Mapping Paralysis and Tokenism in the Face of Potential Global Disaster


Why nobody is about to do anything effective and what one might do about it (Part #1)

Mapping paralyzing factors
Iterative method
Future methodological possibilities
Transformation of psychic numbing
Unresolved "is-ought" challenge
Priorities arising from the strategically "very important"
Maps: empowering or disempowering?
Possible countervailing initiatives
Representation of a psychosocial vortex resulting from "spin"
Engaging meaningfully with the irrational

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Produced on the occasion cited as the "biggest crisis in Europe since World War II"
-- for which new ideas for remedial strategies are now admitted to be lacking


A Special Report of a current issue of The Economist has been entitled Staring into the Abyss: Europe and its currency (12 November 2011). The introductory leader argues:

When the world's third-largest bond market begins to buckle, catastrophe looms. At stake is not just the Italian economy but Spain, Portugal, Ireland, the euro, the European Union's single market, the global banking system, the world economy, and pretty much anything else you can think of.

The following exercise constitutes a further effort to articulate the current global problematique, but especially with respect to the increasing sense that the probability of emergence of any collective global strategy  is increasingly unlikely. The succession of past meetings of the G8 and the G20 can readily be seen as a pattern of unfulfilled expectations and broken promises -- primarily designed  for public relations purposes in the shorter term. As illustrated by responses to the financial crisis and global warming, the lesson would seem to be that little effective is about to be done, despite the most vigorous claims to the contrary.

No systemic insight is offered as to "why" the current set of crises has become so acute. Commentary on "why" is avoided, other than in order to blame the incompetence of those previously in power or authority -- as will be blamed, with every probability, those currently holding those powers. There would seem however to be an unexamined equivalence between the negligent mindsets which gave rise to the subprime mortgage crisis and to the sovereign debt crisis. The failure of oversight capacity is seemingly also echoed in that of the Catholic Church, now confronted by worldwide charges of clerical sexual abuse.

Expressed crudely, the pattern bears a strong resemblance to the documented incidents in which passers by watch in horror as someone is harassed -- but without feeling called upon to act in effective response. Expressed otherwise, there is a sense in which society is cognitively "frozen", as with a wild animal faced with oncomng traffic on a highway at night (Karen A. Cerulo, Never Saw It Coming: cultural challenges to envisioning the worst, 2006).

Effective legislative action would seem only to be triggered when the number of deaths is sufficiently dramatic in public relations terms. This suggests a curious collective dependence on "human sacrifice" -- reminiscent of the dependence of past civilizations on that process for their salvation.

This attitude to risk is all too evident in the siting of dwellings in regions prone to earthquakes (Fukushima, San Francisco), to volcanoes or to flooding. Dwellings may also be sited in proximity to industries prone to disastrous accidents (nuclear reactors, etc), as previously noted (Anticipating Future Strategic Triple Whammies: In the light of earthquake-tsunami-nuclear misconceptions, 2011; Disastrous Floods as Indicators of Systemic Risk Neglect, 2011).

The pattern is evident in the case of substance abuse (drink, drugs), smoking, unprotected sex (HIV/STD), or consumption of unhealthy foods (carcinogenic additives, etc), and risky road use. On a larger scale it is evident in the well-documented challenges of disposal of waste (nuclear waste, ocean plastic, etc), GM crops, global warming, or overpopulation. Rather than strategies in accordance with the Precautionary Principle, fundamental adherence to an "Unprecautionary Principle" would seem to merit recognition. This is exacerbated by "Black Swan"  effects (Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable, 2007).

If such catastrophic crises are so evident at the time when the world population has reached 7 billion, why is it so readily assumed that the systemic challenges of governance will not increase further as the population increases to 8, 9, 10 billion -- in the next 30-50 years? What is to be learned from the capacity of global governance at a time when there are threats of strikes against Iran, following the pattern in the case of Iraq? What is to be learned with respect to management skills at a time when the successful head of the largest media complex in Italy has long been prime minister of the country with a level of sovereign debt which may well undermine the eurozone and the world economy?

The argument has been previously developed from several perspectives (The Consensus Delusion: mysterious attractor undermining global civilization as currently imagined, 2011; Ungovernability of Sustainable Global Democracy? Towards engaging appropriately with time, 2011; Emergence of a Global Misleadership Council, 2007). One feature of the problematique is the systematic denial with which it is associated (Lipoproblems: Developing a Strategy Omitting a Key Problem, 2009; United Nations Overpopulation Denial Conference, 2009; Institutionalized Shunning of Overpopulation Challenge: incommunicability of fundamentally inconvenient truth, 2008). Another is the complexity, especially when associated with the "irrational" (Future Challenge of Faith-based Governance, 2003; Cultivating Global Strategic Fantasies of Choice, 2010; Imagining the Real Challenge and Realizing the Imaginal Pathway of Sustainable Transformation, 2007).

These concerns have given rise to several previous mapping exercises (Map of Systemic Interdependencies None Dares Name: 12-fold challenge of global life and death, 2011; Mind Map of Global Civilizational Collapse: why nothing is happening in response to global  challenges, 2011; Mapping the Global Underground, 2010; Recognizing the Psychosocial Boundaries of Remedial Action, 2009).

The question of "who" might be expected to do "what" and "when" recalls the widely quoted "poem about responsibility" involving four people: Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody, of which one (abridged) variant is:

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it.
Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did.
Somebody got angry,  because it was Everybody's job.
Everybody knew that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Somebody wouldn't do it.
And Everybody blamed Somebody, because Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

With respect to global governance, this suggests a caricature articulated separately (Responsibility for Global Governance: Who? Where? When? How? Why? Which? What? 2008).

Is it possible to articulate the central core of the challenge  as a simple "map", in a fruitfully meaningful way -- as explored below? Such a map should not be too simplistic, focusing on only one or two core problems. Excessive complexity would render it incomprehensible. For the map to conform to cognitive "comfort zones" in relation to processing of information, it should in principle not have more than "seven, plus or minus two" elements, according to the classic (and much-cited) study by George Miller (The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two, Psychological Review, 1956). 

There is however a case for challenging those constraints by taking the map slightly beyond the comfort zone to 12 elements, as separately argued (Eliciting a 12-fold Pattern of Generic Operational Insights: recognition of memory constraints on collective strategic comprehension, 2011). As noted in that title, the merit of doing so is to take greater account of the mnemonic considerations enabling the map to be memorable as a whole through the organization of the relationship between its parts -- whilst engaging with a greater degree of systemic complexity.

Is there effectively some form of cognitive equivalent to a "sound barrier" or "glass ceiling" blocking self-reflexivity, as intimated by John Ralston Saul (The Unconscious Civilization, 1995)? One candidate has been named as "psychic numbing" or "psychophysical numbing". As described in the light of recent research by Paul Slovic it is : "a form of psychophysical numbing may result from our inability to appreciate losses of life as they become larger" ("If I look at the mass I will never act": Psychic numbing and genocide, Judgment and Decision Making, 2007).

With respect to charity, this relatively new term refers to the tendency of people to feel less urgent compassion, and tend to give less, when the suffering in question is shown to be more systemic and more pervasive, or affecting larger numbers of people. As a state of reduced emotional responsiveness, it is usually associated with exposure to traumatic events. Less well-recognized is the extent to which this numbing is evident on a collective strategic scale, with respect to longer-term issues which are less evident or endemic (structural violence, cultural violence, etc).

Rather than the values embodied in symbolic rose windows for purposes of inspiration, is there then a need to design a memorable "glazed-eye" window before which global civilization stands benumbed? Perhaps even to be understood in terms of "cognitive double glazing" or even "triple glazing". Extending the metaphor, should the "abyss", to which The Economist, alludes be considered "radioactive", calling for even stronger protective measures, as previously explored (Overpopulation Debate as a Psychosocial Hazard: development of safety guidelines from handling other hazardous materials, 2009)?

The concern here has been highlighted with respect to another related crisis by the New Scientist (22 October 2011) with a Special Report on Climate Change: what we do know and what we don't. The lead editorial in the print edition is entitled What are we waiting for? -- one of many certainties of climate change is that it's time to act. The electronic version of that editorial is entitled The biggest climate change uncertainty of all in order to focus on the following:

By the time the need for drastic action becomes blindingly obvious, the best opportunity to curb harmful change will have been squandered. Yet if draconian action is taken today, any success in limiting warming will be greeted with scepticism that drastic measures were ever worthwhile or even necessary. Perhaps the greatest unknown, then, is how to persuade people to act today to help protect their long-term future, not to mention future generations.

One more thing is certain: only science can reveal how our plant can provide a decent home for billions of people without toppling over the precipice.

Unfortunately it no longer seems to be a question of whether or not science is able to take account of controversy associated with ever-increasing population pressures, for example. The challenge for science is to come to grips with the nature of the pressures with which it is seemingly complicit in failing to name and describe the systemic behavioural dynamics through which sensitive issues are avoided. When will science "reveal how our planet can provide a decent home" -- if it effectively defines itself as unable to acknowledge wider system dynamics in which it is implicated? A degree of reflexivity, consistent with third order cybernetics, would seem to be called for.

If it is indeed "time to act", there is a case for factoring into "research" why action is currently so effectively inhibited. The following mapping exercise offers indications to that end.

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