by Lynne McTaggart
It is not the end of the world, and we’re all still here. We averted a fiscal cliff, but we all harbor the uneasy sense that we have reached the end of something, closed a chapter on our own history, arrived at a point where there is no turning back. The end of life as we’ve known it. The end of oil. The end of easily acquired stuff. The end of cheap, flourishing modern capitalism. The end of every-day-in-every-way our easy-street Western life is getting better.
So if it’s all burning down, if we have to build over scorched ground again, what do we put in its place? What exactly does post-2012 evolution look like?
Why do societies fail?
To answer that question, I’ve been reading the work of Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer Prize winning geography professor and erstwhile anthropologist, who has built his reputation on asking the big questions of specific societies: why do some of them thrive while others make stupid, even disastrous decisions? What holds it together and what causes it to collapse?
I’ve been specifically interested in an interview he gave on the collapse of societies. Why had some societies like the Mayans in the Yucatan, or the Anasazi in the American Southwest or even the Easter Islanders brought about their own destruction by ceaselessly mining (and finally exhausting) their own resources?
What makes a society not realize that it is eating its own children?
The trouble with group-think
What Diamond’s UCLA students finally determined is that at the heart of these calamitous mistakes are failures in group decision making, whether in entire societies, governments or even business.
After immigrating to Iceland, he writes, the Norwegian Vikings assumed that the light, ash-based Icelandic soil would be as heavy as the clay-based soil of their native Norway. They proceeded to clear the forests as they had in the old country to create pastures for their animals. A few generations later, half of Iceland’s top soil had blown away, and the Vikings were left with an agricultural crisis.
By the same token, Americans act as though there never was a 1973 Gulf oil crisis. Immediately after the crisis they bought gas-saving vehicles. But long lines at the gas pump and alternate-day gas buying were quickly forgotten and Hummers and 4 x 4s began appearing in American driveways.
A society’s downfall also occurs, Diamond’s students discovered, when it fails to identify a problem already there, or a slow trend invisibly taking hold – what politicians call “creeping normalcy.” Our best example is global warming because the trend is not a clean inexorable upward climb. It is a fluctuation that has to be studied over a long time.
Finally, is a society’s failure to even attempt to solve a problem it has identified, largely because of clashes of self-interest, he says. A perfect example is the U.S. fiscal cliff, where both Republicans and Democrats were prepared to harm the world economy rather than give up ground or certain key interests.
Good for me, bad for you
Economists call this “good for me, bad for you rational behavior,” and a perfect example, says Diamond, are the mining companies in Montana which, until recently, were allowed to dump toxic wastes of copper and arsenic into waterways.
After 1971, when Montana passed a law requiring mining companies to clean up after abandoning a mine, mining companies got around the law by declaring bankruptcy – after extracting the ore, but before cleaning up. This good-for-me, bad-for-you stance is most often adopted by the decision-making elite against the rest of society. This occurred during the banking crisis of 2008 and is now, during the recession, still going on.
Another reason societies fail to solve clearly identified problems has do with collective amnesia, which Diamond calls “psychological denial:” it just isn’t going to happen to me.
And finally, he says, societies collapse when they try to sort out a problem and either don’t have the correct solution or are just too late.
All of these group-think failures are certainly the precipice on which we now sit. But aside from all these failures, I would add that our biggest group delusion – the lodestone of faulty reasoning in our group decision-making – has to do with the collective assumption that individual ambition serves the common good. That idea, which built modern capitalism, will be at the heart of its downfall. That thinking is our modern-day equivalent of eating our own children.
Many primitive cultures studied by Diamond such as the New Guinea Highlanders are far more successful than we are at many societal challenges by adopting a “good for me, good for all” mentality.
I, for one, believe that we will not begin to identify or sort out current crises (or even begin a process of evolution) without casting off faulty group thinking. The biggest action plan on our agenda for 2013 is returning to a sense of community.
Lynne McTaggart, international bestselling author of The Field, The Intention Experiment and now The Bond, has written The Bond Handbook, a FREE 27-page, 16- week step-by-step programme that will transform you into a pioneer for a new world and help you create a close, cooperative, interdependent community of any size. To get a free copy, visit: www.thebond.net.