On jellyfish and listening to the futures

3rd July, 2014 by John Sweeney

John Sweeney calls for new approaches to policy in postnormal times.

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."
Hunter S. Thompson

As atmospheric carbon levels reach seemingly implacable heights, the degree to which sustainable solutions must be implemented follows suit. And yet, little headway has been made on this critical issue, at least according to recent forecasts from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which released its Fifth Assessment Report earlier this year. I had the chance to speak with Dr. Pachauri, current IPCC Chair, while attending a conference in Helsinki in June, and he was quite frank about the challenges to come. However, he was also keen to point out the opportunities for substantial change and potentialities for radical shifts, if only by necessity, in the coming decades. Given the complexity of the problems at hand, as well as the potentiality for chaos to erupt should a worst-case scenario come true, taking a moment to note the uniqueness of our age is important.

Noting the strangeness of our historical moment, Zia Sardar argues, we live in postnormal times, which is an in-between period where old traditions no longer seem to work or make sense and new traditions have yet to become the norm. In this transitional epoch, systems--whether human, natural, and/or both--can and often enter chaotic states and spiral towards chaos. This dynamic is driven by positive feedback, which reinforces certain loops and pushes a system toward extreme, if not weird, states. Hence, systems become post-normal, which is to say that they no longer display traditionally normal characteristics and/or behaviors.

For example, jellyfish are not just expected to be mere beneficiaries of global warming; they are actually emissaries of global weirding, which is a term coined by Hunter Lovins and popularized by Thomas L. Friedman. I prefer ‘global weirding’ to ‘global warming’ as the former is a prognosis while the latter is a diagnosis. Rather than simply stating what is happening, which is precisely what ‘global warming’ denotes, ‘global weirding’ suggests that the very life systems we have come to rely upon, such as the water cycle or oceanic temperature ranges, are experiencing massive changes--the results of which are going to weird, literally perhaps, our world. As jellyfish have been implicated in a variety of potential disasters, including clogging the intake pipes of a number of nuclear power plants around the world, they are the perfect symbol for postnormal times. At the Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies, we are keen to examine the range of possible, plausible, probable, and preferable impacts and effects of this weirding, especially what, if any, solutions might be at our disposal.

If one invokes the oft-cited Brundtland Report definition, then the metrics for thinking about sustainable development become a bit more clear: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. But, how might the needs of future generations be made explicit in the here and now? New Zealand and Malta provide two good examples. In 2012, New Zealand extended "personhood rights" to the Whanganui River, which will be protected by two guardians--one of which represents the Maori people. Aside from giving the river a legal voice, it can now "act" like a person in court. Given concerns over fresh water access and ecosystem stability, one way to give future generations a voice would seem to be to grant rights to the systems they will need for nourishment. In Malta, this idea has been taken a step further, and Michael Zammit Cutajar was appointed the Chairperson of the Guardian of Future Generations in 2012. Tasked with acting on behalf of future generations in a policy context, Cutajar is charged with heading the four-person delegation, which was forged to foster a more pronounced place for sustainable development to impact policy today.

As two examples of postnormal policy, both instances demonstrate the kind of weirding that one might expect as the challenges of climate change become more apparent. If corporations and now rivers can have rights, what does this mean for the very idea of rights? Additionally, both examples demonstrate the importance of foresight in navigating the deep uncertainty of life in postnormal times. If today's problems are a result of the lack of foresight we had yesterday, then we ought to do all that we can so that today’s problems do not become tomorrow’s. Unlike strategies of risk management and/or central planning, both examples are complete and utter experimentations, and neither venture guarantees a specific result or outcome, although both elicit new questions and concerns for what might lie ahead by giving voice to the futures. The question, then, becomes: who will listen?

John A. Sweeney is Deputy Director of the Centre for Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies and a Researcher at the Hawaii Research Center for Futures Studies.

Photo credit: scubaluna/iStock/Thinkstock

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