A Ship of Fools

Espousing substantive change, without making any adjustments to the underlying structure of the system, is the errand of a fool

Richard Hames — Burying the 20th Century

The past week has seen a confusing and increasingly confused scenario unfold in Syria. On-the-ground, evidence-based, intelligence is hard to come by. Instead, accusations, followed by denials, counterclaims, and propaganda — the latter conceived to justify whatever actions might later be taken by the numerous parties directly and indirectly involved in this conflict — provide further fuel for the chaos.

Lessons from the past are ignored — most future possibilities given little credence. Patching up the present in order to preserve a clutter of commercial and territorial interests seems to be the main concern. Human lives are of little consequence when oil, faith and vanity stand in the way, corroding even the best of intentions.

It has always been thus. But that does not make it right. As is customary in these situations we seem to be content to leave the most life-critical decisions to politicians and bureaucrats, the two groups seemingly least capable of looking beyond self-interest in order to imagine new alternatives to the endless misery and conflict inflicted on the people of the region.

In the immediate term the muddle threatens a number of quite sensitive geopolitical relations and critical alliances. In the longer term the killing of innocent people is a continuing curse on humanity and a serious impediment to our need for evolving more consiously as a species. The real source of the problem is our thinking. Specifically the belief that it is acceptable to kill others in circumstances that can be justified in some obtuse manner.

Meanwhile here in Thailand the government is trying to deal with the inevitable road carnage that will ensue over the next few days as millions of Thais return home to celebrate Songkran. Last year 3,447 accidents were recorded over a seven day period. 442 people died and 3,656 were injured. This was the worst Songkran road toll in a decade, catapaulting Thailand into second place behind Namibia in world rankings for the highest number of casualties from road accidents. A third of all accidents were caused by drunk driving and another third by speeding.

This year the government decided to increase the number of police checkpoints on arterial roads and in every large town in spite of the fact that this policy has not previously worked. Meanwhile there is no attempt to understand the root causes of the problem — most likely resulting from a combination of inadequate driving skills and knowledge of the law, a lack of road etiquette, too many old vehicles, unsafe road surfaces and inadequate markings — in addition to excess speeds and drunk driving. Although failed policies continue to be used there is renewed optimism each year that the results will be different.

At first glance it might seem a trifle odd to compare these two examples: one a global issue that could easily engulf the entire Middle East and Eastern Europe in conflict — threatening the security of entire generations; the other a localised cultural phenomenon. I happen to believe there are similarities in the thinking underlying these two responses to a crisis that are worthy of further investigation. Both concern the dynamics in complex human-devised systems.

Essentially any complex human-designed system can be changed in one of two ways:

Individual parameters and practises can be altered, more or less continuously, while the system’s structure and purpose remains untouched. This is called first-order change and is what we most commonly mean when using the term change. Essentially, though, such change is cosmetic. An example from economics might be the introduction of a value added tax on goods and services. The tax system, including the various relationships and transactions within the system, exists much as before. But the burden on taxpayers shifts away from income to consumption.

This is utterly different from what we refer to as second-order change, where the whole system changes qualitatively and in a discontinuous manner. Second-order change is transformative — alterations occur in the body of rules governing the internal structure of the system, often reconceptualising its very purpose. Another example from economics might be be the introduction of a universal basic income for every citizen in a society. The proposal is radically different. It has the potential to transform the conventional dynamics between work, wages and welfare, resolve much of the waste inherent in contemporary life, and eliminate the unhealthy stigma and entrapment that are intrinsic elements of the traditional welfare system — including the expense of policing and administering them.

Some of the most thorny problems we are encountering today are made more palpable by the inability of the ways we have customarily led, managed, interacted and mediated to cope with new realities. The methods we use require constant attention and continuous adjustment — the task of first-order change — merely in order to retain their utility. But they are not the root cause of the problems we face, nor do they offer any viable solutions.

Unfortunately the real challenge cannot be addressed by methodological upgrades. Most of our life-critical systems were designed in and for a previous era. Consequently some no longer function sufficiently or as comprehensively as they did. In some instances we may have lost sight of their original purpose — or possibly that purpose is no longer relevant. Others are working as effectively as always, but are failing to service everyone’s needs.

The burden placed on manufacturing, transportation, energy, agriculture, infrastructure, governance and health, by a population approaching 7.5 billion people, is unparalleled. It should not come as a surprise that some of these systems are in a state of collapse and that the associated social, cultural and environmental costs are rising exponentially.

But here is the catch. A system can only deliver what it has been designed to deliver. It will continue to do this until someone decides to reconfigure its architecture — by bringing a suite of second-order changes to the situation. Our predicament is that nobody wants to do this. Not even those international organisations whose mission it is to deal with these things. Indeed a coalition of big business owners and governments consistently avoid implementing the system-wide reinventions that could eliminate poverty, provide the entire human family with sufficient food, water, healthcare and education, reduce blame, fear, injustice and conflict, alleviate the crisis of consciousness many people feel, and the symptoms of anxiety and depression the medical profession is trying so desperately to treat, and reverse the impacts of climate change — presumably to protect their own misguided interests and circumstances where the world’s wealth is owned by fewer and fewer people.

I have consistently referred to this predicament as the human condition in that it is unique to sapiens. Unlike others who have also written at length on this same theme, I summarise this pathological disorder in part as a propensity to avoid cultural and socio-political disruption by deploying cosmetic fine-tuning in conditions where only transformative alternatives are likely to be sufficient.

When I was at school, many years ago, I recall my class being thoroughly amused by the ridiculous notion that someone could repeatedly refuse to modify their behaviour, yet still expect to achieve different results. We were assured by our biology teacher that this was an indisputable sign of insanity — a form of brain damage. Yet it is the single, most blatant, punctuational feature of our generation. Faced with several existential crises on a collision course we opt for first-order change where only second-order change will suffice.

People around the world are slowly waking up to the realisation that second-order change is now an imperative. Led largely by a rallying call from youth, climate scientists, and some courageous indigenous elders, communities on every continent are beginning to demand substantive change rather than tiny adjustments to the status quo accompanied by inane platitudes. But their voices are not yet strident — their outrage not sufficiently ferocious. Cosmetic change is still deemed safer by risk-averse decision makers.

By continuing to apply first-order answers politicians might just hang on to the vestiges of their diminishing power. Affluent individuals can still hide their true wealth. Corporations can sell us stuff we do not really need, and will soon thrown away, while a few industrial conglomerates can prolong their control over what we eat and how it is manufactured. Schools can continue to prepare students for jobs that will cease to exist within a decade. Unions can pretend they still represent workers and are the sole pillars of social justice. Banks can continue making obscene profits from market and currency speculation instead of investing in a sustainable economy.

What could possibly be wrong with all of that? It is the epitome of the civilisational world-system after all. The model that brought humanity such extraordinary success must surely be the source of future prosperity?

Probably not. The most commonplace practises encouraged by the underlying worldview are also the source of the human condition I previously expressed.

So the uppermost questions in my mind are inevitably grave ones: Are we wise enough to survive our success? And if that is possible how quickly can we move to a worldview that is more inclusive yet less toxic? A world that works for the subsistence rice farmer in Vietnam and the refugee seeking sanctuary from Syrian bombing as well as the Wall Street banker and the university professor in Tehran? A world that helps us restore nature? A world in which cooperation and empathy are more valued than competition and indifference?

In most instances survival requires us to do something different to that which we have already tried — even if it means going back to first principles. If we become becalmed in a boat without fuel, we are unlikely to stay alive by drifting further out to sea. Rowing closer to land seems a far more appropriate tactic. Likewise, if we are trying to resolve the mess in Syria it hardly makes sense to repeat what has already been proven not to work. And if we are to reduce the number of lethal accidents on Thai roads we cannot expect a greater police presence, that ascribes only lip service to the law, to be up to the task.

In Thailand the case for second-order change is clear. If reducing the road toll is a prime imperative, then redesigning the system around safe road use will require a totally new set of initiatives. No target should be set — least of all zero which would only be attainable if the system were more corrupt than it already is. This redesign would encompass new strategies for teaching aspiring drivers the rules of the road, examining their ability to drive before they were allowed to drive solo on public roads, and instilling road etiquette that respects the rights of all road users. New penalties would need to be introduced and strictly policed, especially regarding speeding, the consumption of alcohol, and the wearing of seat belts. Highways would need to be upgraded with safety markings and improved signage. Finally the government would need to finance a comprehensive, multi-year safety campaign to shift the community’s awareness of safety-related issues.

In Syria we are dealing with an infinitely more complex situation where a diverse number of agents are causing chaos to reign supreme. The first imperative in any such situation is to turn the chaos into a visually complex map that at least would allow us to comprehend the entire picture and its evolving dynamics. At that stage it would be possible to see the patterns that are causing the problem to persist and to understand which activities are exacerbating the situation. Following that it should at least be possible to simulate and test a range of strategies for accommodating the complexity while dealing with any unique anomalies and local rules.

As far as I know neither of these approaches to second-order change are likely to be on the drawing board.

In Thailand the government will follow its futile annual ritual, setting unattainable targets for reducing fatalities on the country’s notoriously dangerous roads and exhorting Thais not to speed, or drink and drive.

In Syria the conflict will continue to kill ordinary men, women and children who have absolutely no appreciation of why they have been singled out for such horror. Russia and the US, in addition to China, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria itself of course, will continue their highly weaponised testosterone challenge in crazy justifications of their right to act in any way they want. Assad may accept a bribe to live in exile. Arms sales will continue much as before. Daesh will wait. The rest is also predictable — at least without imaginative second-order change.

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