What if we light a spark of change and spread it through an organisation, making new with fire something old and dying?
The trap of simple stories
In a recent series of exploratory sessions hosted by management consultancy Cognitive Edge, a conversation about simplicity and simplification was brewing. Essentially, when faced with the unknown, we tend to simplify. It is easy to gain control in this way — or at least the illusion there of. But at what cost? Sonja Blignaut, complexity and narrative consultant and thinking partner, raised a point about the mindtraps identified by Jennifer Garvey Berger, leadership coach and author. The mindtrap in question was that of simple stories, “when our instinct for a coherent story kills our ability to see a real one”.
Simple stories simply don’t work in complexity. Humans are complex beings, we operate in complex systems, and we live in complex times. So why do leaders often claim clear connections between cause and consequence? For example, if employees are looking to get raises, promotions, bonuses or other forms of rewards and recognition, they are often provided with an unobtainable, seemingly simple path to progress. However, the metrics used to measure their performance don’t take into consideration all that they do beyond their job descriptions; they ignore the complex inner workings of an organisation that can’t always be captured in words or on paper; and they reduce an intricate human being to a mere cog in the machine. Progress is near impossible.
Danger of the single story
It’s been 12 years since TED released Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Danger of a Single Story. Her wisdom continues to ring true. The stories we tell hold power. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person,” said Adichie in this talk.
We need to be careful not to flatten several stories into an overarching, generic one. This is how misunderstanding and miscommunication happen. In a business setting, it’s equivalent to limiting people to an identified role or strict set of responsibilities against which they are judged and their progress determined. Stories should also not be one-sided; they need to be collective, collaborative and ever-changing. In the corporate world, this means having open and honest conversations across departments and domains.
Living in a DELA world
There’s a term in isiZulu that captures the idea that, if something happens too easily, it’s suspicious. It’s too good to be true. Quick fixes and simple solutions are not sustainable in complexity. Umlilo wamaphepha: paper fire. When you light a newspaper, it goes up in a brilliant burst of flames but it’s short‑lived.
We can apply the DELA framework to help us make sense of the story that’s unfolding, and to shape our own narrative, going forward.
How do we ignite a spark of change and spread it through an organisation? According to Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge, it’s not about creating better versions of old things but rather implementing symbiotic strategies. Take a small aspect of something that already exists and make it new — this makes change more attractive and less threatening.
Originally posted on Marklives
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Do we choose to embrace change and the opportunities that come with it or do we resist and defiantly continue to do things as we have always done? The former invites possibility and risk while the latter invokes predictability and comfort. It is human nature to seek control and consistency, at least to some degree. It is also part of the human condition to desire growth and movement, at least to some extent.
It is often argued that this was necessary for our survival as a species. Consider the power of cooking with fire (or electricity); to remove disease and bacteria, to enhance flavour, to alter texture. Consider the transformation that occurred when nomads settled and tamed the fauna and flora around them; no longer needing to travel into unknown territories to secure food and water. Look at how far we have come: from hunting and gathering to growing and rearing, from trading and buying to discovering and engineering. Where to next?
Picture this. If we were to continue on our current trajectory – of complex food supply mechanisms, of placing strain on food chains, and of an uneven distribution of food surplus and shortage in various parts of the world – where would we be in a decade from now? What could be the future consequences of past causes and current conditions? What would be the impact on our people, planet, profit, power, and processes? Let us unpack each of these.
Here’s some food for thought. Yes, food sustains us in its material form and in the literal sense, but it is also imbued with symbolic importance. Food can connect us to people and places through ritual, belief, and knowledge. Beyond its capacity to provide us with nutrients and indulgence, it is a source of creativity and expression. Food can be a form of differentiation as well as a means of bringing people together.
Much of our modern life depends on food. Some of the biggest concerns that plague us are about food: whether we have too little or too much of it, and how our consumption impacts beauty, aging, and hunger. We entangle food with identity, belonging, responsibility, memory, inspiration, and so many other facets of what makes us human. What would be the social impact of a food chain break down?
The Earth gives and it takes away. Ranging from abundance to scarcity, from diversity to homogeneity. Our relationship with the environment is a constant push and pull, give and take. It is no secret that climate change is upon us and that we play a role in it. How long have we explored and exploited what nature provides? How many ways have we tamed land, air, sea, and everything in between? We draw lines between public and private spaces, between rural and urban settlements, and between nation and neighbour. We cycle from birth, growth, life, decline, and death. What happens if we break the chains? What would be the environmental impact of a food chain break down?
Perhaps another domestication is that of value. We trade, exchange, and purchase items and services of value. Time is money; both of which can be saved, spent, and wasted. As people settled into villages, towns, and cities, there was a shift from agrarian practices for local subsistence purposes to large-scale farming for profit. No longer needing to simply feed your immediate family, but transporting food across vast distances to generate an income. Markets have become intricate in their workings; whether formal industries or informal economies. These are complex food ecosystems; entangled and emergent.
Individuals, communities, businesses, and nations have responded to food trends in diverse ways. Fairness seems to be the dominant narrative of our times; treating animals with kindness, food labourers with dignity, and respecting the food itself. With the rise and fall of poverty and affluence, how do we ensure accessibility and affordability of food across time and space? What would be the economic impact of a food chain break down?
Perpetual globalisation is met with countering trends of localism and individualisation. Regardless of who we are, we all seek some form of control when it comes to our food; self-sufficiency in sustaining our food intake, long-term and reliable food security, and self-sovereignty over our food-related decisions. How do we counterbalance uneven power distributions over the regulation of food? Wherein do we find justice for the starving and the marginalised? Do we go off-grid and ensure our own survival, or do we trust in and rely on those in power to protect our food chains? What would be the political impact of a food chain break down?
Not only do our food chains face fragmentation, so too do our supply chains. Industrialisation has driven our need for speed and scale. The rate at which technology is advancing will surely revolutionise our food experiences several times over. We have innovated in ways that would be near impossible to fathom only a few decades ago. How does one begin to explain renewable energy in farming, 3D printed food in restaurants, futuristic kitchens blurring the lines between human and technology, or even the idea of a zero-waste lifestyle? What would be the technological impact of a food chain break down?
One can imagine that at the initial point of impact – or rather our first realisation that the food chain has broken down – would be met with attempts to prevent further deterioration within, in relation to, and outside of the food chain. Essential food services would be of top priority, followed by the improvement of supporting services. As the dust settles and we find our footing again in the aftermath of a post-normal world, we would then reflect on what was, observe what is, and imagine what could be.
However, there is no need to wait for such an occurrence to happen. We can get ahead of the curve by looking for wild fluctuations in the behaviour and interactions of our food system’s variables. We can draw inspiration from similar wildcards. After all, history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes, it is said. What sustains a food chain and what causes it to break down? We have much to gain from change – more to lose if things stay the same, but even more to learn along the way.
Originally posted on APF
What if we shift from a parasitic-type interaction to a mutually-beneficial symbiotic relationship?
From enlightenment to entanglement
Organisations are like forests. At first, it was assumed that trees operated in isolation — much like employees in silo roles or departments —placed in a competitive environment, seeking space and resource. Because it was assumed that they functioned independently, it was accepted that they were indifferent to one another — both trees and employees, that is. Ecologist Suzanne Simard uprooted this naïve notion.
She found that, in addition to conflict, there’s also negotiation, reciprocity and even selflessness. Much like an iceberg conceals its mass in unseen depths, so do trees in a forest have hidden elements. In particular, there are underground mycelium networks, a tangled web of roots through which communication and resource transfer occur. Enchantingly, the forest behaves as a single entity. So, too, should an organisation.
The Giving Tree
As with any network or community, there are nodes, links and interactions.
In a forest, older trees use their height to protect young saplings from harsh weather. They’ve even been shown to reduce their root size so as to make room for their growing offspring. Trees are even capable of sending warning signals to alert their community of approaching danger. When a tree dies, they pass on their knowledge and provide sustenance for the next generation of trees. Not only does this demonstrate their ability to recognise their kin and distinguish between threats, it shows how they depend on one another for survival.
Arguably the biggest threats to forests are deforestation, erosion, and fire. What is the equivalent to these in the world of business? What do we fear and how do we respond? Will our network protect us from unemployment, demotions and burnout?
Living in a DELA World
Sometimes, we get so caught up in the minor and finer details — focusing on what’s right in front of us — rather than taking a step back and noticing the bigger picture. We forget that each of us plays an integral role in the operating of the whole. We can apply the DELA framework to help us make sense of the story that is unfolding, and to shape our own narrative going forward.
If too many trees are removed from a forest, it could reach a tipping point and the whole system becomes at risk of collapsing. So why is it, when we find ourselves in a state of confusion — such as a global pandemic — that we remove the pillars which sustain an organisation? Rather than drawing on collective knowledge, insight and resource, we reduce, retrench and rewind.
Simplified forests lack complexity and so they’re even more vulnerable to collapse. What can we learn from natural ecosystems in the way that we conduct business and respond to business challenges? How do we more effectively communicate with one another and depend on each other for survival? Certainly, hierarchies have created clarity of authority and control but they also leave little room to breathe and grow.
It's in letting go of confusion that we open up a world of possibility; through curiosity, we turn our fear into motivation. We can explore new ways of working — within the safe space of an integrated system — with the freedom to innovate beyond simply surviving the here and now. Interdependent relationships create balance, connection and community, rooting us in an entangled network.
What happened to the journey, the one where a career was an unfolding process?
It’s the journey, not the destination
It’s rare to find such an operation in present-day workscapes; it’s more likely that an individual will enter into a position they desire. There’s very little room to move or improve here — chances are the organisation is hiring to replace, rather than upskill to promote.
There’s an element of familiarity and trust that comes from looking within, as well as possibilities of jealousy and homogeneity among colleagues. Looking outside could bring in diversity of skill and mindset but also requires taking a chance on the unknown (more pros and cons here).
Be a unicorn in a field full of horses
How many employees have been placed in t-shaped talent moulds? The expectation that each person should “reach across disciplines, provide support in a number of situations and [have] an extraordinary expertise on a particular subject”? How about square-shaped? “What’s better than knowing a little about a lot and a lot about a little? Knowing a lot about a lot.” Or even tree-shaped? Expansive skills rooted in a depth of knowledge. How many job-seekers have been stuffed into unicorn costumes (not literally, of course)? The illusion of rarity and value. It’s no longer enough to show promise and potential; we now, apparently, need to be these mythical, magical beings.
A counter argument offered says “unicorns don’t exist. Instead, look for sea otters… Why sea otters instead of unicorns? Because they are rare (and currently endangered), but if you look hard enough and create the right environment, you can find and nurture them.” Not a fan of sea otters? How about a zebra? “Zebra companies are both black and white: they are profitable and improve society. They won’t sacrifice one for the other.”
In short: it’s a zoo out there.
Living in a DELA world
In this mystical world of make-believe, where the perfect employee, employer, and organisation exist, how do we, mere mortals, respond? We can apply the DELA framework to help us make sense of the story that’s unfolding, and to shape our own narrative going forward.
Because of the rate and extent at which the world of work is changing, it often requires that we adapt in unexpected ways. We need to be imaginative and innovative. Craftsmanship, expertise and specialisation take time — time that we don’t necessarily have if we wish to keep up and stay relevant.
However, some level of depth and extent of breadth is needed to remain adaptable and resilient. In trying to place constraints on ourselves or people we work with, we restrict the potential of what might have been. How do we know what is needed or who is best suited? How do we evaluate and measure probability? What if the reward of fulfillment outweighs the risk of playing it safe? What if we let go and let ourselves and others be?
In letting go of the fragile and fragmented systems on which our organisations are built and people are employed, we create an environment in which interdependent, fulfilling relationships can surface and be sustained. Shifting from expectation (something ‘will’ happen’) to anticipation (something ‘could’ happen) makes us more open to change.
Letting go of our human need to control and predict the unknown, we can add a little magic and mystery to our work lives.
“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
So wrote William Butler Yeats in his poem The Second Coming. It is the idea that the very foundation on which our world is built is collapsing. There is a systemic unravelling. This inspired the title of a book by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart. The story is set in a moment of rupture; the introduction of British imperialism to a traditional Nigerian community. It was a time in which change and continuation were in conflict. Should the old give way to the new? Some embraced change while others resisted. Does the opportunity of new extinguish the value of old? Significantly, the author raises concern for the need for mastery of traditional methods of farming. Do they have a place in this modern world of machine, malice and mass-production?
We too are on the edge of chaos. Life as we know it hangs in the balance. Some claim that humanity is on the brink of collapse. Others reckon that our current way of life will disappear and be replaced by something drastically different. In complex systems, cause and effect are not linear, static, nor simple. Any ecosystem is an intricate network of actors, interactions and environment. Similarly, the food chain is a web of interdependence.
A food chain connects all living things within a given environment based on their dependence on one another to grow and function. While co-existence may seem ideal, it is competition that is the driver of evolution and innovation. Much of the world is based on this principle. It is the top-down pressures of predators, and bottom-up limitations of prey – not just in the animal kingdom, but in our own – that sustains us and keeps us moving forward. In theory, evolution either creates or destroys species. It is more than ‘eat or be eaten’. Those that prove weaker either become extinct or they adapt in order to survive. Are we prepared to change our ways to avoid a breakdown in the food chain or will we be our own demise? In our striving for ‘better, faster, more’ we have forged a double-edged sword. In our endeavours to eliminate disease, we create it. In our attempts to avoid threats, we generate them. What if we adopted instead a more inclusive, regenerative, circular economy? One in which we sever the ties between human progress and our consumption of finite resources. Could we shift the chain reaction already in play?
Our food supply chains are under threat by the over-complexification of the food industry and an over-simplification of our understanding of cause-and-effect; generating a constellation of problems. On the one hand are forces that reduce the supply of food. On the other hand, are forces that increase the demand thereof. Naturally occurring factors include: water shortages, soil erosion, and extreme climate phenomena, amongst others. Human causation comes in the form of population growth, diet change, rising prices, and others. Forces of nature and human action are not mutually exclusive. Our behaviour – whether accidental, neglectful, or intentional – interacts with the environment in which it occurs. We find ourselves in the Anthropocene; the human epoch. It is an era of human-influenced disruption. We have the power to light a spark, fuel the fire, engulf the world in flame, extinguish the embers, and regenerate life from the ashes. We hold the power to prevent, solve, or accelerate the food crisis. What will we choose to do?
Experts anticipate a global disaster by 2030 owing to the confluence of three significant shortages: food, energy, and water. Specifically, what caused the looming food crisis? What are the underlying drivers of change? Why and how are things changing? Here is a basic example of cause and effect in the food chain: the death and disappearance of bees. Not only do bees extract pollen to produce honey, plants rely on pollination in order to form seeds and fruit. Something as simple as the decline of the humble honey bee has resulted in a potentially catastrophic imbalance. Despite bee colonies collapsing and a reduction in pollinating capacity, there is a rise in demand for pollinator-dependent crops. Without bees, how would we ensure food security? How would ecosystems maintain their diversity? What would that world look like?
We can trace current conditions back to several sources. If we consider cause and effect in the social realm: regions in which women are disempowered often see a rise in population growth as they lack the agency to make their own decisions and to make more informed choices. An increase in demand beyond the potential of food supply creates an imbalance in the food chain. In the technological realm we see emerging innovations that could transform the ways in which we extract, produce, distribute, consume, and dispose of food. However, these are not accessible to all. So-called developing nations struggle to escape the established linear model of ‘take, make, waste’. This leaves the globalised food industry largely stuck and skewed. In the economic realm we see that a rise in affluence often results in a change in diet. The wealthier one becomes, the more meat is consumed. If not meat, the more organic, healthy, and expensive one’s diet usually becomes.
How do we ensure equity and fairness in access to quality food when poverty persists? If populations become more economically empowered, how do we reduce the harmful impact of meat production on the natural world? What could be the impact of a vegetarian movement? What of a vegan revolution? In the environmental realm the exploration and exploitation of natural resources for food gains tend to depend on unsustainable methods. How do we begin to restore resource abundance, reduce scarcity, and protect genetic diversity? In the political realm the uneven distribution of power in international relations has at times created marginalisation and mismanagement in the food world. How do we reconcile a problematic past as we look forward to a more fruitful future?
Originally published on APF
WAITING FOR REDEMPTION
As with every plot twist, a story usually has elements of foreshadowing that precedes the change and it also unfolds in seemingly unexpected ways. It also carries the characters through on a new path.
I wanted to capture the state of the world from an African perspective. A song by Johnny Clegg and Savuka came to mind: Dela. I recall in a radio interview once, Clegg explained the inspiration for the song as having come from the joy in seeing something beautiful when everything seemed so bleak — such as a yellow flower growing through a crack in the concrete pavement.
LIVING IN A DELA WORLD
Once we know where we are, we can determine where we want to be and figure out a way of getting there. In other words, we need to tell our own story.
In isiZulu, “dela” has paradoxical definitions which seem fitting for a narrative of our times: “to be satisfied” or “to have had enough” on the one hand, and to “abandon”, “give up”, or “sacrifice” on the other. In applying this perspective, we can answer the following questions:
• What are we satisfied with? (What do we have enough of?)
• What are we willing to sacrifice? (What do we need to let go of?)
I think I know why the dog howls at the moon
In ongoing conversations with friends and colleagues who’ve been employed by companies throughout lockdown, a shocking common thread emerges: they are like caged birds, confronted by their conditions of ‘captivity’, and longing for their freedom. Just as the caged bird sings in order to cope, many employees are performing beyond expectation — whether it’s to prove their worth to their employer, or to feel safe within the confines of certainty as the world around them unravels.
By applying the DELA framework, we can make sense of this observation. In short, businesses are trying to gain or maintain control over their people and profit in an increasingly unstable, unpredictable, and uncertain world. This trend is amplified by lockdown as more are working from home rather than in an office, making them less visible, accessible, and controllable. Several employers are applying outdated metrics of trust, and so employees are less motivated to produce meaningful work but are expected to be highly productive. This isn’t to say that ways of working need to be scrapped and entirely replaced, or that one approach is better and suitable for all. Some people perform better when given the freedom to self-govern, while others lack the self-discipline needed and so benefit from boundaries.
In letting go of the need to control our circumstances, to make visible people’s actions, to measure progress through profit, and to place limitations on what is possible or acceptable — we can find comfort in our rituals and routines, create open channels for communication, build mutual trust, and respect people’s freedom of choice.
In Hindu mythology, it is believed that the Earth is balanced on the backs of elephants, which are themselves supported by a World Turtle. Below that turtle? Another turtle. It is turtles all the way down. In complexity and systems thinking, it could be argued that a proposition requires justification, and the justification itself needs to be supported. No idea exists in isolation, no truth in a vacuum, no experience untethered from others. It is turtles all the way down.
By identifying layers of analysis, Causal Layered Analysis is a sense-making tool that explores the narratives used to make sense of the world. The very first layer, the litany, is the observed or obvious problem and resulting official future, second is the systemic causes or driving forces that create the conditions in which the problem or future exist, third the discourses and ideological assumptions that legitimise and support a worldview, and fourth is the layer of myth and metaphor that is linked to long-term history and emotive dimensions. In addition to developing an understanding of the world, it is used to “shape the future more effectively” and to “[create]coherent futures” (Inayatullah, 2017, p1). The intention is to map the present, unpack an issue critically, and create a preferred future reconstructed from alternative worldviews and from multiple perspectives. This leads to transformed futures that integrate difference. It is a combination of the pull of the future, push of the present, and weight of history (Inayatullah, 2017, p6).
Just as in the past, we currently find ourselves in a pandemic. How do we begin to make sense of the world we are in? “Epidemics are a category of disease that seem to hold up a mirror to human beings as to who we really are”; It reflects the relationship between people and their environment, raising questions about our ways of life (Chotiner, 2020). Metaphors are a way in which we can make concrete our imaginings, memories, and realities; they are devices with which we can play with concepts of time, blurring past, present, and future (Capo). Metaphors are meaning-making tools used in cognition and culture, shaping the way we act individually and collectively (Nerlich, 2020). In this essay I explore several dominant and emerging metaphors relating to the current pandemic, in the realms of society, technology, economics, environment, and politics. Each metaphor creates different realities, challenges, and opportunities.
COVID-19 has been labelled a plague. Both in religious terms – the uncontrollable mass spread of an unhealable disease – and in biological terms – a zoonotic transmission of disease from rodent to person. What results from this narrative is mass hysteria from those who fear the worst, an aura of shame around those infected, and the rise of body politics to control the contaminated and to contain the contagion. People become zombies trying to survive an apocalypse; it is the end of days. Like previous plagues, this pandemic is explained as either being a punishment for those who have wronged – morally, if from a religious perspective, or ethically, if from a biological perspective. Either society has transgressed to the point of no return (from a religious perspective), or particular populations are blamed and reprimanded and old prejudices are perpetuated (such as judging China for consuming particular animal products). The symbolism of the plague is used “to convey the suffering of the suffocation and atmosphere of terror and exile” (Zaretsky, 2020).
If we were, instead, to view the pandemic as an opportunity for revolution or renaissance – to revive or renew our world – we could see the virus as triggering a turning point in history. This narrative establishes an element of empowerment, freedom, and consent. People become agents of change, contributing to the speed and depth of the transformation. The crisis becomes a catalyst for change, enabling us to dismantle old systems of superiors and subordinates. We are in this together. In viewing ourselves as global citizens in a shared process of being and becoming – with access to communal knowledge, collective consciousness, and an evolving social commons – we are presented with an invitation to transform wicked problems into wicked opportunities (Eggers & Muoio, 2015).
An example of this is the call for an African Health Organisation that embraces – rather than undermines – traditional medicine from the continent (SABC News, 2020). It is not to say that WHO should be replaced or dominated by THO (Traditional Healers’ Organisation), but rather that a collaborative relationship be formed to develop new approaches to crises. It is about leveraging Africa’s strengths, not straining its weak points in favour of a homogenised, westernised method (Senbanjo, 2020).
If all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare proclaimed, then we must be on The Truman Show. It is as if someone has hit the pause button; everything has slowed down. “Collectively we are witnessing a global phenomenon that has people everywhere staying home, slowing down, and witnessing a global pause during this pandemic” (Devaney, 2020). While we seek to digitalise everything – the way we work, socialise, learn – prospects of compromised privacy and enhanced monitoring of our online lives becomes a growing concern: “the rise and spread of digital surveillance enabled by artificial intelligence” (Wright, 2020). This brings into question the agency of the individual and the authority of the state. We have long observed the growing power of media in swaying or formulating opinion, as well as gathering data and information for commercial or political benefit (Confessore, 2018). Viewing the virus as a glitch or technical error seems to justify ‘rebooting’ the system. In this narrative, AI will save us, even if it is at a cost.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next one” (Roy, 2020). This suspended moment, from this angle, becomes a time of transition; a liminal space between reality and a dream-state. It becomes an opportunity to take a breath, put future scenarios on hold, experiment with possibilities, consider the legacy we want to leave behind, and take in the present moment, before we are transported into the new world. Doing so requires decentralised and autonomous control, as well as open source products and collaborative platforms as we co-create futures.
An example of this is the vast number of online conferences and symposiums – often made freely available to all with internet access – that have erupted from all parts of the globe. While we may have put our personal lives on pause, we are far more globally connected than we ever were before. Just look at the global foresight summit hosted by FFWD titled ‘The Great Pause’. There were attendees from over 100 countries and speakers each with a one-hour timeslot over a 72-hour period.
When a severe storm approaches, with little time to think or react, an instinctual response it to act quickly; to take shelter from the rain, and consider the cost of destruction after you have secured your safety. Every moment counts. Similarly, in a ship rescue, there are often those who want to contribute, but are unable to and can create confusion. Pandemic shock brings about collective trauma, crisis capitalism, and imagination paralysis (Klein, 2007). It is easy to decline into a bleak state of despair and dysfunction when in a disaster. Some are more vulnerable than others – we are not all in the same boat or equipped with the same tools to navigate Lightning bolts of disruption and tidal waves of change. Some make it to shore while others are rendered invisible amidst the throws of vicious and virtuous cycles that deepen inequality.
In a state of emergency, a utilitarian approach is often taken to ensure the immediate survival of many, even if extreme measures need to be taken. However, “once the Hammer is in place and the outbreak is controlled, the second phase begins: the Dance” (Pueyo, 2020). If we view the pandemic as a dance and the future as our dance partner, it becomes a give and take relationship of synchronisation, harmony, and collaboration. People are no longer captives to the captains of their fate, but rather dance to their own tune and choreograph their own routine.
An example of this is South Africa’s declaring of the pandemic as a national disaster and focusing on providing food parcels for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and relief funds for the financially-strained businesses. However, in its efforts to contain the spread of fear, to perform damage control, and to ‘flatten the curve’, its extended lockdown has come across as Draconian, or unnecessarily harsh. Many citizens argue that instead of moving to the dance phase of its strategy, leadership is repeatedly hammering the same nail. Or so it seems. While the spread of the virus is relentless – particularly across the nation’s informal settlements and informal economy – leadership has put out fires elsewhere. In banning the purchase of alcohol during lockdown, the country has seen a significant decline in alcohol-related casualties (including car accidents and domestic violence). The pandemic does not operate in isolation, nor is it linear in its movements. It requires a hammer and dance approach to respond, adapt, and anticipate shadow crises, chain reactions, and satellite events.
Countries declaring the pandemic a national disaster are putting into place regulations and measures of control – such as providing tax relief, setting up temporary housing, responding to distress signals, and offering financial aid – to minimise damage. The virus in this narrative is perceived to be a disruption caused by natural processes beyond human control, but owing to destructive human influence. Thousands of years ago, communities the world over acknowledged the interconnected relationship between nature and culture. If there was turmoil or conflict in society, it would appear in nature – drought, fire, disease. Nature was seen to be this self-reproducing entity, not to be disturbed or exploited. It is only more recently that the western world made this ‘discovery’ – the Anthropocene. The disaster metaphor paints a picture of humanity as victims or survivors, volunteers or philanthropists.
While disaster management is a necessary temporary measure in extreme circumstances, there needs to be a journey of healing following the experience of loss, pain, and grief. It requires consideration for both movements on the surface and the undercurrents below; how deep do these problems run? Life in pandemic – like a river – has moments of slow calm and quick turbulence, clear shallows and murky deepness, free-flowing paths and diverging streams. Developing a dynamic map with which we can navigate uncertain terrain, anticipate obstacles, and plot strategic directions would make us explorers – not survivors – of a new world, connecting with others along the way.
An example of this is how “New Zealand has offered a model response of empathy, clarity and trust in science” (BBC News, 2020). Instead of identifying an enemy and establishing a plan of attack, New Zealand encouraged unity and working together. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s message stayed consistent and clear: “Be Strong. Be Kind”, and so the country was a given a map with which it could navigate the course of the river it found itself on.
Many the world over seem to be at war. They are united against a common enemy, fighting for a common goal: eliminate the threat to human life and national security, even if it is by violent or aggressive means. In this narrative, citizens become soldiers. It is their duty to fight for their country, protect its borders, and obey orders from power-wielding leaders. Often these power dynamics go unchecked, restrictions are enforced unquestioned, and harm in inflicted unnoticed. As many nations go into what has been termed ‘lockdown’, one cannot help but feel criminalised. Curfews, restrictions, bans – it starts to feel a lot like imprisonment.
If we were to rather invoke the idea of a game of chess, we start to see the virus as a challenge, rather than a cage. In applying logic and strategy to develop a game plan, people enhance their mental mastery and are better prepared for future scenarios that may emerge. As players, people alternate between seemingly unassuming moves, taking risks, and making strategic decisions for the end-game – before taking on the next challenge.
An example of the war metaphor is US President Trump’s naming the ‘China virus’ a public enemy which must be defeated. Increased border protection, rising nationalism, and enforced hero-narratives make it difficult for people to fight back and remain autonomous. When it comes to thinking things through in the form of a game of chess, we can apply Inayatullah and Black’s (2020) definition of foresight as “the capacity to anticipate tomorrow’s problems and [to]act today”. They argue that COVID-19 is neither a black swan nor a zombie apocalypse; it was neither unpredictable nor a total surprise. Instead of focusing on what was missed or unseen, we should, they urge, prepare for the next pandemic.
“The main point is that narrative, how we describe the world structures our possibilities, what options we can see, what is possible for us to create” (Inayatullah, 2020). Many of the dominant pandemic metaphors encourage destructive discourses and promote ideas of separation or superiority. The emerging metaphors in this essay are proposed as transformational alternatives that promote interconnectedness and a process of change. There are different ways of seeing, framing, and being in the world. The language we use and the metaphors we apply, shape the way we experience reality, imagine possibility, and take on responsibility.
Originally published on JFS
For those born in the ‘90s, many would have first been introduced to the concept of a food chain through Disney’s The Lion King. The opening track – The Circle of Life – illustrates the cyclical nature of energy; what is taken from the earth is returned, and what dies gives life to another. Such is the food chain: a network of links between producers, consumers, and decomposers. Similarly, food-supply systems trace the connections between production, distribution, and consumption. It is this system that supports the continuation of humanity.
A weak link in the chain could have disastrous effects. Look at what happens when the military uses food as a weapon of war; cutting off enemy supplies and deliberately destroying their livelihoods. Look at the impact of war-time food-shortage on pregnant women. How their children developed eating disorders or became obese as a biological reaction to previous starvation and mental preparation for potential future scarcity.
Some might say that our problematic relationship with food emerged with the introduction of industrialisation. Several decades since the invention of the steam engine, a theory was introduced that proposed an imminent catastrophe. The idea was that exponential population growth combined with a linear food supply would result in famine or war. As technology advances, resources would increase and the standard of living would improve. This would then trigger, enable and support population growth. If the number of people outnumber the available resources: chaos. This, however, has not happened. Will innovations in food technology match the rate of population growth? Could this minimise the risk of such a crisis? Or will the perpetual presence of poverty and pollution be our downfall?
The first industrial revolution saw a shift from an agrarian way of life to a mechanised system of manufacturing, the second brought about mass production and a dependence on electricity, the third was characterised by automation and globalised production networks, and the fourth industrial revolution is digitising value chains. The industrialisation of agriculture meant that farming was no longer done for small-scale, localised sustenance, but became a global, profit-driven industry. Genetic modifications have led to mutations, pesticides have contributed to the evolution of super-viruses, and urbanisation has reduced arable land and escalated climate instability. The industrialisation of food has resulted in an over-reliance on a limited range of crops and has reduced a natural diversity that would usually protect us from plagues and pandemics. What’s next?
Several nations are currently in a comfort zone where food is an expected constant and individuals are entitled to a range of choices. This exploitative relationship with food is not sustainable. We saw how, when the health crisis of 2020 was made public, many flocked to the shops to stock up on supplies. We panic and extract, rather than consider the long-term implications of our actions or how it would affect those around us who depend on the very same resources.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are camping in a remote, isolated area for the next month, and you suddenly realise that you have forgotten to bring any food; a foundational, physiological need for survival. It is too far for you to safely travel to the nearest town, and it is too long before someone comes back for you. What do you do? Like most nomadic communities who live off the land. You would likely focus your time and energy on securing a stable food supply. It would not make sense to deplete the resources nearest you within the first week if you are intending to survive beyond that. You would need to consider hunting, gathering, growing, and rearing. Your decisions would need to be calculated and consider a time and space beyond the here and now.
The question we should be asking ourselves today is: what happens if there is a significant breakdown in the food chain? This wildcard event may have a low likelihood of occurring in our lifetime, but would have a high impact if it were to play out. It is entirely plausible for something like this to happen. Whether humanity causes its own demise through over-consumption, or if it is through natural disaster that food sources are destroyed, we need to relook our relationship with food and the processes that underpin the supply and demand thereof.
How do contemporary social issues intersect with the symbolic importance of food? What impact does technological innovation have on food production? How do the dynamics of poverty and inequality shape consumption patterns? What is the relationship between food diversity and sustainability? How could regulation and control lead to food instability? These are some of the things we need to consider in our food policies and practices going forward. How do we even begin to combat an emerging food crisis? Well, for starters, “you should never take more than you give”, as the song goes. We need to address supply and demand imbalances at their source, before they get completely out of hand. We have a decision to make: do we eradicate particular practices or do we contain the accessibility of resources? Do we prevent further destruction or do we restore what once was?
What is the source of the problem, anyway? No wild card event occurs in isolation. It is a confluence of issues. Everything is connected. It is for this reason that complex systems can be quite fragile; vulnerable to even the smallest disturbance that plays out in often unexpected or exaggerated ways. A disruption in the food chain can lead to a chain reaction of events. The possibility of a food crisis has been a long time coming. The impact of such could take years or even decades to be fully realised. We do not have the luxury of time on our side – if anything, we have been given early warning signals of the coming change and should act now to prevent possible collapse.
First published on APF
Stand your ground
With the world largely being homebound since March of this year, many have been using this as an opportunity to change their space. It is, of course, the privileged who are safe at home (not stuck at home or scared at home) and equipped to develop their homes to meet their evolving needs.
Ikea, regarded as the “go-to store for the masses with empty rooms to fill and life-stages to adapt to”, was expected to profit from this trend but, instead, suffered as it temporarily closed stores and failed to adapt to ecommerce practices. However, it’s said to be taking a ‘post-pandemic gamble’ and will be opening 50 new stores in cities (particularly in the UK).
What makes this surprising is that: 1) online shopping — not in-store visits — is booming, and 2) people have migrated away from cities to the suburbs, the country, and to the coast. In addition to this, Ikea stores across the UK will be hosting an initiative in which customers can sell their used furniture back to Ikea for up to 50% of the original price. The intention is to “help customers take a stand against excessive consumption”.
This article was published on Marklives
Who’d have thought, at the start of this new year and decade, that there’d be a resurgence of past political movements, socially fuelled structural violence, a health pandemic of crippling proportions and economic collapse?
I had a little bird
Who could have known, when we shouted “Happy New Year!” as 2019 transitioned into 2020, what would be in store for us?
Experts claimed we’d had a prosperous decade, far more fair and fruitful than 30 years ago (listen to Steven Pinker here), and populations the world over anticipated a return to 1920s fashion, music, and art. The Roaring Twenties were considered a ‘Golden Age’ because of the economic boom that followed the end of World War I and the Spanish flu. These factors, among others, contributed to a global socio-political paradigm shift. Were we crazy to anticipate a positive trajectory for the 2020s? Were we foolish to think we could get the gains without the pain?
In 1921, German-born American artist, JC Leyendecker, created an illustration for the Saturday Evening Post’s New Year’s Eve edition (for 1922). It was one of a series that spanned 40 years but what makes this one particularly interesting today is its relevance 100 years later. It depicts Baby New Year throwing salt on the dove of peace.
In various contexts, the dove symbolises innocence, renewal of life, the end of war, deliverance, forgiveness, and peace. But why the salt? To prevent the dove of peace from flying away, of course!
Salting a bird's tail
He went to catch a dicky bird,
There’s a nursery rhyme that dates back to at least the 17th century. This, in turn, is believed to be derived from a folktale that states you can catch a bird by putting salt on its tail. The reason for this is: a) the salt startles the bird, b) the salt interferes with the bird’s ability to fly away, c) there are magical properties in salt that cast a spell over the bird, or d) if you’re close enough to pour salt on a bird’s tail, you’re probably close enough to catch it anyway. On a metaphorical level, salting a bird’s tale is an analogy or idiom for immobilising people.
South African audiences would be familiar with the iconic local salt brand, Cerebos, and its illustration of a child chasing a chicken, trying to pour salt on it. While the slogan “see how it runs” would seem to refer to the chicken running away, it in fact refers to the chemist who mixed calcium phosphate with salt, giving it free-flowing properties. It’s the salt that runs.
Epidemiologists and medical anthropologists would be familiar with the term “syndemic”. By definition, it’s the result of multiple epidemics or disease clusters. It’s the interaction of these diseases and the contributing factors (particularly social, environmental, and economic) and conditions (namely poverty, stress, and structural violence) that worsen the burden of disease. A typical biomedical approach would isolate a disease or pandemic, and then study and treat it as a distinct entity — not connected to anything and independent of context. A systemic approach explores a phenomenon in context and in relation to surrounding phenomena.
This article was published on Marklives