17 April 2011

Considering the disastrous nature of the industrial era

I feel some of the most useful work I have done in the corporate context was work on safety. I should say, and I am sure this is not surprising, that I am not a safety expert. In the context of safety the work was about understanding the difference between the human system and the mechanistic understanding of systems that exists within that.. There is an entire dimension of safety on industrial sites that has to do with all the phenomena associated with attention, collective action and 'mental models.' Many accidents occur not because the information to prevent the accident, or to sense the trends and patterns leading to an accident, are not present. The information is often present.

The nature of our waking state, functional 'consciousness' is that it limits what we are aware of in order to allow us to function. This is the nature of what is meant by 'mental model' or 'paradigm' and such. Scientific materialism and the mechanistic views of reality that follow from that are extreme examples of this. Extremely useful in very limited ways that usually have many unintended and from within the bounds of the model, unseen consequences.

One of the consequences of this is that when we read the case history of an industrial accident we can look at the events over time and feel something like "how could they possibly not have seen this coming? Are they stupid? Evil? Corrupt?" It is not a matter of 'human error' at the level of operations or management, though aspects of that are included. The Challenger case of the space shuttle disaster reads this way. The Chernobyl case reads this way. Both the Texas City and Deepwater Horizon cases read this way. The Titanic case reads this way. The attribution about the actors as "stupid, evil, or corrupt" is usually inaccurate and not particularly helpful.

From a systems point of view you most likely would have done some very similar version of exactly what they did. Their actions were structurally determined. There is also a living dynamism which creates a complexity for which structural determinism cannot account. Furthermore, in terms of structures, we are not simply talking about the physical structures of some industrial era asset, though that is included. We are talking about the structure of thought, emotion, identification, etc. in the human system.

One of the simple things to consider is that the people in question simply did not see it coming. Or perhaps more accurately, where people saw the signals indicating the structure and actions leading to a disaster, that information is actively deleted or suppressed in the system as a whole and where decisions are being taken. The enacted system often 'pretends' it is acting according to a technical protocol (itself tending to delete or distort critical information) when decisions are instead being taken in the context of economic, political (etc.) values in the lived human system. Often these are a product of some more or less unexamined social contract and the asserted necessity embedded within or associated with that lived contract.

There is also a very useful consideration to be had on the nature of risk and risk assessment. The simple thing I will say about risk now is that we typically fail to account for, and are perhaps unable to account for the very weak signals associated with low probability, high impact events. We do not successfully plan for such events. We often fail to understand the nature of the risk is multiplicative, not summative in these cases. We also build scaled, monolithic technical systems for the sake of 'efficiency' and profitability that then are subject to cascading failure and collapse. Much has been written about this.

It is my own view that we are adolescent and arrogant. Well... perhaps we are not quite up to adolescence yet since our attitude occurs for me more or less as

"Nothing can defeat our technical brilliance!! This system has been carefully designed and calibrated to withstand the most extreme forces nature can possibly generate here for aaaaaaaallllll time!!! What the heck? An earthquake? Here? On these three fault lines? Impossible. We did calculations! What? Cascading failure of multiple systems? Remain calm. Etc."

I know this could seem inhumane to say given the incredible amount of suffering currently taking place in Japan. Honestly, I am thinking about all the deleted and ignored information making up the case history of the nuclear reactor located on three fault lines 15 miles from here. I am thinking about our global disposition and religious belief in expertise globally and the myopia associated with that. I am thinking about the extremes we are going to to protect and preserve a delusional way of life. I am thinking about the inclination to blame some 'other' and imagine that actions associated with that are in some way commensurate with the challenges we face, without addressing anything about the structures and belief systems that lead to current behavior and decisions.

Many of the physical assets of the industrial era are aging. If these assets themselves are not a contained explosion, they rely on assets that are such contained explosions in order to work. What we call the industrial era is based on such contained explosions... only they are not really quite contained. We are burning and exploding the planet for the sake of profit and convoluted, artificial ideology associated with that. We have an ideology of growth that contains within it an unexamined assumption of 'waste' as necessary. I do not mean this observation about explosion metaphorically. It is simply literally the case.

The physical assets used to create and contain such explosions are aging. The explosion and the assets themselves more or less exist for the sake of maximizing and consolidating profit. This means that the first and last question is about profit. Many other questions are asked along the way, but fundamentally, from within that system, such questions can only be understood and valued from within the context of profit. Is it profitable to maintain these aging assets? When it is not, what happens? Profitable to whom and in what way? Maybe the asset, such as nuclear assets, have no history of profitability or require an artificial subsidy and calculated cost to consider profitable.

Thought of as a stand alone asset, there is no such thing as a 'profitable' nuclear power plant. They do not exist. The profit model has to do with the ownership and maintenance of the industrially scaled grid and the system of subsidies required to build, maintain and attempt to regulate such an asset. They are only profitable in the larger context of the system. What is predictable about maintenance over time in this case? Corporations imagine they maintain them over the actual life time of the asset and risks associated with that. This is true for fossil fuel assets and even more so for nuclear assets. Governments can no longer govern corporations. Lincoln made this observation at the end of the war, stating that the lack of mechanism to govern rising corporate power was a greater threat to the Union than the Civil War itself. The World Bank made this observation at the beginning of the last decade when it stated the purpose of the nation-state is to create the conditions for a 'free market.' The Fed in the US is an active expression of this ideology. Governments and corporations are not likely to last as long as the assets themselves. When corporations and nation-states are in the volatile dynamics of regime change or going out of existence, will decisions be made based on the accountability to manage the long term risks and liabilities associated with these assets? This has already been seen to fail on multiple occasions.

In the current system the only structures causing institutions to attend to their accountability with regard to the aging assets of the industrial era are structures of profitability. This is the global condition, though there is some localized and nation-state variation. Such variation is occurring within and conditioned by that global system. We can make many claims about profitability, one way or another, and the regulatory cost is one of the reasons that nuclear can be considered unprofitable. One thing that is fairly clear is that no amount of regulation can ever create environmental 'protection' or safety in a system that is ultimately designed to maximize profit. Such regulation is considered as a 'cost' in the decision making process. Such regulation is seen as an inhibitor to the mythological free market. This is true when power and profit are interchangeable as well.

Such systems might become 'enlightened' to some extent, recognizing that safety, or energy efficiency are not only 'the right thing to do,' but also profitable in the long run. This does not really matter. Corporations have no governor. Their only obligation is shareholder value, and even that is often a chimera. The 'free market' is an artificial construct, abstracted and utterly divorced from the actual planetary systems in which it is imagined to be taking place. If corporate powers say they have other obligations, this is ultimately untrue, since in most cases, in the absence of profit they will go out of existence. Try to think of an example where a corporation has intentionally put itself out of existence. Try to think of an example where the corporate activity valued something above its own survival, and therefore profitability that resulted in it making a responsible decision to go out of existence.

Corporations can simply not be counted on to 'keep their word,' unless they understand that activity as profitable and that understanding is a shifting, quarter to quarter, artificial landscape The individuals within a corporation cannot be counted on to keep their word in this regard. I know this is a horrific thing to say. I can well imagine people within corporations energetically protesting "I can be counted on to keep my word! We can be counted on to keep our word. Look at our performance." I know many people of impeccable integrity within corporate and civic structures. This is not about the 'character' of some person. Relying on 'heroic' character in the face of this globally institutionalized systems only serves to dysfunctionally reinforce and keep the system in place.

Let's imagine that we have a role in a corporation. In that role we are responsible for decisions that effect people, environment, and economy. We are well intentioned. We want to do the 'right' thing. The scope of our decisions may be experienced as immediate and local. We might in some cases experience the interconnected and global nature of our decisions, but this is not typically the case since it is not viewed as useful within defining context of our performance and accountability. The corporation is not holding us accountable for these global conditions. The corporation holds us accountable for the immediate, local performance. This context conditions what we view as useful or not.

The structure of the system we are enacting makes it impossible to keep our word, if doing so is in any way inconsistent with the overall structure and intent of the system as a whole. That system of profit maximization and consolidation is not structurally intended to produce the well-being of people individually or collectively. It is not intended to produce environmental integrity. Such things are considered a cost. The system as a whole is intended to maximize and consolidate profit.

There are occasional exceptions to this, such as the Tylenol case, but even those are happening within the same overall context.

Consider the activity of corporate merger and acquisition (M&A). It is well known that the vast majority of M&A efforts simply fail to deliver the intended value of the activity. From the point of view of how the M&A activity is justified in the first place, which is itself an argument for maximization of profit, about 70-80% simply fail. They do not produce 'synergies', management efficiency, benefits of of scale (such as in creased R&D capacity), increased market share, etc., etc. Yet we continue to engage in this activity. What they do produce is consolidation of profit. They do this very successfully. All other aspects of the activity are known to fail in the majority of cases. The activity is still justified on the basis of all those false calculations of risk and benefit. If the the purpose of M&A were simply seen to be the real justification of maximizing and consolidating profit they would be almost 100% successful.

Regulatory activity, technical design, strategic decision making, policy are all subject to this same dynamic. As an aside most sustainability efforts suffer from an almost identical difficulty.

The notion that this structure can produce the well-being of people and environmental integrity (of all life and planetary systems) can only be had by the most arcane, abstract and convoluted sort of rationalizations. The notion that the system is broken and can be fixed (from within) is false. As a system intended and enacted to maximize and consolidate profit, in a social contract based on identity as consumer, intended to benefit only a few of the nearly 7 billion people on the planet, it is working just fine. There is nothing to fix.

There are several sorts of rhetoric, belief and propaganda that keep this in place. We might believe that we are, or can become one of the few. We might believe that the few are chosen and deserve to be among the few. We might believe that there is no alternative, or that the entire field of alternatives has been exhausted by historical examples of social contracts. We might feel and have no sense of agency with regard to the human enactment currently taking place on the planet. We might have a belief our survival depends on the enactment of such a system, even as that enactment systematically and institutionally kills and enslaves people and the planet. We might believe that "we" are not doing it, but some "other" is to blame, and hold ourselves separate in this way. What seems relatively clear is that we must hold some complex, artificial, delusional belief in which we are invested and investing to keep such a system in place. Further, we must believe that we are right and even 'righteous' in the maintenance of such a belief. Consequently, we must invest in the belief that there are others who are categorically wrong and unlike us in every meaningful way. We may even hold this belief about the planet itself.

If we find ourselves in a conversation to justify a privileged life based on some such morality, we need to stop. If we find ourselves in complex market based calculation that justify the continued existence of and investment in such a system, we need to stop. Perhaps we find it impossible to stop our insane contortion. Why is that? Consider the statement: I can't stop. What is your relationship to such an assertion?

For people who are self-identified in the politics of this particularly dark moment of history, I am likely to be heard as political. This is not fundamentally a political question and I am not advocating for some political view. The political systems of the moment are not capable of addressing the questions and issues we now face. The religious and moral systems of the moment are not capable of addressing the questions we currently face. The chauvinistic systems of knowing and expertise are not sufficient. Notions of resistance to the currently enacted global system must be put aside. Such resistance is itself still an investment in this same delusional system. We must include, but transcend the polarized moral systems of the moment, whether they are considered 'progressive,' 'conservative,' etc. The dreams, hopes, and aspirations believed to be attainable through the enactment of such a system must be abandoned, individually and collectively. Ultimately this is not a problem since if we do not do it, it will be done to us, through the self balancing activity of planetary systems. The fist of anger and un--love that we are collectively wielding will be forcibly undone in that case. Since that fist is our enactment we can cease. We can stop. That is the choice we have.

This kind of injunction can seem radical. It is not. What we are enacting is radical in the extreme, so of course it seems this way. What we are enacting is delusional. It is not meaningfully or structurally coupled to our actual condition.

Of course there are counter examples, where people have successfully 'fought' this system of profit maximization and consolidation, from within. There are cases where people have been actively involved in creating benevolent transition from within such systems. There are counter examples where people have re-contextualized 'cost' and included such actions in a notion of profitability. There are many points of emergence and alternative, often invisible from the point of view of the dominant paradigm. There are many cases of people simply 'dropping out.' Such examples are notable because they are exceptions. They represent a small bubble. They are often still conditioned in the overall system by virtue of their self defining resistance to the system. When the survival of the corporate entity as a function of such a system is threatened these bubbles simply collapse. The people involved in producing them simply go elsewhere (by their own choice, or otherwise) or are 're-purposed.'

Suppose the CEO of an oil major actually sees that their business is not sustainable. They see this. The oil majors have existed for almost a century. Externally they have changed form to some extent, but fundamentally they are they same. If they extrapolate out a century into the future, they know they cannot possibly be the same company in the same business and still exist. This is not some big mystery. Even a simple conversation with most managers and executives inside of a corporation like an oil major reveals this. It is not environmentally sustainable or possible. It is not financially sustainable or possible. It contributes to and is a part of the destruction of climate, food and water systems. This unsustainably participates in an ideology of limitless, linear growth and the ideologies about waste associated with that. It participates in a global system of social inequity and institutionalized suffering. It participate in a global system of environmental degradation. It very simply and evidently violates such simple notions as carrying capacity. Suppose they see this and actually believe that their corporation must make a transition in order to 'survive.' They must utterly transform in order to survive. Suppose they see all this. They are convicted this is the case.

There have been numerous cases of this. These cases are the exception. The mutative force of these cases is eventually (and often initially) experienced in the system as a threatening mutative force with respect to the existing system. The systemic forces acting to preserve the identity of the particular corporate system react to this perceived threat exactly as you would imagine. The fallacy is of course that in order for the corporate entity to have any chance of surviving it must transform utterly. The mutative force then is not a threat to survival, but the means. Of course this can be confusing. It is not a matter of linear change intended to perpetuate the corporation as part of the system of profit maximization and consolidation. It is fundamental contextual change, in which the strategic understanding of the future is not simply an extrapolation of a Holocenic, industrial era reality, but recognizes and respond appropriately to the planetary shift of a geological era. Existing corporations and institutions may simply lack the capacity to successfully make a transition from a Holocenic, industrial era reality to an Anthropocenic one.

I recognize that the arguments about the inability of corporations and individuals within corporations to meaningfully keep their word, or make meaningful transitions seems a very cynical view. It could seem like I am making some claim about human nature. It could feel like I am attacking your personal integrity. It could seem as if I am in some way holding myself outside of what I am describing. I am sorry if it feels offensive in this or some other way. That is not my intent. I do not consider myself standing 'outside' of these dynamics in my comments.

A social contract is a type of human system. As in Hobbes or Rousseau, it is based on some form of implicitly held assumptions that are then explicitly represented or enacted as some form of starting principles or boundary conditions, such as 'rights.' In Hobbes, life is assumed as horrific. The planet is out to get us. Other human beings dealing with that condition are out to get us. We create the 'leviathan' to deal with this, based on the prioritization of a certain kind of survival. There is also a kind of conflation in both Hobbes and Marx between the individual and collective, where an asserted state of the individual is then applied to the whole. This can be useful, but I think they have the process reversed. Bolivia is currently in a very interesting moment of attempting to re-frame its basic social contract. Bhutan has an interesting alternative social contract.

I have found the description of the social contract in Adi Da's "Not Two Is Peace" helpful. As I recall, the nature of the contract is to ensure some set of values for some portion of the people participating in the contract. This is usually a minority of the whole. In such a condition, many, many people may not be actively choosing to participate, but effected none the less. The fundamental set of values might be something like increased security, longevity and enjoyment. He points out that over time the people benefitting from the social contract (usually a minority) begin to treat these as rights and expect them in perpetuity. Against that background he makes the very simple observation that of course none of these (longevity, security, enjoyment) can actually be guaranteed in any way, much less by a social contract.

The relation then, to the social contract in this case is an artificial one. It is a kind of useful pretense, at least for a short period of time, for a minority of people. It may or may not be a 'noble lie' since many of the people perpetuating it may themselves believe it as truth. It is useful in the context of self gratification for a minority of the peole involved, at the expense of most of the people. Holding and participating in or as such a context we then delete or distort the information that is inconsistent with that frame. If we do not do this, such a social contract simply falls apart, collapsing in upon itself. It is for this reason that 'transparency' is experienced as such a threat by the local and global social contract of the industrial era.

When the case study of the global disaster we are now creating is read, this structure and dynamic is exactly what will lead to the question "How did they not see this coming?"

In the metaphor of industrial safety, the shift that has to take place with regard to the safety of a site or business is a fundamental shift in the identity of the people. It is nice to have a better class of helmet, improved process, etc., but clearly this will not handle it. Analogously, this or that existing social contract, based on Holocene assumptions is insufficient. 'Causing' transition to happen based on Holocene assumptions will also not work. I have written here and elsewhere some of my views on the basic assumptions making up the Holocenic, industrial era paradigm (e.g., http://ifelthat.blogspot.com/2010/12/following-is-from-open-letter-that-i.html). I have suggested in places what I feel might be the nature of some of the assumptions and realizations associated with anthropocenic era, in which we are not only effecting the planetary systems at the same scale as those systems, but are as a whole conscious of and acting responsibly with respect to that condition. A utopic return to some nostalgic view of the past is also insufficient. There seems to me a sort of irresponsible trend toward this sort of nostalgic consumerism.

I wonder what the specific assumptions and rights will be, or if such structures themselves will be meaningful? I do not feel they will emerge from an existing nation-state and certainly not from the US. I do not feel they will emerge from any existing structure of expertise or an epistemology of scientific materialism. I imagine that such an emergence will transcend the existing structure of economy and nation-state. I imagine that such an emergence will primarily be a an ontological matter. I also imagine that this emergence is already well under way and that for the most part it is not sensed or sense-able from within the information systems, governance structures, and collective awareness self identifying as a product of the Holocenic Industrial Era.

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