, which causes all manner of exploits….

–“Actually-existing capitalism is a catastrophe”? Catastrophism to be about anything has to be about the end, as in: It ends in fire, our institutions explode and burn—or in ice, our institutions seize up, finally and entirely. Always-late capitalism, on the other hand, is about ensuring that things going its way do not end any time soon (i.e., ensuring that in the long run there’s just another short run). You’d be right in saying the engine of always-late capitalism is to generate seriatim uncertainties on which and from which to speculate and make money.

Now, of course, you can insist that this state of affairs just can’t go on forever. As they say: If something can’t go on, it’ll stop. But may I suggest that, since we’ve been in always-late capitalism for so long as it is, we might as well assume it’s more likely what stops first will not be late capitalism but calling it such?

Policy narratives

Assume you find a policy narrative intolerably simplistic. You can rejigger it in three ways: Denarrativize it; provide a counternarrative; and/or offer a metanarrative accommodating a range of different story-lines (arguments), including versions of the simplistic narrative and your preferred counternarrative.

  1. Denarrativize! To denarrativize is to critique the policy narrative, point by key point. The best way to do that is to bring counter evidence to each point the offending narrative holds. To denarrativize is to take the story out of the story, i.e., to disassemble it by contravening its parts. Abundant case evidence exists to call into question the Tragedy of the Commons, for example.
  1. Counternarrativize! The chief limitation of denarrativization in the inability of critique on its own to generate an alternative narrative to replace the discreditable one. In contrast, a counter-story challenges the original by virtue of being a candidate to replace it. Common property resource management is full-fledged counternarrative to the Tragedy of the Commons.
  1. Metanarrativize! A metanarrative is that policy narrative—there is no guarantee there is one, or if so, only one—which the narrator holds in order to understand how multiple and opposing policy narratives are not only possible but consistent with each other. Claims to resource stewardship is a metanarrative shared by policies based in the Tragedy of the Commons as well as in other explanations, including but not limited to common property resource management. That is, a group—the techno-managerial elite, “the community,” the Other—asserts stewardship over resources they do not (altogether) own, because they alone, so the metanarrative goes, are capable of determining and adjudicating where better management holds.

The driver in counternarrative and metanarrative, beyond dissatisfaction with the offending original, is that critique on its own does not underwrite or stabilize decision making, as critiques do not tell their own story. More, by annihilating the original without providing an alternative, uncertainty increases with respect to the policy issue of interest. (Such is why dystopians are so fascinated by ruinous critique—their sense of realism is intensifying all the time!)

The pressure remains, however, to come up with a counternarrative or metanarrative, i.e., scenarios or arguments that people find more convincing, if only case-by-practice-by-case. Suspended somewhere between the always-incomplete pull of utopia and the never-good enough push from dystopia is more like the realism I know and experience.

Happiness: The mess

The psychologist, Daniel Gilbert, said the “problem is that people seem pleased to use this one word [happiness] to indicate a host of different things, which has created a tremendous terminological mess on which several fine scholarly careers have been based”. He added: “If one slops around in this mess long enough, one comes to see that most disagreements about what happiness really is are semantic disagreements about whether the world ought to be used to indicate this or that. . . “.

Let’s think more of happiness as mess. “How can that mess be managed better?” is an important question then, if only because public policy presumably has something to do with making people happy.

Start with the macro-design node for happiness. For years, we have been told that it is a right, or at least the pursuit of happiness is self-evident truth. We’ve also been told that the more income—purchasing power—we have, the happier we will be. Yet the systemwide patterns recognized, our second node of analysis, consistently fall short of these macro-principles. Vast swathes of the world don’t agree on what that right to happiness means. Data showed that, after a point, more income does not mean we become happier. “People in rich countries are generally happier than people in poor countries. But once basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are more or less universally met—high gross domestic product does not seem to make societies happier,” John Kay, Financial Times economist, once put it. When a country passes a threshold level of income, the correlation between the happiness of its people and the nation’s aggregate wealth has been weak, studies found. Worse, affluence can make people unhappier. It was reported that in the US as income doubled or more, yet the percentage of people saying they were very happy remained by and large constant.

Nor do localized scenarios of design principles, our third node of analysis, conform to their originating macro-design assumptions. Specific regions of the world are happy in unprincipled ways, it seems, with (1) Latin American countries registering far more subjective happiness than one would have predicted from their economic status and (2) Africans continuing to be optimistic in the face of documented travails.

This takes us to the last node, the level of individual micro-operator. We were told for years that happiness, like personal utility, was next to impossible to compare with others. Even as social-psychological measures improved for the comparison of interpersonal happiness, strong evidence remained that individuals often are not very good at predicting what will make them happy, or unhappy for that matter.

Almost just as worrisome, the temptation has been to jump from pattern recognition to macro-design bypassing all the mess in between. Since the marginal utility of a dollar is higher from poorer people that for richer, since the gains in happiness are palpably greater among poorer people than losses are among richer people, since more affluence above a point can make people unhappy and since people care a great deal about their relative income, therefore it is better to tax the rich (if simply to contain their unhappy rat race), transfer that money to the poor, and make incomes overall more equal. Since uncertainty, complexity, conflict and incompleteness are the problem, therefore getting rid of them will make us happier, Q.E.D.

Many still believe these syllogisms, but I’d rather first know just what the reliability professionals in the middle of these four nodes are doing about sorting out this happiness mess. Who reliably translates the systemwide patterns and localized scenarios into what we can call happiness or provide those services that lead to that happiness? Typically, the initial answer is family, friends, partners—those immediate social relationships that matter for personal happiness.

The person is not the sole or even primary unit of analysis in the middle, however. There, networks seek to ensure the preconditions for variably-defined happiness across the many levels of a system. We would be closer to the truth to say these networks are found in and around the control centers of large infrastructures for water, energy, transportation, telecommunications and the like. Their reliability professionals are also our wraparound, together and individually. Who would have thought that, as these wraparound services wither in the name of the hollow state, individual happiness reduces to the techno-speak of being one’s own full-time reliability manager!

Surprising climate change

–Am I taking complexity’s chief effect, surprise, too seriously? “The Riddle we can guess/We speedily despise–/Not anything is stale so long/As Yesterday’s surprise–,” Emily Dickinson put it. Even so, each surprise is its own kind of fresh start, isn’t it?

–Surprise start(le)s the possible. For G.L.S. Shackle, British economist, possibility inverts surprise: The larger one’s surprise that something will happen, the less possible it is from the perspective of the person concerned. To ask what would be the biggest surprise in Global Climate Change (GCC) is to ask what would be the most counter-expected or unexpected event with respect to it.

When I ask, I’m told the most surprising eventuality would be things become far worse far faster, but in unimaginable ways. But wouldn’t the total surprise be, namely: Most everyone most everywhere benefits as a result of GCC? This would have to mean more than producing local sites of net benefit, i.e.,  some countries, regions or people benefit in aggregate from climate change, while most do not. Rather, the greatest surprise here would be that “business as usual” in intervening in climate change makes things better for far more people and the planet than currently supposed. The real surprise would be if we managed our way through GCC with no more than the counter-measures already underway or in the pipeline (note: business as usual does not mean do-nothing).

For Shackle, the more surprising, the less possible. How then could such a counter-expected event about GCC even be possible? One such possibility is that the complexity of global climate change—it’s complex because the planet is complex—not only produces surprise, but also unpredictable options and strategies with which to ride the surprise. Luck, as they keep saying, favors the well-prepared. “Luck is not chance–/It’s Toil–/Fortune’s expensive smile/Is earned–” Emily Dickinson also wrote. No guarantees, of course.

–In what sense, though, is GCC that complex? One possible answer is that of well-known philosopher of science, Roy Bhaskar: While the world is real, it is more complexly real than humans with their instruments can cognitively grasp. Should climate change be real in the Bhaskar scientific sense, its reality must as well be more differentiated than uniform, unknowable and not just unknown, more immanent or emergent than fixed, right? In this view (and again it is a possibility only) knowledge isn’t static and it is unrealistic to assume surprise (and so, necessarily, knowledge) is all negative, or even on net, negative.

Against this backdrop, insistent catastrophism over GCC reduces to a permanent critique of a complexly surprising reality: It is permanent because it asserts reality does not have any such possibility and it is critique because no possibility could be anything but negative (or, in aggregate, negative). What then to do, when there is no possibility (meaning no surprises), because it already is a matter of being too little, too late?

But has GCC become sufficiently simple to understand as catastrophism? In complexity, luck is possible everywhere, ranging from the “inevitable” bad luck of climate change contingencies to the “unexpectedly” lucky breaks and happy accidents climate change brings about.

–“Excuse me,” you respond: “What ‘lucky breaks and happy accidents’ are you talking about when it comes to GCC!”

To see how, let’s focus on a recent major review of the published research on the impacts of climate change: Mora et al (2018). “Broad threat to humanity from cumulative climate hazards intensified by greenhouse gas emissions.” Review Article in online Nature Climate Change (

Here is what the article concludes in its main text (full text given): 

“Our assessment of the literature yielded a small number of positive and neutral responses of human systems to climate hazard exposure (reviewed in Supplementary Note 2). We surmise that the reduced number of positive or neutral impacts may be real, but may also reflect a research bias towards the study of detrimental impacts (discussed under Caveats in the Methods). This small set of positive and neutral impacts, however, cannot counterbalance any of the many detrimental impacts that were uncovered in our literature search, particularly when many of these impacts are related to the loss of human lives, basic supplies such as food and water, and undesired states for human welfare such as access to jobs, revenue and security.” (my italics)

Now go to the Caveats section for further details (again, no edits):

“Although our survey of the literature yielded some case examples of adaptations, positive and differential impacts (Supplementary Note 2), these are unlikely to reflect the full scope of the adaptations, opportunities and trade-offs associated with climate hazards. The large array of cases that we uncovered with a systematic literature search on only climatic impacts suggests that a better understanding of those issues (adaptations, positive and differential impacts) will require their own comprehensive analyses.”

The reader’s curiosity, being piqued, will then lead to the Supplementary Note 2, where this passage is found (this lengthy passage of examples edited only for cited references):

“Although the majority of reported impacts were deleterious to humanity, some climate hazards led to beneficial impacts and in other cases no observable responses. Reduction in malaria transmission in Senegal and Niger was attributed to loss of mosquito breeding habitats brought about by drought and habitat loss. Drought and storms occasionally increased nutrient content in surviving crops, whereas drought in neighboring countries increased availability of game animals in Namibia. Drought and natural land cover change were in some cases reported to improve water quality due to decreased nutrient runoff into streams. Warming reduced seasonal affective disorders, and mortality during winters, although the latter is controversial and unlikely to outnumber increases in heat-related mortality. Flood exposure increased social trust, and the likelihood of people to vote. Changes in ocean chemistry altered the distribution of marine organisms increasing availability in certain fisheries. Warmer temperatures have increased tourism flow toward colder destinations in the UK and the Alps. The Alaskan whale watching industry benefited from changes in ocean chemistry leading to changes in whale migration patterns, allowing for longer viewing seasons. Since the 1970s, there has been significant sea ice reduction in the Arctic providing increasingly navigable waters and shortening the shipping distances between ports. There were also cases where changes in climate hazards did not result in observable responses. For instance, societal impacts of floods and storms have not been found to contribute to the onset of civil conflict as changes in other hazards have.”

At this point, step back and undertake a thought experiment. Reverse the order of the passages, so that passage from the supplementary material precedes that from the caveat, both of which in turn are now said to lead to the original conclusion, as follows:

“Although the majority of reported impacts were deleterious to humanity, some climate hazards led to beneficial impacts and in other cases no observable responses. These [case examples] are unlikely to reflect the full scope of the adaptations, opportunities and trade-offs associated with climate hazards. The large array of cases that we uncovered with a systematic literature search on only climatic impacts suggests that a better understanding of those issues (adaptations, positive and differential impacts) will require their own comprehensive analyses. This small set of positive and neutral impacts, however, cannot counter-balance any of the many detrimental impacts that were uncovered in our literature search.

Now it’s my turn to say, “Excuse me?” Where did that “cannot counter-balance any of the many detrimental” come from? Isn’t something lost when reducing the “large array” of case examples to a “small set”? Isn’t the conclusion of the re-ordered passages that the researchers need to do more research—and more comprehensive research at that—before concluding as they did?

–Am I saying this article is representative of climate change meta-analyses? No. Am I saying GCC is a Good Thing? No.

What I am saying is that luck is and will be an important part of GCC response, and for luck to be good, the prepared have to be ready and there. Where then are all those ecologists making the real-time decisions in infrastructure control rooms on whether to open the gate now and save the manatee or shut it and put the other aquatic habitat at risk? Where are all those atmospheric scientists making the real-time decisions in infrastructure control rooms about whether to use this generator or that generator in order to meet prevailing ozone standards on this day and this hour? Where are all those fish biologists making the real-time decisions in infrastructure control rooms to adjust facility temperatures within this or that bandwidth without jeopardizing nearby spawning populations?

How else but managing better in real time are we expected to determine if catastrophism’s too-little-too-late actually holds?