Situational Assessment 2015

This essay discusses my current sense of our challenges. Importantly, this should not be read as gloomy, pessimistic or hopeless. I’m deliberately focusing only on our challenges and limitations here. Unsurprisingly, many of our challenges are also our opportunities (e.g., exponential technology growth).

This is, of course, a very complex system and nearly every driver/aspect discussed below impacts nearly every other driver/aspect. This fact gives rise to the most important point about our current situation: we are in an increasingly poised system.

Each aspect of our overall system is independently being stretched to the limit and if/when any one of them “breaks” the resulting tension flows out to the rest of the threads of the system, increasing their tension and increasing their chance of breaking in turn. Eventually, like a fraying rope holding aloft a heavy weight, we will go into a systemic “crisis” that will be surprisingly rapid as the cascade effects rip through the current system dynamics and release pent-up energy. When and how this occurs is the crux of the issue.

Of course, keeping to the rope + weight metaphor, until the actual crisis, the weight itself (which represents, perhaps, the day to day lives of most westerners) might not show the least sign of movement unless and until the pivotal moment has passed. Indeed, even if we look closely at the threads of the rope, unless we are able to see how they are interlinked and watch the whole rope as a complete system, we might mistake local success (say we scrub CO2 from the atmosphere) for systemic success.

Finally, obviously, this is a gesture based on limited information, limited knowledge and limited capacity. It is very, very wrong. But perhaps useful. What do you think?


So, what are some of the important challenges of our contemporary situation?

I. The Global Financial System

I start here not because it is the most important (in fact it is the least), but because it is an utter mess that has been waiting to pop now for a decade. I’m not going to go into detail, but in sum we can say that it has taken “heroic” effort on the part of all of the world’s banks and political institutions to just barely keep the system vaguely looking like it is hanging together.

And, of course, when/if it does crash again, this will by necessity have downstream consequences everywhere. For example, we are going to have a hard enough time dealing with Ecosystem Disruption (see below) as it is. Trying to do so in the headwind of a financial/economic meltdown is like trying to play Jenga during an earthquake.

Estimate: “any moment”. This sucker is poised to pop at any moment. In the meantime, of course, it is far from neutral. The various efforts undertaken to keep the global financial system looking better than it is are sapping “energy” from other parts of the overall system. For example, trust in political institutions which is plummeting globally — not least as a consequence of those institutions response to the financial crisis.

II. The Global Political System

Next up . . . politics! Whether you are looking at “international relations” a la Ukraine and Syria or “intra-national relations” in places like Greece, Spain, and, well, everywhere, the post-World War II political order is all sorts of problematic.

Drilling down on this one is challenging because most of the trouble is a consequence of many of the other drivers (see below), but we can look at three specific challenges that seem to fit best here.

  1. The end of the American Hegemony. Say what you like about Pax Americana, the historical periods where one world power holds effective hegemony are characterized by relative stability. By contrast, the periods where the current hegemon is losing its pole position are typically quite chaotic. We are clearly in the process of the decline of American Hegemony. Starting sometime in the ‘Oughts, the American New World Order, that had seemed so stable after the fall of the Soviet Union, started to lose its grip. Now, in 2015, its clear that the BRICs are both interested in and capable of establishing their own agendas on the world stage. In a vacuum this incipient struggle for power would portend danger. In the complex environment we are studying here . . .
  2. The rise and threat of the “empowered individual.” John Robb has explored this challenge in detail and I point you to his analysis for a richer review. In brief, this challenge is the systemic consequence of exponential technology growth on the ability of individuals to impact the larger society. To put it crisply: not too long from now (say less than 20 years), a relatively small group of individuals (say less than 10) will be able to engineer viral weapons more effective than anything created by the United States or the Soviet Union. Germ warfare, cyber warfare, drones, etc. The list of asymmetric disruptions that are coming onto the threat horizon is long and distinguished. Again, on a standalone basis the empowered individual is a core challenge. But put it in the context of a financial crisis or mass migrations driven by Ecosystem Disruption and you start to see how this thing fits together. We should note for example, that food scarcity (i.e., food prices increasing beyond some threshold level) seems to have been at the core of both the uprising in Egypt and in the Palestinian Territories.
  3. I’ll include the rise of the hyper-surveillance / hyper-control state here as well. Doubtless, the insane expansion of the activities of the NSA, the CIA and the Chicago Police department have their own intrinsic drivers related to their own specific forces — but they certainly are provoked by (and in turn provoke) the rise and threat of the empowered individual. Within the contemporary political “policing” construct, just how do you deal with the biowarfare threat I identify above? You engage in hyper surveillance of course! As we know, asymmetric information and power/control inevitably leads first to abuse and thence to tyranny, so the cure is as much a poison as the poison. Do we die from a series of terrorist cyber attacks on our infrastructure or from the surveillance and control institutions that are developed to prevent them? Either way . . .

Estimate: “any moment”. I’d say that the political system is much less stressed than the financial system, but there are plenty of cracks and it is more subject to acute human emotion. One thing that I look for is a political intervention in a financial crisis (say in Greece right now) that kicks off an inflammation into the political realm. I could easily imagine the entire EU transitioning into major political upheaval with the right spark. Think not? Well, probably not, but the kindling is certainly there.

III. All of our “Civilization Toolkit”

Both I and II are, in my assessment, specific examples of a more broad challenge: the total set of our social institutions are well past due. More importantly, the total set of the tools and concepts that we use to think about, assess and construct social institutions are well past due. My thinking here is derived from Carrol Quigley’s Evolution of Civilizations and Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies.

In sum: social technologies work. They enable us to get what we need from the world and increase our population, standard of living or both. And we do. Until our success changes the context and the set of problems we need to solve.

Perhaps our population has gotten to the size that we can’t deal with our own waste (see London in the 17th Century). Perhaps our farming technique has reached its limits in being able to feed us and we are starting to see a decrease in crop yield (see Mayan Empire). Then we find we are in real trouble because we are married to our tools. We not only use them, we *think* with them. The only way we can figure out how to solve a problem is to use some tool from our “civilization toolkit”. So, when that toolkit itself is losing its edge, do we take the risk of leaving “what we know” or double down? Usually, almost always, the latter.

I call this “hypertrophication.” This approach gives us a temporary reprieve but at the cost of getting even more specialized and locked-in. This makes it harder for us to break out of the mould so we have to keep doubling down. Eventually something gives and . . . bad things happen.

A simple example is the response to the 2008 Financial Crisis. Rather than acknowledging that our entire approach to regulation (and, indeed to finance itself) is what is broken and needs to be thoroughly reinvented, we recoil from the magnitude of that level of consideration and, instead, try to solve the problem with “more of the same”. So our institutions get more complex, cost more time, energy and attention; and deliver, perhaps, a little bit of breathing room. Until the next crisis that they are entirely unprepared for.

We are there. From somewhere around the beginning of WWI, the major structures Western Civilization innovated after the Enlightenment started to collapse. After WWII, we engineered a deep retrofit with a whole set of new technologies (the welfare state, operational planning, mass production, scientific engineering, etc.) and this worked. Wonderfully. Population exploded, lifestyle transformed. We went to the moon.

But not all was well in the State of Denmark. Our late 20th Century innovations managed to carry us through to somewhere in the late 70's or early 80's. At this point we again started to see the edges of our “civilization toolkit” giving away and we made a fateful choice: stability in exchange for adaptive fitness. We doubled down. And since then, every time that the foundations started to shake, we’ve consistently chosen “more of the same.” The result is that we’ve been living in an increasingly delusional systemic environment.

At this point, it is increasingly evident that every single one of our social institutions are in what I call the “rococo stage” or the “root bound” stage: they are complex, heavy, ineffective, poorly designed and essentially impossible to change for the better. Education, healthcare, policing, legislative and regulatory decision making, wealth distribution, monetary system, etc, etc. You name it.

Now this entire category might be considered more of a “force multiplier” on other more fundamental challenges. e.g., a dysfunctional legislative and regulatory environment inhibits our ability to resolve the financial crisis. But, from another point of view, most if not all of our problems are a result of these powerful, delusional and hypertrophied tools.

a) A huge amount of our social energy is tied up in these increasingly destructive institutions. e.g., Consider how much human capital is being wasted in our education system; or how our food/health systems destroy both food and health while simultaneously generating massive negative ecological impact.

b) A huge amount of power is vested in these institutions and, in particular, in the elites who control them, who therefore have short term interests that are divergent from the rest of humanity. And the power to defend those interests (see hyper-surveillance).

c) The “cognitive monopoly” on ideas held by the old civilization toolkit inhibits the discovery and implementation of actually good ideas at the individual, group and social levels.

d) The resulting apathy, “false hopelessness,” or violent reaction that results when we can’t think our way out of our distress. Its one thing to face major problems. Its another thing when the tools, techniques and models that you’ve learned to solve problems with are themselves the problem. When you feel bad but also feel powerless to help yourself . . .

Estimate: could last a while. It took hundreds of years for Rome and Byzantium to collapse. Our current institutional malaise could drag on for a while of its own accord. The problem is that it accentuates each and every other challenge. Consider the downside consequences of our dysfunctional economic/financial/political institutions various “responses” to the financial crisis. They make the crisis worse, reduce faith in political institutions and drive more people into “apathy” or “violence”. If the rubicon is crossed, we can easily see a financial crisis cascade into a social revolution.

So, on a standalone basis, this challenge could drag on for decades. But each step of the way it becomes more and more brittle — allowing even the smallest perturbation to result in an avalanche.

IV. Ecosystem Disruption

This is a big one. Importantly, it is much more than merely “global warming” or even “climate change”. This is the total set of the consequences of our human systems impacting our underlying eco-systems in ways that are unsustainably disruptive to those eco-systems. Toxificiation of the atmosphere, water and soil. Species extinction (particularly in the oceans). Deforestation. Water supply depletion. etc., etc. Pick your poision.

Climate change gets the headlines — and to be sure the thawing of methane hydrates and the melting of huge chunks of Antartica indicates that climate change is significant and coming faster than expected. This portends storms, droughts, floods and sea level rise that will push every other thread in the rope. All by itself climate change could knock us off our high horse. For example, as the climate moves out of the bounds that we are used to, food production will be challenged. Reduced growth in food production leads to increasing food prices. Which leads to social unrest. Which leads to an increase of the hyper-surveillance state and to an increasing fragility of marginal political institutions.

But climate change isn’t the only challenge here. As we move to address climate change and its underlying causes, we will find our menu of ecosystem-related maladies constantly multiplying over the next several decades. Four billion people are going to want to see their lifestyles move from $1 a day to something like the American lifestyle they hear about. Our current institutional structures have pushed the ecosystem to the brink just bringing 1 billion people up to a “21st Century” lifestyle. Do we hold the rest of the world back? Watch what that does to the empowered individual. Do we rein back the top billion? Watch what that does to political stability (not to mention the economy). Do we innovate ourselves out of the hole? Really -its our only chance, but this is at least as dangerous as any other path.

V. Accelerating Pace of Technology

By my lights, this is the key driver. That famous exponential curve that we see in technology is unique in human experience. It has been the principle cause of our 20th Century expansion. And it is our primary hope to survive the 21st Century. But we aren’t ready for it and it is moving fast.

  1. Within the next 30 years, everyone is going to be unemployed. Our current financial and economic systems can’t handle that. Do we end up in a neo-feudal state of hyper wealth concentration or a neo-utopia? It depends on how we respond.
  2. Consistently over the next set of decades, the exponential growth of technology is going to disrupt existing institutions. On the one hand, we deeply need to have those institutions radically disrupted. On the other hand, their response to being disrupted can be a total mess. Consider the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now imagine what happens as deep institutions like money and governance are challenged as directly as more superficial ones like copyright?
  3. Exponential technology growth is the poison and cure to ecosystem disruption. For example, we already have geoengineering power (e.g., ocean iron fertilization or cloud seeding), and this power is only going to increase. But do we have the wisdom? Unless we find some way to replace our declining institutions, our capacity for intelligent action is actually going to decline even as the requirements are accelerating.
  4. Exponential technology growth is going to make the coevolutionary struggle between the empowered individual and the hyper-surveillance state an existential threat. Within three decades we will have power so profound that either the empowered individual or the hyper-surveillance state doing the wrong thing could knock us off the map.
  5. The singularity. Yep, its on the board as well. What used to be consigned to a small group of “crazy people” is increasingly being taken quite seriously by anyone who looks closely. Why? Because in a deep sense a hyper-intelligent AGI is the logical consequence of exponential technology growth and it is insanely dangerous. So dangerous as to render everything else we’ve talked about irrelevant. So its worth contemplating. Moreover, in the best survey done so far, the folks who think about this question had a median estimate of such an event at 50% likely in 36 years and 90% likely in 59 years. In other words, worth contemplating now.

The Bottom Line

No one, least of all me, has the information to specify the limits with any certainty. But if you want to play with some guesstimation, my sense is the interconnections between I — V give us three or four decades (five at the outside) to get our shit straight. Otherwise, we will fall off of the high wire and the way down is pretty deep.

I expect ecosystem disruption to place a hard and slowly increasing pressure on the total system; while technology will continue to deliver punctuated and disequlibriating bursts.

I expect the effectiveness of the entire suite of our current institutions to decline in an accelerating fashion with particular pressure on the financial system and the economic system (e.g., the linkage between “having a job” and “individual wellbeing”). Finally, I expect both the incidence and magnitude of “conflict-related” pressures to increase — including the collective intelligence-killing consequences of “institutional paranoia” (e.g., NSA wiretapping).

My estimate of three to four decades assumes that we do a pretty darn good job facing our challenges. In other words, it requires neither extraordinary genius or venality. With certainty we will have many major disruptions (on the order of the 2008 financial crisis, the Arab spring and Fukushima) between now and then as the specific dynamics play-out. Any one of which could be catastrophic. All of which will tend to make the legacy institutional system more brittle.

But if we want to last more than four decades, we are going to have to do much better. We are going to have to face reality and Reinvent Everything. And by everything, I really mean everything. This is going to require a willingness to renew huge chunks of what it means to be human and how we go about living together. It can be done. But it can’t be done without commitment and clarity.

So, what did I miss? Where am I wrong? What do you think?