Book Review – Resilience and Transformation – Preparing Australia for Uncertain Futures by John Seddon

Warwick Rowell, Tuesday 18 March 2014

Just over a week ago, we went on a Zambesi River Sunset Cruise that was a bit of a let down, after ten fabulous days getting close up to a huge variety and number of animals in the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia.   I probably spent too much talking with John about his work – he was, after all, on holiday!

John and I had some punctuated conversations about his work, and various aspects of it that fit with a goal of mine, which is to write some sort of review/reaction piece to a book I read before I went to Africa. This note summarizes some of that conversation, and my reaction to the book.
John is a Federal public servant, working at a senior level, in “risk assessment”.  Our conversation started with my comment that the last time I had spoken with someone with a similar but vague job description was around the time of the Iraq war, and that the person volunteering the rather general job title was a 30+ year old superfit ex-army Englishman.   Risk assessment can cover a wide range of work areas!

My interest is in environmental and organisational management, which frequently involves risk assessment, and taking actions to reduce that risk, in an often uncertain framework.   Some of that work can be explored on this website.    The particular article I referred John to was one I wrote in 1991; Permaculture and Climate Change in Western Australia .    Another that is probably closer to the overlap of our interests is one that summarizes Stafford Beer’s seminal work on system theory.

John said that one of the major sets of ideas behind his work were those of John Seddon, who is continuing the work of applying systems approaches to areas of organisation and public service, mainly in England.

We talked about how so much of risk assessment has now been subsumed in work on resilience; building on the capacity of organisations, formal and informal, so they can better deal with risks that are literally unassessable.   We are probably both old enough to have seen the progression of organisational theories and practices from Strategic Management, to Scenario Planning, to Risk Assessment, and now System Resilience.

The book I read recently was published in 2010, and titled “Resilience and Transformation – Preparing Australia for Uncertain Futures”.  It was edited by Dr. Steven Cork for Australia21, and published by CSIRO publishing.  Steven is an ecologist and futurist, and a senior researcher with the CSIRO.  He played a lead role in developing ecological scenarios for the world’s future in the UN’s Millenium Assessment project.

It is a major work, and hard to summarise.  Each of the 21 chapters is written by someone eminent in their field, under the groupings of Organisations and Economies, Governance and Security, Energy and Settlements, Health and Education, Environment and Society, Disaster preparedness and Recovery.  But even this separation highlights a crucial issue in understanding and management: a complex biological/human system could well have elements that would “fit” under all or most of these headings.

The need for resilience was defined by Stafford Beer many years ago.  A system can cope with change provided its response time is shorter than the time interval between changes coming at it.  The most dramatic example many of us can personally identify with is the “unexpected” suicide.  How many times has retrospective analysis shown otherwise manageable stresses occurring in three or four or five areas of that person’s life at the same time, or very close together?  Another might be the unwelcome statistic that most murders are done by a family member at the end of a long holiday period.

Brian Walker, in the introduction, gives a good definition of resilience: “the amount of change which that system can absorb and still continue to function in much the same sort of way”.   Another later (p15) definition is “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks.”   Yet another (p121) defines resilience as “a personal capacity which involves your use of rational thinking and a variety of coping skills that help you regulate the intensity of your emotional response to adverse events in your life.”

I have recently felt a large dissonance between more reading, more writing and an increasingly urgent need for more action.   This is despite being an environmental activist and educator for now 35 years.  Perhaps there is an alignment between my increasing sense of urgency, and my decreasing capacity to act, as I deal with increasingly difficult health issues, which limit what I can do physically.
So the focus for this review is a brutal one: is what is proposed immediately usable by a potential reader?   So if you want to consider the theory, reflect on the ideas, explore the arguments, get the book.   This is also in part a reaction to the inevitably formal, concise and dispassionate language used through this document.

So here goes:  I am relying on my pencil markings from my first reading, and noting whatever is “actionable”, and occasionally writing my own interpretation of others’ words.   I will not differentiate between national, supranational, and personal foci in these action statements – apply them at the level appropriate to your power!

  • Increase savings
  • Reduce credit risk
  • Move responsibility down as far as possible
  • Alter the tax base to consumption rather than income; if you are really brave, tax only land (Georgists)
  • Establish LETS (local currency) systems
  • Invest in education, health, and local social capital
  • Stop any expansion and encouragement of air and freeway transport
  • “sense of place” over-rides other strategies
  • Focus on extended family groups raising children
  • Re-energise young people
  • Give more and more honest feedback
  • Govern regionally
  • Reduce carbon emissions, urgently
  • Take a management, not a scientific, approach
  • Community involved in planning for catastrophe
  • Creatively insert yourself in other fields of knowledge

The point is made that some resilience is undesirable.  I feel that they need to define another term; resistance.  I would suggest that resistance is not the same, and is less than, resilience.  This argument also needs to recognize the real dynamics of changing human systems; there will always be some resistance.  Many years ago, Trevor Williams rang Fred Emery about this issue, to which Fred’s very Australian response was “Drag them screaming into the future.”    Equally, accepting every proposal for change that comes along is not managing change.   Here we get into that lovely subject of anthropology; What is a culture? My definition: that set of social habits that persists over several generations.   Later, at p109, Resilience is differentiated from Adaptation (change within a broad identity) and transformation (ability to change to a new identity.)

  • Articulate ethics: one set: Earth Care, People Care, Surplus Share, Limits Aware (from Permaculture)
  • Use present knowledge, rather than pursue more studies
  • Communicate, motivate, resource, and provide feedback
  • Never discount experiential and local knowledge
  • Avoid any derivative investment process
  • Invest where the return was generated
  • Import to reduce consumption of exports
  • “surfacing and respectfully challenging of outmoded beliefs” p55
  • Avoid anarchy – if there are no rules, make them
  • Watch for manipulation by the powerful
  • Expect and plan for a rapid quadrupling of fuel prices
  • Produce as much of your own food as you can, resource the rest locally
  • Build ecosystem links over 1000s of kms
  • Pursue water, power, waste independence
  • Local enterprise builds social capital builds local enterprise
  • Walk or ride a bike
  • “IQ tells you something about the power of the motor, and nothing about the skills of the driver”.  Edward de Bono.
  • Keep learning how to drive your mind
  • Work out whether your mental models are accurate; sometimes they need radical change.  You have already done it many times:  How many times have you fallen out of love??
  • Protect your health from an early age

On page 119 Richard Eckersley – whose thinking I first came across in the late eighties – sets out better than I have above, the reason for the action oriented course of this essay:  “Diminished well-being .. can dramatically influence the course (of people’s) response…(Responses can be) Nihilism, through a disengagement and distraction from frightening possibilities and prospects; fundamentalism, through the conviction of righteousness and the promise of salvation; and activism, through a unity of purpose and a belief in a cause.  Yet only activism (which arguably demands more collective resilience, energy and resolve) will allow us to deal constructively with global threats.”

  • One of my favourites: Don’t let schooling interfere with your or your children’s education.
  • Learn what you most want to learn about.  This will change.
  • Learn from people doing what you want to do.
  • Always look for the system boundaries: whilst fuzzy and flexible they are very important.  Eg (p143) climate change impacts terms of trade, tourism icons, demands on legal system, export crops, imports
  • Never believe any statement about a perfect or free market; it is a myth; it requires conditions that have NEVER been met. (p152)
  • More visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning and loving.   (p161)  Donella Meadows.

This seems a good point to stop.  It matches closely the endpoint of John’s and my discussion that evening, as the sun set unexpectedly early, about 20 degrees above the horizon, because it could not penetrate about 8000m of dust over the centre of Southern Africa.  We ended our conversation with two tentative agreements:

  1. Many of the issues in addressing resilience are to do with an almost inevitable property of systems; that their own survival becomes more important than the service or benefit they are providing to others.
  2. That many of the issues seem to best addressed by a refocussing on local, tailored, small group, varied responses to issues, rather than monolithic national or supranational ones: primarily because, in the words of  Reg Revans, criticizing Fritz Schumaker’s book title, “Small is Dutiful”.