The last decade was not the end of the world, as was forecast, and we’re all still here, I’m happy to observe. We averted a fiscal cliff, we survived major upheavals in our political systems, we are, for the moment, surviving climate change.
As I write, the fires continue to burn in Australia, as they did in California in the months before. The UK has rained every day for three months, causing major flooding around the country.
We all harbor, 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 has disappeared.
Undoubtedly the chapter being closed is the end of easy global liberalism. Something seismic is happening politically across the world and we need to fasten our seat belts for the coming years.
Why do societies fail?
To understand why we are undergoing this shift, I’m returning to a topic I wrote about seven years ago. It started after I read 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 had 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 topsoil 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 began appearing in every American driveway – where they still sit.
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).
The fires, the hurricanes, the floods are focusing all our minds, but not to the degree that they may need to.
And that relates to the final problem of why societies fail: their failure to even attempt to solve a problem they have identified, a failure that has largely to do with clashes of self-interest, says Diamond.
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, continues to carry on.
And behind this stance is the collective 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.
Despite all the challenges we now face, I remain deliriously hopeful, for one reason. I live in the UK, and no matter what one’s position was for or against Brexit, the recent election was fascinating and instructive for one reason: ordinary people prevailed against an elite that for three years had attempted to frustrate the democratic Referendum vote in every way possible.
Regardless of all these vested interests, the people disagreed and resoundingly voted otherwise. The people’s will – and democracy – prevailed.
That, to me, suggests that we may just have a chance.
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