Saturday, January 19, 2013

We Don't Solve Problems

Some people wonder why, in the face of all the converging catastrophes on the horizon: economic, political, environmental, social, etc., we refuse to deal with them. Why don't we act proactively instead of heading toward a seeming collapse? Maybe we can't:
[...] In 2009, Dan Miller gave a nice talk about why the IPCC’s climate projections are too conservative and don’t account for many possible climate feedbacks. In it, he discussed one possible answer to this question. He observed that humans evolved to respond to certain types of threats. The properties of these threats are uniformly the opposite of the type we’re facing with these two challenges:
  •     Visible. (vs. Invisible: we don’t generally see the impacts of climate change or peak oil in our daily lives.)
  •     With historical precedent. (vs. Unprecedented: neither has happened in recent history.)
  •     Immediate. (vs. Drawn out: it’ll take years if not decades or centuries for them to fully play out.)
  •     With simple causality. (vs. With complex causality: even experts have a hard time figuring out how peak oil will interact with the economy or climate change with the global ecosystem.)
  •     Caused by others. (vs. Caused by all of us: there’s no enemy to blame for these problems.)
  •     Have direct personal impact. (vs. Unpredictable and indirect: most of us aren’t affected directly by these issues yet, and even if we are, it’s hard to pinpoint how.)
Maybe nothing will be done on either issue until one or more of these properties turns around (say the immediacy becomes clear, we define an “enemy”, or we start really feeling personal impacts).
Climate Change vs. Peak Oil (Contraposition)

Similarly, Kevin Drum wrote last year:
If you were teaching a graduate seminar in public policy and challenged your students to come up with the most difficult possible problem to solve, they'd come up with something very much like climate change. It's slow-acting. It's essentially invisible. It's expensive to address. It has a huge number of very rich special interests arrayed against doing anything about it. It requires international action that pits rich countries against poor ones. And it has a lot of momentum: you have to take action now, before its effects are serious, because today's greenhouse gases will cause climate change tomorrow no matter what we do in thirty years.

I have to confess that I find myself feeling the same way Andy does more and more often these days. It's really hard to envision any way that we're going to seriously cut back on greenhouse gas emissions until the effects of climate change become obvious, and by then it will be too late. I recognize how defeatist this is, and perhaps the proliferation of extreme weather events like Sandy will help turn the tide. But it hasn't so far, and given the unlikelihood of large-scale global action on climate change, adaptation seems more appealing all the time. For the same reason, so does continued research into geoengineering as a last-resort backup plan.
Is It Time To Start Adapting To Climate Change? (Mother Jones)

Which is all prelude to this observation from Ilargi at The Automatic Earth:
I came upon this quote a few weeks ago in an interview that Der Spiegel had with Dennis Meadows, co-author of the Limits to Growth report published by the Club of Rome 40 years ago. Yes, the report that has been much maligned and later largely rehabilitated. But that's not my topic here, and neither is Meadows himself. It's the quote, and it pretty much hasn’t left me alone since I read it.

Here's the short version:

[..] ... we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

And here it is in its context:

'Limits to Growth' Author Dennis Meadows 'Humanity Is Still on the Way to Destroying Itself'

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Meadows, 40 years ago you published "The Limits to Growth" together with your wife and colleagues, a book that made you the intellectual father of the environmental movement. The core message of the book remains valid today: Humanity is ruthlessly exploiting global resources and is on the way to destroying itself. Do you believe that the ultimate collapse of our economic system can still be avoided?

Meadows: The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.

I don't really think that Dennis Meadows understands how true that is. I may be wrong, but I think he's talking about a specific case here. While what he makes me ponder is that perhaps this is all we have, and always, that it's a universal truth. That we can never solve our real big problems through proactive change. That we can only get to a next step by letting the main problems we face grow into full-blown crises, and that our only answer is to let that happen.

And then we come out on the other side, or we don't, but it's not because we find the answer to the problem itself, we simply adapt to what there is at the other side of the full-blown crisis we were once again unable to halt in its tracks. Adapt like rats do, and crocodiles, cockroaches, no more and no less.

This offers a nearly completely ignored insight into the way we deal with problems. We don’t change course in order to prevent ourselves from hitting boundaries. We hit the wall face first, and only then do we pick up the pieces and take it from there.
And also:
Now, it is hard enough for individuals to know themselves, but it's something altogether different, more complex and far more challenging for the individuals in a society, to sufficiently know that society in order to correctly identify its problems, find solutions, and successfully implement them. In general, the larger the scale of the group, the society, the harder this is.

Meadows makes a perhaps somewhat confusing distinction between universal and global problems, but it does work:

You see, there are two kinds of big problems. One I call universal problems, the other I call global problems. They both affect everybody. The difference is: Universal problems can be solved by small groups of people because they don't have to wait for others. You can clean up the air in Hanover without having to wait for Beijing or Mexico City to do the same.

Global problems, however, cannot be solved in a single place. There's no way Hanover can solve climate change or stop the spread of nuclear weapons. For that to happen, people in China, the US and Russia must also do something. But on the global problems, we will make no progress.

So how do we deal with problems that are global? It's deceptively simple: We don't.
Much more at the original post :  Quote Of The Year. And The Next. (The Automatic Earth)

1 comment:

  1. I think the point about not being able to solve problems as a group gets larger is well demonstrated by democracy via simple majority. If you have 40% voting for one party and 60% voting for the other when you have 10 voters - well, that's manageable on a human level.

    But when you have 100 million voters, that means you've got 40 million people who don't subscribe to your way of thinking. To me, that's a difference in the qualitative nature of the problem, even though the proportions are the same. It's a difference in kind.


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