Following on from my last negative article on the mess of our financial system, I thought I would continue the theme with the mess of our broader society!
Being a strategic foresight practitioner, one of the main reasons for our role is to help others understand their environmental context and create viable forward views for their future. But what if the future view is not viable? If in looking forward, all we can see is imminent collapse due to an inability to change in sufficient time.
This article by Richard Hames, When Empires Decay, is one of the more cogent dytopian outlooks I have read for some time, and one that I think I agree with in my emotional state of trepidation, uncertainty and alarm. Has our society reached the stage where, no matter what we do, there will be some form of collapse? Have we squandered the riches above and beneath the soil to fuel our desire for conquest and ever-increasing economic growth? Do we have the ability to turn the ship around or are we so close to the edge now that all we can do is wait, watch and berate ourselves for our mindless stupidity as a species?
Richard outlines the essence of the problem in this cruel paradox:
The system we must destroy in order to create a more sustainable and abundant society is the very thing we need in order to achieve that goal! This is a paradox that is insufficiently understood. But it helps explain why current attempts to change the world are simply making matters far worse.
He further outlines that his pessimism is based on the whole system change we need requires a fundamental change in cognition and the way we use knowledge.
Above all else it is to do with our thinking: particularly the frames and assumptions we use (both intentionally and inadvertently) to sense and make sense of reality. It is about the countless meanings we then construct and how we rationalize conflicting hypotheses. It is to do with how we seek out, comprehend and integrate new insights. And it is about how we explain and communicate our convictions to those who may have startlingly different versions of reality. That is where the real changes have to occur. And we’re not even at the starting line!
He concludes by stating that since the political processes are controlled by the corporate elites, and that the systemic response required to individuals is at odds with these corporate organisations, that change will not occur until it is too late.
Witness what has happened recently with the financial meltdown as a leading indicator. Although some people had predicted that there were problems with the network of debt instruments, the system was not able to address its now-realised false assumption that that the broader you spread the risk and the more people you have participating in the risk, the lower the risk.
When will we be in a position to realise that the assumptions on which our society is based are false? Assumptions like continued economic growth is good, that it is economically OK to pollute the environment, that there is always lots more oil in the ground waiting to be discovered, that worldwide population growth is manageable, and that climate change can be controlled through reducing emissions in western countries over a protracted timeframe.
Richard’s article states that there is little hope for change before it is too late. He does not answer the unasked question of what should we do? I am reading a book at the moment called “Flirting with Disaster” which makes the case that accidents are invariably a result of failures of basic design rather than implementation or human error. And these design failures arise from our inability to conduct the serious systems thinking to identify the interrelationships between cause and effect over time.
And so the answer to what to do is to start designing the next system, one that will build on the positives of the previous system but deal with its various “unintended” consequences.