Engaging Preoccupation

A friend working on some Twitter research has created a visualization of Tweets containing the word “occupy.” Watching the barrage of names, emotions, attitudes, accusations, reports, insults could seep in like a bad dream, the social miasma of our times unfolding in real time. I find articulate voices making sense of what’s happening now among hip hop artists who are using their art to engage issues of social justice. At AJstream, Derrick Ashong asks Lupe Fiasco why the clear point of the Occupy Wall Street movement – ECONOMIC JUSTICE – is not translating to mainstream media.

Testing tolerance and endurance in Amherst, MA
Testing tolerance and endurance in Amherst, MA

Half a dozen tents were visible as I gazed out the third-floor window of Bartlett while waiting for discussion to begin in a course on postcolonial literature. My view of the tents was shrouded by pale yellow and brown autumn leaves that refuse to fall, despite the devastating snowstorm that recently wreaked havoc to the trees and, collaterally, the power grid. Or is it the other way around?

Occupy.

Occupation.

. . . “have sexual intercourse with” . . .

Gazing out the window this morning, I marveled at the surreality of the moment: students busily focused on an in-class writing assignment while elsewhere police chase protesters from city squares to college campuses and off of them, too. I wonder what mixture of fear and hope inspires the activists, considering ways I can provide support. My curiosity includes the mindset of bystanders and critics: those who cannot be bothered or see no point, and those who have a problem with the demonstrations of collective action, the insistence on public participation in the guts of democracy.

I remembered that there was something reassuring about people resuming normal routines as soon as possible after snowtober, even though it was also unsettling that most people’s response to disaster seems to be to continue going on in the way one always has.

Life and Debt with No Telephone to Heaven

“That was the worst of being a servant. The waiting around for cuffy-pretend-backra or backra-fe-true while your life passed, the people in the house assuming your time was worthless.”

Michelle Cliff 1987:  19

It is a random synchronicity that I am interpreting an undergraduate course in postcolonial literature while Occupy Wall Street unfolds in biographical and historical time. Nonetheless, I am struck (again) that the descendents of former colonizers are discovering major faults in the system. Now, many white middle-class lives are passing in thrall to a financial engine that eats culture, discarding and replacing human cogs at whim.

OWS: The Defining Symbol of this Generation?

“[Occupy] is bigger than the 2012 elections…this is something that’s going to grow and grow and grow. This is America, this is America bubbling up to the surface… This is something… that is earthquake…you know – seismic.”

Lupe Fiasco on The Stream

A friend working on some Twitter research has created a visualization of  Tweets containing the word “occupy.” Watching the barrage of names, emotions, attitudes, accusations, reports, insults could seep in like a bad dream, the social miasma of our times unfolding in real time. It is too easy to get lost in the public sphere as an impenetrable discussion zone of colliding billiard balls. A privileged few political themes crash and spin off each other in crazy, chaotic directions. I find articulate voices making sense of what’s happening among hip hop artists who are using their art to engage issues of social justice. At AJstream, Derrick Ashong asks Lupe Fiasco and Basim Usmani why the clear point of the Occupy movement – ECONOMIC JUSTICE – is not translating to mainstream media.

“This new generation that’s at Occupy Wall Street . . . coming out of high school now, they’ve got the Arab Spring, they’ve got, seen the election of Obama, people power, I think that my generation could learn a lot from the one that’s coming up, that I see out at the Occupies, I think that those people actually believe earnestly that they can change things.”

Basim Usmani, The Kominas

Navigating through the inertia of the force of old ideas requires calm thinking and the ability to reflect on multiple and diverse perspectives. I take heart from the intelligence displayed both by this hopeful generation coming up now and the results of last week’s elections, which the New York Times opined as

“…an overdue return of common sense to government policy in many states. Many voters are tired of legislation driven more by ideology than practicality, of measures that impoverish the middle class or deprive people of basic rights in order to prove some discredited economic theory or cultural belief . . . . It is not clear that [November 9th’s] votes add up to a national trend that will have an effect on 2012 or even the deadlock in Congress. But they do offer a ray of hope to any candidate who runs on pragmatic solutions, not magical realism, to create jobs and reduce the pressures of inequality on the middle class and the poor.”

Kick and Push (a.k.a. Muslim Skateboarding – Building Skateastan! Check out The Stream)

The challenge of this age is whether we – homo sapiens – can harness conversation about the many challenges, obstacles, and perspectives on these matters and turn our talk to collaborative, productive problem-solving. Rather than hard military aggression and police deployment, perhaps it is not too soon to be soft and yielding in order to cultivate collaboration.

Weather and Uncertainty: Warn or Wait?

Crossing the Rubicon?
Crossing the Rubicon?

One of the striking things that I learned about Americans when I began doctoral studies in the field of Communication is that there is a positive identity function to talking about the weather. If you’ve got to interact with a stranger one thing we all experience is the weather. Rather than being superficial, talking about the weather is a small ritual of interpersonal communication done in similar ways by so many different kinds of people that it aggregates into the significantly large effect of contributing to a common sense of shared national citizenship.

Source: http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/reports/billionz.html (retrieved 4 September 2011)
Source: NOAA (retrieved 4 September 2011)

The economic cost of big weather events is increasing. What about the social costs? What I mean by “social” are the quality and types of relationships among individuals in the United States, between these individuals and the publics we make up and belong to, the scientists and businesspeople involved in the weather enterprise, and among all these groups and the government. Whether or not the degree of public awareness and engagement with the weather is indicative of climate change or is merely a statistical blip that will wash out over time, media hype and active debate suggest a ripe opportunity for intervention in improving the emergency infrastructure so that everyone can better prepare and respond more resiliently to severe weather events (and other disasters).

Problem Definition: A Matter of History

Anyone who’s done research knows that how you ask the question has a lot to do with the results. The challenge of intervention is to ask the right questions; to ask these questions at the right times and in the right places, among the right people, and about the right thing/s; and then to see the discussion through. In Thinking in Time: Uses of History for Decision-Makers, Neustadt and May explain and illustrate the necessity for conceptualizing in terms of timestreams.

Thinking of time in such a way appears from our examples to have three components. One is recognition that the future has no place to come from but the past, hence the past has predictive value. Another element is recognition that what matters for the future in the present is departures from the past, alterations, changes, which prospectively or actually divert familiar flows from accustomed channels, thus affecting that predictive value and much else besides. A third component is continuous comparison, an almost constant oscillation from present to future to past and back, heedful of prospective change, concerned to expedite the limit: guide, counter or accept it, as the fruits of such comparison suggest. (1986:251)

I summarize Neustadt and May’s mini-methods, and argue for their application as a strategy for design, in this blog entry: Implementing an Organizational Vision through Thinking in Time.

Problematic Moments Signal the Potential for Powerful Change

WAS*IS problem definition exercise, 10 August 2011, at UCAR in Boulder
WAS*IS problem definition exercise, 10 August 2011, at UCAR in Boulder

The most lively discussion held at the 2011 WAS*IS Weather and Society Summer Workshop involved how to improve tornado warnings. Even though I was not formally in my action researcher role, I had been authorized to do ‘live blogging,’ so I was taking copious notes and paying close attention to the discourse and dynamics as they were unfolding. After this activity on August 10th (the 6th day of the workshop), Bob described it as “a barnstormer of a discussion” and Justin noticed a shift: “It’s all been happy-go-lucky so far, [and now] we’re going to have some disagreements – but the good thing is we all respect each other.”

watch your headFrom my vantage point, we had just gone through a group-level problematic moment. I’ve lived through several of them, and so have you – any time a whole group suddenly falls silent, or most members of the group spontaneously burst into talk – some underlying issue that effects everyone has somehow been tapped. James Cumming suggests these are “the same kind of moment that Bergson calls “durée:” a moment of silence that prepares the way for discourse, possibly new discourse, and with that the possibility of change.” [Noise is another kind of silencing: din obliterates sensible sound.]

Usually problematic moments are passed over, politely or awkwardly ignored. In our case, the discussion had already gone longer than scheduled and intruded into the break time. The moment of simultaneous talk became the excuse to end the activity and move into break and on with the rest of the program. Exceptionally, however, the vast majority of WAS*IS workshop participants kept talking with each other: over the next few minutes I counted at least thirteen animated interactions, from pairs to trios and one group of four, whose conversations continued as if there had been no interruption. If only we could have captured each of those unique conversations!

tornado shelterBarnburning: The “Warn on Forecast” Concept for Tornadoes

I typed as quickly as I could. This section is mainly the description provided by Workshop Leaders for a heuristic activity regarding problem definition. We were not supposed to try and solve a particular problem, rather, we were charged with the task of applying our collective intelligence to as many components of the issue as we could imagine to question.

ACTIVITY OVERVIEW:
a) The current system accounts for detecting a tornado threat (and issuing a warning) 0~45 minutes before it hits.
b) 10+ year goal is to increase this to ~2+ hours . . .
c) How????? Through better models, etc…. [although] “we have models that are coming out of our ears”

DISCUSSION ENSUES:

  • Kenny clarifies: a specific storm that does not exist yet, a particular threat in a given location…
  • Dan N: an area, maybe Boulder …
  • The default WarnGen shape – “I’m not crazy about that shape, but that’s sortof what they look like…”
  • Current system:
    • Assumes the public is homogeneous
    • ‘one size fits all’ – “you’re either in the warning or not, at risk or not
    • Purely meteorological polygon:
      • Purely bimodal
      • YES you are in or NO you are not
      • Orange dot could be (a popular state park, boy scout camp, county fair, mobile home park, school, hospital)
      • “ugly tornado, or we think it might be”
      • This is about the communication of uncertainty
      • Jay: “you might want to show where the expected tornado location is”
      • Bob: “I have a problem with that orange dot, apparently I have less value (having a bbq with my family) than the Boy Scout Camp.”
      • Mark: “How many dollars it costs for every hour somebody is under a tornado warning” ~ there is “an economic cost involved.” “It’s not a no-brainer.”
      • Jamie: “I’m being undervalued because I’m not in the polygon, but putting you in the polygon means increasing the area of uncertainty” …. five times you’re in the polygon, nothing happens, the 6th time you decide to ignore the warning…
      • Assign percentages?
        • Blue Dot: State Park
        • Green Triangle: Mobile Home Park
        • Red Star: State Fair Grounds
        • Green Square: College Football Game
        • “What is your probability threshold?” “How sure are you that locations inside the box will receive severe weather?” At receding distances beyond the boundaries of the polygon…
        • Greg: specific only to this one storm, not taking into account future/other storms
        • Dan N: only one/current to keep things simple
        • Talia: “How fast might a storm like this move,” influencing when you would move the boundaries…
        • Dan N: 20-30 mph (roughly)
        • Kenny: maybe there’s an on-the-ground report
        • Robert: that measure of speed is an average, some can move up to 70 mph
        • Dan N: just a simplified model for the purposes of the exercise: “Storms can do all kinds of crazy things.”
        • Ben: “Is that more of a fear that meteorologists will miss an event that impacts a lot of people, or is it to make the overall system more dynamic?”
        • Dan N: “Hold that question!”
        • Dan N: add  intensity of tight game – Buffaloes vs Huskies
        • Matt: are they playing in Lincoln?

Probabilistic Hazard Information (PHI)

At this point, it seems most of us have grasped the instructions and the scope of the example.  Now the types of question begin to shift, becoming more diagnostic: the group begins to address the task and interrogate the scenario.

  • Uncertainties/probabilities addedtornado outbreak
  • Longer lead times
    • Warnings for lesser certainty can be issued
    • 1-by-1 pixels

Holly: What happens if the storm regenerates? Could be misleading to the people in the blue?

Dan N: It’s extremely more complicated than this; storms could be popping up all over the place….”maybe in your discussions, you could kick all these ideas around” . . . presented this way “for simplicity’s sake” . . . aware “maybe that’s the problem”

Spinney: “Is each a different product?”

Eve: We had an advanced WAS*IS  about this in 2008.  “I thought, people just need to know each other, as soon as this gets explained, social scientists, emergency managers, hospital administers… total flashback, and a little of post-traumatic stress….. an anthropologist and others asked, “Why didn’t you ask us what we might need?” “why did you assume that this is what we wanted?” . . . “No one has really recovered from this yet….” Our assumption that …. How much trust in the NWS …. It would be magic.  “This is really hard; if we could make progress on this, it could really change the way these things go: we’ve got private sector people in the room, more social scientists in the room, much more sophisticated understanding… the dream was, we’ll explain it to you and you’ll make it easier for us….”  Look at webpage for 2008, _______ (?)…. She doesn’t do this anymore, she went back to lightning. This was too hard.”

Susanna: one of the potential mistakes here, going from warm colors to cool colors, these things we’re used to from Weather.com – intensity indicated by hot colors…. If blue I’m thinking the weather is going to be mild – the color scheme of a storm

Dan N: “light rain….moderate…. etc:

Robert: the color scheme is resonant of what the Dept of Homeland Security used… we were always on green or blue?

Kenny: rules of cartography were not considered when these codes were put together – they spend a lot of time learning about design: hues, color, intensity, perceived meanings… “a mismatch between the product and what’s intended”

Dan N: “be careful quoting me on representing a weather forecast” because that’s not the point here, which is to get us into an exercise

  • 1 km by 1 km grid boxes,
  • this product will give me a percentage, e.g., 17% of being hit by a tornado,
  • two primary issues –
    • 1.  much longer lead time of 2-3 hours, but then we have
    • 2.  increased the probabilistic warning information

Bob: I’ll start looking for secondary info, the longer lead time will reduce the urgency of threat . . . weaken the intent of warning

TASK PROMPT: Do we Warn on Forecast?

ZillianalienThe group is immersed in imagining variables, conditions, assumptions, the breadth of brainstorming is phenomenal. Some members of the group begin to question why, if, when, how, and who should be warned – or not.

  1. What problems were defined?
  2. Does this concept appear to solve the defined problems?

Susanna: This is focused on problem at the local level; but what are the factors at the higher level? Do we have to stay in this paradigm, what do to make it better? How introduce new factors at the higher level – because this isn’t even the paradigm we want to be working within?

  • Who needs more lead time? Football stadium… it takes a long time to evacuate…
  • Gaby: clarification ~ issues addressed in the powerpoint or the exercise?
  • Rebecca: both
  • Bev: we’re assuming lead time will make a difference? Will lead time move into actions that people can take to protect themselves?
  • Gaby: who is this for? May benefit some individuals more than others ~ meteorologists, or comm between emergency managers, but not the public
  • Dan N: generic answer is for everyone – currently tornado warnings are for everyone.
  • Rebecca: audience matters
  • Gaby: if we’re thinking public there are things to consider, if emergency mgmt. personnel there are others to consider
  • Chad: a convective outlook (meteorological) – the meat of the argument…. But jargon-laced to the public. More detail oriented for those people and more general for the public, some nerds who will love looking at the convective outlooks ~ maybe that’s an analogy?
  • Dix: a lot of those products were not made for the public, but they are out there…. We still need them, do you use them/convert them for use by emergency managers….
  • Chad: Interpret and spin into message for their audiences?
  • Dan N: from a physical science perspective, this all makes great sense
  • Greg: will the idea of uncertainty and probability be understood? In the location? In the timing? Where is the uncertainty? Will it appear?
  • Susanna: would it be helpful to communicate the numerical probability?
  • Rebecca: meteorologists assume this will happen, if communicate the numbers it will work
  • Susanna: doesn’t work
  • Greg: that’s the assumption
  • Jay: “whenever we do something like this in real time, we disregard the bigger threat on the north side of that storm which is the hail…. Telling people to get indoors but we should tell ‘em to get their cars indoors to protect from the baseball sized hail”
  • Talia posed something
  • Dan N: why issue tornado warnings in the first place
  • Jamie: give people the info and let people make the decision
  • Rebecca: empower decision-making as the goal or “I know what the right thing is, you do it?”
  • SJK: should be recording this conversation
  • Susanna: bureaucracy
  • Brittany: “will see what I can do”
  • Ben: who decides? Authorities or whose responsible for their family – we’re experts, analogy with a doctor, you need this surgery or here’s the options with their probabilities, people want advice that’s what a tornado warning does…
  • Dan N:
  • Susanna: where we’re miscommunicating is audience ~ doctor, patient, FEMA, hospital administrator, we keep forgetting which public when giving examples, the assumption keeps assuming there is one audience, how do we adapt products to multiple audiences rather than just one
  • Dan N: if we go this route, what Eve was talking about… if we go this route, how (and what effects)
  • Susanna: You’ve shot yourself in the foot, “this is for everyone in the US”
  • Dan N: defends
  • Susanna: must have different entry points in web design, cannot start
  • Greg: people have scales too, just like weather does
  • Justin: what is a problem, what do we do with: bimodal you get hit or not by a tornado same with rain… must have confidence levels – problems with the current model; nothing else in weather is done bimodally
  • Robert: Check out the Warn on Forecast webpage
  • http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/projects/wof/
  • Dan N: let’s not get stuck there
  • Rebecca: intriguing to analyze their assumptions
  • Brittany: assuming that the public knows what their context is – people know if they’re in a football stadium
  • http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:cMf0I_UPv38J:www.nssl.noaa.gov/news/backgrounders/WoF%25202011.pdf+warn+on+forecast+backgrounders&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEEShDkbinbS22ye8afFsm-GdWupuCoCj6L-z6TS-WjzfZO8D0Nh3acfGnIOwmSAmh6VaR2Ti6tlJznFdlFxoUMxzVISxVpmM6bvI1KDWtQfXJFNmP_GHZxjsoNYnZmq3CYePIKbxh&sig=AHIEtbRGaQTjRVWyF1ErssSC7xr9TGNzCg
  • Dan N: you’re bringing it to another level, how could it be done better (isn’t this what we’re supposed to be doing?)
  • Bob: are they just doing this for themselves to show people how smart they are? They’re missing it now, more of the same will help? Not.
  • http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/news/backgrounders/WoF%202011.pdf
  • Jamie: both, ½ the org has one motivation and ½ another (to help the public or show off)
  • Alan: if people aren’t doing something at 100% why are we thinking they’ll do something at 17%?
  • Bev: belief that more/better will be sufficient. What do we know that will empower people? A personal relationship? Something else?
  • Dan N: “We can definitely kick around a lot of problems, but does it solve it?”
  • NO.
  • Kenny: “bring out some of the inherent tensions: In science, if someone asks me to define a problem, what are some…. E.g., “Do people have enough lead time?” there are assumptions in there…. Are these even valid questions to be asking?”  What the weather service would like, and what problem needs to be solved?  “Is this even a problem?” We need a statistical technique to show this before we go to the second stage…. Academics are asking, ‘what the hell are we doing?’ Need to apply a null hypothesis test to, before we even proceed.
  • Rebecca: often we have the data that shows how people do/don’t respond… we have contra-evidence
  • Kenny: assumption that the public needs tornado warnings – I’m not sure this has even been demonstrated. Juicy meta-problems… as we’re attempting to uncover the comments
  • Rebecca back to Jay: what are the threats we’re supposed to be addressing?
  • Dan N: the physical scientists bring up the natural phenomena (hail, etc), social scientists – do people even understand these things?
  • Dan N: “Well, it’s 10:00.”
  • Rebecca: validity – some scientific accuracy or truth, the probabilities are not well-calculated…. Not scientifically-sensible.  “You can’t assume the science is perfect, you make a lot of assumptions with science.”
  • Dan N: current RQ ~“How to draw this box?”
  • Matt: “I’m sitting here as a broadcaster feeling job security. You cannot make a policy that is going to fit every situation. There is always going to be humans involved, no matter how good computers and modeling gets – you can’t cover every situation that comes up…”
  • Rebecca: what is the larger problem definition?
  • Dan N: “This is a real one. This is real life.”
  • Jamie: “When it comes to high profile warnings, that really is the identity of the agency. A lot of people are going to come to the table with tremendous emotional attachment or baggage, to them, this is who they are. The tornado or hurricane warning is how they define themselves.”
  • Dan N; “Meteorologists are almost born thinking, ‘It would be great if we can give 5 hours lead time…’”
  • Greg: how organic systems interact: atmosphere, oceans, cryosphere, land – a classic graphic. The human aspect needs to be put into that five-part connection; the problem is that we’re dealing in two different systems that are always evolving, we always have to make assumptions to simplify…
  • Jelmer: “everybody needs coffee, I know” “ We’re discussing the things, but they are obviously not isolated to this room, there are people doing research about it, already, I hope… a list of references? Otherwise we are talking about it now and maybe forget it.”
  • Bob: question, insane, bear with me: “Does  a reduction in lead time increase probability increase risk…. Short-term decision-making… expose people to greater risk…. Short-term lose more lives & property but over time…. “ a recency effect….
  • Steph H: larger venue decision-making for large institutions: schools etc ~ some sort of probabilities info could help, they may make better decisions than the usual public
  • Susanna disagrees: school principals? Probably not
  • Steph H: longer lead time, seems less life-threatening, not beneficial, more adverse effects (their speculations)
  • Bev: school officials may have more anxiety
  • Susanna: making a joke, can’t assume people with more education automatically understand probability, but some audiences do need more lead time. Bob – for some people it won’t make a difference but for some it will, the hospital administrator needs it
  • Brittany: for emergency mgmt a very useful tool, not the general public
  • Chris: I can see giving the info to an elite group, then feeds rumors – we’re preparing for such and so, but nobody knows, “It’s gonna get out whether we put it out or not”
  • Amy: ethical, legal
  • Chris:

PROBLEMATIC MOMENT!

road sky thunderstorm

Several talking same time: Justin-Chris, Amy-Robert, Steph H (at least)
Rebecca H – the importance of the proactive step
(Mark-Dix, Chris, Dan N, Kenny…Rebecca….)

SLOWAn ethical dilemma – withhold info?

Tell who? (and who not?)

Ownership of taxpayer to the info, responsibility to provide ~ Chris on the shock of imagining the possibility of not telling – proving Jamie’s point about identity.

A Massive Leap of Imagination: Beyond Coal

If we had not argued so vigorously, I would not have thought so much about the potentials of pursuing this conversation…to set the planet on the path to climate recovery requires unprecedented cooperation across borders and among peoples. My friends’ critique was targeted at U.S. unilateralism. Is Beyond Coal simply a(nother) movement by the (mainly white) middle-class so we can feel good about ourselves without giving regard to the consequences of our good deeds upon others? (Disclosure: I am white and middle-class.)

“We need

an unprecedented outpouring of human generosity,

a massive leap of imagination,

a kind of creativity that the world has never seen.”

beyond coal

Drew Grande, the State Coordinator for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Massachusetts, had some trouble fielding my question. He was saved by Mark Kresowic, the Northeast Regional Director, whose answer – while not completely satisfactory – at least suggests there is thought and movement concerning the international workforce implications of the US eliminating our use of coal by 2030.

Their talk at the UMass Labor Center was more of a mini-rally, aimed at the people who are already on board. Most of the questions and comments covered familiar ground: the organization has a mission and a proven strategy for success. In fact, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign is already documented in the academic literature – an amazing feat given customary scholarly drag. My question stemmed from an important critique arising from a presentation of that article by its author Professor Robert Cox, a communication scholar who celebrates the Beyond Coal campaign as an exemplar of environmental activism.

Climate Recovery: Managing the Forest and the Trees

The problem of global warming and the urgency of infrastructural change are both real. Carbon emissions from the US must be reduced by 80% by 2050. To achieve this all coal-powered energy production in the US needs to be stopped by 2030. What the Sierra Club has accomplished is a trend that makes this incredible shift in the energy economy possible. The job is not finished yet; we are all truly needed to demonstrate the hard economic fact:

Coal cannot compete with clean energy sources without

  • federal subsidies – our tax dollars! and
  • non-enforcement of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.

Increasing public pressure will build enough momentum for the domestic transition away from coal. This is good and necessary: it must be done!  However, to set the planet on the path to climate recovery requires unprecedented cooperation across borders and among peoples. My friends’ critique was targeted at U.S. unilateralism.  Is Beyond Coal simply a(nother) movement by the (mainly white) middle-class so we can feel good about ourselves without giving regard to the consequences of our good deeds upon others?  (Disclosure: I am white and middle-class.)

Ninety percent of the coal burned in Massachuseetts’ three coal plants is imported from Colombia. These plants employ workers in MA and run because of the labor of Colombian miners (and shippers and other workers along the procurement, production and distribution chain). Of course their working conditions are appalling and they are underpaid.  I am not saying we should keep coal because of the livelihood these jobs afford to real human beings and their families. However, climate recovery is not going to be achieved if we do not also, simultaneously, create new ways for these workers and others like them to live in health and security.

Opening Ceremony
Communication for Sustainable Social Change
UMass Amherst
10 September 2009

Communication for Sustainable Social Change

Two years ago, Professor Cox delivered the inaugural lecture at the opening of a new Center of Excellence within the School of Behavioral and Social Science at UMass Amherst called Communication for Sustainable Social Change.  The following comments reflect two sources of critique that I participated in at the time: one involves the narrow audience drawn by the Center’s Opening Event and the second involves the content and style of Cox’s theoretical analysis.

Cox contrasted two different campaigns, a massive nationally-coordinated protest event called Step It Up (designed by environmental activist Bill McKibben and his students), and the Sierra Club’s ongoing lobbying effort, Beyond Coal. In a nutshell, Cox argues that Step It Up failed to generate meaningful change due to magical thinking, whereas Beyond Coal is having success because they are finding the means to exercise strategic leverage, rather than investing all hope in tactics. In short, Cox argued that an exclusive reliance on tactics is non-adaptive at levels of scale and time. Cox compared these two public will campaigns through a popular theoretical frame in order to criticize “our ways of talking about change in the Academy.”

Calibrating Theory and Time

Professor Cox’s presentation, “Communicating Social Change: Challenges of Scale and the Strategic,” presents a challenge to environmental activists and academics about the ways we use theories of communication to stimulate and intervene in processes of social change, particularly regarding the need for climate recovery. I was enthralled by Cox’s application of de Certeau’s distinction between tactics and strategy. Cox deploys de Certeau’s, “practice of everyday life”  to teach activists how to think about mobilizing the civilian populace to push government and business for real, deep, significant restructuring of the energy grid.

During the Q&A after his talk, most questions came from people with direct involvement regarding environmental activism. Theoretical questions were less common, such as the one my Chair wanted to ask, about the importance of place (literal, physical location). Cox had mentioned the need for a movement to create a space from which to exert leverage, but this question about “place”  came from another angle. Can theory generated from a basis in one geographic place, with a specific population and particular sociocultural & political conditions, be legitimately transported to another place, where the population and conditions are different?

If we had not argued so vigorously, I would not have thought so much about the potentials of pursuing this conversation. Other colleagues were critical of Cox’ move to generalize de Certeau’s theoretical explanation of a situated context bound by specific parameters to a generalized application that implies a form of universality across human experience. By choosing de Certeau’s frame, Cox is calibrating social activism with the emergent phenomena of transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is made possible by digital communication technologies and enables practices of collective intelligence. de Certeau argues that “in the activity of re-use lies an abundance of opportunities for ordinary people to subvert the rituals and representations that institutions seek to impose upon them.”

My friends heard Cox reifying the power hierarchy between the powerful and the weak by valorizing “strategy” as a force firmly in the hands of the powerful, with an accompanying diminishment of power in the potential of “tactics” which are “the only thing” some people have. While I agree that poor and disenfranchised people(s) have less access and resources to generate strategy, I disagree that this lack necessitates an absence of power. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt demonstrate that tactics can accumulate into unstoppable force. In “History: Science and Fiction,” de Certeau writes of a “dogmatizing tendency” that he calls “‘the institution of the real.’ It consists,” he explains, “of the construction of representations into laws imposed by what is supposed to be the expression of reality” (p. 200, Social Science as Moral Inquiry, 1983).

Choosing “Realities”

Without getting too deep into theoretical nuances, de Certeau describes an “obscure center around which revolve a number of considerations” that combine into “historiography…as something of a mix of science and fiction or as a field of knowledge where questions of time and tense regain a central importance” (emphasis added, p. 203).

In other words, understandings change. Histories are re-written. While those of us alive today (participating and even trying to influence history) are limited by range of perception and and scope of awareness, we can know that relationships exist between what we do now (or fail to do) and what can come to be (or not) in the future. Cox asserts de Certeau’s challenge not to lose touch with ethics:

“It is therefore necessary today to ‘repoliticize’ the sciences, that is to focus their technical apparatus on the fields of force within which they operate and produce their discourse.” (p. 215)

Interconnecting Forests

Cox’s move with de Certeau’s theory is to politicize academics who are all too comfortable sticking within our own trees, even to the point of residing fully along a single thin branch. However, there are serious problems with Cox’s move if it motivates middle-class activists in America to engage in social change campaigns without regard for destroying established labor pools in developing countries.

If coal production for energy is halted, what of the coal worker whose single livelihood feeds dozens?  What is needed is a broader-based effort to win the alliance of coal workers around the world: what industry will be created to replace the one they’ll lose? This is the kind of resiliency-based thinking that our times and the challenges of climate recovery demand: not essentializing one-level solutions focused exclusively on selfish fear, greed, or the desire to retain comfort (motivating or even reasonable as these may be). What industry, indeed? One friend asserted,

“We need

an unprecedented outpouring of human generosity,

a massive leap of imagination,

a kind of creativity that the world has never seen.”

Resilient Creativity

Communication technology may or may not save us. It depends upon how we decide to use it.

I was disappointed at the  Center’s Opening because of a lack of diversity in the audience: it seemed to represent no particular break with contemporary hyper-specialization and narrow discipline-based segregation. It is exciting, now, to see how much the network is growing.

During his introductory remarks to Professor Cox’s talk, UMass Chancellor Holub cast back in UMass’s landgrant history to The Agitation Committee, a group that worked to broaden the University’s original agricultural focus to include larger social concerns. The latent potential of the CSSC to serve as a hub of intellectual activity for generating public will exists, but conversations must be engaged across the institutional complex of differing ideologies and disciplinary knowledges. UMass has a unique mix of traditional, radical and intellectual competence which endows it with an amazing potential to lead in designing and facilitating the implementation of solutions to today’s wicked problems.

Cultivating Public Will

In his introductory remarks, UMass Dean Mullin said he would have loved to have been present when the Center’s name was chosen, noting that each term is “value-laden.” My position is that the most important word is the preposition: Communication for Sustainable Social Change.

Let’s do it.

If you are not yet convinced of the seriousness or the urgency of climate recovery, try this sixty second video on the evolution of life by Claire L. Evans. She describes it as “a video experiment in scale, condensing 4.6 billion years of history into a minute.” Then watch Home by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (sixty minutes you will not regret).

According to the science in Arthus-Bertrand’s film, human institutions have less than ten years to make the deep and substantive changes that are necessary if we are to keep the earth’s atmosphere within the known parameters for supporting life. Watch Evan’s one-minute video, and you should get a feel for the requisite response time. As in now. Research about social change is not adequate – by itself – to accomplish all we need to gain.