The Watchman’s Rattle
Author: Rebecca D Costa
Review by Andreas Kornevall
For a society to prosper, and for it to overcome the current predicaments of climate change and other large complex issues, we need to act from facts and not hide behind entrenched beliefs and ideologies. This is the message of The Watchman’s Rattle, a book that in essence, illustrates the distinction between belief and fact.
The book also gives clear examples of what happens when government departments stand in the way of needed change.
One such example comes from the US department of energy. NASA had developed a technology to capture the sun’s energy from space, called space-based solar power. It made perfect sense: we should be capturing energy from the sun above the atmosphere and allowing this to be brought back to Earth via satellites. This programme would enable the US to lead the world into a new era of renewable energy.
NASA went and knocked on the door of the US department of energy and what followed is the main thesis of the book: no one in the US department of energy would answer their call. This was not an activist knocking on the door, but NASA, the organisation that put a man on the moon.
Nobody would listen. Why? The Watchman’s Rattle explains: the ‘silo effect’ is a studied condition that leaves large corporations and government departments unable to co-operate or share information, as there are too many conflicts of interest and contrasting ingrained ideologies. According to the author, the US department of energy told NASA to get back to space exploration and leave them to do their work with renewable energy. This is an example of a fortified government – with experts in every department – unable to act with others, share important information and solve complex issues.
According to Costa, we see this today at large with environmental departments and large NGOs in the UK and worldwide. It’s not the technology that is the problem in solving the underlying problems we’re faced with today, it is the organisations we work within, the system at large, that are impervious to experimentation and change. The book also highlights how this issue has been present in past civilisations, and has had dire consequences.
The author also introduces us to the concept of memes. Memes are cultural ideals, symbols and practices, which are transmitted from one mind to another through gestures, speech, writing and so on. There are small memes and also supermemes.
For example, fashion is a meme, and it alters the way we dress, act and live our lives. The book points to memes that can be detrimental to society. These memes are clearly seen in our relationship to the environment. In California, which has a looming drought crisis, golf courses are built every year regardless – it is the meme that things will just get better in the future that prevails, rather than reasons and facts. This is hard to break from, even if you offer hundreds of facts as to why a golf course is a bad idea.
Another example is our notion of success and what it entails: be independent, do what we want, successful people do not need any community to rely on. This meme has been replicated and it is now spreading quickly throughout the world; the result can be seen in how many people’s lives are becoming more individualistic and less community-oriented.
Then there is the story of Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, who developed the concept of microlending schemes for the poor. He spent ten years battling old memes which insisted that lending money to the poor would not make any difference to their condition, but today he has built one of the fastest and most stable financial institutions in the world.
Costa argues that our minds evolve in leaps through insight – when we are able to stand outside the box and look in. Insight, she says, is the most powerful tool that the human brain possesses; it is the apple that landed on Newton’s head, Einstein’s theory of relativity, or Muhammad Yunus having an ‘a-ha’ moment and realising that poor people were trapped in their circumstances due to factors beyond a perceived inability to work. Without insight we are not able to break the thought patterns that are keeping us from making the necessary changes: the world needs more rebellious thinkers willing to question old patterns.
The book presents an illuminating view of a world that has become resistant to change, and in particular is a must-read for those working with large corporations and organisations, as it puts our conditioned behaviour – and its consequences – firmly in the spotlight.