Retrieval, resilience and wild planning

after sustThis is an edited extract from John Foster’s new book After Sustainability: Denial, Hope, Retrieval, recently published by Earthscan from Routledge. Described as ‘philosophy on the edge’, the book is about thinking our way towards retrieving resilience in our heads, as a necessary precondition of whatever resilience we may be able to retrieve on the ground.

Resilience must be a central concept for retrieval – that is, for the capacity of communities to bring something humanly habitable out on the other side of the unpredictable stresses and dangers to which climate change will (now unavoidably) expose us.

Rob Hopkins in The Transition Handbook defines the idea of resilience more specifically thus:

‘…the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganise while undergoing change, so as still to retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks’.

He glosses it as referring ‘in the context of communities and settlements…to their ability not to collapse at first sight of oil or food shortages, and to their ability to respond with adaptability to disturbance’. Retrieving socio-economic resilience clearly means taking the ‘too big to fail’ tendency out of all our systems: food distribution, energy supply, transport, banks – the lot.

The components of resilience as Hopkins identifies them are diversity, modularity and tightness of feedbacks within a system. Respectively, these refer to the number and variety of system elements; the extent to which these elements are not vulnerable to a ‘domino effect’, but can self-reorganise to survive a shock which takes out of some of their number; and the ability of parts of the system to register and respond to impacts on other parts – that is, the capacity of the system as a whole to use internal information flows effectively in the process of self-reorganisation.

In its account of what will need to be done, locality by locality, to recreate these features in communities from which they have been progressively stripped over the past century by the centralising and alienating processes of an oil-based economy, Hopkins’ Handbook seems to me second to nothing of its kind which has recently been produced. Its leading themes for the transition which we must all now get ready to make are ‘energy descent’ (preparing to do with less centralised output, rather than relying on the implausible substitution of renewables for all fossil fuels at something near to current consumption levels); regenerating the local economy, in particular as regards food production (replacing ‘food miles’ with ‘food feet’, and similarly for much else of what we need); and rebuilding the networks and institutions of real human connectedness within which communities will have to operate to achieve and maintain these recovered local strengths as the globalised systems surrounding them start to unravel.

These have of course been familiar themes of green thinking for as long as there has been a green movement, but they have latterly been much overlaid by the mainstreaming of that movement as ‘sustainable development’. The coming coincidence of Peak Oil with intensifying climate change means the end of that fantasy of modulated progressivism, and Transition offers both a timely reassertion and a lively, congenial framing of what the green movement had kept in its heart all along.

For all that, it badly needs underpinning by the understanding and practice of what I have called existential resilience. This means the strength to accept (rather than resolutely denying, as progressivism so characteristically does) that the human condition is tragic. That involves recognising that good and evil are inextricably intertwined in our experience and cannot be weighed off against one another; that we can’t ever be sure of the future, and are never really in control; and so that there are never any guarantees that things will get better, nor even that they won’t get worse. And it means a welcoming openness to the fact that these conditions of human action require us to listen for and trust to our wildness, in order to go on living in anything deserving to be called hope.

The easiest way to see the practical need for resilience of this order is to flag up a fundamental problem with on-the-ground resilience as Transition envisages it. This is essentially a business of ‘preparing for the unexpected’: we need to be ready for anything, and in particular to be ready for what happens in any given case to turn out differently from what we had been anticipating would happen. But this can’t mean being ready for literally anything to happen, or all sense drains out of the idea of preparation. To be prepared for anything (even if such a state were psychologically imaginable) would be to be prepared for nothing. As a matter of logic, it would seem, expectation and preparation must involve at least some focussed anticipation.

But then: any focussed anticipation of what we judge likely to happen, equally as a matter of logic, must concentrate our attention on what is thereby prioritised as focal, and thus leave us to just that extent unprepared for anything different. So being ‘prepared for anything’ seems to mean: not being.

The process of building resilience is liable to be analogously exposed to paradox. The UK Government’s National Adaptation Programme, for instance, affirms robustly that ‘through good risk management, organisations can become more resilient’. The same expectations, and commitment to a concerted managerial response, inform the very recent Royal Society report on Resilience to extreme weather. And it is certainly true that accurate estimation of the likelihood of something’s happening can contribute to our developing the ability to respond to and hopefully survive that anticipated impact, if it does indeed materialise. But implicitly or explicitly quantifying risk in this way can also reduce resilience: it will focus anticipation and preparation in particular directions, and so generate increased path-dependent vulnerability to something unanticipated happening. This is all the more a danger, to the extent that we are moving in a domain of the unpredictable and in various ways indeterminate, as with environmental and climate futures we always are. Here the real risk is that the quantified prioritising done in ‘risk analysis’ will reflect what we want to think probable or possible, or (still more insidiously) it will tacitly frame out what we just don’t want to think about at all, with the chances of what actually materialises coming on us unexpectedly increased pari passu.

This matters hugely when we are confronting what might well be called billowing indeterminacy. Climate-change and environmental futures are not completely unspecifiable – what we must recognise to be coming isn’t just random. These futures do however involve very significant uncertainty over, in the first place, which among the range of possible impacts – on food, water and energy supplies, ecological support systems and human physical and psychological health – are to be anticipated. And then right across this spectrum, uncertainty also attaches to the scale of impact in each kind (from small shift to upheaval), their timing (from short-term to distant future, several centuries out), their multiple interconnections and their significance in terms of our reactions to them. All this amounts to effective indeterminacy across the whole arena of climate change consequences. To know what we know when we have stopped pretending – that is, that what is inescapably coming is going to be somewhere on the range between very severe and catastrophic – is to know, if we are honest, hardly anything about the combinations of factors in which those conditions are actually going to manifest themselves. Indeed, the extent of our inevitable sheer ignorance here is an important part of what we mean by ‘severe to catastrophic’.

Now building on-the-ground resilience must involve – otherwise we should never get started – building capacities to pursue pre-identified pathways through all the above. An example is Hopkins’ local Energy Descent Action Plans, each of which ‘sets out a vision of a powered-down, resilient, re-localised future and then backcasts, in a series of practical steps, creating a map for getting from here to there’. But creating genuine resilience also means designing into our systems options for shifting onto other plausible pathways, sometimes at short notice, and a review and revision function, to ensure that scenarios, options and plans are re-crafted ongoingly as necessary in response to emergent conditions. Moreover, making this function effective involves maintaining as far as possible not just alertness to the current plan (tracking milestones, indicators and measures) but the very best we can achieve by way of what might be called ‘full-spectrum alertness’, in order to inform this ongoing review function with earliest-possible awareness of all relevant unanticipated factors which may be emerging to affect scenario plausibility, option status, and therefore the need for new arrangements ad hoc.

The crucial thing in all this is that under ramifying uncertainties of the range, scale and volatility outlined above, ‘full-spectrum alertness’, the fourth requirement just noted, is going to be absolutely vital to genuine resilience – but it calls for a kind of non-directed attention which option- and scenario-based planning will inevitably tend to be channelling in particular already-identified directions instead. So there is a clear and potentially disabling tension between the first two and the second two requirements for building on-the-ground resilience. Given a broad spectrum of fairly open possibilities, organising for real action always involves taking a bet on reduced full-spectrum alertness.

The issue here, of course, is that of Donald Rumsfeldt’s notorious ‘unknown unknowns’ – the upcoming shocks which escape getting factored into risk quantification because they are off our risk-assessment radar altogether, so that we don’t even register that we don’t know their probability of happening. Building capacity to absorb disturbance and system shock involves anticipating likelihoods among potential sources of that shock, and in a situation of significant uncertainty this is likely to veil from us ‘left-field’ possibilities. The danger that shock will come from unknown unknowns is indeed increased in a situation where we think we have our bases covered in respect of the known unknowns, because our plans and preparations for building path-dependent resilience actually create unknown unknowns just insofar as they focus attention on the possibilities for which we know we have to condition.

How do we prepare for those shocks? The only possible appeal here is to a notion of responsiveness without control, or poised spontaneity, which we might call ‘wild planning’. This is preparation which is not under our control – an intuitive readying for whatever might come, corresponding to the intense non-specific sensitivity to its impinging environment which a wild creature must constantly deploy in order to survive. It is a matter not of identifying what is likely, but of living in and from the permanent possibility of the unidentified and indeed unidentifiable. In human beings, this must rest on a capacity and readiness to deploy alertnesses which we don’t know we have, in support of those of which we are aware.

‘How do you know what’s going to happen until it happens?’ That is usually a cogent challenge to over-confident prediction, but it is also plain that nothing capable of envisaging its own future, about which that question expressed the whole truth, could possibly have survived. Creatures which can register the world as including a dimension of futurity have to be able reliably to anticipate that future on at least the large majority of occasions – since consciousness of that kind brings with it also the capacity for self-delusion into a false sense of security, and unless a creature is able routinely to correct the associated tendencies, it will not be fit for any environment in which it finds itself.

Human beings are no exception. We ‘reliably anticipate’, and to a far greater extent than any other conscious creature, by reflexively conscious prediction, which ordinarily involves assigning probabilities, and in the standard case where some kind of action has to be based on the anticipation, we rely on this assignment in order to invest preparatory effort proportionately. I might judge, for instance, that it will quite probably rain, because those dark clouds to the West most likely mean rain and they will be driven in this direction unless the wind changes, which it shows no signs of doing: and I might therefore plan to do something requiring a significant time-commitment indoors, but not something which I absolutely couldn’t put on hold in case it doesn’t in the event rain and I can get out into the garden. Here my judgement of the probability of its raining expresses my degree of confidence in the way the evidence of the clouds and of the wind combines – the rain is only quite probable, because I could be wrong about either.

But now it might seem that a question should arise as to how probable it is that I have got my judgements of the evidential factors right. That would be to ask, for instance, how probable it is, and on what grounds, that the given darkness of the clouds does on this occasion portend rain – and if I take that to be highly probable on the grounds that all such clouds that I can recall have yielded rain, how probable it is that my memory isn’t playing me false here? Clearly a regress is in prospect, which I can only stop by taking some level of evidential grounding as non-probabilistically given. But I cannot do that on the basis of what I explicitly know about the coming rain, since that has already been summed up in my judging that rain is quite probable. Thus not everything I need to rely on as knowledge, about the future can be probabilistically warranted if I am to have probabilistic knowledge at all. We must always be in possession of more grounds for the assignment of an operational probability than are ever explicitly committed in that assignment.

In other words, all planning must be fundamentally ‘wild’, in the sense that it must tacitly rely at some level on our having more grounds than we can know ourselves to have about the probabilities in question, and so on our ceding authority, just so far, to a warrant which must shape our plans from the life in us which lies beyond our conscious awareness and cognitive control. The application of this to planning for resilience in face of serious climate jeopardy should be clear. The greater the uncertainty under which we are predicting and planning, and the more potentially destructive and even catastrophic the unknowns could prove, the greater our overt reliance on the element of wildness in all planning has to be.

A suggestive analogy, though perhaps an initially surprising one in this context, is that of battle-readiness. A soldier going into battle confronts an individually catastrophic possibility – his own sudden and violent death – under conditions of almost complete unpredictability. He cannot do this as an ego-self, since ‘my life is for me’ would be a paralysing awareness at that juncture and must be transcended for him to act. Armies have training and drilling methods to ensure that this happens, making disciplined submission to the goal-directed activity of the relevant collective – unit, platoon or other formation – a kind of second nature even under these conditions. The component corresponding to wildness here is the subsumption of individual awareness of dangers and opportunities into the multiple, diverse and de-centred awareness distributed across the collective entity of which the individual soldier feels himself an integral part. The soldier is able to go into battle resolutely because he goes not only with the multiple eyes and ears, but also with the common being and purpose and the (comparative) indestructibility of his unit, just as a wild creature can be protected not just by its own alertness but by a shared alertness distributed through the group or flock in which it belongs. Achieving goals under conditions of battlefield danger needs a collective form of survival knowledge-in-readiness, something in which each individual participates, and on which he relies for his chances of individual survival, but which he cannot know himself, as merely an ego-self, to have.

But then, how do we bring that kind of recognition to bear on our present case – on the News-from-Nowhere version of Transition, the chummy Garden-City and farmers’-market models of retrieval which are all we presently have to work with? Currently Transition protagonists, and more generally environmental activists, tend to come preponderantly from the left-liberal end of the political spectrum and are predisposed to disregard, where they are not actively hostile towards, the kinds of association in which wild preparedness could flourish. These intuitive communities of retrieval must be held together by local or patriotic feeling, flowing from beyond its members as individuals, in forms of unity which are not negotiated or conditional but borne on the currents of livingly coherent cultural tradition. For building real resilience, that kind of association is going to be indispensable. To confront dangerously unknown unknowns, we shall need to base our common action not in intellectual analysis and means-end rationality, but fundamentally in what the philosopher Roger Scruton has dubbed oikophilia. This is love of the household, or more broadly of home – meaning, wherever we can think of ourselves as unconditionally belonging, as the soldier in battle belongs, to an actual or imaginable object of one of the most basic forms of loyalty. For the kinds of reason which we have been considering here, recovered real localities and territorially-defensible nation-states towards which such loyalty is strong, or could feasibly be strengthened, offer by far the best prospects for retrieval in the conditions which are coming. That is why the strong movement towards such recovery presently visible right across Europe (for instance) is so vitally important, however much it presently manifests itself in blind and ecologically-ignorant forms of nationalism.

Retrieval, in other words, is going to involve some new and on past form politically quite uncomfortable alliances, for a green movement which takes it seriously. The need for them is a long way from being widely recognised as things stand. But the more we condition for retrieval and survival in acknowledgement of our tragic situation (including our inability to predict or control, which will only increase, and the associated absence of guarantees), the more we will be opening ourselves to a kind of attention which corresponds as closely as we can yet come to the relevant kind of ‘battle-readiness’ – to forms of community which inherently know more than we can know ourselves to know, and help us find in ourselves more active hope than we can rationally expect to be available.

John Foster is a freelance writer and philosophy teacher, and an associate in the department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, UK.

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6 thoughts on “Retrieval, resilience and wild planning

  1. Thinking about the enhanced survival capabilities of an army platoon is an eye-opener. The army is a dictatorship, where the generals at the top know best and are unquestionable — I don’t know of any ‘democratic’ armies. The same is true of some flocks of animals. Monkey tribes are led by an alpha male who is physically larger and stronger than the other monkeys. One alpha male takes over from another by fighting the incumbent to the death.

    So would letting tribalism and dictatorship replace ‘freedom’ and democracy help us cultivate the collective consciousness that we need to survive in an unpredicable and environmentally hostile future? Or is our current civilised freedom too valuable to be given away in exchange for the chance for our species to maybe last a bit longer than it otherwise might?

    (These are open questions, I don’t have any desire to live under a dictatorship.)

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