We have lots of problems, but they're not mutually self-reinforcing
I've never had an opportunity to comment on an optimistic blog post before.
. . . .
I don't know how to do it.
“You know how in the fantasy stories, the Hero of Legend always mysteriously appears just in time to fight the Great Evil? It’s not luck, it’s selection bias. If the Hero of Legend appeared in normal times and there was no Great Evil around, they would just end up playing in a grunge band or coding a mobile app.“
This is a wonderfully silly analogy.
This is an excellent post. Well thought out. Congratulations.
That's not to say that there aren't, in this present age, potentially existential threats to the human species sufficiently powerful to drive it back to the dark ages. Some could be instantaneous, others so gradual as to escape a counter effect.
It's possible to envision, for instance, a set of self-reinforcing crises rapidly escalating from minor to major events, mismanaged by a couple of great powers. The major factor could be our increasing reliance on AI.
It's also possible humans will continue to drive innumerable species to extinction. We don't really know how dependent we are on them for our long term survival. We just won't act because each event will seem minor in the scale of things.
It's also possible we will politically stagnate, maybe even endure a long decline toward an amorphous populist stasis, a kind of survival mode existence that prohibits change in the interest of stability. There could be entire regions of the world each locked into its own solitude, patrolling its borders for uninvited ideas, people, or products.
"which should remind Americans that there are enemies in the world more dangerous than other Americans." Great line, it should be remembered more than it is likely to be.
“Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from a feeling that one knows exactly where the world is heading. Bewilderment is more humble and therefore more clear-sighted.” - Yuval Noah Harari
(See also Philip Tetlock, Howard Marks, and many others on the relative impossibility of predicting the future accurately, especially the outcomes of highly complex interrelated systems.)
Unfortunately, neither Tooze nor Smith (nor anyone else really) has clear insight into how all of these "crises" will play out in the future. Nonetheless, approaching the future with optimism, good will and commitment to the common good, I expect, will likely prove more satisfying psychologically and constructive for our communities. Resisting the siren's song of approaching doom narratives pretty much requires strapping ourselves (including opinion writers and prognosticators) to the mast.
And yet, in today’s NYT, Cascade folks: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/13/opinion/coronavirus-ukraine-climate-inflation.html?fbclid=IwAR2qZ2hT0iQZf_AJtuxGvxgeInbDhcL9ma90WXYnweez4acgVDQH4xAQsi0
Really good post but I was a college freshman when "We Didn't Start The Fire" came out and I would describe this song as a list of random news events that get steadily darker and more alarming as the singer gets closer to the present (1989). It's a story about Boomers' loss of innocence.
A theory in fashion history says fashion will continue to progressively adopt more extreme versions of a style until it becomes physically impossible to wear. At that point, its design replacement is its opposite (relative to the extreme) -- so fashion goes up and down in repeated bell curves, a cyclical wave. But the main thing is the 'impossible to wear' part—organic human needs anchor fashion to the degree of wear-ability. Crises seem to have similar repeating cycles, similarly anchored, but also include food and shelter, in addition to clothing. New (relative) optimism springs from human situations which no longer meet physical human needs. The trick is to recognize human limits earlier, structure society to prevent intolerable human conditions, and not chase the wants (I know, good luck with that). Interestingly, those goals can succeed most of the time via Human Ecology education to age twenty; it's the study of human needs and how to meet them -- very few schools offer it. Then, maybe we could be absolutely happy most the time instead of relatively happy some of the time.
Interesting that within this worldview, half of all existential threats amount to "leftists lose power". Funny how that works out.
It's also quite abhorrent that progressives consider these events "good news". To the other 94%, what we've apparently observed over the past year is that you can cause unprecedented inflation, a recession, a stock market crash, surging gas and food prices, skyrocketing murder rates, and forced injections and mutilation of children... and get away with it largely unscathed. After the last 2 years of mass suffering, at least a symbolic moral repudiation of the perpetrators would have quenched some of the latent blood lust, but with recent events it seems it will only grow more intense. I don't see how this could possibly be interpreted as a victory for bipartisanship - it is a victory for mass murderers, in the most literal sense. Mass murderers being rewarded for committing mass murder will not be forgotten, and it will certainly not make anyone more inclined to find common ground with those who are rewarding the mass murderers.
Excellent post. I addition to the media addiction to doom and gloom and the cognitive biases you highlighted, I think there is always a desire to identify an overarching theme with a catchy label. Instead of a motley collection of challenges, a polycrisis. Everything becomes framed as a paradigm shift. I am less optimistic on the buffer mechanisms, as it seems to me that in many cases we are just patching things up. Two examples: Yes, the Russia-triggered energy crisis accelerates the push for renewables in Europe, but it has not yet really pushed us to a more realistic discussion on the energy transition, including the role of nuclear and natural gas. Similarly on Covid, where we still seem to be unable to have a rational ex-post assessment of the pandemic response. So yes, every crisis triggers a response, but the response does not always get us much closer to the solutions, in my view.
The idea of a "wicked problem" is similar but better articulated than "polycrisis". Climate Change is usually included among wicked problems.
Another great post, as usual!
I don’t understand how one could NOT see how much the crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is both:
1. Accelerating decarbonization across Europe.
2. Destroying all the political pull and fellow travelers Putin spent decades building in Europe and America.
I think a big part of it is people’s strong status quo basis. People often don’t like change because they can’t envision it. Likewise people don’t remember how much systems have changed in the past, and can’t envision current systems changing in response to current crisis. Therefore, since they can’t envision system adaption, they project collapse.
Great article! The mechanism of poly solutions seems similar to recessions: shake out the weak businesses to make the strong ones prosper. In times of crisis we are just forced to come up with good solutions, instead of merely incentivised to find them (or bad solutions that look like good ones short term).
Not seeing anything that has prepared us for the next century of slow global growth and increasing inequality forecast by Piketty. We do a horrible job of mitigating future social problems that affect up to 30% of the population. A lot of one’s sentiment on polycrisis relates to how much you care about sacrificing a minority for the benefit of a global middle class. The standard of ‘good enough’ lacks an agreed upon definition for folks to engage in these debates.
I have a question for Noah, it's off today's topic, but this forum seems like a polite to submit it. The question relates to the tax deduction for charitable giving. If the government were to eliminate this deduction and make a compensating revenue neutral reduction in tax rate or policy, what would be the likely finical impact on charities in the long term. I ask because several times of late I've read that religious objections to same sex marriage (up to and including arguments in the Supreme Court) and other cultural hot button issues has been because they felt that they would be forced to choose between their "moral" position and the loss of their tax exempt status. This seems to me like they are saying "no justice for you if it costs the church money". Maybe the root of the problem is tax exempt status, so I'm interested in the impact of eliminating it, for all charities.
Honestly, it may just be that polycrisis is a really cool word