Elephant hunting

Conference TEPOS Meetings

Pierre Calame, September 2019

In his speech, Pierre Calame, Honorary President of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation for the Progress of Humankind, urged territories with positive energy to defend and enhance their assets (experiences, dynamic networks, cross-cutting actions and adapted initiatives) before national and European bodies. With humour and discernment, using the famous English expression « the elephant in the room », he proposes to open the hunt for the mastodons of immobility.

I’ll tell you about elephant hunting. Not the savanna elephants, because they don’t need us to die, global warming and smuggling are enough; not the elephants of the political parties, because they are heading for graveyards on their own; but what we call « elephants in the room ». What are elephants in the room? Realities that everyone knows but pretends not to see. These are the elephants that need to be hunted. I will briefly highlight some of them and then I will focus on one of the biggest elephants in the room, the governance elephant.

When I listen to you, I can only be bluffed by the richness of your initiatives, by their roots, by the energy mobilized by all their promoters. Then, immediately afterwards, there is the question of scale. And you can’t help but get the feeling of people walking in the right direction on a train that’s going ten times faster in the opposite direction.

To illustrate this, I’ll take some elements that everyone knows; they are precisely part of those elephants that we know but put aside a little when we talk to each other about what we do.

The first thing is that when we look at the links between economic growth and fossil fuels over the last thirty years, there has been absolutely no inflection. You would look in vain on the 1992 - 2019 curves to find traces of the Earth Summit, the Rio Summit, the Paris Agreement or the Energy Transition Act. No inflection! The only thing that reduces the consumption of fossil fuels in the world are economic crises. In other words, our economic model remains totally dependent on the increase in fossil energy.

The second element, and here I will not rely on militant speeches but simply on the report of the High Council on Climate set up by the President of the Republic. It reminds us that over the last 20 years internal energy consumption has decreased by 20%. Oh yes! Except that the consumption of grey energy, i.e. energy incorporated in the goods and services we consume, has doubled. In other words, if we have reduced our internal energy consumption it is simply because we have outsourced, notably to China, everything that cost fossil energy to produce. As a result, when we talk about carbon neutrality and forget about this grey energy, we are pursuing a real scribble policy. Each French person emits 6.6 tons of CO2 per year if we stick to the energy visibly consumed but emit 11.1 tons when we include grey energy. In other words, we consume 4.4 tons of grey energy every year, which is already double the amount that would logically belong to each French person if we want to protect the planet, and this even before we have spent a single watt on French territory! Twice as much. Which means that thinking about the energy transition in terms of internal consumption while leaving aside the grey energy is a mere joke.

Third reminder of the facts, the Paris agreement was the first where schizophrenia was brazenly, officially admitted. It is explained in the same breath that we are going to try to get closer to 1.5° e but that the sum of the commitments represents about 3.2°… and we are deluded by saying: it doesn’t matter, future commitments will be so much more ambitious that we’re going to get there! However, if you look at France’s commitments in terms of carbon strategy, you will systematically observe that they are not being respected - says the High Council on Climate Change - and that nobody is resigning for all that, and that we are systematically saying, « Never mind, we are going to set even more ambitious commitments!

As for the United Nations, you saw President Donald Trump, like me, shouting from the rostrum, « Death to inernationalists, long live the patriots! ». In other words, every man for himself to appropriate, while there is still time, the share of the planet to be stripped.

So the question for all of us is: can we be content to be a hummingbird, to say « I’m a little mayor, I’ve done everything I can »? When we listen to you, it’s obvious that you’ve done everything you could probably do even more, but don’t we also have to join forces to be involved on a different scale? That will be the subject of my remarks. Because if we don’t do that, what’s left? As Greta Thunberg’s show showed, there remains rage and tears, two expressions of impotence. And I don’t believe in our impotence. Over the decades I have acquired two convictions. The first is that the challenges and even the solutions are perfectly understandable, and not just for experts, for every citizen. And the second, to use an expression of the philosopher Seneca to whom I often refer, there is no good wind for the sailor who does not know where he is going. In other words, if we do not have a clear vision of the battles to be fought, let us not be surprised if we do not win them.

The figures show us that the systemic transition we are all talking about has not yet begun. We have to ask ourselves why. The most convenient explanation, in a way, and therefore the most common one, is that there are formidable interests opposing it. For my part, I’ve been thinking about it for over fifty years and I think that explanation is too short, I think the situation is even worse and we need to think about the nature of a systemic transition.

My view is that a positive transition is the flip side of a catastrophe. What does disaster theory tell us? That a disaster occurs not when a rare event occurs but when a number of negative acts converge at a given moment, each of which is not so rare - any functioning society experiences such events - but it is their combination that is extremely rare and leads to disaster. I believe that the same picture can be drawn for systemic transition, each of its ingredients would not be so rare, but it is their convergence that is rare, particularly the convergence of the actors. In order for there to be systemic transition, four types of actors must converge. First of all, we need innovators, and you are all innovators, who do not accept the absurdity of the world, who do not accept nonsense, who take action. Secondly, and in a way the TEPOS network is one of them, we need generalizers, people who contribute to the change of scale. Of course, we need regulators who make the rules of the game evolve and, to give just one example, Marie Guite Dufay, the President of the Bourgogne Franche Comté Region, has just reminded us how often the link between the State and the local level is dysfunctional. But there is a fourth type of actor: the theorists, i.e. people who are able to shape another vision of the world, another perspective. It is this break, this paradigm shift, that everyone is calling for. But in this field, we are plunged into a deep dogmatic sleep. The expression dogmatic sleep was coined by the great jurist Alain Supiot, a professor at the Collège de France, who described the inability of jurists to rethink their field in the light of new realities. I observe this dogmatic sleep in all fields, and particularly in the field of governance, which brings all the others together, since the definition of governance, its eternal definition, is not such and such an institution, such and such a political functioning, etc. It is quite simply the capacity of societies to maintain themselves in their field of viability and thus to ensure internal social cohesion, the balance between society and the biosphere, the balance between societies.

On all these levels we are plunged into a deep dogmatic sleep. The problem is not only that we look away while the house is burning down, but also, and above all, that we sleep while the elephants are jostling around in the room.

Leaving the realm of dogmatic sleep doesn’t mean that we can forget the past and that everything we’ve done up to now has been worthless because it’s a radically new situation, a radically new way of thinking. In fact, often we can look to the past for elements of response or a reinterpretation of past responses that enables us to confront new realities. To take the example of law with Alain Supiot, he shows that at the end of the 19th century an old principle, « responsibility for what you have in your custody » was reinterpreted to affirm the responsibility of bosses for accidents at work, with the machines they own and are in their custody. The same effort at reinterpretation was recently made with the Duty of Care Act, which recognized that companies that give orders have a responsibility for what they have in their custody, which includes subcontractors, even on the other side of the world, and that they must therefore implement tools of vigilance.

I made the same effort to try to rethink the economic model. I realized that there was no need to make absconding periphrases and oxymorons such as « sustainable development », « green growth » or « reasoned agriculture » and that, in the past, one term had expressed exactly what we were talking about: oeconomy. Indeed, this is how we used to talk about economics until 1750, before the « o » fell. What was economics? It was the art for a society to make the most of scarce resources to ensure its well-being while respecting the integrity of its environment. So there was no need to look elsewhere. On the other hand, we must ask ourselves how, in the 21st century, we can reinvent this oeconomy. The major interest of this look at the past is to make us aware that often, in order to innovate, we need to go back, as when we get lost in a forest, to the previous fork in the road, to understand when, without our realizing it, we took the wrong path. This effort to reread the past made me realize that economics was a branch of governance and that, in order to invent a new development model, we simply had to apply to the economy not pseudo laws of nature on market efficiency or whatever nonsense, but the general principles of governance.

Intellectual audacity is urgently needed, because if we want to think about the future, let us admit that we cannot put new wine in old wineskins, otherwise the wineskin will burst and the wine will spread. Elephants are exactly all these realities that we have before our eyes and that we do not want to see because, without an effort of reflection, we are not able to face the consequences. I will very quickly go through seven of them.

The first, on fossil fuels, is rationing. We will not find any solution to our problems without rationing. Everybody knows that. Jean-François Fressoz, an excellent historian, recently published a remarkable article in Le Monde the other day. He shows that while in France rationing gets bad press because it reminds us of the war, in other countries, in England for example, rationing during the war meant social justice. So if we really want to do what we claim to do, an energy and social transition, we will have to go through negotiable quotas, by territory and by household. That is the only effective and socially just solution. But all we hear about is the « price signal », when everyone knows that the price signal will never work, will never be on the scale of the problem, will never be able to effectively reconcile a drastic reduction in fossil energy consumption with social justice.

The second elephant, the one that consists in confusing globalization with globalization. To confuse globalization, i.e. the unification of markets, of which we can see very clearly today with the trade war between China and the United States that it is perfectly reversible, and globalization, which reflects the irreversible interdependence between societies and between humanity and the biosphere. To use the same word for two such different realities is the best way of not understanding anything.

Third elephant, we operate with a system of limited responsibilities for each actor. Now, it is an obvious principle of algebra, a sum of limited stakeholder responsibilities leads to societies with unlimited irresponsibility. We live in a society of unlimited irresponsibility, which means that as long as we do not go back to traditional thinking about responsibility we will continue to be collectively totally irresponsible. Everybody knows this but we do not want to see it.

The fourth elephant in the room, which is good for both Europe and the planet, is the idea that relations between societies can be managed through diplomacy in a context of global interdependence. Diplomacy is used to invent and confront national interests, and our problem is to build a community of destiny. Everyone knows that this is irreconcilable, no one says so.

The fifth elephant is governance. Is there a single serious problem, first and foremost of course the ecological energy transition, which today can be dealt with at one level only? None at all. But what does the fashionable theory tell us? That we need to be clear about who does what, that we need a rigid division of competences, which is expressed in the feudal decentralization law of 1982, with the « blocks of competence »: we act as if the problems of societies could be broken down like that into blocks that could be assigned to each one. And since then, successive governments have continued to fight against the idea, which in their eyes is horrible, of general competence, while obviously anyone who has problems goes to see his mayor, whether or not he has official competence over the problem. It is obvious that the governance to be invented is no longer a governance of the sharing of competences but a governance of the exercise of shared competences. The articulation between levels for the shared exercise of competences is therefore at the heart of the theory to be constructed, that of multi-level governance. The European Union has understood this, not France.

The sixth elephant, the State and big business. The State and big business were the pivotal players of the 20th century, those around which the social, economic and ecological games were organised. At a time when we are faced with crises in relations, the actors in charge must be those capable of managing relations in a globalized system. Where are these actors capable of managing relations? Neither in the state nor in big business. The State has its ass between two chairs, between the level of relations, which the territory grasps, and the level of production and exchange channels, which organises production at the global level. Everybody knows this, but we continue to act as if, we turn to Mr. State and Mrs. Big Business as if they were the key to the solution.

Seventh and last elephant, the commensurability of goods and services or times. You remember John Meynard Keynes’ formula, « in the long run we will all be dead, » to explain that a discount rate can be used to reduce future problems to present problems. That’s stupid! In the long term, our grandchildren will be there. I have five of them, they’re already adults, it’s very important to me what they will be, the idea that the future at fifty doesn’t count in my decisions is totally absurd. Likewise, the idea that you can pay with the same currency for the goods that you should save - fossil energy - and the goods that you should encourage - human work, creativity - any child understands that it can’t work. Yet our economy continues to consider that goods and services and times are commensurable.

These are a few illustrations that explain why, for the past few decades, I’ve been out hunting elephants, and it’s to her that I’d like to associate you. I would like to associate myself with her, especially since I have looked at your documents and realized that you have made a lot of progress in the area of governance. You have a lot of extremely fair and innovative ideas, but you don’t dare admit to yourselves that they form a theory. They basically remain as a self-inflicted intrusion rather than as an affirmation that you are defending a new vision of governance. I will illustrate this with a few examples.

You put a lot of emphasis on methods. You have developed, albeit insufficiently, learning communities. You have understood that the traditional system for disseminating innovation as conceived by the French State, which consists of making a prototype that will be generalized if it works, is not appropriate, and that we need to think differently about innovation processes.

Secondly, even if you don’t necessarily use the word, I have found in your documents the idea that the intangible capital of a community is the most precious asset. In most of the experiences you describe, you insist on the length of time. I even realized that many of the things you were saying in rural areas were furiously reminiscent of what the Young Catholic Farmers were fifty years ago: the approach of seeing, judging and acting, the approach of formative inquiry, the approach of saying we are not only a farm to make a profit but we are also creators of value for society. All your stories reflect a historical construction that goes back several decades. Which means that you have understood that intangible capital is something fundamental, something that forges a community. You talk a lot about cooperation between actors, you see that once a tradition of cooperation is forged, it is applied to other areas. For my part, I am very attentive to this long memory of societies. Thus, in Poland, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the heaps of cooperative forms buried in the memory of the people re-emerged as soon as conditions allowed. You have understood that building this intangible capital is investment. It is not functioning. Marie Guitte Dufay came back to that and she is absolutely right. It is investment, not operation. Just because it is working time and not infrastructure that is being inaugurated does not mean that it is not an investment.

You also felt, quite rightly, that a territory is not a territorial community. A territory is a collective player. A collective player is a social construction, it does not pre-exist, we see many territories where people spend their time biting their noses off, between parties, between players. How is a collective actor built? What are the stages? A long time ago, I identified three of them: the entry into intelligibility, the entry into dialogue, the entry into a project. These are central elements of governance that I find in your experiences.

You also place a lot of emphasis on multi-actor partnerships and in the summary report drawn up by Mairie Conseil, you speak of a hybrid player. You have very well sensed that this opposition between the public sector on the one hand and the private sector, the companies on the other, should disappear behind what the Paris School of Management calls « the garden of entrepreneurs », those who are capable of mobilising energies around them, around something that makes collective sense. And, after all, we don’t care whether it is private, whether it is public, whether it is social and solidarity economy, what is important is that this capacity to give collective meaning emerges. This is also a central issue of governance.

You have also understood that these planning stories don’t work. What counts today, whether in public action or in business, is strategic thinking, that is, the ability to have a strategy, then to seize opportunities. It is this strategy-action couple that is at the heart of managing complexity, not planning, which presupposes knowing in advance how the context will evolve.

You emphasize the importance of integrated solutions, solutions rooted in territories. This is the exact opposite of state thinking. I have been a senior civil servant for 20 years, and I know this subject fairly well. Normative and sectoral thinking, which continues to dominate state action, is the exact opposite of rooted and integrated thinking.

You have also understood that what counts in governance is not legality but legitimacy, that is, the recognition that people are acting for the common good. I’m not going to make a theory about legitimacy here, I’ve done so in a number of books, but it’s an absolutely fundamental question. Democracies have confused the two and deluded themselves on the fact that because we did things according to rules, power was necessarily legitimate. That is the aporia of democracies. And, as a result, we cannot understand why, in our democracies, the least esteemed social body is the political body.

Finally, I have seen in a certain number of examples that you have understood the importance of analysing the flows entering and leaving a territory, of better understanding the circulation of these flows within the territories, in short of giving you an understanding of metabolisms and territories.

All these examples make me want to say to you: stop thinking of yourselves as small, you have in your hands, through your own experiences, in your own reports, the elements of a new way of thinking about governance. Put it on the table, formalise it, defend it before national or European bodies. You have a role to play in the hunt for elephants.

Let us return to multi-level governance. It is a profoundly different logic from that of sharing competences between the different levels. To organise the exercise of shared responsibility, we need to define concrete rules by which two levels cooperate. The central point, the central principle is the principle of active subsidiarity. Before describing it I will illustrate why I have confidence in elephant hunting. I created the concept of active subsidiarity in 1992 - 1993. In 2018 the latest directive of the European Commission on how to build European policies puts forward both concepts, multi-level governance and active subsidiarity. Twenty-five years is the order of magnitude it takes for new ideas, however banal they may be because for me they are perfectly banal, to spread. I believe that we must be patient this time like an elephant. There are battles that we will not win in our lifetime but that we must fight on behalf of our children and grandchildren.

So what is the principle of active subsidiarity? It is based on the idea of learning, on the idea of cybernetic processes. It is the opposite of the way in which policy evaluation is represented in state systems where you put a policy in place and then, at some point, you entrust experts with the task of evaluating the results, with the idea that, depending on the results of the evaluation, the central government, in its great wisdom, will rectify the situation. That’s what I called the « gunner’s logic »: we missed our shot, we’ll change the gun’s elevation and then it’ll be all right. But in this, no pun intended, we don’t know if the citizens are… cannon fodder.

In active subsidiarity, what is at stake is the action-reflection-action cycle and it is a cycle that involves the actors themselves. For a very long time - and I lived through this for several decades - the action-reflection relationship was assimilated to the practitioner-researcher relationship. It’s the same story as when the slogan « think globally, act locally » was used as if, locally, we couldn’t think as if the only thing we had to do was to implement the thinking that had been raised in Washington, Brussels or Paris. The very principle of a cybernetic process is that you are constantly constructing your learning, you are constantly constructing immaterial capital, that you are alternately both, actor and thinker. But not necessarily at the same time; as Ecclesiastes writes, there is a time to laugh, a time to cry, a time to speak and a time to keep quiet. For actors, there is a time to act and a time to think. Your national meetings are an illustration of this. But in a process like that, what do you learn and how do you learn it? This is what I will conclude with.

What do we learn? This is the heart of the idea of active subsidiarity. That is what I have experienced in many areas. We can see that players faced with the same challenges in extremely different contexts come to the conclusion that the major difficulties are the same. That is the good news. In other words, what we collectively produce is a deep understanding of the conditions of and failures in the conduct of the strategy. These are the common guiding principles drawn from experience. This is what, in active subsidiarity, is called the obligation to achieve results. In other words, the role of the level above is not to think instead of the level below, the level below is much better placed to think with people. The role of the level above is to say: this process needs to be organized, these common principles need to emerge and my role is to make sure that everyone, in their own place, in their own particular context, will come up with specific answers that meet these common principles.

How do we learn? This is what we call the construction of learning communities. I have written a short paper on this subject (attached to this text) which I will summarize briefly. There are two stages: building on one’s own practice; and then confronting practices.

It is the first stage, « building on one’s own practice », which, contrary to what one might imagine, is the most difficult. This is what I have been experiencing for several decades, when we invite people to tell about their practice, in fact it is the most difficult because if we only knew our own situation, we would be unable to distinguish between what is structural and what is circumstantial. So one needs to have already rubbed up against others a little to be able to tell one’s own practice by distinguishing between structural issues and circumstantial events and, a fortiori, to pass it on to others. To achieve this, researchers can help actors, not to think for themselves but to help them give birth. There is a need for practice birth attendants, capable of questioning, of asking good questions.

The second stage, the development of common principles based on the comparison of practices, in turn requires methods. To this end, we have developed free software for building links, Desmodo (desmos means « link » in Greek). What counts enormously in these processes is mutual trust, and mutual trust can only come about through transparency. I have been to too many international conferences where there are people discussing on one side and then on the other side a drafting committee, a committee that draws conclusions from the conference without listening to what is being said. At this point the audience feels cheated, realizing that they have only served as an audience to endorse what the organizers wanted them to say. To create trust, methods are essential. I strongly encourage TEPOS to develop these methodologies for the collective delivery of principles.

Last point, you talk about integrated solutions, bravo, but concretely how do we do it? You have a lot of fascinating illustrations, we can see the link between intergenerational relations, energy, health, education, mobility, what do I know about jobs… but in concrete terms, in everyday life, local authorities are organised « like a tree », with deputy mayors, each one jealous of his or her skills, with services for which each one wants his or her own little piece of power. But, beyond this desire for power, there is an objective fact: to imagine the links between things is not so simple if you only rely on your intuition or common sense. That’s why I’ve been working a lot on a tool to represent the links between concepts, what I call a relational atlas. I have the weakness to think that networks like yours need to equip themselves with such tools. You speak very well of methodological requirements: the concrete capacity to represent complexity is one of them.

Thank you very much.


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