Risk, Resilience and the Case for Optimism

Following up on my exasperation at the urge to find a scapegoat for what is in essence a systemic problem, I want to flag this beautifully written, if melancholy piece by Walter Russell Mead, which struck a chord for me:

For the last generation, we have been acting on the assumption that the great problems have been solved, the great questions answered, and that all that remains is the application of our correct general principles to particular cases. In other words, we have assumed that we are living in an Age of Technique.

I think that is wrong. I think even the experts don’t have the solutions to many of our problems. The twenty-first century is a time of uncertainty, risk, revolution and explosion and unfortunately we are heading into it with some assumptions that look less and less likely.

Mead is arguing along the same lines as David Steven and Alex Evans in their recent paper and seminar, The Long Crisis of Globalization. Steven later made the case for understanding the global financial crisis not as a discrete or once-in-a-century event, but as the most recent expression of a long crisis that began with the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997.

More generally, all three highlight the ways in which risk has outpaced our current institutional and systemic ability to predict, let alone manage crises. And all three make the case for developing resilience as the only real response to the “Big One” that is ultimately destined to overwhelm our capacity to effectively respond.

But whereas Steven and Evans put their faith in developing new and better-adapted institutions and systems, that is, to perfecting the Age of Technique, Mead concludes with this poignant passage, written during a visit to Jerusalem:

This city points to the fragility and failure of human striving; but it also points to an enduring hope. The domes, steeples and minarets of Jerusalem point to our undiminished capacity to recover, to rebuild, to rediscover faith in the ruins of broken dreams. The Middle East is littered with the ruins of fallen towers, but people keep building.

There is still a better than even chance that the world economy will recover its footing, and that the Greek mess is a stumble rather than a fall. But sooner or later the unthinkable will happen, the bottom really will fall out of things, and we will all be left groping for some way to understand what is happening around us.

When that day comes, it will be to Jerusalem that most of us turn; the gods of Brussels are letting us down.

By nature, I myself am as susceptible to the Sisyphean existentialism of Mead’s reflection, if not its religiosity, as I am to the engineering challenge posed by Evans and Steven’s approach.

On a higher level, though, this strikes me as the fundamental choice facing humanity today: To which higher power do we turn when confronted with a human societal organism that has grown too big for its immune system to function effectively? Around the world, we see the candidates: the party and nation, regional groupings, global governance institutions and religion. And truth be told, to my mind, none of them seem all that convincing.

Still, I often joke that I’m actually pretty optimistic for a pessimist. By that I mean that while it’s usually a safe bet to assume humans will screw up in the short run, it’s hubris to believe that our failures will make a difference in the long run. That’s why I remain convinced that regardless of how we — as a people, nation, region or species — ultimately end up managing, or not managing, this proliferation of risk that we now face, someone (or something) will keep building after we’re gone.

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