An American Game of Thrones

As a graduate student, my academic advisor once told me that despite its hype, the American Revolution did not so much create a new system of government as replace one king with another.  The President has king-like symbolic power over the nation’s direction.  For this reason, and because of the diminished stature of the US in the world context, the US ‘throne’ is now a shrinking resource which will see fights the likes of no other in US history.  The polar opposite visions of the country will shrink the middle ground and with it the scope for any real action to be taken.  As the real power to influence events wanes, the symbolic power of the Presidency takes on ever more vitality.  Just look at the way that the President is personally blamed or celebrated (depending on the jobs numbers) for economic turns of events over which they have virtually no control.  Electing a new ‘monarch’ has all of the trappings of a winner-take-all fight in which, to paraphrase Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones fame, ‘you win or you die’.  In this battle, the rules of engagement are murky.   The US ‘throne’ is now a

Ultimately, the game of thrones, whether in American politics or in the popular HBO series to which I have become hopelessly addicted, is about leadership.   The abiding moral paradox is that to earn the throne one must be ruthlessly focused on its attainment, but to keep it requires wiser, more subtle finessing and the ability to keep that ruthlessness in check when necessary.  This is the central distinction that Machiavelli made 500 years ago, encapsulated in the term ‘prudence’.   Warriors like Robert Baratheon (or George W. Bush)  fail as leaders because they lack the necessary diplomatic skill to inspire and activate their symbolic power.   Masters of finesse like Barack Obama (read Ned Stark) must constantly balance their leadership with the necessary hard edge needed to deter challengers, both domestic and abroad.  Such leaders do not necessarily relish or celebrate the violence they must commit.  But, taking the moral high ground can be hazardous to their health.

And what of the Lannisters (er, Mitt Romneys) of the world?  Wealth doesn’t automatically bring wisdom or the prudence necessary to rule.  The wealthy often prefer to manipulate things from the background rather than step forward to and take the power commensurate with their wealth.  In fact, the corruption that wealth brings erodes the necessary respect for power that is a requirement of prudence (Joffrey the false heir apparent, is a clear result of this corruption).  Romney, like Tywin, must constantly keep the ‘lower’ urges of his ‘clan’ from damaging his image.    Ned Stark

In this new age of symbolic power, appearance matters far more than reality, because to focus otherwise risks revealing the appalling truth: the President has little actual power to affect the economy, world affairs, or domestic governance.   The real decisions made in boardrooms, central bank meetings, and war rooms will go ahead with little reference to political affairs.  Collaboration will occur increasingly in secret, while the public sphere will be characterized by unending conflict.  To twist an old adage, in order to get anything done, it must not be seen to be done.  

The Future is Now: Rio+20

History’s largest international conference is taking place this month to commemorate a series of milestones and assess progress on key environmental issues.  After thinking and writing about these issues for so many years, I hope readers will forgive the tone of this post, it’s admittedly ‘glass half empty’—on another day I might be more optimistic.

It’s been 40 years since the world’s first international Conference on the Human Environment was held in Stockholm in 1972.  Since then, anniversaries of these milestones have been held at various intervals, with the key turning point being the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio which established the notion of sustainable development and set the global agenda for the 21st century.

Sustainable development is development that…

In the past 40 years, entire generations of people have emerged from poverty, gained education, raised children, fallen into war, lost their homes, tackled disasters, and accumulated debt.  Countries have been formed, economies bankrupted, and entire societies have risen, fallen and stagnated.  The unrelenting trends of environmental destruction have been unshaken by these human earthquakes.  Virtually every curve follows the same pattern: from carbon emissions to depletion of the ocean fisheries to accumulation of plastics, the trends are unchanged.   The human acceleration of the carbon cycle, depletion and degradation of energy, growth in global population, and accumulation of wastes has proceeded at an unrelenting pace.

organic_growth_graph_400_clr_5097In 1992, Agenda 21 listed a series of aspirational goals: international cooperation, peace, and participatory sustainability were among them.  It was optimistic and mediocre.  It was the best we could do at the time, and in hindsight, probably the best we’ve ever done.  Looking back now, we can see the forces that were brewing to both advance and hobble the emergent global consensus.  Businesses got on board for the first time: tired of being labeled the enemies, and realizing the need to forestall government actions, they either went wholesale for a radical re-hauling of their practices or threw money and marketing at the problem to change perceptions.  All these years later, it’s hard to say which tactic had the greater impact.

As the environmental damage of some business activities became harder to avoid, reduce or hide, businesses changed tactics.   They labeled their environmental critics as ideological nutcases or foreign enemies.  Scientists were a tougher community to silence, but not impossible.  Funding think tanks to stir up doubt about global warming and buying politicians bought some industries some time to become too big to fail and so lock governments into subsidizing them when the inevitable crisis hit.

stick_figure_insert_key_earth_hole_pc_400_clr_1318For their part, the environmentalists were caught off guard by the ferocity of the counter-attack.  Hostage to the business cycle, their pessimistic message found solid ground in those populations whose stakes were lower and who had the most to gain from changes: the lower middle and upper middle (both countries and classes) had sufficient resources to spend with some discretion and when given a choice that make economic sense, they were willing and able to make changes.  They created new green enterprises, touted urban farming and wind and solar energy, and focused on changing the local level, leaving the large businesses the global field upon which to play.

In taking this hunker-down survivalist approach, however, many forgot that their local environments were dependent on the global in inseparable ways.  Their urban and suburban lifestyle was oil-fuelled and globally-adapted and vulnerable at its very core.

Governments essentially vacated in the face of irresolvable differences: they were derailed by issues of  fairness in compensation for losses, human rights claims, global inequities in resource distribution, and the unwillingness to give up any sovereign claims whatsoever.  While talking a good game, they utilized any and every opportunity to shift costs onto others and spare their own any discomfort.  The ‘others’ included future generations, other countries’ territories, and other species.  To be fair, there is no room for heroes in environmental negotiations, since the fault is increasingly everyone’s, and so, essentially, no one’s.123088183(2)

There are real problems to be solved here: air, land and water pollution can be reduced, species can still be saved, warming can be either accelerated or slowed.  Imagine what might be done in the next 40 years.  The earth cares not about how these things are accomplished, just whether they are.

#RioPlus20; #EndFossilFuelSubsidies

For more analysis and some governance solutions, see the excellent Earth System Governance Project: http://www.ieg.earthsystemgovernance.org/

The Unbroken Line between Games and Education

University learning is often like a game.

Let’s play a game: I’ll set the rules.  Your goal: to perform various complex and skilled tasks in an adventure-style first person game involving personal quests, team cooperation, and writing, speaking, and recall tests.  Your goal: to achieve a sufficient level of accomplishment in each task to advance to future levels, with the ultimate goal of leaving the game.  Points are earned by passing tests or performing set tasks.  Extensive instruction is required to accomplish each task, and more time will be spent absorbing the instruction than actually performing the task.  Failure is severely punished, and results in setbacks to your progress in achieving the task.  There are no shortcuts, and the schedule of tasks is predetermined.   There may or may not be rewards for participating.

How many of us would wish to play this game?  Well, this is exactly what we ask students to do throughout their university careers.  Education is very much a game—if we understand a ‘game’ as a competitive activity with rules to test various skills and produce outcomes, such as winners or losers.  But gaming is associated with play, diversion, recreation, and less so with learning.  Nevertheless, because university learning is a poorly designed game, it does not do a good job of motivating people to learn.  The point system (marks) is often inconsistent, punishment is too severe, and too much time is spent absorbing information and not enough time is spent in applying the knowledge learned.

This can result in an inordinate focus on extrinsic motivators, which psychologists tell us can actually reduce initiative, creativity, and intrinsic motivation, which are all necessary to learning.  As Jane McGonigal points out, well-designed games work to enhance these traits, by using a feedback system that lets players know where they are in the 101433076process, setting up rules or limitations (sometimes unnecessary ones) that offer meaningful stakes, and allowing for ‘fun failure’ (spectacular failures that actually reward effort).  Frequent feedback and active learning techniques are already widely acknowledged as effective teaching strategies that enhance both motivation and deeper forms of learning.

Well-designed games allow players to progress at their own speed, with an awareness of how they compare with others, and foster social connection that helps players identify their contribution to a larger project.  Admitting that education is a game is not pejorative, neither is it to say that education should only be reduced to a game and nothing else.  Nevertheless, admitting that the game elements of university education tend to make it less motivating seems only a statement of fact.

Further Reading: Jane McGonigal Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they Can Change the World Penguin, 2011

Harper: Solving Problems that Don’t Exist, Ignoring Ones that Do

Governments operate on two distinct tracks.  In one track, they make decisions according to an ideological architecture.  This is developed by the party elite, elaborated during the election campaign, and either refined or even jettisoned upon taking power. Governments also operate on another track, which involves making decisions ‘on the fly’ in response to rapidly-changing circumstances or urgent problems that require solutions.  Governments that follow the first track but ignore the second track,  risk being derailed by emergent or unexpected circumstances and problems that refuse to fade away. Governments that follow the second track exclusively, risk losing coherence and becoming bogged down in compromises that prevent bold action when needed on deep-seated and longer-term issues.

Whatever one might think of their ideological architecture, the Harper government’s program of action since achieving a majority has been rigidly and ideologically focused on the first track.  Conservative governments often tout their superior fiscal management and efficient governance, but when problems are ignored because of ideological short-sightedness, then this sacrifices the ability to be functional, efficient and fair.

The government’s single-minded pursuit of the purchase of F35s for the military is a good example.  In the face of disappointing progress on its development, buyers like Turkey, Australia and Britain have delayed or reduced their orders.  Not Canada, at least not yet.  Where is the urgent need to spend millions of dollars on military hardware?  What pressing requirement is driving this purchase?  With Canada standing down in Afghanistan and few urgent threats to national security looming on the horizon, the only explanation is ideological.

With a continuing budgetary deficit and the economy showing signs of weakness, the government is forging ahead as well with its tough on crime bill, which involves building more prisons, without releasing any information about its impact on the budget.  This is despite the fact that violent crime in Canada has been on the decline for the last thirty years, and the American experience has proven that increasing incarceration rates have actually increased the crime rate in that country.

The elimination of the gun registry similarly exhibits a puzzling and almost obsessive focus on problems that don’t need fixing.  All the evidence points to a decline in gun homicides since the introduction of stricter gun control in 1995.  Whatever information has been gained will be lost as the records are destroyed, to what end?  Given the willingness to spend on defence and in other areas, it does not seem that the savings (which are relatively minor) justify the loss.

Meanwhile, it took a housing emergency in Attawapiskat, only one of several Northern communities facing serious problems this winter, for the government to take remedial, and (as it turns out) heavily delayed, action.  This is despite the fact that Auditor General Sheila Fraser identified serious problems in May 2011. In her report, Fraser described the ‘unacceptable’ discrepancy in  government funding of education, housing, and services for First Nations.  These structural problems remain persistent and call for more than band-aid solutions.

Electoral politics do not explain these decisions particularly well, given that the Conservatives have a secure majority in Parliament and the Opposition parties are in disarray.  The first track (the ideological one) tends to dominate when  other problems do not make headlines or intrude in unpleasant ways on the government’s radar.  Deflection and diffusion can work to a point, but the underlying problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental destruction continue.  These problems are not usually spectacular, but they are urgent.  Ignoring them has costs.  These costs will continue to mount up, in increased health care spending, crime problems, pollution, and other social ills, until such time as the government is unable to ignore them. This neglect is ultimately self-defeating.

Student Showcase

Political Science students at Okanagan College this past Fall term have worked very hard to prepare work on cutting-edge political topics and issues.  Students were challenged to analyze a political problem, consider various policy options, and come up with creative solutions.  They prepared a blog, poster or paper to present their work.  This showcase is a sampling of some of the best work done this term.  My thanks to all of my hard-working students, it was a close competition among some outstanding submissions.  I am blown away with the outstanding work that you do!

Continue reading Student Showcase

Table of Educational Functions and Technologies

I have focused on those that are free, semi-free or web-based.  I have also focused on those that are best suited to educators’ purposes, or are customizable for particular functions, or are particularly inspirational examples of what is possible.

For a list of online educational resource libraries, visit: http://online-educational-resource-libraries.wikispaces.com/

Delivering Course Content

Improving Engagement

Encouraging Critical Thinking

Images

Presentation

Recording

Text

Video

Assessment

Projects/Research

Sharing

Crowdsourcing

Learning Objects/LMS

Simulation


Upside Down: A Post-Modern World System

In 1974, Immanuel Wallerstein argued that the world was composed of three types of economies: a core, a semi-periphery, and a periphery.  In the core countries, capital-intensive manufactured products with high levels of complexity and value-added were the primary source of national wealth.  In the periphery, labour-intensive primary resource industries were the main source of wealth.  The semi-periphery countries mediated between the twroller coastero, but all countries acted in accordance with the principles of the global capitalist system. What characterized the relationship between the three regions was the terms of trade among them: core countries accumulated wealth by extracting resources and labour from the periphery.  In the outskirts, raw materials were traded for machinery and technology. The semi-periphery managed the relationship between the other two, with a mixed economy based on trade.

Even though Wallerstein’s analysis was applied primarily to Western and Eastern Europe, no one had any illusions at that time about who constituted the core, and who the periphery.  At the commanding height of the world economy, the US was unrivalled as a trading powerhouse, the most efficient and competitive economy in the world, the driver and reference point for development for all countries (including the Soviet Union, the ostensible rival).  Americans were the world’s consumers, traders, thinkers, workers, and investors.  America defined the ‘core’ of the world economy.

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Today, Asia is the world’s factory and an exporting powerhouse, sucking in raw materials from abroad at a ferocious rate.  China is becoming the world’s braintrust, transforming trade goods into high-end tradable commodities and changing their workforce using technical and business knowledge to ‘reverse innovate’ new products and services. Today, Hollywood movies are released in China and India a full month before anyone in the US can see them.   Australia, Canada, the Middle East, and South Africa, formerly the nimble trading members of the semi-periphery, are now repositioning themselves as raw materials and commoditiesproducers, supplying the forests, minerals, food, and fuel for the new core countries.

In this post-modern world-system, unrecognizable as it is fromwinners and losersthat of 50 years ago, the core and periphery have switched places.  It is not so much ‘flat’ (as claimed by Thomas Friedman) as ‘bumpy’; with hills and valleys defined by the underlying forces of finance and production.  Sometimes the ‘bumps’ create stranged bedfellows, as Greece and Germany are discovering.   It is highly intermingled, more like a ‘neo-Medieval’ system of interlocking interdependencies coupled with rigid underlying hierarchies.

But as Wallerstein recognized, exactly which country plays which role is irrelevant. All of the things that are often deemed to make civilizations unique, like values, culture, soft power, technology, and even military prowess, are less important than the underlying patterns of wealth and exchange that dictate the range of motion that a country has.   Assuming, as America and Canada have recently, that one is immune to the disciplining forces of capitalism, and that capitalism will only ever  work in your own interests and against those of your competitors and partners; is a myopic failure of vision.  It assumes that only one vantage point exists or even matters, and neglects the realities of the new post-modern topsy turvy world.


A New Grammar of Disaster

With the House Republicans once again blocking a bill to fund federal disaster relief measures in the US Congress, I was struck by the contradictions in the way in which disasters are being framed in public life.   These contradictions, I would argue, are not unique to the US, but represent a kind of existential paradox that is affecting publics throughout the wealthy industrialized world. The paradox is this: disasters represent exceptional circumstances where government must act positively to protect security and property; on the other hand, governments must not be allowed to  establish new institutional authority to prevent future disasters, mitigate their potential effects, or recover over long periods of time.  Disaster capabilities are needed, it seems, but these must be temporary, ad-hoc, circumstantial, and limited in space and time.

2011 is proving to be one of the most expensive years for disasters ever, with the frequency of disasters reaching an unprecedented level.  Extreme drought, heat, flooding, hurricanes, and tornadoes have cost the US an estimated $35 billion, according to the American Red Cross.   The costs of disasters are not limited by government budgets, and so the commitment to recovery cannot be arbitrarily limited.  This feature of disasters means that considering them ‘exceptional’ is misplaced.  Disasters, especially in an era of extreme weather caused by climate change, are not exceptional, but  transformational.  They cause permanent changes to human settlement patterns, economic growth patterns, infrastructure, social and cultural trends, and natural resources.  The idea that governments must not also change to address them means that governments will be increasingly marginalized in society’s responses to disasters.  This is not a welcome development, since it is only governments that have the collective will, concentration of resources, and legitimacy to marshal social efforts to solve large-scale problems.

Naomi Klein argued in The Shock Doctrine in 2007 that disasters provide opportunities for rollbacks of public institutions and privatization of the economy according to free-market forces. However, the idea that disasters provide opportunities just waiting for private companies to exploit just doesn’t seem to fit the experience since the economic collapse of 2008.  As the costs of disasters rack up, companies are either too strapped for cash to invest, or spooked by the possibility of further uninsured losses.  Where are the millions for New Orleans after Katrina?

Thomas Homer-Dixon argued in his book The Upside of Down in 2006 that disasters (if they are not too severe) provide opportunities for renewal and regrowth, and can be leveraged toward deeper forms of social change, at least partly through the formation of new institutions of readiness and new societal efforts focused on adaptation.  However, it seems as well that disasters must be framed in ways that make them significant instances for governmental action, not as exceptional and limited circumstances that can be overcome with ad-hoc efforts.

Just as disasters are becoming significant social movers, governments have vacated the field.  Putting aside the irony of the right’s effort to offset disaster relief spending with cuts to renewable energy programs that might mitigate future disaster costs, the broader question of how to frame disasters has been sidestepped.   Putting disasters in brackets, and assuming that they are temporary and exceptional circumstances that will go away in due course, guarantees that their cost, both human and economic, will continue to escalate.

How Are Jobs and the Environment Related?

President Barack Obama launched a new plan to create jobs last week. Although Obama’s speech was not about the environment but creating jobs, underlying it was the implicit premise that there is an unequivocal synergy between government spending on clean energy, increases in economic growth, and job growth.  But how are jobs and the environment related?

Protecting old-growth forests means that some foresters may have less work

Sometimes there is a stark conflict between jobs and the environment: for example, protecting old-growth forests means that some foresters may have less work, full stop, end of story.

However, more often, the choices are less stark, and more complex.  Building wind turbines means using plastics, steel, energy, and other materials that must come from nature in the here and now. Building turbines may create fewer jobs in the short term than (for example) drilling for oil. On the other hand, building turbines now may help reduce the reliance on oil in the future.  This would, paradoxically, increase job losses in the fossil fuel industry.  On the other hand, employment from wind production is less subject to declines in the supply of the resource, since wind is, in theory, not limited in supply the way that oil is.  On so it goes.

115928823What I want to argue is that both unemployment and environmental degradation are functions of the same problem: the way in which capitalist economies produce wealth.  Unless the fundamentals are addressed, meaning changes in the way that work and nature are imagined and valued, then governments will be able to do little to solve either problem.

Both work and nature in capitalism are what is termed ‘factors of production’.  This means that, essentially, the application of work to nature is what makes production of goods happen.  John Locke was among the first thinkers to elaborate this idea, arguing that the mixing of labour with nature produced property rights and ownership.  Others, like Karl Marx, also postulated that work and nature combined together to create value (although emphatically not a right to property) and in fact Marx attributed the value of all goods to the amount of labour included in its production.  The relative neglect of nature, and the resulting environmental and resource degradation, is to a large degree what has driven the environmental movement in the West since the beginning of industrial capitalism in the 17th century.

Industry and factories in the Industrial Revolution required, and voraciously consumed, both work and nature.  In the process, through the adept use of technology, politics, and the forces of supply and demand, industrialists were able to ensure that their costs were kept low and the prices of goods high.  The effect of the productive forces of capitalism was to progressively and systematically devalue both nature and work as factors in the value of goods.  The disconnect between work and nature therefore became one of the key features of industrial capitalism.The devaluation of work and nature have now reached a crisis point.

The devaluation of work and the devaluation of nature in production have now reached a crisis point.  Since there is not a US economy or a German economy or a Chinese economy but a global economy, the same factors that devalue work in China also devalue the work of thousands of middle-class Americans and Canadians who production has become, not less efficient, but more efficient, in the process of adding work to nature.  Efficiency has, perversely, increased waste by making workers redundant and nature incidental to the calculation of wealth.

The disconnect between nature and work, and the devaluation of both, has been accompanied by distorting imbalances in economic activity:  the havoc wreaked upon the value of thousands of people’s work (in the form of homes, infrastructure, and businesses)  by a hurricane is counted as a plus in the national accounts, because it makes possible more production rather than less.  The manufacture and monitoring of weapons of mass destruction becomes a productive activity, since the damage it potentially causes is discounted, omitted from the national accounts that focus solely on the present value of the application of work to nature.  Drilling for oil and even cleaning up an oil spill becomes productive work, while taking measures to prevent the spill and protect oil workers is counted as a cost, and so is devalued.  Oil companies roll in profits, while governments compensate them for their costs, feeding the devaluation cycle.

There is a pressing need to revalue both work and natureSo, the problems of unemployment and the problems of environmental degradation are related.  However, increasing economic growth with little attention to the devaluation of nature will not solve unemployment in the long term, since it activates the very forces that devalue both work and nature.  Unemployed workers, like ecosystems, represent overutilized and undervalued factors of production.  As long as growth is calculated in a way that devalues work and nature, then governments will continually play catch-up to try and make up the difference.  Ultimately, as we are seeing, government’s efforts to bridge the gap, in the form of payroll tax cuts and spending for stimulus, become devalued themselves.  Subsidizing the costs of these inputs in the production process makes them less, not more, valuable for industry. Valuing nature for the ecosystem services it provides, and valuing work for the usefulness of the goods it produces, ultimately improves efficiency and reduces the waste, both human and natural, that capitalism creates.

For more: Worldwatch Institute “Valuing Nature’s Services Today is an Investment in the Future” September 14th, 2011

"Without energy, nothing happens." ~Richard Heinberg, Author, The Party’s Over

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