So I think my system for blog-writing is to just wait until something keeps showing up in my life over and over again, and creates enough discomfort, that I must write to make sense of it. I’ve recently been invited onto Radio 4 to speak about the culture of governance in relation to social care, and I’m finding that my reflections on that apply to society and governance more widely. In preparation for an MSc in Sustainability and Behaviour Change I recently went to an all-day conference that brought together movers and shakers in the sustainability space to share knowledge and discuss ideas. I won’t say the name of the event because I spent most of the day utterly furious and texting a friend to stay sane.
Here are some thoughts that have come mostly from reflecting on my experiences of delivering research and engagement exercises to inform policy, and wrapping my head around what’s going on in response to the climate crisis, with a little from a lovely event I went to on a Saturday night featuring a talk about the mental health system followed by a discussion. Self-organised delib. Wild.
We’ve lost sight of why we invented capitalism.
I assume that at some point before I was born, capitalism was introduced as a way of organising a huge society in a sensible way with ideas such as ‘a global economy may discourage war’ and ‘an open marketplace and options on which government to elect will give citizens power to shape their lives’ with the market and government responding to their needs and wants. Somewhere along the way, the marketplace and politics has stopped acting as a means to an end to improve quality of life for the average citizen. Money has become God and politics serves it. Making profits for shareholders is the ultimate goal, and people are just human resources used to reach that goal. I assume at some point the incentive for companies competing in the marketplace to endlessly grab money and power at any cost was mitigated through accountability and regulation. This appears to have died a death, and we’re left with unchecked greenwashing and children in the care of the state living in squalor while the rich get richer. Not to mention companies have much more sophisticated tools of persuasion than they used to, so it’s increasingly hard to think clearly, ignore the adverts and make actual choices. Whether or not you believe in a higher power with more wisdom than our weird little species – surely we’d rather believe in something outside of ourselves, or be atheist, than worship at the alter of profit at all human cost?
There is a strong desire to ‘fix’ problems and ‘fix’ people and for this to fit within defined parameters.
Those making decisions or leading the way get into echo chambers and groupthink. This leads to gross misunderstandings of the problem they’re trying to solve, which informs how they move forward. For example, a civil servant believing taking drugs to be a bad behaviour that must be stopped, rather than comprehending that it is an effective way of escaping the psychological torture of being bottom of the pile, if not deeper trauma and abuse. Another example might be someone who is wealthy and worried about the climate crisis believing that those living in poverty have been brainwashed and so cannot overcome the need to eat processed food (yep, seriously, she said ‘they’ don’t have ‘free will’ unlike ‘us’ who eat organic food), rather than understanding it’s about lack of headspace and necessary decision-making about how to use their budget. A few quid at McDonalds gets you far more bang for your buck in terms of calories than organic veggies. Quality isn’t relevant when you’re just trying to survive. I found the fact this person was given a platform and applauded by a room full of (white middle class) people both fascinating and appalling. I felt like an anthropologist. A more sensible climate activist might think education is the way to lead the masses to their way of thinking – evidence says it isn’t.
For Government, definitive answers are desirable so that solutions can be rolled out nationally, saving money while improving lives. Totally understandable given we need to know if public money is being used well. There is a strong accountability culture within the civil service, where a case for spending money must be made using evidence of promise, then the impact must be evidenced using ‘hard’ data i.e. numbers – of resources spent, people reached and outcomes achieved, and subsequent cost savings. Nuance and complexity is thus less desirable, dis-incentivising long-term and flexible interventions like person-centred therapy in favour of short-term CBT courses. To test interventions they must be defined. To define something complex, we break it up into component parts. We simplify. These simplifications can miss crucial nuances of the intervention in favour of having something can be measured and defined for roll-out. Add to this a culture of governance that is driven by elections and we end up heading in a woefully fast-paced and changeable direction, driven by shifting ideologies and interventions that focus on quick fixes of current problems rather than long-term interventions and prevention. Efforts are being made to manage this, like focusing on place-based solutions, but still – the work of engaging with people is messy while the measurement must be clean.
We have created a way of being that everybody must become in order to be heard.
Those who are not middle class academics must become so in order to represent their community’s interests. I would much rather be in a field somewhere playing a guitar, but instead I have adapted my heart and mind to fit into a world where I articulate my experiences in a way that practitioners and policymakers can hear, and conduct research and engagement exercises with others so that I can write them up in a way deemed rigorous enough to be taken seriously as evidence to inform policy and practice. I have become what felt like my enemy when I was a child. I see leaders of indigenous communities, much further away from the culture of European Academia than I was, adapting to fit into this world and be heard too. Their wisdom and ways of working in harmony with nature must be told as academic exercises or framed as citizen science in order to be taken seriously, because we have decided that our way of creating knowledge is the correct way and insist that everyone must join us in this way of being in order to secure a seat at the table with those who have taken charge of everything. We’ve created some amazing stuff. Modern medicine saved my life, for example. But, so did music. We need different kinds of wisdom, and we need to learn how to hear people who aren’t like us. Not everything can be reduced to a number, and that’s okay. Let’s find other ways to feel comfortable when making tough decisions.
I mean, our entire system of economics was built on the idea that humans are rational. Why aren’t we all running around in the street screaming about the insanity of underpinning our entire society with this premise? I think about it every day. It is WILD. Thank you to those who pioneered behavioural science! You’ve got a bad rep thanks to all this nudge stuff and I worry about how some of the knowledge being created is being used, but good things surely have to come from challenging the idea of humans as rational beings making rational decisions based on all (ALL?!) of the information available.
Alas, there is no silver bullet…
…but here are some top of mind thoughts on how we might improve things without going down the path of anarchy. While I may have found the idea of overthrowing the entire system and starting again appealing in my youth, now I’m grown I don’t fancy all that blood-shed and drama, tbh. That’s easy to say in my zone 4 flat with my well-paid job and decent social status, though.
- Use collaborative models like co-production and deliberative engagement to bring in a wider pool of people with varied lived experience. Let’s shake off this unhelpful notion that citizens (at least in the UK) want the ultimate decision. Nobody wants that (except XR), but people do want agency and we would all benefit from Government and experts responding to what people want and need, rather than trying to persuade the public into accepting policies that haven’t factored in their views.
- Yes, use research as a bedrock to underpin decision-making, but let’s unpick our understanding of what constitutes good evidence – I know we’re already starting to work on this, let’s go further.
- Embed people with different backgrounds, characteristics and lived experience into the policymaking machine so that the sense-making and the application of research or engagement exercises doesn’t just happen in a room full of people with a narrow view of the world. We are not hard to reach, government is. I, like many others, have had to come to you. It has not been pleasant. Government could meet us half-way, or at least adapt a little to make it less painful, by introducing trauma-informed thinking to its culture and working within longer timeframes.
One thing I haven’t squared is this idea that we are somehow separate from nature and conquering it (and are about to be squashed for trying to do so) and the idea that we are part of nature and so everything we do and create is simply part of that. I find the notion that we have forgotten how to live in harmony easier to sit with. So, let’s try to live in harmony with each other and the rest of what’s on this planet. Good harmonies start with listening, so perhaps we can all try to be a little quieter and do a bit more listening.