Preparing For The Unimaginable

One of the lessons of Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan is that the events that have caused the greatest changes (and collectively most of the substantive change) to our civilization and our way of life were completely unexpected, unpredictable “black swan” events. His new book argues that rather than trying to plan and prepare for a future we can’t predict, we should do things that improve our resilience, and create systems that are “anti-fragile”. Unlike most fragile, complicated human-made systems, “anti-fragile” systems (such as evolution and other complex natural systems) actively adapt to, learn from and benefit from upheaval and dramatic change.

I have often said that that I believe the key to resilience in the coming decades will be our ability, in the moment, to imagine ways around the crises we cannot prevent, predict or plan for, and then navigate them.

So now I am sitting down with a small group of colleagues here on Bowen Island, starting to think about creating what the Transition Movement calls an “energy descent” plan for our island, and wondering how we can hope to plan for the unpredictable, unforeseeable, and unimaginable future we face.

I’ve been part of several scenario planning and simulation exercises over the years, and studied them extensively, and what stands out for me from these exercises are five systemic human predilections that render the product of such exercises more or less useless:

  1. Believing the future is predictable: What actually happens turns out to be well outside any and all the scenario ranges that were planned for (not “better” or “worse” than the scenarios, but utterly different in unforeseen ways).
  2. Believing the future will continue and accelerate current trends: We have an irresistible tendency to predict that the future will be much like the present only much more so (the “Jetsons syndrome”).
  3. Believing change will come soon but overall will be modest: We tend of overestimate the speed of change in the short run and underestimate the full extent of change over the longer term.
  4. Believing we can prevent, mitigate and otherwise control future events: We tend to wildly overestimate the degree of control we (including our ‘leaders’) have over the changes (political, economic, social, behavioural, ecological, educational, medical, scientific, even technological) that sweep over us. No one is in control.
  5. Believing that centralization works: We tend to believe, irrationally and in the face of their record of colossal and continued failure, that centralization and unification will make things better, when it only makes them less agile, less democratic and more vulnerable. Even now the Wilber cult is calling for a “World Federation” that mirrors Cheney’s “New World Order” (and, fortunately, is just as unachievable).

I’m not surprised, therefore, that several of my Transition colleagues are skeptical of the value of a long-term Transition and Resilience Plan for our island. How can we possibly plan for a future we can’t begin to predict, that we have no control over, that we probably can’t even imagine?

Despite the cleverness of Taleb’s insights on ‘anti-fragile’ systems, they’re not very useful: Humans can’t create complex ‘anti-fragile’ systems. It’s taken nature billions of years to evolve them, and even then there have been at least five major extinction events that wiped out most of the life on the planet. We only just realized after several millennia that we have precipitated the sixth, and we are utterly clueless on what to do about it (and don’t get me started on geoengineering, the latest control fantasy by the people who brought you GMOs).

The only thing we can say for sure is we won’t be able to live as we do today. Since we can’s and won’t know how or when the coming economic, energy and ecological crises will unfold, and there’s no evidence that we can prevent, significantly mitigate, or long forestall these crises, what if anything can we do now to prepare for the unimaginable?

In the process of developing Collapse: The Game, I’ve been playing with various scenarios and mapping how various economic, energy and ecological crises (at least insofar as I can imagine them) might affect the various aspects and systems of human life — governance, food & water, energy, health/well-being, learning, transportation, communication, building, security, livelihoods, recreation, arts & crafts, science/technology/innovation, and ecology. The game simulates how, in a relocalized world, we would invest in new personal and community learning and capacity building, local resources, and community infrastructure, to anticipate and cope with various crises ranging from currency collapse and the end of cheap energy to pandemics and refugee crises.

For anyone who’s kept up with their Transition and Collapsnik reading (see the links under ‘Post-Civ Writers’ in the right sidebar), these scenarios have been sketched out at length in both fictional and non-fictional accounts. But although it’s clear that some of these crises are likely to occur, how and when they will occur is unknowable, nor is how they will manifest themselves at the local and national level, nor how the complex interrelationship between all of our systems will compound or mitigate their effects. It’s your guess against mine, and the debate is fruitless, since we’re all going to be mostly wrong.

So lately I’ve been thinking: Rather than trying to lay out specific ‘forecast’ scenarios for the future, would it be more useful to develop an illustrative story that would convey a sense of the degree of change to our lives that we might face in the future? That way we might get a visceral sense of how much our lives will (have to) change, and begin to think about, in general, what might we do to enable us, when changes of this magnitude occur, whatever they be, to be more ready for them than we are now?

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about; it’s a story about how I could envision some of the people currently living on Bowen Island might be affected by the types of economic, energy and ecological crises the Transition Movement and Collapsnik writers (including me) have been speculating we could face:

The biggest impact of the economic crisis on Bowen Islanders was psychological — the shame of losing jobs (as half of us did), the pain and dread of seeing a lifetime of savings disappear along with the prospect for retirement, the awkwardness of retired Islanders coming out of retirement after admitting their pensions and retirement savings were gone, the terror of foreclosure on homes as house values plunged far below the mortgages on them. The levels of stress, anguish and fear were palpable and many of us were badly scarred by the Great Deflation — we mostly tried to heal ourselves, or each other, using whatever therapies we could draw upon, though quite a few unfortunately took it out on family, friends and neighbours.

A lot of Islanders quietly moved — off-island to live with family or friends, or in with relatives or housemates. Most homes had multiple families living in them, in makeshift separate suites or improvised co-op arrangements. Homeowners took in boarders to make monthly payments, and renters took in sub-tenants. The poverty was subtle but apparent — the sudden appearance of homeless people on the island, in the woods and parks, the number of people asking for money by the ferry, people knocking on doors asking if they could do odd jobs, and asking if they could quietly tent in the back yard “until they got back on their feet”, many trees illegally cut for firewood. When the currency collapsed, Bowen Bucks became a real currency, though a Gift Economy largely prevailed, with people doing things for others, and giving ‘loans’ as they could afford, with the knowledge they would probably never be repaid. When you know everyone in the community, you do what you can.

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