Friday, July 25, 2008

Whither Civic Intelligence?

It's official now! "The State of Civilization is More Precarious Than We Thought." (At least according to New Scientist (April 2, 2008). )

Until fairly recently the stereotypical nutcase in the comics was a person — addled but harmless — holding a "the end is near" sign. Ironically, today, anybody who doesn't think that the end might be near, is really out of touch.

The bad news for people who'd rather ignore the situation is that we won't accidentally solve the problems that we've created for ourselves. It won't be easy to clean up a mess that it took thousands of years to create. So, although denial (or even despair) might be reasonable responses, it would be much more useful to consider how we'd address this deceptively "simple" question: Can we be smart enough soon enough?

How people answer that question depends on their view of how things stand. It also depends on their view as to the possibility — and the desirability — of people working for positive social change.

Civic intelligence is the collective capability to monitor, assess, and respond appropriately to social and environmental threats. Like Gandhi's opinion of western civilization, civic intelligence might be more of a "good idea" than something actually attainable. We may have actually reached the historic point where the enormity of the challenges we face overwhelms our collective ability to address them.

At least some of our traditional responses (like war and economic exploitation) to these challenges exacerbate the problems. Two articles by Debora MacKenzie, in the New Scientist issue mentioned above, "Why the demise of civilization may be inevitable" and "Will a pandemic bring down civilization?" raise the issue of societal collapse. MacKenzie asks the question: "What if the very nature of civilization means that ours, like all of the others, is destined to collapse sooner or later?" Although the fatalism of the question seems unscientific to me (destined!?) as well as fatalistic, the contemplation of civilizational collapse (possibly on a global level) is not just for kooks and paranoids any more.

I plan to talk about these ideas in future postings but one of the basic themes is that at the same time that the environmental and social stresses from human activities are at their highest and the environment's ability adapt or heal is most diminished, our society's inherent complexity, which has evolved — and increased dramatically — over the centuries, may, in fact, be a threat in its own right, having reached a point where its own structural nature prevents it from making the appropriate adjustments.

According to MacKenzie, "A few researchers have been making such claims for years. Disturbingly, recent insights from fields such as complexity theory suggest that they are right. It appears that once a society develops beyond a certain level of complexity it becomes increasingly fragile. Eventually, it reaches a point at which even a relatively minor disturbance can bring everything crashing down."

At the very heart of this issue is how humankind collectively learns and how it applies what it learns — which is a large part of civic intelligence. The urgency of this perspective is bolstered by the findings of Jared Diamond, the prominent researcher and author, who studies how societies face challenges that have potentially catastrophic consequences. Somewhat incredibly, Diamond's research reveals that the "commonest and most surprising" of the four ways in which societies fail to address their problems is their "failure even to try to solve a problem that it has perceived" — even one which ultimately results in that society's collapse.

I plan to use this blog to present ideas related to civic intelligence. My hope is that it will help clarify (at least for me!) the research I'm doing as well as helping to promote the work of others around the world, who are advancing humankind's civic intelligence (without, of course, necessarily invoking that concept).

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