Saturday, November 04, 2006

Crisis, Danger, and Opportunity

Keywords: crisis; opportunity; danger; Chinese; tide in the affairs of men; Thomas Homer-Dixon; The Upside of Down; collapse; dark age; survivalist; Nicholas Stern; fisheries.
"There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries."
Julius Caesar. Act iv. Sc. 3.

It is not true, as some unknown optimist has misled us into believing, that the word in Chinese is written by combining the word for with the word for . The “danger” part is correct, but the word “ji” does not mean opportunity but “crucial point” or “incipient moment.” In other words, the word crisis is just as ominous a concept in China as here.

Still if “crisis” doesn’t connote “opportunity,” it should. We need a term that highlights the great, if sobering, truth that danger sometimes creates a favorable possibility that must be seized immediately to bring about change. Even the passage from quoted does not quite convey that meaning, for a “” is not necessarily dangerous, though indeed the opportunity it presents will be lost if not caught at the right moment. Or, to quote another passage in the same scene of play, “We must take the current when it serves/ Or lose our ventures.”

The insightful truth in the mis-quoted Chinese logo is this: Opportunity may not arise except in certain difficult moments. You cannot introduce major social changes when things are going smoothly, for people mainly follow the aphorism: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” A crisis occurs when something important has been “broke” and calls for heroic intervention.

And lots of things in our world are on the verge of being broken. Only after they are dangerously wrecked will a complacent society rouse itself and, perhaps, make the necessary changes – but by then it may be too late. I was preoccupied with that predicament twice today: first, in connection with my church’s parish meeting, and second, in connection with a review of ’s new book, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization.

The parish meeting took place to review the conditions in our congregation that require change. The occasion is the impending retirement of our incumbent, a lovable, earthy female priest named Sara. Her departure will require some readjustments, and the meeting was called to re-think our goals and chart a new course.

But I was disappointed. When we divided into small groups to propose changes, the proposals amounted only to bureaucratic tweaking. Everyone agreed that we need something like the old “parish council” body that could make decisions between vestry meetings. Sara’s leaving is apparently no crisis, for no one seemed to consider major changes necessary.

I myself had thought this might be an opportune tide to propose larger changes. Everybody reads the news; someone mentioned 's recent projections about the economic consequences of . Someone else mentioned yesterday's prediction that the world's fish will all be gone in our lifetime. Yet these dangers did not unsettle the group.

I suggested two modest innovations that were not included our group’s oral report to the whole plenary: a new attentiveness to global challenges, and the creation of a web-page directory with enough information about each parishioner to help us get to know each other better. Apparently we shall meet our future with the same habits we have cultivated successfully over the years, for Holy Trinity does not consider itself “broke.”

Tad Homer-Dixon’s new book is apparently an exercise in optimism in the absence of any grounds for it. He had published another book in 2000 called , pointing to the same looming environmental dangers, but encouraging us to catch the tide, for there was still enough time to prevent disaster. His new book offers no such cheer. It is now too late to prevent a breakdown of the global ecosystem, with a significant “loss of coastline,” among other geophysical consequences. Yet interviewed him in today’s Globe and Mail and reported that he specifically declined to predict a “cataclysm” or a “collapse,” but depicted the coming doom merely as “breakdown.” He said,

“For me, ‘collapse,’ as I define it in the book, is so catastrophic that the opportunities for recovery — the potential for rebuilding on what is left behind and regenerating something new — are really degraded.

“I distinguish between the two poles of the debate up to this point. And really the debate has consisted of two positions. One is that we can organize ourselves with the new sustainable economies and new technologies so that we can solve these problems without an enormous amount of disruptions to our societies. That’s the optimistic pole. And the pessimistic pole is catastrophe, the Jared Diamond collapse.

“And I’m suggesting there’s an enormous number of possibilities in between those two poles. And some of those possibilities, if we’re lucky, we may be able to exploit for renewing ourselves. What they’re going to look like is almost impossible to say.”

I like Tad’s reasoning. He does not hold out hope; indeed, he thinks a crash is inevitable. Yet he does not suggest either giving up and passively awaiting the end of civilization or, on the other hand, becoming a in the woods, armed with bows-and-arrows and a knowledge of wild berries. It is too late to prevent disaster, he says, but disaster can still be mitigated if we keep our wits about us. He urges us to cultivate a “prospective mind” to cope with a new world of surprise, uncertainty, and risk.

This approach is not optimism; it’s realism. And I think it’s the right way to go. With it, we may be able to turn the coming crisis into a real opportunity to make progress rather than revert to a new dark age.


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