The disasters were designed by us

How to tell a story about a complex system

'We're an adolescent species. And like a lot of teenagers, our emotional development hasn't caught up with our physical and mental growth. As in: we haven't yet learned to empathise and collaborate with others. We're still often thoughtlessly cruel and abusive. Still bewitched by material technology. Still unconcerned about planning for the future. If you compare the life story of the human species to the life of a human individual, you can see that the crisis we're facing now is no more and no less than the next challenge to be survived, as best we can, to make it through to adulthood.'
- Doug Cocks, Global Overshoot

A few hours before new year's day, my best friend was in Merimbula on the south coast of New South Wales, trying to make a judgment call about whether to stay or evacuate.

Bushfires had cut off the Bega Highway, but the Snowy Mountains Highway was still open. If the wind didn’t change, It might be possible to make a break for it.

On the one hand, the risk of staying in this small coastal town with overstretched supplies: no petrol, no food in the supermarket, and the risk of losing power and phone reception. On the other hand, the risk of being on the road if the winds changed direction and the fires suddenly crossed the highway.

The fires had come down overnight from the Clyde Mountain, faster than any weather model had predicted. The speed of the burning was the result of the extreme heat and the huge build-up of fuel.

The fuel build-up had come about because the fire service had not carried out planned burns to reduce fuel loads - partly because spending on fire mitigation had fallen significantly, and partly because 2019’s record temperatures and severe drought made it unsafe to do even controlled burns.

The unusual heat was the result of the warming climate, global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions - to which Australia’s fossil fuel exports are a major contributor.

The failure of Australia’s government to address these issues, despite the popularity of climate action among the Australian population, is the result of a system of lobbying and special interest campaigning that goes back decades.

So: weather systems, logistical systems, economic systems, political systems, social systems - all these factors overlap and interact in complex ways, and the result is a family watching the smoke approach on the horizon on new years eve, having to make the decision: stay and face the firefront, or make a break for it?

———————

The bushfires over new years hit my home hard. Friends were evacuated, people I love lost houses, hundreds of millions of animals burned to death. Now we're in the midst of a major epidemic, the first stages of a major global recession, and a wave of political crises in countries across the world.

These events are not unrelated, and they are not going to stop. As Dan Hill put it in his Slowdown Papers:

'In fact, the disasters were designed by us. And so they were normal. Or perhaps, there is no normal. These events were bound to happen. Effectively, horribly, they were planned for, albeit accidentally. Whether conscious or not, they are the outcomes of the systems that we have designed, working precisely as they should.'
-
Dan Hill

So this is a moment to examine these systems, and to change them where we can. But changing systems is difficult when it's hard to even see them.

———————

Complex systems are abstract, impersonal and operate on timescales and spaces that are beyond easy comprehension.

Humans, in contrast, are narrative creatures. We make sense of the world through stories. We instinctively search for characters, motives and stories in the impersonal behaviour of complex systems - and we struggle when we can't find them.

The solution is not to avoid stories, but to find ways to talk about complex systems that use stories meaningfully.

———————

One of the biggest parts of my job, day to day, is finding the right narratives to help us think about complex systems.

As a writer, theatre-maker and game designer, I'm always looking for new stories that help make sense of the systems we're part of.

Sometimes that means using an action movie genre template as the frame to discuss climate politics (Kill Climate Deniers), or telling the story of a raid on an aquarium as a way to discuss the future of ecology (Break Into The Aquarium).

In 2019, Coney worked with the Wellcome Trust's Planetary Health team to create Temperature Check, a game about the intersection between climate change and human health. My first job was to find the right story to illustrate that system.

After much experimentation and discussion, we settled on a narrative following a group of local town councils over two decades of escalating climate impacts. This scenario let us explore how certain strategies for dealing with climate change have 'co-benefits' for public health - and what barriers prevent us from taking those actions.

Once you've got the right narrative, the key dynamics of the system emerge naturally, and memorably.

———————

The best example of the meeting of complex systems and story that I know of is the Tjukurrpa - the body of lore that connects Australian First Nations people with the desert. There are many Tjukurrpa (this is a Warlpiri word), and together they govern Indigenous Australians' relationship with the land and with society. Within the Tjukurrpa, narratives such as the Two Men and the Red Kangaroo are maps. By following these stories, Indigenous travellers can traverse the desert and live in otherwise inhospitable country.

Scott Cane describes how, 'Every man I lived with in the Great Sandy Desert knew the location of every waterhole, through the narratives of the Tjukurrpa (the most important of which are called Tingarri here) in every place we visited over areas of at least 40,000 square kilometres. I recall crossing the Nullarbor Plain with senior men who had never seen the sea, yet who took me to gorges and other locations on the Nullarbor coast they knew through song. Their memory was so complete that in one location they could identify and name individual boulders.'
- Scott Cane, First Footprints

Storing knowledge in stories mapped in the land and in the constellations through this 'story-mind' practice is a powerful tool for memorization and learning.

Compared with the longterm success of Indigenous cultures, our society is still very immature. I believe we can learn from First Nations practices of stewardship for the land, but also from their deeper understanding of how to speak about systems - not as abstract impersonal forces, but as characters in a story we are a small part of.

———————

One reason Indigenous cultures have mastered the art of storytelling in systems is that this skill is actively cultivated and trained.

In his excellent book Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta talks about maths classes conducted by Aboriginal mathematician Chris Matthews, in which corroboree dances are expressed as mathematical equations, and then new equations are formed and new dances formed to express them.

'What made these rituals effective was not simply the cultural content of the dances—it was the Dreaming action of translating a real-life event into metaphor, then manipulating the metaphors to gain understanding, followed by innovation transferred back to the real world. Traditional culture is important but it is not just a performance or display—the Dreaming process is the key. The same process applied to a spreadsheet or a birthday party would be just as effective. The key to Aboriginal Knowledge, as always, lies in the processes rather than just the content.'

In other words, if we're going to have any hope of making sense of the complex challenges facing us, it's not enough for a few professional storytellers to break it down for the rest of us - we need to cultivate everyone's ability to use their narrative instinct in a rigorous, meaningful way.

This is why, when I run systems mapping workshops with Boho and Coney, we work with participants to not only map their systems, but to tell stories about them. A memorable story and a rigorous systems model together are a powerful tool for change.

Telling nuanced stories about the land we live on could help people (particularly city-dwellers like myself) place climate shocks in a meaningful context. Translating public policy into narratives can help us see when government solutions are uselessly reductive. And stories about collapse and transformation remind us that change is possible - and that we have a say in the kind of future we want.

As we move into an era of escalating shocks, rapid destabilisation and multiplying consequences, the ability to translate the big picture into meaningful narratives is going to be a critical survival skill.

------

NEWS AND PROJECTS

Later this month, Jordan Prosser and I will be presenting a new online performance looking at post-covid futures entitled Broken Hearts 2035.

In the year 2035, schoolmates Ryan and Rachel bump into each other during a protest. In the decade and a half after their last kiss, the world has changed completely. In this short performance, we'll see their love story play out in three alternative future scenarios.

Will the future be informed by high-tech surveillance or rigorous privacy rights? Will it be a world where the Green New Deal is a mere pipe dream, or where climate action is enforced at gunpoint? Will we live in a globalised society or a world of separated nation-states?

And most importantly of all: will it be a world where love between two attractive almost-strangers can still blossom?

Broken Hearts 2035 is Blade Runner meets The Notebook. Minority Report mixed with Notting Hill. When Harry Met Sally in Children of Men. Part introduction to future scenarios, and part dazzling Hollywood sci-fi romance.

RSVP here if you're interested. After each show we’ll be hosting a short Q&A / discussion with a futures researcher:

6.30 - 7.30pm (Australian Eastern time) Wednesday 26 August - featuring Kristin Alford (Director of South Australia's Museum of Discovery)

1.00 - 2.00pm (British Standard time) Thursday 27 April - featuring Louise Armstrong (Forum for the Future)

--------

Kill Climate Deniers in Prague

Excited to announce that Kill Climate Deniers is going to be presented at the Švandovo divadlo theatre in Prague over 2020-21. More details as they come - but if I can get there, I’ll be there for opening night on 19 November - see you there?

---------

This month's newsletter expands on some ideas from my essay Narrative in Systems: How to tell stories about complexity. If you're interested, you can read that piece, and a series of other reflections on my practice, in my New Rules for Modelling series.

---------

As ever, take care and keep in touch.