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."

Friday, December 9, 2022

Before the Collapse: a Review


My book, "Before the Collapse," was recently translated into Spanish and published in Spain by Catarata. Here is a recently appeared review by Manuel Garcia Dominguez, Eleonora Arca, Guillermo Aragon Perez and Maria Teresa Lopez Franco that appeared on Nov 24, 2022 on "15-15-15." The English version is available from Springer. Translated from Spanish by Ugo Bardi. 

Why do societies, ecosystems, companies, and friendships collapse? How do we deal with a phenomenon, such as collapse, that is in itself sudden and unexpected? Can collapse be avoided? The recently published book by the chemist and professor at the University of Florence, Ugo Bardi (born in the same city in 1952), revolves around this concern: how to think about collapses and, above all, how to deal with them. The fundamental idea, which will function as the backbone of the book, will be what Seneca said about collapse in one of his letters to Lucilius: "It would be a consolation for our weakness if things could be restored as soon as they are destroyed; but the opposite happens: development is slow and ruin comes quickly" (we give the translation of Francisco Navarro, Epístolas morales de Séneca, Madrid 1884, p. 370).

First, Professor Bardi introduces a way that human beings have of knowing the world and avoiding the collapse of which Seneca speaks: the construction of models that allow us to hypothesize about future scenarios and act accordingly. These models can be relatively accurate, especially when tested empirically; but it is also quite easy for them to be misleading (as in the case of climate change denialism, for example). According to classical research, there are two ways of constructing these models: top-down and bottom-up. The first consists of observing the behavior of a system and building a model on it; while the second involves separating the system into subsystems to study their behavior and, subsequently, building a comprehensive model. Both strategies are fallible, which makes it advisable not to ask more of them than they can provide.

It is clear that models have limitations when it comes to suggesting explanations about the future, but this does not imply that they do not fulfill their function; in fact, we need models that are just good enough to provide us with a basis on which to act; there is no need to look for perfect models.

However, a crucial characteristic of complex systems pointed out by Professor Bardi is their passing through tipping points; in these, systems undergo rapid alterations that are not predictable by our knowledge of their past. Some of the most disturbing tipping points with which we are currently confronted concern climate change ("methane burp" due to thawing permafrost, for example). Public discourse has often ignored these issues, so we have no general clues as to how governments around the globe plan to deal with these phenomena. At play here are a number of cognitive errors and biases that arise when we humans are faced with the uncertainty that the future brings: (1) a representational bias that leads us to judge on the basis of stereotypes, (2) the availability of limited experience, and (3) the anchoring of our judgments to limited data regardless of their significance. In addition, groupthink plays an important role, and often makes people more fallible in their beliefs than they would be individually, by changing their behavior to conform to the group.

The result of this attitude toward climate change and other current problems is the propensity to be overly optimistic and to recklessly dismiss models that would be useful to us. The Florentine chemist develops the basic ideas of the science of complex systems, an approach that brings us closer to understanding their collapse, which will come sooner or later. Indeed, Bardi insists that "collapse is not an error, it is a characteristic feature" of complex systems in the Universe we inhabit (p. 40; the translations we will give from the English original are ours).

Complex systems are entities made up of subsystems that interact with each other in ways that cannot be captured through a single equation, but require more complex models. The essential feature of complex systems is that they are dominated by feedback relationships: in reaction to an external perturbation, complex systems tend to amplify their effects (positive feedback) or mitigate them by stabilizing the system (negative feedback). This phenomenon is inseparable from complex systems as it refers to the "tendency of the elements of a system to influence each other (...). Changes in one element generated by a perturbation will affect the other elements of the system" ( p. 35). This complexity implies the inability to predict the behavior of complex systems in the manner of classical physics, which predicts the motion of its objects with simple equations (think for example of Newtonian gravity). Complex systems "never stand still, they are constantly changing" (p. 33) "because they are alive, in the sense that they are brimming with energy" (p. 34).

Complex systems have attractor states: a particular set of their parameters to which they always tend, a tendency called homeostasis. However, as a result of external perturbations and feedback phenomena, a complex system may reach a tipping point and begin to "shift," and then stabilize in a different attractor. In some cases, this will correspond to a much lower complexity than the previous attractor, in which case we would be faced with a collapse. In fact, Bardi defines the phenomenon of collapse precisely as "a phase transition leading to a state of reduced complexity, typically rapid and abrupt" (p. 34).

This tendency to rapid and abrupt collapse is related to the principle of maximum entropy production (MEP): energy tends to dissipate very quickly, which leads to collapse. This is the result of the networked structure of systems: "in a collapse, each element that starts to move in a certain direction drags other elements with it, and the result is a cascade of effects all going in the same direction" (p. 39). In this way, there seems to be a collusion between the different elements of these systems to produce, in a precipitation of events, the collapse of the interconnected network that constitutes the system. Here we must insist on one of the fundamental ideas of Professor Bardi's book: collapse is not a failure but an intrinsic characteristic of complex systems. Interconnectedness can lead to the collapse of the entire network as a result of the impact of a disturbance on one or some of its nodes. Thus, the development of complex systems often responds to what Professor Bardi calls the Seneca mode (the author has been developing his ideas for years in a fascinating blog called The Seneca Effect): it is an asymmetric process, where growth is slow and decline is very accentuated.

But what if a system actually collapses - is all hope lost? Collapse implies the passage to a state of lower complexity, but not necessarily the absolute destruction of the system in question. Thus, there may still be "life after the cliff": a new growth process after collapse, or what the author calls "the Seneca payback" reflected in the Lokta-Volterra model. This model was designed to explore the relationships between prey and predator populations, but, as Bardi tells us, it can be useful for thinking about the existence of successive cycles of growth and collapse in different types of systems. In fact, this mode of behavior tends to occur more in complex systems such as economic systems, but not so much in natural systems; one of the difficulties for a new growth is the fact that the collapse is often produced by the exhaustion of the resources that had allowed the original growth. What this mode teaches us is that collapse is not final: it may not be an end point.

The rudiments of complex systems science that Bardi develops can help us to think of the state and destiny of our civilization as that of one complex system among many others that may therefore collapse. Clearly, there is a state of affairs that points to this outcome, more serious and continuous in time than natural disasters: climate change and the crisis of energy resources. With regard to the energy crisis, as Bardi says, in the short term "the problem is how to find the necessary financial resources to keep energy production at least as stable (in energy terms) as in the past decade" (p. 128), due, on the one hand, to the lack of demand and, on the other, to the depletion of oil. This type of crisis presents the ideal conditions for wars and concomitant violence, as well as famine, epidemics and depopulation, triggering what Bardi calls a Seneca Crunch: the sum of negative factors that lead to the collapse of a system. This fact highlights the fragility of the playing field on which we move: the availability of resources or the effects of climate change can exert sufficient pressure on the complex systems that are our societies to precipitate us over a Seneca cliff.

ASCII infographic included in the first edition of 'The Limits to Growth' (Standard Scenario).

Is there any doubt that we are currently facing a Seneca-type collapse? According to Orlov, there are five stages of civilizational collapse: (1) financial collapse; (2) commercial collapse; (3) political collapse; (4) social collapse; and (5) cultural collapse. Today, phenomena typical of the financial and commercial collapse of 2008 are evident and we observe some symptoms of the political collapse, such as distrust in the political class or the polarization of society. Thus, with hope as an indispensable tool, the fundamental question we must ask ourselves may be: how do we manage the collapse?

A quick answer to this question is the instinctive solution of many politicians and businessmen to any eco-social problem: "we must fund more research" (p. 178), the paradigm of which is the possibility of generating virtually infinite cheap energy. Although at present such projects, such as nuclear fusion reactors, are still at a very early stage of research, the Florentine author allows himself a certain degree of speculation, considering the possibility of a universal mining machine or of sending pollution into space (with infinite energy no proposal seems too far-fetched). However, Bardi recalls that already in 1972 the classic study The Limits to Growth showed that, even with infinite energy available, the collapse of the world industrial system would eventually happen due to a combination of factors such as overpopulation, resource depletion, and pollution. In short: the problem is not energy, but the presence of unavoidable limits to human development.

To adequately manage collapses in a world with limits, it is necessary to develop a deep understanding of complex systems and also to have achieved a certain balance of power among the relevant actors that guarantees peace. We need, to put it in the words of Donella Meadows, to think systemically (we should congratulate ourselves on the recent publication in Spanish of Meadows' book Thinking in Systems, Captain Swing 2022): the fall off the nearest Seneca cliff and the subsequent impact, which seems to be that of the imminent ecosocial crisis, can only be mitigated by global thinking (and local action) that understands the position of individuals in the earth's ecosystem and allows us to draw up a collective action plan that ensures massive cooperation and puts us at risk.

In short, the homeostasis of the system should not be taken for granted, and only joint action, the fruit of systemic thinking, will serve to mitigate the threatening fall off the Seneca cliff. For Bardi, according to certain historical examples, this action has three requirements: (1) use only abundant resources, (2) use as little as possible, and (3) recycle compulsively (p. 204). Moreover, this strategy also favors the so-called "Seneca rebound," which implies an opportunity to imagine a different structure for the system such as, as Bardi proposes, a circular economy model that revitalizes sustainable agriculture and craftsmanship, rejecting military purposes.

In any case, if Bardi teaches us anything, it is that the future cannot be predicted and that, while we cannot avoid collapse, we can at least try to collapse better. Before the Collapse (a title that suggests a double meaning: before the collapse, yes, but also before the collapse) is a good guide for that journey, and the frequent touches of humor with which the author de-dramatizes his subject of study, in itself - it is not necessary to insist on it - very dramatic, are appreciated.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

What is the Next Thing that Will hit us? Brace for it, Because it may be Huge


Despite having ancient seers (the "haruspices") as ancestors, I don't claim to be able to predict the future. But I think I can propose scenarios for the future. So, what could be the next big thing that will hit us? I suggest it will be the disruption of the oil market caused by the recent measure of a price cap on  Russian oil.

Do you remember how many things changed during the past 2-3 years, and changed so unbelievably fast? There was a pattern in these changes: one element was that we were told they were just temporary, another was that they were done for our sake. We were told that we needed "Two weeks to flatten the curve," and that "the sanctions will cause the Russian economy to collapse in two weeks," and many more things. Then, our problems will be solved and the world will return to normal. But that didn't happen. Instead, the result was a "new normal," not at all like the old one. 

Now, the obvious question is "what next?" More exactly, "what are they going to hit us with, next time?" There is this idea that there may be a new pandemic, a new virus, or the old one returning. But, no. They are smarter than that -- so far they have always been one step, maybe two, ahead of us. They are masters of propaganda, they know that propaganda is all based on memes and that memes have a finite lifetime. Old memes are like old newspapers, they are not interesting anymore. A particular bugaboo can't scare people for too long, and the idea of scaring us with a pandemic virus is past its usefulness stage. They may have probed us with the "monkeypox" pandemic, and they saw that it didn't work. It was obvious anyway. So, now what?

Let me suggest one possible new way to hit us. You may have heard of it but, so far, it was supposed to be something marginal, not designed to create another "new normal." But it may. It is huge, it is gigantic, it is arriving. It is the price cap on Russian oil. The idea is that a cartel of countries, mainly Western ones, will agree on prohibiting the import of Russian oil unless it is priced at less than $60 per barrel. It will also make it more difficult for Russia to export oil abroad, even to countries that do not subscribe to the agreement. 

This idea is, as usual, promoted as a way to help us. Not only it will harm the evil Putin, but it will reduce oil prices, so everyone in the West should be happy. But will it actually work? Unlikely, to say the least, and it is probable that the promoters know that very well. 

Think about that: it never happened during the past hundred years that a cartel of countries had intervened to force a certain oil price worldwide. Even during the "Oil Crisis" of the 1970s, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) never did what it is often accused of having done, fixing a high oil price. OPEC can only set production quotas or sanction certain countries, but it has no power, and never had power, on prices, which are set by the international market. 

When governments meddle with prices, the results are always bad. Typically, prices of goods are set too low, and that has two effects: the rising of a black market and the disappearance of the goods from the official market. It was a typical feature of the Soviet economy, where prices were often set at low levels to give the impression that certain goods were affordable to everyone. But it wasn't so: theoretically, most Soviet citizens could afford caviar sold at government-established prices. In practice, this caviar almost never existed in shops. But, of course, it was possible to find it in the black market if one could pay exorbitant prices for it.

Today, intervening to set a price for Russian oil is equivalent to throwing a wrench into the gears of a huge machine. Nobody knows exactly how the global oil market is going to react. The only sure thing is that the Russians are refusing to sell their oil to countries subscribing to the agreement. The overall result of having removed a major producer from the market can only be one: increasing oil prices. Exactly the opposite of what the price cap is supposed to do. But this is the very minimum that can happen: the effects of the cap are unpredictable on a market that's already unstable and subject to wild price oscillations. Europe might lose access to oil completely, and go dark. Famines have been a staple event in European history, they could come again. Things like that -- not small changes, huge changes. 

Why did the Western countries engage in this apparently counterproductive idea? Well, there may be some method in this madness. I can think of a few possible explanations: 

1. Western Governments are in the hands of idiots who act according to the principle known as "I ran naked into a cactus. Why? Because it looked like a good idea." They put into practice ideas that look good ("harming Putin"), without worrying about the consequences (destroying the European economy). 

2. The price cap has the specific purpose of raising oil prices. It will force consumer countries to switch from the relatively cheap Russian oil to the more expensive American oil, which will become even more expensive in a near-monopoly regime. This will bring huge profits to American producers. Don't forget that the American elites are convinced that the US oil resources are infinite, or nearly so. 

3. The price cap is thought of as a way to save the US tight oil industry. So far, tight oil has been almost a miracle, bringing back the US to a position of dominance among oil producers. But it is now facing difficulties with oil prices declining in the world market. With higher oil prices, Europe will finance a new round of tight oil extraction in the US, while the profits will remain in the US. It sounds diabolical, and maybe it is. Let me add that there may be a reason why the tight oil industry was recently declared "dead" in the mainstream media. Call me a conspiracy theorist, but this article on "" may have had the purpose of scaring the US producers and making them accept the risky measure of forbidding Russian oil from entering the Western market. 

4. There may exist a "hidden force," somewhere, that's acting with a plan at the global level. The plan involves a forced reduction of fossil fuel production and consumption to mitigate the damage generated by global warming or, perhaps more likely, to leave energy for the elites while taking it away from commoners. The recent events, the Covid crisis, and the Russian crisis, both have the effect of impoverishing some of the major consumers of fossil fuels, Western middle-class citizens, and so reducing overall consumption. The price cap on Russian oil may be just the first step of a new plan that will force Westerners to abandon for good their addiction to fossil fuels, whether they like it or not. This may not be a bad idea for several reason, but it is a kind of global medicine equivalent to lobotomy or radical mastectomy for single humans. Let's say, a bit heavy-handed. 

It may be that all four of these factors are at work. In any case, it is a powerful convergence of interests that is materializing, likely to be successful in pushing the cap on Russian oil to worldwide acceptance. Considering how easily European citizens have been led to believe the most absurd things during the past two years, it is unlikely that they will understand what's being done to them (and let me not use the appropriate words for the concept). Not that the American citizens will fare much better: the huge transfer of wealth from Europe to the US will go all into the pockets of the American oligarchs. As for the European governments, they are the structures that should oppose this giant wealth transfer, but they are staffed by traitors, idiots, or both; so they will enthusiastically adhere to the idea. 

Is this what the crystal ball shows? Not necessarily. Let's just say that there are reasons to think that what I just described is a likely scenario. Then, the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley. There is a limit to how hard you can push something before it goes to pieces or bites you back. Will European citizens continue forever to be happy to be economically raped by the US? The future is always full of surprises, but the crystal ball always shows the same thing: the world goes where the money is. 


Friday, December 2, 2022

The Dreary Machine: What we are Becoming


Giorgio Agamben discusses how we are being destroyed by an endless wave of laws, decrees, and regulations encroaching on our living space, and forced upon us by another endless wave of propaganda. The dreary machine in which we are living will eventually destroy itself, but it will take time. Above, a clip from Seven7Lives that seems appropriate as a comment.

The lawful, the obligatory, and the prohibited

28 novembre 2022
by Giorgio Agamben

According to Arab jurists, human actions are classified into five categories, which they list in this way: obligatory, praiseworthy, lawful, reprehensible, and forbidden. To the obligatory is opposed the forbidden, to that which deserves praise, that which is to be reproved. But the most important category is the one that lies in the middle and constitutes, as it were, the axis of the scale that weighs human actions and measures their responsibility (responsibility is said in Arabic legal parlance to mean "weight"). If praiseworthy is that whose performance is rewarded and whose omission is not prohibited, and reprehensible is that whose omission is rewarded and whose performance is not prohibited, lawful is that about which law can only be silent and is therefore neither obligatory nor prohibited, neither praiseworthy nor reprehensible. It corresponds to the heavenly state, in which human actions produce no responsibility, are in no way "weighed" by law. But - and this is the decisive point - according to Arab jurists, it is good that this zone that law cannot in any way deal with should be as wide as possible, because the justice of a city is measured precisely by the space it leaves free of norms and sanctions, rewards and censures.

In the society in which we live, exactly the opposite is happening. The zone of the lawful is shrinking every day, and an unprecedented regulatory hypertrophy tends to leave no sphere of human life outside obligation and prohibition. Gestures and habits that had always been considered indifferent to the law are now minutely regulated and punctually sanctioned, to the point that there is hardly any sphere of human behavior that can be considered simply lawful anymore. First, unidentified security reasons and then, increasingly, health reasons have made it compulsory to have a permit to perform the most habitual and innocent acts, such as walking down the street, entering a public place, or going to one's workplace.

A society that so narrows the paradisiacal scope of behavior unweighted by law is not only, as the Arab jurists believed, an unjust society, but is properly an unlivable society, in which every action must be bureaucratically authorized and legally sanctioned, and the ease and freedom of customs, the sweetness of relationships and forms of life are reduced to the point of disappearance. Moreover, the quantity of laws, decrees, and regulations is such, that not only does it become necessary to resort to experts to know whether a certain action is permissible or prohibited, but even the officials in charge of enforcing the rules become confused and contradictory.

In such a society, the art of life can only consist in minimizing the part of the obligatory and the forbidden and conversely enlarging to the maximum the zone of the lawful, the only one in which if not happiness, at least gladness becomes possible. But this is precisely what the wretches who govern us do their utmost to prevent and make difficult by multiplying rules and regulations, controls, and checks. Until the dreary machine they have built will ruin upon itself, jammed by the very rules and devices that were supposed to enable it to function.

Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Most Amazing Graph of the 21st Century: How the Empire is Striking Back!


In 1956, Marion King Hubbert predicted that the US oil production would follow a "bell-shaped" curve, starting an irreversible decline around 1970. He was basically correct but, around 2010, the production curve restarted growing. This abrupt rebound was an amazing event that propelled the US back to the role of largest world producer of crude oil, and to become noticeably more bullish in geopolitical terms. Buoyed by its large oil production, the Empire is striking back. But for how long? (image by Paul Kedrosky)

Years ago, James Schlesinger noted that human beings have only two operational modes: complacency and panic. It is an observation that rings true and that we can generalize in terms of groups: some humans are catastrophists, and some are cornucopians. I tend to side with the catastrophists, to the point that I created the term "Seneca Effect" or "Seneca Cliff" to define the rapid decline that comes after that growth stops. Indeed, catastrophes are a common occurrence in human history, but it is also true that sometimes (rarely) a catastrophic decline can be reversed: I termed this effect the "Seneca Rebound.

There is an impressive example of rebound with the story of the US oil production. You probably know how, in 1956, Marion King Hubbert proposed his idea of the "bell-shaped" curve. He turned out to be approximately right in his prediction: the US oil production started to decline after peaking in 1970, following a trajectory that seemed to be irreversible. In the early 2000s, after nearly 40 years of decline, no geologist sane in his/her mind would have said that the decline could be stopped, to say nothing about reversing it. It was not a question of being catastrophist or cornucopian: the members of both categories would normally agree that extracting large amounts of oil from "non-conventional" sources was simply unthinkable in economic terms. 

And then, something happened that changed everything. It took a few years before the new trend was clear but, by the mid-2010s, it couldn't be ignored anymore. By 2018, the US production had returned to the levels of its 1970 peak. In 2019, it had overcome it, and it kept growing. The production of natural gas followed the same trend, shooting up rapidly to levels never seen before. In 2020, the Covid crisis caused a new drop in production, at present only partially recovered. But let's forget the Covid story for now. What happened that changed things so much in the US oil industry?

You probably know that the cause has a name and a story: it is called tight oil or "shale oil," extracted by "fracking". It itself, it is nothing especially new, the concept was already known in the 1930s. The idea is to use high pressure to fracture the rock that contains the oil. That makes it possible for the liquid to flow to the surface. The problem with fracking is that it is expensive. So much that it is commonly said that nobody made any money on it. In 2017, an analysis by the Wall Street Journal arrived at the conclusion that, since 2007, “energy companies have spent $280 billion more than they generated from operations on shale investments.” Other analysts expressed the same concepts: you can extract oil from shales, but don't expect to make any money out of it. So, why are people insisting on pouring good money into bad wells? 

There are good reasons. The people who discounted the possibility of extracting tight oil were perfectly able to evaluate the economic convenience of the process, but they didn't consider that the "market" is an abstraction that doesn't always work, actually, almost never works. So, those financial entities that provide money for oil exploration are part of a mix of interests that include the oil industry, the aerospace industry, the military industry, and others. This mix is what keeps the US economy alive. But there would be no aerospace or military industries if the oil industry could not produce enough oil. 

It is impossible to say how the decision to pour immense amounts of money into tight oil was taken. Maybe it was a strategic decision taken by the military lobby in the US government (you may also note something curious: why was the US the only country that invested in shale oil extraction? After all, there are shale oil deposits in many other countries. I can think of an explanation, but I leave it to commenters to harp on conspiracy theories.) Or maybe the financial lobby recognized that they could survive losses in their investments in oil if these investments kept other sectors of the economy able to generate profits. Or, perhaps, it was a collective decision created by the great panic of 2008, when oil prices spiked up to 150 dollars per barrel. That event scared everyone enough to convince some of the key players that investing in oil was a good idea. In any case, with the second decade of the 21st century, the world changed.

The image above is by Michael Roscoe. It is not updated to the latest levels of oil production, but it shows how the US dominated the oil market (and the world), up to the 1960s. For a while, it was challenged by Russia and Saudi Arabia, but now the US is taking the lead again. Like all complex systems, the American Empire depended on the inflow of energy from the outside. So, it's not surprising that the Empire is striking back!  

One of the visible consequences of the return of the Empire is that it abandoned Afghanistan, which it had invaded 20 years ago in search of new oil resources in Central Asia. These resources turned out to be elusive, perhaps not existing, but the US stubbornly insisted on staying in the area. Then, with tight oil, the powers that be realized that the US didn't need those resources anymore. And that they could concentrate on juicier targets, moving aggressively to push its main competitor, Russia, out of the European gas market. The US is also behaving aggressively toward China, which it correctly considers its main long-term competitor. Whether this will lead to a war, is all to be seen. But it is energy that makes wars possible. 

But for how long will the shale bonanza last? As always, the future is obscure, but not completely. Shale oil remains a limited resource, no matter how often we hear that it will give us centuries of prosperity, or even that technology made it unlimited. After the Covid tsunami, shale oil production restarted to grow, but it has not yet reached the level it had in 2019. Also, its growth is clearly slowing down, while the Empire is facing new constraints in terms of overexploited resources: land, water, food, fertile soil, and more. 

Is tight oil going to peak again and, this time, forever? We cannot say. We can only say that the American Empire is following the ebb and flow of the resources that make it exist. Such is the power of energy, and empires are but slaves to the forces that govern the universe! 



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).