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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Digging Deeper For Oil: A Futurist's Perspective

Click on "read more" to see the Midnight Oil Youtube clip - it doesn't come out on the home page for some reason.

Australian band Midnight Oil:  Never more relevant

The BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been making headlines for the past few weeks. I have been thinking of writing about this for some time, and it has now dawned on me that this issue is a perfect opportunity to invoke one of the very best analytical methods of Futures Studies. Futurists like me are not merely interested in predicting the future. In fact many of us have little or no interest in prediction. Above all, futurists also like to analyse futures, and because the future does not exist yet, the best way to do this is by taking a deep look at the major issues that are effecting the world now. The oil spill is a perfect opportunity to introduce one powerful method by my favourite futurist, Sohail Inayatullah (
 Sohail Inayatullah

Now, I admit I am slightly biased here. Sohail was the supervisor for my doctoral thesis, which I did through the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia. Sohail has worked with numerous governments across the world with a process called Causal layered Analysis, or CLA.

CLA is very simple. It involves taking an issue and breaking it down into four levels. These are the litany, the social/system, the worldview/paradigm, and the myth/metaphor levels. When I use the process, I add a fifth level, the Consciousness Level. This is because I feel that the deeper workings of the human mind and the spiritual context of our lives requires a level all on its own. This obviously reflects my own interests as a person and a researcher, and my personal biases come into play at that level.

Taking a look at the Louisiana oil spill using Causal Layered Analysis, some very interesting things emerge.

1.                   The Litany. This is the surface of the problem. It includes bringing forward the hard data, and also identifying the taken-for-granted arguments and assumptions. Arguments, media releases, policies, and perspectives which stick to this level are superficial. Governments and corporations often present problems at the litany level, as data can be preened and cultivated in an attempt to control the discourse or discussion (and obfuscate). They do this because deeper analysis can bring to the surface angles which implicate them, or show the problem in ways which are very difficult to control.

In Louisiana, the visible data is how much oil is spilling out of that hole every day, the precise mechanics of the initial explosion, the visible ocean pollution, birds covered in muck, and so on. 

2.                 The Social/Systems Level. This is where things start to get interesting. Here we look at the social and political aspects of the problem, and it can include the cultures and machinations of the groups and organisations involved.

Here we note numerous related facets. At the most obvious level, BP is a profit-making venture, and their prime goal is to make money, and to protect their image as a green organisation.

We have big business backing Congress, and pushing for profits. Further, Obama has identified the need for the US to become more energy efficient, and this includes utilising more of the US’ own oil reserves, which is a driving factor of BP’s activities in the Gulf.

Globalisation has also created consumer-based and materialistic societies, driven by “growth”. This requires more energy. Economic reports in the media typically refer to the idea that growth is always good, and that something is wrong when there is no growth. Is this necessarily so? What might replace economic growth as the focus of our lives? Why are we still relaying on oil 40 years after the oil crisis of the 1970s?

3.                 The Worldview/Paradigm Level. A worldview is the way an individual constructs the world, while a paradigm is a prevailing model of reality, and can include groups, organisations, nations, etc. We can also talk about national and civilisational perspectives here.

Just one key example is the materialism implicit in the Newtonian or mechanistic paradigm, and its strict separation of subject and observer, almost invites an exploitation of nature. It’s hard to feel empathy for the world and life when we view them as machines. This paradigm has driven science for more than three hundred years. Perhaps, as biologist Rupert Sheldrake suggests, it would be better to see the cosmos as a living organism. It might also be more accurate.

4.                  Myth/Metaphor Level. At this level we can name the narratives, myths and stories which surround the problem. There are also metaphors which are used when discussing all problems, and sometimes these are implicit - or barely visible. They can tell us a lot about the mindset which is driving the problem.

The bid to plug the well has been called “top kill”, reinforcing the idea that we are dealing with materials, not living ecosystems.

But others have used metaphors which suggest something more organic. Bob Bea, a professor of engineering at University of California at Berkeley who has studied offshore drilling for 55 years is reported in the following way in a Sydney Morning Herald story.
He likened the effort to pushing food into a reluctant baby's mouth - it only works if the force of the stuff going down is more than the force of what's coming up. ''It's obvious that the baby's spitting the baby food back'' because the pressure pushing up from the well is stronger, he said.

Moving more deeply into the problem, we can see that with BP’s offshore drilling there is the implicit narrative of the strong man moving out to control and dominate nature. This is a founding motif in American history - the Big John/Daniel Boon/Wyatt Urp characters, boldly forging their way forward against a hostile environment. In cinema, John Wayne is probably the most notable archetype. The strong man narrative turn is probably driven by our biology, as conquest gave our primitive ancestors a greater chance of survival in environments that constantly threatened their existence.

The phallic metaphor appears to recur over and over again in so many modern human endevours (or maybe I just have a dirty mind!). The giant rig penetrating the ocean floor seems to be a perfect a metaphor for rape. Feminists such as Rianne Eisler have long argued this point. Gillian Ross, in The Search For the Pearl, went as far as to suggest it might be a reflection of repressed male anger at not being breast fed, although she was being somewhat tongue in cheek!

5.                  The Consciousness Level. For me this is the most important level, for it is the mindset, and the level of spiritual development of the people that are involved, which is key. As Einstein said, problems cannot be solved at the level of consciousness at which they are created.

The restlessness of the imbalanced male mind is a function of a certain level of consciousness development, which I term “critical rationality”. BP executives pushed forward with the drilling project, despite there being evidence of problems. Initial estimates of the time required to bring oil to the surface were overly-optimistic, and pressure was put on workers to speed up the process. When at one point an inordinate amount of rubber was pulled from the hole and reported, concerns raised by the workers were ignored.

Could it be that synchronicity works to help wake us up from our collective slumbering? Jung believed that synchronicity works at a personal level. But why limit it to individuals? Perhaps this oil disaster is Gaia imploring us to come to our senses. But for that to happen, we have to begin to look within, and examine the contents of our own minds, to identify what it is that drives our behaviour. This returns is to the social/systems level. Modern culture and education are hindering our capacity for what Howard Gardner calls “intrapersonal intelligence” – the ability to know our inner worlds. We spend too little time going inward, and intuitive ways of knowing have been devalued.

When solutions are offered to huge problems like the current oil disaster, the deeper the analysis goes, the more powerful, effective and long-term the solution is likely to be. Obama’s pledge to be personally accountable for the clean-up is ultimately impossible. Although Obama has to act urgently, the disaster is not his fault. Indeed, we can see that at a deeper perspective, the buck doesn’t stop with BP. It is a problem that includes all of us – our society, education systems, media, and even our psyches.

Here I have just referred to a few factors under each level Feel free to continue the discussion by adding more. 



  1. Marcus -

    A very thought-provoking piece, which moves beyond what one might call the competing litanies of left and right fighting over their competing interpretations, to a deeper failing of our relationship with the earth, and our inability to act as responsible stewards. As you say, it's a conceptual failure.

    Not even the most extreme libertarian would accept an explosives factory being built 300 yards from their family home - the threat to what they cherish is too blatant and too great. So it should be for the oceans, the landscapes and the air around us; preventing harm is always the overriding consideration towards what we love and recognize ourselves as connected to.

  2. I agree with Simonbuc - no one would want to see something of this magnitude built right next to their homes, but feel perfectly justified to take a chance with it in our oceans. The oceans have been ransacked for eons. Hawaii has just banned shark-fin from it's restaurants because 89 million sharks are killed for their fins alone every year, usually in a brutal and cruel manner - only to have the Chinese community in Hawaii protest. We are over-fishing, polluting, eating our oceans into extinction. And when they are dead, we will follow.