As my previous post suggested, since returning to New England after 24 years away I have found the relationship between temperatures and seasons oddly dislocating. The previous post explored how summer temperatures have changed since my childhood, and why I am experiencing them the way I am. In this post, I look at changes to fall and winter in Worcester. This post not only explains what is happening to winter in this part of New England, but also fleshes out something remarkable: the annual structure of temperature in this part of the world has changed in profound ways since my childhood. Where I grew up in a world where wintery temperatures lasted much longer than those of summer, today winter and summer temperatures are nearing parity on an annual basis. Fall transitions into winter much later than when I was a child, but winter ends only a little earlier than it used to. At least when it comes to temperature, Worcester (and New England more broadly) is a very different place than the one in which I grew up.

Let’s talk about fall. Since returning to New England, I have found this season particularly disorienting. I expect it to become cold much sooner than it does, and find myself increasingly unsettled by the temperature across October, November, and December. I have clear memories of a much colder fall, and a much harsher transition to winter, than what I experience now. On November 12, 1990, my high school soccer team won the NH state championship on a frozen pitch in 27-degree Fahrenheit weather (it was 23 degrees Fahrenheit that night in Worcester) 1. I’m not crazy in coming back to that memory. During my childhood, the average high temperature on November 12th was 44.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with average lows of 30.9, so that game was a slight outlier. Today, that average is 51.5 degrees Fahrenheit, with average nighttime lows of 33.2…which would make that game a larger outlier. Further, the onset of winter temperatures, signaled by the first hard frost, has changed. The first hard frost now comes an average of 16 days later than when I was a child (previously October 24th, now November 9th). In other words, even if the game is played on a freakishly cold night, it is unlikely that soccer players in NH will have to play 2 a State Championship game on a frozen pitch again.

If I feel bit adrift in the fall and early winter, I tend to come into port in January, February, and March. This is despite the fact the data suggest that the change in winter is even more striking than that in fall. The period characterized by hard frost, between the date temperatures first drop to 28 Fahrenheit or lower and the last day temperatures reach this point, lasted an average of 173 days each year during my childhood. Today, the average for this period is 148 days, a mind-boggling 25 days shorter. The figure below compares the period of winter temperatures, as marked by the first and last hard frost, across the year as it was when I was growing up and today. As noted above, today the first hard frost is delayed by more than two weeks relative to my childhood. The last hard frost arrives nine days earlier in the year (previously April 16th, now April 7th).

The distribution of winter weather across the year in my childhood and today. The graphic shows how the winter ends earlier, and starts later, than it used to.

Why, then, would I feel most at home in the temperature in January, February, and March? The answer also lies in the data: once we get past December, the temperatures within winter start to converge with the temperatures I knew growing up. We used to average 113 days per year that reached 28 Fahrenheit or lower. Now the average is 93 days, an incredible decline of 20 days in just over 25 years. However, the relative proportion of total days below 28 Fahrenheit in winter has not changed much. When I was growing up, an average of 65% percent of winter days reached temperatures below 28F. Today, that average is 63%. Most of those days are concentrated in January and February. The average temperature in the month of January might be 2.53 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than what I grew up with, but it is still only 25.2 degrees! Similarly, while February is also warmer (by 1.41 degrees Fahrenheit), the average temperature is 27.5 degrees Fahrenheit, still below the hard frost temperature. Today, March is actually colder than in my childhood, though only by .14 degrees. All of this means that these months feel quite similar to those I experienced as a child.

It’s the transitional seasons in and out of winter (particularly fall), the margins of the winter itself, that have seen the greatest changes. The transition to spring, however, is gentler on me than Fall. April, while today an average of 1.21 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than in my childhood, has not radically departed that past experience. The spring in New England is still long, still muddy, and still unpredictable. After April, May warms up considerably, and we are into my earlier discussion of changes in summer.

People, like plants and other animals, have a degree of photosensitivity – an expectation of what things should feel like temperature-wise at a given length of day and angle of the sun. Nothing has changed with regard to the length of day or the angle of the sun, but for much of the year the temperature in New England no longer aligns with these other factors in a manner I understand. The chart below captures these changes across the year, illustrating how the character of daily temperatures in New England has changed enough to render this place nearly unrecognizable.

What it shows is that while nearly every month has seen some temperature increase, every month has seen an increase in the average minimum temperature, and that increase is larger than the increase in average high temperature. Put another way, the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures is compressing, whether gently as in April, or dramatically, as in October and December. The connection between hours of sunlight, the angle of the sun, and temperature that I developed for myself playing in the woods behind my house in the 1970s and 1980s is an artifact of an environment that no longer exists. For someone to understand what I am talking about in a visceral way, they have to be around my age (or older), and to have spent enough time outdoors in daylight to have developed this sense.

The figure below visually represents the radical change in the structure of temperatures across the year since my childhood. It is a to-scale representation of the average duration of the “hard frost” and “summery” 3 temperature periods, both when I was growing up and now. The intervals between the seasons are also to scale. It shows that in the space of the past 25 years, where I live has gone from a winter-dominated temperature signature to one approaching parity between winter and summer temperatures. When I was growing up, wintery temperatures lasted an average of 52 days longer than summery temperatures each year. Today, wintery temperatures only last 13 days longer than summery temperatures. The shift is staggering, and explains my general dislocation when it comes to temperature, particularly in the fall.

Summer and winter temperatures laid out across an annual scale. The shift toward annual parity between summer and winter is clear.

One thing is clear: my children are growing up with a very different sense of the relationship between the amount of sunlight, its angle, and temperature than I did. They live in a different world than the one in which I grew up. Another thing is sure: given the inertia in our climate, my children will have some version of the experience I am describing at some point in their own lives. I worry, however, that they will not get to their mid-40s before this awareness sets in. Rates of change are not slowing, and there is little to suggest that we will stabilize global temperatures (a prerequisite to stabilizing local temperatures) in their lifetimes. I’ve lost a connection to the world that I loved, and I will not get it back. I was gone too long to make the subtle adjustments to my perceptions necessary to overlook this change, and after four years I still feel dislocated every fall. The terrible part of this is that we’ve already ensured that our children will have this same experience. The question is not if, but when.

Notes:

  1. Yes, I had to look the date up. I had no memory of that the game being on a Monday night
  2. The key term is play, which I use advisedly here, as I was a reserve striker on that team and never got into that game. It’s not fun to watch a championship game from the bench. It’s worse when you are freezing
  3. Recall from my previous post that I am defining “summer-like” somewhat arbitrarily as the period between by the first day of the year over 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) that was followed by consecutive days of temperatures above 70 degrees and closed by the last day over 25 Celsius at the end of several consecutive days over 70 degrees

This post, and those I will pull together for this series, are about my personal experience of climate change and its impacts on what feel to me to be extraordinarily compressed timescales. In each post, I’m going to talk through the differences I see, what the data say is happening, and what it means to me. For the first post, let’s start with something simple: temperature 1. More specifically, summer temperatures.

When I was a kid, neither of the houses I lived in had air conditioning. I’m not sure that any of my friends’ houses had air conditioning. Several family friends had pools, and we knew which ones got the most direct sunlight because those were the warmest ones…but swimming lessons at 9am could be really chilly, even in July. I have vivid memories of falling asleep to the enameled steel window fan in my room as it clattering away. I loved having that fan, because it meant that my window shade could not be fully drawn, and I would sit in front of the fan and look out through it at night, watching cars drive by and listening to neighbors outside (my parents put my brothers and I to bed early).  

This isn’t exactly the model of fan we had, but it is pretty close. I remember the metal blades of death. It was fun watching them shred paper, small pencils, any anything else handy. Who thought those were a good idea?

Moving back to New England, we bought a house with high ceilings and big windows, a perfect stack for creating cross-drafts and letting heat rise up and out of the house. We installed ceiling fans, and I figured if those weren’t enough we’d get some window fans and use the evening temperatures to keep things comfortable, just as my family had when I was a kid. My wife, who was raised in Louisville, went to college at the University of Kentucky (where we met), and lived with me in Ghana, Spain, South Carolina, and Washington, DC, thought this was insane and demanded we install some form of air conditioning. We settled on a few strategic window units, but after two summers it was clear that my plan would never work. Each year, in July, August, and even early September there were a lot of days where the daytime heated up enough that the cross-breezes in the house actually heated the place up, and evening temperatures were not low enough to really cool things off. I gave in, and we installed high-efficiency mini-splits (which can be used for heating and cooling – more on heating in another post).

In short, coming back to New England was not a return to the summers of my childhood, but a return to a different place, at least as defined by temperature. Climate data makes this perception concrete.

Since I was growing up, the duration of summer-like temperatures 2 has gone from an average of 121 days per year to 135 days. An increase of two weeks in just over 25 years is astonishing. Some of this increased duration is reflected in an earlier average onset of summer-like weather (when I was a child, this weather began, on average, on May 17th. Now the average onset date is May 12th). However, a greater portion comes from an extension of summer-like weather into September (the average end of summery weather has been pushed back from September 15th to September 25th).

This visual compares the average length and annual position of summer-like temperatures in Worcester between my childhood (1973-1991) and now (2010-present)

With regard to daytime high temperatures, the duration of the season is the main change to the structure of temperature. The average number of days above 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) has increased by 7 days per year. This means that Worcester today sees nearly a week more of summer temperatures each year than when I was growing up. While this is a remarkably rapid increase, this does not mean that the character of summer itself is changing. In fact, the distribution of temperatures within the season have remained relatively consistent. As the charts below show, in both my childhood and now roughly 56% of the days within the “summer-like” season reach 77 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. The average number of days in this season above 85 degrees Fahrenheit has crept up from 13.3 to 15, which means that whether as a child or today, 11% of my summer days get this hot. The average number of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit has declined from 3.5 to 3, but in the scheme of things this is pretty steady, at around 2.5% of all days. In short, as the figure below shows, summer is longer than I remember it, so the distribution of heat and cold in the year has clearly changed. However, within summer the temperatures are well within the range of my prior experience.

The structure of daytime high temperatures has not changed much, if at all, between my childhood and the present

So why does it feel hot enough to require air conditioning? Well, part of it is the duration of the summer and the number of summery days. Another part is that minimum temperatures are also changing. A tropical night is defined as one where the temperature is at or above 20 Celsius (68 Fahrenheit). During my childhood, a typical year had around five of these days. Today, we experience an average of more than eight and a half such nights. Further, the frequency of tropical nights appears to be increasing – rapidly. During my childhood, there were three years (1973, 1979, 1988) with 10 or more tropical nights. Since 2010, there have been four (2010, 2012, 2013, 2018). Across my eighteen years growing up in New England, there were 89 total tropical nights in Worcester. Since 2010, a period half as long, there have been 77. Part of why it feels so hot is that there are a lot more warm evenings.

The gently increasing number and share of tropical nights per year.

My return to Worcester is not a return to the summers of my childhood as much as a move to a new place that I’ve never lived in before. Whatever my nostalgia for summers and window fans, my kids are already living in a different world – in July and August they usually sleep with their windows closed, unable to hear different nocturnal animals, people walking and talking on the street, the sounds of nighttime in summer. I’m not comfortable saying that what I had as a child is better than what they have. I’m a person who expects and accepts change in the world. But it is just that much harder to relate to your kids when they are natives of a different world than the one you grew up in, and if nothing else that fact nags at me.

Notes:

  1. A note on data for those who care: All the data in this post is taken from the weather station at the Worcester Airport, which has daily records since 1948 (I accessed all the data you see here through the KNMI Climate Explorer). To create a comparison periods, I took an average for all measures across my childhood in New England (1973-1991), and compared that to the average from 2010-2018 (though I moved back in 2015, only using 2015-2018 created a very small series for an average that might be heavily skewed by an outlying year).
  2. Here I am defining “summer-like” somewhat arbitrarily as the period between by the first day of the year over 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) that was followed by consecutive days of temperatures above 70 degrees and closed by the last day over 25 Celsius at the end of several consecutive days over 70 degrees. I am sure I could systematize this definition a bit more, but any changes to the calculations represented in this post would be at the margins, and not affect the larger narrative

I returned to New England in 2015, after 24 years living in other parts of the country and the world. Aside from the occasional summer at my parents’ place (those ended in 1995) and visits for holidays and vacation, I was pretty removed from the weather back home. I’d hear about blizzards, though generally only when it got really rough (New Hampshire folks don’t complain much, except when talking about people who are not from New Hampshire. Then we complain a lot). I did not expect that within a year of the move I would be overwhelmed by pervasive signs of changes that had taken place since my childhood. While having the sun set at 4:30 in the afternoon in December felt strangely right and soothing (my family has yet to adopt this sense), temperatures seemed all wrong, the timing and amount of precipitation was confusing, and the plants, especially the trees, around me were behaving in odd ways, such as dropping green leaves very late in the year.

Part of my work is on climate change, albeit usually in places like sub-Saharan Africa, so I was not at all surprised to find that things might have changed in my absence. Indeed, my first reaction to this experience was to assume that being gone for more than half of my life created a significant experiential gap. I hadn’t lived through year upon year of subtle changes for more than two decades, perhaps preventing me from being the proverbial frog in the simmering pot. At the same time, if there is one thing that more than two decades of work on livelihoods and the environment has taught me, it is that I should not fully trust human perceptions of the environment. So I started playing with data. The results startled me, and provoked me to do something I rarely do: write about where I live, and what is happening to it.

As subsequent posts will show, my overwhelming sense that something had changed significantly was right. What I did not expect was how the data would support the pervasive and substantial character of those changes. One of the most important stories about climate change is the rate of change: while the climate has changed in the past, these changes tended to operate on geologic timescales far outside the experience of most organisms. Much has been made of current rates of change, and how they have shifted from geologic to human timescales, a rate of change that far exceeds the ability of many species of plant and animal to adapt to the new conditions. What most strikes me about the data, and the ways in which it weaves through my experience of the world, is that the changes I see are now operating not at a human timescale, but at a generational timescale – that is, so fast that they are clearly perceptible over less than 25 years, as opposed to a 75- or 100-year timescale. Put another way, while I was largely born into the same environment as my mother and father, my children were born into a different environment than me. I was oddly unprepared for that fact, and I am still not sure what it means to me as a parent or the work I do professionally.

In upcoming posts, I will walk you through these changes and their manifestations, drawing on data but writing about it from my perspective. I’m not sure where this will take me, but that’s fine: I generally write to process things, and now you, dear reader, get to come along for the ride.

Resilience is a term that permeates development and adaptation conversations alike. However, it is often used without clear definition, and the definitions assumed or elaborated generally misrepresent the dynamics of human-dominated systems.

TL;DR: We’re doing resilience wrong, and it is screwing up the lives of people who are supposed to benefit from resilience programming.

To address this problem, I recently wrote an article seeking to address these conceptual issues and make resilience a useful, constructive concept for development and adaption. The key points:

  • Socio-ecological resilience is an outcome of projects steering diverse actors and ecological processes toward human safety and stability in a manner that preserves the privileges of those in positions of authority.
  • At even moderate levels, disturbance in socio-ecologies is not a source of transformation, but instead produces rigidity that limits innovation and transformation in the name of safety and stability. When a resilient system provides safety in the context of a disturbance, the system and its attendant social orders and privileges are legitimized. This is why many development projects fail: they gently disturb a project, which rejects the intervention in the name of safety and certainty, and returns people and activities to their initial state.
  • Disrupting resilient socio-ecological projects, whether through extreme disturbance or interventions associated with development and adaptation, opens space for transformation, but creates risk by removing existing sources of safety and certainty. This is another source of project failure, one where the intervention blows up the existing project, but what comes together in its wake leaves some or all of the people involved more vulnerable to existing stresses, or vulnerable to new stresses that leave them worse off than they were before the intervention.
  • Reinforcing existing socio-ecological projects, such as through interventions aimed at stabilizing existing activities, reduces opportunities for transformation by legitimizing their practices and social orders.
  • Interventions seeking to build resilience while achieving transformative goals can catalyze change by easing stress on livelihoods. In the context of reduced stress, the side of these projects aimed at maintaining existing structures of authority relaxes, allowing space for innovations by actors who are otherwise marginal to decision-making.

There is a lot going on in this article, and I intended it as much as a provocation as a path forward. If any of this is interesting or challenges the way you saw resilience in the world, feel free to read more deeply – the article is here.

I’m not making huge promises, but maybe it’s time to fire this machine back up…

Unsolicited publishing advice/reviewing rant to follow. Brace yourselves.

When writing an article based on the quantitative analysis of a phenomena, whatever it may be and however novel your analysis, you are not absolved from reading/understanding the conceptual literature (however qualitative) addressing that phenomena. Sure, you might be using a larger dataset than ever used before. Certainly, the previous literature might have been case-study based, and therefore difficult to generalize. But that doesn’t give you a pass to just ignore that existing literature.

  • That literature establishes the meanings of the concepts you are measuring/testing
  • That literature captures the current state of knowledge on those concepts
  • Often, that literature (if qualitative, especially if ethnographic) can get at explanations for the phenomena that cannot be had through qualitative methods alone

If you ignore this literature:

  • You’ll just ask questions that have already been answered. Everybody hates that, especially time-constrained reviewers who already know the answers to your questions because they actually have read/contributed to the literature you ignored.
  • You’ll likely end up with results that don’t make sense, and with no means of explaining or even addressing them. Editors and reviewers hate that, too.
  • Your results, even if they appear to be statistically significant, will be crap. I don’t care how sophisticated your quantitative analysis is, or how innovative your tools might be, you are shoving crap into a very innovative, sophisticated tool, which means that all you’ll get out the other end is crap. Reviewers hate crap. Editors hate crap. And your crap is probably not actionable (and really shouldn’t be), so nobody outside academia will like your crap.

Please don’t generate more crap. There is plenty around.

Finally, a note on professionalism and your career: Citing around people who have worked on the phenomena you are investigating because you are trying to capture a particular field of knowledge is awful intellectual practice that, beyond needlessly slowing the pace of innovation in the field in question, will never work…because editors will send the people you are not citing the article for review. And they will wreck you.

As many of you know, I tend to post when provoked to rage by something in the press/literature/world. These days, I am massively overtasked, which means I need special levels of rage to post. So hooray to Tom Friedman, who in his utterly frustrating column yesterday actually managed to get me there.

I’m going to set aside my issues with the Friedman-standard reductionist crap in the column. Ken Opalo killed it anyway, so just read his post. Instead, I want to spend a few words excoriating Friedman for his lazy, stereotypical portrayal of my friend and colleague Ousmane Ndiaye in that column. First, as has been noted a few times, Ousmane is a climatologist with a Ph.D. This is NOT THE SAME THING AS A WEATHERMAN. Just Google the two, for heaven’s sake. What Ousmane is trained in is high-end physical science, and he is good at it. Really good at it.

But what is really remarkable about Ousmane, and totally elided in Friedman’s lazy, lazy writing, is that he is no office-bound monotonic weatherman. First, Ousmane is really, really funny. I’ve never seen him not funny, ever – even in serious meetings. Which makes me wonder how hard Friedman, who writes “”His voice is a monotone,” is working to fit Ousmane into the box of “scientist” as Friedman understands it.

Second, Ousmane does remarkable work engaging farmers across Senegal. I have seen him in farmer meetings, talking about seasonal forecasts. He cares deeply about these farmers, and how well he is able to communicate forecasts to them. I’ve also seen him at Columbia University, in scientific meetings, moving between professors and development donors, talking about new ideas and new challenges that need to be addressed. He moves between these worlds easily, a skill far too lacking in the climate change community.

What I am saying here is simple: Friedman missed the fact that he had the star right in front of him, clicking away at the computer. He needed a counterpoint for his rapper, and a sad caricature of Ousmane became that counterpoint. And because of the need to present Ousmane as the boring scientist, Friedman totally missed how unbelievably apocalyptic the figures he was hearing really are, especially for rain-fed agriculturalists in Senegal. A 2C rise in temperature over the last 60 or so years means that, almost certainly, some varieties of important cereals are no longer germinating, or having trouble germinating. The fact Senegal is currently 5C over normal temperature is unholy – and were this to hold up, would totally crush this year’s harvest (planting starts in about a month, so keep an eye on this) because very little would germinate properly at that level.

Ousmane was describing the apocalypse, and Friedman was fixated on a clicking mouse. Friedman owes Ousmane an apology for this pathetic caricature, and he owes the rest of us an apology for the ways in which his lazy plot and the characters he needed to occupy it resulted in a complete burial of the lede: climate change is already reaching crisis levels in some parts of the world.

 

P.S., if you want to see some of the work that has started to emerge from working alongside Ousmane, check out this and this.

Back in September, HURDL released its final report on our work assessing Mali’s Agrometeorological Advisory program – an effort, conceived and run by the Government of Mali, to deliver weather and climate information to farmers to improve agricultural outcomes in the country. You’d think this would be a straightforwardly good idea – you know, more information (or indeed any information) being better than none. So our findings were a bit stunning:

  • As we found in our preliminary report, less than 20% of those with access to the advisories are actually using them
  • Nearly everyone using the advisories is a man
  • Nearly everyone using the advisories is already relatively well-off
  • The advisories were most used in the parts of the country where precipitation is most secure (see map below).

Screen Shot 2016-01-17 at 5.10.27 PM

This was, to say the least, a set of surprising findings. And, on their surface, they suggest that the program is another example of development failure: a project that only reaches those who least need the help it is providing.

But that conclusion only holds if this program was oriented toward development and adaptation in the first place…and it was not. The program was established in 1981 as an effort to address conditions of acute food insecurity closely linked to severe drought. The goal was simple: use short-term and seasonal advisories to help farmers make better decisions under stress and boost food availability in Mali. This program, in other words, was an effort to address a particular, acute problem (food insecurity linked to extreme drought) through a very specific means (boosting food availability). This was not a development project, it was a humanitarian response to a crisis. And as such, it was brilliant – and each of the findings above demonstrate why.

  • The goal was to rapidly boost yields of grains (and cotton), for which men have most decision-making authority.
  • The goal was to rapidly boost overall yields of grains to improve availability within Mali, and therefore targeting the wealthy farmers who had the access to equipment and animal traction necessary to use the advisories made sense.
  • The goal was to rapidly boost grain production…and much more grain is grown in the wetter parts of Mali than in the dryer areas in the north.

In short, the project was never intended to address development goals – it was supposed to address a particular aspect of a humanitarian crisis through particular means, and its design targeted exactly the right decision-makers/actors to achieve that goal. Indeed, one could argue that the rather narrow use of advisories speaks to how well designed this humanitarian intervention was. In short, the gendered/wealth-dependent character of advisory use, and the fact they are most used in areas that are already very agriculturally productive, are not bugs in this project: they are features!

The problem, then, is not with the design of the project, but the fact it continued for more than 30 years, and some 25 years after the end of the droughts. As a narrowly-focused effort to address a particular, short-term humanitarian crisis, the gendered/wealth-based outcomes of the project were acceptable trade-offs to achieve higher grain yields. But over 30 years, and without the justification of an acute crisis, it is likely this project has served to unnecessarily exacerbate agricultural inequality in rural southern Mali.

HURDL is now engaged in a project to redesign this program, to shift it from a (now unnecessary) humanitarian assistance effort to a development/adaptation project. With this shift in priorities comes a shift in how we view the outcomes of the program – the very things that made it an effective humanitarian assistance program (gendered and income-based inequality) are now aspects of the project that we must change to ensure that the widest number of farmers possible have access to information they can use in their livelihoods decisions as we move into conditions of greater economic and environmental uncertainty. In short, we now have to bridge the DRR and Humanitarian Response/Development and Adaptation divide that has so plagued those of us concerned with the situation of those in the Global South. This will be tremendously challenging, but through this process we hope to not only work with Malian colleagues to design and deliver a development and adaptation version of this program to Malian farmers, but also to learn more about how to bridge the particular time/scope emphases of these two assistance arenas.

Look, I know there have been lots of Star Wars and development posts/tweets (here, here, here), so I won’t belabor things. But forgive me a quick observation after seeing the most recent Star Wars: isn’t the continual construction of bigger and more powerful flying orbs of death by the bad guys (the Empire, then the First Order) a perfect metaphor for the sort of thinking that gave us the Millennium Villages?

Goal: Galactic Domination

Project 1: Star Wars: A New Hope

Logframe: Build giant Death Star space station, blow up a representative planet, watch galaxy cower in fear => Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Failure to address single design flaw results in giant space station destroyed

Outcome: Lack of Domination

 

Project 2: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi

Logframe: Build bigger, better Death Star space station, everyone will remember the last one blew up a planet, and because this one is even bigger the galaxy will cower in fear => Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Fixed previous design flaw, overconfidence in tactics and shields failed to account for another fatal flaw, giant space station destroyed

Outcome: Catastrophe, Complete collapse of the Empire

 

Project 3: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Logframe: F*ck it, we’re making an actual moon/planet into an absolutely massive, sun-powered Starkiller base (rebranded to avoid stigma of previous Death Stars), blow up the entire Federation home system, watch galaxy cower in fear=> Galactic Domination

Evaluation: Pretty much the same flaw as with the second Death Star, with pretty much the same result: Starkiller base destroyed

Outcome: Still no domination

So, to summarize: we have a problem, we can’t seem to solve it, so we will keep plowing ahead with the same approach, but bigger and more expensive, because clearly it isn’t the concept that’s flawed, we just haven’t gone big enough!

 

Yep, sounds like a lot of development.

Last week, I published a short editorial in Scientific American’s SA Forum online that decried the near-total lack of organization or prioritization in the Sustainable Development Goals/Global Goals/whatever they are called this week. My argument was simple: by not ordering or prioritizing goals, the SDGs

risk becoming an empty exercise that empowers business as usual in the field of global development.

At the conclusion of that piece, I suggested that the only way to avoid this outcome was to find actors who were able to demand organization and prioritization among these goals – principally the big bilateral donors like USAID and DfID, or perhaps the Gates foundation (which, on expenditures, comes in around the world’s sixth-largest donor organization).

I’ve been taken to task a few times by colleagues for this suggestion. These rather polite and professional interventions (I know, not at all like the internet I’ve come to expect) pointed out that I’d empowered the big donors, with their problematic, often Eurocentric framings of development and how to achieve it, to act as the saviors of development via the SDGs. Given my rather clear critical stance with regard to these framings of development (most clearly articulated in Delivering Development, but generally present in most of the stuff I write), I think some folks were mystified by my logic. So allow me to clarify:

When we refuse to define terms, organize concepts or efforts, or engage in the politics necessary to set priorities, we are not apolitical: we are empowering other political agendas. The basic argument of my op-ed was simple: by not making hard decisions, we have empowered a particular political agenda, one that leaves development in a business-as-usual situation. Therefore, I see nearly any effort at locking down priorities and organizing efforts as superior to no prioritization at all, because any effort to set priorities will accomplish two things:

First, it will bring politics to the fore, and we will all be forced to wrestle with what we want to prioritize and why.

Second, it will lock down the meanings of the different terms we use (i.e. sustainable, well-being, secure) in such a way that they can become sites where politics can happen.

What do I mean by this? If, as we have done to this point, we refuse to define what we mean by sustainable (for example), we create a conceptual container that can be filled by nearly any definition, policy, program, project, or activity. It allows completely contradictory efforts to coexist and cancel each other out, without providing a base from which to contest any or all of these efforts. When there are no definitions, everything using a given term can be seen as equally valid. Similarly, if we refuse to prioritize our efforts, organizations can fill their efforts to meet the SDGs with almost any hodgepodge of policies, programs, projects, or activities…and will likely do so in a manner that mirrors their current emphases, funding, and staffing structures. Thus, organizations could set up completely contradictory agendas, with associated material efforts, and be seen as making equally valid efforts to address the SDGs in the eyes of the donors and the public. There is no way to contest the way one organization or another does its business if there are no definitions or priorities from which to work.

This does not mean that I think any particular donor organization will save the SDGs by setting the agenda we need to move forward. All are mired in their own internal and/or national politics, and therefore will push for agendas that most clearly reflect their own strengths and priorities. Further, most donor organizations do, in fact, operate from rather problematic, Eurocentric framings of the world, for example in their continuing inability to recognize the genius of small farmers who already negotiate uncertain environments and economies. As I have written about at length, in the eyes of most donor organizations these farmers are poor and helpless in the face of these large forces, and in need of help/saving/education. As a result, the donors cannot identify the things that these farmers really need (which are often a lot more narrow than a total reworking of their agricultural systems) and, even worse, they cannot learn from the things these farmers already know about how to best manage their agricultural, economic, and social environments.

So no, I don’t think the donors will save us…directly. But if one or more are willing to step up and impose politics on this process, they will create a process by which terms gain definition, and efforts are prioritized. When these meanings become fixed, it becomes possible to engage them and contest them, to actually have a conversation about what development is, and what it should be. Right now, we can just hold hands, say words like sustainability, and watch a nice concert together, all the while operating under the illusion that we have the same goals, and that we are working toward those goals in the same ways. That gets us nowhere. I want a development world where we are forced to recognize that different organizations and individuals prioritize different things, have different visions of the future, and different means of moving us toward those visions. Further, I want a development world where we have to struggle with the fact that what organizations want may have little to do with what the global poor want. That is what the SDGs could have given us.

It is too late to make the SDGs’ 17 goals and 169 targets a site of real development politics. But all is not lost: over one thousand initiatives have been set up to meet these targets and achieve these goals, and many more are coming. This is where the goals will become impacts on the ground. If we can create a real politics of development around these initiatives by organizing and prioritizing them, perhaps we can recover the SDGs as a site from which we can build a truly transformative agenda for development.

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