17 November 2007

Civilization's Big Bifurcation

I'm growing increasingly convinced that we're at a point of bifurcation. Alert readers are quick to ask, "What could he possibly mean by that?"

Bifurcation in systems dynamics refers to a problem with not one but two solutions. It's just a fancy way of saying that from here we can move forward in one of two directions - neither of which is pre-determined.

In terms of our civilization, resting as it does upon a fragile yet improving set of complex relationships between technology, practice, manners, and laws, I'm using bifurcation to refer to two paths that lie before us.

One path, one solution to our current problems, is one we're reminded of every time a politician rants about global warming or Islamo-Fascism. It is the path of relative collapse, civilization returning to a simpler time when the planet provided for only 100 to 200 million malnourished and scantily clad humans animated by fear and distrust.

The other path, another solution to our current potential, is one we rarely hear about. It is the path of increased complexity, progress, and prosperity. On this path, we find ourselves reconciling the current conflict between the economic and the ecological, finding a way to make our practices sustainable while living lives of increased interaction, trust, and joy.

The only certainty is that what we're doing now is not sustainable. It may appear sustainable, but that is only because we're not looking. We're like the occupants in a train traveling 60 mph towards another train, happily chatting in the dining car and looking around within the car to confirm that we're fine. A look out the window, however, suggests that we're not. Already 90% of the ocean's edible fish have been decimated. We're running up against the limits of water storage. Temperature changes are triggering dangerous levels of drought and flooding in different parts of the world. Insurance companies have forecast disaster claims equal to the world GDP in 20 to 30 years as storms intensify. About 1/4 of the world's population lives in countries that are collapsing - countries that would have been declared bankrupt and closed if such a thing were possible. Increasing evidence mounts that what we're manufacturing is not compatible with good health.

In the midst of this, apathy seems fashionable. Not apathy in terms of people refusing to take individual responsibility. Rather, apathy in the sense of people refusing to insist on collective action.

If you want a BA degree in four years, you had better get to work now. If you want to launch a profitable drug in five years, you're already late by five. If you want to avoid water, climate, population, or pandemic crisis in 10 to 20 years, you have to begin working towards a solution now. The larger the goal, the bigger the system you're trying to influence, the more important is a sense of urgency. Sadly, the farther away are the consequences, the less the sense of urgency.

The status quo is not an option. The only question seems to be whether you want your children to live in a world much better than yours or much worse.


Vladimir Dzhuvinov said...

Hm, does "economic" imply unecological and unsustainable?

Or is it that so many of our policy makers are so inept at economic thinking, that they have given this highly reasonable science a bad name? :-(

ThomasLB said...

I used to read a lot of science fiction, and a lot of those books envisioned a future with a super-wealthy elite at the top who had technology, wealth, and comfort, and masses of destitute, suffering people who lived outside the walls.

I think the corporate oligarchy who dominate Western government and Western thought are building that vision of the future- and making darn sure that they are the ones behind the high walls.

Ron Davison said...

I agree that economic doesn't have to mean living at odds with the environment, but it generally has. At a minimum, we have to change our notions of what constitutes good economic policy.

I think you're right that the elites often come from a scarcity model of the world. The story of progress if the story of their being repeatedly proven wrong.