image by beastywizard on DeviantArt — CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

The urge to hold someone or something ‘responsible’ for the ruination of our planet is pretty hard to resist. For years I blamed corporations and their bought-and-paid-for politicians. Or I blamed ignorance. Or wilful denial. Or ‘evils’ like greed, or insanity. Or I blamed “the system”. But once I came to accept that we have no free will, I started to point the finger instead at incompetence.

We have no free will, no choice over what we do and what we don’t do, I tell myself. Everything that we do is just our biological and cultural conditioning playing out the only way it can given the circumstances of the moment. But if only we (“they”) were more competent, then that conditioning would play out in more productive, more positive ways. No?

Of course, this is faulty reasoning. Our (their) incompetence is a product of our (their) conditioning, and could not be otherwise. Blaming incompetence is essentially just wishful thinking, that things could be other than how they actually are.

Still, it’s very tempting. Looking at our ‘leaders’ in every area of human endeavour — politics, business, economics, education, health, the arts, science and technology, religion, philosophy, the media, the military, social and environmental spheres — it’s easy to see incompetence everywhere. But what does that mean?

Essentially, it means they are not ‘equipped’ to do their job. They lack the experience, skills, resources, character, and mental capacities required to achieve the objectives that that job entails. But since they are just acting out their conditioning, it’s not as if they could be, or do, otherwise. The circumstances they (and we) are facing in this ever-more-complex and polycrisis-suffering world are such that competence is impossible. We are struggling with predicaments, not problems, and predicaments have no solutions, only outcomes. No one is ‘equipped’ with the competence to fix what cannot be fixed.

So to blame ‘incompetence’ (and hence blame others, or ourselves, or ‘all of us’) for our incapacity to deal with, and cope with, the accelerating collapse of our civilization and the ruination of our planet is equivalent, I think, to saying: I blame everything that has ever happened in our history for not producing humans conditioned to do precisely what would have to be done individually and collectively to ‘fix’ or at least mitigate the polycrisis. You might as well blame ‘fate’.

Yes, of course, all these boneheads in positions of power are incompetent. They fuck up everything they do and everything they try to do, sometimes so badly it looks like deliberate stupidity or malice, or conspiracy, or some other ‘bad thing’. But, annoying as it is to admit it, for those of us prone to making judgements (ie all of us), that is not their fault. They are doing the only thing they could possibly do. We, individually and collectively, cannot magically intervene and change their conditioning to make them (in our judgement) competent.

In fact, since we are just acting out our conditioning as well, even if we could magically change their conditioning, it would be just as likely to make things worse rather than better. We are, despite our convictions to the contrary, no more competent than they are to deal with the polycrisis, the predicament of collapse and ecological ruination that our collective, ‘incompetent’ conditioning has wrought.

Of course, that is not how we see it. If we (or ‘competent’ people of our choosing) were in charge, things would surely be different, and immeasurably better! The disaster confronting us is due, we would like to believe, to some flaw in human nature that leads to particularly incompetent people — precisely the ‘wrong people’ for the job — aspiring to positions of power and leadership.

But that thinking is also tragically flawed. There are no ‘right people’ to do the impossible job of quickly and radically altering the conditioning of 8B people, including these ‘right people’s’ own conditioning.

Not only are we deluded about ‘our’ people’s superior competence, and deluded in our belief that ‘our’ conditioning, if we had the power to act on it, would necessarily lead to better outcomes than that of the current sorry crop of ‘leaders’ — We fail to understand that no one is in control of the vast complexity of our civilization culture and its component systems. There are simply no ‘levers of power’ that any earnest ‘competent’ group could wield that would significantly alter our civilization’s, and our world’s, trajectory.

Of course this realization runs counter to everything our Hollywood-amplified (or Margaret Mead homily-inspired) stories tell us, not to mention being the opposite of what we desperately want to believe as we flounder about looking for ways to address and cope with collapse.

We just can’t, and won’t, believe that if it weren’t for incompetence (or some other more elemental vice or vices) we would, or could, be living in paradise, or something close to it, or at least moving in the right direction. We can’t, and won’t, believe that ‘progress’ is just a nice make-believe story we tell our children and each other and ourselves to keep us hoping that, if only we can get the right, competent people in positions of power, everything will be just fine.

So, yes, our colossal incompetence is a problem. Or more accurately it is, like all the other aspects of the polycrisis, a predicament. It doesn’t have a solution. There are no interchangeable, better Tweedledees to move into positions of authority and power to replace the bumbling Tweedledums. Incompetence is everywhere, built into our world of ever-increasing complexity, complicatedness (they are not the same thing), and fragility. Incompetence has outcomes. They are playing themselves out, through our personal and collective conditioning.

You can be angry about that (and it’s hard not to be). You can be fearful about that (a perfectly understandable response). You can be immensely sad about that (it’s not as if you have any choice in the matter).

If you’re lucky, you might be able, at least some of the time, to just enjoy the show. It’s live, not taped! No spoilers! It’s going to be wild! No one knows how it will end. As in most tragedies, there will be no winners, surely, and there will be many losers, but we cannot guess who, or how. Or how it will all unfold. Or what will come after.

Although we can probably surmise that, in whatever world emerges from the ashes of our ghastly and wondrous human civilization after the sixth (that we know about) major extinction, the survivors will probably be less incompetent than we are.

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Incompetent

  1. Understood and agreed for overshoot issues like economic problems, unsustainable debt, inflation, and climate change.

    I do not forgive our leaders for tolerating Gaza genocide, or provoking an unnecessary war that killed 500K+ Ukrainians, or transfecting children with mRNA.

  2. Jack says:

    Dave What if free will exists inside the human brain but not inside human culture. That is if: Our brains can calculate the best personal behavior or collected behavior of 8 billion people to unwind a problem but our “culture” prevents individuals or groups from implementing those behaviors.

    Most of the people you have assigned incompetence and blame in your post are appointments in our culture which have no levers to pull to address the problems you list (their not having levers (you feel) means they have no free will.

    By this definition if John Q. Public has no levers, he has no free will.

    However, in both cases if the human mind can identify behavior that will achieve different outcomes, cultural inhibitions to implementations are not indications of the mind not having free will.

    Here is an example:

    Today’s Israel Gaza atrocities are the latest examples of this history.
    1. Each atrocity followed from a conflict.
    2. Each conflict followed from a scarcity.
    3. Each scarcity followed from “too many people” dividing earth’s services.

    There are a dozen other causes of scarcity. However, if these other causes were resolved “too many people” would cause scarcity without them.

    The “too many people condition” is determined by billions of personal birth choices. Births are rewarded by immediate easily understood personal benefits. Atrocities, being temporally-distant, and non-personal have little influence.

    —- the atrocities will not stop until perception of the injuries caused by birth choices diminish population enough to eliminate scarcity.

    (this argument presented in more detail in this video)

    Jack Alpert PhD Director:
    Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratory
    600 word summary of Jack’s work

  3. Paul Heft says:

    Reading this post, I thought “Yes!” “Yes!” “Yes!” It’s so easy to blame–and most of us are conditioned to do that in many aspects of our lives–and you hit the nail on the head by identifying “incompetence” as another example of blaming. Sure, we can imagine replacing decision-makers (with ones that we approve), improving others or ourselves (to our specifications), expecting everyone to adopt new belief systems (in concordance with our own), and so on–but that’s a whole lot of magical thinking in a world as large scale and complex as ours, with humans as diverse, brainwashed and fooled as we are in our civilization. If society simplifies tremendously in the future–which won’t be anyone’s act of will–maybe competence can become possible again, as you suggest. Meanwhile it makes sense to adjust our expectations (pay attention to our emotional reactions, and eventually accept the crazy situation in which we find ourselves), hang on for the ride, be good for others (probably doesn’t matter who), and watch the show with compassion.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Excellent advice, Paul. Thank you!

  5. Harvey Chess says:

    Long time reader/learner here. Curious, Dave, why no response or reaction to Jack Alpert’s intriguing entry?

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Harvey, I get lots of ideas, proposals and theories sent to me, as blog comments, emails, and even entire book manuscripts. I try to accommodate them all, and I do read them all, but only respond directly to those I find most compelling. Jack has been commenting on my posts for years, and I respect his views. Daniel Quinn in Story of B argues, I think convincingly, that human population levels are not the result of “birth choices” but simply a consequence of the amount of human food available for consumption:

  7. Stephen B says:

    Hi Dave, regarding your population-a-systems-approach article, unless you have a source I’d note that “reduce food production” is *your* answer, not Quinn’s. I’m quite sure he never proposed that as a plan of action. He was much more conservative. It’s too easy to overlook understanding the causes once we leap to squabbling over answers.

    See also his “Food Race” speech. In short, “reduce food production” is a nonstarter: “The most horrific element of cultural mythology that has to be dealt with on this topic is the notion that if we DIDN’T continue to *increase* food production—year after year after year—we would face mass starvation.”


  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Stephen: I agree with everything you say, and apologize for suggesting that reducing food supply is a “solution”, which it is of course not, and not anything Daniel would have suggested. I was unclear in distinguishing a statement about causality from a proposal.

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