Zero emissions, zero poverty?

Yesterday I participated in an academic workshop organised by the Climate Change Mitigation and Poverty Reduction project, ‘CLIMIP’, being undertaken by the Energy Research Centre. The aim of the workshop was to discuss the linkages between climate mitigation and poverty reduction – which has ‘triggered debate and caused confusion’ according to the workshop flyer.

It is no surprise that they have done so. Poverty and climate mitigation are issues of huge importance. They are also quintessentially complex or ‘wicked’. In 2012 I was asked to co-author a paper on poverty and mitigation, and I fell down a rabbit hole that I’m still finding my way out of. The complexity literatures have provided me with the ladder I need – albeit a tricky and twisty rope one!boy and kite1

This post captures the points I contributed in a discussant role to the workshop’s conversation – an attempt to bring a few insights from the complexity literatures to bear on the mitigation and poverty conundrum:

First, it is dangerous to simplify a wicked problem. The territory is infused with non-linearities, unpredictability, and unintended consequences. Wicked problems have no solutions, no stopping rule. We can only hope to move the issue along. ‘Zero poverty and zero emissions’: what do we lose by framing the problem in this arguably ‘simplistic’ and ‘solutions-oriented’ way?

Connections and relationships are important in complexity. Here we have two wicked problems; mitigation and poverty, and they are completely interrelated on a multitude of levels and aspects (in fact they are also related to many, many other things too). We need to understand these interconnections better. In the climate mitigation community we often talk of ‘development pathways’ to a certain date, such as 2050, How can we broaden this to capture interconnections on different scales, timeframes, from different perspectives?

Systemic transformation. The problems of climate mitigation and poverty reduction are complex systemic problems demanding systemic transformation. We therefore need to understand the properties of complex systems, such as tipping points, thresholds, and self-organisation. Why is our complex socio-economic system emerging high carbon, high poverty, high inequality and high unemployment, and how can we work to change these emergent properties?

And finally for now, the importance of Practise. We have looked a lot at ‘what’ we do.  But in the face of complexity, where so much is unknowable and uncertainty is inherent, ‘how’ we do what we do might be more important than the ‘what’. We need to cultivate co-generation of knowledge, and interdisciplinary teams. We need more humility, the inclusion of ethics in our toolkit. We need a greater understanding of the principles underpinning complex systems, and ways of being, engaging, acting that are aligned with this view.



4 thoughts on “Zero emissions, zero poverty?

  1. “Hear hear !” Is a simple response but maybe what is needed. I’d also like to add that a change of focus to the How could include the Who and the When. Deciding what other people need to do to solve our problems sounds very “wrong” when stated to starkly, but on reflection, we might find some worrying amusement in considering just how much of that has been going on 😊


  2. On top of changing the complex systems, are you also suggesting we change the socio-economic system, not just its emergent properties? I think it’s necessary – a la the next system type of work. I like Hilton’s comment – I’d love to look at the how as long as it involves action!


    1. Thanks for the comment Glen! A complex system is constantly changing – complex systems are often referred to in the literature as ‘complex dynamic systems’. How system transformation or transition can be conceptualised from the perspective of complexity is something still requiring more theorising, but I’m interested in the role of human agents in socio-economic systems, and the role of our consciousness and intention in realising particular types of futures for systems. So in short, yes, as the socio-economic system changes its emergent properties change (or vice versa). But perhaps this is less radical than some propose. In complex systems small changes by individual system components can (sometimes) cause substantial changes in a system’s emergent properties…


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