One of the the things that make it so hard to see what is going on now is that we are living through two crises. The first is the chickens coming home to roost of a thirty year old experiment in implementing somewhat naive free market phantasies. The second is the flock of giant canaries that are telling us that our two hundred year old experiment in carbon fuelled industrialisation may be drawing to an uncomfortable close. The paradox is that maybe the solution to the short term crisis lies in setting out to solve the long term one.
Yet again, Simon Caulkin gets it bang on. Commenting on the Stafford Hospital case, where the Health Commission found that Stafford Hospital’s senior management’s success in meeting their targets which gained them Foundation status was to the detriment of patient care and may have led to the deaths of 400 people between 2005 and 2008, he concludes:
“The current target-, computer- and inspection-dominated regime for public services is inflexible, wasteful and harmful. But don’t take my word for it: in the current issue of Academy of Management Perspectives, a heavyweight US journal, four professors charge that the benefits of goal-setting (ie targets) are greatly oversold and the side-effects equally underestimated. Goal-setting gone wild, say the professors, contributed both to Enron and the present sub-prime disasters. Instead of being dispensed over the counter, targets should be treated “as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision”.
They even propose a health warning: “Goals may cause systematic problems in organisations due to narrowed focus, increased risk-taking, unethical behaviour, inhibited learning, decreased co-operation, and decreased intrinsic motivation.” As a glance at Stafford hospital would tell them, that’s not the half of it.”
Today I went back and had a look at something I wrote at the height of the dot.com boom. While some of the quotes I used look a little creaky, the central argument seems just as relevant today as it did then. Take a look here and let me know what you think. Here’s a chunk as a sample:
Creativity is often described as a problem-solving activity. The problem with problem-solving is that it focuses on what is rather than what could be. If we want to do things differently rather than better we have to learn to search for the capabilities in any situation. Instead of identifying problems we will have to open ourselves to potentials. Instead of a world of fixed unchanging categories we will have to learn to see the world as more fluid, more open to change, and, ultimately, more mysterious. The trick we have to learn is to balance our habits, our experience, with the fresh and the new. We have to find ways of making the familiar strange to us. We have to tune in to the mysteriousness of the everyday. It is here that play and playful activities assume their role. Play releases us from a hardening of the categories. Play is the tool that allows us to see the capabilities concealed in the familiar.
“The great landscape gardener, Lancelot Brown, when confronted with a client’s estate, did not say “what is your problem?”, he asked “what are the capabilities of this piece of land?”. Optimism, generality, and scope flowed where otherwise all would have been pessimism, specificity, and narrowness. That is what is wrong with conventional wisdom: not enough Capability Browns and too many Problematic Tom, Dicks and Harrys.”
Michael Thompson “Rubbish Theory: The creation and destruction of value, Oxford University Press, 1979: pp51
“To think of design as ‘problem-solving’ is to use a rather dead metaphor for a lively process and to forget that design is not so much a matter of adjusting the status quo as of realising new possibilities and discovering our reactions to them.”
J.Christopher Jones, ” Design Methods: seeds of human futures”, 1980 edition, John Wiley & Sons, 1980, ppxxiii
By a bitter irony it is beginning to look as if one of the most effective means of dealing with global warming lies in an agricultural technology invented and practised by people, who were effectively wiped out by the unintended consequences of the European intrusions into the “New World” several hundred years ago.
Without going into its origins James Lovelock makes the case for this technology in an interview in the New Scientist:
“So are we doomed?
There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal. It would mean farmers turning all their agricultural waste – which contains carbon that the plants have spent the summer sequestering – into non-biodegradable charcoal, and burying it in the soil. Then you can start shifting really hefty quantities of carbon out of the system and pull the CO2 down quite fast.
Would it make enough of a difference?
Yes. The biosphere pumps out 550 gigatonnes of carbon yearly; we put in only 30 gigatonnes. Ninety-nine per cent of the carbon that is fixed by plants is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by consumers like bacteria, nematodes and worms. What we can do is cheat those consumers by getting farmers to burn their crop waste at very low oxygen levels to turn it into charcoal, which the farmer then ploughs into the field. A little CO2 is released but the bulk of it gets converted to carbon. You get a few per cent of biofuel as a by-product of the combustion process, which the farmer can sell. This scheme would need no subsidy: the farmer would make a profit. This is the one thing we can do that will make a difference, but I bet they won’t do it.”
If you are interested in the scientific background to Lovelock’s argument, a good starting point is the web pages of the Terra Preta de Indio – Biochar Soil Management project at Cornell University’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences.
For a good overview, Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent for the FT, has an excellent review of the field and also makes the important point that:
“Even if biochar does not fulfil all of the potential claimed for it, it could still make an important contribution. Al Gore, the former US vice-president and environmental campaigner, likes to point out that the search for a “silver bullet” to solve the problem of climate change has been a distraction. Instead, he argues, though there may be no silver bullet, “there is silver buckshot”. Only by bringing many different methods of cutting emissions or absorbing carbon to bear can we reduce atmospheric levels of carbon to within the limits of safety. And of those possible methods, few are as simple and cheap as biochar. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell makes the point that “biochar sequestration does not require a fundamental scientific advance and the underlying production technology is robust and simple, making it appropriate for many regions of the world”.”
But where things get more interesting, complicated and very controversial is when we look at the history of the technology of bio-char. Depending on which view you take this raises very important questions about our relationship to nature and the world and our relationships with each other and the unintended consequences of those relationships.
But let’s start simply with the opening paragraphs of a summary of a BBC TV programme that first sparked my interest in bio-char or as it is called in South America, Terra Preta de Indio.
“In 1542, the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco de Orellana ventured along the Rio Negro, one of the Amazon Basin’s great rivers. Hunting a hidden city of gold, his expedition found a network of farms, villages and even huge walled cities. At least that is what he told an eager audience on his return to Spain.
The prospect of gold drew others to explore the region, but none could find the people of whom the first Conquistadors had spoken. The missionaries who followed a century later reported finding just isolated tribes of hunter-gatherers. Orellana’s story seemed to be no more than a fanciful myth.”
Now several centuries later, as Charles C. Mann reports, support for Orellana’s account comes from:
“…a small but growing number of researchers believe that the Beni once housed what Clark L. Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, calls “some of the densest populations and the most elaborate cultures in the Amazon”—cultures fully as sophisticated as the better known, though radically different, cultures of the Aztecs, Incas, and Mayas. Although these still unnamed peoples abandoned their earthworks between 1400 and 1700 C.E., Erickson says, they permanently transformed regional ecosystems, creating “a richly patterned and humanized landscape” that is “one of the most remarkable human achievements on the continent.” To this day, according to William Balée, an anthropologist at Tulane University in New Orleans, the lush tropical forests interspersed with the savanna are in considerable measure anthropogenic, or created by human beings—a notion with dramatic implications for conservation.”
Interesting though the possibility of a lost Amazonian civilisation and the implications of its approach to land magnet may be there is a wider story of the peoples of the Americas and the civilisations they may have created that we need to pay attention to. The gifts from the Americas to the human world have been immense and sparked interactions for both good and ill that still resonate today.
In a long article by in The Atlantic that is worth setting aside some time to read and ponder, Charles C. Mann points to the work of Alfred Crosby, which reminds us that:
“… Every tomato in Italy, every potato in Ireland, and every hot pepper in Thailand came from this hemisphere. Worldwide, more than half the crops grown today were initially developed in the Americas.
Maize, as corn is called in the rest of the world, was a triumph with global implications. Indians developed an extraordinary number of maize varieties for different growing conditions, which meant that the crop could and did spread throughout the planet. Central and Southern Europeans became particularly dependent on it; maize was the staple of Serbia, Romania, and Moldavia by the nineteenth century. Indian crops dramatically reduced hunger, Crosby says, which led to an Old World population boom.
Along with peanuts and manioc, maize came to Africa and transformed agriculture there, too. “The probability is that the population of Africa was greatly increased because of maize and other American Indian crops,” Crosby says. “Those extra people helped make the slave trade possible.” Maize conquered Africa at the time when introduced diseases were leveling Indian societies. The Spanish, the Portuguese, and the British were alarmed by the death rate among Indians, because they wanted to exploit them as workers. Faced with a labor shortage, the Europeans turned their eyes to Africa. The continent’s quarrelsome societies helped slave traders to siphon off millions of people. The maize-fed population boom, Crosby believes, let the awful trade continue without pumping the well dry.”
It is important to remember that these gifts from the Americas were not simply stuff lying around, they were cultivated and thus like Terra Preta de Indio the products of technologies. And technologies are made by people. And if some of the archaeologists, anthropologists and historians cited by Charles Mann are right there were lots of people in the Americas before the Europeans arrived. lots and lots of people, 95% of whom were wiped out by the diseases the Europeans and their animals brought with them.
Now all this is very controversial stuff and Mann quite fairly highlights the opposition to this view, but let’s just suppose their right – what does this do to our story?
Well for a start, it turns part of the picture that many of us hold of our history on its head. The picture I have had is of the Americas as wilderness with a few people, with the exceptions of the Incas, Mayans and Aztecs, living lightly off the land.
But Mann is saying there is another, radically different picture building up:
“Problem is, this new generation of anthropologists and archaeologists is saying that as a matter of cold, hard fact the Americas in 1491 were not a wilderness. They were a huge, special garden, planned and maintained by the active efforts of a wildly diverse range of societies. Environmentalists tend not to like this line of argument, because to them it implies that there is no preferred “natural” state—so let the bulldozers rip. And to be fair a lot of anti-green commentators have drawn just this implication. Personally, though, I believe both sides are wrong. Knowing more about what the Indians accomplished suggests that human beings can have a large, long-lasting impact on the landscape without wrecking everything. To me, at least, that seems an incredibly hopeful notion to carry along into tomorrow.”
I find it hopeful too. These days it has become fashionable to see our impact on the world as largely destructive. The story of Terra Preta de Indio suggests a more complex and complicated view. Yes, we can be both deliberately and unwittingly destructive as a species, but also we can be creative and nurturing, actively making a world in which we can flourish and thrive. Sunny, little optimist that I am, I will take a small bet on our ability to muddle through and find the silver buckshot that will ensure a convivial world for our great, great, great grandchildren and beyond. And, just maybe, that world will look a little like the New World of “a huge, special garden, planned and maintained by the active efforts of a wildly diverse range of societies” we Europeans may have inadvertently destroyed. A vision that some, like my friend Nick Routledge are already working to achieve.
Many years ago when I spent much of my time managing projects I noticed an interesting phenomenon; when I had to be away, attending a conference or something, the projects leapt ahead. I called this phenomenon “Management By Absence”. (I guess I ought to insert a TM here).
I wrote something similar about three years ago that may be worth repeating now that “the manager’s right to manage” seems to have led us into an unholy, unmanageable mess:
“I know I keep on going on going on about Simon Caulkin, but he does write some good stuff. Last Sunday’s piece, “Adrift in a parallel universe” was filled with gems. I think my favourite was this one:
“Is management a hoax? In a recent survey of 3.5 million employees worldwide, research firm Sirota Survey Intelligence found that most workers did their best work when managers were out of the way. Management bureaucracy, blame-placing, inconsistent decision-making, delaying and time-wasting all interfered with their ability to do their work properly. In other words, the less management the better.”
It reminded me of one of the findings from research Shoshana Zuboff did in the 80s and wrote up in “In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power” published in 1988. She found a similar phenomenon in the recently computerised Pulp Mills, where the night shift, less interfered with by managers, was more productive than the day shift.
Caulkin’s main point was the disjunction between management speak and what is actually happening. I would take it a little further him. I have a great admiration for managers, who are some of the most creative people around. The problem is our confusion of language. Most of the people who are labelled “managers” aren’t. They are administrators and apparatchiks, whose language reflects their bureaucratic nature.
Now there is nothing wrong with administrators and administration, indeed they play an important part in maintaining the stability of organisations. The problem comes when what they do is confused with management, which it frequently is and where we can see that their role becomes one of subtracting value from an organisation rather than adding it.
Maybe the answer is to start a campaign for real managers?”
(“Another kind of less is more”, August 31, 2005 – Note the Zuboff link is more up to date than the original.)