I very rarely read back any of the essays I write. But maybe that's not always a good thing. Especially when they deal with larger underlying issues beneath the problems we find ourselves in, why these problems exist in the first place, and what we can and will do to deal with them. Not all of these things can and perhaps should be re-written time and again. Commentary on daily events calls for new articles, but attempts to define the more in-depth human behavior behind these events should, if they are executed well, be more timeless.
Not that I would want to judge my own work, I'll leave that to others, but I can still re-read something and think: that's something I would like to read if someone else had written it. Since a friend yesterday sent me an email that referenced the essay below, I did go through it again and thought it's worth republishing here. It's from New Year's Day 2013, or almost 2.5 years old, which should be a long enough time gap that many present-day readers of The Automatic Earth haven't read it yet, and long enough for those who have to 'enjoy' it all over again.
I am not very optimistic about the fate of mankind as it is, and that has a lot to do with what I cite here; that while our problems tend to evolve in exponential ways, our attempts at solving them move in linear fashion. That is true as much for the problems we ourselves create as it is for those that -- seem to -- 'simply happen'. I think it would be very beneficial for us if we were to admit to our limits when it comes to solving large-scale issues, because that might change the behavior we exhibit when creating these issues.
In that sense, the distinction made by Dennis Meadows below between 'universal problems' and 'global problems' may be very useful. The former concerns issues we all face, but can -- try to -- solve at a more local level; the latter deals with those issues that need planet-wide responses -- and hardly ever get solved if at all. The human capacity for denial and deceit plays a formidable role in this.
I know that this is not a generally accepted paradigm, but that I put down to the same denial and deceit. We like to see ourselves as mighty smart demi-gods capable of solving any problem. But that is precisely, I think, the no. 1 factor in preventing us from solving them. And I don't see that changing: we're simply not smart enough to acknowledge our own limitations. Therefore, as Meadows says: "We are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change." Here's from January 1 2013:
Ilargi: I came upon this quote a few weeks ago in an interview that Der Spiegel had with Dennis Meadows, co-author of the Limits to Growth report published by the Club of Rome 40 years ago. Yes, the report that has been much maligned and later largely rehabilitated. But that's not my topic here, and neither is Meadows himself. It's the quote, and it pretty much hasn't left me alone since I read it.
Here's the short version:
[..] " we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.
And here it is in its context:
SPIEGEL ONLINE: Professor Meadows, 40 years ago you published "The Limits to Growth" together with your wife and colleagues, a book that made you the intellectual father of the environmental movement. The core message of the book remains valid today: Humanity is ruthlessly exploiting global resources and is on the way to destroying itself. Do you believe that the ultimate collapse of our economic system can still be avoided?
Meadows: The problem that faces our societies is that we have developed industries and policies that were appropriate at a certain moment, but now start to reduce human welfare, like for example the oil and car industry. Their political and financial power is so great and they can prevent change. It is my expectation that they will succeed. This means that we are going to evolve through crisis, not through proactive change.
I don't really think that Dennis Meadows understands how true that is. I may be wrong, but I think he's talking about a specific case here. While what he makes me ponder is that perhaps this is all we have, and always, that it's a universal truth. That we can never solve our real big problems through proactive change. That we can only get to a next step by letting the main problems we face grow into full-blown crises, and that our only answer is to let that happen.
And then we come out on the other side, or we don't, but it's not because we find the answer to the problem itself; we simply adapt to what there is at the other side of the full-blown crisis we were once again unable to halt in its tracks. Adapt like rats do, and crocodiles, cockroaches, no more and no less.
This offers a nearly completely ignored insight into the way we deal with problems. We don't change course in order to prevent ourselves from hitting boundaries. We hit the wall face first, and only then do we pick up the pieces and take it from there.