Averting Civil Collapse

I often need to  frame my discussions in the broad context. We are value generators relentlessly pursuing top return on investment in a layered framework of valued options. There is no value without truth, and no truth without meaning. Meanings are based on placing the foreground against background context. I will continue and try harder to bring this subject down to concrete practical reality.


You may find the phenomenon of cultural lag interesting if you have not already checked it out. Essentially, not all civil change takes place at the same rate. Ethical questions often follow tech introductions and widespread  adoption. Someone once said “we developed the nuclear bomb because we could before asking if we should. This is often the pattern of developments. After all, we are all moral beings, right? We all know right from wrong!

Under the stresses of a complex society many people tend to become preoccupied with the here and now because that’s where the perceived slim opportunities and urgent threats fill our imaginations. Meaningful context is lost. We each have limited cognitive capacity for processing the information overload, yet the universal context of potential implications could be infinite.

The term ‘cultural lag’ was coined over 100 years ago but is still not widely known or understood (i.e. it lags). I believe cultural lag is also cumulative. We may have very little appreciation for what we are missing in the big picture. While our knowledge is always finite, our ignorance is always infinite.

The interconnected world

For example, there is the known phenomenon of  population overshoot in environmental science. Is the planet already over-populated? Do we know what factors are critical in determining the planet’s carrying capacity? Maybe, maybe not. We may yet be surprised. Remember climate change?

First we do what Nature tells us to do (reproduce) then when there are shortages or massive pollution we wonder if it was the right thing to do. Nature did not anticipate our tremendous reproductive success. We were designed for a foraging life-style within the constraints of local ecosystems. Technology has always been a game-changer upsetting the historical balance of Nature.

Everything has limits — a minimum, a maximum and an optimum range of performance. Performance changes with size and complexity. In other words, everything has an economy and diseconomy of scale. While this is a known phenomenon in microeconomics of organizations (and biology), very little has been done to explore the phenomenon in macroeconomics. What are the cumulative longer-term consequences of civil and technical progress on a whole society?

Joseph Tainter put some of these ideas together in his book on the Collapse of Complex Societies. When societies get too complex they begin to collapse. It takes too much work to keep things going. There are too many inter-dependencies, too much change and too much uncertainty. We exceed the upper limits of management capacity. Together, we are NOT too big to fail!

Essentially, diseconomies of scale in society, and consequent diminishing returns on investment across the board, will mean that people are going to be quite unhappy, feel cheated and bitter. The suppression of opportunities for self-actualization leads to anxiety, depression, anger and often violence.

We can see that fracture lines are opening between political left and right, among races, ethnic groups, genders, rich and poor, and religious groups. Tribalism is setting in, separating “us” (the virtuous) from “them” (the evil ones). And you cannot talk to the evil ones because of their false truths, propaganda and trickery.

So, through Wayfinders Business Co-operative, we are trying to create a new path forward. This path demands a higher level of awareness of both self and our environments (natural, social, cultural, etc.). It will take a lot of energy (see Tainter) and intelligence to redesign our place on the planet and with each other.

Fortunately, we have the phenomenon of “path dependency” to count on when we have reached a sufficient level of development. Whatever we do gets easier. As more people adopt this path, more will follow. Unfortunately, being creatures of habit, we will not be happy with the initial ultimatum to change.

Change takes a lot of mental energy and focus. Yet with unhappiness there is a desire and a curiosity to find a new path forward. We will need to be convinced of the benefits through an iterative process of rapid prototyping of minimal viable products with proofs of concept.

We will leverage our personal, collective and artificial intelligence to get this done.

In process management we know the starting conditions have a disproportionate impact on eventual outcomes, so we want to ensure we are sufficiently anchored in ethics, psychology, systems theory and technology.

To me, this is the only venture worth pursuing. If we don’t get this sufficiently right, everything else eventually collapses. Don’t mess with Nature’s laws! She has no favorites!

Published by Randal B. Adcock

Independent author on philosophy and the human condition The ideas expressed in this blog are wholly my own and do not represent the opinions of any other organization or entity.

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