Karen O'Brien on Integral in Action with Climate Change: #ITC2015 Keynote

Gail Hochacka introduced ITC2015's first keynote speaker with a note on traction. "Who is really making impact today?" she asks us, laying the claim that it's the organizations and individuals who "don't jump off the mainstream... the system that they need to transform". They work directly on it and with it. 

Karen O'Brien is a prolific thinker and speaker. For those of you who missed her bio, she is a professor of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo, and has worked on climate change impact and adaptation for the past 25 years. She is also deeply influenced by Integral Theory, as we'll get to shortly.

She begins with a discussion on odyssey. That is, "a series of experiences that give insight," particularly around climate change. Most climate change maps and models simply don't take the human begin into account.

What happens when the system is aware it is having an impact on the environment, and can act on that awareness?

"Without an integral map, we are pretty lost." 

Karen goes into her background working on climate change solutions and her discovery, about ten years ago, of Ken Wilber's work. A Brief History of Everything dropped off a bookshelf one day and radically altered her way of thinking about impact.

Transformation is a loaded word, but one Karen feels is important to discuss. Especially its pertinency for climate change. There are a few dimensions to it. First, the physical. The data. Hard facts about temperature, sea levels rising. But of stronger interest to Karen is the potential for transformation to motivate human potential, first of all, and secondly, face what we do not want to see. Transformation, after all, "isn't always desirable". 

Working in the IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, Karen introduced these concepts as "Transformational Adaptations", or "deliberate and conscious transformations towards sustainability". 

The reaction by certain governments and individuals (Cuba is pictured here, on the slide) were mixed. She brings up the important point that talking about transformation is both a political and a personal challenge. It will challenge the political ideologies, and it will challenge our personal views, beliefs and values. 

"Transformation" is a loaded political word. It carries with it, she rightly points out, the connotations of colonialism and the legacy of problematic "transformations" that already occurred at the expense of many countries in the 20th century.

Karen and the IPCC decided to take out the "Transformational Adaptations" for this report, but what they did leave in was an analysis of risk and adaptation. "Risk increases as temperature increases", and the choices we make matter more than ever before. Most importantly, however, the report found that "without additional mitigation", we won't be able to curtail climate change. The window for action is quickly closing, so what are our solutions? What are our efforts being put into?

Our situation, she suggests, is that we're framing our response based on "technical problems" instead of "adaptive challenges". 

We have or are good at figuring out the technical side of the crisis. The science behind sustainability. 

The harder part is as we saw earlier – "adaptive challenges" are the political and the personal. Beliefs, assumptions and the dominant paradigm we share can prevent us from thinking more integrally about climate change. But so can the political, if we don't, Karen says, "challenge the given". 

It doesn't stop there, however. We shouldn't just be challenging our personal and political assumptions but actively "launching alternatives", even when it comes to capitalism and other ideologies so deeply entrenched in our world views (speaking like a true Sociologist). 

Framing our problem as one of adaptive challenges puts people in the center of the response. Technical solutions aren't enough (and, it appears, many climate change organizations are catching whiff of this idea and picking it up).

The "risk" we face here is one of challenging world views, and Karen also points out here that this means we need "adaptation from the inside out", including us. Here. In this room. In this culture.

"How we model climate changes reflects our worldview," she says, "so we need to challenge our world views."

She brings up a few, brief notes on systems theory and the study of networks as they facilitate collective and collaborative action. "Small actions in networks can have a huge global effect". She reminds us not to think of solutions on an abstract, systemic level alone, but how we can personally implement and thinking terms of change making through our immediate communities.

This, she suggests, is how we can increase collaborative power through "non-linear social change" (a concept I am interested in hearing more about). We need to reach for systemic impact, but realize "we are the system".

Suggesting that more and more scientists are intuitively searching for an integral approach (scientists reading about alternative "ontologies", pantheism, etc), she suggests that the time is ripe like never before to impact climate change responses with I.T. (Integral Theory) and other related methodologies. 

Among these emergent theories is something I never heard of before: Quantum Social Theories. Applying quantum physics to the social sciences. Need to investigate further (if anyone knows any good reads here, share them in the comments below).

Marilyn Hamilton making a connection with Karen O'Brien's keynote and the Pope's ecological encyclical, Laudato SI.

Marilyn Hamilton making a connection with Karen O'Brien's keynote and the Pope's ecological encyclical, Laudato SI.

Sean Kelly made some remarks about avoiding "despair" by the scientific consensus that there is less and less we can do to avoid severe climate change, and Karen reiterated the fact that these studies, while important and true, don't take into account the human potential dimension. She suggested that we need people doing the adaptive work to help us through a process of "disequilibrium", and focus on the possibilities not in the official discourse.

Some beautiful person came up at the end and asked about impact in our immediate environment. (Paraphrasing) "There are communities of color 10 miles away from this room, in Oakland, discussing climate change. We need them here," she stated. Big yes to this. How can we talk about enacting collaborative networks of change makers if we're not doing this? Karen briefly affirmed her point.

Immediate Reflections

There's so much to digest from this keynote, it is hardly going to do any justice to Karen's talk to briefly mention any more than the summary I did. Yet, I do feel inspired. 

There are some questions, lingering, and similar to my questions after Sean's introduction. The "time is ripe" for integrative thinking, yes. Integral methodologies can clearly contribute to this time, and are, as the inspiring case of Karen O'Brien's work in the IPCC. I do, however, see a plurality of integral methodologies (meta theories, the Kosmopolitan if you will from 2013's ITC) coming forward in which Integral Theory is one. 

I also deeply valued – speaking of the personal and the political – Karen's willingness to challenge political and social ideologies, including capitalism, as well as her important calling for constructing alternatives. It's that latter bit that I see us leaning more and more into. It's that latter calling for alternatives worlds that I hope we can continue to articulate at this conference, and see the pressing need for.

What are your thoughts?