herakles & the lernean hydra / GREEK vase circa 525 B.C.

How to Avoid Societal Collapse

Some quick & dirty solutions from Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, a character argues that a revolution requires “three types of specialists”: a genius, a citizen in high standing who vouches for the genius, and a person who can explain anything to anyone.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is all three.

Taleb’s a financial trader gone philosopher/mathematician. In his five volume philosophical tome called Incerto—including the bestselling books The Black Swan and Antifragile—he plumbs philosophy, history, and mathematics to illustrate humankind’s dangerous misunderstandings of risk.

His latest book, Antifragile, classifies stuff—professions, technologies, medical treatments, political systems, philosophers—into three categories: the fragile, the robust, and the antifragile. The fragile breaks easily.The robust is something that withstands stressors but doesn’t gain anything from them. The antifragile benefits from volatility (up to a point). Think hunter-gatherer tribes, Nietzsche, entrepreneurs, and the hydra pictured above.

Showing that modern society is highly fragile—prone to massive blowups that are unpredictable and contagious—Taleb proposes plenty of ideas to limit our exposure to deadly risks and fragility. He wants humans to stick around. So do I.

The revolution he proposes throughout his work, best presented in Antifragile, is not a revolution in the utopist sense—there’s no call for a violent uprising or reformation. Instead, it’s a call to simplify, to omit, and to subdivide.

According to Joseph Tainter’s analysis—which Taleb cites—all societies collapse when they can’t effectively use complex solutions to solve new problems. Tainter also shows that modern society is showing signs of empirical decline. To prevent this collapse, societies needs to find new energy sources and voluntarily simplify.

There’s no better way to encounter Taleb’s ideas than by reading his work—he’s an erudite and bullshit-free storyteller—but I think his proposals need to be repeated everywhere:

Eat locally. This both fights the march towards the global risk of GMOs and it limits your exposure to highly-processed and unhealthy food.

Buy from small businesses and artisans. Large corporations benefit from an ethical blindspot—their managers can rig the system in the short-term for massive personal bonuses then retire before their companies blow up; for example, take the entire financial crises of 2008. Also, large amounts of something are disproportionately more harmful than small amounts—think militaries, poison and pollutants. And, ultimately, it’s harder to cheat someone when you look them in the eyes.

Be a local activist. Participate in local politics. Beyond the obvious good of knowing what’s going on down the street, this engagement mimics Switzerland’s antifragile political system—there’s a bunch of local disagreements, but that keeps a messy and dangerous central government from forming (and involving itself in global disagreements, like wars).

Use older tools. Think of new technologies like bombs that go off on a delay—remember trans fats, tobacco and Thalidomide? Humans are geared to love novelty, but our obsession with novelty makes us too willing to adapt new technologies that are untested by time. To quote Robert Zajonc, “If it is familiar, it has not eaten you yet.”

Don’t be surprised by iatrogenics. I used to take a drug called Cimzia every month to manage my severe case of Crohn’s disease. Cimzia was new when I began to take it, but the drug class had been around for about fifteen years. This type of drug hosts some gnarly potential side effects, including fatal lymphoma. The Cimzia didn’t work for me, so I switched to Remicade, a 23-year old drug. But who knows what longterm side effects might show up once either Remicade or Cimzia have been used by people for thirty years? If you need to take a new drug or use a new technology, don’t let yourself be blindsided by its hidden risks.

Remove something instead of adding something. When dealing with complex systems, removing something harmful—be it carbohydrates or cigarettes—is always safer and more measurable.

Take advantage of convexity. Be on the lookout for situations where the cost of doing something is small but the potential gain is vast. Think like Bob Ross when he said, “We don’t make mistakes; we just have happy accidents.”

Keep your skin in the game. Don’t advocate risks that you haven’t taken yourself. (Just think of those asshole Goldman Sachs managers, and do precisely the opposite of what they do.) Use the products you create and sell. Or if you’re feeling extra honorable, act like a firefighter by putting your skin in someone else’s game.

Love the small, old, and natural. It’s smart to cultivate an appreciation for antifragile pleasures such as long walks (during which you might run into someone interesting), time in the library (during which you might find a book which greatly benefits you), and cooking (during which you might discover a new recipe). A decent heuristic: if you can enjoy an activity without using electricity, you’ll probably be able to keep enjoying it.

Avoid shame. Instead of defining your goals and actions by what you want to be or do—a huge, overwhelming field of possibility—use the much clearer definitions of who you don’t want to be, of what you don’t want to do. Keep your personal villains in mind. As long as you let those negative examples guide you, you’ll be free of shame. It’s a much clearer metric than “happiness.”

The world gets more complex and unfathomable every day. I hope you find Taleb’s thinking as useful as I do.