"Just Muddling Through" -- Still doesn't work


1) Sometimes, given present physical conditions, causal trends describe the future. For example, putting one marble into an empty jar every minute, will result in an hour with a jar with sixty marbles. Taking one marble out of that jar every second will empty it. And sharing the marbles, will mean assigning marbles, at least momentarily, to individuals.

2) Each human being is striving to increase his or her well being. In effect putting more stuff in the environment, taking more out of the environment, or holding a bigger share of the environment's contents.

3) The global environment, in some respects, limits our collective well being. For example:

==>> Land area is finite and must be shared.
==>> Fossil fuel and water reservoirs can be depleted.
==>> Forests, fisheries,.. genetic material are renewing but can
             be diminished to extinction.  
==>> Land fills, that isolate human waste can be filled to capacity.
==>> Natural purification systems for air and water can be overused
             and made dysfunctional.

4) These limits, adjusted by technology, will exist until we gain the ability to spread the human footprint over other parts of the celestial or temporal universe.


Some trends are created by human behavior. Thus human behavior creates some destinations.

When these trends and destinations remain hidden, we say the control of that behavior is "open loop." That is like driving a speeding car blindfolded.

When, tried behaviors are changed to reflect a bad experience, this is called "feedback control." That is like driving a speeding car while looking in the rear view mirror.

Social systems, when using either of these two control processes, are said to be "just muddling through." Today's members address immediate problems as they arise and believe problems that arise after their death are the responsibility of future generations. While most people are comfortable with this control process and its products, this comfort my be undeserved.

1) Civilizations living by it seldom last four hundred years.

2) No control process has achieved more space per person each generation. We have only so much land area. Our rising population has only diminished the space per person. Even a constant population would not deliver on this need.

3) Technology, intermittently mutes some environmental limitations. Expansion of goods and services have never exceeded the collective needs our global population. The difference has always created scarcity and social conflict within or among communities.

4) For most of recorded history the losers of these confrontations, fled to places with less competition.

Today, with most space, and resources already controlled by stronger entities, the losers are left with reduced footprints.

5) With an ever growing group of people sliding downward, relative to the well being they or their parents experienced in the past, conflict continues to expand.

Expanding social conflict is not new to the human condition. What is new is:
==>> people see the irreversibility of their downward slide in well-being,
              (loss of optimism)
==>> regional/religious/global coalitions of "downward sliders" have
             enough members to shape democratic processes locally, and
             enough wealth to create militant or terrorist activities globally.
==>> The good life depends on a global infrastructure that is becoming
             ever more vulnerable to disruption. A very small group with very
             limited resources can injure and terrorize the citizens of the
             mightiest nation.

These conditions have caused all preceding civilizations to allocate an ever growing percentage of their GDP to prevent such disruptions. The result in every case was collapse.

Resolution of this human predicament requires a new control process. One that has seldom been used before ... at least in a social context.

It is called feedforward control. In feedforward control, the not yet accrued conditions in the future are used to choose behavior.

This is the kind of control we use to steer our cars. We look out the windshield, see where we are headed, and then steer to continue in that direction or steer toward another.

There are differences between steering a car and steering a society.
==>> Social destinations are harder to see.
==>> Complexity and longer delays between action and outcome make
             predictions more uncertain.
==>> Worrisome predictions are muted by technological promises of
             non linear change.
==>> We all are wired to want our benefits up close and personal.
             When the cost of behavior to avoid a condition must be paid
             today and the benefits occur much latter we are less motivated
             to change our behavior.
==>> In some cases the necessary behaviors to avoid a future liability
             are not those of leaders but those of individuals. Control is
             distributed among 6 billion people. The new future is created              only when everyone takes the new behavior.
==>> Doubts of everyone else behaving well dampens change in
             personal behavior.

Parts of steering a car are similar to steering a society. Our process for choosing behaviors to recover from car skids is only partially useful and leads to accidents under some conditions. Our means of choosing behaviors, genetic preferences, relying on personal experience, and historical record, is also partial and sometimes not up to the task of steering a society to a desired destination.

Our normal behaviors " are sweeping us toward civilization, and possibly species, destruction." What we understand of our system's dynamics may not get us to change to the correcting behaviors in a timely manor.

We don't realize that getting to a nice social destination requires a different control process. One that requires that we pay attention to our trends, our predictable (though never experienced) destinations, and behaviors that shape these trends.

Waiting for these destinations to arrive, in order to learn how to address them, is like trying to prevent our extinction after experiencing it.

Betting the well being of our progeny and our civilization on such deeply flawed control processes is a sure trip into a social ditch.

We don't realize that the solution to the human predicament is a universal reduction in temporal blindness. It's the current level of development of our temporal cognition that prevents us from understanding the dynamics of our place in the world, prevents us from changing our control process, and prevents us from choosing better behaviors. We have to find a way to improve our temporal cognition or we will continue to suffer the pains of "just muddling through."


Jack Alpert (Bio)     mail to: Alpert@skil.org     www.skil.org      position papers

  (more details)