Why are we not winning the fight against climate chaos? Why was Trump just elected? Why has there been a slaughter of drug addicts this year?
Because we think about change wrong,1 and so our efforts are often wasted.
Three things are needed to make change; we need three capacities. We need the Technical capacity, the Material Capacity, and the Social capacity. Let me explain:
If you have a recipe for apple pie, and some sort of an oven or other way to concentrate heat, you have the technical capacity to bake a pie.
If you have apples and flour and sugar and butter and pinch of cinnamon you have the material capacity to bake a pie.
And if you have someone who is willing to cut butter into flour, slice apples and wait around while the pie bakes, you have the social capacity to bake a pie.
If you lack any one of these three, there will be no pie. Pie will be impossible. You cannot have pie.
Ideas are technical capacity. A vision. A map. A programming language. A recipe. All of the necessary technics to realize the idea are also part of the technical capacity—a factory with all its fabricating machines and finishing systems, handling units, air or water cleaning systems.
Distribution systems might be thought of as part of technical capacity.2
For some simple changes, the idea may be the only technical capacity you need, but for more complex change, you may need much, much more. Joseph Swan developed a light bulb that used a carbonized filament 30 years before Thomas Edison’s patent, but vacuum pumps had not been invented that could suck the air out of Swan’s bulb. He had an electrical supply, a bulb, a filament, but lacked a pump, so he did not have the technical capacity.
Microchip manufacturers are currently reaching the end of their ability to miniaturize, and so the much-vaunted Moore’s Law…is not a law. Chip designers have a lot of ideas, and are doing a lot of research, but can’t currently turn these possibiities into realities. They do not have the technical capacity.
Commercial power generation with nuclear fusion has been just ten years away…since the 1950s? The technical capacity does not exist.
Social license, political capital. The ability to tax to raise funds. Volunteers. Educators. The willingness to go to jail in protest or the willingness to put up with inconvenience for a greater social good. Governance, obedience of laws. Unity, harmony, tolerance.
These things are not created or overcome with a good idea. I think of the social capacity as the fruit of relationships. Can a diverse group of people be brought together in common cause?
In the real world, away from the habit of worshipping ideas, we do spend a lot of attention on social capacity; coalition building, social capital, education, fundraising.
Thanks to post-war exuberance and the silliness of feckless economists few of us think of there being limits to material resources. But of course, on our blue droplet, everything must be finite. Without snow, you can’t go skiing. If you don’t have energy, you can’t do much of anything. No water or no soil or no seed…no crops.
If you don’t have apples, you can’t make pie. But if you do have apples, you can eat them fresh, dry them, sauce them, bake them, juice them for cider, distill them for brandy—as long as you have the necessary technical and social capacities for each of those operations.
Sadly, our habit is to think and say that change is about ideas; new ideas cause change. TED Talks are Ideas Worth Spreading. Political parties have platforms and debate ideas. It is currently very important for cities to “consult” with residents and “hear their ideas”.
Pecha Kucha. Thinklandia. IdeaCity.3
We spend a lot of time concerned with messaging and with rhetoric, because our habit frames this battle as a clash of ideas, and when the best idea is proven out, it wins and change will follow as sure as day follows night…
—despite this not according with reality in almost any way; knowledge and awareness are frequently unrelated to behaviour.
—despite this not being the strategy of countless organizations that are getting things done; a soup kitchen is not about ideas, it is about feeding people. A traffic signal is not about ideas, it is about controlling the behaviour of traffic. Politics is rarely about ideas, it is about getting out the vote.
Of course even a traffic light has an organizing idea behind it. What if each signal was organized around a different idea? Disaster. But for traffic control, as with most of human existence, the ideas are quite old. New ideas are very seldom needed, in fact we are still struggling to execute ideas that are millennia old and so the fetishization of ideas is very often misplaced. What is needed is implementation.
Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard. – Guy Kawasaki
Don’t freak out too much in trying to parse issues between social and material and technical. There is not much benefit to counting angels on a pin head. The big point is that ideas are not nearly enough. As someone trained in Industrial Design I like to joke I have a degree in brainstorming, and I still think ideas are only 0.1% of the solution.
What is needed is the social and material capacity.
So how did Donald Trump become president?
It clearly was not a lack of ideas. I don’t think I heard a single new idea in the whole campaign, just the same old repetition about growth and jobs, with some excitement thrown in about health care, globalization and immigration. But I wonder if there was even a single idea that was less than 100 years old.
We have the technical capacity.
Regarding the American electorate, there is a clear lack of social capacity. Divergent social groups can not be brought together.4
How about the horrifying increase in overdose deaths as elephant tranquillizers are mixed into street drugs?
We clearly do not have the social capacity to care for the wounded people that become and stay addicts, or the social connections to prevent their being so deeply wounded in the first place.5 Furthermore, once people are addicted, we have the knowledge of safe injection sites—the idea, or technical capacity—but we have NIMBY resistance and government obstruction to opening sites, so we don’t have the social capacity.
Please note I am not saying we can’t develop the social capacity to forgo bathroom remodels and granite countertops, and choose instead to assign that money to paying for the supports necessary to prevent or mitigate the harm caused by our culture. We could do that, but we currently do not have the social capacity.
Climate chaos is the poster child of our misallocation of expectations. Scientists did research, the UN made statements, Al Gore went on tour.
The technical capacity is all there—the information and data, even the bright green solutions of electric cars and solar panels and high-speed trains, and the deep green solutions of walkable communities and bioregionalism and simple living.
And we progressives and environmentalists have spent well over a decade being gobsmacked that the only significant changes have been to the increasing level of carbon in the atmosphere. The atmosphere doesn’t care about Kyoto, or Paris, or Rio the first time or the second time. The atmosphere doesn’t even know Copenhagen exists.
The atmosphere only cares about tonnes of carbon, and those keep increasing.
And the louder we talk at people who seem to not be hearing us, the more social capacity we lose as we harden people into opposition.
An excellent recent article by David Roberts fleshes this out.
Most of our knowledge is not acquired or held in ways that we would think of as “learning”—teacher-student, textbook, debate, et c. Knowledge is social, Roberts explains, and is largely passed or outsourced within social groups.6
So, in a formal learning environment, let’s say math class, a conservative student will not care if the teacher is from the same group and shares their conservative politics. The student is there to learn and math is math.
In informal environments, like everyday life, the practise of outsourcing knowledge7 works great, most of the time. If we all had to know how to manufacture every part of every thing in the human realm we would be living a much more stone-age existence. So we are perfectly happy to let someone else be the expert in concrete reinforcing bar or antenna geometry while we are the experts in our field, and few of us care what social groups are involved.
But climate chaos is clearly different, maybe because it requires such broad changes to all aspects of our lives and cultures, maybe because it was carefully politicized. It is not something many of us go to school for, so we form opinions about it based on very few facts but a great deal of social “hum”. It is not much good for progressives to lecture conservatives on climate change because lecturing is not the mode of transmission for that subject and the social groups are not shared.
There is a huge gulf between social groups which simply arrests any attempts to build other social capacities, as would be needed to reallocate resources to carbon reduction, resettle away from flood zones, or make changes to urban form. So, we lack the social capacity to tackle climate change.
In these times, when we have more than enough ideas to enable us to live better than any royal family ever has and before the shortage of material capacity becomes impossible to ignore, most of our struggle comes down to a shortage of social capacity, as those three examples highlighted.
And as I said, it is not that we can’t reallocate our social resources of time and money to elevate important issues. We have, and we will continue to do so.
But social capacity is finite. It is based on the limited time in each day, on the limited capacity for communication and analysis, on the limited willingness to be taxed.
So, we can reallocate social resources to some issues, but certainly not all issues. As is the main point of my writing on Compassionate Systems, we need to replace social capacity with system design whenever we possibly can.
And, since we have too many issues that demand more capacity than we can possibly provide, each issue ends up in competition with the others—which is a horrible situation to be in. So, we need to shift to systems, but we also need to just give up on some issues, and lay them down. We need to lay them down so they don’t weaken others for lack of resources.
Technical capacity is our habit and gets all the glamour, social capacity is where the real work is happening, and material capacity still tends to be ignored, except around the hairier fringes of the internet.
I think we lack the material capacity to tackle climate change, and perhaps the fact we don’t notice this is another bad habit (which is a lack of social capacity). The material transformation after WWII has given us the habit of acting like we will always have more energy and more material. How else could we explain coffee pods and the fact the automotive fleet gets no better mileage than the Model T Ford?8
The sheer volume of energy and minerals that would be required to shift our consumption to either lower energy infrastructure or “green” energy may not be available.
And, of course, fossil fuels and mineral resources are all finite, so they are depleting and will at some point be unaffordable. Things we can do today we will not always be able to do as our material resources deplete.
One of John Michael Greer’s very best posts on The Archdruid Report, to my mind, was his eulogy for William Catton. Tucked into the warm reflection was this amazing paragraph, which offers more background for the primacy of the idea and blindness to the material capacity:
Over the three centuries of industrialization…the production of useful knowledge was a winning strategy, since it allowed industrial societies to rise steadily toward the upper limit of complexity… The limit was never reached—the law of diminishing returns saw to that—and so, inevitably, industrial societies ended up believing that knowledge all by itself was capable of increasing the complexity of the human ecosystem. Since there’s no upper limit to knowledge, in turn, that belief system drove what Catton called the cornucopian myth, the delusion that there would always be enough resources if only the stock of knowledge increased quickly enough.
There is no limit to number of ideas you can have about pie. But if you do not have apples, and a baker, you will never get to taste it.