As the chart below on ‘how systems collapse’ illustrates, the loss of stabilizing buffers goes unnoticed until the entire structure collapses under its own weight.
Disruptive extremes of weather: check
Rising geopolitical tensions with no diplomatic resolution: check
Multiplying scarcities in essential commodities: check
Domestic disorder accelerates as extreme positions harden into irreconcilable conflicts: check
Welcome to the 21st century sequel of the catastrophic 1600s, an extended period of mutually reinforcing crises that overturned regimes and empires from England to China and triggered unremitting misery across much of the human populace. (Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the 17th Century is a riveting overview of this complex era.)
What can we learn from the catastrophic 1600s? Leading the list: humans don’t respond well to scarcities. They get crotchety, argumentative, and prone to finding ways to become disagreeable rather than agreeable. Their derangement deepens as they form self-reinforcing echo-chambers of the like-minded, and the source of their misfortune shifts from fate to equally fixated human opponents.
Three extended quotes come to mind: the first bitter satirical rant from Mark Twain, the second from Patrick Henry and the third from James Madison:
Mark Twain: “O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”
Patrick Henry:“But we are told that we need not fear; because those in power, being our representatives, will not abuse the powers we put in their hands. I am not well versed in history, but I will submit to your recollection, whether liberty has been destroyed most often by the licentiousness of the people, or by the tyranny of rulers.
I imagine, sir, you will find the balance on the side of tyranny. Happy will you be if you miss the fate of those nations, who, omitting to resist their oppressors, or negligently suffering their liberty to be wrested from them, have groaned under intolerable despotism!
Most of the human race are now in this deplorable condition; and those nations who have gone in search of grandeur, power, and splendor, have also fallen a sacrifice, and been the victims of their own folly. While they acquired those visionary blessings, they lost their freedom.”
James Madison: “Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people… (There is also an) inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and… degeneracy of manners and of morals…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
Apt descriptions of 1641 and 2021? Check, check and check. War and conflict appear to be the solution once people are in the grip of this crisis-hardened derangement, and they discover their folly after their misery has increased 100-fold.
So where does all this lead? Nowhere good. Concentrated wealth and power breed hubris and open the door to catastrophic consequences flowing from the addled decisions of the few at the top.
Voices of calm reason are shouted down and excoriated, and compromise becomes impossible. Those seeking to maintain their exploitive grip on wealth and power whip up intensities of derangement to further their own self-interest, always under the banner of some noble cause.
In the confusion of decay and failure, the herd seeks a simplistic explanation and solution. Those seeking to maximize their private gain are keen to provide the easy answer, which just so happens to maximize their private gain at the expense of the herd.
In self-organizing emergent systems, every individual is making decisions based their perceived self-interests. This seems to be a stable arrangement, but the line between stability and instability thins in eras of scarcity and crisis, and trends that seemed linear and predictable suddenly shift into non-linear dynamics, in which seemingly small actions trigger enormously consequential reversals of trend. Stability wobbles and then dissipates, and those experiencing the loss of stability slowly come to realize there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle.
As the chart below on how systems collapse illustrates, the loss of stabilizing buffers goes unnoticed until the entire structure collapses under its own weight of artifice, debt, fraud, obfuscation, greed, inequality and incompetence.
Two short quotes come to mind:
“The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane.” (Marcus Aurelius)
“I never did give anybody hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.” (Harry S. Truman)
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