In business meetings we often ask “how do we land this plane?” meaning, “How do we bring this process to a successful conclusion?” and–mixing metaphors–“How do we go from having a lot of balls in the air to bringing about an outcome we can live with?”
In our current global situation, “How do we land this planet” is the relevant question. We’ve got a lot of balls loose. We power our global civilization with fossil fuels, the byproducts of which are rapidly killing the planet on which our civilization depends.
Surprising cascades of linked causes can contribute to crises far from their origin. Here is just one: Thomas Friedman recently pointed out in the New York Times that a root cause of the destabilization in Syria is that climate change is reducing the arable land, and driving people into profound conflicts over water. Destabilization of regional civilization in Syria is turning local families into global refugees, millions of which are swarming into Europe and destabilizing societies far from the original battlefields.
Root causes need to be rooted out so we can start to invest in a future that lasts. Society is a castle built on sand as long as it depends on fossil fuels.
The logical conclusion is one argued by Stanford professor…We’ve got to shut down fossil fuels as soon as possible, not “as soon as practical.” Unfortunately, “practical” in our situation is precisely meaningless. “Practical” envisions schemes that save us while not disrupting us. They preserve business as usual. But business as usual is already doomed by conditions. ‘Practical” is an delusion, because as the catastrophe expands our current relationships are upended anyway. The upending is coming faster and more broadly than we can comprehend.
Taleb characterizes unexpected calamities “black swans”–to signify unpredictable rare events with dramatic consequences. But I like better his story of the Thanksgiving turkeys. The turkeys are talking among themselves in early November, commenting on how the food is improving and their numbers are rising. Life is good, and the trend is positive. However they are in for a surprise as Thanksgiving approaches. We are all turkeys today, even the most thoughtful of us.
Consider once again our mini case above: Europe is disrupted far more painfully than anticipated. Such “black swans” are growing in number-they are catastrophes result from our hidden interdependence and emerge suddenly, unexpectedly. Mosquito control has been a secondary concern among developed nations, because malaria only affected less developed, equitorial societies. Now comes Zika virus, and we suddenly face a mosquito crisis in Florida and across the southern United States. Because of our global interdependence, demises approach more rapidly, driven by causes that seem safely far away.
Better to use system science to act now on root causes and potential drivers of catastrophes. Better to do so while our options are broader than they will be. When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. When is the second best time to plant a tree? Today.
The good news about working on root causes is that their solutions, while usually drastic, can be far reaching. By facing root problems we actually simplify our work, because we cut off a myriad of subsequent problems. We can stop playing Whack-a-Mole if we destroy the colony.
Will we need to think carefully, plan, and build consensus in order to construct a future that makes sense? Yes–and better to start now to convene those best able to help. Will we need new organizational forms, new leadership approaches? Yes. Will we have to take actions that are profoundly disruptive of the status quo? Of course. Will people fight with us, try to block out or disruptions? Certainly. But better to gird our loins and disrupt ourselves than face unprecedented, unpredictable and ever-more-disastrous Turkey days.