Beyond the Technical: Seeing the Need for Systemic Change

crisisaheadIt is a common refrain that our society is facing a crisis. Whether it’s our schools, Social Security, our moral culture, or the environment, decay and collapse are in the air. This isn’t a new development–the idea that the current order of things is on the verge of dissolution is at least as old as the book of Daniel. But with the recent election, this sort of rhetoric has been amplified yet further. Most of those jockeying for positions of power present themselves as the solution to the impending crisis: if you vote for me, the world won’t end. This kind of public presentation is not limited to candidates for political office. Non-profit organizations and for-profit corporations alike constantly present themselves as our only hopes in a dark world–whether it’s a group like Greenpeace asking for donations or a company like Monsanto promising a happy future if their product is allowed to go to market. Everyone agrees that there’s a crisis, and everyone is arguing that they–and normally they alone–can avert it.

In fact, of course, there is good reason to think we really do face a crisis–or even a set of them. Global warming alone poses a serious-enough threat to take the mood of impending doom quite seriously. The question is then: what should we do in response? There’s good reason to think that what has been done up til this point to combat global warming is infinitesimally small compared to what is needed. Sticking with the example of global warming, we are well aware that even with huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines being installed over the last decade that we are dumping even more CO2 into the atmosphere than ever before. And if we include the interlocking environmental crises–whether its the Pacific Trash Gyre, the presence of mercury in seafood, or increased presence of thousands of carcinogenic compounds in human tissue, it’s obvious that the problems are mounting while the solutions are either absent, or pale before the task.

We know there are serious problems, and many of us are spending not small amounts of time, money, and energy to solve them. And yet if anything, we are worse off each year, despite ever-growing wealth and technological capacity. What gives? If we are more aware of the problems, have more resources to address them, and ever more sophisticated modes of response, we would expect the problems to be solved as the future unfolds. This isn’t happening, and I think this disconnect between the expectations of progress and the reality of stasis or indeed regress needs serious attention.

Of course, there are a range of technical, political, and economic factors at work here. As I am not a climate scientist, a policy wonk, or an economist, I’d like to step back and try to make sense of this disconnect from a more general, but still I think explanatory, angle. We live in a society that increasingly celebrates the particular over the general, the technical over the strategic. The assumption is that once a problem has been identified, experts on the subject at hand should be brought in to propose a solution according to their technical understanding. And of course, for many problems, this is exactly the right response. If your car breaks down, call a mechanic. If you are sick, call a doctor or nurse. If your budget is unbalanced, call an accountant. These are all technical interventions that make perfect sense.

But this kind of narrowly-focused response operates with a rarely-analyzed assumption: that all problems are problems of some particular thing or limited set of things. If a car isn’t working, something must be wrong with the particular parts of its engine or transmission or electrical system. If someone is sick, one or more of their organs must not be working properly. If a budget’s totals don’t add up, either a number was entered incorrectly or the arithmetic was fumbled. There is some thing, or some limited set of things, that needs to be adjusted, removed, changed, so that the broader system can work as intended.

But what if a problem is more general than this? What if a problem is being caused not by one particular piece of something malfunctioning, but rather is the result of the system itself, working as intended? In this case, technical intervention will not likely be effective. If the problem is the system and not any of its parts per se, then no kind of tinkering with the parts, swapping in new parts, or removal of them will substantially effect the problem. If the problem is systematic, then the solution probably will be too.

Such situations, where problems arise from deep and broad systematic causes rather than from a few particular items within the system, are far more difficult to address than more limited technical problems for at least two reasons. First, and most obviously, the problem is probably much bigger in scale. Systems tend, of course, to be bigger than their parts, so if a problem is systemic rather than particular, there will be a lot more to fix. That bigger problems are harder to solve, generally speaking, than smaller ones will surprise no one. But there is a second, and more subtle reason, that systemic problems are more difficult to address. And it’s this dimension I’d like to discuss further.

If a systemic problem is a problem in a truly large system, then the problem can be exceedingly difficult, even intractable, because the very sub-systems and habits of technical intervention are themselves products of the system which is causing the problems. In other words, if we are talking about big problems like global warming, economic inequality, political corruption, etc., the we are talking about problems in human social systems. That means that our very ways of perceiving, objectifying, and then responding to problems are themselves part of the problematic system. There is an epistemic obstacle that has to be surmounted to even understand the problem at hand, before we can even discuss solutions. This is a difficult claim to wrap our minds around, because we are now trying to analyze our very means of analysis. I think at this point, examples are useful. Economic and financial ones are, I think, perhaps clearest.

Take agriculture, for instance. Let’s say a farmer finds that the price of the crop she is growing has been going down each year. What can she do to make more money? For the most part, crops are crops–farmers have a hard time differentiating their produce from that of other farmers. The only reliable way to increase income by farming is to either switch to crops that are currently yielding better returns, or to increase the amount of crops grown. If the farmer attempts the latter, easier and cheaper solution, perhaps they will bring more land under cultivation. Let’s say they produced 100 tons of grain this year, and then next year they increase their production to 110 tons, an increase of 10%. They might assume they will make 10% more revenue as well, solving their financial problem.

But this won’t happen. This one farmer, of course, will not be the only one to notice the drop in prices for the crops they sell. Thousands, millions of other farmers will have noticed the same problem, and will have the same possible set of limited responses. If every farmer increases the production of this particular crop, they all may expect to make more money. But of course, if the entire market for this crop sees a production increase of around 10%, what will happen to the price? It will fall (all other things being equal). Supply will have gone up without any change in demand. So: the very response the farmers made to address the fall in prices will actually cause the price to fall even further.

Of course, the farmer could attempt to change which crops she is growing, to a crop that currently has a relatively high margin between cost of production and price at market. But note that not only does such a transition normally involve a large increase investment in seeds and equipment (as well as perhaps more labor hours, etc.) but, again, every other farmer in the world sees the same problem, and many may try the same solution, leading to the same supply glut that we explored above.

It’s worth noting that this is not just a hypothetical example; in the post-colonization period in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, both the IMF and the World Bank made loans and loan adjustment for many countries in that region contingent on structural economic changes in those countries’ agriculture policies. In short, they demanded that these countries adopt policies that moved farmers away from subsistence agriculture–that is, growing the plants they themselves ate and made clothing and other products from–and towards cash-crop agriculture, in which farmers instead grow commodity crops for sale on the international market (e.g. cotton or soy).

The results of insisting on this policy for numerous countries, and therefore millions of farmers, at the same time, was of course a glut in the production of many cash crops and a resulting collapse in their price. The switch from subsistence agriculture to cash-crop agriculture meant that these farmers–who before had been self-sufficient, even if poor–meant that they now depended on foreign farmers (esp. US farmers) for their food. As the price of the crops these African farmers themselves sold went down, their purchasing power went down as well. What this ended up meaning was that these farmers went from a position of poverty where they could at least feed and clothe their families to a position of extreme poverty where they could not even guarantee food on the table.

And of course this meant that many of these farmers went into debt and ultimately lost their land, leading to the concentration of agricultural land in fewer, wealthier hands, and in some cases, in foreign companies. The technical solution offered to these farmers demonstrably made the problem worse (it’s worth noting, of course, that in this case, this worsening of the problem was no doubt intentional on the part of the IMF and World Bank).

The problem here was not with the individual farmers, but with the economic, political, and logistical systems in which they lived and operated. An agricultural system built completely on private property and markets will generate this problem time and again, leading to boom and bust cycles (as well as crushing poverty among many rural workers around the world).

Technical solutions, like better fertilizers, or GMO crops that provide better yields, or more efficient machinery, can give a particular farmer a short-term edge, perhaps delaying the problem, but can not solve it, because the problem is generated by the economic decision-making that is forced upon farmers not by the technical or biological limitations of their capital or seed stock, but by the economic and political systems in which they live. This point is absolutely crucial to see in such situations, because we can only address a problem once we actually understand it.

Said more generally: the financial and industrial systems that govern agriculture under modern economies will generate problems that those systems cannot solve, precisely because the fundamental cause of the problem is the system itself. This point also applies to areas beyond agriculture. If we want to understand growing income inequality, global warming, etc., we have to move beyond limited analyses and the limited solutions they generate. Job re-training is a completely insufficient response to income inequality, as is cap-and-trade legislation for addressing global warming.

So long as the owners of factories and other businesses have the incentive to extract as much value from workers as possible while paying them as little as possible, then they will have incentives to make decisions that increase income inequality, whether through union-busting, exploiting immigrant workers, or moving businesses overseas to countries with fewer protections for workers.

Likewise, so long as our economic systems incentivize the burning of fossil fuels, companies will endeavor to keep doing this. Pointing out the technical issue–that burning fossil fuels is a leading contribution to global warming and all the problems this brings–is completely insufficient to the task at hand. We need a different economic system if we hope to get a different economic results.

This is the reason we must be on-guard against purely technocratic solutions, which have become central to the platforms and policies of the Democratic Party over the last 40 years. Small adjustments to a broken system may be worthwhile as stop-gap measures to try and prevent some suffering in the short-term. But unless we take the task of seriously over-hauling the whole system, the problem will only fester, and suffering in the long-term will be magnified.

The crises we face today are massive and interlocked, the result of the social, economic, and political systems that have predominated over the last two centuries. We have to find a way to maintain the real gains and advantages of these systems–liberal democratic capitalism is not without its real achievements–while also fixing the fundamental pitfalls, and providing new structures and systems where the status quo has failed most fully.

If your ship is filling with water, it’s time to grab a bucket and start bailing it out. If the last ten ships you’ve built all have leaks, though, at a certain point you need to assign some people to look over the blueprints and propose some structural changes. To simply call for more buckets to be made is surely madness. And yet that’s where we find ourselves today: with politicians and businesses and even many non-profits all claiming that they make the best buckets. Our crises demand much more: a fundamentally new set of social, political, cultural, and economic systems.

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