The universe is alive

Willis Harman was asked in an interview:
“Of your life experiences, the time that you have been here, what is your wisest piece of advice or the wisest thing that you know?”
He replied:
“I think the wisest thing is being humble and listening. We live in a very arrogant society. Listening has to do not only suppose with listening to myself, but listening to nature and listening to very simple people. There are things that Native Americans have said to me in just a few words, that just summarize so much. I was talking with one Native American and he got a little tired of my questions and he said, “you know you white people, you have so much trouble understanding the way we Indians look at the world, it is very simple to understand how Native Americans view things, you only have to remember two things, one is, everything in the universe is alive, the other is, we are all relatives” and that is wisdom.”

Am I worried?

Over the past few weeks the Independent has published a number of scary stories. Perhaps, the most alarming was James Lovelock’s essay,”The Earth is about to catch a morbid fever that may last as long as 100,000 years:Each nation must find the best use of its resources to sustain civilisation for as long as they can”
But they also ran stories on the end of oil, the flu pandemic and others that have now got blurred in my mind.
I have written here in a similar vein myself:
“What we often forget is that our taken for granted world is an experiment that has been running for much less time than the Norse Colonies in Greenland. No doubt for much of the time the Norse thought things were going pretty well for them and ignored the signals that things might not be as they seem.
The Tsunami was a natural disaster, but its impact on human life and well-being was as much to do with the patterns of life we have adopted as it was to do with a wall of water hitting coastlines in Asia. It was also a reminder of how fragile human life can be and, perhaps, if we are wise, a signal to be less arrogant and to pay more attention to what is going on around us.”

So the question is am I worried? Well at one level I would be a damn fool if I didn’t. But, I am older enough, that with a bit of luck, I may be dead before the full impact of these impending disasters strikes. On the other hand I have a much loved a 19 year old son, who is chronologically right in the impact zone.
If I focus on public debate and the response of our politicians and other opinion leaders, of course I’m worried. We have known for about three decades that our carbon-based civilisation was built on rocky foundations and the glaciers seem to be melting faster than the political response to what seems to happening.
But two things keep me feeling fairly cheerful. The first is a remark made by a Conservative Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, who these days would come across as a wild eyed, lefty radical. He was asked what was the most important thing in politics (I am slightly distorting the context here, it was a bit more specific than that). His response was, “Events, dear boy, events.”
This is something I find myself saying with increasing frequency these days. Lovelock might be right, but a large volcanic eruption might make him wrong. The truth is no one of us can predict the future. Events, dear boy, events makes fools of us all.
So am I saying we should do nothing at all. Far from it. I put my faith in some thing Jane Jacobs wrote more than twenty years ago:
“In its very nature, successful economic development has to be open-ended rather than goal-orientated, and has to make itself up expediently and empirically as it goes along. For one thing, unforseeable problems arise. The people who developed agriculture couldn’t foresee soil depletion. The people who developed the automobile couldn’t foresee acid rain. Earlier I defined economic development as a process of continually improvising in a context that make injecting improvisations into everyday life feasible. We might amplify this by calling development an improvisational drift into unprecedented kinds of work that carry unprecedented problems, then drifting into improvise solutions, which carry further unprecedented work carrying unprecedented problems…”
(Jane Jacobs, “Cities and the Wealth of Nations”,Penguin Books, 1986 pp221-222)
I see our most urgent task being devising and designing new contexts for productive improvisation, alongside nurturing those we can already identify. I believe if we look outside the areas of big government and industry, we may already be creating the seeds of the next civilisation, that takes account of the fact that we live in a vast network of interactions that if we play our proper part will continue to sustain us over many centuries.
Of course, my faith may be totally misplaced. The threshold beyond which there is no safe place for us may have already been passed. But then maybe is hasn’t.
So am I worried? Well, yes, but cheerfully so.

The cracks begin to show

Two telling extracts from a piece in the Guardian:
“Ofsted’s annual report on primary education says that in maths and English, teachers are so intent on covering official objectives of lessons that they fail to check if real learning is taking place. It says children are passive for too long; there is too little speaking or listening, and too often teachers ask closed questions that prevent engagement with pupils, particularly boys. Low-attaining pupils leave classes for catch-up sessions that don’t relate to the lesson in hand, and are confused upon return. Underachievement isn’t spotted in years 3 and 4, because schools concentrate on getting year-6 children through Sats – yet a quarter leave without the skills they need for secondary school. This ends their chances as effectively as the 11-plus would have done; 90% never catch up.”
“Little improves at secondary school. Ofsted says maths lessons tend to be mechanistic rather than enlightening. It concludes that the improvement in national test results is as much due to better test technique as a rise in standards. In English, most 14-year-olds spend much of the year practising for Sats instead of learning to work independently or creatively. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority says that at all ages children find it difficult to write independently because they are usually given preset “scaffolds” to write from. It notes, almost forlornly, that on the rare occasions when children can make choices in their writing, “there is evidence that pupils find the sense of ownership motivating”.”

No one is in control

Dave Pollard usually manages to find something interesting or provocative to say – and for someone who claims to suffer from procrastination he seems staggering productive. His site “how to save the world” is yet another one that deserves exploring rather than just dropping to see the latest thing he has to say.
In a recent entry he attacks the cult of leadership,taking on Peter Block’s view that leadership is often a form of paternalism that infantalises the led. But, the point he makes that resonates most strongly with me is this one:
“Block understands the essence of complex systems: No one is in control. What gets done (for better or worse) gets done as a result of the staggeringly complex interactions and personal decisions of everyone. Even in the most hierarchical organizations, far more energy is expended finding workarounds for incompetent management decisions and policies (without offending management, of course) than is spent implementing the odd intelligent insight that management, with all the resources at its disposal, ‘manages’ to come up with. Employees, and customers (who are often treated only slightly less paternalistically than employees), actually have almost all the good ideas that would be needed to make any organization much more successful, but it is taboo to listen to them, to even be accessible to them. That would make the leaders look weak, as if perhaps they don’t have all the answers. And that, of course, is unthinkable.”

Most of us recognise, at least on occasion, that “no one is in control”, but tend to shy away from the notion, because it seems too frightening. But, equally, it can be seen as a very liberating idea, with the caveat that if no one is control, then we all bear some responsibility for what is going on.

A bit like purposive drift

Paul Graham has some interesting advice for the young. He talks about how mostly when adults give advice to the young about their future, it is in terms of what their goals are. He argues that instead:
“I think the solution is to work in the other direction. Instead of working back from a goal, work forward from promising situations. This is what most successful people actually do anyway.
In the graduation-speech approach, you decide where you want to be in twenty years, and then ask: what should I do now to get there? I propose instead that you don’t commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterward.
It’s not so important what you work on, so long as you’re not wasting your time. Work on things that interest you and increase your options, and worry later about which you’ll take.”

Now those of you that have followed my writing for some time will recognise that I believe that Paul Graham’s advice holds for all of us young and old alike. Of course, we all have goals – I have the goal of finishing this entry – but my sense is that it is wise to keep your goals short-term rather than long-term and to be willing to change them as circumstances change. So my advice would be, look for the promising situation you can engage with now, rather than trying to identify the long-term goal that may never happen.

If you really want to panic

An excellent piece in the Guardian about Professor Richard James, head of the School of Molecular Medical Sciences at the University of Nottingham. He has spent the past thirty years studying bacteria and what he has to say is alarming:
“… When he hears the mantra that cleaner hospitals will reduce infections, he all but clutches his head in his hands. In his view, no matter how clean our hospitals become, we have almost lost the war. Unless new antibiotics are discovered, he believes, we may have to close all our hospitals in the next five years or so.
‘Between 1940 and 1970 – the golden age of antibiotics – we developed thousands of the drugs,’ he explains. ‘And then we squandered them. We fed antibiotics to chickens and cattle. We handed them out to people with a cold. Each time you try to kill bacteria, you’re forcing them to select for survival. Now we’ve basically bred bugs that flourish in a hospital environment and they’re just waiting to bite. You’ve got sick people in there, people having transplants taking drugs to suppress their immune systems, HIV patients, the elderly and the young. And yet nothing is being done.'”

The problem of the promiscous use of antibiotics has been known about for years, but like so many of the problems that face us now, we seem to respond by a brief period of panic and then the issue fades until it returns with greater force. So, if you’re worried about Bird Flu, read this article and you can have something else to be alarmed about.

A cheerful start to the New Year

One of my favourite sites recently asked a set of scientists and thinkers what was their dangerous idea. There are many gems among them, but my favourite is from Roger Schank, whose dangerous idea is that “…school is bad for kids — it makes them unhappy and as tests show — they don’t learn much.”
Instead, he proposes that:
“Schools need to be replaced by safe places where children can go to learn how to do things that they are interested in learning how to do. Their interests should guide their learning. The government’s role should be to create places that are attractive to children and would cause them to want to go there.”

Now there’s cheery thought to begin 2006.