Rio+20 will mark twenty years since the Rio Earth Summit and forty years of International efforts since the Stockholm Conference of 1972. Despite all this effort and its achievements, civilisation remains increasingly insecure against a range of shocks with a potential for cascading impacts and irreversibility. It looks like the era of gradual problems has passed, as must the era of gradual responses. The future looks set to arrive abruptly; either an abrupt global transformation where multiple societal goals are met or abrupt cascading shocks where no goals are met.
There may still be a large degree of choice between these two possible futures. Although it’s an obvious easy choice there’s a snag. Over the past 40 years our collective problem-solving didn’t actually solve the problems. Albert Einstein’s classic warning applies; how to be sure that we aren’t still trying to solve today’s problems with the same kinds of thinking which causes them? Adam Smith also warned, “When we are in the middle of a paradigm, it is hard to imagine any other paradigm.” With the benefit of 40 years experience since Stockholm we can add, “When we are in the middle of a gradual international problem-solving process, it is hard to imagine other paradigms.”
How to rapidly imagine, design and implement other paradigms? A starting point for this large challenge could be the smallest possible response, to say “Oops!”. “Oops!” may not sound like much but this acknowledgement of society’s collective failures could be powerful in shifting the dialogue and creating space for new thinking. As an acronym, OOPS! could provide the international community with an informal ‘Out Of Paradigm Space’ to discuss options that haven’t been considered simply because they didn’t fit in the prevailing shared mental models or institutional architectures. OOPS! would ask, “what are we missing here?”.
Would OOPS! need more of a focus besides ‘out of paradigm’? Possibly not. Proposals to define the meaning and scope of paradigms would be valuable within this space but less useful as constraints on the space. Open-ended dialogue is ideal for building a shared curiosity about opportunities that lie beyond the bounds of today’s institutions, sectors, locations, issues and mind-sets. The name OOPS! maintains a gentle reminder that together we’ve apparently not been as smart as we’d hoped. This supports an attitude of humility and flexible thinking well-suited to an outbreak of collective intelligence.
OOPS! could work primarily as a web think tank (an online network), serving the international environmental governance and policy-making community as a shared space for ideas and dialogue. The space would need no formal role in decision-making so long as the content was publicly visible: transparency would allow public debate to influence policy debate. Nations and international institutions would be likely to encourage their officials’ participation to demonstrate a readiness to adapt and collaborate in new ways to rebuild public confidence in governance.
It’s impossible to measure in advance the contributions of OOPS! dialogues to international fora such as Rio+20 and climate negotiations although the aim would be to shift today’s ‘political reality’ fragmented by adversarial entrenched positions to a new reality, hard to imagine today, of seeking and implementing win-win strategies that meet shared goals. Much existing research would be relevant for this shift. One example is my paper published in the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme called Seven Policy Switches for Global Security (author’s link, publisher’s link).
The emerging concept of ‘global security’ recognises that future security anywhere requires all facets of security everywhere. The interdependence of each aspect of security, such as financial security, climate security, national security and water security, allows them to be merged rather than set against each other. This broad goal-set reflects society’s broadly shared goals, encouraging collaborative strategies and discouraging polarised positions. There are no safe havens from threats that affect only other people in other places. And no advantage to be gained by losing one form of security when seeking another.
What does this merged goal-set tell us about approaching global problems? Over the past 40 years just one overall approach has been tried. The intertwined complexity of multi-dimensional problems has been reduced into ‘manageable’ issues such as climate or food or waste. This reductionist approach offered the hope of gradual progress but ironically it instead blocked progress. In this paradigm it can be hard to imagine a non-reductionist approach, “Try thinking about all problems at the same time – OK now what’s the answer?” However a dual focus approach has been available but unexplored and untried, a ‘systems approach’.
A systems approach was neatly described by C West Churchman (1979), “…no problem can be solved simply on its own basis.” Solving problems in complex systems requires action both within the realm of the problem and beyond - on the paradigms that either drive or reverse the problems. Food security for example requires both actions that deliver sufficient food and actions that deliver every other form of security, ranging from rising ecosystem vitality to rising wealth sharing. This dual ‘within and beyond’ focus allows a systems approach to unite with traditional issue-based problem solving.
The paper then asks how could problems be rapidly reversed? Global problems are seen as an indivisible whole that can be solved at source only as a whole system. Systemic behaviours, or paradigms, can be switched from inherently problematic to inherently problem-resolving. How then to change paradigms? Donella Meadow’s (1999) concept of leverage points is adapted to international policy-making as ‘policy switches’ that work in combination like dials to open a lock. Each of them is needed for any symptomatic issue. Each policy switch comprises a shift in worldview (or shared mental model) and a policy initiative to enact the shift.
Seven policy switches were proposed. Switch 1 upgrades society’s scale of ambition. Planning for ‘less bad’ (less carbon, less starvation etc) is not good enough. Switch 2 prescribes curiosity as an antidote to path dependency. Switch 3 offers a simple market-based tool to radically reshape the whole economy, so growth no longer undermines further growth. Switch 4 uses economic competitiveness to phase out overdependence on weapons and conflict. Switch 5 allows nature to be valued without being commodified. Switch 6 matches the world’s stockpiles of wealth to the stockpiles of problems. Switch 7 shows how ever-deepening debt is optional.
The seven policy switches offer a glimpse of a future where our capacity to solve the big problems is no longer limited by a limited approach to them. If international environmental governance encompasses paradigm governance the tough challenge for Rio +30 might be the world’s scarcity of worsening problems!