Another welcome to Post-Normal Times

Posted March 31st, 2010 by Sylvia S Tognetti and filed in Living in Post-Normal Times

“All that was ‘normal’ has now evaporated.” It is now official that we have entered Post-Normal Times. Ziauddin Sardar has published another Welcome to postnormal Times [pdf] in the journal Futures – a good article – but don’t forget you heard it here first, in the very first post on this blog.

Although it never made it to the top of the priority list, I always thought it would be a good idea to provide the concept with more scholarly treatment. On the other hand, the main idea behind the blog was to get such ideas out from behind the paywall ($41.95 for this article if you don’t have access to a good library) (now available here) and see if it might be possible to better illustrate science and policy conundrums from a post-normal science perspective, in more practical terms, in the context of commentary on day to day events which science illuminates, or to which it is applied. The closest I came to providing a formal definition of the concept was probably in the second post, on Unknown knowns and known unknowables, as a time when changes in climate are outside the range of natural variability, which brings us into terra incognita, or Post-Normal Times, and that are leading to greater and greater uncertainty that is found in our lives as much as in science, The post goes on to discuss the social aspects of this uncertainty, raising the question of whether all obtainable scientific information would actually make any difference in policy decisions and in actual practices, and ultimately, with their consequences. An issue that goes well beyond the question of

…whether or not estimates fall inside or outside acceptable margins of error. Use of science to support policy decisions implies also the need to understand the often rapidly changing conditions to which those estimates presumably apply, and therefore, to make judgments not only about the technical quality of information, but also about whether it is even relevant to the questions being asked, and whether the right questions are being asked. Whether outcomes are achieved also raises issues of trust and cooperation, and whether promises are kept. These questions cannot even begin to be answered unless there is some semblance of accountability, as well as agreement about the scope of the problem itself, and visions of the future.

This in not inconsistent with Sardar’s more formal and inclusive characterization of the concept, which also builds on the concept of post-normal science. A few excerpts – but read the whole thing if you can get access to it:

…It’s a time when little out there can be trusted or gives us confidence. The espiritu del tiempo, the spirit of our age, is characterised by uncertainty, rapid change, realignment of power, upheaval and chaotic behaviour. We live in an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. Ours is a transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future. It is a time when all choices seem perilous, likely to lead to ruin, if not entirely over the edge of the abyss. In our time it is possible to dream all dreams of visionary futures but almost impossible to believe we have the capability or commitment to make any of them a reality. We live in a state of flux beset by indecision: what is for the best, which is worse? We are disempowered by the risks, cowed into timidity by fear of the choices we might be inclined or persuaded to contemplate.

In the normal scheme of things, we know where we stand. The winters are cold and the summers are hot, the seasons flow-spring forward, fall back like clockwork – in a natural cycle. The economy grows steadily, at rates varying from sluggishly to dramatic, but guaranteeing a reliable general increase in prosperity and security. Markets work, warts and all, they regulate prices and we have confidence and trust in our financial institutions. Politicians, never the most trustworthy of breeds, acknowledge, and by and large adhere to, accepted principles of behaviour as they legislate effectively to order the affairs of society. When we are faced with a new disease or danger, science and medicine come galloping to our rescue. A global balance of power, with all its imperfections, maintains a semblance of peacable law and order; tin pot dictators, fearing the consequences of their actions, know where to draw the line. We live in coherent and cohesive communities, safe in the knowledge that the futures of our children are secure.

In normal times, when things go wrong, as they so often have, we know what to do. We identify and isolate the problem and apply our physical and intellectual resources to come up with a viable answer. The solid foundations and proven theories of our disciplines, from economics and political science to biological and natural sciences, guide us towards a potential solution. The weight and sheer power of intellectual, academic and political orthodoxy ensures that we successfully ride the tiger of change.

Little of this now holds true. Much of what we have taken as normal, conventional and orthodox just does not work anymore. Indeed, normality itself is revealed to be the root of all our ills. Take the current economic crisis, for example. This provides ample evidence that the old business model on which we have relied for centuries is bust. Not only has free market capitalism become dangerously obsolete but the branch of economics, which provided theoretical justification for this edifice is also intellectually bankrupt [1]. Economic man, the intellectual construct underpinning the edifice, a species once vaunted for his rationality, is extinct [2]. Markets propelled only by the profit motive have become ungovernable, predicated only on personal greed and unconscionable accumulation of unimaginable private wealth concentrated in few hands, Competition and the free flow of capital around the liberalised, deregulated globe is a revolving tale of beggar my neighbor to produce ever cheaper consumer goods that leave more and more ‘rust belt’ communities as de-industrialized wastelands while the realignment of global trade imbalances increases volatility and mutual distrust within and between nations [3].

The world itself is now a far more uncertain place than it was during the second half of the twentieth century. It is not just that our own political system, based on self-regulation and comradely rules of gentleman’s clubs, is irreparably broken; the more politicians legislate, reform and amend the less significant and effective laws seem in achieving or delivering appreciable social benefit the more unintended and undesired consequences appear. The global geopolitical landscape is also changing rapidly. There is hardly a country where politicians, of whatever persuasion, are either trusted or respected. Even the regular cycles of our weather cannot be trusted anymore – thanks to global warming, with its attendant rises in temperatures and sea levels, changing ocean composition and transformed ecosystems.

‘The first decade of the 21st century has been a series of wake up calls’ says an advertisement for IBM. ‘These are system crises – from security, to climate, to food and water, to energy, to financial markets and more’ [4]. What is unique about these crises is that they have occurred simultaneously: ‘we have never seen any era when we have been hit by all these multiple crisis at the one time’, says UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon [5]. It is not just that things are going wrong; they are going wrong spectacularly, on a global scale, and in multiple and concurrent ways. We thus find ourselves in a situation that is far from normal; and have entered the domain of the postnormal.

The concept of ‘postnormal’ was first introduced by Ravetz, the celebrated British philosopher of science, and the Argentinean mathematician Funtowicz [6]. Working on the mathematics of risk, they noticed that the old image of science, where empirical data led to true conclusions and scientific reasoning led to correct policies, was no longer plausible [6]. There was a great deal of uncertainty in scientific work, which together with changes to funding, commercialisation, social concerns about developments in science and the complex issues of safety, all meant that science was no longer functioning in the ‘normal’ way. ‘ Whenever there is a policy issue involving science’, wrote Ravetz and Funtowicz, ‘we discover that facts are uncertain, complexity is the norm, values are in dispute, stakes are high, decisions are urgent and there is a real danger of man-made risks running out of control’ [7]. They described the emerging developments as ‘postnormal science’, which has now become an established field of inquiry.

Much of what Ravetz and Funtowicz said about science in the 1990s is now equally true about other disciplines – indeed, society as a whole. Everything from economics to international relations, markets to products in local shops, politics to dissent has become postnormal. There are very good reasons for this state of affairs. All of them are related to three c’s: complexity, chaos and contradictions – the forces that shape and propel postnormal times….

Another observation, that seems particularly poignant to anyone who has followed the dysfunctional or postnormal discourse on climate science, regards a major obstacle in negotiating our way towards new normal times:

the space, time and willingness to engage in coherent debate has become scarcer, the more complex, contradictory and chaotic things have become….  …there is no natural law that states that activism will should or ought to be, dedicated solely to the common good. Nor is there any rule that they should take a balanced view and think through the risks and benefits of their agenda. Indeed it is in the nature of many of the self-organizing networks that have emerged to confound the times by offering simplistic, single issue, one-dimensional prescriptions and thereby increase the toxicity, animosity and dissatisfaction of society as a whole.

It gives one the feeling we have entered into Dante’s inferno. Although Sardar does not quite suggest that we abandon all hope, the conclusion, that we will need to rely on imagination, creativity and an ethical compass to avoid the conventional patterns of thought and pathologies that got us into this mess, suggests that the way out might entail a similar kind of a journey.


Update 2: Zia has kindly allowed me to post the full article. As it is still in press, the page numbers are not yet available but it will be Futures 42:5 June 2010. The permanent url, where you will eventually be able to find the correct citation is:

He may also join the discussion in the near future. In the meantime, we welcome your comments. The question that particularly interests me, is: how science can play a more constructive role in finding our way to a new normal?

3 Responses to “Another welcome to Post-Normal Times”

  1. […] Welcome to Post-Normal Times! And note that I am no longer the only one using the term. Since Zia Sardar published his article in […]

  2. David Stinson says:

    >>how science can play a more constructive role in finding our way to a new normal?

    …One word: economics. While the core logic of PNS seems solid – the hard science only goes so far – in the details, its practitioners seem to neglect any solutions or approaches other disciplines have found around these same sorts of problems. Social sciences can get you systems theories, ways to reduce complexity, risk tolerances, and even chaos theory these days. According to Sardar, “Indeed, it is ethics, and only ethics, that can guide us out of the postnormal impasse.” If that’s true, than the entire global warming debate is going to devolve into people saying, “trust me”, which will only muddy the waters even further.

  3. […] Ziauddin Sadar, Welcome to Postnormal Times, […]

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