Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.

In his book, Intuition Pumps and Other Thinking Tools, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett shows how every part of a statement has a function and we can see what that function is by changing a word or two. In the book he does it with the tale of the Whimsical Jailer. Here, I have done it with the recent COP28 Dubai declaration.

away from
fossil fuels
in energy systems
in a just,
and equitable manner

We can change the parts to create variants that will ‘pump our intuition’ around the meaning of the statement and show how the declaration is progressive and conservative at the same time – it makes sure we don’t go too far, too fast in going far and fast enough.   

Variant 1: Production systems, not just energy systems
Transitioning away from fossil fuels in production systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.

Variant 2: Tough, urgent, and judicious?
Transitioning away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a tough, urgent and judicious manner.

Variant 3: Is breaking away too reckless?
Breaking away from fossil fuels in energy systems, in a just, orderly and equitable manner.

A lot of thinking goes into crafting a statement, with several 'hand tools of the mind' –  as Dennett calls them – shaping meaning and intent. Statements have to be clear, concise, and complete to be useful. Using Occam's Razor, for example goes hand in hand with the Hemingway style of writing short sentences, using simple words. But be careful in using analogy and metaphor. You could hurt yourself.

The writing and editing proceed with a concept in mind and a tacit feeling of what to include or exclude. The text editor may display a word count but there is a more important total to keep in mind. Every word counts, adding or subtracting from the totality of meaning and intent. The je ne sais quoi quality comes from thinking like a lawyer, writing like a poet. Below is an example from a large and complex contract for the maintenance and repair of military vehicles:

Carrying extra stock is a calculated risk, to avoid running out of parts or materials when unplanned consumption casually coincides with disruptions in global supply chains. 

Using "if" instead of “when” changes the outlook. The word "coincides" acknowledges unforeseen events such as a container ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal or the Ukraine war. The extra stock is a risk because carrying too much of it for too long will turn out to be expensive. Parts" and “materials” remind which stock we're referring to; the statement carries its context. And parts "or" materials, because running out of either type of stock could compromise a mission.

Writing a first draft and then tweaking the works to get closer and closer to a desired effect, is how the process works. To illustrate that, let us reuse the Whimsical Jailer example Dennett provides in his book to 'pump intuition' around the idea of free will.  

Every night he waits until only a few prisoners are still awake and then he goes around unlocking some of the doors, leaving them open for hours on end.’

The idea behind that statement is that the prisoners are free to leave if they realise their cell door is open. But if some prisoners are not even aware of their door being unlocked, are they really free to leave? Will other inmates who are still awake alert them of the opportunity?  

The statement has seven parts we can play around with to create revisions.   

[Every night]
[he waits]
[until only a few prisoners]
[are still awake]
[and then he goes around unlocking] 
[unlocking some of the doors,]
[leaving them open for hours on end.]

 Revision 1: All the prisoners are sleepy.
Every other night he waits until all the prisoners are sleepy and then he goes around unlocking some of the doors, leaving them open for hours on end.

Revision 2: Some prisoners are sound asleep; all the doors.
Every other night he waits until some prisoners are sound asleep then he goes around unlocking all the doors, leaving them open for hours on end.

Revision 3: All the prisoners are sound asleep; all the doors.
Every night he waits until all the prisoners are sound asleep and then he goes around unlocking all the doors, leaving them open for hours on end.

Carefully constructed statements are the structural and functional units of software programs. They are also the building blocks of less algorithmic albeit more formal constructions such as policies, rules, regulations, contracts, and agreements. Of course, some statements are more important than others in a hierarchy of concerns. The criticality of a statement often influences the number of revisions that may be necessary before the words have the desired effect. Some statements, like the COP28 declaration on fossil fuels, capture the essence of entire missions, programmes, enterprises, and organisations. Such statements change the narrative around important issues. 

One of the challenges of making cities more liveable and sustainable is around the processing of waste. According to the European Environment Agency, 4.8 tonnes of total waste were generated per EU citizen in 2020, down from 5.0 tonnes/capita in 2010. But that 2020 number is misleading because actually there has been an increase in the waste generated by households over the period 2010-2020, co-related with the growth in GDP. The decrease in 2019-2020 is due to the decrease in economic activity during the pandemic. Therefore, the Agency goes on to say the EU is yet to reach a point of constantly decreasing waste generation in a growing economy, and that it is unlikely the per capita total waste generation will significantly decrease by 2030. 

We can plead with everyone to produce less waste but that alone may not be enough. Imposing harsh penalties and fines often draws a backlash that some political parties are more than happy to exploit. Many may care about the eventual impact of their daily consumptions. Many others may simply not care. But we know that true and lasting change comes from changing the narrative and altering perceptions. Nobody is watching how many bags of good riddance a household empties into the neighbourhood bin. But people are perhaps more appreciative of what they are receiving than what they are ‘getting rid of’. Is it possible that we create around the concept of waste the perception of an economic ‘good’? What is a municipality passively supplying when it is actively removing waste? When crews with garbage trucks empty street bins, what is something good each household has more of? Empty space.  

Every Tuesday before a neighbourhood wakes up from sleep, garbage trucks go around street by street emptying bins, leaving them full again.  

Unless there is metering of consumption as with water, electricity, and gas, weekly supplies of empty space as a public good may still suffer from the tragedy of commons. But at least it won’t suffer from ‘out of sight, out of mind’. And, by changing the narrative we can talk about just how many cubic feet of empty space each household needs. We know mineral water comes from Alpine springs. Where does pure empty space come from and how much of it out there? Is the emptiness cultivated, manufactured, or dug out of the ground? What is the true cost of producing a few million cubic feet of it? What is the environmental impact? 

That’s just an example. The point here is that statements can not only be used to change narratives, but they can also be narratives themselves, like the ‘user stories’ designers use to guide product development. They could spearhead marketing campaigns to gain the support of communities and populations. They can be worldwide declarations that have the support of countries and corporations. 

Crafting a good statement is a skill that gets better over time with practice. Not everybody is skilful enough because they simply haven’t had the practice. Of course, anybody can prompt an artificially intelligent system such as ChatGPT to generate decent enough text. Prompt engineering is now a thing, a job even. But for really good text — so good that others will pay a premium for its production — we will continue to rely on people who know how to think like a lawyer, write like a poet. With AI-powered platforms, their ability to simultaneously construct and deconstruct statements will be more valuable than ever before. As would be their leaps of imagination. 

On every flight, before passengers board the aircraft, airline staff go down the aisle row by row, emptying seat pockets and leaving them full again.