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We Have Black Swans

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In advertisement prepared by a company that manufactures large video monitors recently went viral. It showed an interview situation in which aspirants were interviewed on the upper floor of a high-rise, where they had a view of the city through a large picture window. In mid-interview, the sky suddenly discolored and the city was struck by a meteorite, spreading destruction that was threatening to engulf the building. The interviewees panicked and sought cover, even as the interviewer appeared to remain oblivious. The subterfuge had been pulled off with the company's new realistic large-screen video monitors.

Watching the advertisement with amusement is a guilty pleasure, as the panic of the naïve interviewees is quite real. The video also happens to draw attention to a very real problem. What was pictured could indeed happen at any time. We know this, and yet we are largely just sitting on this information. We have a potential natural catastrophe that with foresight could be quite avoidable. Matters lie largely in the technical domain, which we can get our arms around. The risks we face are calculable, and the numbers are not particularly reassuring. But where is the call to action?

From http://www.flickr.com/photos/54526467@N00/8475569087/: Meteor trace
Meteor trace
(image by cyberborean)


A lack of future-orientation seems to characterize our society and our politics these days. This is happening even while our ability to shape future events is increasing substantially. Even the close call at Chelyabinsk last year did not have major policy repercussions. By contrast, Native Americans had an ethic of preserving the integrity of the environment unto the seventh generation, even while they had only limited means of messing things up in the first place. This is an example it would serve us well to emulate.

A similarly blinkered view exists around the issue of global warming. Sea level rise is typically projected only to the end of the century at most, as if we were reaching a plateau at that point. But the problem does not end there. An old song tells of a truck full of bananas losing its brakes on the run downhill into Scranton, Pennsylvania. The trajectory of the careening truck initially remains uneventful, but ineluctably, the truck speeds up. The approach to its doom is nonlinear. So is the matter of global warming. We make linear projections at best, and these vastly underestimate the real threat. At the moment, we still have brakes. But we are gradually losing control of our ability to slow or stop this process.

It's even worse than that. Ocean levels have been rising for decades, and the system is not in equilibrium. Even if we stop adding CO2 to the atmosphere, sea levels will keep rising. And it will take hundreds of years for the ecosystem to recover naturally from the CO2 we have already added to the atmosphere. We are engaging in collective madness"if we care about the future at all.

This is not to say that our predictions don't have margins of error. The Iceland volcano Eyjafjallajökull or its siblings could blow again and we could be worrying about being too cold for many years rather than too hot. But the underlying story would remain the same. We are being reckless with the future of our civilization by pushing the limits.

Last year our attentions were drawn back to the loss of the Titanic one hundred years earlier. The quick sinking of this majestic vessel was symbolic in so many ways. All needs and wants were provided for on this floating life-support system, as it navigated through forbidding waters in a state of assumed invulnerability, oblivious as to the hazards besetting it. Initially people refused to believe that the ship was doomed to sink. After all, the band was still playing and the liquor was still flowing.

What first drew my attention to the change in future-orientation was a series of philosophical questions sent by Max Frisch to his fellow authors on the occasion of his one hundredth birthday a few years ago. One of the questions was whether the person cared what happened to the planet beyond the estimated lifetime of his grandchildren. I was shocked to read that most of the respondents could work up no concern about what happens over the longer term. I found that very troubling indeed.

It is understandable that corporate executives have a short planning horizon. It is also clear that politicians focus mainly on near-term concerns. And we realize that apocalyptic faiths fully expect our earthly strivings to end badly. But our artists? If even our artists have little concern about the sustainability of our civilization, then that is surely reason for alarm.

So much hinges on our assumptions about the future. A large part of the satisfaction we derive from our life's work is due to the knowledge that we are contributing to human well-being, and that is all the more true if we can project the consequences into the long-term future. If we simply dispense with concern about the longer term, then a lot of things are no longer worth worrying about.

If we take the lack of future-orientation as a point of departure then many things happening in our society make more sense. Those who were most centrally involved in the financial meltdown were surely aware that they were on an unsustainable path. But it did not matter as long as they were still personally profiting. If the future is not our problem, then we might as well trim the funds we are expending on educating the next generation, as indeed we have been doing. And it no longer matters if the American workforce is healthy, employable, or provided for in its old age. Much of it has become surplus. If we regard policy in the absence of future consciousness, then even what is troublesome begins to seem rational.

Of course future-orientation remains a guiding principle for many. All those crowding into Independence Square in Kiev in the extreme cold are surely betting on a brighter future. The same goes for those who risked their lives in Tahrir Square. And a visitor to Shanghai is struck by the optimistic bias of the people. Things are not ok now, but they will be so much better in the future".

Is it a sign of incipient senescence of our civilization that we are seemingly no longer future-oriented? Or is it merely a feature of the extreme wealth disparity that presently exists? Those with substantial tangible wealth tend to shift toward concerns about its preservation. Claims made on behalf of our collective future are claims on the country's present wealth, and these claims will be resisted by those who possess it. Finally, is it a matter of our increasing insularity, ever more the reality for the upper crust?

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Siegfried Othmer is a physicist who over the last 28 years has been engaged with neurofeedback as a technique for the rehabilitation and enhancement of brain function. He is Chief Scientist at the EEG Institute in Los Angeles.

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To be future oriented you have to be other-orient... by Derryl Hermanutz on Saturday, Jan 4, 2014 at 3:16:32 PM
The fraction of people who are not well served by... by Siegfried Othmer on Sunday, Jan 5, 2014 at 9:37:28 PM
Do you have a specific hazard in mind for which yo... by Siegfried Othmer on Sunday, Jan 5, 2014 at 9:43:13 PM