Sunday, October 09, 2016
Nourishment for a Hungry Mind
What follows is a lengthy excerpt from a book I only too recently read. I'll present this passage largely uninterrupted and unburdened with editorial comment. It's a lot better that way:
...we really do have some ability to choose our future. But we have to recognize what kind of forces we're up against, we have to have courage, and we have to be smart - not only at the time of the social earthquake and the moment of contingency that follows but well in advance. Specifically, if we're going to have the best chance of following a different and positive path, we must take four actions. First, we must reduce as much as we can the force of the underlying tectonic stresses in order to lower the risk of synchronous failure - that is, of the catastrophic collapse that cascades across boundaries between technological, social and ecological systems. Second, we need to cultivate a prospective mind so we can cope better with surprise. Third, we must boost the overall resilience of critical systems like our energy and food supply networks. And fourth, we need to prepare to turn breakdown to our advantage when it happens - because it will.
The first action, reducing the force of underlying stresses, is the most obvious, largely because it resembles a conventional management approach to dealing with our problems. Experts of all types have generated a considerable quantity of good ideas about how we can reduce the force of the tectonic stresses identified in this book - population imbalances, energy shortages, environmental damage, climate change and income gaps. Yet too often the experts operate only within the silos of their disciplines and professional communities. Demographers don't talk to energy specialists, agronomists don't speak to economists, and climate scientists don't talk to epidemiologists. Instead, experts usually target the problem they understand, and because they don't think much about how to integrate their ideas with the ideas of experts focusing on related problems, the policies they propose are too narrowly focused.
This highly compartmentalized approach doesn't work in a world of converging and synergistic stresses. We must bring experts together across disciplinary barriers, just as we must bring governments together across cultural, ideological and political barriers. And we also need to realize there's no magic bullet: there's no single technical solution, institutional response, or policy that will neatly resolve all our challenges in one fell swoop. More than ever in humanity's history, we have to be aggressively proactive on multiple fronts at the same time.
...Alas, humankind's track record when it comes to proactive policy, especially in response to slow-creep problems, doesn't inspire much confidence that we will succeed in these tasks. Today, most of us are simply too deep in denial, and our political and economic systems are too hobbled by powerful vested interests for real change to happen in the absence of a sharp push or shock from outside. With colossal effort by the relatively small numbers of people today engaged in trying to do something about these problems, and perhaps with a good deal of luck, we might divert or somewhat weaken the tectonic stresses. But we're unlikely to weaken them enough to reduce significantly the danger we face, so we'd better get ready for social earthquakes.
...We can't possibly flourish in a future filled with sharp nonlinearities and threshold effects - and, somewhat paradoxically, we can't hope to preserve at least some of what we hold dear - unless we're comfortable with change, surprise, and the essential transience of things, and unless we're open to radically new ways of thinking about our world and about the way we should lead our lives. ...Hunkering down, denying what's happening around us, and refusing to countenance anything more than incremental adjustments to our course are just about the worst things we can do. These behaviors increase our rigidity. When a social earthquake eventually occurs, we'll have no new concepts, ideas, or plans to help us cope and no alternative ways of seeing our future. Without alternatives there will be no constraint on fear and we'll be especially vulnerable to the kind of amplification effect we experienced within our psychological networks in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
...A prudent way to cope with invisible but inevitable dangers ...is to build resilience into all systems critical to our well-being. A resilient system can absorb large disturbances without changing its fundamental nature. ...in an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world, we should sometimes give up extra efficiency and productivity in order to gain resilience - especially to improve our ability to prevent foreshocks from triggering synchronous failure. We can do this in many ways. One involves loosening some of the coupling inside our economies and societies and among our technologies. ...The more energy we produce with solar panels on our rooftops, the less vulnerable we'll be to power disruptions far way. ...We can gain resilience, too, by increasing the buffering capacity or slack in our economies. Industries can rely less on just-in-time production - a particular obsession of the past two decades - and instead build up inventories of feedstocks and parts so they can keep running even when supplies of essential inputs are temporarily interrupted. And finally, since malicious groups and individuals will probably someday target the highly connected hubs of our scale-free energy, food, information, transportation, and financial networks, we can identify these hugs and either redesign our systems to remove them entirely or replicate them to create redundancy.
...Of course, many of these recommendations fly in the face of the ideology of today's globalized capitalism. In its most dogmatic formulation, this ideology says that larger scale, faster growth, less government, and more efficiency, connectivity and speed are always better. Slack is always waste. So resilience - even as an idea, let alone as a goal of public policy - isn't found anywhere on the agendas of our societies' leaders. ...And because our leaders hardly ever think about resilience, we keep doing things that make our lives progressively less resilient - we pile on more debt, build tract housing over the finest cropland, develop addictions to distant sources of energy, become so specialized that we can't take care of ourselves when everyday technologies fail, and fill every nook and cranny of our days with so much junk information and pointless running around that we don't have time to reflect on what we're doing or where we're going.
These excerpts are taken from Thomas Homer-Dixon's 2006 book, "The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization." I only recently twigged to it by a recommendation from friend, Sal, "The Salamander." I picked up a good copy for a few bucks from Abe Books but I expect it'll be available from your neighbourhood library.
I am as susceptible to conformational bias as the next guy and I found in this book persuasive corroboration of ideas I've bandied about over the past decade on this blog. Many times I've sought to make the argument that our modes of organization - social, economic, industrial, political, even military - have long outlived their utility no matter how tightly our institutions and leadership cling to them. Mankind passed into a new reality sometime in the early 70s when our population first passed 3-billion and we dragged our planet, our atmosphere and every other form of life with us.
Today we consume Earth's renewable resources at a steadily increasing rate that now stands at 1.7 times their replenishment rate, our biosphere's absolute carrying capacity. And I regularly stress that the most worrisome part isn't that we're doing this but that we have allowed ourselves to become absolutely dependent on something that ensures our own destruction. It's akin to a smoker who increases his daily consumption from one year to the next, from one pack a day to two to three. How does that end? Would you call that madness? Do you think it any less mad when our leaders, political and commercial, pursue that same pattern, taking us along for the ride?
Homer-Dixon accepts the inevitable. There are too many forces looming from too many directions at the same time. This guarantees that at some point two or more of them will hit and we'll face a "synchronous failure" that our modes of organization are not designed to handle and won't. That's the doom and gloom part of Upside and it's convincingly made out.
The best part of Homer-Dixon's book is indeed the "Upside" - how we can make the best of an inevitability by preparing for its arrival and using it as an opportunity to introduce new modes of organization, free of the calamitous models today's leaders cannot let go.
Do yourself a favour. Get your hands on the book, read it - slowly. Take it all in. There's plenty of food for thought. It'll take a while to digest.