Smart People Don't Watch the World Burn
Fossil-fuelled stupidity is running the show
Last week I interviewed Trevor Hilder, an IT expert and cybernetics and systems specialist. He’s devoted the past 20 years to better understanding and applying the Viable System Model (VSM) which he learned under his mentor, Professor Stafford Beer.
Trevor came on the show to explain the VSM, and we had a great back and forth about the particularities of the model, about its inherent morality, about capitalism, about the viability of the free market.
The critical question raised was: How to create new frameworks within an existing paradigm? And can the VSM achieve this?
Viable System Model
The Viable System Model has five functions to enable a system to adequately function within its environment. The first one is operations that deliver a service: human and non-human elements that essentially make a system go, essentially. Trevor used the example of people serving coffee at Starbucks. Another example is the cells in our body which perform different functions.
The second function is coordination: a management structure, perhaps, which organises the operational elements to work together cohesively, ensuring they don’t perform the same function at the same time.
The third function is cohesion: the management structure higher up the hierarchy which encourages workers to take responsibility for their actions and does so by resource bargaining with them. This is the power structure which ensures everyone gets their job done and is liable to ensure all the pieces move together correctly—this is what contracts achieve. Trevor and I debated whether or not resource bargaining and leveraging power is the best way to make a system cohesive, and towards the end of the episode he explained that this function can also be deployed by a collective organisation with a flat hierarchy.
Once again, we return to the problem of can you tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools? How possible is it to diagnose a system or a problem, and then create a new framework to solve that problem, within the very paradigm that created the problem? At this point, one is liable to believe the VSM attempts to solve the problem by using the very framework which propagates the problem.
Resilience and Intelligence
However, then the model gets interesting. The fourth function is intelligence: can a system adapt as the world evolves? Can it adapt to fit its clients’ needs, or adapt its own management structure? Can it be dynamic? This is critical when considering the climate crisis as a symptom of our global system of organising. We have huge multinational corporations and industries which seem incapable of dynamism and refuse to adapt. Rather than recognising the problem of depleting resources and the necessity to decrease energy consumption; the inequitable distribution and theft of resources around the world; economic inequality—rather than acknowledging and addressing those issues, and understanding the role their own business model and purpose plays in perpetuating that problem, these companies risk their survival and our survival to continue business as usual.
Resilient systems would be able to adapt with an evolving world not only thanks to their diversity, a topic often covered on Planet: Critical, but because we would invest in their dynamic nature. Therefore, does a system which refuses to adapt reveal its inability to?
Using the VSM's framework of intelligence, then, is a particularly helpful way to understand this problem. Is your organisation intelligent? Would you consider yourself an intelligent board member or CEO or shareholder or citizen? Or are you being stupid and refusing to adapt? Are you burying your head in the sand not out of some villainous agenda but because you simply cannot process the information? If so, is it time you stepped down?
Whether or not it’s greed or ignorance or a malignant desire for power, whether it's an amalgamation of all of these things that drives leaders to make bad decisions and refuse to adapt, we have to find a way to not only diagnose the problems they cause, but also point fingers at their stupidity.
There is something idolatrous about naming someone a supervillain, calling them evil. There’s something almost narcissistically pleasurable about being that person—to be evil you must be perceived to be different in some way, perhaps even special. You take up time in people’s minds, you’re at the centre of the zeitgeist. Being called stupid, however, is pretty painful. Perhaps the people wielding power to make bad decisions have egos too protected by their sycophantic teams and media baron friends. Then again, perhaps some of them would be called to rehabilitate their image.
The fifth function which allows the system to function adequately in its environment is identity: purpose. Who are we? What do we do? Why do we do it? Trevor delivers this really interesting axiom that Stafford Beer came up: the purpose of a system is what it does.
Rather than swallowing PR or party lines, we must look to what a system is actually doing, what corporations and governments are celebrating, to establish their purpose.Once again, reform comes down to creating systems with values, creating actions from purpose. Given multinationals transcend borders and sovereign law, perhaps corporations do have a vital role to play as we careen towards 2030.
Sally Goerner’s research on civilisations collapsing suggests change always comes from the middlemen, from the people just below the powerful. The personalisation and anthropomorphism of corporations (just think of how brands develop a character for their Twitter accounts) suggests that perhaps they could be the middlemen. Perhaps if employees were allowed to function dynamically within organisations, they could reimagine the purpose of a corporation in order to ensure its survival.
It evidently isn’t possible for most people to consider the huge changes human society will have to go through individually. Collectively, however, we can achieve a huge amount. The requisite imagination simply will not come from one person. We need a hive mind to confront the climate crisis.
Citizens are rightly protesting outside government buildings around the world. But we are up against powerful actors, evidenced by Chile rejecting a new constitution which would have swept away the horrors of Pinochet’s legacy. There was immense support for the constitution, and the right wing launched a 24/7 misinformation campaign terrifying Chileans into rejecting the very thing they had overwhelmingly voted in favour of last year. Even the Washington Post encouraged Chile to reject it—so we can get out hands on the country’s lithium deposits.
We are citizens, but we are also workers, and we have access to those spaces despite the increasing precarity of the labour market. If politics is beholden to industry, perhaps it’s time to grapple with industry—from the inside.
Planet: Critical investigates why the world is in crisis—and what to do about it.