Preparing for Civilization’s End

This is an article I prepared for the newsletter of the World Innovation Foundation and it is addressed to the Foundation’s members, who are substantially Nobel-winning scientists. Regular readers of HtStW will find the first half covers familiar territory, and may want to skip to the part following the second diagram.

Innovation Figure 2a
Throughout history, the scientific community has often been in the vanguard of introducing and championing new ideas and new understandings, while leaving it to others to contend with the political, social and economic consequences and necessary actions that stem from them. Most recently, this has been true in the scientific community’s consciousness-raising about global warming: Scientists have provided the data about our species’ responsibility for this unprecedented occurrence, and raised the alarm about its ramifications and our imperative for addressing them. Indeed, many scientists speak both passionately and dispassionately about the Sixth Great Extinction being already upon us, and of this extinction being the first attributable to the actions of a single species.

But the scientists have been much slower in bringing to collective consciousness the fact that global warming is just one of a complex series of phenomena that, taken together, threaten to accelerate that extinction a thousand-fold and bring our current civilization to an abrupt end. This reluctance is perhaps understandable when most of these other phenomena are not principally scientific: The End of Oil is an economic phenomenon as much as a geological one. The availability of knowledge that allows small stateless extremist groups to manufacture and unleash devastating chemical, biological, genetic and nuclear weapons is a sociological phenomenon as much as it is a technological one. The threat of a second Great Depression due to reckless and unprecedented debt and trade deficit accumulation is a political and economic phenomenon.

The threat of epidemic diseases caused by the enormous concentration and global movement of human and animal bodies is a phenomenon that, if our response to SARS is any indication, is a phenomenon that no one is capable of grasping or addressing, since it is at once scientific, social, economic and political. The threat of massive famine due to grotesque exhaustion of our ecosystems, staggering overpopulation, fragile and unsustainable agricultural processes, and lack of diversity of agricultural ëproductsí is similarly multi-faceted.

We are so preoccupied with coping with impending oil shortages that we have not even begun grappling with the huge water and other resource shortages that our world faces in the coming decades, and the political and economic (and probably military) fallout they will probably produce. And meanwhile civil and regional wars of a more familiar sort grow ever larger and more dangerous as inequality of wealth, income, power and opportunity spiral ever higher and as technology gives us ever more effective ways to wreak havoc and enduring damage on each other and our environments.

The term coined to describe the confluence of these crises is ëthe perfect stormí. But that term suggests a million-to-one-shot, and fails to recognize that human and ecological systems are inherently complex, adaptive systems. As a result, these systems are largely unknowable ñ to the delight and consternation of scientists and other students of such systems they have more variables than can ever be quantified, analyzed or projected. All we can do is influence them in hopeful ways, try to understand them a little better, and marvel at the fact that they work in ways we can never fully grasp or control.

Recent ‘cultural studies’ of such systems, and of the lessons of history, have suggested to those who attempt to look at them holistically that the problem we face today is not the freakish ëperfect stormí but rather the cascading effect of crises as one system after another peaks and crashes, as such systems always and naturally do. At the dawn of this brave new century we are stretched to the limit in our ability to deal with all of the phenomena described above. These phenomena exert ‘tectonic stresses’ upon our social and ecological systems, and as these interconnected systems begin to peak, rupture and crash in this century, the result will be a series of cascading catastrophes, the combination of which will cause our culture to crumble. The award-winning University of Toronto professor Thomas Homer-Dixon, in his new book The Upside of Down, based on the work of Buzz Holling and Joe Tainter, calls this phenomenon of cascading catastrophes ëpanarchyí. The consequence for any civilization of panarchy is collapse, and for ours this collapse could occur quite conceivably in the latter part of this century.

A decade ago, such a view would have been considered extreme, even Malthusian. But hardly a week goes by now without the release of yet another book describing, in increasingly compelling terms, the fragility of our social and ecological systems, their lack of resilience, and, most importantly, the complex interrelationship between all of these systems, such that a breakdown of one can easily produce a breakdown of the others.

In his book Straw Dogs, philosopher John Gray says that we have long passed the point of being able to ësave the worldí and prevent our civilization from collapse:

Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. Humanists insist that by using our knowledge we can control our environment and flourish as never before — a secular version of Christianity’s most dubious promise that salvation is open to all.
James Lovelock has written: Humans on the Earth behave in some ways like a pathological organism, or like the cells of a tumour or neoplasm. We have grown in numbers and disturbance to Gaia, to the point where our presence is perceptively disturbing…the human species is now so numerous as to constitute a serious planetary malady. Gaia is suffering from disseminated primatemaia, a plague of people.

A human population of approaching 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth. If wild habitat is given over to human cultivation and habitation, if rainforests can be turned into green deserts, if genetic engineering enables ever-higher yields to be extorted from the thinning soils — then humans will have created for themselves a new geological era, the Eremozoic, the Era of Solitude, in which little remains on the Earth but themselves and the prosthetic environment that keeps them ‘alive’.

[Quoting Reg Morrison, The Spirit in the Gene] If the human plague is really as normal as it looks, then the collapse curve should mirror the growth curve. This means the bulk of the collapse will not take much longer than 100 years, and by 2150 the biosphere should be safely back to its preplague population of Homo Sapiens — somewhere between a half and one billion.

Climate change may be a mechanism through which the planet eases its human burden…[or] new patterns of disease could trim the human population…War could have a major impact…weapons of mass destruction — notably biological and (soon) genetic weapons, more fearsome than before…It is not the number of states that makes this technology ungovernable. It is technology itself. The ability to design new viruses for use in genocidal weapons does not require enormous resources of money, plant or equipment…In part, governments have created this situation. By ceding so much control over new technology to the marketplace, they have colluded in their own powerlessness.

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it. If it becomes possible to clone human beings, soldiers will be bred in whom normal human emotions are stunted or absent. Genetic engineering may enable centuries-old diseases to be eradicated. At the same time, it is likely to be the technology of choice in future genocides. Those who ignore the destructive potential of new technologies can only do so because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies, but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity’s worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

The mass of mankind is ruled not by its own intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment. It seems fated to wreck the balance of life on Earth — and thereby to be the agent of its own destructionÖ Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs — even if the result is ruin. When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings. These are not flaws that can be remedied. Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mold. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational.

[Referring to the ancient Chinese ritual of creating, worshiping and then discarding straw dogs] If humans disturb the balance of Earth they will be trampled on and tossed aside. Critics of Gaia theory say they reject it because it is ‘unscientific’. The truth is that they fear and hate it because it means that humans can never be other than straw dogs.

This is indeed a grim picture, but Gray insists he is a realist, not a pessimist. He urges us to do nothing other than becoming more our animal selves — reconnecting with the rest of life on Earth and with our primeval senses and instincts, getting outside our heads, coping with contingencies, relearning to play, living in the moment, turning back to real, mortal things, and simply seeing what is.

I think Grayís diagnosis is probably as accurate as any diagnosis of a complex adaptive system can be. I would argue, however, that it is just not in our nature to accept the inevitability of the collapse of civilizations. More than that, I think it is our nature as human beings to accept and act on our responsibility to do what we can to rectify the harm we have done and to make life better for those who will survive the collapse of civilization and who will have to build the society that follows it. That sense of responsibility is, I believe, a universal human trait: Oren Lyons, the Onondaga Faithkeeper, whose culture predates the predominant one of today by centuries, says in a recent interview by Barry Lopez for Orion Magazine: ìOf, by, and for the people. You choose your own leaders. You put ’em up, and you take ’em down. But you, the people, are responsible. You’re responsible for your life; you’re responsible for everything.î

For most of my adult life, I have been a student of innovation, and innovation is the means by which I, and I think most scientists and entrepreneurs and technologists, seek to exercise that responsibility and make this world, now and for the future, a better place. This is why weíre here, and the task at hand has never been more challenging or more urgent.

So what do we do? In a world in which innovation is hemmed in by risk aversion, by intellectual property law, and by the human disinclination to change until there is no other choice, what can we do to bring innovation to bear to make the crash of civilization as soft as possible and to prepare those who will outlive it to start again with the best tools and models and knowledge our ingenuity can give them?

Back in 1999, Credit Suisse First Boston ran a New Economy Forum which produced a model of the innovation process in business, diagrammed above:

In a paper I wrote a few years ago I applied this model to the way in which innovation has addressed basic human needs in past ages of our civilization, and is in the process of doing so to address the pressing human issues of today: chronic and epidemic disease, crime and terrorism, waste and pollution (including global warming), urban decay, famine, overpopulation, biodegradation and ecosystem exhaustion, unemployment, inequity, scarcity of critical resources, loss of biodiversity, economic overextension and unsustainability, chronic violence and war:

 Innovation Figure 1a

In each age of our civilization, however, the scale, complexity and interconnectedness of these issues have grown exponentially. Innovations and interventions that address one of these issues are increasingly inadequate as each new focused solution ignores or even exacerbates (by introducing new threats, vulnerabilities, wastes and opportunities for misuse) other and new problems.

Increasingly, too, the economic system that was designed to introduce and scale innovations has become antithetical to innovation: It is cheaper and less risky for a corporation to buy (or buy out and suppress) an innovation than to develop one itself. Many ëinnovativeí startups are conceived purely for an early sellout to a large corporation often disinclined to introduce it when it threatens its existing brand. Intellectual property laws in many countries allow and encourage the patenting of entire processes and the intimidation, by armies of lawyers, of entrepreneurs who encroach on any aspect of those processes. And corporations are rewarded for schemes that enable them to circumvent social and environmental laws to ëcompetitive advantageí, and now arguably spend more energy trying to defeat regulations that were designed for the public good than they spend on initiatives that serve the public good.

So it seems to me that the innovation model that worked in the industrial era is no longer serving us in this new and more complex era, and a new model is needed. What might this new model look like? I believe it must have the following attributes:

  1. It needs to start with achieving as deep an understanding of the current problems as is humanly possible. Things are the way they are for a reason, and many organizations put too little effort into understanding those reasons because it is easier and cheaper to use marketing to ëmanufactureí the need and consent for a new product. We need to appreciate that  uninformed, myopic attempts to grapple with complex problems cannot work. Before we can make it right, we need to understand whatís wrong. This isnít completely possible in any complex system, but itís essential to grapple with appreciating how things got to where they are, to optimize the probability that the innovations we come up with will help rather than making things worse. This is where scientists come in: We need a lot more of you, we need to give you more resources to do research, we need to help you collaborate across geographies and disciplines more effectively, and we need to enable you to focus on issues that are critical to our speciesí survival, not issues that offer the greatest short-term ROI to some self-serving and indifferent corporation.
  1. It needs to be holistic and multi-disciplinary. You canít solve a complex problem with a merely complicated solution. We need to look at the implications of our ideas and innovations across all areas of our society and our world. Cross-disciplinary teams that share a sense of urgency and purpose are the best means to achieve this broader understanding and skill-set.
  1. It needs to be substantially voluntary. That means it must be freed from the for-short-term-profit constraints of the current economic system. The economy in which such efforts naturally belong is the Gift Economy, an economy that is already healthy and flourishing, as exemplified by open source and peer production, by scientific exchanges, libraries, weblogs, wikis, file sharing and other free exchanges of information, by philanthropy without strings attached, and by mentoring done by parents and other volunteers. Innovators must have the time, energy, and passion to pursue ideas regardless of their profitability. To do this we need to recruit the right people. I believe Open Space methodology, and specifically its process of invitation, offers the best mechanism for attracting precisely the people needed to appreciate and address all of the different aspects of complex problems. I also suspect that our greatest opportunity in this regard is to tap those who are retired or close to retirement or working only part-time, who can afford to volunteer their time and who bring a lifetime of valuable experience to the task.
  1. It needs to be self-organized, non-hierarchical and collaborative. Hierarchical systems are inherently bureaucratic and frequently dysfunctional. As nature teaches us, self-organized systems are more adaptable, more flexible, more resilient. We are mostly inexperienced at working in such social structures, so we need to (re-)learn to do so. We have much to learn from indigenous cultures who have been doing this for millennia.
  1. It needs to be experimental and evolutionary. We learn from our mistakes, and the modern corporation has reached the point where promotion and production costs so much that failure is intolerable. Our new innovation model has to not only tolerate, but encourage mistakes. It must try a lot of different things, in parallel (for there is no time to waste) through experimentation and fast learning and then trying something a little different based on that learning, the way nature does. Our main product must be ëworking modelsí ñ solutions that appear to work to solve some of our pressing global problems without exacerbating others. Then we must let them go, push them out of the nest. Some of these innovations may help us live better in the years before civilizationís collapse. Others may only be of use after that collapse, by the survivors who will know what didnít work and will be urgently looking for alternative models that might, models that will make sense given the terrible knowledge they will then possess.
  1. It needs to involve new ways of thinking. Einstein famously said ìWe can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.î We need some radical, even crazy thinking. Innovation is not incremental change and it is not arrived at analytically. And we need not only radical innovations; we need radical ways of innovating, more holistic, more intuitive, more collaborative, more discontinuous, more imaginative, and more connected to the wisdom and understanding of all life on Earth.

So that is my challenge to you, representatives of the worldís brightest scientists and most accomplished and creative thinkers. Let us start now, with a sense of urgency and shared purpose, to invent the future, one that will reach beyond and outlive the collapse of our civilization. Ronald Wright, in his book A Short History of Progress, summarizes our human destiny by saying ìIt’s entirely up to us. If we fail — if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us — nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.î Letís show Mr. Wright and Mr. Gray that the apes still have a trick ortwo up their sleeves.

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4 Responses to Preparing for Civilization’s End

  1. Jon Husband says:

    yes .. and with our language and perception skills we hairless apes should engage in more and regular serio ludere

  2. Pat Keenan says:

    I was just reading about the release of apples new phone, and the coming iTV.As always, you bring me back to earth with the real issues of today. How can we use technology, and more importantly, others to create a new way. I hope things don’t collapse, that might be optimistic.I hope we can leave behind some lessons, and that is exciting.

  3. RJ says:

    I read Mr. Gray’s book, as well as Lewis Mumford’s epic “Pentagon of Power”. Both are formidable diatribes skewering the anthropocentric windmill. Your analysis is spot on Mr. Pollard, although none of your solutions are even remotely possible without new ways of thinking. Hence, I would elevate #6 to the primal spot. Alas, given the stranglehold consumption has on communication, I fear the only way minds will change is through catastrophe. Kind of like a Gaia “New Pearl Harbor” making our mantra “do no harm”.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Jon/P{at/RJ: Excellent thinking. This of course brings us back to the quandary: To wait for the catastrophe will be waiting until it’s too late; to precipitate it is immoral. The narrow and difficult midground is convincing the world that the catastrophe is already upon us.

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