Thoughts on Preventing Fragile System Collapse
Systems collapse suddenly, often without warning. This blog is the first part of a three-part series that aims to provide a foundation of a more profound understanding of system collapse and perhaps, an analytic model which can serve as an early warning, ‘weak signals’ sensing system. This introduction will set the stage by introducing a theoretical underpinning, identifying some significant societal fracture lines, and opine why this is a flashing red light for governments.
“How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” ―Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
But that really is not the case. Chaos Theory, Complexity Theory, and the idea of critical states can give us better insights – and perhaps lead to ways to interpret ‘weak signals’ of impending fragile system collapse.
Chaos Theory and its close companion Complexity Theory are branches of mathematics that seek to explain the behavior of systems that move from apparent stability to random disorder and irregular dynamics. Ever wonder why an avalanche occurs? Why do financial markets implode? Heartbeat irregularities?
Chaos Theory maintains that there are underlying patterns of interconnectedness, feedback loops, and an ability to self-organize. These theories are off-shoots of a larger area of study in complex adaptive general systems. I’ll use this relationship as a jumping-off point for part 2 of this series. The critical point here is that we are NOT dealing with ‘unknown unknowns.
The real question is if we have intellectual and analytic tools to understand these, on the surface, seemingly random events, why are we not using them to formulate resilient, antifragility policies?
This blog series began a couple of months ago to analyze ‘what’s wrong with America.’ I got delayed in writing because of a project, but maybe the timing wasn’t just quite right. The news cycle is dominated by obsession (at least in the US) with an unmistakable, quick system collapse – Afganistan.
As an old Missouri farmer used to say about whacking a mule with a two-by-four, “Now that I have your attention,” here we go. At the onset, I was curious about what Chaos theory would call ‘fault lines’ I saw emerging. I knew enough about social psychology to realize those ostensibly stable belief systems were correlated with attitudes and ultimately fed into behavioral changes.
I work with a small group of engaged futurists who meet weekly to discuss ‘weak signals’ as precursors to forthcoming shifts and events. For example, in December 2019, one group spotted a ‘weak signal’ of an apparent viral infection anomaly in China. Yep, that one.
So during the Spring of 2021, three new ‘weak signals’ emerged from astute social scientists. One spiritual, one cultural, and one political.
Spiritual – Worldview
Professor Randy Morris from Antioch University holds that contemporary American is trying to come to terms with four major historical traumas that have not been resolved in the societal psyche. Those are:
- The trauma of dislocation. Losing the ‘homeland.’ Unless you are a Native American, your ancestors came from somewhere else.
- The trauma of colonial ‘genocide’ justified ‘by a felt sense of Christian superiority and spiritual virtue held by a white majority”.
- The trauma of the institution of slavery. In Prof. Morris’s words again: “Suffice it to say that every American carries the scars of slavery deep in their unconscious, and in the Black Lives Matter movement, a reckoning is coming due.”
- Lastly, the trauma of the offensive use of nuclear weapons. This one is the ‘elephant in the room’ phenomenon. The destruction of 400,000 CIVILIAN’s in mere instances. The fear is that the continued proliferation of nuclear weaponry will someday lead to accidental (or deliberate) use in some regional or tribal conflict.
But why now? Four fractures in our spiritual being that have not been resolved. Somehow the election of 2020 brought forth all the “…an avatar for the dysfunctional and dissociated white, male American ego, rails against any effort to confront the pain of the past. Yet these demonic energies are the fuel that turns despair, anger, and fear into authoritarianism and violence”.
Cultural – Metaphors
Viewed through the eyes of a journalist and political events reporter, George Packer opines that the United States has become dis-United into four parts. Why? Because “People in the United States no longer agree on the nation’s purpose, values, history, or meaning.”
Packer presents a beautiful and detailed historical analysis of how these different narratives have appeared and how they manifest in today’s world. What is instructive here is that these widely different narratives (and associated cultural values) are the fault line itself.
If you look at the mythical mountain covered with snow, these are the four crevices you see. Which one will crack first and cascade into the others is the question. I can’t really do him justice in a few words and encourage you to go, reader, his complete work. But in a synopsis view, he posits:
|America||Core Value||Winners||Losers||Key Persona|
|Free||Unencumbered individual||Makers||Takers||Ayn Rand|
|Smart||Intelligence + Change||Meritocrats||Uneducated, anti-progress(ive)||Clintons|
|Real||Place identity + boundary’s||White, Christian, Males||Others||Trump|
|Just||Confrontation||Marginalized groups||Current dominant groups||MLK|
Another essential meta category emerges from this as a combination of Free + Real America on the one hand. On the other Smart + Just America. This coming year will show us if we have a persistent dichotomy of core value or a further fracture into four. That further fracturing will be a signal if we are moving toward instability.
Political – Causes
Academics Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter take yet another perspective on the dynamic fault lines crisscrossing America today. Although some may take their ideas as deeply cynical, I prefer the term pragmatic. Their central thesis is that:
“Although people tend to think of the American political systems as a public institution based on high-minded principles, it’s not. Politics behaves according to the same kinds of incentives and forces that shape competition in any private industry.” (Emphasis mine)
They employ Professor Porter’s Five Forces to examine the dynamics of the American Political System (APS). APS exists to maximize ‘profit’ denominated in the currency of power – and the cynic would suggest corruption. Even to the most casual observer, the events of the past few years have been marked by “unprecedented partisanship and gridlock.” If they are for it, we’re against it.
Little seems to be motivated by promoting the resiliency of the commons. In systems terms, when a sub-element of the larger becomes dysfunctional, the fragility of the more extensive system is threatened. If the engine in an aircraft quits, it’s a good bet the plane will crash absent the tremendous skill of the pilot (Lookin’ at you, Sully)
What are the fracture lines in the APS? Harken back to Packer’s work. You have the Free + Real opposing the Smart + Just. Gehl and Porter conclude that:
- APS behaves according to incentive maximization – read obtaining and retaining power
- Barriers to entry paralyze the system with a two-party structured
- APS is NOT self-correcting. There are no extra-systemic entities capable of modifying the dynamics.
- Changes in the ‘rules of the game’ could (if implemented) restore sustainable competition, transparency, and innovation.
- The business community needs to modify its engagement with the APS to re-purpose itself for long-term societal resilience – antifragility.
Their contribution to my examination of potential systemic collapse is that they identify five basic General Systems Theory principles that are dysfunctional. The stage is now set to move down a level name the moving parts, specify the connections and the parameters in interaction.
As a social psychologist, I look at this and am not surprised that we are seeing acting out outward hostility, rebellion, and passive-aggressive behaviors. We have a spiritual foundation locked in denial of fundamental traumas, which prohibits open discussion of intergenerational guilt. Coupled this with four distinct sets of core motivating values and a closed decision-making system in dysfunctional gridlock. A perfect storm of systemic fault lines that does not portent well for continued stability.
So, given these three different but intertwined fault lines, where are we seeing the emerging socio-economic arena where they are crashing into one another? Or, put another way, where should we focus our attention to get early warning signals of potential chaotic collapse?
I suggest the COVID19 pandemic crisis emerging in the Southeastern US. Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. These are the fields of conflict where our spiritual traumas, cultural clashes, and political divides are coming together. Watch carefully.
Part 2 of this series will take a closer look at how all these fault lines can be recast into variables that can be assessed, measured, and compared to each other in terms of volatility, strength, and relative impact on societal fragility.
Hold onto hope; part 3 will offer some practical advice on how to move from fragility to resilience.
Who knows where the time goes? RIP Nanci