A while back I boldly asserted that:
1 The current financial crisis will be short lived and have less economic effect than many are currently predicting.
2. We are on the edge of one of the most productive and expansive periods of human development in the whole of our history.
The last couple of weeks have certainly challenged that view. People I really respect, like Billmon, are clearly very worried and they know a lot more about it than me. But cheery little ray of sunshine that I am and despite all the evidence to the contrary, I think I still hold on to my bold assertions. There are still vast amounts of cash sloshing around in the system and just maybe the current crisis is enough to wake up the people controlling that cash to stop chasing after fairy gold and move in to some of the very real opportunities for productive investment, promising real long term returns, that await those ready to move in to the Next Civilisation.
Chicken Little may be right and the sky is falling down, but I think what is more likely is that we are seeing a flock of giant canaries gasping for breath. The turmoil in the financial markets, the surge in the price of oil and the floods in the USA and India can all be seen as warnings that our two hundred year old experiment is moving in to toxic territory. My biggest fear is that we will recover from these shocks too quickly. (This does not mean I have no sympathy for the hapless victims of these shocks who simply want to get on with their lives, I do.) But I am concerned that just as the lessons from the oil shocks in the Seventies were swiftly forgotten, we may find that as things return to “normal” in two or three years time, we will forget the message from our giant canaries that if we want to retain the benefits of our current ways of life we will have to change the way we organise and manage our life on this planet, starting now.
Tim Parks has an interesting article in today’s Guardian about Gregory Bateson. My favourite bit is a quote from Bateson himself:
“We social scientists would do well to hold back our eagerness to control that world which we so imperfectly understand. The fact of our imperfect understanding should not be allowed to feed our anxiety and so increase the need to control. Rather our studies could be inspired by a more ancient, but today less honoured, motive: a curiosity about the world of which we are part. The rewards of such work are not power but beauty.”
The only modification I would like to make to Bateson’s statement would be to change the first sentence to, “We would do well to hold back our eagerness to control that world which we so imperfectly understand.” and then it could apply to all of us.
Note: The Bateson quote is from “Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution and Epistemology” first published in 1972, pp 269
“… An enormous, and largely speculative, literature attempts to interpret anything important that our brains do today as direct adaptations to the environments that shaped our earlier evolution. Thus, for example, religion may be a modern reflection of behaviors that evolved to cement group cohesion among savanna hunters. But religion might as well record our human response to that most terrifying fact that a large brain allowed us to learn (for no directly adaptive reason)- the inevitability of our personal mortality. I suspect that most of our current cognitive life uses the nonadaptive sequelae of a large brain as exaptions, and does not record the direct reasons why natural selection originally fashioned our large brain.”
Stephen Jay Gould, “The Richness of Life: The Essential Stephen Jay Gould (Hardcover)”, Jonathan Cape, 2006, pp232-233
“You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.”
But you may be able to fool enough of the people enough of the time to get what you want.
(According to The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency there is no evidence that Abraham Lincoln ever made this famous quote, but heh.)
Today I started writing a piece on the relationship between luck and success. Looking through some of my earlier posts on this theme, I found this that I wrote over three years ago that I thought was worth repeating in full:
“More than luck
Early last year I posted a short piece, “Mostly Luck”, where I drew attention to an interview in Edge with Nassim Taleb and his view that the key factor in whether someone became a millionaire or not was luck. I was reminded of that post by another interview in Edge with the social pyschologist, Philip Zimbardo where he says:
“When you grow up in a privileged environment you want to take credit for the success you see all around, so you become a dispositionalist. You look for character, genes, or family legacy to explain things, because you want to say your father did good things, you did good things, and your kid will do good things. Curiously, if you grow up poor you tend to emphasize external situational factors when trying to understand unusual behavior. When you look around and you see that your father’s not working, and you have friends who are selling drugs or their sisters in prostitution, you dont want to say its because theres something inside them that makes them do it, because then theres a sense in which its in your line. Psychologists and social scientists that focus on situations more often than not come from relatively poor, immigrant backgrounds. That’s where I came from.”
I was going to leave it at that, but writing on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, what he has to say in the rest of the interview seemed too important to neglect. To crudely summarise what he has to say, yes bad people do bad things, but more importantly good people put into bad situations also do bad things. I urge you to read the full interview, where he puts forward a more nuanced argument.
For myself I take away three thoughts from the interview.
The first, is that talk of ‘evil’ and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people is largely an obstacle to doing anything to create a more decent human world. It simply puts any reasoned explanations and hence any preventive action beyond anything we can do much about.
The second is that if we want people to behave well we should give more attention to designing in civility into our institutions, organisations and built environments. If you like, an extension of Oscar Newman’s ideas about defensible space.
The third is that we should do more to celebrate those people who ‘do the right thing’ even in situations where everything conspires against it. The sad fact is that those extraordinary people are more often punished than acknowledged, despite the lip service we pay to their moral courage. Perhaps, we should create something like a Nobel prize to celebrate those people who display human decency in intolerable situations.”
(More than luck, January 26, 2005)