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Democracy field notes

Silence, Power, Catastrophe

In The Fixed Period, the 19th-century English writer Anthony Trollope describes a university college where the professors are compulsorily retired at 67, given a year to contemplate the world, then peacefully extinguished from the ways of the world with a generous dose of chloroform. The University of Sydney is being kinder to me. A few days ago, I gave my inaugural in the oldest lecture theatre in the country. It’s a stunning setting, adjacent to the famous sandstone and lawned quadrangle. The house was full, nobody appeared to fall asleep and afterwards questions came thick and fast.

The Superpit, Australia’s biggest mining project, Kalgoorlie-Boulder

Here’s the gist of what was said: new democratic thinking and politics needs to register that we’ve entered an age of big-footprint ‘megaprojects’ that are touching and transforming the lives of millions of people and their bio-habitats, in unprecedented ways. Carbon filtration plants (the world’s first has just opened in Norway), under-sea tunnels and mining operations centred on gold, or coal, uranium, tar sands and rare earth metals are examples. Megaprojects also include inter-city high-speed railway networks, new airports and airport extensions, shadow banking systems, the research and development of weapons systems, liquid natural gas plants, new communications networks and nuclear power stations.

Co2 Technology Centre, Mongstad, on Norway’s west coast, opened last month

Megaprojects are distinguished by their astronomical design and construction costs (at least US$1 billion) and by their substantial complexity, scale and deep impact upon people and their environment. The Internet is an example of how many of them make our lives easier. Yet given their high sunk costs, their complexity and scale, measured in terms of the numbers of people whose lives are affected, these big power adventures, when they go wrong, damage citizens’ lives and have potentially hurtful effects upon large swathes of humanity and their environment.

Explosions that triggered the worst oil spill in American history: BP’s Deepwater Horizon, April 2010

Catastrophes are the result, and they’re becoming unexceptional. Tagged with names like Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Deepwater Horizon, Bankia, Chernobyl, Countrywide Financial, Lehman Brothers and Fukushima, they’re a new normal in our lives.

Why do they happen? In 90% of cases, the proximate cause is that those who run these projects refuse open public scrutiny of their operations. There’s usually lots of public relations work, but institutional dysphasia sets in. Monitory democracy is shoved aside. Group-think, wilful blindness, unchecked praise and anti-learning mechanisms (Daniel Ellsberg) flourish. Those in charge of operations discourage bad news from moving up the inner hierarchy. Cults of loyalty reinforced by aloofness and cold fear are their thing. There is no management by walking around, or by talk back.

The town of Namie, near Fukushima, 2012.

Troublemakers are ousted from the organisation. Contrarians are blanked, or rebuked as Chicken Littles. Discussing the un-discussable requires guts, which are usually in short supply. Silence traps employees into distancing themselves from matters of ethics; they draw the conclusion that it’s someone else’s job to solve the problems, or that problems will resolve themselves. Journalists play along; a standard combination of promises of access, sinecures and over-dependence on official handouts renders them obedient. They become plane spotters, captive cheerleaders of the power adventure, silent cogs in its machinery of compliance.

When trying to make sense of Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon and other catastrophes of our times, apocalyptic thinking should play no role. The lecture emphasised that the new catastrophes of our age aren’t the climax of inevitable historical trends. They’ve different features than the catastrophes of the past; and many things can be done to prevent them, above all by experimenting with new ‘early warning’ communication mechanisms that break open the anti-political silence that causes them in the first place.

‘See something, say something’, is a widely-used motto invented by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority and today used elsewhere, in many different settings. The motto captures the new significance of struggles for freedom of public information in the early years of the 21st century. Wielded as a political weapon, as WikiLeaks has shown in practice, the principle of open communication serves as a ‘reality check’ on dangerous unrestrained power. It’s a potent means of ensuring that those in charge of mega-organisations don’t stray into cloud cuckoo land, wander into territory where misadventures of power come wrapped in silent nonchalance, until the point when disasters strike.

What exactly can be done to break the organised silence that breeds megaproject catastrophes? Find out from the podcast lecture and Q&A session that followed.

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