Monday, May 12, 2014

The Ten Labors of Hercules Today

Accepting that we can reshape our world only little by little, we, as tragic lovers, have to know where to concentrate our efforts. We have to know what is important in the myriad events and problems in the world around us. What are the challenges of our time?
I take one list typical for the period after Limits to Growth, showing probable international crises for the coming decades:
1.     Monetary crisis;
2.     Scarcity of raw materials and energy;
3.     Food shortages;
4.     Degradation of the natural environment;
5.     Inadequate distribution of wealth;
6.     Nuclear war.
Many such lists have already been made. In identifying the most important challenges, I have applied to global challenges the business technique of strategic issue analysis. Important clues are to look for developments that:
1.     Snowball, having consequences that worsen the problem;
2.     Have almost irreversible consequences;
3.     Affect the problem-solving capability itself.
As an illustration of these three dynamics, I cite some examples from the criminal justice system. Use of hard drugs leads to drug dealers. Drug dealers have an interest in selling more. Drug addicts have an interest in becoming drug dealers. So there is a feed-forward loop, or a snowballing. Prisons do deter crime, but they also make many convicts more criminal. Lack of prison capacity increases the chance that petty criminals will meet hardened criminals. The more that prisons stimulate crime, the more fed up with the subject are the public and politics, and the less they tend to increase capacity. When drug dealers or other criminals have reached a certain critical mass in organization and finance, they will be much harder to convict. Eventually they will buy their way into the police and the justice system. Corruption of police and the justice system is the classic example of a problem eating into the problemsolving capability itself. Many forms of corruption and demoralization fall into this category.
A natural environment such as a freshwater lake may become so polluted that its capacity for self-recuperation breaks down. Deforestation leads in many places to immediate topsoil loss, making reforestation almost impossible. The spread of a desert is a similar process that is practically irreversible, as is depletion of oil resources. We may find ways to address the problem, but we cannot find ways to create new oil reserves in the time it has taken to deplete them.
After some study and much thought I have come to a list of ten major challenges to the development of a sane, humane, civilized planet. Maybe ten is the limit of my imagination, and maybe it is the limit of the complexity I can handle. Maybe unconscious or aesthetic principles are at work. Maybe ten is the magic number for social challenges, but ten it is. Anyway, the more challenges, the fuzzier the picture; the fewer challenges, the poorer the picture. So here is my balance between mental fuzziness and mental poverty:
1.     Cruelty, torture and terror;
2.     Lack of control and loss of control;
3.     Depletion and pollution of nature;
4.     Transition to the post-industrial society;
5.     The ailments of democracy;
6.     Social injustice;
7.     Nationalism and international tensions;
8.     The probability of another great war;
9.     Global emergency planning;
10.  Nihilism.
The next ten chapters will deal with these ten challenges. So, I am taking the road of the evolutionary strategies. In each chapter I will sketch the key problem as I see it. I will give a historical brief, analyze the dynamics behind the problem, try to project the future consequences if we do not meet the challenge, and suggest our most promising avenues for responding to the challenge.
To provide a general picture, I will give short descriptions of the challenges here. They are the ten dragons to slay, the ten sphinxes to confront.

1. Cruelty, Torture and Terror
Terror is the oldest challenge. ‘A tyranny is worse than a devouring tiger’. Terror brings with it the world of cruelty, of torture, of atrocities, of wanton slaughter. Civilization begins where terror is stopped. Civilization ends where terror starts. Terror is the prime challenge, the basic inhumanity, the first and most terrible sphinx. It raises the deepest doubt; it generates the deepest despair about the possibility of real civilization. Cruelty, torture and beastly slaughter are the worst nightmares in broad daylight. They are, in a sense, the ultimate reality.
Real is what makes a difference. Fear, despair and excruciating pain make all the difference in the world. The bestial or demoniacal or mechanical infliction of pain by other people is an experience so intense that no serenity of armchair thinking can make up for it. In the body of civilization, terror is the most malignant, open festering sore.
Joan Grant in one of her novels about old Egypt describes a resistance network. This network is called The Eyes of Horus, because its participants should be able to see with one eye the rising sun, and with the other eye the worms in the belly of the crocodile. That is what this challenge is about, facing this sphinx steadfastly with one open eye. Our other eye should be free, so that we do not succumb to the sickening power of this horror. As long as terror exists, it will always be the first challenge.

2. Lack of Control and Loss of Control
The second challenge is that many developments we once started seem to get out of hand. Whatever we do seems to worsen the problem. This is the problem of the vicious circles, spirals that accelerate or jam. This challenge is about those snowballing developments and accelerations that appear to be the hallmark of our time. Everything seems to increase and go faster.
In 1944 more bombs were dropped than in all years before 1944. During one year in Vietnam more bombs were dropped than during the entire Second World War.
Today there are more scientists alive than there have ever been in all the years of the past. The best IBM personal computer of 1987 cost 12, 000 dollars and had the same capacity as a huge computer that twelve years earlier had cost half a million dollars. A PC of 1, 000 dollars today will do better.
Many processes enter a loop after their takeoff stage. Machines produce other machines that are better and faster, computers produce other computers that are better and faster, and software produces software that is better and faster. In the population explosion, more people produce ever more people (though not better or faster).
Loops are processes that have feed-forward -- consequences that intensify the process itself. This process is one of snowballing or spiraling out. It is similar to inflation that may ‘spiral out of control.’ Other processes do the same when two parties react to each other in a way that intensifies their current reactions. We call this process escalation. The arms race is an infamous example of such spiraling.
Inward spirals also exist and lead to jamming. Bureaucracy leads to more bureaucracy, legislation leads to more legislation, more lawyers lead to more complicated justice and so to more lawyers. Some of these loops lead to desirable results, such as economic takeoff and ever-decreasing prices. More often, loops spiral out of control, as in the classic story of the sorcerer’s apprentice.
This sphinx is one that is hysterical, with a contorted, twisted face like a whirlpool. It is not a basic challenge to our humanity, as was the first sphinx. This sphinx is the basic challenge to our capability to respond.

3. Depletion and Pollution of Nature
The next challenge is the depletion, pollution and destruction of our natural environment. In the first place, this depletion and destruction is a result of the population explosion. In the second place it is a result of the scale and nature of new industrial processes. In the third place we have a throwaway and who-cares attitude that has decreased more slowly than the two first factors have grown.
The best-known aspect of this challenge is the pollution of air, water and soil. In the end, however, the degradation and destruction of nature beyond recuperation may be this challenge’s most important aspect. Destruction includes erosion, deforestation, desertification. One other effect, even more extensive, might be a global climate change.
This sphinx shows an ugly, barren, polluted wasteland.

4. Transition to the Post-Industrial Society
The fourth challenge is the massive change of our economies and consequently our social life, because of the advance of technology. Just as the Agricultural Revolution ten thousand years ago sparked a wave of changes in how people lived, so did the Industrial Revolution. A further wave of massive changes is occurring right now with the latest phase of the Industrial Revolution, that of microelectronics, computers and telecommunications.
In the industrialized world this change means a transition to the post-industrial society described by Bell, Toffler and Naisbitt. This post-industrial society requires different products, different work, less work, and above all, a vastly different life.
This sphinx has a puzzled look, anxious and alienated.

5. The Ailments of Democracy
The fifth challenge is to continue to run societies in a way that prevents both anarchy and repression. Since the second half of the sixties there has appeared what Herbert Simon calls a ‘loss of nerve’ in our democracies. The most important challenge of modern democracies is to prevent their degradation into oligarchies, or worse, into totalitarianism.
In a democracy we cannot easily blame others for social imperfections. Nothing prevents any one of us from becoming prime minister or president. The feeling of impotence that an individual citizen may easily harbor in any political state becomes more paradoxical in a democracy.
The face of this sphinx is our own unimportant face, the face of one lost among many.

6. Social Injustice
The sixth challenge is injustice - institutionalized injustice, social injustice. The first level of injustice is that of people becoming victims of violence: the social violence of gangs, the political violence of paramilitary groups and terrorists, and the commercial violence of organized crime. To live in a neighborhood that is under control of the Mob is near to living under the threat of the first challenge, which is that of torture, cruelty and terror.
The second aspect of social injustice is grinding poverty, the poverty that breeds despair, demoralization, indifference, and loss of human dignity.
The third aspect of social injustice is discrimination based on background: race, religion, language, sex. Race and sex discrimination are probably the most vicious, because race and sex are conspicuous and impossible to change.
The fourth aspect of social injustice is the arrogance of power of official institutions over individual citizens, in the machinery of government, especially of the law enforcement agencies themselves. This is an old challenge indeed.
The face of this sphinx is one of unfeeling arrogance.

7. Nationalism and International Tensions
The seventh challenge is the challenge of nationalism and of its resulting international tensions. Since nations have armies, international tensions may cause or aggravate armed conflicts. With the present global economy and access to global transport and information, all of us are interdependent. Policy decisions are made within national boundaries, and many of these boundaries are hardening. Think of growing protectionism. Political states are considered to be machines to stimulate wealth and dispense welfare. Each state wants economic growth. Thus fierce competition, distrust and outright envy are present, but so is mutual dependence. The GNP race that has followed the old colonial race has many runners. All of them are struggling to get to the top, but they are interconnected with strings of trade, of finance, of knowledge, and of people.
After any revolution of rising expectations, disappointment in progress becomes widespread, and much scapegoating appears. McCarthyism was just one example of the universal tendency to look abroad for causes of domestic problems and frustrations. Behind each problem are the commies, or the CIA, or the multinationals or the heathens. However, as Daniel Boorstin reminds us: ‘All social ills are indigenous, especially in our time, in which each nation asserts its divine right to go to hell in its own particular way.’

8. The Probability of another Great War
This leads us to the eighth challenge: the chance of new global wars, possibly nuclear, ultimately with the potential of destroying our civilization. By its nature, this challenge is the biggest.
The face of this sphinx is as awful as that of the first one, but this sphinx is incomparably larger. This monster rises sky-high, with a metal face and a slumbering volcano inside. It is like a lethal spirit in the bottle, but on a planetary scale. This sphinx is tied to a viciously spiraling arms race, which enlarges both the spirit and the bottle that holds it. We are long past the stage of trading off the opening of a limited bottle now for the chance of having a bigger one opened later. More specifically, the challenge is to make the outbreak of a new world war less probable, and to decrease the extent and intensity of such a war.

9. Global Emergency Planning
The ninth challenge is global emergency planning, to prepare for relief and reconstruction after a global war or any other global disaster. This challenge is partially a problem of means of medicine, transport, industry, agriculture, and most basically, of knowledge. It also is a problem of ends. The survivors of such a disaster may be miserable, confused, demoralized people, lacking spirit and guts to battle the odds.
This sphinx is a collection of shifting shadows at the horizon.

10. Nihilism
This brings us to the last challenge - nihilism. Why bother? Is there any meaning in all this struggle for a better world? All of these earthly problems may just be part of an educational experience or an experimental laboratory. Or maybe they are a chance happening in a chance universe, in which some creatures have the strange fate to be self-conscious and doomed to choice. This is the sphinx with the empty eyes, black holes that stare from nothingness into nothingness.
Of course, there are many doctrines, mostly religious, which offer escape from this sphinx. But if we do not want to escape it, if we want to confront it, then nihilism is the ultimate challenge that separates the men from the boys, as well as the women from the girls. I will explore those modern developments that seem to bring this presumably unsolvable issue at least into focus, and that appear to offer new material.

From: The Ten Global Challenges: How People Make the World. An Essay on Politics, Civilization and Humanity. Ordering the book 

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