By David Salt
David Attenborough is experiencing what happens when society is caught in the late ‘K’ phase of the adaptive cycle. It’s an insight from complex systems science that we are all seeing play out around us every day. The insight is this: over time, vested interests and elites distort the system to maximise their wealth while simultaneously playing the system to protect their perceived entitlement. They do this through denial, obfuscation, denigration and applying the levers of power to prevent change and stop any talk about the redistribution of power.
How is David Attenborough an example of this?
Apparently the BBC has decided not to broadcast an episode of his flagship new series on British wildlife, Wild Isles, because of fears its messages on the destruction of nature and the decline of biodiversity would risk a backlash from conservative politicians and the right-wing press.
The episode in question takes a stark look at the losses of nature in the UK and what has caused the declines (loss and degradation of habitat and climate disruption). The BBC claims this episode was only intended for the network’s iPlayer stream, a claim hotly contested, but even on iPlayer the episode is being attacked in the Daily Telegraph for being partly funded by WWF UK and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The Daily Telegraph says these two establishment wildlife groups have a “campaigning agenda”.
When the message being put out by the world’s leading wildlife presenter is being constrained by one of the world’s leading information organisations (an organisation that proudly claims to be independent) for fear of a conservative backlash, then we have a classic ‘don’t look up’ moment.
Don’t look up
‘Don’t look up’ was the title and central idea of an American apocalyptic political satire film that came out in 2021 in which scientists tried to warn the world of in impending asteroid strike. When there was an opportunity to do something about it, the world ignored the warning as ‘doing something’ would shift the status quo. When it became apparent the threat was real, because the asteroid was growing larger in the night sky, the elites still thought they could escape (together with their privilege) by rocketing to another planet. To keep the masses from realising what was going on, they promoted the slogan ‘Don’t look up’.
The movie was a parable on climate change, and the unwillingness of society to respond to the warnings being put out by scientists because changing the status quo comes with short terms costs that the rich and the powerful don’t want to take on (costs of giving up some of that wealth and losing some of the power).
‘Don’t look up’ became a catch cry for climate denialism, and it had some resonance when it first aired.
But how quickly we forget. The movie came out in the dark days of the covid pandemic, a time before vaccines became available and lockdowns were rigorously enforced (and in some quarters vehemently rejected). Now, with the lifting of restrictions, everyone wants their cake and they want to eat it double fast. There’s even a term for it – revenge tourism – in which everyone is traveling as a way of making up for lost time during the pandemic. Though it might be asked, who are we taking revenge on? Planet Earth? Transport-related greenhouse gas emissions from tourism have been estimated at 5% of all human originated emissions.
So maybe none of us want to ‘look up’ for fear of upsetting our own plans of ever greater consumption and economic growth.
Don’t speak up
David Attenborough has been doing nature docos since Moses was a boy. He’s does a great job, but while he often points out issues of environmental decline, for most of his series he tries to stay as neutral and apolitical as possible. It’s something he’s often criticised for in environmental circles.
In recent years, however, as he has grown older and climate change and environmental disruption has ramped up, his neutral stance has markedly shifted to one of pleas for action. In 2020 he even suggested the coming decade was a make-or-break time for humanity.
And, as with all scientists who get proactive on climate change, he’s finding you face a backlash when you raise your head above the parapet.
Stand up and tell society it needs to change and those that have benefitted from the societal status quo will draw a target on you. Corporate and political interests will apply leverage to groups they can influence, spread misinformation, foment anger. In Attenborough’s case, that means a showcase on environmental decline is closed down by the very organisation that prides itself on its independence (but at the cost of becoming overly sensitive to government sensitivities and attacks by other media organisations).
Attenborough is big enough and strong enough to stand his ground and weather such attacks, but early career researchers pay a heavy price for standing up and being counted.
When a system becomes moribund
So what’s this ‘K’ phase business I opened with, and how does it apply here?
Society is complex system. Over time societies change following a variety of pathways; they develop and grow, weather change (or sometimes are overwhelmed by it), split into sub groups, collapse, reorganize and start again. Resilience scientists have described these patterns of change as adaptive cycles in which systems go through four phases of rapid growth, conservation (also known as the K phase), release and reorganisation. The rapid growth and conservation phases are times of relatively predictable dynamics and in which there is a slow accumulation of capital and potential through stability and conservation.
But this growth cannot continue indefinitely. As the system moves into the late conservation phase the system begins to become locked up as vested interests begin to dominate what can happen. Here are some things you might expect to see in the late K phase:
-Subsidies which were once designed to help set up new industries now prop up old industries (which are good at lobbying and influencing political power).
-More effort is put into protecting existing (sunk) investments rather than exploring new ones (think fossil fuels v renewals).
-Increased command-and-control (less and less flexibility).
-A pre-occupation with process (more and more rules, more time and effort devoted to sticking to procedures).
-Novelty being suppressed, with less support for experimentation (think of the government’s approach to research).
-Rising transaction costs in getting things done.
-Increases in ‘efficiency’ being achieved through the removal of apparent redundancies
(and ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions are increasingly the order of the day).
Or, if you want another take on this, consider political economist Mancur Olson’s pathbreaking book, The Rise and Decline of Nations, published in 1982. He argued that a country’s economic stability ultimately leads to decline as it becomes increasingly dominated by organised interest groups, each seeking to advance their interests at the expense of others. It’s a very similar perspective to the complex systems framing.
So, next time you see something that appears to be a ‘don’t look up’ situation, ask yourself if this isn’t just another example of a complex system (eg, society) locking up because vested interests are seeking to perpetuate a status quo in which they benefit.
Maybe David Attenborough could do a doco on it.
Banner image: Don’t look up, don’t speak up, you might upset the status quo.
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)