Monday, December 17, 2012

Do We Need a Perfect Crisis to Get Us on a Better Path?

By Gary Berg-Cross

Seasonal, but traditional Xmas, parties sometimes offer an opportunity for good conversations.  Of course, the recent tragedy in Connecticut serves along with the looming ”cliff” talk serve up ready topics. Its human nature to pay attention to what's in front of us, rather than some abstract topics, but often the one leads to the other via generalization.

In an ad hoc small group at a weekend party a constructive discussion of what it would take to avoid more “disasters” emerged. This was not a group with an End Days belief that claims some biblical chronology of floods and other disasters after the State of Israel was founded. Give me real science and climatologists any day.

While gun security and mental health screening drove the early conversation one DOE person maneuvered the conversation to his specialties. Among his lightweight rants was what he saw as the coming energy crises as we struggle to move off of dirty coal to cleaner energy sources, safe nuclear power and CO2 sequestration. The path of that conversation was convoluted,  but the group the arrived at the idea that we need a “crisis” to “save us” and do what we must do.  In this view normal events and processes don’t seem to allow our current system to effectively self correct in time to avoid cliff-like events. This is well captured in the Toles Zombie cartoon above. What can snap us out of our torpor? Perhaps, it was suggested, a crisis would be needed to snap the system to attention and correct the path.

I had a bit of worry about this, since we seem to have had series of crises (take you pick, Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, the 2008 financial meltdown, Fukushima, European debt, climate change summit failures, any number of shootings etc.) which have moved us only a bit conversationally.  Crisis if often a difficult time since the normal reaction of people in stress is the tendency to be confused, anxious, and highly suggestible.  We may become even less rational and more swayed by emotions and thus may be more easily lead.  
 But who knows where?

In The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism Naomi Klein documents how crises, including man-made  ones, such as the Falklands war have been cynically used to steal disasters as opportunities to get self serving rather than lasting and group solutions. It provides a template about something to worry about in times of crises and the supposed solutions they may bring when people are highly suggestible and willing to try something new. New may be better than the old, but not just because it is new of appealing. Crises can "shock" groups into buying manufactured solutions that serve particular interests.  We need to avoid this. I suggested that if we must expect the future to one of crises to produce change what we need is a “perfect crisis.”  This would be one with several ingredients that make it work to change our course. Here are a few ideas:

It can’t be so massive that our entire system is taken down and destroyed so we can’t recover. It has to cause real damage, but it should be more informative than life threatening.  This might happen if it symbolic (such as threatening one of our popular iconic cities) and thus hard to get over for that reason, rather than the swath of destruction.  It should expose the real problems and provide enough time to diagnose solutions. Perhaps it should be a harbinger of foreseeable things to come with enough time to react as in some disaster movies of comets on an intersection with the earth. Such slow trajectory, unfolding disasters give us enough time to react. Something extreme along this lines was a 2 hour show about what we would have to do to evacuate the earth if it was threatened by a rogue neutron start heading our way but taking 75 years or so to get here.

One can image some small crises growing out of the slow trajectory of climate change (including “climate refugees” and “environmental evacuees” to keep our attention on things) that might be clear enough to get a message through.  Still it will take enlightened leadership and not just a science-engineering hat trick, at the time of crises, rather than opportunists, to get us through and on to a better path.

Something to think about in seasons of hope dealing with small despairs.

Image Credits

Toles cartoon:

The Shock Doctrine:

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