ON THE FLUTTERINGS OF BUTTERFLY WINGS
in Brisbane, November 14, 1994,
A few weeks back I took an early morning canter into cyberspace on the back of my clunky old ISP horse, Pegasus, and found the following electronic mail message waiting for me:
Subject: What's your opinion?
I don't know Jay Hanson but there he or she was, this total stranger, 'spamming' me and dozens of other subscribers to Pegasus and other APC subscribers around the globe (APC is the Association for Progressive Communications, the public path to the internet), with his or her personal vision of apocalypse. I have to admit I burst out laughing, not just at the message itself, but at the whole context in which I was reading it. Me sitting quietly at my computer in St Kilda Australia innocently logging onto Pegasus, all those other people sitting quietly at their machines in North America and Sweden and the UK logging onto their networks too, and Jay Hansen, whoever she or he is, in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, electronically bombarding us all with 'the end of the world as we know it'!
Naturally I wanted to share my amusement with someone else so I 'pegged' a note to a friend in Wollongong, a physicist. Within an hour or two, he'd logged onto his network, read what I'd sent him and keyed me a half serious warning about the dangers of being caught in a 'web node.' Plus a nonsense ditty he'd composed to the tune of Don't cry for me Argentina about playing the flute in a production of Evita . Plus a complaint about a pulled muscle in his back! The sort of personal chatter that nurtures friendships, 'virtual' or otherwise, across time and space. But perhaps not surprisingly, he made no reference to the 'chaotic' behaviour of our social systems which was the content of Jay Hanson's message. It was too early in the day for that!
That same morning I picked up what was then the latest issue of New Scientist, bright red and yellow number called 'The Future: into the unknown' and wandered with it across the road to one of my favourite 'offices', a cafe owned by a bloke called Angelo. It's almost a daily habit when I'm at home, this wandering across the road to Angelo's cafe. Or to the George. Or Leo's. Or any other of the dozens of cafes near where I live.
Angelo saw me coming and was already at the espresso machine making my usual, a weak caffe latte, as I pulled a chair out from under my favourite table. Sometimes we have a chat, Angelo and me, and sometimes we don't. On this day I had this 'research' to do -- that's what I call it when I take magazines or books across the road to read -- so we didn't. Angelo understands. Sometimes he lends me a biro if I've forgotten mine. For notes I say. And almost always I just hold it in my hand for the next hour, sip my milk coffee and stare out the window!
By now you might be wondering what all this has to do with 'the future of work', but please be patient. There is (perhaps) method in my madness as I hope you might soon see.
So there I am on a Thursday morning sipping weak caffe latte at Angelo's cafe and reading New Scientist magazine while everyone else is rushing off to their 'proper' jobs in 'proper' offices. There's only one other customer in the cafe at this time of the morning, a pale faced young man with beautiful wavy dark hair down to his waist and a full moustache. Another local, so we smile at one another, and would you believe it, he's reading New Scientist too!! The same issue as me. The one about the future. We note the co-incidence and laugh. Has anyone else read this particular issue, Number 1947 of 15 October 1994? I mention it because it's a very accessible science mag. for non scientists like me. And because one of your other guests today, Ian Lowe, writes a regular column for it. In this particular issue he was writing about, amongst other things, 'the future of work' in the timber industry. A piece called 'When the chips are down, small is better'.
In the supplement to this issue of New Scientist, writer Fred Pearce takes us on 'A Postenvironmental Adventure' of Planet Earth in the year 2045. In Fred's imagined future, one of the world's largest nations is or was a sprinkle of tropical atolls across the Pacific Ocean. This island state is called Kiribati and its resource base includes Earth's last tuna fishery plus inestimable deposits of manganese nodules and other submarine minerals waiting to be vacuumed off the ocean floor. With such valuable resources within their territorial waters, you'd think the Kiribatians would be a wealthy people. They're not, or not in Fred Pearce's future. They're all living in shanty ghettos in Wellington, New Zealand, because their island homes homes have been swamped by the rising sea. The Greenhouse Effect has turned them into refugees.
Pearce reports that by the early decades of the twenty first century, hundreds of icebergs the size of small nations were breaking off Antarctica because of global warming. Scientists warned that if the whole Antarctic ice cap should break up and melt, sea levels would rise by around 7 metres which would threaten even the more industrialised nations of the world!
The oil industry, one of the major producers of greenhouse gases, interpreted this to mean 'business as usual' but with a few cosmetic changes around the edges. Their 'solution' was an 'end of pipeline' waste disposal service to collect CO2, the primary greenhouse gas, in liquified form from the consumers of fossil fuels and dump it on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. They called their technofix the CarbonNet and in Pearce's story, you can still see its rusting pipelines littering the whole of western Europe. Pearce even suggests the infrastructure and maintenance costs of the CarbonNet and the associated short sighted thinking precipitated the collapse of Europe's industrial base.
By 2045, a new generation of corporate scientists were claiming the ultimate eco-techno fix to global warming. Photoplankton. Little floating things, as you know, that manufacture carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water using the energy of the sun, and emit oxygen as their only 'externality'. What we call photsynthesis as in what trees do. But it seems there aren't enough trees to absorb all the CO2 in 2045. So then plankton, great heavily fertilised farms of it in the Southern Ocean off the coast of Antarctica.
These marine farms are collectively called the Carbon Sink Facility (because isn't nature just a sink for us humans to pour all our crap into?) owned by a corporate giant called AntarctiCorp. 'We are building a highly tuned global thermostat down here' one of AntarctiCorp's scientists told Pearce in his imagined future. And the next step? Control of the world's climate of course. No single corporation has ever wielded such power.
Fred Pearce covers the whole globe with his dystopic extrapolations from the present to a date fifty years hence: giant airtrains blasting manufactured ozone into the atmosphere to fill in the 'holes'; privatised remnants of Amazonian rainforests fenced off for wealthy ecotourists; indigenous peoples who once lived in the forests being forced into prostitution just to feed and clothe themselves; the tropical forests of central Africa woodchipped into extinction; zoos and nature reserves being funded by members of new animist religions who worshipped the planet's last 'wild' creatures; local cooling known as the 'Aerosol Effect' over the megacities of China, where the sun never breaks through the toxic clouds of pollution; in the Arctic circle, mass poisonings of birds and polar bears from organo-chlorine compounds developed in the twentieth century; loss of male fertility in indigenous human Canadian and Siberian peoples caused by the same chlorinated compounds; methane pouring out of the melting Siberian tundra to exacerbate the Greenhouse Effect; and on and on it goes. Environmental disasters, conflict, sabotage, short sighted technofixes ... until it seems like the only positive news in this post-nuclear comedy is what Fred Pearce describes as a pan-African agricultural revival which, he says is nurtured by Islamic fundamentalism and the demise of the World Bank!
At this point, Angelo was passing my table so I caught his eye and ordered another caffe latte, then resumed the serious business of staring out the cafe window! Another man called Fred came to mind. Fred Polak, a Dutch sociologist who, in the late '40s, wrote a book about how we humans simultaneously live in the present and that Other place, the future. About how we imagine that mythic Other Place to explain our present and how our images of that place, the future, then 'act as magnets on our behaviour in the present.' to precipitate social change.
Polak's book was translated into English by Elise Boulding in 1961, as 'The image of the future'. As Boulding explains:
At the macrohistorical level, the rise and fall of images of the future precede or accompany the rise and fall of cultures. The rise and fall effect comes because images of the future are like time-bombs which explode and spend their strength at certain points in history, so that new ones must be created. ... He (Pollak) conceives of certain images as having had unusual potency and containing in fact, triple charges. Each explosion creates a breach in time, a sharp discontinuity, by producing a vision for the particular culture in which the explosion takes place, of a totally new possibility. The society then begins to mobilise its energies for a response to that vision.
Polak sifted through many cultures' images of tomorrow and found that, in most of them, the future was a positive place where the problems of the present had been solved. It was a place for people to look forward to. He suggests these positive visions were what mobilised Europe towards those great periods of social transformation we now call 'the Renaissance', 'the Reformation', 'the Enlightenment' And in more down to earth terms, such images of a better world mobilised us towards the abolition of slavery and child labour in most parts of the world, the emancipation of women, towards parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, the eight hour working day ... all those milestones which we in the 'West' now hold sacred, but which were once considered by conservative forces, as 'impossible'.
Then came the twentieth century and the future changed. That Other Place we live in became Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' (published in 1932) or George Orwell's '1984' (published of course, in 1948). A scientifically rational place, more totalitarian even than Plato's imagined Republic. From the middle of the twentieth century, our future, that Other Place we live in simultaneously with the present, had become a mushroom cloud, a Silent Spring or Coca Cola consumerism. Or more recently, this New Scientist's 'postenvironmental adventure' and Jay Hanson's apocalyptic millenium.
But if Polak's hypothesis about our visions of the future 'act(ing) as magnets on our behaviour in the present' to precipitate social change is correct, then what sort of future are these twentieth century images drawing us towards? I mean, who wants to live in Pearce's 'Postenvironmental Adventure'? Or in Huxley's 'Brave New World'? Or indeed, in any of the other hightech futures being sold to us now by mainstream interests?
Fortunately our journey through time is not a nice straight predictable line from a known past through this moment we are living now to a future that is predetermined. That we ever thought it was is just another a symptom of the way we in the 'Western world' have seen the universe these past few hundred years, like it's some great clockwork machine which runs according to nice neat straight-line laws that can be 'discovered' by 'objective' observation and experimentation. As though nature is something separate from us, something 'out there', a resource to be 'conquered', 'controlled', 'dominated', exploited for 'mankind's' benefit, but not of course, for 'womankind's'.
In this world view, we people are resources too. Human Resources that need to be 'managed' and whose 'lives' are separate from our 'work' -- and all those other dualities we suffer from: 'mind' separate from 'body', subject from object, 'them' from 'us', individual from the community, et cetera. All those old ways of seeing ourselves and rest of creation that have brought us to where we are now ...
But what else is there? Where are those collective dreams which 'act as magnets on our behaviour in the present.' to pull us somewhere new? Somewhere better?
Even New Scientist is asking that question. Let me just quote from the editorial of 15 October 1994:
The view that we are at the 'end of history' or, at least, that there are no viable alternative goals for politicians other than liberal capitalism and affluent consumer-oriented culture, suggest that fragmentation may now be a permanent feature of post-postmodern capitalism.
And again in the October edition of the influential quarterly 'Social Alternatives' magazine (which I mention because it is produced here in Brisbane): an article by Frank Stilwell called 'Political-Economic Systems: A Fourth Way'.
Certainly, the failures of free-market economics and of centralised economic planning point to the need for a new direction. Concurrently, the corporatist alternative, exemplified by the Japanese 'miracle', seems to have run out of steam: it evidently has difficulty in re-generating dynamism and innovation in economic life and runs counter to demands for diversity and autonomy in political and social life. On an international scale, the institutions of corporate capitalism recurrently frustrate the achievement of more balanced socio-economic development and the extension of democratic principles. There seems to be no broadly acceptable model. The resulting vacuum is manifest in part in a profound cynicism about political ideals and economic institutions or, at best, in a dominant pragmatism. In these circumstances it seems appropriate for social scientists to start more seriously exploring a broader array of possibilities.
And again in Melbourne's hallowed daily, The Age. Saturday Extra, November 5. A big bold headline 'Out of order', and the question 'What's wrong with the world?' A two part feature by foreign editor Graham Barrett looking at 'why the world isn't working.' War, famine, environmental disaster' the intro blasts. 'The international system has failed to cope with the challenges of the post-Cold War era.'
At a point in history when the world should be reaping the fruits of communism's collapse and the end of an ideological rivalry held in place by the threat of an exchange of nuclear weapons, it is confronted by an apparent failure of the international system to cope with the challenges of the post-Cold War era ...
So is a different future possible? Or is further 'fragmentation' all there is? Must we wait for someone else to lead us out of this dead end, as the New Scientist editorial suggests? Or is something else happening that the editors of New Scientist and all those very important people who sit in think-tanks either haven't recognised yet, or haven't been able to articulate?
Which brings me, in some unpredictable, nonlinear sort of way, to butterflies. To the gentle flutterings of their wings. Because once upon a time, in the days when computers were still noisy things made from long wires and vacuum tubes, there lived in Cambridge Massachussets, a young meteorologist called Edward Lorenz, or so the story goes (James Gleick, Chaos: making a new science, Cardinal, 1988). Lorenz wanted to understand the physical laws that governed the universe, as Newton had three hundred years before. More specifically, he wanted to understand the laws that made our weather what it is. So he spent his days feeding equations into a big computer then watching it excrete row upon row of digits onto blank sheets of paper. The numbers repeated themselves in quite predictable patterns which Lorenz interpreted as west winds swinging to the north and cyclones spinning around the planet and such. Then one day he took a short cut. He fed his machine a number rounded off to three decimal places instead of his usual six, a difference of only one in a thousand, and went away for a cup of coffee. By the time he got back to his computer, his printout had gone crazy. That very small difference in input (one in a thousand) had produced a completely unpredictable output.
At the time, Lorenz couldn't understand why this new set of patterns was so different from anything he'd ever seen before, but he had a hunch he was 'onto something'. Other people in other disciplines were observing similar nonlinearities and were intuiting that they were 'onto something' too. Soon that 'something' was given a name: Chaos. Or 'the sensitive dependence on initial conditions'. And so another cog was smashed in those old mechanistic, reductionist ways of seeing the world. To quote Stanford economist Brian Arthur, 'We're finally beginning to recover from Newton.'
Chaos is about complex, unpredictable systems in which 'everything affects everything else' . As James Gleik notes in his 'Chaos: making a new science',
this translates into what is only half jokingly known as the Butterfly Effect the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York.
Which is why I want to talk with you about butterflies, about the gentle flutterings of their wings. All those tentative present day thoughts and actions that might one day transform this great complex and unpredictable system we live in, but which are yet invisible to many people's eyes. And please note, these are the reflections of a writer, an artsworker, not a scientist -- and I probably take extreme liberties with the science of chaos, and even misinterpret it! My apologies to all scientists. But this is my response to Jay Hanson's spam.
When you are consciously looking for butterflies, you see them everywhere: all those questionings of patriarchal, hierarchical ways of doing things; all those rediscoverings, reinterpretings of our pasts that give us a fuller understanding of who we are; all that hungering for a sense of community and the re-emergence of cafes and other local venues where we can enjoy being with other people and get to know one another deeper; all those challenges to centralised, anonymous government; all those new grassroots movements like Landcare that ignore fences and shire boundaries and other human barriers to repairing the damage done to the biosphere over the last few hundred years; all those dialogues in cyberspace that challenge institutional and political boundaries; all the young women in universities who are now outnumbering young men in many traditionally nonfemale disciplines; all the interdisciplinary research programs that look at whole systems rather ever smaller bits and pieces of parts; all those indigenous peoples who have refused to let their cultures die and are now demanding the right to determine their own destiny in their own terms (... and not just here in Queensland where some of the country's most innovative land, marine and community management programs are being developed by indigenous groups); all those small rural communities, too few of them still, that are growing rather than fading away; all those men who are rethinking what it is to be men, as us women have had to rethink ourselves in decades past; all those New Age borrowings from other cultures in other times and other places that put fresh meaning into our denuded western lives; all those new syntheses from modern science Relativity, the Uncertainty Principle, Gaia, the Big Bang, Complexity which like that nonlinear phenomenon we now call Chaos, help us transcend the old dualisms of the past; all those challenges from philosophy and the social sciences to the notion of the 'individual' as the primary unit of society; all those questionings of the capacity of both free market capitalism and socialist centralised economic planning to provide all six billion of us citizens of Earth with opportunities to live rich and fulfilling lives; all those celebrations of diversity and pluralism when it is still so easy to fall prey to intolerance and dogmatism and prejudice and sexism and racism and xenophobia; and all those peaceful resolutions of conflict that could have very easily turned violent; and all those 'shift(s) from material growth to inner growth' which are promoted by many contemporary social movements.
These are some of the fragile, precious flutterings of butterflies' wings from which the future might be created. These and the daily choices you and I make or encounter in our everyday present. Like getting to know our neighbours and chatting about more than just the weather; like shopping at local stores and knowing the names of the people behind the tills; like telecommuting for part of the week or just plain working from home so we can spend more time with the people we love; like putting relationships with family and friends and colleagues and the rest of nature at the top of our list of priorities; like making time for long, slow, caring conversations; like 'taking a package' and setting up your own small business based on values that are important to you; like moving into an inner city apartment so you don't need a car to get around, or riding a bicycle or walking wherever you can; like committing yourself to voluntary simplicity instead of mindless consumerism; like transferring your savings to an ethical investment fund; like growing your own fruit and vegetables or buying locally produced food; like composting all your organic waste and recycling the rest; like volunteering to revegetate degraded land, or nurse someone with AIDS, or be a surrogate grandparent or aunt or uncle; like being socially and politically engaged to make our institutional structures more democratic and sensitive to the full range of human needs and to the needs of other species; like installing a solar power system and a rainwater tank and/or recycling your grey water; like making responsible consumer choices, like not buying products produced by companies that pollute the natural environment or exploit other human beings for example; like withdrawing your labour from these companies or working from within (or without) to change them. All those individual actions, small and tentative though they might seem now, but which when multiplied by a hundred, a thousand, a million, a hundred million people, have the power to transform whole societies, whole nations, the whole world. Because that's how I reckon social change happens ....
But what is mobilising us, or some of us, to voluntarily change our behaviour in these small but flutteringly significant ways? Are we responding to some shared image of the future, some collective vision of a world that is better than the present, as Fred Polak would suggest?
I rather suspect we might be, even though our images of this future are still very fuzzy, very poorly defined. And I think we've already given it a name: 'global sustainablity'. Or a 'sustainable society.'
A 'sustainable society' was certainly the vision my organisation, Imagine The Future, was founded upon. We talk very generally now about 'a society in which we live more harmoniously with ourselves, with one another, and with the other species we share the planet with' but clearly there are a few fairly basic 'bottom lines' to sustainability and it will take much more than a few business-as-usual clichés about 'sustainable development' from our business and political leaders to get us there. As Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute writes (it just happens that I'm quoting Brown but many other people are writing such analyses):
Among the principles of sustainability are the following: Over the long term, species extinction cannot exceed species evolution; soil erosion cannot exceed soil formation; forest destruction cannot exceed forest regeneration; carbon emissions cannot exceed carbon fixation; fish catches cannot exceed the regenerative capacity of fisheries; and human births cannot exceed human deaths.Other people associated with the World Resources Institute, a Washington based environmental think-tank, argue that if we are to transform our unsustainable present into a globally sustainable future, we'll have to make at least six fundamental transitions 'within a very few decades.'
1. A demographic transition to a roughly stable world population.These are transitions that present us with formidable challenges but they're not impossible. Indeed I've been watching with great interest lately how various sectors are mobilising to meet the challenges. At the World Congress of Architects in Chicago last June, for example, the International Union of Architects ratified a Declaration of Interdependence for a Sustainable Future. Much of the work for this document was done by one of Imagine The Future's supporters, Allan Rodgers of the Architecture Department at Melbourne University. I give it to you because it serves as a useful model for other professional groups who might want to make a similar commitment to transforming their own professions.
But let's just put a little
flesh onto the bones of this possible world -- and I'll use my own community,
St Kilda to do this. So let's just rewind ... I'm there at my computer
again taking another early morning canter into cyberspace aboard my super
efficient set of twenty first century chips (or whatever they're called
by then) for a face-to-face chat with a few colleagues. My old friend
in Wollongong of course, plus some fellow global villagers who live in
Altamira on the Xingu River in the deepy forested Amazon Basin, Llasa
in now-independent Tibet, and Aral'sk, a sustainable fishing town on the
banks of the once-again wide blue Aral Sea. (You might remember that by
the 1990s, the Aral Sea had been considered one of the world's greatest
ecological and social disasters. Some authorities even predicted it would
cease to exist by the end of the century because of the damage done by
some mad megascheme to irrigate cotton and rice. )
For most of our existence as
identifyably human beings, we have been what enthnographers, anthroprologists
and archaeologists call hunters and gathers. Or more correctly, 'gatherers
and hunters' since women, traditionally the 'gatherers', provide around
80% of the food in these economies.
The first signs of declining food production are evident in the period before 800, when the skeletons from burials of the period show higher infant and female mortality and increasing levels of deficency diseases brought about by falling nutritional standards. A reduction in the food surplus on which the ruling elite together with the priestly class and army depended would have had major social consequences. Attempts were made to increase the amount of food taken from the peasant cultivators, leading to internal revolt. Conflict between the cities over the declining resources would have intensified, leading to more warfare. The fall in food supplies and the increasing competition for what was available led to very high death rates and a catastrophic fall in polulation, making it impossible to sustain the elaborate superstructure the Maya had built upon their limited environmental base. Within a few decades the cities were abandoned and no more stelae erected to commemorate rulers. Only a small number of peasants continued to live in the area. The deserted fields and cities, buried under dense jungle, were not found again until the nineteenth century.
Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean provides a particularly poignant case study of the rise and fall of a complex society. Pollen analysis shows that when the first Polynesians arrived with their chickens and rats and traditional subsistence crops in about 400CE the island was heavily wooded. The first arrivals immediately began clearing the forest for their gardens for fuelwood and for logs to build houses and fishing canoes. The staple food for these newcomers was sweet potato which grew very easily in these new conditions and this meant that significant time and human energy was available to develop the new society's ceremonial rituals. These rituals took place on sophisticated platforms and involved the erection of giant stone statues, some of them twenty foot high. The Islanders dragged these giants from the quarry on tracks made from the trunks of trees.
It took a thousand years for the Polynesians to completely deforest Easter Island. The collapse of the society was so sudden that many of the giant statues still lie half finished in the island quarry. People were forced to live in caves and stone shelters, or in huts made from reeds because there was not enough timber left for them to construct their traditional houses. But I'll let Clive Ponting describe what happened next:
So all those doomsday scenarios might yet prove correct. Our culture too might collapse. Melbourne, Sydney Brisbane, New York, Beijing might all be reclaimed, like the once great Mayan cities, by regrowth forest. Or instead, like the cities of Sumer, by shifting desert sands. It could happen. But then again there are those flutterings of those butterflies wings ... And you and me who can make a difference.
Painting the future real
Imagine The Future Inc
[Page history: created and first published on www.ecoversity.org.au as part of Painting the future real (1995-97), the prototype for Redreaming the plain (1998-2002); taken off-line in 1998 and re-posted in its original form in July 2004 as a web archive. For more information contact email@example.com.]