How Deep Do We Dig?

Scanario-planning implies change — planning for the best way the future can be influenced to provide the best plausible change.

Change comes from many sources, but sources are interpreted differently by different members of a society, who may also disagree on how many “layers” of causes should be included in the digging for understanding. The attitude to this can be very different between politically or “populist” motivated people and groups on the one hand, and those taking a more “academic” analytic approach on the other. The popular media tend to provide limited depth; academic journals and the more thoughtful visual and print broadcasts and journals a lot more depth. The social media have similar ranges with the most analytic of them being genuine conveyors of information based on stringent analysis, much of it searching for new ways of thinking about our society, even sometimes beyond the more thoughtful print and broadcasting media presumably because many contributors grew up in the digital age.

Quantitatively speaking, of course, the “popular” vastly outnumbers the “analytic”, but this observation is if not elitist, then at least leaving a whole lot out. In fact there are numerous overlaps, and the interactions between identifying “popular” views of causation and seeking for more depth is a dynamic area that deserves more analysis that would have important impacts on our future societies — starting with fundamentals such as the education system and intergenerational relations, Australia’s continuing sense of national unity despite changing culture and multicultural demography, the deeper qualities of our democracy, and our relationships and cooperation with the rest of the world.

Music is a good example of how the intellectual and the seemingly “popular” (in the sense of seeming to lack intellectual depth) come together. Classical music and opera with their centuries-old roots are part of our heritage and as such there is a national obligation to protect them for future generations, but it is difficult to deny that the “popular” contemporary genres are developing strongly in what can only be termed artistic merit — and that most of this has been through the initiative of the popular artists themselves. Many recognised genres such as rap and hip-hop (not to mention Australian Indigenous music, and the many expressions of world music) have strong socioeconomic roots often associated with protest movements (as Beethoven was in the early 1800s). They reflect societies in motion.

The arts may be unique in developing such a symbiosis of “popular origin” and intellectual depth. All genres of music originate in art — the deeper cause. Each genre would have benefited from the existence of other genres on its way to uniqueness. Once there, all the developments that build up around it from intellectual criticism and physical venues to educational and institutional support organisations, are proximate causes. Of course, once a genre is established the artistic development and the support around it now forms a vast structure but whichever way it succeeds in receiving more or less assistance from governments, other institutions, critiques and gaining its audience, the art came first. Each genre, or other artistic subsystem, is part of a unique Complex Adaptive System built around the genre.

So, how deep do we dig? In principle deep enough to reveal the deeper causes! Or at least getting as close to them as we can.


There are plenty of reasons, in short, for making this paper #13 of our series written to develop the concepts underlying the 20-year scenarios to 2035 which will be published as a Music Trust e-book in mid-2016

The vocabulary makes a basic distinction between “proximate” and “ultimate” causation, but the legal profession has to some extent usurped the former term for events that are closest to, or are immediately responsible for causing, some observed result. This contrasts with a more fundamental ultimate (or “distal”) cause which in principle gets closer to the postulated real reason something has occurred.1

The distinction is important in many ways, including politics. We are struck by the frequency with which a policy is publicised in terms of its “direct” justification only — some for PR reasons but is that always acceptable to an intelligent electorate? Whatever deeper thinking may have been applied by departmental officers and may indeed represent the real opinions of the politicians themselves, the less immediate causes are largely ignored in the publicity. And the law, as we saw in the previous paragraph, seems to focus on the proximate causes, at least in the context discussed here.

Chart 1 is an attempt to illustrate the process. It suggests that there is a barrier between the deeper causes of an issue or problem, and what appear to be the direct (“proximate”) causes. Attempts to define and get to grips with the allegedly deeper causes crash into a barrier removing their influence on the evaluation process, or according to the curved arrow from the deeper causes to proximate causation the connection is at best attenuated. Therefore the impact of a particular policy, exemplified by the red box at the right of Chart 1, may be based on partial and ultimately superficial analysis of direct influences which can be quite misleading.

The distinction between the two “causal” parts of Chart 1 is actually fraught with difficulties relating to the nature of proximate and “deeper” (for want of a better term) causes. This became clear to us almost as soon as we named the original version of this paper “What Causes Change, Ultimately and Directly?” The latter term is the easiest to accept because it relates to the “proximate” causation of an actual event whose course can be reasonably plausibly mapped — even so it is imprecise and subject to different interpretations. What is the period of time needed to define “proximate” in the sense of “direct” or “reasonably direct” or just “apparent”? Some economists including the writer might analyse this in terms of structural change, but that in itself is a gradual process, and the economists that advise the Australian government about the impact of intergenerational change2 don’t seem to apply much structural change. Their purpose is stated as: “Every five years, the Australian Government produces an Intergenerational Report that assesses the long-term sustainability of current Government policies and how changes to Australia’s population size and age profile may impact on economic growth, workforce and public finances over the next 40 years.” It seems other possible variables in the intergenerational report are not “structural” change generators — which means a very different approach to what we used in our range of four scenarios from “culture reigns” to “sliding inexorably”.

The function of the intergenerational report is related to government budgeting, but the question must be raised whether the 2015 version will be seen as analytically adequate in the sense of catching all the real structural threats and promises that Australia could face in 2055, indeed much earlier like during the two decades from 2015 to 2035 of our scenario period. In the present shape it points to risks that are basically related to fiscal difficulties, but many factors, including economic, are bound to change in the meantime. Going back the past half century since the Australian and other economies were torn out of a false sense of security which lasted about a decade to 1967 — just consider the social revolutions in the late sixties followed by the first oil crisis and the relaxation of Australia’s immigration policy in the early seventies and then going on to the economic rationalism that governed the west for 30 years until it foundered (or should have) in the global financial crisis. Other more specific events such as the introduction of more adequate arts support in Australia are now four decades old as well, though they could now be under threat, partly influenced by the thinking of the 2015 Intergenerational Report and its worries about budgeting trends.

The Problem with “Ultimate”

The “ultimate” term has greater problems than when we try to identify the meaning of “direct” or “proximate” causes. It is harder to define — to draw a very long bow how close can we get to the really “ultimate” causes such as the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago or the birth of the Earth 4.54 billion years ago? And what were the proximate causes of the unimaginable number of events that followed? And their interrelationships — how they affected each other? We shall never know!

This doesn’t matter in our context except by giving us a grand perspective of our situation, but even on a much shorter time scale it is hard to define the timing of the deeper3 causes, because the boundary with “proximate” is subject to much interpretation and actually quite vague. Explanations and publicity can be more or less superficial, or in other words cover more or less of the deeper causes of which we are unlikely to be fully aware. So there is a grey area between “proximate” and “deeper” causes which was not shown in Chart 1 to keep the presentation reasonably simple.

In principle, however, the distinction is important across a vast range of areas, including politics. We are struck by the frequency with which a policy is publicised in terms of its “direct” justification only (some for PR reasons), but is that really fair to an intelligent electorate? Whatever deeper thinking may have been applied by departmental officers and the politicians themselves, the deeper causes are largely ignored in the publicity.

The real question to ask ourselves and others is whether we are really seeing or giving as full an explanation of some subject as we can — there are plenty of vested interests, of course, who would wish to ensure that real core issues in any given subject are left unmentioned, or distorted.


Many major examples could be offered, but two will suffice here. Sometimes the issue is so large, and the apparent causation so complex and seemingly contradictory that the credibility gets questioned, especially by those who are sceptical in the first place. The dominant global example is climate change. There are numerous reasons for politicians to put it in the too-hard basket, and for vested business interests to argue against it. The evidence isn’t so clear-cut that it can be told as a neat and simple story. Take for example the apparent contradiction (viewed as a proximate cause only, ignoring the deeper causes) between general global warming and the cooling of the southern hemisphere caused by Antarctic wind patterns that change as part of the global climate system. The cooler summers in Australia and other southern parts of the world need to be explained in terms of the entire complex global climate change model. It doesn’t make sense from the visible proximate causes alone, which tend to make casual local observers climate change sceptics, or make them remain so.4

Despite the success in achieving consensus at the global COP-21 climate conference in Paris in December 2015, vested interests will find numerous shots to fire — in fact, a month after Paris when this is being finalised this is already happening. A major battle has been won for climate change but the war is not won. Concentrating more (and more smartly) on promoting the ultimate causes of climate change and its possible consequences will help, but the process will continue to take time — maybe decades rather than years.

The second example concerns the arts and the music sector. As far as The Music Trust is concerned, the two e-books by Dick Letts we posted on the Knowledge Base site in December 2015 (Creative Musicianship and Psychological Growth and The Arts on the Edge of Chaos) are firmly based on the deeper causes — part and parcel of what makes music and the other arts what they are today, and containing stern warnings of the danger of ignoring these deeper long-term causes.

It is interesting that Wikipedia5 highlights two sciences for embracing both ultimate and proximate causes (the word “ultimate” is used here despite its ambiguity, basically as a technical term):

  1. In biology, “ultimate” causation is explained in terms of the evolutionary traits acting on living organisms. Proximate causation explains biological functions in terms of immediate physiological or environmental factors.
  2. Ultimate causation in sociology explains human social behaviour by considering the larger content in which individuals carry out their actions. Proximate causation explains human social behaviour by considering the immediate factors, such as symbolic interaction, understanding and individual milieu that influence that behaviour.

We note that both these sciences differ from what has long been regarded as “harder” areas such as physics and chemistry, or the whole area of engineering — areas where relatively great chunks can be explained without too much resort to “ultimate” causes, however defined. This balance may be changing as sciences keep merging, and the whole burgeoning science of climate change with all its constituent parts represents a huge area where it is inadvisable to ignore the ultimate (deeper) causes. Economics also ought to cover the whole causal range but its mainstream activities seem handicapped in this respect by its proximity to politics. The economist author of this paper would very much hope to see that happen in the process of taking longer-term views, but he realises it may take some time.


This paper raises issues considered important enough to make it #13 in our series of scenario papers. It reflects our conviction, as implied in most of the other scenario papers (listed below), that it is impossible to describe any medium- to long-term future without going back to the deeper underlying causes. We have already compared this with the five-yearly Australian Intergenerational Reports which explore how Australia will change over the next 40 years in terms of “three long-run drivers of economic growth in Australia: our population, participation in the workforce, and improved productivity.” (p vii, 2015 report) There are dramatic changes in these, and the reports are relevant — but they are basically statistical and assume a social and cultural structure that will remain largely unchanged apart from the three driving economic and demographic indicators. Any real causes of structural change appear to be at most secondary in the intergenerational reports.

Scenario Papers to Date

  1. Putting Numbers on Our Cultural Assets: Not Yet Possible   (27.3.2014)
  2. How to Explore the Cultural Future   (7.4.2014)
  3. Cultural and Creative Activity in Australia   (15.4.2014)
  4. Global Risk Factors and Music in Australia   (17.10.2014)
  5. Scenarios, Virtual History, and Chaos   (20.10.2014)
  6. Ideas from Other Global Scenarios   (8.12.2014)
  7. Four Global Scenarios Set the Stage   (18.12.2014)
  8. Music Sector Structure for Scenarios   (28.2.2015)
  9. Valuing the Invaluable   (5.3.2015)
  10. Some Big Possible Positives – Or?   (20.6.2015)
  11. A First Set of Music Sector Scenarios   (23.6.2015)
  12. Global Leadership Challenges: A Missing Link in the Scenario Planning (31.10.2015)
  13. Present and Future Changes and Their Role in the Scenarios   (20.12.2015)
  14. Complex Adaptive Systems and Music   (9.1.2016)


Hans Hoegh-Guldberg. 20 December 2015. Paper #13 in the music sector scenario series. Updated version with new title dated 14 January 2015.


  1. Wikipedia, Proximate and ultimate causation and Proximate cause, both accessed 20.12.2015.↩︎
  3. Deeper but strictly non-ultimate because they originated from long lines of “somethings” themselves.↩︎
  4. This is one only of a big range of examples that could be drawn from climate change science. Consider another one: the Arctic ice sheet is disappearing, and the water underneath is clear and sunlit for the first time in eons, with major impact on biodiversity, migration from neighbouring seas, and so on. What is the proximate cause and what are the deeper reasons for these phenomena? No serious analysis would contemplate the impact on the Arctic sea in isolation.↩︎

Hans founded his own consulting firm, Economic Strategies Pty Ltd, in 1984, following 25 years with larger organisations. He specialised from the outset in applied cultural economics — one of his first major projects was The Australian Music Industry for the Music Board of the Australia Council (published in 1987), which also marks his first connection with Richard Letts who was the Director of the Music Board in the mid-1980s. Hans first assisted the Music Council of Australia in 2000 and between 2006 and 2008 proposed and developed the Knowledge Base, returning in an active capacity as its editor in 2011. In November 2013 the Knowledge Base was transferred to The Music Trust, with MCA's full cooperation.

Between 2000 and 2010 Hans also authored or co-authored several major domestic and international climate change projects, using scenario planning techniques to develop alternative long-term futures. He has for several years been exploring the similarities between the economics of cultural and ecological change, and their continued lack of political clout which is to a large extent due to conventional GDP data being unable to measure the true value of our cultural and environmental capital. This was announced as a major scenario-planning project for The Music Trust in March 2014 (articles of particular relevance to the project are marked *, below).

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