Essay

Struggling in the face of complexity

THE FLOODS THAT swept through Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, causing death, injury and the destruction of homes, businesses and infrastructure, and threatening whole communities, were met with a determination and no small amount of community-mindedness to repair the damage and support those traumatised. The emphasis was on 'cleaning up', 'bouncing back', 'putting the town back together again', 'rebuilding' and 'restoring things to how they were' – no matter what it took. Julia Gillard, who often seemed out of touch with the realities and the emotions of the situation, suggested that the volunteer effort, financial donations and stoicism of those who suffered loss, as well as the numerous acts of kindness and bravery, were evidence that the Australian spirit, 'what makes this country great', was alive and well. Even Anna Bligh, who so impressed throughout the crisis with her leadership qualities and her capacity to provide a safe container for the anxieties of those on the front line, while making decisions based on sound judgements, felt it necessary (and perhaps it was) to call up the legendary 'Queenslander': 'We're the people that they breed tough, north of the border.' But are such qualities sufficient to meet the range of challenges that Australia has to contend with, now and in the future?

Disaster management is an old problem, different to the uncertainties of what lies ahead. When emerging from a disaster, our priorities are to secure the injured, remove the dead, provide support for those in shock or left without basic necessities, ensure public safety, assess the scale and extent of the damage, identify and minimise potential risks, remove debris and property beyond repair, ensure law and order, and slowly begin the task of rebuilding and restoring wherever possible. Co-ordinating and delivering a comprehensive disaster-management relief and rebuilding program is a huge and complex task, requiring the skills of many; the mobilisation and organisation of multiple resources; and careful, painstaking work in the most challenging of circumstances. Usually this co-ordination can only be undertaken through a top-down approach, by those prepared to impose order. Spirits can be broken in such recovery efforts, despite wishes to the contrary, when confronted with loss in the face of the power of nature and the temporary shattering of personal hopes. There is also a comforting degree of certainty that can accompany such work: we know what was there before and the focus is on restoring or recreating that past, even if the past has to be modified based on the learning following the disaster. But sometimes the disaster, or what it reveals, is so great that there can be no return to the past and a new beginning has to be found.

 

DISASTERS, WHETHER CAUSED by flood, fire, wind or drought, will remain a feature of the Australian landscape and the Australian spirit will again no doubt be invoked as a way of responding to these events. However, solving long-standing complex problems – sometimes referred to as 'wicked issues', because they persist or worsen despite numerous efforts over a long period by governments of all persuasions, and the not inconsiderable amounts of money thrown at them – requires a different kind of response. Problems such as the health and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples, gambling and other addictions, obesity, and social exclusion have defied all interventions to date. And we are also facing problems and challenges that are more unpredictable and uncertain. The impact of global climate change, water reform, economic sustainability, global migration and the emergence of Australia as a truly diverse multicultural society, along with the attendant question of how to live with difference, are all challenges that take us into unknown territory, posing fundamental questions about what is valued, how we live and organise society to best develop our adaptive capacities.

Having spent years devising and protecting ever more narrow areas of specialisation, we are now confronted by these challenges with the partiality of our expertise and the urgent need to build trans-disciplinary approaches if we are to fully understand such issues and begin to develop comprehensive solutions. As To Live Within Earth's Limits, the 2010 publication from the Australian Academy of Sciences, argued in putting a case for a new trans-disciplinary Earth System Science, the social sciences must be recognised as essential, as human responses to change are unpredictable and human interactions with the biophysical world insufficiently understood. The authors concluded, 'We now need to realise that some far-sighted environmental stewardship is needed for our long-term wellbeing and that this may need to override our personal self-interest and market forces in deciding how resources are used.'

Yet the challenge to knowledge goes further, for such responses are still expert-driven when what is required is to put this alongside experiential, innate or practice-driven knowledge, often a product of slow maturation over generations and passed on largely through an oral tradition. While breaking free from both disciplinary and organisational silo mentalities, and being willing to accord recognition to non-formal knowledge, are challenging enough, we must also accept that the combination of all existing knowledge will still leave us having to work with considerable uncertainty, on the boundary of knowing and not knowing. John Keane, writing in Griffith REVIEW 28: Still the Lucky Country? (2010), captured this well when he described democracy as 'an exercise in living on the edge of future time'. Some ten years ago LH Gunderson and CS Holling, in their edited book Panarchy (Island, 2001), spoke about interconnected social, economic, ecological and evolutionary change as a combination of 'rapidly unfolding processes and slowly changing ones – gradual change and episodic change, local and global change', and called for an integrated response and a view of nature as evolving, requiring a process of learning and new institutions in order to be adaptive.

As our awareness grows of the complex, interconnected nature of such problems and the limitations of our existing knowledge, so our anxiety levels increase as we venture into new territory. Complexity and uncertainty, with their attendant anxieties, cannot be impediments to action; we must learn to act while not knowing, making 'good enough' decisions, learning from those decisions and being aware of our assumptions and emotional states as we proceed. This is what the American Donald Schon, an organisational expert, referred to as 'double-loop' learning – the ability to reflect upon and question the assumptions, paradigms and mindsets we operate within, which was later developed to include 'triple-loop' learning, reflecting as we learn on how we learn: our attitudes, values, assumptions and feelings.

DURING THE PAST two years I have been fortunate, as a recent arrival to Australia, to have had the opportunity to work closely with the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists on water reform in the Murray-Darling Basin, an area of land covering a million square kilometres, 14 per cent of the total area of Australia, a population of more than two million people and whose jurisdiction involves the Commonwealth, four states and the ACT. Water reform in the Basin is an old problem, a wicked issue that has been argued over since Federation. Yet it is also an example of a contemporary dilemma, as we attempt to grapple with future climate change as well as current water usage, and consider the transformation of reimagined Basin communities to ensure their future sustainability with less water.

On one level the problem is relatively straightforward. For more than half a century, as the Basin became known as the food basket of Australia, governments have over-allocated water to farmers. Water was not only over-allocated but also wasted, as evidenced by countless stories of water left running down the roads and the ongoing use of open irrigation channels. After all, it was 'just water'. Insufficient attention was given to best-practice, efficient irrigation during periods of reasonable flow. During the recent record-breaking drought, extensive efficiency measures were successfully introduced, albeit unevenly, by the irrigation industry as the primary adaptation measure to maintain production levels. As a consequence, although water allocations were reduced by 70 per cent, irrigated agricultural productivity went down by a mere 1 per cent. So much water has been extracted for irrigation purposes that the sustainability of the Basin and of iconic sites, many guaranteed by international treaties, are now threatened. After years of debate, politicians from all parties agreed on both the need for reform and the way forward, as outlined first in the 2004 National Water Initiative and then in the 2007 Commonwealth Water Act and Water for the Future program. Enough water would be returned to the environment, once agreement could be reached based on the best available science on how much was required, and the Commonwealth would buy back water entitlements at market prices from willing sellers to acquire the recommended volumes. In future, those who remain in irrigated farming, along with the Commonwealth as the environmental water holder, would each receive a water allocation relative to flows.

On another level, water reform has raised many issues: how to engage communities in an inclusive way to develop and implement policy for which they feel some ownership, rather than having it foisted on them by those with little experience of either farming or of living in the Basin; where can water be taken from economically and efficiently; how to ensure the future sustainability of communities hit hardest, and manage the decline of communities where this is not feasible. Water reform also asks that we respond to the longer-term structural fault lines within agriculture, identified more than a decade ago by Neil Barr from Victoria's Department of Natural Resources and Environment. Barr analysed data for 1986-96 to highlight the ongoing decline of farms, farm families and farmers; the exodus of young people from farming and the Basin communities; the ageing of farmers; insufficient productivity gains to compensate for the declining terms of trade, low incomes and increasing dependence on off-farm income; the loss of entrepreneurial farmers with mid-sized farms, as a consequence of investment-driven debts; and the high costs and risks associated with entry into agriculture. These long-evident trends have been exacerbated by the drought.

 

THE FAULT LINES are evident, too, in above-average suicide rates, increases in domestic violence and mental health referrals – one local Victorian counselling service in 2010 reached its anticipated annual new referrals within the first quarter – and in crippling household debt. There is evidence of stress in the wider communities: local housing markets, retail and service sectors, anti-social behaviour and poor educational attainment among young people still living in the Basin. Then there is the continuing failure to attract and retain essential professionals. In parallel, there are signs of the outward migration of those with highly valued skills and expertise, without whom regional communities face a depleted future. Experience indicates that once such trends take hold they are difficult to reverse, more likely to send the community into a spiral of long-term decline, a slow and painful death. It is these deep structural fault lines, which have little to do with water reform, that need now to be addressed as an essential part of the Basin Plan if regional Australia is to have a sustainable future.

Yet these communities have emerged in their current form as a consequence of previous policy, part of a vision by which Australia would grow, achieve food self-sufficiency and master nature. Throughout the past century successive governments employed measures, not all forward-thinking, to encourage regional migration, including underwriting major irrigation infrastructure, the extension of irrigated agriculture into land unsuitable for growing, incentives to individuals including selling too many water licenses, offering farmers compensation during difficult times, encouraging new migrants to settle in regional communities, and even enlisting the support of ABC Radio in the postwar period to encourage community-building projects with a program and 1945 booklet, The Community Can Do It: Make a Plan.

There is a paradox here, too: while federal and state governments have been orchestrating regional development in the Basin as a critical part of nation-building, unlike other economic sectors it is the farming family that must ensure its success. While those who enter farming are not motivated by altruism, at least no more than those seeking a career as a public servant might be, the added expectation that farmers are at the forefront of national sustainability is a considerable responsibility. If farming is just another business like any other, we would not expect it to benefit from government subsidy and support to any greater extent than other sectors of the economy. If farming is considered more as a public good, then what is produced, where and in what quantities becomes a matter of public concern and not something completely dictated by the market. The current ambiguity leaves farmers free to make much of their contribution, and suffer hardships in the process, but unaccountable for what they grow, how they grow it or at what cost; and for others to view farming as an over-subsidised private business from which farmers have done very well, but ignore the impact of a decline in farming.

Perhaps there are better ways to talk about an industry said to be at the heart of the nation's wellbeing? A significant proportion of food produced in the Basin is exported and this is another part of the regional myth, encapsulated in the anti-reform slogan 'Food 4 All', that Australia is a major contributor to global food production. Yet if Australia is to be a serious player in a global sustainable food strategy we must develop a regional food strategy that recognises our interdependencies, thereby challenging the myth of home-grown 'food security'. Such a strategy would influence what was grown in the Basin for both domestic and export markets, and take greater account of what was suitable given environmental conditions.

The effects of such an overzealous pursuit of growth in irrigated farming have been increasingly apparent, and now threaten long-term sustainability and – ironically – the viability of the industry, which is sometimes guilty of too casual a disregard for this scarce resource but also so resistant to reform. The need for water reform has arisen from an environmental crisis and the urgent need to repair the damage, the outcome of previous badly conceived policies and practices. So what is the right thing to do when government-sponsored communities, given iconic status in nation-building and national identity, must now change? Like peeling an onion, an exploration of the issues reveals more layers of interconnected complexity, making policy formation ever more difficult, but no less urgent. It requires grown-up politics.

WHEN FACED WITH the prospect of significant change there are a number ways to react. One response involves those affected, after sometimes a lengthy period of inquiry, deliberation and reflection, accepting the necessity of change, pooling resources to adjust their lives to adapt and move in a new direction. Even in this scenario, when the change is for the greater good, the wider community has an obligation to ensure that those affected are supported in appropriate ways. Perhaps a more common approach would involve resisting change: people mobilise their resources to minimise it, allowing them to maintain business as usual. In resisting, we screen out those factors that might create self-doubt, separate people into 'good' and 'bad' camps, and project negative characteristics or motivations. While resistance might be an effective short-term response, if change is inevitable and beyond the control of the individual the long-term benefit may be limited and the impact worsened.

A variation is to do nothing, a form of passive resistance, in the hope that whatever triggered the proposed change will go away, something will intervene to make it unnecessary or someone else will solve the problem. Such a response can sometimes lead to depression or despair, a sense that we are unable to influence either process or outcomes. A fourth option would be to seek to escape the change and recreate a 'business as usual' situation somewhere else. In this scenario, the person realises that it is futile to resist the change but does not like the prospect of living with the predicted consequences. As a result those with the capacity, skills, resources, motivation and opportunity to relocate do so, leaving behind a community depleted of economic, social and cultural capital, and less able to embrace change or able to do so only with severely diminished resources. Communities like this cannot adapt and instead enter a cycle of decline in which they become unattractive to external capital investment and new migrants.

Which of these responses to change is adopted by individuals and social groups will depend on factors such as the level of knowledge or understanding about why change is necessary; the extent to which people feel able to contribute to knowledge generation; the extent to which they can challenge the assumptions underpinning the emergent knowledge; the conclusions drawn and any specific proposals; and their capacity to offer alternative understandings and solutions. Most importantly, reactions to proposed change are influenced by the extent to which they feel able to contribute to the decision about how change might be introduced and managed, and whether the future looks better following the change. A sense that both personal and community needs and concerns have been fully recognised, that there is support during the process of change, that the outcomes are likely to be fair and that the process does not disadvantage one relative to others involved also helps shape the response. In other words, change, especially when it involves entering an uncertain future, generates anxiety that as well as requiring the exercise of personal capacities – and sometimes that is all we have – can also be facilitated by ensuring the right process is in place to contain those anxieties and enable us to act while on the boundary of knowing and not knowing.

 

WATER REFORM IN the Murray-Darling Basin is a good example of the challenges that lie ahead as Australia tries to develop adult conversations about complex dilemmas. What has struck me while participating in the debate, and observing public meetings, academic discussion, media reporting, blogs, and talking with a diverse range of people living and working in the Basin, as well as politicians and public servants, has been the partiality of views expressed, the lack of generosity to the standpoints of others and the extent to which many of the stories fix people in positions from which it is hard to be extricated, a process reinforced in the world of blogging by those with similar perspectives. Conversely, there is little attempt to appreciate or acknowledge either the arguments or emotions of those who take a different viewpoint.

I have heard variously some environmentalists and city dwellers dismiss the concerns of farmers fearing for the future as them always having something to complain about, having done well previously, being over-protected by governments and subsidised through taxation generated in urban areas, of rorting the system, despoiling the environment, and being backed by wealthy and aggressive lobbies – the 'powerful vocal agri-political minority lobby group' as one blogger described them recently – with undue influence over local councils, mayors, state and federal MPs. Similarly, the impact on Basin communities has been dismissed as just yet another chapter in the Australian story of towns long abandoned as projects have failed and people have moved on, another episode of the 'boom and bust' cycle.

On the other hand, 'environmentalists' are seen by those in irrigation as belonging to a privileged, smug minority, an urban extremist special-interest group who know little about regional life or farming but are happy to buy the food produced, who disregard the role of food production in building the cities – 'without irrigation 90 per cent of Australia, including its capital cities, would be uninhabitable' – who wish to return the environment to some pre-colonial pristine state, who pursue lifestyles more harmful to the environment but disregard the heritage claims of farmers, their contribution to Landcare, the identities of Basin communities and their sense of loss in the face of change.

In my work on water reform I have become aware of even more serious concerns than these: exchanges between protagonists that occasionally descend into abuse, often conveyed in a disrespectful, threatening, macho manner, and that assume homogeneity in farmer and in environmentalist. First, there is a marked disrespect shown to 'experts' or 'intellectuals', but not technical expertise or creative ingenuity. I am referring neither to the healthy scepticism toward any claimed expertise, as advocated by Donald Horne, that is an essential feature of any democracy, nor to the fantastical conspiracy theories of the Citizens Electoral Council of Australia, who claim that the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists is a front organisation of the World Wildlife Fund under the leadership of Prince Charles to promote a 'fraudulent' and 'voodoo' science as part of a genocidal plot hatched by the Crown aimed at 'eliminating our national food supply', to 'reassert complete British imperial control over a devastated nation of only 5-6 million human beings'.

Rather, I refer to the ambiguity toward the role of the intellectual. It is as though the tension between the cultural norm of egalitarianism and expertise, as described by Anthony Moran in Australia (Routledge, 2005), can only be managed by denigrating the latter, as in the 'tall poppy syndrome'. Perhaps people of 'ideas' are marginal in a land of 'doers'? We see it too in the retreat of academics from the role of 'public intellectual' to be replaced by private consultants, not as intellectuals but as people providing governments with quick and easy answers to complex questions, required to gather 'data', not reflect, offer a critique, or develop new insights or thoughtful policy responses. Too few academics engage in public debate, or make themselves or their ideas accessible to a broader public. Too few have learned how to work with the media. Instead, university research funding regimes emphasise writing only for academically prestigious journals read by only a few dedicated souls. Perhaps this antipathy is a product of previous experiences in which the public has been less than impressed by what academics had to offer? Trust must be earned and academe may have fallen short. Associated with this ambiguity is a reluctance to learn from experiences elsewhere, an insistence that what confronts Australia is somehow unique to itself. Equally strong is the conviction that Australia has developed its 'own ways' of doing things, so that proposals reflecting a 'European sensitivity' will gain no credibility; that some things, such as structural adjustment strategies, do not work here and have been shown not to; that the expertise, values and aptitudes do not exist and governments lack the capacity. Yet this 'spirit of Australia' mentality may be less well suited, given the complex and global nature of many of today's challenges.

I have been struck too by the lack of trust in government and a disturbing belief by Basin communities that they have little political influence. There was a strong sense that politicians and public servants, especially 'bureaucrats in Canberra', are 'out of touch', 'far removed', rarely visible in the Basin – preferring to parachute in well-paid consultants – and that when they did visit they could neither answer questions nor reflect what they had heard in any subsequent reports, so Basin residents could see little value in such 'consultation'. I might add that despite the rhetoric to the contrary, government agencies and departments continue to operate largely in siloed spaces with insufficient cross-referencing and dialogue. Both the Gillard and Rudd governments have been criticised for poor implementation of policy and, no doubt partly as a result, public servants adopt risk-averse practices. In the case of water reform, which requires both strategic policy-making and planning for change in an uncertain world, there is a concern that no single department or agency has the capacity to work with such complexity. Significantly, when asked to identify an agency or department at any level of government that could take the lead in water reform, respondents in Basin communities were unable to do so.

In the same vein, it was felt that the expertise, knowledge and creativity within Basin communities had been ignored, a sure sign that the political class had little respect for them. In most Basin communities it is not too difficult to identify the small number who are respected leaders, yet the Murray-Darling Basin Authority failed to identify or gain support from the local leaders who are essential to the change process. While discussions on the future of Basin communities need to extend far beyond any current leadership group, securing their endorsement could nevertheless be critical – and not just as a way of gaining access to others, but because this is an impressive, creative and knowledgeable group of people well aware of the long-standing issues in their local community and the need for water reform. Much can be learned from them about what needs doing, and the authority ignores them at its peril.

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