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Overview: Strategic assumptions

Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential


Over the past 25 years, from the first International Development Decade, international groups and organizations have implemented or advocated every conceivable strategy offering some promise of counteracting the emergence of a crisis of crises. Whatever the successes, it is widely acknowledged that the basic trend has not been significantly affected. This recognition has itself been voiced so frequently through the Secretary-General of the United Nations that it has itself become an outworn generalization associated in the minds of many with the of loss of credibility of existing institutions, of democratic political processes and of academic research, all of which have proven incapable of more than token response to the global problematique. The series of special international commissions (Brandt, Palmer, Brundtland, South, etc) convened over the years to report on particular aspects of the emerging crisis have proven to be as much a symptom of collective impotence as capable of offering a foundation for new initiatives.

The same 25 years have seen the emergence of a widespread counter-culture which has offered the hope of alternative approaches. These have borne fruit in the form of new communities, personal growth movements, political activism, volunteer programmes, alternative technology, computer-supported networking and the green movement. These developments have been sustained in part by exciting breakthroughs in comprehension of the nature of self-organization, paradigm change, holism, implicate order, and the relationship between physics and consciousness. Nevertheless whilst these continue to offer the possibility of significant impact on the global problematique, this has not been forthcoming. And to a large extent such alternative approaches have appeared as luxuries irrelevant to the priorities of developing countries.

In envisaging the design of a project to respond to the challenges noted above, the following strategic constraints have been assumed:

1. Maintenance orientation

It would appear that collective ability to respond to the crisis of crises has been effectively paralysed. The 1980s have seen the emergence of a sense of apathy, defeatism and despair in the international development community and in grass roots movements. This is largely disguised by public information programmes and media events designed to maintain confidence in projects and campaigns which do indeed have some measure of success. But as the food crisis in Ethiopia has demonstrated, although a magnificent one-time attempt can be made to remedy short-term problems in the spotlight of media coverage, the solutions to the underlying longer-term problems are not in sight. At this point in time programmes are deemed a success if they can slow the trend toward major crisis. An acceptable criterion is maintenance of the status quo, provided it lends itself to being described as innovation. Significant social innovation is seldom sought, however eloquently it is advocated.

2. Solution production

Many "answers", whether explanations, programmes, strategies, ideologies, paradigms or belief systems, are put forward in response to the current crisis, however it is perceived. The proponents of each such answer naturally attach special importance to their own as being of crucial relevance at this time, whether in the short-term for tactical reasons, or in the long-term as being the only appropriate basis for a viable world society in the future. This widespread focus on "answer production", is a vital moving force in society. However it obscures both the significance of the lack of fruitful integration between existing answers and the manner in which such answers undermine each other's significance. This mind-set also fails to recognize the positive significance of the continuing disruptive emergence of new "alternative" answers.

3. Questionable truths

Amongst this multitude of answers, explanations put forward as factual by scientific or government authorities are increasingly questionable because of peer group, religious, political, military, security and commercial pressures guiding objective evaluation and reporting. Recent examples include dubious evaluations by authorities of nuclear reactor and toxic waste hazards, official denial of the impact of acid rain on forests, and reassessment of the world population problem as non-critical.

The situation has been epitomized in NASA, the model of western high-tech management, by the top executive pressures on engineers to withhold information on the gravity of problems associated with low-temperature effects on space shuttle launchings. Middle management in any bureaucracy is under considerable pressure to report positive achievement in the light of pre-defined policy objectives, rather than to indicate the dimensions of problems detected in the process.

There is no assurance that such pressures do not affect the reporting of many other facts of social significance. Self-censorship is increasingly practised as in biology textbooks (to meet creationist objections) and in encyclopedias (to avoid raising unwelcome political questions concerning such social realities as corruption and institutionalized torture). Even in courts of justice, an expensive (astute) lawyer considerably increases the probability of a judgement favourable to his client. The truth of facts has become a question of interpretation, leaving authorities free to deny politically unacceptable conclusions by selecting experts prepared to declare that "there is no proven causal link" between the problems in question (even though such a link may be accepted by equivalent bodies in other countries).

4. Gladiatorial arena

Policy integration initiatives at this time are themselves fragmented and mutually hostile, to a degree usefully interpreted in terms of the metaphor of a "gladiatorial arena". The survival of any integrative answer must be bought at the price of the elimination of all other competitors. There is considerable confusion about the nature of integration and it is difficult to imagine that integrative processes favoured by one group would be considered to be of much significance by another. This phenomenon cannot be disguised by simply opting for consensual procedures, "networking" processes or by viewing it as a "healthy" feature of academic or political debate.

5. Irrelevance of alternatives

The most characteristic response to this confusion is to simplify the situation by establishing or affirming, explicitly or implicity, the fundamental irrelevance of any other answers and perspectives that are viewed as incompatible, if their existence is recognized at all. The preoccupations of the other constituencies are thus defined as dangerously misguided or agonizingly irrelevant. As a consequence there is always a perfectly valid reason for not instigating any advocated course of action or for not considering any alternative perspective.

6. Projection of blame

Many would reject any such recognition of paralysis. But the basis for their rejection is that, "if only" some other portions of society would cease to block effective change then this would release the resources that would demonstrate the collective paralysis to be only momentary. Unfortunately it is precisely the number and variety of such "if only theys", which has ensured the spread of this paralysis and which guarantees that it will prevail for some time to come.

7. Assumption of innocence

Corresponding to this projection of blame onto other groups, as suitable scapegoats, is a widespread assumption of the unquestionable innocence of one's own group. This may well be perceived as making an untarnished significant contribution to the well-being of society. Whether it be academic disciplines or their corresponding professions, national or international organizations, public or private bodies, benevolent or alternative groups, each acts as though its contributions to society constituted an unmitigated good. However valuable these may be, the suspect consequences of these contributions can only be questioned at the risk of ridicule. Sanctions may be applied against those voicing such criticism, from within or without, whether in the case of the United Nations or of alternative groups. A perfect disguise is therefore provided for every possible systematic abuse.

8. Reinforcement of fragmentation

One major characteristic of the plethora of material documenting the ills of the global community is that it tends to reinforce the plaintive or angry plea, noted above, that "if only" some other group would act in some other way all could be well. Each such report focuses on one part of the network of problems, explicitly or implicitly denying the relevance of some other part with which others identify. It is understandable that any such other group would not be strongly motivated to respond to the concluding pleas of such a report. Furthermore it will probably associate itself with some other report denying, explicitly or implicitly, the relevance of the priorities laid out in the first. This process can be observed between the Specialized Agencies of the United Nations or their equivalents at the national level. It can be seen in the failure of the Brundtland Report to build on the Brandt Report, followed by the failure of the South Report to build on the Brundtland Report. It is however far from being limited to governmental bodies.

9. Narrow information base

The consequence of this process is that no group is motivated to recognize or document the full range of perceptions of the ills and opportunities of the world. Such information exists but has to be culled from documents in different locations, which very few are inclined or able to do. If such perceptions are not interrelated the chances of reducing the level of paralysis are handicapped. The argument is therefore that recognizing the full range of ills and opportunities by which groups are touched, and with which they identify, is a minimum requirement for exploring the ways in which they can be collectively empowered to release their contribution to the paralysis.

10. Single-focus dependence

Such fragmentation encourages, and is further reinforced by, dependence on single-factor explanations and single-policy initiatives. Each such initiative may necessarily be formulated in terms of a limited information base. This is usually discipline-oriented in the case of the academic community, but ideological, action-preference, "priority" and other filters may also be used. The integration of the approach is thus achieved artificially by deliberately avoiding the encouragement of a variety of complementary approaches capable of counteracting each other's weaknesses. When the opponents of such a unified approach can demonstrate its weaknesses, they then move to implement another simplistic approach of a countervailing nature in order to remedy them. Society thus moves spastically from policy to policy without any ability to acknowledge the merit of an ecology of policies and of alternation through a cycle of policies.

11. Initiative obsolescence

Single-focus dependence leads directly to the repetition of initiatives of a form which has failed in the past or whose success has been only marginal. Questioning strategies based on thinking of this kind, especially when they are defined with politically acceptable trigger words (population, energy, environment, food, health, education), may be considered tantamount to questioning the merits of motherhood. In the Club of Rome's terms, many such initiatives are maintenance-oriented and are incapable of innovative breakthroughs. The need to break through to new forms of initiative is not accepted by the international community. Even the eloquent pleas for a new order are made on the assumption that well-tried conceptual, policy, programme, organization and conference forms are appropriate to its conception and implementation, with perhaps some minor adaptation.

12. Disagreement phobia

Society has been unable to design any framework, whether conceptual or organizational, in which disagreement is an accepted, permanent integral feature. The frameworks now used are based on the assumption that consensus is the keystone on which any viable organization must depend. As a consequence, disagreement can never be accepted as an integral feature of society, except through structures or processes designed to eliminate it (conflict resolution, mediation, arbitration). These include competition and violent conflict, in which victory is sought, through the downfall of the opponent, Although disagreement is a daily and often creative reality, the fear of situations in which disagreement prevails is such that they are shunned, whether unconsciously or by well-rationalized processes. When they cannot be avoided, much effort is devoted to amplifying the significance of whatever minor items can be discovered on which agreement has been achieved. Agreement then becomes an essentially superficial pretence of little operational significance. Conceptual, organizational or legal structures based on such agreement are consequently totally inadequate to the innovative requirements of any dynamic development process in which disagreement is inherent. Stressing consensus as a key to development and social transformation comes dangerously close to destroying the basis of its dynamism. Development can only occur if there is disagreement with those maintaining the status quo.

13. Self-reflective paradox

Any attempt to reflect the widest possible range of perspectives on the ills and opportunities of the world is bedeviled by an interesting paradox. Given the prevalence of disagreement, whatever method is employed must necessarily engender disagreement. It cannot be expected to result in some ideal, objective approach that would engender universal consensus. Indeed the very attempt to reflect the fullest range of perspectives must naturally remain suspect to those with the vested interests necessary for any specific form of action. Any breakthrough into a more fruitful mode must therefore endeavour to give explicit recognition to this paradox and to the dynamics associated with it. In this light it would be unproductive to attempt to produce yet another "answer" to the condition of the world, however inadequate it might be.

14. Embodiment of discord

The widespread tendency to produce incompatible answers is a symptom of the underlying paralysis noted above. Any endeavour to break out of this paralysis must respond to this dynamic, if it is to be of any relevance to the current conditions. Under the prevailing linear approach, a particular position is taken up and defended, as required by the militaristic conventions of academic, religious, political or ideological debate. This could be contrasted with a complementary non-linear response, whereby such positions are recognized both as perceived by those who hold them and by those who consider them nonexistent, irrelevant, misleading or downright evil.

A valid response is therefore to attempt to design a framework to internalize or embody discord, contradictions and logical discontinuity. The status within the framework of the perspective that the attempt itself represents must necessarily remain a paradox. A further step is therefore called for within such a framework to explore the adequacy of conceptual language to contain such incommensurable perspectives so characteristic of the dynamics of global society. The ultimate question is therefore how to interrelate inherently incompatible answers without producing yet another answer to compete with them in a process which has proved unable to transcend itself.

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