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Why We Cannot Save the World

This article is an attempt to respond to those who say they see me as a defeatist, a ‘doomer’, a dogmatically negative person. I have described myself of late as a joyful pessimist, and will try to explain why. This article draws on various theories about complexity, and the phenomenological philosophies of several writers, poets, artists and scientists. But it’s not a work of exposition of theory or of philosophy. It is, I guess, a confession. Hardly a day passes when I don’t hear a cry for us all to work together to do X, because if we do that, everything will change and the world will be saved (or at least be rid of some horrific and intractable problem and hence made immeasurably better). Many variations of X are proposed, and they’re often about (a) comprehensively reforming our political, economic, education or other system, (b) achieving some large-scale behaviour change through mass persuasion or education, or (c) bringing together great minds and volunteer energies to bring ingenuity and innovation to bear collaboratively on some issue or crisis. It is perfectly reasonable to believe that such change is possible: Look at what we have done in past to eradicate diseases, to institute democracy and ‘free’ enterprise worldwide, to dramatically reduce the prevalence of slavery, to pull the world out of the Great Depression, to produce astonishing technologies and improve the position of women and minorities, we are told. All we need is the same kind of effort dedicated to X. If we work together we can accomplish anything. It is perfectly reasonable to believe that such change is possible. But such change, I would argue, is not possible. The belief that substantive and sustained change comes about by large-scale concerted efforts, or by the proverbial Margaret Mead “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” misses a critical point — throughout human history such change efforts have only occurred when there was no choice but to do them, when the alternative of inaction was so obviously and inarguably calamitous that the status quo was out of the question. And even then such efforts usually fail — either they run up against fierce and powerful opposition and are suppressed, or they bring about a new status quo that is arguably worse than what it replaced. Alas, the history books are written and rewritten by the victors, so “what might have been” is invariably portrayed as worse than what is. I have tried to capture this realization in what I have come to call Pollard’s Laws: Pollard’s Law of Human Behaviour: We do what we must (our personal, unavoidable imperatives of the moment), then we do what’s easy, and then we do what’s fun. There is never time left for things that are merely important. Pollard’s Law of Complexity: Things are the way they are for a reason. If you want to change something, it helps to know that reason. If that reason is complex, success at changing it is unlikely, and adapting to it is probably a better strategy. The human mind is astonishingly malleable; that is one of the reasons we have adapted so quickly and effectively to changes that most creatures could never manage. But a consequence of that malleability is that we can be persuaded that things are good, or at least OK (and improving), when they are not. We can even be convinced that the history of human civilization, allegedly from brutish to enslaved to democratic and affluent, is one of “progress”, when there is overwhelming evidence that it is not. We can be persuaded that our exhaustion, our physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and imaginative poverty, the debilitating chronic diseases that are now epidemic in our culture, the ghastly suffering to which we subject other animals in the name of food and human safety, the epidemic of physical, sexual and psychological abuse in our homes and institutions, the endemic sense of grief and depression about our lives and our world, the accelerating extinction of all non-human life on Earth except for human parasites, the rapid depletion of cheap energy upon which our whole culture totally depends, the endlessly growing gap between the tiny affluent minority and the massive struggling majority, the runaway climate change that our human pollutants has triggered, the utter impossibility of ever repaying the staggering debts we have dumped on future generations, and the consequences when those debts come due — we can be persuaded that all of these things can be somehow fixed, that all of these unintended consequences of the way we have been living our lives for a thousand generations, can somehow be resolved in one or two, by a concerted effort to do X. They cannot. That is not how the world, or human civilizations, work, or ever have worked. Our human civilization, like all living systems, is complex, and complex systems do not lend themselves to mechanical ‘fixes’. They evolve, slowly, unpredictably, over millennia. We may be able to change many malleable human minds in a hurry, if we’re motivated, and if we must, at least for a while until we can go back to what we were doing. But we cannot change our bodies, which are still evolving slowly, trying to adapt to our minds’ relatively recent decision to leave the rainforest, to eat meat, to settle in large, crowded, stressful, hierarchical cities, to walk upright. Our weary, pretzel-bent bodies are complaining about the changes we have forced on them over the past million years, and struggling with them. Too much too fast, they say. And we cannot begin to enable the ecosystems of which we are a part to adapt to these changes, ecosystems now in states of massive collapse, exhaustion, desolation and extinction. We do not know what to do. We are limited to mechanical solutions — technology and engineering — and mechanical solutions cannot ‘solve’ these crises — crises that technology and engineering have themselves substantially caused. Throughout this article I am going to use the term ‘organic process’ instead of the more abstract term ‘complex system’, and the term ‘construct’ instead of ‘simple system’ or ‘complicated system’. The distinction is important. We want to understand things, and we want to be able to control them, so it is not surprising that we’ve become so adept at representing (‘re-presenting’) organic processes through the use of models, theories, ‘laws’ and other human constructs. But these models are absurdly oversimplified representations, and when we mistake the model or theory for reality we do so at our peril. A car is a construct, and it works quite well for awhile, but it is no replacement for the mobility processes of a living creature. Likewise, a computer is a construct, and a very useful one, but it is not a replacement for, or even a facsimile of, the processes of a living brain. Keep reading over at Dave’s blog (which may need to be renamed) How To Save the World
sweetspot Dave Pollard is the author of Finding the Sweet Spot.

Dave is now probably best known for his weblog How to Save the World, where he writes about understanding how the world really works, and how we might create better ways to live and make a living. Dave is currently VP of the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants, where he is responsible for research and thought leadership, and more specifically for helping the accounting profession and entrepreneurs in general become more innovative, resilient and sustainable. Prior to this he worked with Ernst & Young for 27 years in many different capacities as CKO and Global Director of Knowledge Innovation, and as Director of Entrepreneurial Services. Dave speaks and writes prolifically on knowledge management, business innovation, and sustainable entrepreneurship. His first book, Finding the Sweet Spot: A Natural Entrepreneur's Guide to Responsible, Sustainable, Joyful Work, has just been published by Chelsea Green. He lives on a natural wetland on the Oak Ridges Moraine northwest of Toronto.

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