Simpol – believing the absurd?

Here’s a piece from Simpol supporter and occasional blog contributor Rob Hickey, reflecting on his relationship with the Simpol idea. Enjoy. 🙂

My hat is off to John Bunzl for his presentation for the TEDxGoodenoughCollege. It was more than good enough if you ask me (and please feel free to via Twitter), and it fueled the sputtering flame that The Simultaneous Policy Organisation (SIMPOL) had once ignited in my mind. In a way, it was overly inspirational (if such a thing is possible) to the point where SIMPOL could be at risk of becoming a cult of personality. Is that a bad thing if the cause is good? I know John would think so.

It is not that I ever lost interest in SIMPOL you see, but as way leads to way, I found myself slowly becoming untethered. For me, SIMPOL goes a long way towards satisfying the top ‘self-actualization’ level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I needed a fix, something to ratchet me up above the din of the day-to-day. As a result of a mental blend of the work that I do at my day job, and my absorption of John’s talk, something all too rare happened; I felt like I connected the dots on some seemingly disparate things that I had rattling around in my head for some time. This could very well have been too much espresso on a painfully empty stomach, or perhaps an unearned gift from the ‘universal muse’ (I feel disgustingly ‘New Agey’ saying that).  Without the know-how, nor will, to prove causation but only correlation, the reasons will never be known. Nevertheless, I decided to put fingers to keyboard about where I stand with SIMPOL and its prospects for transforming the way humans interact with the planet.

I suppose that by and large I am absurd; not absurd in the ‘ridiculously unreasonable’ sense, although I usually am, (in addition to being absurdly awkward, absurdly self-righteousness and absurdly [many unflattering things]) but rather in the philosophical one. This is the one that good old trusty Wikipedia defines as “the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent value and meaning in life and the human inability to find any.” Awhile back, in one of my more dramatic, absurdly self-righteous phases, I read ‘The Plague’ by Camus. It was about a doctor in Algeria by the name of Dr. Bernard Rieux, who was doing all he could to relieve the suffering caused by a plague that had broken out in his town. If memory serves, the short version was this: he knew that most of what he did was hopeless, but that he could not stop doing it despite his realization of that fact. He had the humble desire to alleviate the pain of his patients without recompense. He was not a particularly religious or moral man (in fact probably less so than the other characters in the book) and while smart, was not high-minded. He was, by my account, a humanist who felt that by virtue of the fact that he was human, that he was compelled to act. It is certainly a dark read, not great for the lazy, hazy days of summer beach life, or for adaptation to a screenplay and a pitch to Pixar. Call me what you will, but to me it illustrated a point that I think many people feel about a variety of global issues ranging from war, to poverty, to preventable disease in the third world and, in my case, to climate change. My take away from this book was that when it comes time to act, there is a key guiding principle that all too often sacrificed on the altar of self-interest: just do it.

Climate change and the potential for a runaway greenhouse effect is an existential threat to humanity. When I look at the high-resolution pictures that the Mars Curiosity rover just sent back to earth, the images flash in my head of a not dissimilar rover landing on earth and hopelessly looking for signs on life. I have not yet worked out who would be sending it (maybe our descendants, maybe super-intelligent life studying the phases of sub-intelligent civilizational development). Nevertheless, it is a disturbing thought, and one of the more legitimate things that have kept me awake at night.

If you had the gift of perfect precognition, and forced me to bet all of my earthly possessions on whether humanity would destroy itself and other life on earth within the next five-hundred years, I would have to answer in the affirmative. I really do not know what that says about me. Am I paranoid, pessimistic, curmudgeonly, and an all-around buzz-kill?  On all counts I can indeed be, and many would tell you that I usually am.

If we look at the evidence, I see no reason to believe that national governments will act fast enough, nor forcefully enough, to address the challenge to the degree that climate scientists say is necessary (which range from CO2 stabilization at between 350 parts per million on the low end, to stabilization at 550 parts per million on the high end). Considering the pitiful efforts that have been made on this issue at the global level, and which are stymied by destructive international competition and international conferences, I feel that I, (again pulling from my old friend Wikipedia here) “should embrace the absurd condition of humankind while conversely continuing to explore and search for meaning.”

But should I really? I, who am not a climate scientist, nor politician, nor business person, all of whom can influence policy making in a substantive way. I, who am ‘just some guy’ that gets disturbed by the thought of a superheated, desertified earth resulting from a deficiency in human reasoning (i.e. overweighing short-term gains vs. long-term risks). How do I turn this cognitive dissonance into something positive?

I suppose that I feel better knowing that when the other shoe drops, I at least knew what was happening, even if I did very little about it. As SIMPOL makes clear, when each nation acts in its own economic interest, everyone does not always win. This runs against one of the primitive propositions of capitalism and trade liberalization which pervades our current reality. This has been recognized and addressed to some degree through the regulation and taxation of activities that cause societal harm. It also illustrates, I think, that the scope of the problem is quite large and requires a shift in the way we currently construct our social matrix. The question then is whether we ironically accept the tragic comedy of the nation-centric paradigm that might very well sink us all, or risk spectacular failure in the attempt to address it. If history and literature is any clue, the human psyche loves the drama inherent in hopeless battles.

But maybe that is not quite right, maybe we can do both.

Maybe, we can both understand the futility of our individual contribution to address the issue and simultaneously try to change it. Maybe, as was the case with Dr. Rieux, we can simultaneously be aware of the seriousness and somewhat hopelessness of the situation and at the same time defy it.  As the ‘absurdists’ might say, it is in the defiance of the inevitable that we find our meaning.

Robert Hickey has been a project officer at ARC Fund ( since February, 2009. He has been involved in projects focusing on technology transfer, environmental policy, innovation and the evaluation of innovation systems, and overcoming regional barriers to research collaboration. Follow Rob on Twitter @rfhickey



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