We, as a species, are engaged in the greatest gamble of our brief existence. The outcome will affect all of us, but not everyone has a place at the table nor is everyone playing with the same hand.
The gamble we are taking is embodied in two questions. Questions we have to answer if we are to consider ourselves masters of our own destiny.
- Do we need to change the fundamental structures of our societies and our economies to avoid catastrophe?
- If we do, when do we need to start making those changes?
The easiest answer to both questions is that we do not have to make any fundamental changes, that peace and prosperity will be ours without changing anything very much. This answer demands the least from us and would seem to have the least impact on us, assuming the answer is the correct one.
For the majority of this world’s inhabitants, that answer would be inconceivable. Most people can see their environment changing, their water being polluted or disappearing, their crops yielding less, their opportunities diminishing and their freedom out of reach. They do not live in peace and prosperity today, and they know that something’s got to change fundamentally if they or their children are going to have any chance of either peace or prosperity.
If you live in peace and prosperity today, you probably live in the “developed” world or are a member of the ruling elite of any nation. If this describes you, then you are sitting at the table and you are taking the gamble; you are a card player. As the lucky recipient of peace and prosperity today, you have the greatest stake in and influence over everyone’s peace and prosperity. Your fate, your peace and your prosperity are the bets on the table, and you are doing the gambling.
If your answer is that nothing substantial needs to change, then doing nothing is a bet that will pay off. But if fundamental change is necessary to protect your peace and prosperity, and if the necessary changes are going to take a few decades to effect, then doing nothing today is a very poor strategy. The risks of being wrong go up every day, as the odds of being able to make the changes in time go down.
“Doing nothing” encompasses a range of different positions and actions, all of which are the equivalent of doing nothing, because they waste time not making changes.
Doing nothing includes trying to prop up or resurrect the status quo; it may feel like action and it may look like action, but it isn’t making the necessary changes; so it’s the same as doing nothing.
Fatalistic abstinence is doing nothing. Deciding that nothing can be changed is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a failure to be here now, to live in the place that you exist in. You’ll never know if action could have changed things if you don’t act. Predicting dire futures that are rescued by the indeterminate resurrection of some amorphous possibility may be a satisfying justification for inaction, but it is still doing nothing.
Doing nothing includes going about your day doing lots of things, being busy and accomplishing the goals you have set yourself. But if you don’t change anything, if you don’t see a need for change or aren’t supporting change, then you are doing nothing too.
In the face of mounting evidence that something needs to change, doing nothing, in all its guises, is supported by two arguments: we can do something later, and doing something now will be just as deleterious as doing nothing. These arguments are only relevant if you’re on top of the heap today, a card player sitting at the table.
The risk of leaving change for tomorrow is that you need to have an accurate notion of how long it will take for changes to take effect, and of how much time is available. If it takes longer to make the changes, or if the time available is shorter than you expect, it will be too late. So if your bet is that change can be forestalled, then you better have a really good grasp of how long it will take to implement the changes required, and how long you’ve got to complete them in. Your risks are compounded by the fact that neither of these variables are really knowable with any degree of certainty. Fundamental changes to the world’s societies could take decades to complete, and there’s a big difference between two decades and five decades. The impact and timing of climate change are also unknowable; we can have a good guess, but the planet is a massively complex system with a myriad of feedback loops. So a strategy of wait and see is extremely risky, because there’s no way of knowing whether waiting even one more year will be too long. You just can’t tell, and the downside of being wrong is that it is a game loser. Betting on this option is the equivalent of putting all your money on one number, for a single spin of a 1,000,000 slot roulette wheel.
The other reason to do nothing is that you are doing so well right now, that virtually any change is bound to reduce your prosperity, your security or your advantage. You may be tempted by the advantage you have today, to feel that under almost any circumstances you’re better off without fundamental change. The political leadership class of virtually every society in the world falls into this group, and that represents a serious obstacle to change. These are the high rollers at the table, the players with the most to lose and the most cards in their hands.
These high-stakes players are crucial determinants of how the game will play out. There are two factors that can influence how they act: control, and mutual results.
In a democracy, these high rollers are there by the choice of the people they represent; if the electorate develops a different view of how important fundamental change is, they can replace the players with other representatives who will act for change. The same replacement process can happen in societies that don’t have democracy; it just tends to be bloodier and messier.
The probability of mutual results could also influence those high rollers that retain their political control. Mutual results is the reality that however the game plays out, we are all affected in the same way, in the end. The high stakes players and the lowest stakes players will all experience the consequences of getting it wrong. If fundamental changes are needed and not enacted in time, the resulting chaos and destruction will affect everyone everywhere on the planet; no matter how rich, how clever or how remote they are.
Mutual results may influence the big players, but it may not. It may seem to them that the odds of a negative outcome are not as bad as they appear to be for the vast majority of other people. In this situation, wresting control away from them will be key to our mutual survival.
A big part of this gamble is the assessment of risk. To stand a reasonable chance of a life lived with peace and prosperity, we are going to need to make accurate and clearheaded calculations about the odds of success for any course of action we take. There are risks inherent in the decision to make fundamental changes to our societies, but the odds lean towards a favorable outcome for the vast majority of us. If we start making the right changes now and we’re too late, we won’t have lost anything. Probably the biggest risk we run is that we make the wrong changes and exacerbate our problems. But if we focus on improving our decision-making processes while reducing the environmental impact of our economies, the chances are good that we’re doing the right things anyway. Nevertheless, what to change and how to change them are very important things to get right; and that’s what this book addresses.
So we have a high-stakes game in which our chances of living in peace and prosperity, maybe even our survival, is at play. The game is mostly being played by a few of the people in the room, and even amongst the players there are those with significantly more cards in their hand. Everyone in the room wins or loses together. The cards represent changes we can make. We can keep them close to our chest, only putting out the minimum number we need to keep the game going; or we can play big, put down a royal flush and go for it. Because everyone wins together, the royal flush strategy has very little downside, but it does mean that the pot will have to be divided amongst all those present in the room. The alternative of a cautious game, favors the players who are at the table, because they don’t have to share their stakes while they have them on the table and the game is still going on.
The risk is that the game will end without anyone playing their winning hand, and everyone in the room loses.
So if the game clock says that there are about five more minutes left to play, what would prevent the players at the table from putting down the strongest straight in their hand? This is where we are. This is the risk we are running.
We, the players, have to look hard at the clock, and ask ourselves if we really think it’s too early to play our strongest hand.
Apparently, we haven’t decided to play our hand yet. Apparently, we still think there’s time and that it serves us to keep our cards for now. I say this because we have not collectively summoned the will to align our actions with a different outcome. We are still on basically the same path and the same trajectory that we have been for the last 100 years: industrial growth that will ‘float all boats’. That’s the equivalent of keeping all our cards in our hand and if we’re wrong: we’re screwed, along with everybody else. Just in case that is the wrong strategy, let’s look at the facts of our situation and review the state of our game today.
Are we relying on our instincts to make the right choices for survival? Are we making choices today that will deliver the results we want tomorrow? These are important questions if we are betting our lives on them. Never mind doing the right thing, have we fundamentally miscalculated the odds? Have we even calculated the odds at all? If not, we could be making a dooming mistake on an evolutionary scale.
In our daily lives we routinely select making better choices tomorrow, in favor of easier choices today. We select personal safety, over the rights of others. We select not looking, over knowing. We select the safety of established opinions, over the dangers of an open mind. We select how it was, over how it could be. We select low price, without recognizing the unincorporated violence embedded in that price. We select personal enrichment today, over the consequences for others tomorrow. In most cases we don’t really think about the choices we are making, our gut tells us that these are the right choices. But are they?
We have a hard time choosing between peace and money. You probably don’t think of it that way, but many of our conundrums can, and should be, expressed as peace versus money. We equate money with security, and that is the phraseology we consciously use to justify and rationalize our choices. We say to ourselves that we are choosing security, not money.
We accord money with the equivalence of security because of a gut level instinct that money should bring us personal security from hunger, hardship and deprivation. This is quite likely true for many of us in the short run, but we would do well to note that our real desire is for security with peace, not the money itself. The money is the means that we believe will enable us to create the security which will allow us to live in peace. We actually desire peace, it’s just that we believe money will give us peace.
We are attracted by the notion that we can own money, that we can possess and protect our money. Whereas peace is not a tangible asset. We understand that peace exists only in the moment of time, dependent on our mutual intention that it should.
When we choose money over peace we do so because it seems more likely to reach us personally than the notion of peace, which we are dependent on others to attain. We choose money over peace when we support oppressive regimes for access to minerals. We choose money over peace when we buy products made from those minerals. We choose money over peace when we make drugs illegal, and buy them anyway. We choose money over peace when we begrudge paying taxes to help others. We choose money over peace when we build more prisons. In every case we argue that our aim is our security. What we mean is our personal security, a very close and narrow view of our personal security, right here and now. The security of our supplies, the security of our morality, the security of our low prices and the security of our lifestyles.
But we are not choosing peace.
We really do desire peace, but we do not actually choose it. We know that helping to oppress the freedom of others is not a choice for peace. We know that poverty does not foster peace in our communities. We know that locking people up does not lift them up. We know all of this, and yet we still choose money over peace. And guess what? Our choices beget our rationale. The oppression, the poverty and the violence that we create, and now see all around us, are further fodder for justifying our decisions to choose money over peace. What d’ya know? Whodathunkit? Our inward facing, narrow, personal logic (aka instinct) has led us to create exactly what we feared all along.
But we still want peace. That hasn’t changed. All the money in the world is no good to us if it does not bring us the security of peace. We know that too. On some level we know that we are taking the great gamble. We are gambling that the personal security we purchase, will last the longer than it will take for the un-peaceful consequences of our choices to catch up with us.
We know that the unfree will seek freedom, that the impoverished will seek their own security and that the put down will rise up. We know all this because we know that that is what we would do if we were there. So we can even see the circular counter-logic of our own arguments, but we still choose money over peace. We are engaged in the risk-reward gamble that has defined our evolution, and which is a fundamental, natural part of our most basic makeup; what we call our “gut instinct”. A set of animal reflexes designed to ensure survival from one moment to the next.
So let’s work with this a little. We choose money over peace because our basic instinct tells us that money is a safer bet than peace. The reward of security bought with money now, feels like a safer bet than the risk that peace will become unattainable where we live, within our lifetimes. We are betting that the wars will happen somewhere else. The poor will not steal from our kitchen to feed their children, and that if they try that we will be able to lock them up and put them away. We are betting that the wars and the poor can be kept at bay, at home and abroad.
If we have got this wrong, the consequences of our choices will destroy our peace before we can experience our purchased security. That would be a mistake that money would be unable to redeem for us. A cool-headed evaluation of the odds is necessary here, before we simply accept our assumptions.
Perhaps one of the first and easiest rationales that comes into our heads, is that we are simply doing what anyone else would do. But even if we can argue that everyone else would make the same choice, that isn’t really relevant, because it is only those of us that have the opportunity to make the choices that are actually defining the consequences. It may be true that others would do the same, but we are the ones making the choices and taking the gamble. It is our choices that are actually determining the outcome. Besides which, mutual poverty of rectitude is not an assessment of risk; it’s just an excuse for inaction.
So let’s evaluate the three primary mechanisms that we believe tilt the odds in favor of money being the right choice for us. Those are:
- any consequence of war or conflict will not visit us personally,
- the poverty of others will not directly affect our lives
- we can erect a system of legal protection, that will insulate us from any risks that escape from the first two assumptions
Wars will Stay Over There
That wars will stay over there, is the first part of our gamble. Certainly this used to be true, but increasingly we can glimpse the chinks in this armor. We call it “terrorism”, and it is abhorrent to target civilians, but we would be well served to recognize that to others it is the globalization of freedom fighting. The same technologies and facilities that smooth the flow of modern commerce are being used by the disenfranchised and the oppressed to spread war outside the pretty confines we would prefer them to stay within. Terrorism is the last resort of the ignorant freedom fighter, but maybe we should figure out that when we see terrorism, it means that some people may have reached their last resort. It would seem pretty obvious to conclude that suicide bombing is the very last resort of anyone, and if we dismiss it as merely the act of a lunatic, then we are not making a cool-headed assessment of the situation. The reality is that war is now mobile, it will not stay over there.
Your own intuition, and every security professional in the world, will tell you that you cannot prevent the manifestation of terrorism, you have to act on its root causes. On the whole we can keep the affects of remote conflicts out of our everyday lives with ever more secure border controls. But the risk that they will spill into our lives through any one of countless opportunities for disruption, from hijacking our transport to poisoning our food supply, is very real. Even if we can keep the actual wars away, can we keep the violence out of our lives?
The Poor can be Kept at Bay
This is the second factor in our calculations of the odds for our gamble. Implicit to this is the acknowledgment that there are poor people (intentionally); so it is not the existence of poverty that is our risk metric, it’s our ability to mitigate the impact of their poverty on our lives. Fundamental to this calculation is the ability to “manage” poverty. That is to say: to control the depth of the poverty, and the location of the poor. If the poor aren’t actually starving, if they have at least something left to lose, then they are less likely to be a threat to our security. Also if they aren’t close to us, the less of a risk they pose to our security, however deep their poverty is. So keeping the really destitute as far away as possible, and the poor that are closest to us out of total despair, would seem to be the tricks to maintaining the odds in our favor. Or, to put it the other way around, the risks are: that the really poor will come over here, and we will not sustain sufficient hope in our local poor.
Of course this gets a little difficult, because the more we help our local poor, the more attractive it becomes for the remote poor to move closer. Even this is manageable, if we can stop the poor from moving around. The trouble with that is that really poor people, denied the ability to improve their situation where they live, tend towards migration and revolt. Those feed into the aforementioned terrorism and war problem; which is another relationship we will have to factor in, when making our final calculations.
So “managing” poverty is a little more complicated than it might appear to be at first. There is no doubt that the local poor represent the most immediate threat to our security, so we have to make sure that we use some of our money to keep them at bay. We can improve our odds if we can keep them from starvation, hold out an advertisement of opportunity and, at the same time, keep their life expectancy low. Just enough support to keep bellies full of cheap food, just enough glitz and glamour to provide the illusion of opportunity, mixed with low levels of education and healthcare to keep their actual ability for progression to a minimum. This formula to create a “happy poor” has worked pretty well for the last hundred years, but it is not actually new. The Romans, the Mayans, the Egyptians, the Ottomans, the English and the French have all given this strategy a jolly good go in the past. The trouble with it, as a stand-alone risk mitigation strategy, is that it doesn’t deal with population growth; poor people have a tendency to have lots of children, as a means of increasing their personal security. Unless you can reduce the average life expectancy of the happy poor below the age of reproduction, you can’t stop their numbers growing. The more of them there are, the more of your money you have to spend on keeping them happy. Sooner or later the balance is going to tip, so you won’t have enough left to buy your own security because you’re spending too much keeping the poor happy. Past attempts at fixing this conundrum have included sending the poor off to die in wars before they can reproduce, or sending them off to reproduce abroad in colonies. The former has reduced potential nowadays on account of prohibitions against using children in the military, something that wasn’t a problem anywhere only a hundred years ago. The latter is problematic today due to the lack of places left to colonize. So the risks posed by local poor are more difficult to mitigate these days and, to make matters worse, we have to face the fact that any version of “happy poor” has its limitations; because even modest levels of education and healthcare are going to result in larger populations and higher demands.
The Law will Protect Us
This brings us to the third risk mitigation factor in our calculation: legal restraint. If we can’t get the poor to voluntarily restrain themselves from rudely interrupting our purchased security, we can always try using a legal system to control their unsociable activities. We can increase the odds of our successful use of money to buy personal peace, if we use some of our money to keep the most troublesome poor out of circulation. When we can’t keep them away or happy, then we can lock them up. On paper this looks like a reasonable strategy, but it has some real problems that limit its effectiveness. First and foremost amongst these is that it requires that we pervert the natural course of justice; the consequences of this have an insidious inclination to detrimentally affect the quality of our own peace and security over time. If we are to use the legal system to keep the poor down or out, we have to develop a legal structure that specifically discriminates against the poor. It has to target crimes that the poor are more likely to commit, and attach penalties to those crimes that are sufficiently punitive to keep the guilty effectively repressed. To support those two objectives, it will have to include a legal process that ensures high rates of conviction by suppressing the poor’s ability to use the system to defend themselves.
Now, while those are all well and good on their own, and we have shown that they are perfectly possible to enact, they include a fundamentally unbalancing consequence that bodes ill for our overall odds: they don’t make the poor happy. While we are trying to suppress the top tier of troublemakers, we are actually increasing the dissatisfaction of the great majority of the rest of the poor. Again, this is only a risk factor and it can be managed by upping the quantities of cheap food and distracting illusions of opportunity. But it does have its limits, and sooner or later you reach the point where you just can’t afford to keep putting poor people away, and down, at the same time. It all costs money, especially putting people away – it’s far cheaper to kill them, but that avenue is increasingly closed as a realistic option, especially in large quantities.
So how do the odds look now? What are the chances that our choices to buy personal security with money will outrun the consequences of selecting against peace? I’d say that the odds look a little short, and they look to be getting shorter every day. Obviously it has worked in spurts over time, but we live in a different world today where the opportunity to mitigate the risks is very different than it used to be, and even those opportunities that do still exist have very definite time constraints. Populations are growing, weapons are proliferating and people are starting to evaluate the quality of law against the justice that it delivers.
It really comes down to time. There’s obviously a fuse on this stick, and the gamble comes down to how long you think it’s going to take to burn down. Is that enough time to make choosing money over peace now the right choice for you? And even if it’s the right choice for you today, how long will that remain the case? Do you perceive that at some point in the future the scales will tip, and it simply will not be possible to buy personal security while ignoring the consequences for peace around you? If you do think that that time will come, when will that be? Next year? What about a decade from now, or when your children are grown? And then how will the transition happen, when the odds flip the other way? What will be the consequences of your choices today, when the time comes that those are no longer the right choices? Will the consequences of today’s decisions magically evaporate as soon as you start making different choices? I think not. Right? I mean, you are still the same person and you did make those prior choices, and you could reasonably be held personally responsible for having previously chosen money over peace. Even if you aren’t held personally responsible, French Revolution style, you will still experience the consequences, unless you’re dead.
So how long is that fuse? This is the heart of the gamble. For how much longer is it going to be the right choice to have selected money as the option that delivers you the rewards, and when will it become the choice that only compounds the risks and blows oxygen on the sizzling fuse? I would argue that that time has already passed, but I am obviously in a minority, albeit an increasingly large one, on this matter. I think that every day we continue choosing money over peace we exacerbate the situation. We sponsor more wars, we create more poverty and increase the violence of our societies through oppression, subjugation and deprivation.
Now let’s throw in a relatively new factor: global climate change. Again, this is possibly subject to a discussion about timing, but its reality is no longer the subject of debate. What climate change does, is throw all of this into stark contrast. Not only are many of the historical avenues for mitigation already closed, now the pressures on our global society are going to increase from every angle. Climate change directly and negatively impacts all the significant factors used in calculating the odds of money being the right choice over peace. Climate change puts pressure on resources, increases the likelihood of mass migration, and these in turn increase the likelihood of war, poverty and erosion of the rule of law.
Given that climate change, by itself, threatens peace everywhere; what does that do to the odds for making decisions that further reduce peace in the world right now? It makes matters worser, faster. I think climate change changes everything. The time scale for the impacts of climate change are short; maybe a decade, maybe five, but anyway you look at it, they fall into the bucket of now. Now, because we all know that having chosen money over peace for centuries, it is not going to be reversed in a few months, or even a few years. The consequences of our past choices are going to take decades to be mitigated, let alone stopped. Reversal could take many decades. We know this, it doesn’t take a brainiac to figure out that getting to peace, from where we are today, is going to be a lot of work and take quite a lot of time. The harder we work at it now, the less time it will take; but it’s still going to take some time. This is relevant, because if it’s going to take, let’s say, 30 years to move our societies onto a peaceful footing (the equivalent of extinguishing the fuse) then we, personally, have to start choosing peace over money 30 years before the flame reaches the stick.
Here’s the choice we face today: will we extinguish the fuse before it reaches the dynamite? Will we figure out that the odds have changed and that choosing money over peace today is the wrong choice? Can we see that we are almost at the point where it is no longer a question of risk that we are making the wrong choice? We are entering a time when it is a certainty that peace over money is the only survival choice we have. If we can’t lift our heads up for long enough to look out over the landscape of our consequences and discern the changed nature of our times, in time, then we will let the fuse burn down and the stick will ignite. Our wildest fantasies of greatest dread will pale in comparison to the reality of the times after that event.
I, for one, am for extinguishing the fuse, turning the corner, recognizing the reality of the odds, and choosing peace over money now. There are those, I know, who would say it’s too late, that we have already passed the moment when the fuse was extinguishable; and now there is naught that we can do, save prepare for the explosion. I am not one of those. I can see a different future. I want to gamble now that choosing peace today is the right choice, the survival strategy, the best chance I have. That is the gamble I want to take. I choose peace over money, and I choose to do that now.
If you’re serious about choosing peace, then the next question has to be: how do we get there from here? What do we need to change and what are we aiming for? Those are the questions addressed in this book. A path that leads from where we are now, to where we want to be. It’s not for the faint hearted and it requires that you have decided to choose peace; but if you have, it provides a map for changing the world.
You take your first step, and we can go the rest of the way together.
Part 16 in the serialization of the The Path to A Future – originally published in 2009.
A new section will be posted every 2 weeks during 2011. Enjoy!
To get a free PDF of the book go to www.standardsoflife.org/thepathtoafuture.