söndag 29 oktober 2017

Solutions for Economics, Environment and Democracy (workshop)


I attended workshop in Siegen, Germany on "Solutions for Economics, Environment and Democracy" (SEED) one week ago. The workshop was organized by professors Lance Bennet (political science) and Alan Borning (computer science) from the University of Washington together with Markus Rohde (HCI), and Volker Wulf (HCI) from Siegen University. Around 40 persons had been invited and all expenses were paid except for traveling to and from Siegen. One important reason for me to go was the people who organized it, I for example met Lance Bennett when he was a guest professor in Stockholm in 2010 and haven't met him since. Also I knew that Bonnie Nardi and Six Silberman (that I got to know during my 2014 sabbatical at UC Irvine) would attend the workshop and that was also a powerful attractor for me.

The workshop had been preceded by a much smaller workshop that was organized as part of the 8th conference on Communities & Technologies (C&T) in Troyes, France this past summer. In August 2017 Lance Bennett, Alan Borning and Deric Gruen at the University of Washington's Center for Communication & Civic Engagement wrote a very inspiring manifesto that was disseminated before the workshop, "Solutions for Environment, Economy, and Democracy (SEED): A Manifesto for Prosperity". The manifesto starts like this:

"The quality of life for growing numbers of people on the planet is threatened by a set of systemic problems: dependence on fossil fuels, pressures for unrealistic levels of economic growth, inequitable distribution of wealth and income, excesses and hidden costs of consumerism, and the undue influence of global corporations over working conditions, social wellbeing, and governing institutions. Growing economic inequality produces poor health and precarious life prospects for majorities in the global south and for increasing numbers in the north. Billions of people in the global south face food and water shortages, which in addition to political corruption and climate change, contribute to failed states, wars, and migration."

What differs this text from many other texts I've read on the challenges posed by peak oil, climate change and consumerism/capitalism/the downsides of our economic system is that this text also discusses various problems that today ails democracy as a form of governance, as well as what needs to be done to "take back the power".

"If democracies are to lead the way in finding new models for human wellbeing within environmental limits, nothing short of a renewal of politics and economics is required. Political systems once regarded as mechanisms for solving problems are now widely regarded as part of the problem. ... The basic elements of prosperity include food, shelter, health, education, security, leisure, participation, creative expression, and freedom from violence and oppression, among others. The challenge is to find new political and economic models that focus on such basic human values, and to organize politics to deliver these results. ... The challenge is to develop more holistic thinking that feeds more flexible political organizations, such as hybrid movement-parties that aim to make change locally while linking their efforts nationally and globally. Finding these pathways to sustainable societies for people in different circumstances depends on creative ideas generated by diverse knowledge communities."

The manifesto also discusses how (digital) technologies could make a difference, but, for technology to make a difference (or for it to be developed in the first place) there needs to be consensus about means and ends. Before the workshop I thought that this (discussing means and ends) might be one of the goals of the workshop. The ideas are already out there; degrowth, post-growth, transition, innovation, commons, open culture, peer economies - so someone suggested we perhaps didn't need to create brand new ideas but could instead settle for combining already-existing ideas into a powerful package. Bonnie Nardi instead suggested that since the particular group of people who gathered in Siegen knew a lot about digital technologies, perhaps the way to leverage this knowledge would be for this group to support other already-existing movements with technology?

What was perhaps most fascinating to me at the workshop was Lance Bennett's introductory lecture about the history of the super-rich and the genesis of neo-liberal thinking during the last 70 years with a focus on Friedrich Hayek and the (previously to me unknown) Mont Pelerin society. The Mont Pelerin society have been fabulously successful in disseminating their ideas and their agenda about free markets as the solution to all possible problems in the world. They have successfully linked free markets (and decreased government regulation) to issues such as freedom of expression and the political values of an open society. I believe the thinking went a bit like this: "if we manage to shrink state responsibilities, we will liberate the individual and liberate individual creativity. We will increase the chances of reaching these goals if we recruit politicians and recruit academic (and perhaps other) luminaries to work as emissaries for our ideas".

I personally wondered why the Mont Pelerin society was so successful and how come I have never heard about it before. It turns out that their greatest "contribution" was to encourage the foundation of a number of think-tanks (as well as the very idea of forming think tanks) as well as connecting these incipient think tanks with wealthy billionaires who stepped up with funding. Such think tanks then create policy documents that are handed out to civil servants and decision makers. Over time and step by step these "thought pieces" have affected policy at a fundamental level.

I found this short history lesson incredibly interesting and provocative. I wondered if and how the Mont Pelerin society's methods could be used while exchanging the core message to something that instead was more in line with the SEED manifesto. I did however also learn that the very idea of founding think tanks seemed to be an anathema to some of the workshop participants (as such organizations by their very nature would be elitist, closed and not very inclusive). It seemed (and I didn't know that) the very term "think tank" has negative connotations to some people as it is perceived as elitist and closed - but it might be that the term "open think tank" (whatever that means) could be ok. We also toyed with terms such as "anti-think tank" and "non-think tank". I don't think anyone knew exactly what those terms meant so we also played around with other forms or organization that more specifically could bring researchers and activists together (perhaps an institute or a "school" like for example Bauhaus that brought architects and artists together?). I know that there are some "alternative" think tanks (or anti- or non-think tanks?) like the New Economics Foundation (NEF), the Post Carbon Institute (PCI) and the Swedish "green think tank" Cogito. One workshop participants mentioned in the break that the problem might not be that we are elitist to suggest that we should form think tanks, but that we are not elitist enough to get a foot in the door in Brussels and Washington...

We all agreed that our (SEED) ideas are better, but their (neo-liberal) ideas are simpler ("free markets, free people") and easier to push. Could we make our ideas more emotional and easier to understand and push? Could the core idea of what SEED is about fit onto a t-shirt (...Six Silberman wondered)? Other organizations manage; any union: "stronger together", Stockholm Resilience Center: "planetary boundaries", Post-Carbon Institute: "preparing for peak oil". Two of Six' proposals for t-shirt slogans were (something like) "Every person has a right to shelter, nutrition, health care, and education" and "Indefinite economic growth is neither possible nor desirable".

The people I met at the workshop were great and the workshop itself was inspiring, but my main concern is that generating creative ideas that are thought up by "diverse knowledge communities" is a walk in the park compared to creating an attractive "package" - a unified whole - out of such diverse ideas. And the more ideas and the more diverse they are, the more difficult it will be to settle on a "core" that we can agree upon. Also, how do you make sure diverse does not turn into divisive? How do you balance breadth and inclusion with focus and action? In an ideal world you would of course want focus AND action AND breadth AND inclusion, but what do you do when these value-laden concepts pull in different directions and create tension? Spending two days together in Siegen proved to be too little time for transforming the manifesto into something more action-oriented so I wonder what the outcome of the workshop will be in terms of "next steps" for the SEED project.

In the end, it was hard to know what was the main benefit of the workshop. It might have been to give great people a chance to come together and get to know each other. Or it might have been to generate a plethora of interesting ideas that some core group (perhaps at the Center for Communication & Civic Engagement) later could refine and develop. It is hard to see that anything in particular came out of the workshop that all participants stand behind but I sure think this was a good start, e.g. "throwing spaghetti at the wall and hope some of it sticks". I also had a large number of side conversations at the workshop that I greatly enjoyed.

My personal hang-up since a couple of years back is on how to balance priorities in terms of ecological sustainability vs. social sustainability (or of "sustainability" vs "sustainable development").  Such tensions are everywhere, including at the very core of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I can easily see that depending on how you position yourself, you might never reach an agreement about "what is most important" or what the first/next logical step would be if you want to act/change the world. It might be that, in order to take the first step, you just have to decide which of those two noble goals takes precedence at those occasions when they come into conflict with each other (or slightly milder, "when they point in different directions"). But "taking a stance" could of course be said to prioritize focus and action rather than breadth and inclusion so where does that leave us?

Taking into account that we had less than two days together and that some of the workshop participants had travelled quite some ways to join the workshop, I would personally have wished for a run-through of the goals of the workshop and what the organizers wished to accomplish at the start of the workshop.  While I enjoyed the workshop, I don't envy the organizers when they will have to try to summarize the results. I also kept thinking that if we can't agree on something at this workshop and in this room, what hope is there of being able to convince others?

Since I am right now studying a short course on "leadership for associate professors" at KTH, my thoughts strayed to the course book, "Creating Effective Teams: A Guide for Members and Leaders" (5th edition) by Susan Wheelan. To Wheelan, a group that works at its optimum performance is a "team". Most groups never reach that stage. A team usually consists of three to eight persons and it is unusual for a team to form in less than six months since new groups have to pass through a number of stages before they can work smoothly together (as a team). I contrast this view of group work with what can be accomplished at a two-day workshop. I think a workshop can be great for generating and exchanging ideas, but might be less good for systematizing and organizing - if the goal is to reach consensus or to work out a plan for instrumental action. In line with the message from Wheelan's book, I think that a way to include diversity into a platform could be to form a (small) group that starts off by being diverse and that then works together for an extended period of time and where group members hammer out their differences and formulates a coherent whole - a shared visionary agenda/platform and a plan to communicate that agenda. But then again, some might think that this process in itself is not very inclusive or not inclusive enough. And I might conclude that the set of neo-liberal ideas that rule the world will continue to win on walk over (since the opposition is too busy fighting it out among themselves to even show up to confront the ruling neo-liberal package of ideas). Perhaps I'm a bit too impatient here but I want action now as I've been thinking about these issues for the better part of a decade by now...

The workshop itself was interesting and I met a number of really interesting people there (including but not limited to Sylvia LorekVasilis Vlachokyriakos  Giorgos Gkiouzepas and Debora Leal). The local organization was also very smooth. We had maps that helped us find our way in Siegen and were pampered with lunches and dinners that allowed us to continue our discussions 24/7. I also greatly enjoyed having the opportunity to meet up with Six Silberman and Bonnie Nardi again. Me and Bonnie even managed to secure one hour each day to work on an article that is soon due.

At one point I entertained myself with (unrealistically) thinking about who was missing from this workshop. Some of the first names I came up with were Naomi Klein, David Graeber, Herman Daly and Juliet Schor. Then I was irritated at myself because they are all from North America. The first Europeans I could think of was George Monbiot, Giorgios Kallis (degrowth) and Hans Rosling. Rosling died not that long ago and his agenda was different from the SEED agenda, but he is still a shining star in terms of packaging complex information for consumption by a larger (Ted Talk) public. I think it would be great if we could grow (or convert) charismatic Ted speakers to disseminate growth-critical ideas on a larger stage and to larger numbers of people. If the Mont Pelerin society managed to create think tanks and policy documents, why couldn't we instead talk directly to millions of people by utilizing the wonders of modern digital technologies?

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