The self, complexity, and coming to terms with being a councillor

I am currently reading, and greatly enjoying, Will Storr’s Selfie, his account of our obsession with the self and self-interest. One of the key ideas to emerge from this very well written and engaging book is that many neuro-scientists are now dismissing the idea of a core self, some intrinsic principle which is the true and authentic us, and instead talking about the multiple self. This ‘I’ is not one, but many; a number of different versions of who we are collected and formed from different social environments. I say all this not to get into a discussion about the ‘self’, but simply to point out that when armed with a fresh ‘interpretive framework’ our personal experiences can be brought into a much sharper focus.

For example, one of the long running narratives of my life has been not just an interest in philosophy, but to ask quite fundamental questions about my experiences. This has led me to explore various philosophical approaches, and formulate a certain understanding of the ‘human condition’. This ‘personal project’ forms a key narrative of who I am, but it is by no means the only one. Another key narrative of my life, one that is new and quite dominant at the moment, is that of local politician. Being newly elected to Dorset Council I find myself engaged in the process of establishing a role within what at times feels like an environment that everyone seems to understand except me. Absorbing and internalising the subtleties of a new social environment can be exhausting at the best of times, but when political game playing is added to the mix it can be quite overwhelming.

However, whilst participating in a councillor event this week, one focussing on the development of a Dorset industrial strategy, my philosophical narrative, or at least an element of it, managed to overcome the defences of my political narrative and offer some much needed assistance. We were being asked to rank certain elements of a possible industrial strategy in priority order when, out of the blue, work I had done years ago related to systems theory and complexity science, came charging to my assistance.

Social systems, which includes economic systems, can be (in fact should be) understood through the science of complex systems. This approach sees all the elements that come together to form the socio-economic system as a highly connected network, a network in which no element can be understood in isolation of any other element, and a network in which the flows of energy or information are highly non-linear. This means that our basic understanding of cause and effect does not apply; that because of various features such as feedback loops, very small inputs can have massive and unpredictable outputs and effects on other parts of the system. The only way to manage such systems is to try and grasp their dynamic complexity.

Which leads me to wonder whether its possible to so grasp perhaps the most dynamic and complex system of all – the human mind? Yes, I agree with the emerging evidence cited by Storr that there is no authentic self, and that we have a multiplicity of selves, but I’m wondering whether it’s possible to view ourselves not as a single unit, but as a single dynamic system, albeit one that is connected to other such systems in highly complex ways? I suppose I’m simply suggesting that it would be beneficial for all of us to develop an understanding of complexity; that developing our ‘interpretive frameworks’ to incorporate complexity may help us come to terms with ourselves and our place in the world.

The sun is shining, but Brazil sends a dark cloud

This last week has been one of the busiest, yet most stimulating weeks I have had for some time. Yesterday was Demand Democracy Day, a national campaign day calling for proportion representation, organised by Make Votes Matter. And here in Bridport, in glorious June weather, on one of those market days when the town centre is bustling with residents and holiday makers, we had a stall – talking to people about our unfair voting system and urging them to sign the MVM petition. As one person pointed out to me, this is probably the only issue on which I would agree with the Brexit Party.

In this week’s YouGov opinion poll, the Green Party was shown as having about 9% support. However, if a General Election were to be called (and I would not rule one out at any time following the crowning of the new Conservative Party leader) we would probably return just one MP. This is grossly unfair to this 9% of the electorate. No matter how good Caroline Lucas is (and she is good), her solitary voice in Parliament cannot do justice, cannot give a voice, to that degree of support. Fifty eight MPs, however…now that’s a different matter entirely! We could have some real influence with that number.

This week also saw the first meetings of Dorset Council’s cross party Climate Emergency Advisory Panel, and a small group set up by Bridport Town Council to produce a Climate Emergency Action Plan for the town. I sit on both of these. And I have to admit that I left both feeling far more positive that I had expected to. Regarding our Town Council, I suppose this should not have been a surprise, after all we have an excellent team of officers who are truly committed to rising to the challenge of our climate and ecological breakdown, and Bridport, particularly through the local Transition Town group, has long been active in this area. But even so, the energy and the ideas being generated is impressive, and I feel confident that we will have a comprehensive Action Plan to present to Council in October.

The Dorset Council panel however, being Tory dominated, was a bit more of a surprise, and for two reasons. First, because a list of thirty three actions that a council like Dorset can take to address this emergency, compiled by Friends of the Earth, is being taken seriously and was totally incorporated into our initial presentation. And second, because Extinction Rebellion, whose campaign has really impressed me, are also being taken seriously – so seriously that I think they are being invited to give a presentation to our next meeting in September. This, I really hope, bodes well, even though I was a little frustrated that, despite this being an emergency, we have to wait two months for our next meeting.

A day devoted to planning issues supplied some balance to my rising optimism. This was partly because I’m such a novice to this area of local government, and am therefore going through a very steep learning curve. But also because of the need to be far more prescriptive with regards to planning issues and our climate and ecological emergency than we are currently being. As a planning authority we need to work to a local development plan that has been approved by government and reflects their policies. Dorset, following the merger of several small planning authorities, is just starting the process of developing its own joint development plan. Until then we have to work with, and interpret, the old local plans the best we can

The production of this new development plan is a golden opportunity to ensure that all planning decisions reflect this emergency, but one that may also require a change of government policy. For example, the development of any greenfield site should be the exception, and should only be permitted when there is clear evidence that no brownfield site is available – even if this means relaxing certain areas of building control in towns. And, being a little more radical, permission to make extensions to already excessively large single-family domestic houses, or build such property in the first place, should be refused as a matter of principle. Not only are such projects a complete waste of valuable resources, resources with a carbon footprint, but are unethical when so many families are desperate for a home of their own.

But the story that really sobered me up was that reported by the BBC over several nights regarding the Brazilian rain-forest. This forest is being destroyed for purely commercial reasons, to create grazing space for cattle to produce beef. This action is simply beyond belief. These rain-forests are the lungs of the Earth. They supply 20% of our oxygen, and are the single biggest absorbers of carbon. And humans are destroying them…on purpose…for profit. And what is the UN doing? What is our government doing? National governments need to organise and say no to Brazil. They need to ban all imports of Brazilian goods until this practice is not only stopped, but reversed by a programme of re-forestation.