November 06, 2006
Green goes glam amongst London's chic elite
What is the role of elites in bringing about positive change? A curious, yet pointed question that sharpens as I flick through How to Spend it, the Financial Time's glossy rag devoted to the whims of elite consumption and concerns —- everything from Prada to philanthropy. I'm charmed and appalled by what I see.
My answer comes quickly. According to Jenny Dalton in "the Generation Game," green tech is now the "new glam" amongst hip urban taste-makers in London. Architects like Alex Michaelis claim that "an alternative energy source is the most fashionable thing to have at home this year." As Alana Herro wrote in another post, rising political stars like David Cameron, the UK's charismatic Conservative Party leader, are leading the pack by installing a domestic wind turbine in his home.
Geothermal heat is also being championed by the likes of Richard Branson, Elton John, and of course, the Queen! After a basement conversion process, geothermal heat can be pumped into a home or building via a borehole in the ground.
Morpheus Developments now have luxury townhouses that offer the whole package: solar panels, rainwater harvesting, lambsweool insulation, and alternative energy technologies. (Also see A very British eco revolution in the Telegraph.) "Eco-auditors" like Donnachadh McCarthy are finding themselves busier than ever helping busy city people make their homes more green. Even the House of Parliament is considering using the tidal power of the Thames to diversify its energy supply.
Before we all get too exited, these household items are still beyond the reach of most pocketbooks. A Windsave WS1000 wind turbine system is about £1,498 (approx. USD $2,800) and a photo-voltaic system will be about the same price, though I'm sure these prices differ from market to market. London is also a special place, flush with excess cash and the super rich, the result of the booming stock market, high property prices, and a thriving and innovative urban design industry. The hope, of course, is that prices will go down following other technology waves, and that the bugs and kinks get worked out with these early adopters.
Driving this trend are obvious concerns about the environment, which are top of mind in Europe these days, not to mention the chic reflection these concerns give to one's self-image amongst your peers. Green is the new the status symbol, a bemusing contrast to the granola and hemp days. Ensuring self-reliance is another factor, though not often expressed except in quiet asides at cocktail parties. People with means are now taking seriously some of the more challenging future scenarios where access to stable energy sources can no longer by assured. These people want to be prepared for these "what ifs?" and relish the thought that their foresight might be rewarded in their resilience. London is on an island, after all.
But most of all, people are buying these gadgets simply because they are cool and fun to play with. This is good news because we all want green tech to be intrinsically rewarding, the first step towards mass market uptake. The danger is that this is only a fashion, something that comes and goes —- and worst of all becomes discredited in the process either for being a trivial fad, too costly or technically clumsy, all fair critiques of any technology in its early stage of adoption. Also, I can see where the ability to be "off the grid" becomes the energy equivalent boast of being in a gated community or having the money to go to the right schools, the privilege of the likes of Sir Elton.
In the meantime, eco-entrepreneurs are making hay as much as they can. As Michaelis says in the article, "You've got to use something being tagged fashionable to your advantage, especially when it's about something as important as this. I do get annoyed when people use superficial tags to talk about it but as long as it's working, I really don't care." Not a time for purists, pragmatism wins again.
What's clear is that elites -— like, loathe, or ignore them -— have always played a decisive (if unpredictable) role in shaping and leading public tastes and trends, even shifting lifestyles. We're seeing exactly the same pattern now with green home design and building. The question I'm asking is how we do we get this trend to stick and scale beyond a faction of London's green elite?
June 07, 2006
Good Power and Bad Power
Through the lens of a recent book review and my recent experiences in the field, this essay reflects on various strategic questions regarding "worldchanging." Specifically, I muse about how we can get leaders to understand at a deeper level the positive implications of peer-to-peer governance and its potential for enabling a more active citizenry. See the mirror posting on Worldchanging which will feature reader comments.
Last summer at the Tällberg Forum, in an otherwise stellar experience at this annual Swedish conference, I distinctly recall a very disappointing workshop on the "Future of Politics." The panel included Mona Makram-Ebeid, Former Member of Parliament in Egypt; Graham Watson, Member of the European Parliament, UK; and Geoff Mulgan from The Young Foundation, UK. Also present was Anders Wijkman, Member of the European Parliament. Moderated by Bo Ekman, the founder of the Tällberg Forum, I thought we'd get into the meaty stuff since the topics listed in the programme were: powerless governments, voter desertion, the expansion of politics — what will happen? I came curious and hungry for new perspectives.
Sigh. Not only was the conversation startlingly banal and absent of any new ideas; but the tone was marked by a depressing resignation about how bad things are in the public space. These august persons offered little prospect for improvement in sight. Astonishingly, blogging never came up! Arguably one of the most important developments in the political space since — what? the expansion of the franchise? — was totally absent from their radar screens. I was gob-smacked by this omission, not to mention dismayed at what this meant; sometimes what's not said is just as important was what is.
In retrospect, this shouldn't have been a surprise. Look at who was on the panel -- regular politicians -- who, while decent and hard-working people, are not exactly on the cutting edge of innovation around governance. In fact, their very position ensures that they cannot be. The one glittering exception on the panel, however, was someone of my cohort, Geoff Mulgan, and that was no coincidence. Mulgan is also a politico not politician, the former Director of the UK's Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, Co-founder and Director of the London based think-tank Demos, and now at the Young Foundation. Yet even he seemed to lack a deep connection to what's emerging. But more on that later.
Almost a year later, Mulgan has a new book out, Good and Bad Power: The Ideals and Betrayals of Government. I have not read the book yet, but it looks worth getting, judging by the excellent review in the Financial Times Weekend ("Dispirited Democracy" by Vernon Bogdanor, June 2, 2006). The book addresses the central question of how we must reinvent the relationship between the rulers and the ruled or as I prefer to put it, between our political leadership and the citizenry. While a timeless problem underpinning governance, a fresh look at this question is particularly timely because many political elites and the institutions they run have been in the midst of legitimacy crisis for decades, and will continue to do so, until we see some alternatives to the status quo.Continue reading "Good Power and Bad Power"
May 21, 2006
Hope Springs Eternal
Yes, I have been extremely busy of late. Mea culpa. But here is one highlight in the midst of my rushing around. On the Easter, April 16, I was interviewed on America's National Public Radio programme, "To The Best of Our Knowledge". Somehow somewhere in the frenzied flow of cyberspace, they found and liked my essay below, Tracking Global Violence: Are things really getting better? (January 6, 2006), and decided to create a programme around the theme of positive thinking. I'm featured in Segment 1 for about ten minutes after a really hilarious guy, Danny Wallace, who tried a rather bizarre experiment of not saying "no" to any request, some attempt I think to lead a more affirmative life
Apart from a brief mention in The Wall Street Journal in 2000, this was my mainstream media debut (if you can call NPR mainstream.) It was fun, albeit a tad nerve-wracking, going to the Radio France studio in Paris where they interviewed me from the U.S. studio. Here I was translating for the French technicians to the American ones to get the sound levels and machinations working right. Thank you dear friends, Elisabeth and Pamela, for the coaching. It's comforting to know you have in one's corner some top-notch journalists who know the tricks. Another unexpected by-product of this wee airing: people are looking me up as they have passed through Paris. Paul and son, merci for the kir at Arts & Métiers! Great conversation.
Having now trolled through the programme's archives extensively, I have to plug "To the Best of Our Knowledge." Produced with evident love and care by Wisconsin Public Radio, this gem of an audio show features brainy, well-framed topics that never bleed into intellectual pretension thanks to their spirit of whimsy and playfulness. Okay, I'm clearly biased now since they had the good graces to interview me (bless their midwestern socks). But I think you'll agree with me, even so. With everything accessible online in their digital archives, this is a gold-mine for good audio.
It's quite amazing, almost mysterious, how the new media landscape works — you just put something you've thought about and worked hard on "out there" in the blogsphere, without any expectations of what will emerge, and then something like this happens. It's hard to image this occurring (as easily) within the traditional top-down media structure which vets and filters content within a much narrower band of sources, if only because a pre-Web world made it impossible to have any alternatives.
January 06, 2006
Tracking Global Violence: Are things actually getting better?[Posted as well on Worldchanging which includes readers' comments. Minor editorial changes may differ from this essay.]
Since September 11th, and perhaps before, conventional wisdom says the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. But it is? Not necessarily. The data shows that in the case of violent conflicts things are actually getting better. According to the Human Security Report,
Without new superpower "proxy wars" starting in the Third World, overall armed conflicts have fallen by more than 40 per cent, and extremely violent conflicts -- those with 1,000 or more battle deaths -- have dropped by 80 per cent... International arms transfers, defence budgets, armed forces personnel and refugee numbers have also all decreased.
The study, funded by five governments and led by Professor Andrew Mack at the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia (my alma mater), concludes that global institutions have made a difference. It finds "that the best explanation for this decline is the huge upsurge of conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding activities that were spearheaded by the United Nations in the aftermath of the Cold War." So the UN and other national and local interventions, however imperfect, can take some credit for these improvements -- a piece of PR they sorely need when our impressions of these institutions is poor.
[*Note: The Liu Institute, the new institution that attracted the likes of Professor Mack, is an interesting place to watch because it's one of the few research centres focused on global issues in a systemic way. Though I confess I'm biased. It was started by my late mentor, Ivan Head, who was Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau's foreign policy advisor amongst other things. Of particular relevance, Ivan's vision for the Institute is akin to Worldchanging's. Like us, he believed the problem wasn't a lack of solutions, but rather, places that frame research in way that's actionable for policy-makers. A year after his passing, like many of his former students, I still feel the loss of him.]
This positive news shouldn't be too surprising. At the very least we shouldn't be surprised that we're surprised by the gap between what we perceive and what is in fact happening on the ground. By now we should all have a healthy distrust for how the global media distorts our interpretations of reality, and how politicians and even international agencies have been quick to leverage the techniques of fear-mongering for their own purposes, a classic play out of any Orwellian hand-book.
Yet curiously, people are surprised. More that that, their reactions have been visceral and contentious, which is interesting in itself. As Deborah Jones reports in the Global and Mail (November 15, 2005), "Reaction to his report ranges from disbelief to relief to scornful dismissal. Those on the political right and left each accuse him of siding with the other."
The Trouble with Positive News
People's reaction to this study is not just about the findings. Something else is going on -- something more emblematic about how we deal with good news in general these days -- but what is it? Turns out the possible answers are multifaceted. Turns out underneath the content lurks several worldviews in collision.
But let's start with this specific case: the Human Security Report. Like many divisive issues today, part of the problem is a lack of long-term data which is considered valid. Until this study (and this is shocking) there was no reliable information that tracked global conflicts and political violence around the world, something Professor Mack discovered when he went to work for General-Secretary Kofi Annan in 1998. In the absence of a discussion rooted in some facts, misinformation starts driving our perceptions. As Professor Mack says, the information that has been used to date conjures "a picture of global security that is grossly distorted. But they are widely believed because they reinforce popular assumptions. And they often drive political agendas." (While the State Department has collected some data since 9/11, Mack thinks it's pretty poor stuff.)
Yet the reasons why good news is hard for us to absorb, intellectually and emotionally, go even deeper. This has to do with cultural mindsets and cognitive biases in how we perceive the world. Compared to base politics and the structure of global media (obvious places to point fingers) these "mental map" factors are harder to pin down.
Taking a long view helps. For instance, the idea of decline and pessimism is part of an enduring tradition in Western thought, a historical legacy most people don't know about. Fortunately, Arthur Herman's excellent book, The Idea of Decline in Western History, educates us about this meme and its consequences for today. As Stewart Brand summarizes in his review:
Big pessimism has a sordid lineage. When 19th century romanticism turned gloomy and escapist in response to the failure of the French Revolution, the rejection of the Enlightenment turned increasingly toward rejection of contemporary civilization and commerce. From then to now, elaborate, often racist, theories of history were conjured up to show how the decline of society was inevitable, being destroyed from within by Jews, or blacks (later whites), or crass bourgeois, or wimpy liberals, or businessmen, or technology, or whatever. Leading intellectuals of Europe and America adopted the pose and the notions--Jacob Burckhardt, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, Henry Adams, W.E.B. Du Bois, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and on to Marcuse, Sartre, Foucault, Fanon, and many of my fellow environmentalists.
Far from some distant force in the past, this meme is still framing our public discourse and habits of thought. Whether it's amongst the intelligentsia or with friends at a cocktail party, positive interpretations of the human condition are considered "un-intellectual" and "not serious" irrespective of the facts at hand. We are socialized to think that Pollyanna's are mental pansies at best, or just plain foolish. It's just cooler, and easier, to be the dark brooding type deconstructing our reality, instead of offering something more generative.
These are generalizations of course. These propensities vary widely across the Western world and beyond. Compared to East Coasters, California-types do tend to be more optimistic and future-friendly. Even though this sense of possibility and openness drives innovation and risk-taking in socially useful ways, the "Californian way" is routinely ridiculed as being too flaky, too inexperienced, and too ignorant of the hard realities of the world. While this stereotype is somewhat deserved (and can be annoying), these so called negative qualities seem to deliver the goods. Somehow these dope-smoking, new age, intellectual light-weights have managed to create a region that has been one of the most influential generators of ideas and wealth in recent history. Go figure.
To make matters even more complicated, our trouble with internalizing good news is also rooted in our cognitive apparatus. As a foresight practitioner, I've noticed that groups have a hard time imagining the upside scenario. Almost always people discount positive scenarios at first because they are considered to be less believable, even though in many instances it is just as plausible as any other possible future. This is counter intuitive because the positive scenario is often the most strategically advantageous of all the outcomes, yet decision-makers naturally resist it. While individuals may perceive themselves as optimists, in a group setting the alchemy changes. Rather, what executive teams seem to want these days is more pain and more negativity to wallow in -- what I've privately called "corporate S&M." Just call me Mistress Nikita! (And no, I'm not serious, even though I'm sure it would be a lucrative niche market :)
The psychology of risk literature is helping me understand this tendency better. Turns out we are more concerned about risks that may lead to losses than risks that lead to gains. In other words, we feel the pain of losing far more than the benefits of winning something, all other things being equal. This strange asymmetry was first noticed by Daniel Kahneman and his colleague Tversky, which they explained through their prospect theory, a descriptive and empirical set of ideas that won Kahneman the Nobel Prize in economics (even though he is a psychologist.)
Can negative thinking be good?
I've always thought that critics are just natural pessimists. Their job is to look for flaws, challenge assumptions and social expectations, so that we can find ways to better the world. I always figured I'd be lousy at this since I was a "glass-is-half-full" kinda gal. But critics aren't always pessimists, and pessimists aren't always good critics. Moreover Herman helped me understand that not all pessimists have the same goals:
The historical pessimist worries that his own society is about to destroy itself, the cultural pessimist concludes that it deserves to be destroyed. The historical pessimist sees "disaster in the pole star," as Henry Adams put it: the cultural pessimist looks forward to disaster, since he believes that something better will arise from its ashes.
Today, I see many activists and critics using "disaster as a pole star". Good news is often received badly by some of my activist friends because to publicly admit some things are getting better would let themselves and society off the hook. What's needed is constant vigilance and pressure towards fighting for a better world. What's required is solidarity with those billions still in need. And then there is the pesky issue of funding: bad news sells so much better when it comes to grant-writing and budgeting time.
Of course, optimism can also be a special form of denial, pernicious and maladptive in its own way. Willful wishful thinking is rife in our society -- often when politically expedient -- especially when it comes to some of our most challenging problems around resources. Anti-climate change lobbyists seem to be particularly skilled at employing the "everything will be fine" tactic. An argument can also be made for negative thinking which has been championed by some psychologists like Julie Noreum. Her book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking (which I haven't read) positions itself as an antidote to the modern pressures of having to be positive about everything (this is an American audience, obviously. In France, the odd-balls are the optimists.) She promotes the practice of "defensive pessimism", a strategy of imagining the worst-case scenario of any situation.
In a similar vein, Joshua Wolf Shenk's article in The Atlantic Monthly, Lincoln's Great Depression, argues that the President's clinical depression enabled him to transcend conventional wisdom and perceive the dark reality of a divided nation, which in turn gave him the tools and courage to manage the civil war. While I don't necessarily agree with this interpretation, this thesis has been the talk of the blogshere.
Indeed, it's hard to deny the long connection between melancholy and genius. Any doubts I had were dispelled by a recent exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, "Melancholy: Genius and Insanity in the West" (travelling to Berlin shortly) which dramatizes this point with 250 works from antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the classical and Romantic eras to modern times. As Art Lovers' Paris says,
"Before the sciences were separated, melancholy was the state of mind that could touch in passing vast subjects such as philosophy, theology, literature, medicine, psychology and the arts. It was called the ‘sacred illness’, which is today referred to as ‘depression’ without taking into account its positive aspect, its mysterious duality."
In resolving these dilemmas, we are stymied again by language. The word "optimism" or phrase "positive thinking" is problematic with too much baggage. It's also culturally relative. The definition of optimism, for instance, is "a tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation." Attributed to Leibnitz (1646-1716) , it's a belief that the universe is improving and that good will ultimately triumph over evil. This definition clearly doesn't work for our moment in time, not that it worked for the Enlightenment period either, clearly deserving Voltaire's satire in Candide -- the story where we get the cultural icon of Dr. Pangloss from.
I prefer how the Chinese have defined optimism with two related but different words. The first word is more akin to the English definition; it's a naive hope for a better future regardless of the reality of the situation. The second word means looking at the reality of a situation as clearly as possible, and even if it is grim, and still be hopeful and open to possibilities. It's this that we need more of.
Studies on what makes individuals "resilient" confirms the merit of the second Chinese definition of optimism. Resilient people tend to have three things in common: they have a strong value system and ability to make meaning out of life; they are excellent improvisors and adaptors given life's events; and they are good are perceiving the reality accurately, for better or worse, in any given situation. As Diane Coutou tells in How Resilience Works (Harvard Business Review, May 2002), the so-called optimists are the least resilient if their view of reality is out of step with their context. In studying the histories of the American prisoners during the Vietnam War, the hopeful ones who thought they would be home by Christmas were the first to crash and burn. They didn't make it. In the wake of 9/11 I've noticed similar pattern amongst executives, leaders and colleagues who were diehard optimists. For a while, they all kind of become emotionally unglued, and some of them in my view haven't quite been the same since.
The science of decision-making is also helping us distinguish between adaptive and generative strategic thinking. Adaptive strategies are all about securing our survival or the status quo, whereas generative strategies are about creating new possibilities. An adaptive posture is where Julie Noreum, our wannabe "negative thinking" guru, is right (at least partly). In fact, cognitive paleontologists, the folks who study how the human brain has evolved, argue that this negative default is hardwired to some degree because our brains were formed during times of tremendous uncertainty and adversity -- namely, the last major ice age. Evolutionary speaking, our survival was more dependent on our ability to think about negative contingencies rather than positive ones, which makes some sense.
By contrast, for generative thinking, a positive frame of reference pays off. In tracking brain waves and through other experiments, cognitive psychologists demonstrate that we perceive more options and opportunities when we're in a positive mindset, and far fewer when we're in a negative or depressed fame of thinking. Moreover, therapies that force us to dwell too long on the past (like many psychoanalytical techniques) can make us too passive about our future and embittered by our victimhood. Our lived experiences confirm this as well. We've all felt a deep sense of "stuckness" when we're depressed, that dark place where solutions seem elusive and where every option seems either wrong or undesirable.
Given the challenges at hand, we need both adaptive and generative thinking strategies. But we'll get much more leverage if we emphasis the generative modus operandi because this is the mindset that will give us the kind of step-change in human ingenuity needed for a better future. Adaptive thinking will only help us react to the status quo, not reinvent our relationship to this planet. And it certainly wouldn't hurt to celebrate some successes in a positive way if we are to maximize human potential. The news that institutions make a difference in combating political violence is key information that we can use to counterbalance all of those memes that say the UN doesn't matter. And while we are at it, let's toast all of those millions of unnamed civil servants, activists, journalists, NGO workers in the trenches, and academics like Professor Mack in the trenches for helping build the foundations for a shared understanding of what is and isn't working when it comes to ensuring human security. (Mack, by the way, is already working on next year's report which will look at the hidden costs of war, such as famine and disease, noting: "We have no data on the numbers of people who die indirectly in war.")
The biggest obstacle, however, is to find a way out of this current policy climate of doom-and-gloom. A tall order, I know. But just like how a depressed mindset affects the quality of our decision-making, we simply can't afford the consequences of undue negativity: the apathy, the fatalism, and a very narrow interpretation of the alternatives we have for improving our situation. No wonder we find it tough crafting systemic solutions that get to the causes-of-the-causes of political conflict!
Lastly, as responsible change-makers in the 21st century, I think we need to forget this simple negative-positive, optimism-pessimism divide. We to recapture some of the pre-modern "mysterious duality" that drove the insight of our most cherished artists. We need to borrow that Chinese definition of optimism, a concept that lets us live in the shadow of the lightness and darkness of our situation, the ambiguity within us and around us, even though this is discomforting -- a posture described in Zaid Hassan's eloquent essay The Embrace of Unhappiness. While I have not read fellow contributor, Alan AtKisson's book, Believing Cassandra: An Optimist Looks at a Pessimist's World I suspect he might also have some wise things to say about this mindset dilemma.
But who says it best? One of America's most prolific and staunchest critics, Noam Chomsky -- not exactly a poster child for rosy interpretations of the world:
Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so. If you assume there is no hope, you guarantee there will be no hope. If you assume there is an instinct for freedom, there are opportunities to change things, there’s a chance you may contribute to making a better world. The choice is yours.
It's a choice I have to make everyday. How about you?
December 16, 2005
Getting beyond paternalism in development
Paul Theroux, the famous travel writer and former Peace Corp worker in Malawi, weighs in on the pathologies of aid and development in Africa. ("The Rock Star's Burden", The New York Times, Dec 15, 2005).
Theroux criticizes Bono and other rock stars for a simplistic approach to solving Africa's problems, like encouraging more debt relief and more aid. While Bono has probably done some good in raising these issues, throwing more money at Africa's problems will likely make things worse. As Theroux puts it:
When Malawi's minister of education was accused of stealing millions of dollars from the education budget in 2000, and the Zambian president was charged with stealing from the treasury, and Nigeria squandered its oil wealth, what happened? The simplifiers of Africa's problems kept calling for debt relief and more aid... Donors enable embezzlement by turning a blind eye to bad governance, rigged elections and the deeper reasons these countries are failing. (My emphasis.)
Interestingly, Theroux draws a parallel between Malawi and Ireland. "Both countries were characterized for centuries by famine, religious strife, infighting, unruly families, hubristic clan chiefs, malnutrition, failed crops, ancient orthodoxies, dental problems and fickle weather." Of course, Ireland is now the poster child for prosperity, an outcome few people could have imagined given its hapless history. The suggestion is that countries and communities in Africa can make similar turnarounds. Things aren't as hopeless as they seem:
Africa is a lovely place - much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth.
In other words, very often our stance vis-a-vis Africa -- and many "save the world" projects -- says way more about our psychological needs than the needs of the places we are trying to help. This is not to diminish the importance or impulse to make a difference. But we should do so with humility and a healthy level of self-awareness about our own motivations, especially how these might drive our actions and perceptions about the solutions. We also need to be better skilled at surfacing some of the out-dated assumptions in our development approaches, many of which are hard to see, so embedded they are in our institutional arrangements and cultural outlooks.
At the end of the day, I believe we should invest in bolstering human dignity in many different ways, and this will deliver "increasing returns" in terms of social and economic benefits (to use the complexity scientist, Brian Arthur's phrase.) Focusing on dignity is a solution-set that's so simple yet also so complex in practice given how development and aid is delivered today. As Theroux concludes:
Africa has no real shortage of capable people - or even of money. The patronizing attention of donors has done violence to Africa's belief in itself, but even in the absence of responsible leadership, Africans themselves have proven how resilient they can be - something they never get credit for.
Amen to that.