How Did We Get Here? (edited)

Mylec Z2820 Hockey Stick

The appalling spectacle unfolding in Washington seems to demand explanation, and pundits are more than eager to fill the void. I think we all are trying to figure out the route from what seemed to be an orderly society into what seems to be chaos. What went wrong? What could have been different? What should we do to stop the bleeding?

As my son has taught me, when dealing with complex systems involving human behavior identifying in any detail which threads of past events have led to the current state of things is impossible; discerning in any detail how various threads of events are interacting to produce the current situation is impossible; and prediction in any detail is futile.

But if you back off from the detail, structure emerges even in very complex systems, and it is by placing current events in a matrix of emergent global processes that we can make some sense out of the chaos.

If you graph the most important phenomena supporting global civilization, you often come up with something resembling Al Gore’s famous “hockey stick” graph that predicted global warming (which turns out to be quite accurate). Pollution, water usage, urban development, resource extraction, species extinction, travel, trade, communication, technology, invasive species, likelihood of global pandemics, urban life, cost of extending life, the number of consumer good wrapped in plastic – all seem to be accelerating toward a peak. Even processes like population growth, with slowing growth rates, still are growing at a high rate.

Three simple facts define our future. First, global civilization is a finite system because the earth’s near-surface resources upon which civilization depends are finite. Second, a finite system cannot continue to grow unless you redefine growth to mean change within sustainable limits (whatever you think they are). Third, nearly all processes within global civilization depend upon continued growth.

So I think we need to look at political and social chaos as the unpredictable details of a predictable unraveling of global civilization. I go on and on about this subject in other essays, and since all I accomplish is making the reader feel bad, plus I may be wrong, I guess the best approach is for all of us to drop back and come up with theories about how we got here. A theory a day keeps reality at bay!

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