It is not the end of the world, and we’re all still here, I’m happy to observe. We averted a fiscal cliff, but we all harbour, even more than we did in 2012, the uneasy sense that we have reached the end of something, closed a chapter on our own history, arrived at a point where there is no turning back. The end of life as we’ve known it. The end of oil. The end of easily acquired stuff. The end of cheap, flourishing modern capitalism. The end of every-day-in-every-way our easy-street Western life is getting better.
So if it’s all burning down, if we have to build over scorched ground again, what do we put in its place? What exactly does post-2012 evolution looks like?
Why do societies fail?
To answer that question, I’ve been reading the work of Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize winning geography professor and erstwhile anthropologist, who has built his reputation on asking the big questions of specific societies: why do some of them thrive while others make stupid, even disastrous decisions? What holds it together and what causes it to collapse?
I’ve been specifically interested in an interview he gave about a course he ran on the collapse of societies. Why had some societies like the Mayans in the Yucatan or the Anasazi in the American Southwest or even the Easter Islanders brought about their own destruction by ceaselessly mining (and finally exhausting) their own resources?What makes a society not realize that it is eating its own children?
The trouble with group-think
What Diamond’s UCLA students finally determined is that at the heart of these calamitous mistakes are failures in group decision-making, whether in entire societies, governments or even business. The group may not anticipate a problem before it arises; or failed to learn from earlier knowledge or mistakes; or even try to solve the problem by falling back on a false analogy.
After immigrating to Iceland, he writes, the Norwegian Vikings simply assumed that the light, ash-based Icelandic soil would be as heavy as the clay-based soil of their native Norway, and so they cleared the forests, as they had in the old country, to create pastures for their animals. A few generations later, half of Iceland’s top soil had blown away, and the Vikings were left with an agricultural crisis.
By the same token, American citizens presently act as though there never was a 1973 Gulf oil crisis. At the time, they bought gas-saving vehicles, but before long, images of long lines at the gas pump and alternate day gas buying were forgotten, and Hummers and four by fours appeared in every American driveway.
A society’s downfall also occurs, Diamond’s students discovered, when it fails to identify a problem already there, or slow trend invisibly taking hold, what politicians call ‘creeping normalcy.’ Our best example, of course, is global warming, because the trend is not a clean inexorable upward climb, but a fluctuation that has to be studied over a long time to discover the signal – the upward trend – from the noise – the weird fluctuations up and down.
Finally, and something that speaks to all of us right now, is a society’s failure to even attempt to solve a problem it has identified, which largely has to do with clashes of self-interest, he says. A perfect example of this is the US fiscal cliff, where both Republicans and Democrats are prepared to harm the world economy rather than give up certain key interests or even give up ground.
Good for me, bad for you
Economists call this ‘good for me, bad for you’ ‘rational behavior,’ and a perfect example, says Diamond, are the mining companies in Montana which, until recently, were allowed to dump toxic wastes of copper and arsenic into waterways with impunity.
After 1971, when Montana passed a law requiring mining companies to clean up after abandoning a mine, mining companies found a way around it, by declaring bankruptcy after extracting the ore but before engaging in their clean-up job. This good-for-me, bad-for-you stance is most often adopted by the decision-making elite against the rest of society, as occurred during the banking crisis of 2008 and now, during the recession, still carries on.
Another reason societies fail to solve clearly identified problems has do with collective amnesia, which Diamond calls psychological denial: it just isn’t going to happen to me.
And finally, he says, societies collapse when they try to sort out a problem, and either don’t have the correct solution or are just too late.
All of these group-think failures are certainly the precipice on which we now sit: failing as a group to anticipate the problems we now face, to agree that we now have a problem, to identify successful ways to tackle the problem, and to put those solutions into effective action.
But aside from all these failures, I would add that our biggest group delusion – the lodestone of faulty reasoning in our group decision-making – has to do with the collective assumption and acceptance of the idea that individual ambition serves the common good. That idea, which built modern capitalism, will be at the heart of its downfall. That thinking is our modern-day equivalent of eating our own children.
Many ‘primitive cultures’ studied by Diamond such as the New Guinea highlanders are far more successful than we are at many societal challenges, such as deforestation and even conflict resolution, by adopting a ‘good for me, good for all’ mentality. There is a great deal we can learn from them about a new type of group think.
I, for one, believe that we will not begin to identify or sort our current crises or even begin a process of evolution without casting off that faulty group thinking. Everywhere I look, even in popular astrological forecasts, people are identifying that the biggest action plan on our agenda for 2013 is returning to a sense of community.
Helping Western mind to truly understand that concept is my New Year’s resolution for 2013. What is yours?