Overcoming the Dissociation Crisis

A report on our Global Online Forum: Solution from Crisis
(Due to sound quality issues, the report on this event will be text only.)

This morning’s discussion was personal and full of insight from people who have decided to stand up and take action to be part of building a better world. The question of how we get to a viable, systemic climate solution connects to the question of how we relate to systems. If we treat the problem as a threat and the solution as a confrontation, we run the risk of ignoring the systemic leverage points, where our actions feed directly into the kinks in the system that drive the crisis. 

Systems thinking views systems as already containing the expression of their own virtues and their own failings. A system cannot fail, unless the failure is made possible by some component of the system. In our use of energy, in contact with the Earth’s climate system, there is a flaw: our system is not designed to maintain a reliable climate-energy balance. So, we are pushing past the limits of the system, and motivating/encountering disruption. If we understand this, we can better see our limits, understand our strengths, and leverage the virtues of the system to achieve an outcome conducive to human thriving.

Featured speakers on today’s Global Forum were Baerbel Winkler and Jerome Chladek, from Germany, and Rod Mitchell from Australia. I was moderating, from Lima. We started by exploring the question: What is the nature of the climate crisis?

The climate is a fabric of interlocking and overlapping energy transfers. The relational dynamics inherent in that reality matter. Balance in the way energy moves through the system provides us with a stable climate, conducive to agriculture and to civilization. Crisis is a disruption severe enough to interfere with our ability to apply our knowledge and ability and to carry on functioning as we expect to. Crisis is entropy.

Climate is a system of systems. Our energy system is not the whole story. Our economy, our politics, our personal tastes, and our undestanding, are not the whole story. It is in the interaction between and among these that we find ourselves facing entropy in life-sustaining systems. The crisis touches everyone, affects everyone, and can be influenced by everyone.

On this subject, Rod said there is something at work in the human spirit, a question about how we interact with the world, whether we can do so in harmony with the geophysical facts of our reality. “What CCL is doing is really important,” he added. Direct citizen participation is a crucial part of the response, but it is clear that economically efficient carbon pricing is going to be the most effective and rapid way of getting this problem solved.

The discussion then turned to the question of information, and an expansion of our view of what we mean by that word.

A system is informed by its structures, and by interactions both within the system and with external systems. Information can be knowledge and communication; information can also be the determining factors that instantiate or give substance to what is informed.

The system is the vessel. Here, the climate system is the vessel. It carries information about our behavior, about the limits of our understanding, and about what we can or should do to correct for our mistakes and excesses. Information can educate us. It can also be hidden in the structures we inhabit, or in the ways we describe and relate to them. We are information, and we often overlook the meaning of that.

So, what is the role for the human individual?

We are alive… we are part of the system… we inherited the system from our ancestors… we have built the system from there… we are citizens… we make demands of our governments… we want a fair and sustainable future… we are, we want, we seek…

Can the individual change the system?

Not alone. There are options like voluntary offsets, boycotts, self-imposed carbon fees, setting aside income to pay for more expensive cutting edge energy tech… investment in R&D… With a system-wide crisis, no one individual can change extremely enough to affect the whole fabric of interrelationship.

Citizenship… active participatory democratic engagement… that is where the individual has the best chance of being relevant.

On this subject, Jerome Chladek was eloquent: “I’d like to talk about what it means when we tell people they are doing something wrong, when they were born into the system. I didn’t think of it that way before.”

His point was that in the international negotiating process, we don’t normally hear people talking about the vision necessary to secure a long-term comprehensive solution… the ability to see what comes next, what is outside the current model, what is beyond the status quo.

We brought the issue of status quo bias into the discussion. Jerome told the story of a political leader who was criticized as being very good at business thinking, but not visionary enough to deal with big problems or to innovate.

Jerome’s insight was that we should make sure the climate policy process focuses on where we want to go as a society, what kind of world we want to live in. What follows is a paraphrasing of the discussion on this subject:

Joe: We’ve been talking about this with representatives of the UNDP and UNICEF… about creating a mechanism whereby citizens and stakeholders can share their vision. What do you think about this as a way to deal with the problem you have raised?

Jerome: Yes, that is why I joined CCL, because I believe citizens should be able to shape the future they will inhabit. “I think that most citizens do not realize their potential to shape their politicians’ visions.”

Joe: What do the rest of you think about this? Is the participation of citizens in shaping the vision of decision-makers integral to solving this, and maybe even what this moment is all about?

Baerbel: I was speaking to a man who thinks the most beautiful thing we can do is burn fossil fuels. And he firmly believes his view is the majority view. As long as there are people like him, we will have a hard time.

Joe: What if his way of thinking turns to be only the unusual thinking of an unusual thinker? Is he wedded not to the use of FF, but to the idea that the majority want FF and that FF is connected to liberty?

Baerbel: There is ideology in his way of thinking…

Joe: Can you tell us where you think ideology enters in? For a lot of people, the idea of changing to a different fuel source feels like a constraint on their freedom. But many view the deliberate choice to be smarter and more sustainable as an expansion of our freedom.

Rod: There’s no question in my mind that this is supremely rational, and that CCL is being supremely rational in its approach. We might think we are free because no one tells us not to overuse resources, but we are freer because we decide to engage, we decide to play a role…

Joe: Can you elaborate on your experience of the liberation that comes with getting engaged in the policy process?

Rod: “It’s enabled me to feel like a fully grown human being. I used to feel like a little boy in a world of fully grown men. Now, I am interacting with politicians as an equal.”

Joe: Thank you, Rod, for sharing that. That feeling of disempowerment and disenfranchisement is such a widespread experience, but people are very reluctant to admit to feeling vulnerable or powerless. You’re sharing a very important insight. Does anyone else have something like this to share?

Jerome: “I’ve always had the impression that the world is not perfect, and that I had an obligation to do something.” So, I studied biology, got interested in climate change, learned about its impact on ocean systems, on ecosystems of all kinds. It’s very depressing. I remember a lunch break, where we talked about maybe there is no use trying. It was very depressing. But now I know I can do something, and I can be part of something, and even if we don’t get a solution that’s 100% perfect, maybe 40 years from now, I can look back and say I did what I could. I like to think about 40 years into the future, and think about whether I will like what I have done, whether I have contributed.

Jerome added that he feels that playing a constructive role in building support for a viable solution, one that empowers people and allows humanity to undo the unraveling inherent in climate disruption, will give him a feeling of having done the right thing, 40 years from now.

What might be the main insight emerging from this first week at the COP20, and from today’s discussion, is that engagement and collaboration are transformational. More is possible when we have the ability to put our talents, our intelligence, and our concerns, into action. It could be that what we learn from the systemic interactions between the human economy and the climate system is that dissociation obscures the wider meaning of our actions.

The road to a viable, scalable, lasting solution, then, runs through attention to relationships, to actions and outcomes, to the systems we inhabit. Together with presence of mind and engagement, these can repair our relationship to life-supporting systems, and get us better policy outcomes. And when we activate that awareness of our relationships, our action and impact, our role in deciding what comes next, we find there are simple, system-wide ways we can engage to achieve better policy outcomes.

Just how that is the case will be the subject of our online policy forum sessions next week:

Sesión 5: Liderazgo desde los márgenes

  • Fecha: Lunes, diciembre 8, 2014
  • Hora: 8:00 am Lima/NY, 2:00 pm Paris, 7:00 pm Dhaka, 11:59 pm Canberra
  • Chat: English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Mandarin, Bengali

Session 6: How Civic Engagement Improves Policy

  • Date: Friday, December 12, 2014
  • Time: 8:00 am Lima/NY, 2:00 pm Paris, 7:00 pm Dhaka, 11:59 pm Canberra
  • Chat: English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Mandarin, Bengali

Originally published December 5, 2014, at pathwaytoparis.org