On being able to see the Perfect Storm


Well, I know I recently prioritized peak oil ahead of climate change as our most immediate threat, the one that will hit us most acutely when it arrives full force. And I hold by that position. However, I realize that I was not relating my entire position. The bigger picture, of course, is that climate change will ultimately have a larger, more catastrophic affect on not just us, but the whole biosphere as well. And because the tipping points for climate change are so near, if they haven’t arrived already, we need to do all we can immediately to reduce CO2 emissions. What I fear most is that peak oil will create a scenario as bad as Kunstler described in “The Long Emergency“, and that the crisis will be extended and worsened by the damage from climate change. It will be a one-two knockout punch. I think I’ll live long enough to see things really start to fall apart. Hell, I might even be swallowed by turmoil. I’m most bothered, though, by how it will affect my kids. That’s painful to think about, and I try not to dwell on it, especially around them.

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I understand.  When I think about all this stuff, I always try to see it dynamically with all the parts moving together.  The fact is, that’s how it actually works in the physical world regardless of how we humans conceptualize it all.

That’s usBut none of us, myself included, are very good at seeing a lot of parts moving together unless we’ve been thinking about the situation for long time and have converted most of the subject matter from short-term memory (where we have to work hard to manifest the conceptualization) to longer-term memory (where we only need to reflect on the subject for a moment before it all comes full-blown into your cognitive space).

Once you’ve thought long enough about a number of pieces in isolation, then you can begin to keep them all in mind and see the relationships among them easily.  And, if you do that long enough, then pretty soon, keeping the entire assemblage in mind is, itself easy, and then you can begin to add more stuff and relate it all to bigger and bigger pictures.

I know you know all this because I’m sure that something very like it happens to you when you begin working on a large and complicated documentation project.  At the beginning, it’s a huge mass of stuff that you grapple with and near the end, it is something you can move through with great fluidity in you mind’s eye.

A mistake I see humanity make over and over again, involves ignoring the understanding I’ve just laid out here.

We like to deconstruct things and to isolate them so they become small enough that we can easily grasp them.  Then we fit the pieces together in a cause and effect sequence-story and, when we can walk through the entire structure, we think we’ve got the situation mapped and we’re good to go.

But, it seldom works that way.  We take a first cut and, if it seems reasonable, we declare that we ‘understand it’.   But then, after some time passes and the shortfalls between our model of some reality and the facts of that reality begin to crop up, we realize that we have to expand our theory and make our second approximation.   So, we do and once we think it is good, we declare it done and say, again, that we ‘understand’.   But them, typically, the process repeats and the differences between our second approximation and the reality it emulates becomes apparent and then the reevaluation begin again.  This iterative process can run to quite a few repeats.

But, the key point to take away from all of this is that the beginning approximations are built on stick-figure cause and effect deconstructions whereas the later more sophisticated ones tend to be much more dynamic and have many more interacting parts.   “Arithmetic to Algebra to Calculus” is the mantra I use to remind myself of this sequence and I see the failures to understand it all around me as I look at mankind’s attempts to ‘understand’ the world around himself.

What I call “The Perfect Storm” is my attempt to describe a large dynamic that one can see in the world around us, if one simply dwells on all the isolated problems like Global Climate Change, pollution, water shortages, oil shortages and etc. long enough.   At some point, a larger vision appears to you and you see that all of these many individual disasters-in-the-making are moving, all at the same time, and that they are, or they will be, potentiating each other.

Then, in addition, dwell on human nature and how and why human beings make the decisions they do en-masse.   Look at history, look at sociology and, most instructively, look at the relatively new science of environmental psychology.  Consider for a long time what humans say about their thinking and motivations and then consider what their actions say about these same things.   Dwell on all of this until you can hold it all in mind and then mix it together with the “Perfect Storm” hypothesis and let all of those parts freely inter-mix until you can see the dynamic interplay of all of that working together.

And finally, think about the folks you love and where they will be in the future and what these upcoming changes might mean to them and their happiness and their health – in that future.

One has to pay his or her dues to see these visions by thinking long and hard about all of this stuff before the ‘Big Picture’ start to come clear in your mind.  And reality doesn’t care if any of us see the Big Picture.  Reality is simply a set of physical laws that, given certain inputs, are going to operate to produce certain results – regardless of whether we can see it all happening around us or not.

In summary, most people will never spend the time to think long enough about all of this to see it.   And most people have deep vested interests that emotionally will prevent them from allowing themselves to see these things anyway even if they think about it.  And the fact that most people won’t or cannot see these big patterns developing is, itself, one of the biggest reasons why it is all going to happen and why most of humanity is going to be deeply surprised when it does.

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