Spaceship Earth – Special Victims Unit

I’ve been thinking about the rise of what I would call “climate p*rn” or “climate core” where, now that suddenly everyone is feeling the heat of climate change (in some cases literally), Hollywood and the other media outlets rush out documentaries, movies, detective shows, popular interest segments on the news, etc that glorify the salacious and alarmist side of how humanity and the industrial revolution have tipped us over into cascading failures on Spaceship Earth. 

I worry that these will be 90% doom and gloom and maybe, at best, 10% “what you can do to save the world” silver bullets that give people a sense of a simple answer to an inherently complex societal problem. 

Aside from not actually grappling with what we–individually or collectively–have agency over and could do to make a positive difference, we’ll also have a hard time detecting when any positive impact we have contributed to has actually helped. Further, complex systems aren’t static and have emergent and non-linear properties. When we actually do things that might help rebalance the planet or respond to the call and shift our efforts away from extractive economics to generative ones the first emergent properties might look worse than doing nothing at all and foster yet another round of episodes of “Spaceship Earth – Special Victims Unit.”​ 

What happens if we (society) foster a population of slacktivists that feel good for watching the climate p*rn show but never get off their couches, or worse we bring that attitude to what we do and the decisions we make in our careers? In the next decade we need to find fruitful ways to balance a sense of agency, with a respect for emergence, and deep feelings of despair.

Balancing Despair, Emergence, and Agency

I suspect the disciplines of social and behavioral science, complexity economics/science, and policy work by practitioners from STS (science technology and society) fields, have all developed useful methods to balance these three competing mindsets that may find purchase within our minds as we move forward.

I have hope from a number of glimmers of light. Mariana Mazzucato–who is forcing governments to re-imagine value, public purpose and the role and interplay between governments and the private sector–is building an institute at University of City of London and doing real-world pilots around refactoring a “​Mission Economy.“​ Janine Benyus–who has focused on learning from Nature over the past few decades with her Biomimicry Institute and “​Ask Nature“​ search engine continue to quietly explore valuable lessons that architects, designers, and other authors of “ecotecture”​ can learn from. But this will take an anti-disciplinary approach. While some of these guiding lights may be deep in their fields of expertise, they don’t have much of the depth or insights into the next generation of emerging science at the heart of human nature that we have started to see, as the rise of sensing has enabled us to do “natural experiments,”​ at scale, in the wild. They also, haven’t really been involved in (or are openly and at times rightfully skeptical about) how strategic consulting really could work for the benefit of society at the scale that someone like a BCG could bring. I’m biased as I’m a senior advisor and have been behind the scenes for a while now observing how leaders at BCG think and the best analogy is that, at their best, they are the boy scouts to McKinsey’s CIA-style culture. If they really got behind “Nature Transformations” the way they’ve gotten behind digital ones we could see a phase change at the intersection of public purpose and the private sector. I also suspect that many passionate policy makers, architects, urban planners, and designers are unaware of the possibilities that the “deep wave” will bring to the challenge. In essence the scientific method has helped us build on our investments in the last centuries of science and technology and we are reaching point where these technologies are lowering the friction across atoms, bits, minds, and joules in ways that are of a different kind than ever before. We are only now seeing hints of the potential when we can “rip” a virus from atoms to bits, enlist the crowd of scientists and algorithms to explore possible ways of disarming it, and then convert those bits back into atoms using Nature as a partner in manufacturing. 

We’ll also have to finally embrace design science not just design thinking or some other flavor of marketing mumbo jumbo. In my own writings in Trillions with my co-authors from MAYA we outlined how to think like a design scientist and highlighted Mark Twain’s lovely passage from “​Life on the Mississippi“​ that illustrates that, even though it could seem daunting to imagine you could change the flow of the mighty river, you could find leverage points to shape the ecology, if you start with a good map of the territory (what designers call an “information architecture”​) and understand that emergence is a natural part of complexity’s power.

How might we operationalize all the methods that have some scientific validity and have been proven to actually work for real people, communities, and organizations at scale? How might those methods from the various fields that have been studying complex systems and collective cognition become embedded in the fabric of our tools, social networks, places, and things? How might an entirely new form of media make climate p*rn seem like old news and supplant the doom scrolling that popular culture has been trapped in for far too long?

Breaking Boundaries and Kissing the Ground

I just watched Netflix’s new documentary “Breaking Boundaries” and it’s a wonderful dive into climate resilience, but 80% is stunningly devastatingly beautiful and tragic doom and despair and 20% is what we have agency to do about it before its too late. 

Plant a tree! 

Reduce your own footprint by half each decade!

Stop destroying biodiversity in the next five years, or forever contend with the loss of three billion years worth of ready made R&D solutions from Nature’s living laboratory.

In a complimentary documentary called “​Kiss the Ground“​ dirt takes on an entirely different meaning and inner life akin to Dr. Suess’​ “​Horton Hears a Who.”​ While the documentary spends some time honestly admitting that the statistics can lead to despair and hopelessness, they spend much more time exploring real examples of how we might invest in the soil beneath our feet and bring back an incredible metropolis in each square inch that we’ve been mostly unwittingly destroying for more than five thousand years. There has been a quite revolution in soil science and a range of experimental pilots run all over the world to shift the way we see and nurture something that most of us dismiss or misunderstand. While they claim that there is a simple solution, “use the soil to sequester all the carbon we need,”​ the real world examples of the work going on gives one a real sense of how hard and yet necessary this work will be. Dirt isn’t a silver bullet but if we realize that our simplistic monocultural approaches to fertilizing and farming have got to change, and if we see a bridge for ourselves from where we are to where we could be, it may give us a chance to start the journey towards agency and we may be surprised by what emerges.

A while back I read a book called “​The Soil Will Save Us“​ that changed my perspective on soil (and made open to taking the next step and watching “Kiss the Ground.”​) One of the scientists highlighted in the book is worth learning more about, particularly if you’re looking for a model of quiet, patient and unflagging work to undo centuries of misunderstandings and mistreatments of the soil. I don’t imagine that Dr. Rattan Lal expected to have won the world food prize in 2020 (considered the Nobel for soil science) when he was a refugee helping his father tend to a small farm. He is a wonderful example of someone who started out having plenty of reasons to fall into despair. As a child he and his family had to fleee their homes during the breakup of Pakistan and India. Dr. Lal’s curiosity ultimately brought him to Ohio State University and to a lifelong quest to understand and prove out more resilient and climate friendly ways of nurturing the soil. 

When we become curious and wonder, it sparks a sense of agency, if we can stay humble, we can become attuned to the emergence of unplanned for opportunities that can generate new stories we tell ourselves and inspire in others. Curiosity, agency, a bridge to move from where we are to a new place, and the humble respect for emergence that comes with engaging in the complexities of the world are all antidotes for despair.

Al Gore famously tried to wake up the world with “An Inconvenient Truth.” and behind the scenes worked to teach a cadre of leaders how to give the talk and share the science. David Attenborough has been the voice of the “A Perfect Planet” for his whole life. In both cases they made compelling and must watch TV, but I fear that they haven’t changed what most people do or helped organizations build those lessons learned into the tools and products and media we employ every day. 

I’d hate to see a decade of Law and Order: Special Climate Victims Unit and we all become a self fulfilling prophecy.

What are ways we can balance our own need and ability to take agency as a crew member of Spaceship Earth, with the emergent and non-linear feedback loops that are naturally going to come from the complexity of the system, and with the natural feeling of despair and hopelessness that can come from the constant barrage of climate p*rn?

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