“Stay safe”?! White Privilege, #brexit and WTAF

I know a young Malaysian woman.  We bumped into each other this evening, me three pints in.  There was of course only one possible topic of conversation.

As we parted, I said “stay safe”.

WTAF, that I have to say that?  I have a hijabi friend who is going to be living in London, and I worry about her.  I have (a few) BME friends. I worry about them.  Sooner or later, as a ‘leftist’ I will perhaps have to worry about myself.  WTAF.

How to be an ally?

Well, knowing that this fear and uncertainty is something something that BME people have already been living with for a Very. Long. Time is a start.


On the Hideous Whiteness Of Brexit: “Let us be honest about our past and our present if we truly seek to dismantle white supremacy”


This. White Skin Privilege Explained on everyday feminsim

This. Explaining White Skin Privilege to a Broke White Person.

This. Straight Allies, White Anti-Racists, Male Feminists (and Other Labels That Mean Nothing to Me)
WTAF?  Is it actually “what just actually happened?” or is it “(how) have I been so blind for so long?”

Here we go again. Can I sit this one out? Prob not.

Shit just gets realer and realer, doesn’t it?

Utter uncertainty about pretty much everything political (the environment stuff – especially carbon emissions and sea level rise – are locked in now).  Who will lead the Tories? Who will lead Labour?  Will they even exist a year from now?  Will we actually leave the EU? Under what conditions? Will Scotland flee?  Will the far-right get ever more emboldened?  Will life become ever more horrible for everyone who isn’t acceptable to the far right (anyone not white, not Christian, anyone leftie, anyone “different”).

In all this confusion, there is an even sadder certainty. And that is that the exhortations of the “left” will just get louder, and they will stage loads of rallies and marches and call it organising/movement-building.

I just got this from “Compass” [see this on the last event of theirs I went to]

Hi Marc,

This is a moment of great threat for our country and all of us living here. It is the job of progressives to come together and turn this threat into an opportunity; to figure out what we want our country to be and how we can get there. We can see more than ever that our political system is badly broken, and over the last few years the Compass network with others across the UK have been thinking long and hard about how we might fix it.

More than ever, now is the time we need to get together and start to do it. We need a new electoral system and we need to devolve power…

It continues in this vein for another seven long paragraphs.  So I wrote back this.

What will you do DIFFERENTLY than what you have done before?  What will the format of these meetings be? What will you do to minimise the danger of them being dominated by the loudest and most confident (middle-class, white, mostly male).  What skills will your facilitators have to deal with conflict?  How will you make sure these don’t just become pity parties and opportunities for miserable people to vent their anger/fear etc? (that is the beginning of politics, not its end, but so often in the past organisations like Compass have staged these emotathons (look it up on google if you like).

There’s you, there’s NEF and the “New Economy Organisers Network” and Global Justice Now all sending out these emails, but none of you ever explains how. you. will. organise. things. differently.

There will be no reply. If there is, it will be more defensive bollocks, lacking reflection, honesty or anything useful.  But can I afford to sit this out, as the country drifts towards… the 1930s?  Can I still pass the mirror test?  (I haven’t been able to for years, truth be told).

Update: And there WAS a reply –

Thanks for emailing Marc.
There is certainly enough aggression, anger and condescension in the world right now without you contributing to it in an email in this way.
All the best
Jacqui Howard 
National Organiser
0774 6330 422 | 0207 4630 631

And my reply to that was

And there is certainly enough smug and inadequate “activism” without you adding to it.

I would have been impressed and surprised if you had made an effort to answer the question (because you can’t), instead of tone policing.

Thanks SO MUCH.

Quote-mining Stephen Schneider

The late Stephen Schneider made a careful elucidation of the dilemmas facing those who want to warn about the risk of climate  in a 1988 Discover interview,

“On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.”

It was “successfully” quote-mined (and taken out of context) by denialists.

“On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

This comes from Kaitlin Alexander, btw. It reminds me of  John Kenneth Galbraith’s explanation (somewhere) of having to make sure that no individual sentence could be used by McCarthyites. One time they edited a sentence with ellipses to make it look like he was a commie, and was able to show how they’d quote-mined…

Brexit and climate – is the world too complex for our political institutions?

The British people have narrowly voted to leave the European Union. Britain’s elites are in a state of bewilderment and fear not seen since the Global Financial Crisis hit in September 2008. Already the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will step down, and the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is also being challenged.  With the Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon pushing for another independence referendum,  the break-up of the United Kingdom is a distinct possibility.

Australians, having seen five Prime Ministerships in as many years between June 2010 and September 2015 will be familiar with such volatility. In fact, there are interesting parallels between the crisis of neoliberalism and its consequences, and crisis of climate change. Both are examples of the increasingly stark inability of our existing political and social institutions to cope with an ever messier and inter-connected world.. Both are ‘wicked problems‘ which need co-operation across borders and generations to be managed, (if not solved). The “Brexit” and the ongoing silence around climate change among political elites make the tasks ahead that much more difficult.

Climate science or neoliberalism?
The momentum started in the 1950s, but was regarded as fringe, arcane and p pretty dubious. By the late 1970s though, doubts were swept away, and elites began to be convinced, and acted on their conviction. The description fits either climate science or the dogma of the “free-market” (also known as neoliberalism). For the former, events moved from Charles Keeling’s measurement of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere in the late 1950s through to the 1979 Charney Report, commissioned by President Carter, which concluded there was no reason to doubt that doubled carbon dioxide levels would result in a much warmer planet. For the latter, the assiduous work of the Mont Pelerin Society, among others, and the collapse of the Keynesian consensus, brought free marketeers to office first in May 1979 with Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and then Reagan in November 1980 (as REM described in their song –Ignoreland).

When climate change broke through into public awareness in 1988 initially it seemed that ‘conservative’ parties might respond vigorously. Margaret Thatcher made speeches, and the Australian Liberal Party fought the 1990 election with a stronger target than Labor (John Hewson is fond of reminding people of this, but neglects to mention that his ‘Fightback!’ policies pushed environmentalism off the Liberal agenda).

However, both conservative and ostensibly progressive parties soon found climate change hard to square with the imperatives of economic growth, and keeping incumbent industries happy, and the issue was pushed onto the back burner until it re-emerged in the mid-2000s, thanks to a combination of extreme weather events (Hurricane Katrina, the millennium drought), political events (the Kyoto Protocol entering into force, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme beginning) and entrepreneurship from Al Gore (his documentary “An Inconvenient Truth”). The issue has been with us – more or less – ever since, even as the neoliberal experiment that began in the late 1970s crashed in 2008. Although the banks got bailed out, the climate did not. It had become an ‘impossible object’

The Impossible Object
In a 1992 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Enterprise crew capture an individual from their dreaded enemy, “the Borg” – a malevolent hive mind. They plan to implant an impossible object in its visual cortex, release it to be re-assimilated. The object will be passed upwards in the hierarchy and, they hope, drive the whole Borg mad. The idea that climate change is the same unassimilable, ‘impossible-to-solve-within-the-existing-mindset’ problem is gaining traction with critics who point out that infinite economic growth is incompatible with a habitable planet.

The doomed British Prime Minister David Cameron went from ‘hug a huskie‘ in 2005to ‘cut the green crap‘ in 2013. Similarly, Malcolm Turnbull denounced Tony Abbott’s climate policy as ‘bullshit’ after being toppled in December 2009, but has not changed it since becoming Prime Minister. Before I am accused of partisan bias, it’s worth pointing out that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown mouthed pieties and commissioned reports, but Britain’s emissions reductions were largely about the switch to gas that Margaret Thatcher instituted, and the Australian Labor Party’s travails over an effective climate policy are too familiar to need repeating. From December 1975 to November 2007 (32 years) Australia had 4 prime ministers and in the last 6 years has had five. Would anyone be surprised if the UK (or England!) experienced a similar period of volatility?

Climate change, as a ‘market failure’ is, similar to the social consequences of neoliberalism that led to the revolt of the ignored and patronised voters of ‘middle England’ who voted for Brexit; We’ve known about it for a long time, and have known it would cause grief. However, we have been unable or unwilling to do anything substantive till the pain hits, because the short-termism and demands of ‘efficiency’ have precluded long-term planning. Scientists – social and natural – have been warning us, that by the time the pain does actually hit, it will be at best extremely costly to do anything, and at worst “too late.”

Civilising hypocrisies and fundamental questions: on “Emancipating Transformations

Manchester Tyndall Centre today hosted a provocative and highly interesting seminar. Professor Andy Stirling, who spent the 80s in the trenches for Greenpeace, had schlepped up to deliver a seminar on “Emancipating Transformations.” What they? Read on for an (almost) blow by blow account. [My multiple two centses are in square brackets like these.]

emancipating-transf-23-juneStirling began by point out the severe acuteness of the problems we face (not just climate change, but all sorts of other bubbling under) . He pointed out that 2015 saw not just the Paris climate conference  but also the final agreement of the Sustainable Development Goals, with the the rhetoric of sustainability as “care” and UN slogans such as “leave no one behind.”  These are some of the “civilising hypocrisies” of the title of this blog post.

The politics of sustainability and knowledge
He moved on to point out that sustainability concerns actually pre-date climate change [see the 1971 Founex conference, held because what we now call ‘developing countries’ suspected that the then-new concerns about environment would be used by the rich countries to keep the poor ones poor]. After pointing out that 40% of world innovation is on war and ‘security’, Stirling wanted us to understand that sustainability was (and is) a political, not a technical issue. He pointed out that the knowledge we gained about ecology – for example – often came from actions of “horizontal” action, that knowledge making at the time around these subjects was from the more egalitarian impulses. NGOs and other groups had to struggle for decades to get issues(the dangers of pesticides, asbestos, carcinogens) onto the agenda [and there’s some very interesting stuff in the excellent 2014 book  “Behind the Curve: science and the politics of global warming” by Joshua Howe on how US groups that knew about climate change in the early 80s did NOT campaign on it because there was no feasible way to do so.].

Stirling pointed out that the “Establishment” (corporations, august societies of Respectable Scientists) ridiculed what we now regard as common sense. Stirling said that “knowledge is much more malleable and political that is conceded” [but he was not endorsing post-modernist relativistic ‘anything goes’-ness in that]

And here is the kicker – those bodies are now mouthing all the pieties (“Responsible Innovation” etc) and saying all the right things. Meanwhile, the warnings of the United Nations Brundtland report called “Our Common Future” that sustainability was not just about ‘end points’ but “effective citizen participation” and “greater democracy” were quietly forgotten.( 1)

“Progress” as a weapon
Stirling said that incumbents were able to resist so the challenges so effectively because of the discourse of “progress” and the notion of science leads to technology leads to ‘progress’ [Indeed – if ever you challenge a technology’s social, economic or ecological implications, you will be smeared by its backers as a ‘Luddite’. The American political scientist EE Schattschneider observed that “the definition of alternatives is the supreme instrument of power.” ]

Stirling pointed out that this is a totalitarian discourse, a way of shutting down debate. He then pointed out that politicians are forever asserting linear models of ‘progress’, while claiming they are not. This was a particularly fun bit for the geek in me – Stirling showed examples of how the language and metaphors of both political and academic work on innovation are riddled with what he called “hard-wired linear notions” (leap-frogging, catching up etc). All these beg the question of how much, how fast, at what risk, who is ‘ahead’ and what does ahead even mean.
He challenged the audience – had anyone ever seen a “roadmap” document that had more than one road? And if there was only one road, well, you don’t need a map, do you? This got the biggest laugh of the afternoon. Karl Weick would have shared his snowy anecdote no doubt.

He pointed out that the “the” in “the sustainability transition” implies that there is only one way (even when multiple technologies exist) and that rarely if ever are the opportunity cost (what else could you spend the same money on) discussed. This has been an ongoing critique in Australia – money spent on propping up the coal industry is money NOT spent on research/support for renewable energy.

He touched briefly on the inevitability (even without shadowy incumbent conspirators propping up their own industries) of forms of lock-in (e.g. the QWERTY keyboard I’m typing this on) before returning to the earlier point that the political function of discourses (around “the” transition) is to maintain incumbent power.

Expedient fallacies
Stirling then laid out five “expedient fallacies” of current “sustainability thinking”
1. It maintains rather than transforms social orders
2. Any changes are envisaged as singular,deterministic, top down (rather than unruly, open-ended, bottom up)
3. The crucial “science base” is hierarchical, technical, expert leadership
4. Salient values are about fear and control,rather than hope or care
5. Democracy, equality and collective action are ‘threats’ that need to be domesticated

There was then a rather interesting set of slides that showed the connections between durability, stability, resilience and robustness, and the corresponding properties of transition, transduction, transilience and transformation [I feel another of my coloured paper/cardboard/paper-clip 3D models coming on! And at this point I should have shouted out about “Transruptive”

but I didn’t…]

Stirling then pointed to how the powerful close down opportunities for experimentation through invocation of ‘evidence based design’, insurance contracts, liability protection, stochastic reduction’ etc [he could also have mentioned policy-based evidence making!]

[I thought about Michael Thompson and his plea for ‘clumsy organisations’ for dealing with wicked problems and “post normal science.

Flocking hell!
Stirling returned to the notion of flocking swarming behaviours and the messiness of democracy. [Sadly though, the Pentagon has got there first (it so often does). Also, I’m reminded of passenger pigeons, that went through boom and bust cycles of population growth and collapse. Caught at a low ebb, they were wiped out. I fear the same for the social movements, that sort of gave up the ghost and fell in, according to Ingolfur Bluhdorn, with post-ecological thinking.]

The Q and A
The Q and A was dominated by men (including me). This was noted by Andy, to be fair. What is to be done? Well there are some suggestions here  about how you can simply and non-tokenistically make it more likely that ‘quiet voices’ (male, female, whatever) find it easier to ask questions. I also personally think that a two minute rule (or even, gasp, a four sentence rule) might sometimes be helpful…

I asked about impact science ‘versus’ production science, and Stirling’s response was very very interesting, showing how the former is itself shot through with assumptions about ‘safety’ that are highly contestable, highly political.

There were some interesting snippets and discussions of course, especially around how useful the “there is no time [to consult/be democratic]” argument is to elites (something that Manchester’s own Erik Swyngedouw has rightly been saying for years.

Prof Kevin Anderson (see MCFly passim ad nauseam!) made the good point though, that elites are NOT saying that about climate change. They’re actually saying Business As Usual is fine, and some fantasy technology like BECCS can be deployed later. [Prof Anderson was also hilariously rude about Integrated Assessment Models,  comparing them to “analysing astrology”]

The fundamental question – or at least the one I took away is this – who are our bosses? We are academics. We are paid to sit around and concept-monger. By the tax-payer, ultimately. So should we be aiming to impress elite policy-makers and follow what Stirling called “policy etiquettes”, in the hope they will twist this policy knob (and there are many many knobs), or pull that policy lever, to magic the right kind of innovation into existence? Or should we be trying to work with and for the (mostly mythical) social movements? Of course, this is a crude binary. But there are choices to be made, priorities to choose from.
I think I know where Andy Stirling’s preferences lie, and I definitely know where mine are.



  1. Released in 1987, the report had a climate change chapter, but it wasn’t a key issue. A UN conference was then scheduled for 1992. The following year, climate change exploded onto the public policy agenda, thanks in part to the June 23rd (!) testimony of James Hansen – the policy entrepreneurs then ‘hijacked/retrofitted the 1992 conference to become the deadline for climate change negotiations. You take your opportunities were you find them…]
  2. Other stuff that I didn’t put in that might be worth your time include three excellent books
    Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism
    A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming
    Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control
  3. From a more unquestioningly technophiliac perspective, Professor Thomas Schelling in Mancheter in 2010.

The sound of silence: why has the environment vanished from election politics?

Reposted from “The Conversation“. Thanks as ever to the very cool editors.

There’s a deafening silence in the ongoing Australian election campaign over the environment. Polling shows increasing public support for greater action on climate changebut debate has been mostly missing.

And despite some blows traded over the Great Barrier Reef, the wider environment has made almost no appearance. But this hasn’t always been the case.

From the origins of the environmental movement in the 1970s to the 2007 climate change election that toppled Liberal prime minister John Howard, the environment has been a key battleground, and it could become one again.

Green origins

The environment first emerged as a voting platform in the 1970s, in the wake of controversial proposals to dam Lake Pedder. The United Tasmania Group – a precursor to the Australian Greens party – was formed to oppose the project.

Were it not for the mysterious disappearance of a plane carrying environmental activist Brenda Hean in September 1972, the election that brought us Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam might have had more of a green tinge. Hean’s plan was to sky-write “Save Lake Pedder” over Canberra.

According to Hugh Morgan – former president of the Minerals Council, the Business Council, and the climate-denying Lavoisier Group – the first indication that environmentalism had arrived as a major political force in Australia was the Whitlam Labor Party caucus’s 1975 debate over uranium mining and nuclear power.

But it was not until the 1983 election, with incumbent Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser facing off against Labor leader Bob Hawke, that the environment became politically salient with another Tasmanian dam.

After losing the Lake Pedder battle in 1972, the green campaigners were older, wiser and more determined in their fight to stop the Franklin dam.

Fraser offered the Tasmanian government a A$500m coal-fired power station instead of the dam, but was rejected.

Labor said it would use federal powers to forbid the dam if elected. It did so, and won the inevitable High Court case.

Hawke and Paul Keating, prime minister from 1991, prioritised financial and political changes (bringing down tariffs, floating the dollar) over environmental challenges. However, the issues of logging and uranium wouldn’t go away, and were joined first by ozone and then carbon dioxide.

In 1984, with a tight election looming, Hawke failed to make the Queensland government’s refusal to nominate forests for World Heritage listing an issue.

Labor won the 1987 and 1990 elections, and environmentalists’ preferences helped them squeak home on both occasions. Climate change hardly rated a mention.

Conned by greenies?

With their rising power, both sides of politics initially courted green voters. But this tactic quickly fell out of favour, first with the Liberals and then with Labor. In 1992 the Greens, despairing of being able to influence either of the big parties, formed their own.

By late 1992, Keating was lashing out at green groups, saying:

…the green movement was extremist and not listened to any more … The environmental lobbies have no moral lien over the environment. The issue belongs to the Government, to the nation.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that, according to a source of scholar Joan Staples, Keating reportedly walked into an election planning meeting and announced that “the environment will NOT be one of the priority issues in this election.”

A “bomb” planted on a railway line in northwest Tasmania two days before the 1993 federal election suggested otherwise (it didn’t have a detonator). While media and politician accused “ecoterrorists”; Bob Brown suggested at the time and since that it was a setup to thwart public favour for the Greens.

Nothing changed under the next three year’s of Keating’s government. Another source of Joan Staples recalled that when Keating met green groups before the 1996 election, he walked into the meeting room and pointed at each representative, saying: “Don’t like you. Don’t like you. Don’t know who you are. Don’t like you. She’s alright.”

Despite climbing greenhouse emissions and international pressure on Australia, the environment didn’t feature in the 1998 or 2001 elections, and made only a small but perhaps crucial appearance in 2004 around forestry.

The greatest moral challenge

Liberal prime minister John Howard was unable to ignore the environment three years later. Upon becoming opposition leader in late 2006, Kevin Rudd made climate change not just an issue but “the greatest moral challenge of our generation”.

Howard, who had already tried to keep climate change in a box by reaching for the nuclear option, the Asia Pacific Partnership for Clean Development and Climate and even emissions trading, had no effective reply.

The 2007 federal election, at which Howard became only the second sitting prime minster to lose his seat, has been called, with some justification, “the first climate change election”.

Despite the blood and ink spilt over climate change, it was strangely absent from the 2010 campaign, from which Labor prime minister Julia Gillard eventually emerged victorious. AsLaura Tingle has said “it [climate change] wasn’t really something that ever really featured … it just wasn’t there”.

In truth, Gillard had floated a much-derided Citizen’s Assembly ahead of the election. Three years later, despite opposition leader Tony Abbott proclaiming the 2013 poll as a carbon tax referendum, researcher Myra Gurney has found climate change actually rated surprisingly few mentions.

Why the silence?

Besides international positions on climate change, there are any number of local environmental flashpoints that could blow up any day – the Carmichael mine, fracking in New South Wales, or something currently regarded as trivial.
“The environment” has been around as political issue for more than 30 years, and isn’t going to go away, as the environmental and social stresses grow, and the institutional responses lead to “creative self-destruction”.

No doubt both parties will fall over themselves to spruik their support for renewable energy, which is akin to motherhood and apple pie.

What is striking about the history of climate change and federal politics is just how quiet politicians become once they get into campaign mode and face scrutiny for the specifics of their policy proposals.

Perhaps they simply have no answers to awkward questions of what we do to replace our fossil fuel infrastructure and the power of the fossil fuel lobby.

Failing to meet the Challenge(r) – “Organisational decay”

For reasons we don’t particularly need to go into, failure fascinates me.  Especially that of individuals and organisations that think they are ‘all that.’ When life is less “horrible (#firstworldproblems) I want to write about the differences between the 1977 Tenerife disaster and United Airlines 232 in 1989.  But for now, this article I read while walking around the park with my backpack-

challengerSchwartz, H. 1989. Organizational disaster and organisational decay: the case of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Industrial Crisis Quarterly, 3, pp.319-334.

Organizational decay is a condition of generalized and systemic ineffectiveness. It develops when an organization shifts its activities from coping with reality to presenting a dramatization of its own ideal character. In the decadent organization, flawed decision making of the sort that leads to disaster is normal activity, not an aberration. Three aspects of the development of organizational decay are illustrated in the case of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They are (1) the institutionalization of the fiction, (2) personnel changes in parallel with the institutionalization of the fiction, and (3) the narcissistic loss of reality among management.

This is a corker of an article. I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s and saw the launch of Columbia on television in 1981. I was briefly obsessed with manned space flight, and remember the explosion of the Challenger, in 1986, vividly.  “Free to be Human“, a mid 90s book, had a very good section on how the engineers had pleaded with management not to launch...

Schwartz takes a psychoanalytic approach, detailing how people want/need to believe that the organisations that they pledge fealty to are perfect, omnipotent.  But nothing lasts forever you know, the rot sets in. Schwartz pins it on NASA in the 70s for not being honest (with itself) about the impact the Nixon budget cuts would have on its grand ambition, and its following failure

The most of the opprobrium gets heaped on Reagan appointees. LBJ had been happy with a Republican in charge of NASA, because he was the best person for the job.  Reagan appointed hacks to senior posts (for both patronage reasons but also to take control/smash organisations he didn’t like – see what he tried to do to the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency).

Once the komissars come on board, the honest ones, the ones who are willing to speak truth to power, realise the gig is up, and either polish their CVs and head for the door or take early retirement if they can.  And if they can’t do those, they either stay and become pod people or seethe.  Exit, voice, neglect, loyalty indeed. And then shit blows up, and people die.  Or civilisations fail to grok the slow burning threats.  Like us, over the last 30 years.  Oh look, here come the consequences.

Some quotes.

I have argued elsewhere that, for the committed organizational participant, the idea of the organization represents an ego ideal – a symbol of the person one ought to become such that, if one were to become that person, one would again be the center of a loving world as one experienced oneself as a child (Schwartz, 1987a,b,c). The ego ideal represents a return to narcissism (Freud, 1914, 1921; Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1985). It represents an end to the anxiety that entered our lives when we experienced ourselves as separate from our apparently all-powerful mothers.
With regard to organizations, this means that individuals redefine themselves as part of an organization, conceived as perfect: an organization in which members are perfectly integrated into a collectivity which is perfectly adapted to its environment. An image of an organization serving as an ego ideal may be called an “organization ideal” (Schwartz, 1987a,b,c).
(Schwartz, 1989:323)


The commitment to a bad decision
If the organization were the organization ideal, it would never make a bad decision. Since no organization is or can be the organization ideal, this means that they all make bad decisions sooner or later. The institutionalization of the fiction of the organization ideal begins when the organization, trying to justify its bad decision, becomes committed to it (see Staw, 1980). In the case of NASA, the original bad decision was the decision to build the shuttle on the cheap….
(Schwartz, 1989:324)


Advancement of incompetent individuals on the basis of ideology
To the extent that the core organizational process becomes the dramatization of the organization as ideal, the evaluation of individuals for promotion and even for continued inclusion must be made on the basis of how much they contribute to this dramatization. This means that, increasingly, promotion criteria shift from competence to ideological purity. This means that those individuals who are retained and promoted will be those who will know very well how things are supposed to be, according to the dominant ideology, but who will know less and less about reality insofar as it conflicts with, or simply is independent of, ideology.
(Schwartz, 1989:327)

So, this isn’t the Peter Principle, with a kind of passive selection pressure, but lamentable Lamarckian lunacy…

Schwartz quotes a book that has sat on my shelves for 20 years, semi-read, called Trento, J. 1987. Prescription for Disaster: From the Glory of Apollo to the Betrayal of the Shuttle. Crown, New York.  The whole thing below is a quote from Schwartz, 1989: 328.  The Trento stuff is in quotes marks. The last quote is the the kicker. [See also “Censoring Science” for what the Dubya Bush White House did to NASA, and specifically to climate scientist James Hansen.]

In the light of the idealization of business in Reagan’s administration, consider what the following passage suggests about the reasons behind Beggs’ choice:
“[Former NASA Comptroller] Lilly described Beggs as a “nonentity” in his earlier stint at NASA. After all, to Lilly, Beggs was first and foremost a contractor. Unlike old NASA hands, Beggs believed that the contractor and government were a partnership and not even occasionally adversaries. Such a relationship was the ideal bom out of a free-enterprise system and representative democracy.” (p. 184)
“Although he worked for Reagan’s election, he was not one of the new, ultraconservative Reaganite true believers. As a lifelong Republican businessman, Beggs did not realize that the conservatives’ agenda was not subject to the kind of compromise that he was used to. If you were not one of them, you were against them. If Jim Beggs was an obstacle, he would be removed.”
( p. 184 )
“For all his experience in the corporate and political world, Jim Beggs was not prepared for the Reagan White House. He did not understand that appearance meant more than substance. That outward adherence to doctrinaire conservative philosophy meant more than the quality of the work. “p. 253)

Right, better get back to the thing I’ve been avoiding. For now, this last quotesfrom Schwartz (pp.330)

Discouragement and alienation of competent individuals
Another result of this sort of selection must be that realistic and competent persons who are committed to their work must lose the belief that the organization’s real purpose is productive work and come to the conclusion that its real purpose is self-idealization. They then are likely to see their work as being alien to the purposes of the organization. Some will withdraw from the organization psychologically. Others will buy into the nonsense around them, cynically or through self-deception (Goffman, 1959), and abandon their concern with reality. Still others will conclude that the only way to save their self-esteem is to leave the organization. Arguably, it is these last individuals who, because of their commitment to productive work and their firm grasp of reality, are the most productive members of the organization.

[Oddly, one of Ayn Rand’s enormous books has a strand of this running throughout – the one that culminates with the train accident. But that’s another post…]

There’s a section called “The narcissistic loss of reality among management” which many of us will nod ruefully at. And Schwartz concludes –

Organizational decay is the result of a denial of reality and a concomitant addiction to fantasy. The reality that is denied is the reality of the individual’s separation, limitation and mortality. It seems inevitable that the solution to the problem of organizational decay must involve the acceptance of this reality.
Within this context, the idea of a solution to organizational decay does not look like a specific program that powerful executives can impose on, and through, a powerful, potentially limitless organization. Rather, it comes to look like a group of limited men and women, trying hard each day to reclaim, within the terrible constraints that each one faces, a little bit of the hold on reality that they, themselves, threw away.
(Schwartz, 1989:332-3)

We are smart enough to exploit fossilised sunlight.  We are smart enough to create global production networks and value chains, wrought of container ships, fibre optic cables and the sacrifice of humans and animals.

We are not smart enough to figure out how to even acknowledge – let alone  deal with –  the slow (in human scale – eyeblink quick in geological or even human civilisation) consequences.

So it goes.


See also: Normal Accidents, High Reliability Organisations, social movement learning