The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Monday, November 21, 2022

COP27: The Reasons for a Failure


The COP27, in itself, wouldn't deserve a comment. It is over, and that's it -- been there, done that, and nobody cared. But I think it is a good occasion to reproduce this text by Stuart B. Hill that nicely explains why we make mistakes all the time when trying to manage complex systems. The COP27, indeed, has been a good example of the concept of "pulling the levers in the wrong direction" as Jay Forrester, the creator of System Dynamics, explained to us. So, here it is. h/t Thorsten Daubenfeld. 

10 Common ‘Mistakes’ to Avoid, & ‘Needs’ to Meet, When Seeking to Create

 a Better World – Prof Stuart B Hill – 2008 (updated Dec 2012)


Because of the holistic nature of the approach being advocated, all of the areas below overlap & are highly interactive & interrelated. This was written in response to the Commonwealth Government’s announcement of the Australia 2020 Summit in Canberra, ACT (19-20 April, 2008:; downloadable as a PowerPoint presentation from: 


1.    Getting the usual ‘experts’ (mostly older males) together to talk & plan 

-       always leads to tinkering with existing (flawed) plans – [‘rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic’]; & being trapped in dominant paradigms

-       excludes most, including those affected by such plans & their ‘fresh’ ideas



-       involve mostly ‘different’ people, including (if possible) those most affected

-       start by focusing not on plans, but on values, beliefs, worldviews & paradigms 

-       then feelings & passions

-       then, emergent from these, hopes, dreams, visions, imaginings, & creative thoughts

-       only then can ‘design/redesign-based plans’ be enabled to emerge (these proactively enable systems [structures & processes] to meet long-term to short-term, & broad to specific, goals, & to make systems as ‘problem-proof’ as possible)

-       then critically analyse, integrate, & flesh these out, etc

-       detail participatory opportunities, responsibilities, time lines, resource & support needs, means for monitoring outcomes (feedback), tracking progress, & for ongoing redesigning & fine tuning


2.     Emphasising enemy-oriented, problem-solving approaches (back-end, reactive/responsive, curative) 

 -   these tend to focus on symptom management & neglect the need to address the underlying maldesign & mismanagement roots of all problems [trying to make systems work that can never work!] 

-    they typically over-focus on measuring problems (a main strategy for postponing action - by those who benefit from the status quo),

-    & they usually focus on efficiency & substitution strategies, e.g., improved application of pesticide & on finding less disruptive (but still purchased) substitutes, such as biological controls & genetically modified organisms

-       same story in other areas: medicine, energy, etc  



-       redesign existing systems (& design new systems) to make them as problem-proof as possible; & to support the effectiveness of natural controls

-       & to enable effective change from flawed/defective systems to significantly more improved (sustainable, wellbeing enabling) ones


3.    Getting stuck in activities ‘pathologically’ designed to postpone (feared) change 

-       particularly measuring problems (‘monitoring our extinction’)

-       endless over-collection of data (often ‘justified’ by arguments for ‘evidence-based [vs. responsible] approaches’)

-       hearings, committee meetings, report-writing, etc. [appointment to such committees may be designed to limit one’s influence]

-       most such preoccupations have NO follow-through, & usually only lead to more of the same



-       postponing ‘pathologies’ must be recognised, exposed, contradicted & addressed; by taking responsible, timely, appropriate, collaborative action 

-       access to relevant data is needed to make responsible decisions; however, adequate data are often already available from other places, in other languages etc. 

-       globally, billions of dollars are wasted annually unnecessarily repeating studies in new locations or with mischievous intentions (often related to perceived threats to existing commercial & power advantages)


4.     Trying to solve problems within the disciplines or areas responsible for creating them; or with multidisciplinary teams of selected experts/authorities from favoured disciplines, with others excluded



-       genuine transdisciplinary, trans-competency & multi-experience teams, able to access disciplinary & specialised knowledge as needed

-       include competencies relating to holistic approaches to design, sustainability, wellbeing, meaning & effective change processes


5.    Patriarchal (them doing things to/for us, & us doing things to/for them) & ‘driven’ do-good approaches are rarely exactly what is needed 

-       these are generally not embraced by those being ‘helped’, or are not sustained after the helpers leave

-       also, they invariably have diverse negative unexpected consequences



-       inclusion of those most affected by proposed ‘improvements’; as primary collaborators in all change processes; & from beginning to end

-       enables ownership, relevance, achievability, ongoing improvement & openness to unforseen/surprise benefits


6.    Planning ‘Olympic/mega-scale’, heroic initiatives (from hearings to projects; talk to action) with no follow-through or provision for ongoing support (this needs to be more than just funding)

-       these invariably only reach the analysis, planning & preliminary stages; & then are abandoned

-       most have unforseen numerous long-term & widespread harmful side-effects (personal, social, ecological, etc.)



-       diverse, mutually supportive, doable initiatives that have long-term commitment & support

-       consideration of opportunities for ongoing improvement & learning our ways forward collaboratively towards improved futures


7.     Over-focus on knowledge & data, & neglect of wisdom & experience (most ‘wisdom’ cannot be supported by data; it involves working with the ‘unknown’ – this is most of what is – not just the limited ‘known’ –  often in ways that rely on intuition, ‘right brain’ & gut feelings, etc.)



-       to be much better at recognising, valuing & involving the wisest & most experienced in our society, & not so obsessed with ‘cleverness’ (whereas wisdom enables us to work with the ‘unknown’ & ‘know’, cleverness is limited to working with the miniscule ‘known’)


8.    Over-focus on ‘productivity’, profit, power & quick dramatic results

-       predictably leads to burn-out, only short-term, limited benefits, & often unexpected disbenefits (additional problems that are often initially unrecognised)



-       much more focus on rehabilitation &‘maintenance’ activities [sustainable ‘productivity’ is a by-product of this]

-       caring for one another (& other species & the environment)

-       spontaneous (vs. distractive & compensatory) celebration – helps validate & spread good ideas & initiatives

-       venting feelings, & access to support for ‘healing’ our (often denied) psychological wounding, etc.

-       prioritise time & resources for these activities

-       realising that sustained productivity is emergent from the effective design & maintenance of whole healthy systems


9.    Homogenisation tendencies

-       these tend to result in construction of currently favoured ‘norms’ (for people, structures, processes, etc.)

-       failure to consider diversity & ‘alternatives’

-       creation of favoured in-groups & excluded out-groups

-       also, other expressions of inclusion, exclusion & blaming

-       failure to benefit from the creativity that resides at the margins & in the borderlands of society



-       openness to appreciation of the value of heterogeneity & ‘functional’ diversity within all systems, with its opportunities for synergy, mutualism…

-       lateral & paradoxical thinking & acting

-       extension beyond the usual competencies

-       relevance to core needs & possibilities (plus, ‘Testing Questions’ & ‘Integrator Indicators’ for these]

-       a sense of inclusion, ownership, & a sense of place, etc.


10.   Neglect of the arts, or only token involvement

-       over-focus on economic (not psycho-social) growth, the sciences, technologies, business, politics, the professions, the media, & the other major powerful institutions within our society 

-       as a result, the arts are poorly supported, regarded as a luxury or optional extra, an afterthought, or even irrelevant



-       recognition of the arts, in its broadest sense (including humour), as being an essential part of both the foundation & means for implementation of all efforts to achieve genuine & sustainable improvement



Emeritus Professor Stuart B. Hill | Foundation Chair of Social Ecology – Mobile: +61 (0)400 081 440

School of Education, Western Sydney University (Kingswood Campus); Locked Bag 1797, PENRITH, NSW 2751, AUSTRALIA; Location: Building KI, Room K-2-19A, Kingswood Campus; P: +61 (0)2 4736-0799 | Ext: 2799 (Kingswood staff only) | Fax: -0400; Email: | Web:

Founding Co-Editor, Journal of Organic Systems:; Latest PPTs: &

Latest YouTubes:;;; &


My latest books are Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action (with Dr Martin Mulligan; Cambridge UP, 2001), Learning for Sustainable Living: Psychology of Ecological Transformation (with Dr Werner Sattmann-Frese; Lulu, 2008) and Social Ecology: Applying Ecological Understanding to our Lives and our Planet (with Dr David Wright and Dr Catherine Camden-Pratt; Hawthorn, 2011).


  1. How is it possible to respect all of these profoundly valid considerations?
    We have all attended meetings where not even every person got to speak once, listening was poor, and nothing was accomplished.
    We are not exempted from this task.
    Time is short, and there is power struggle at all levels, so there is gridlock in the existing power-structures, while rival power structures are being formed.
    The existing power structures are paralyzed and the rival structures are actively incorporating changes to imporve group consensus in the risky undertaking.
    My read of history, and I may be wrong, is that the parasitic inefficiencies of the current $US global financial system are irreperable, and the system will collapse.
    The $US system was more efficient when it was new, and all interests had been recently considered. Global financial regimes don't last too long in history,
    Efficiency tends to be higher in the replacemant system, which helps drive the change.
    Those in power in the existing system must accept large losses, which are distributed as gains to shareholders of the new system, reimbursing the risks and losses they face in investing in the new system. Debt under the old system may be repudiated, for instance.
    I am curious as to what the negotiations have been and still are in the BRICS+ system. There is a long line to join, and not merely debtor-nations.

  2. Everybody going to one of these conventions of status hopes for success. It goes along with and complements their private wishes for social advancement. Which all attendees have. Any ideas of failure are pushed aside by an infectious crowd optimism, making failure guaranteed.

    In these meetings the focus is on status, not solving problems. These suggestions restore the focus onto the problems to be solved. A problem solving recipe.

    These ideas could be implemented by a group of expert organizers. But rules of meetings like a COP favor money and suits, and those meeting rules don't get decided at a COP, any more than the rules of football are decided at the world cup.

    On the international stage a philosopher king could get a meeting going following these precepts, and it is too bad we don't have any!

    1. Your solution fails on the first hurdle: "A philosopher king" is likely to be an older male (and probably straight, western and white!) - see point 1 above!

    2. in the modern era, we are right to ask, “But where are the Stoic women? Surely this is not only a philosophy only for and by men.” The Stoics believed this philosophy transcended any individual human being or society with it being based on the universal principles of life. Musonius Rufus—Epictetus’s teacher—was the most vocal on the matter: “It is not men alone who possess eagerness and a natural inclination towards virtue, but women also. Women are pleased no less than men by noble and just deeds, and reject the opposite of such actions. Since that is so, why is it appropriate for men to seek out and examine how they might live well, that is, to practise philosophy, but not women?“

    3. You are anonymous, I don't know what your pronoun is. A philosopher king or a philosopher queen as you wish.

      But normal English language usage takes my meaning to include both men and women if you are egalitarian at heart. Only a died in the wool chauvinist and true misogynist would take my meaning to include only men.

      I guess that would be you is the logical conclusion, Mr. Troll.

      As in elementary dear Watson.

  3. Hello Ugo and commentariat,
    On the topic of making decisions, I recommend the book "Holistic Management" by Alan Savory, and the method of working with complex systems that is described therein. It was developed to manage farms, but the principles I think are useful for any complex endeavor.
    It has been helpful to me, and could be useful also for this kind of challenges, both on the global scene and on the local scale.

  4. "10 Common ‘Mistakes’ ..... When Seeking to Create a Better World ..."

    1. Thinking an individual, a group or a nation are tasked by god to create a better World
    3.Thinking if that individual, group or nation leave the World alone, skies will be falling down
    4. Thinking the better World should be planned for - beforehand - centrally like how the Politburo of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union kept planning and planning for that miserable union - until collapsed
    5. Thinking the status quo of the World today has not been planned for - being THE intended better World - talked and thought about since 1860s' Jevons
    6. Thinking the state of affair in the world today can improve (i.e. Iraq will come to stability soon, war in Syria will stop soon, war in Yemen will stop soon, war in Ukraine will stop soon, war in Libya will stop soon, etc)
    7. Thinking a better World wouldn't require many folds more and cheaper fossil resources - regardless of being finite and severely depleting - traded as if looted - often sourced from war-torn nations...
    8. Thinking a better World is good - discounting on current reality - the busiest industry today is actually weapon-manufacturing - worldwide - working very hard 24/7 on a better World
    9. Thinking a better World is better for all - except war-torn nations, even if half of the world or more - becomes war-torn
    10. Thinking a fossil resources-run Thinking...

    "In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most.
    No energy store holds enough energy to extract an amount of energy equal to the total energy it stores.
    No system of energy can produce sum useful energy in excess of the total energy put into constructing it.
    This universal truth applies to all systems.
    Energy, like time, flows from past to future".