The End of the (Rest of the) World is Nigh!

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.

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2 Responses to The End of the (Rest of the) World is Nigh!

  1. Richard Vines says:

    Hi Luke,
    Hope this finds you in good cheer. Seems like you are grappling with multiple transitions in your new life – including the transition of thei nternational economic system from the still unfamiliar context of your new expat life(?). We are perhaps all feeling slightly rudderless with this emergent shambles.

    Your second quote above of Hames is an interesting one. I wonder why you picked this one out? I have not been able to get a sense of the full context and implications of what the content of the quote contains. It sounds like a statement of post – post modernism. However, it is not at all clear what the implications of the last part of his quote are: and I quote:

    “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!”

    You suggest that:

    “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”.

    Are you saying that your interepretation of Hames is that elistist hierarchies (political, organisational and belief) cannot produce the necessary forces for adaptation to stave off collapse?

    I am not sure what the alternatives that Hames is offering. What would be the philosophical underpinnings of why we would:

    “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!”

    I wonder what sort of system architecture / philosophical position you might have in mind in your conclusion (to address this challenge)?:

    “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”.

    Anyway – a message of “gidday” really and to re-inforce that the world is interconnected in networks of reform and spirited engagement in spite of chaotic reframing of all. Hope you had a good time back in Aussie and sorry not to catch up.

  2. Andrew kennett says:

    G’day Luke,

    An interesting and thought provoking item — of course there will be some disagreement both about your basic assumptions and conclusion. I would disagree with some of your basic assumptions, or at least your assumptions about societies basic assumptions. Firstly I think the assumption is not that continued economic growth is “good” but rather that it is necessary. Secondly I doubt that there any but the most optimistic policy makers and commentators that still hold to ‘it is OK to pollute’, that there is ‘always more oil in the ground’ or that ‘worldwide population growth is manageable’ — I think we need to distiguish between saying ‘it is OK to pollute’ with saying ‘saying don’t know how to provide without pollution’, or saying ‘worldwide population growth is manageable’ with ‘we don’t know how to control population growth without actions that infringe on basic human rights like choice’. I would agree that your climate change assumption is widely held and probably wrong.

    Keep up the good blogging,

    Andrew

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