Understanding the environment: Learning and communication
Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

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Understanding the environment: Learning and communication

3 Section activities

Activity 2A: Exploring the global implications of different mindsets

In this activity the aim is to investigate the implications of different mindsets with regards to the future unfolding of events on a global scale.


So far, you have focused your attention on exploring your personal cognitive style and multiple intelligences. I would now like to turn your attention to a much larger organisational scale, to consider models of global futures.

Robert Costanza (Costanza, 2000) proposed four verbal models of our immediate future. All four scenarios recognise the fact that we are currently in 'overshoot' – i.e. we are using up natural resources faster than their ability to replenish themselves, or our ability to find appropriate replacements, while at the same time overwhelming natural systems with our wastes. The first verbal model is a pessimistic one and appropriately named 'Mad Max', referring to the 1979 movie of a dystopian world. The second scenario is called 'Big Government' and describes the introduction of bureaucratic top-down controls to limit our resource use similar to those experienced in the UK during the rationing days of the Second World War. The third scenario refers to another futuristic series, 'Star Trek'. Here, rapid technological advances remove all natural limits. Finally, 'Ecotopia' is a vision of self-limiting individuals and communities, voluntarily reducing their own levels of resource consumption to return within the Earth's carrying capacity.

Click on the hyperlinks below to access the scenarios:

Based on your own experience, I would like you to choose the one of these four scenarios which you think we might be heading towards. Your selection will reflect your mental models of the situation, which can then be compared to those of your fellow students. Use the Probable Future Poll to put forward your choice.

Open poll now...

The second choice will indicate which vision you would wish to achieve. Use the Hoped Future Poll to put forward your choice.

Open poll now...

These visions can be translated into support for specific types of political 'interventions', especially when they leave the realms of fiction and are sold as the objective truth backed up with facts. John Dryzek, in his book The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses describes narratives such as those outlined above as 'discourses':

A discourse is a shared way of apprehending the world. Embedded in language, it enables those who subscribe to it to interpret bits of information and put them together into coherent stories or accounts. Discourses construct meanings and relationships, helping to define common sense and legitimate knowledge. Each discourse rests on assumptions, judgements, and contentions that provide the basic terms for analysis, debates, agreements, and disagreements. If such shared terms did not exist, it would be hard to imagine problem-solving in this area at all, as we would have continually to return to first principles.

(Dryzek, 2005)

Discourses can be analysed by examining the ways in which their messages are communicated in the form of narratives, just like Costanza's four visions above. Discourse narratives generally have a chronological order, and they involve a cast of actors including victims, villains and heroes.

Have a second look at the four visions and see if you can tease out who Costanza paints as the victims, villains and heroes. Now compare these to who you think are most to 'blame' for our social and environmental ills, and those individuals and groups that you believe will provide the solution. Does your selection still support your voting preferences?



What I present now is my particular perspective, so please don't assume that this is the 'right' answer to this activity. You may have a very different, but equally valid, perspective.

I voted for 'Mad Max' in the Probable Future Poll and 'Ecotopia' in the Hoped Future Poll. In my own work, I argue that society is determined by, and alternates between, the two dominant discourses of Promethean techno-fix (Star Trek) and administrative rationalism (Big Government). Both discourses promote the centralisation of power in the hands of national and international institutions of governance, science and business. Whether capitalist or communist, this global process of centralisation has consistently undermined local control over resource management, replacing it with an homogenised, ubiquitous and hierarchical bureaucratic structure which increasingly de-skills and disempowers local communities. These discourses portray local communities as both victims and villains: they are responsible for desertification, deforestation and biodiversity loss as a result of their overpopulation and resource mismanagement; but these communities are also the victims – stuck in a vicious cycle of environmental degradation, self abuse and poverty. The heroes are the technical, scientific, policy-making, enforcing and enterprising institutions which bring advanced technical know-how and establish limits on exploitation (and pollution) through financial incentives and/or punitive restrictions. Solutions are devised by experts at the international level through academic conferences, leadership meetings and international conventions. I believe that, rather than taking us towards an ecologically-sustainable and socially-just future, these two dominant discourses are, in fact, making many people feel powerless towards controlling their environmental and social impacts. For me, this is a one-way ticket towards a 'Mad Max' future.

The only other desirable alternative is ecological autonomy, which emphasises an agenda of decentralisation through the promotion of human rights, self-determination, and localised community-based and ecologically-sustainable resource management underpinned by a systemic collaborative learning approach. By making the local sustainable, the global crisis is in turn resolved and there is therefore limited need for international conventions etc. This discourse therefore turns the situation on its head. It identifies the centralising heroes as the villains, who enslave and subjugate the weak to siphon away ever diminishing resources (and leaving the weak with, in turn, greater levels of environmental degradation). These increasingly powerful minorities are depicted variously (depending on the political persuasion) as either the capitalist rich or communist party hierarchy. The victims and heroes are the local communities, who, through subversive and non-violent direct action, regain control over their localities and associated resources.

John Dryzek goes on to say towards the end of his book:

Prometheans believe that the current trajectory of liberal capitalism is unproblematical, and that all we need to do is leave it alone to provide abundance for humanity, in the future as in the past. Ecological modernisers, in contrast, recognize that laissez-faire liberal capitalism is environmentally destructive. Thus they seek an ecological restructuring of capitalism that respects the constraints imposed by this economic system on political action, and which is consistent with the basic imperatives of the system. If one accepts the Promethean viewpoint, then the matter ends. On the other hand, if one rejects that viewpoint – and I argued that there are good reasons to do so – then the second quality demanded by an intelligent approach to environmental affairs comes into play.

This second quality is the capacity to facilitate and engage in social learning in an ecological context. Environmental issues feature high degrees of uncertainty and complexity, which are magnified as ecological systems interact with social, economic, and political systems. Thus we need institutions and discourses which are capable of learning – not least about their own shortcomings.

(Dryzek, 2005)

It is beyond the scope of this block to go into detailed descriptions of methodologies that apply a systemic, empowering and bottom-up process to the management of complex situations. Instead, I have focused on the extremely straightforward 'learning process' outlined in this block's Study Guide. However, for those of you curious to discover examples of more sophisticated cybernetic processes, I would thoroughly recommend looking out for applications of Stafford Beer's 'Viable System Model' (VSM). Excellent case studies of VSM use can be found on the Viable System Model Guide website.


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