by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ July 18, 2020
A characteristic of cultural collapse shared with much smaller disasters of various types is their time distortions. There is a category of sudden accidents that do not show this distortion. These may be fatal such as comet strikes, massive explosions, nuclear war, or the unexpected arrival home of a spouse. These are not the topic here.
Disasters that I am describing are more extensive than one individual, and they involve society and social institutions. Often they are financial and political but can cultural. They often appear to be controllable, and that appearance becomes a growing part of the problem.
The process of evolution of these disasters starts slowly and picks up speed as it grows but seems much slower than it is. This disaster is a problem, people say, but we can solve this. This perception extends into the future. While this is a nasty problem, it can’t possibly go beyond a certain point, people say.
Disasters grow and become more destructive, but the image of a manageable and temporary problem remains fixed in people’s minds. Yes, this is another case of social difficulty in identifying the complexity that is inherent in our world. Once we have told ourselves and others around us that the problem is terrible but can be controlled and is somehow localized, that assumption becomes normalized.
Efforts to control the disaster and correct the causes fail. Some of those efforts make things worse. Actions that could slow or stop the developing catastrophe get dismissed as extreme and too disruptive. Whatever point in the future that the problem could not possibly go beyond becomes a point of religious faith. In human societies, this belief becomes, itself, politicized that isolates it from change and forces it into a series of locked memes.
Faith that something is right and maybe possible is valuable. The belief that something cannot happen or cannot be as bad as it appears is deadly. These are not black and white issues but ranges on a scale. Realizing and understanding levels of possibility requires active thought and formalized thinking or education. The extreme simplification of social positions, as memes represent, removes analysis changing ideas of a process into weapons for social war.
We seem to understand this in general. A common point in discussions of the Fermi Paradox is that sentient civilizations fail at a particular stage of technological development because they cannot escape binary thinking. Rigid, binary simplifications are the tools used to motivate for war. These rigid simplifications are now overwhelming the oldest representative nation-states who had held themselves immune to this but are collapsing one by one.
We are living in that failure. Despite accelerating technological development that can guarantee well being and opportunity to our entire planetary society, we are failing through easily preventable organizational mistakes or unforced errors. These errors are now a massive planetary failure, but the recognition of that has become politicized and weaponized.
Our inability to recognize the accurate scale of our entangled failures is the inability to get beyond small scale thinking. But, people immediately say, while the US is failing due to incompetent leadership, other nations are doing well against the pandemic, and some are beginning to tackle the climate crisis.
This excuse is another way of saying that the ‘majority’ are educated and capable enough to understand this, so the problem is not too bad. The problem is, still somehow, limited. This thinking obscures reality and prevents us from seeing its scope. The issue is not that a majority of the human population understands the broad reach of our disasters but that a large segment of the people cannot and is unable to comprehend that such planetary problems even exist. These people’s instinctive reaction is fear and anger with the rejection of such alien ideas as the only option.
Perhaps, in this combination of disasters and social, organizational difficulties in attempting to respond, we have an explanation for the failure of the representative system nation-states that came to lead the planet up this point. The requirement for human survival is the ability to organize and unify for the common good by whatever means possible and in a way that can scale to the planetary level. That last step is the hurdle that a sentient species must conquer and that we are in the process of failing.
While a significant portion of the population can understand the disasters we have created and can deal with the required complexity, we are at the mercy of a minority that cannot. It is the dictatorship of the lowest common denominator. It is crucial to keep in mind that these people are not necessarily, stupid. They are not mature enough to see beyond binary thinking to be accepting of the complexities of diversity at the planetary level.
The failure of the Enlightenment nation-state is an evolutionary failure. That failure to evolve is not absolute. To overcome the combined disasters generated by the tools that we used to achieve this stage of technological sophistication and general wealth means abandoning most of those tools and agreeing on a standard definition of value based on human well being and planetary maintenance.
Success, even partial success against pandemics and climate change, is most accessible to those societies with a political philosophy that places the common good above all else. This success is not binary but must be massively diverse to incorporate 7.5 billion people, a vast biosphere of fellow-creatures, and the planet, as an entity, itself. This type of success will not happen with any existing form of nationalistic organizations dividing the earth.
Using the above criteria, we can understand both the success of the Peoples Republic of China plus other socialist type states and the abject failure of the US and Great Britain as extreme individualist states. The new political divisions are between governments that can implement complex collective actions and those that cannot.
At this stage, we are on our way to joining the failed sentient species that are the focus of the Fermi Paradox. That failure is because I can see no route to success with either governmental management form. The answer is not imposed authoritarianism and not individual greed above all else. It is also not individualism or communism in their 19th and 20th-century styles.
Our need to overcome the planetary challenge, the big hurdle, is maximum innovation and personal commitment to terrestrial well being. While various socialist type governments are more successful for our current needs and radical individual materialist and nationalist cultures are failures, the need to scale to a planetary level must be by choice of the dominant majority.
The problems that we face, as described at the start of this essay, are consistent in all state systems. The inability of a significant portion of our populations to understand and adapt to new common goals is the point of human failure. While the only means to achieve both communitarianism and planetary innovation is small community-based self-government, leadership cannot be allowed to those who fail to understand the catastrophes and challenges we face.
Our critical challenge is to understand that both individual rights and collective well being must be guaranteed. Perhaps this needs to be attempted first as an oath by all organizations and states to planetary well being and human diversity.
But who would trust the exiting and failing states to uphold this? That will come down to much smaller communities who accept this oath and build a new human alliance to achieve it. This change must be bottom-up, but we must move fast. That is why it is so hard to see our future as it is and not as an illusion.