Keynote at Leverage Points 2019: Ioan Fazey

“It’s the end of the world as we know it” … with these words, Ioan Fazey began his opening keynote lecture to Leverage Points 2019. With everything changing, faster than ever before — what is our role in this? What does it mean to be a knowledge producer? Either, we will have massive transformations because of “natural” processes; or we will ourselves instigate a more mindful kind of transformation, in order to avoid some of the less desirable outcomes.


Photo by Ioan Fazey: Playing Giants, Fairies and Wizards in rural communities, Solomon Islands

Ioan moved on to show examples of how climate change, for example, will affect us, focusing on the city of New Orleans. Here, climate change is not a problem of the future, but rather of the present, with some communities already being displaced. A combination of human caused factors, here, leads to “land loss”, and in addition, there is a high incidence of hurricanes. How can such situations be governed, when traditionally, government departments were designed to address issues from within different types of sectoral silos? Three key “emergencies” need to be addressed in situations such as these: there are real emergencies, conceptual emergencies, and in fact, existential emergencies—the very real fear of facing big change.

What can we, as knowledge producers, do to support the changes that are needed? Ioan went on to explain that science and technology had, of course, generated a lot of good for the world – but they had also generated intentional destruction, power unbalances in terms of who benefits from technologies, and unpredictable, unintentional side-effects. In other words, what is happening is that we have unleashed a problem that we do not know how to control …

And from here, we went to … the sorcerer’s apprentice … in that story, a wizard’s apprentice is meant to clean up a castle. Because he is lazy, he tries to use magic to clean the castle…. And … he has just enough knowledge to get the process of cleaning going, but as he tries to stop it, the brooms take on a life of their own, become more and more, and so on … until eventually there is total chaos until the senior wizard comes home and puts an end to it all.

So – humanity’s story right now is pretty much like this … JUST WE DON’T HAVE A WIZARD to stop it all. We’re a bunch of apprentices, and it’s up to us to put an end to the insanity we have unleashed. What does this metaphor suggest for what we need to do?

  1. We need to accept we are all apprentices! This requires humility and full recognition of what is happening around us.
  2. We need to draw on more diverse kinds of knowledge. “How to” knowledge in particular, is rapidly growing, and this type of knowledge is not sufficiently being generated in universities. Ioan indicated in addition to epistemic knowledge, we need know how (techne) and phronesis (practical wisdom). So, we need to learn from doing, and researchers need to get involved in the world of practice. And so the role of scientists must change – from outside observer, to involved in the actual resolution of problems.
  3. We need to develop wisdom, not only knowledge. The apprentice, in our story, was quite selfish – he didn’t question whether it was wise to use magic because he was lazy … and his lack of wisdom led to disastrous consequences. So what is needed is not only knowledge per se, but also an understanding of what is right and good.
  4. We need to unleash creativity and the possibility for magic, accepting that there are things we don’t know at all just yet – i.e. open our minds to think in truly new ways about some of the problems we are facing.
  5. We need to ask really difficult questions, asking not only what is the right way to do things, what are the right things … but even more broadly, asking “what is right”?

Ioan concluded with a lot of challenging questions, not all of which I can reproduce here. Perhaps one of the most interesting ones was: Who should we be at the end of the world as we know it?


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