Thursday, June 28, 2007

Beyond the Magic Bullet

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong - H. L. Mencken

The search for a “magic bullet” is a legacy of the twentieth century. During the early years of the new millennium, this quest has morphed into a search for a “theory of everything”, which seeks to explain all physical phenomena by a single theorem. It is an exercise which surfaces in strange forms across the public landscape. In recent times we have seen the impact of this thinking in relation to climate change, water shortages, and Indigenous Affairs. Although an evidently complex search, the ‘theory of everything’ approach in public life is attractive, as it is easily saleable.

The industrial era introduced us to the concept of economies of scale, in which it was recognised that the cost of production of any particular item could be reduced by manufacturing in larger quantities. Over the course of the past century we have consequently seen the proliferation of mass production, initially in the manufacturing industry, then spreading out into farming, health care, and human services. It has become accepted lore that the most economic and efficient answer to any problem lies in finding the correct solution which can be replicated on a large scale.

Until the internet.

The Internet maintains its effectiveness and integrity by disaggregation: breaking up its major functions across a wide range of smaller users. It is less vulnerable to attacks or problems at a single point, which, even if effective, are more likely to reduce its effectiveness than destroy it altogether.

Disaggregated solutions are anathema to governmental thinking. In the past six months we have been introduced to solutions for power generation, carbon reduction, increased water security and, most recently, Indigenous disadvantage, through the attractiveness of the “magic bullet” – a public policy theory of everything which addresses the (complex) problems and offers a digestible solution which appears simple and reasonable, and ultimately saleable.

The push for nuclear energy production within Australia makes an interesting starting point. We are so locked into the notions of economies of scale that the idea of building another (or a series) of large-scale electricity production centres seems the only sensible (and economic) answer. But what if we adopt the internet approach, which recognises the advantages of disaggregation, and the potential infrastructure already in place? There are literally millions of household roofs around the country which make ready mounting points for solar panels – millions of local collection and generation points which are capable of feeding power into a local network, bringing the places of generation and consumption much closer, and obviating the substantial loss of power (up to 80%) over the length of transmission lines currently in place. This disaggregated and connected approach has the added advantage of making the power generation process much less vulnerable to the types of outage we experienced in January of this year. Whilst the cost of solar panels is presently relatively high, the economies of scale arising from such increased production and technological development will inevitably reduce the unit cost over time, as well as increased effectiveness and efficiency arising over time. The cost of developing nuclear power stations and other conventional options for mass generation requires billions of dollars of investment over many years, technology which is locked in for a generation or more. Such massive forms of technology are less easily upgraded. By way of contrast, I have upgraded my modem and computer twice since first accessing the internet over a decade ago.

The historic separation between places of production and places of residence is already breaking down, flowing from the advent of the internet and the ability for many to telecommute. Why not add breadth to this experience by building on the potential productive capabilities of the home in relation to electricity generation? In stark contrast to the NIMBY response to nuclear power stations, solar panels are welcomed and much more likely to be a GOER (Generated On Every Rooftop) option. Much like the introduction of pay television, and (hopefully) high-speed broadband, a GOER philosophy is ideal for progressive roll-out.

The magic-bullet approach has also been well-rehearsed in our responses to the current drought. As we seek to ‘drought-proof’ our future, the major focus has been on large-scale solutions, culminating with last week’s announcement of a major desalination plant by the State Government. Left to one side has been the capacity of local and disaggregated solutions to ameliorate the significant problems. Writers in this publication in the past week have drawn attention to the significant water run-off wasted in our urban centres. Discussion of grey-water alternatives has also sidelined, making way for the theory-of-everything approach garners the headlines. Acknowleding that a range of encouraging small-scale moves have been undertaken in local water collection in recent times, little public energy is expended in developing workable and replicable models of small-scale, local solutions, beyond the introduction of water restrictions.

When the solution to such problems is cast in terms which require billions of dollars of expenditure in large-scale single-location facilities, the general public is both disempowered in its response and marginalised in the debate. Such paternalistic positioning also creates a disconnect between the problem and the solution. The contribution of the average citizen - who is responsible for energy and water consumption - to the solution, is primarily through taxes and charges. In contrast, when the solution is disaggregated and localised, the citizen’s connection is enhanced. Those who have to rely on tank water have developed a greater connection in understanding and behaviour between drought and water usage than has the average mains-connected water consumer in the city. The impetus for lifestyle change is much more urgent where the available tank water can be easily measured and connected to individual and household actions.

A further problem emerges in the public consciousness when there are quantum leaps in electricity generation and water supply capacity. When new power stations and water desalination plants come on-line, they convey the idea of a problem solved, which often reduces the urgency to change local behaviour. Disaggregated solutions, on the other hand, empower citizens to be part of the solution by contributing to the available capacity and through greater understanding of the impact individual lifestyle choices make. The converse has never been more evident than in our Federal Government’s response to greenhouse emission targets: our contribution is so small that it doesn’t matter. Under this logic, if there isn’t a magic bullet, then the will to be involved is diminished.

There is no doubting the ability of the magic bullet approach to draw attention to the problem and to provide the impression that action is being taken – witness the response to needs in Indigenous communities over this past week. This issue and the mooted action highlights the paternalistic assumptions and further disempowerment at the most crucial level of all – where behavioural change needs to take place. At the same time it diverts attention away from similar problems in the wider Australian community.

The internet has become the most powerful means of communication yet devised, and one of the most effective and pervasive vehicles of social transformation. It has proved to be adaptable to change and improvements in technology, whilst at the same time one of the most difficult to regulate and control, because of its disaggregation. It continues to power forward because of the level of ownership at the grass roots. It is a lesson governments do well to learn as they seek to tackle the significant social and environmental issues of our time.

The old dictum “You won’t solve a problem by using the same thinking that created the problem in the first place” offers a timely reminder for a fresh approach. The most powerful movements in history have arguably been grass roots movements. In the face of the present enormous challenges which identify quantum shifts taking place in the environment and the community, our government needs to be embracing quantum shifts in the way it addresses the challenges. The people stand ready, able and capable of being part of the solution.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Dawn Rowan Story

I wrote of Dawn's story recently. Here is the news story presenting a more detailed account. It is split into two parts:

Part 1:

Part 2:

It is a remarkable story of the woman who pioneered the women's shelter movement, yet who has found that fighting domestic violence comes at a high cost - from unexpected places.
To find out more:

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Of droughts and flooding rains...

When the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers
(Chinese Proverb)
When Australian Prime Minister John Howard made a public appeal for prayer for rain a month or so back, it provoked significant discussion amongst many of my colleagues. Many questioned the motives of the PM, particularly in light of the increasing propensity for Australian politics to court the Christian vote, much in the same way in which American Republicans have managed to successfully garner the conservative Christian vote over the past decade. Others questioned whether it is appropriate to ask for prayer without being prepared to act at the same time in response to the challenges. Given the PM’s very public scepticism in relation to climate change, and unwillingness - or at least reluctance - to embrace any responsibility for reduction in carbon emissions, which are widely regarded as responsible for the changes in weather patterns which are evident throughout the world, and of which the extended Australian drought is just one evidence. The link between repentance (for actions which bring us to the present problem) and prayer was expressed. Then there were those who applauded the willingness of the PM to acknowledge the existence of a ‘higher power’ and a sense of dependence upon God. Other issues (such as cultural sensitivity) served to push the call into the background, many writing it off as a political stunt. Until...

Last week in the Hunter Valley region, torrential rain fell - over 170 mm in 24 hours in some zones - causing severe flooding which resulted in the death of at least seven people and property damage estimated to be in excess of one billion dollars, not to mention the loss of personal property, memories, and disruption to family life. It is an unmitigated national disaster. Where in the world would you find a community in the middle of a drought suffering such flood damage?

But these events brought the PM’s request back onto the national agenda. It began in an innocuous way for me, when a parent at school commented, “we prayed for rain, didn’t we?” when discussing the situation. It is a theme which has been picked up by Philip Adams, and The Chaser team on last night’s show (big file, but you only need to watch the first five minutes).

Which brings us back to the nature of prayer.

Did we pray incorrectly (as some have suggested)? Perhaps we needed to be more specific... indicating what, when and how much. But of course this is absurd. It implies a God who is unknowing and uncaring - one with loads of power but no idea how to use it. Jesus said of our anxiety for the basics of life “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things,” (Mt 6:32) and that “your Father knows what you need, before you ask Him.” (Mt 6:8) To recast God as a cosmic Santa Claus who needs to be manipulated by numbers or words (weight or choice of), diminishes the very character of God we are seeking to acknowledge and esteem. Are we suggesting that God does not know our need? That he doesn’t know how to provide correctly? Of course not (and I am obviously caricaturing).

The Chinese proverb “When the gods want to punish us they answer our prayers” seems salient in this setting. How is it that we, being mortal beings, are able to cast the consequences of our desires and decisions better than the One whose vision and power is not limited as we? We cry out for rain, thinking that this would be good for us, and then are overwhelmed by it. Having cast drought as the an unmitigated evil, we paint rain as our friend. The reality proves otherwise.

When we journey back through the Bible, we see drought playing an important role from time to time in the purposes of God. It was drought that brought reconciliation between Joseph and his family. It was drought that brought the confrontation between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, ultimately turning Israel’s heart back to God. It was in the desert that Israel was formed for entry into the promised land, and it was in drought that Jeremiah emerged to lead Israel. When we call for rain out of our own sense of need, might we be missing the greater purposes of God?

Which is not to say that it is wrong to pray for rain. My voice has been part of that chorus in prayer for some time. But, when we ask for something, we also need to be aware that God might have a different purpose at work. Prayer is about much more, and much greater things, than simply rolling out our requests before God, who has no need of increasing His personal approval ratings, but is more intent on shaping his kingdom ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. When I pray for rain, I need to listen... to discern whether there is a response of the Spirit of which I am called to be part.

There is little doubt that this extended drought has sharpened our awareness of the impact of our lifestyles on the planet. Would we be as aware of climate change without it? Would we be equally willing to make changes to our lifestyles if we were well-watered? The issue of stewardship of creation is firmly in the forefront of our minds as we contemplate shortages in water, impacts on our river and eco-systems, and the consequences of our increasing reliance on fossil-based fuels. Rather than simply telling God what to do about the drought (“send rain”) ought we not also be asking God what we should be doing? There is a partnership in existence since the dawn of time when in the Garden of Eden responsibility was given to the humans to care for the land which we need to reconsider. Our care has been lacking, and a decent fall of rain isn’t going to solve the continuing problems.

If it comes to the point where, in prayer, we need to be very specific about the amount of rain we want, and where we want God to put it, then we have moved so far from where our relationship with the God who created and redeemed us ought to be. Far from expressing dependence upon God, we are making Him our servant, and at our beck and call. That seems to be the exact opposite of where it ought to be.