Saturday, February 21, 2009

Collapse--Intelligently or Stupidly

Once, I asked a very respectable professor of Sociology and Anthropology, Dr. Ahmad Sadri, “Don’t you think the destruction of our world by politicians and businessmen seems too facilitated and well-structured to be unintentional?” In response, he expressed that he believes stupidity plays a significant role in this. I was referring to many incidents where both sides of a conflict seem to want to continue the conflict despite its destructive nature. Recent examples of such incidents are: the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the tragic events of 9/11 and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the recent brutal Israeli assault on Gaza. In the first case, what the U.S. is doing is merely creating more lackeys who, as history testifies, will soon turn to “Osama Bin-Ladans”[1]. In the second case, neither of the sides seems to want an end to this disastrous war. They are both fueling the conflict (however not at the same rate by any measure) and are doing it in such a way that makes me think that they actually enjoy the prolongation of the conflict. Many will call this the need for external enemies in authoritarian systems. But the U.S. and Israel are supposedly democracies (and not authoritarian). Hamas is also an elected body! So what is behind this drive for not-ending conflict? (And please do not give me ideological explanations as I have long been over with such media-driven explanations.)

Dr. Sadri was suggesting that at least a large part of this seemingly planned process of destruction is based on stupidity. Whereas I had my “conspiracy theorist” hat on and was suggesting that an intelligence is holding the rein of this mad cow and is intentionally pushing it over the edge.

I am currently reading Collapse by Jared Diamond, acclaimed author of Guns, Germs, and Steel. After laying out an extensive narrative of how different societies such as the Easter Islanders, people of Maya, and Norse Greenlanders have intentionally but blindly destroyed themselves, he goes into a section where he draws lessons from the stories he has laid out. At the beginning of this section, he refers to a question that he was asked by his students while he was teaching these demises. The question was: whether people of the next century going to be “as astonished about our blindness today as we are about the blindness of the Easter Islanders?”

Diamond provides some factors that he sees as contributors to the bad decision-making by the people of those societies that have disappeared. Diamond writes, “I’ll divide the factors into a fuzzily delineated sequence of four categories. First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Second, when the problem does arrive, the group may fail to perceive it. Then, after they perceive it, they may fail even to try to solve it. Finally, they may try to solve it but may not succeed.”[2] His approach is very close to Dr. Sadri’s characterization of stupidity. I agree with Diamond’s factors only for illiterate societies of the past and not for the complex, global society of today. I don’t see how we can fail to anticipate problems or slide into wrong analogy when we have millions of pages that have documented human stories and wrong analogies in the history of human development.

My current position on the question of whether or not there is an intelligence behind the destruction of our human society, however, is an amalgamation of my “conspiracy theory” and the “stupidity theory” of Dr. Sadri or the “blindness theory” of Jared Diamond. I believe that in each of these cases (at least in the modern world), the greediness of grasping human beings has blocked their wisdom from even considering the long-term effects of their profit reaping actions on the next generations. This, in long term, has led to the conception of social and cultural systems/institutions that were blind to their long-term effects, just like their devisors wanted them to be. Then, even if the process of understanding the impacts takes place in the future (as the destruction goes on), “rational choice” or “under-provision of public goods”[3] (both widely understood economic terms) leads to an intentional stupidity or blindness. Those who inherit such systems rather close their eyes on how the existing social/cultural system is eroding their societies (mind you that contrary to Dr. Sadri and Diamond’s characterizations, I see an active role for human beings in blinding themselves to the destructive reality). And I say closing their eyes in a very particular sense. In that by accepting the inherited norms of society and culture (in how one does business and etc.), the inheritors of this system set off a race for reaping the maximum profit out of the existing system. One would rather leave the cleaning part to others when limitations exist on resources (no time to waste on cleaning up). This does not only lead to no action towards correcting the system, but it reinforces the destructive forces of the inherited system and passes it on to the next generation. This is what I call the intelligence! It is this system that gets devised overtime and has the capacity to enforce compliance by the next generations.

One of Jared Diamond’s students asked him what he thought “the islander [Easter islander] who cut down the last palm tree said as he was doing it.” The answer to this question, in my opinion, is not very hard. I at least know what I would have said. I would say “hey, did the others who cut the rest of the trees care about me while cutting them? And will others leave this tree stand if I don’t cut it now? At least I will have something to live on (either by selling the tree or by turning it into a canoe for fishing) for a short while! I can’t forego my life for those who didn’t even blink when they were making life so hard for me!” Who would I be blaming in this case? The system! The intelligence that has driven me to be the last person to cut a tree.

The same question can be asked today about the financial crisis in the U.S. which has inflicted incredible pain on many people around the world. The people of the next century (if there are some) will definitely ask a similar questions “didn’t the people of the 20th century understand that the financial system they devised (the hedge funds, the packaging system of loans and mortgages, the sub-prime mortgage and the last but by no means the least, the bail-out package of George W. Bush and the economic recovery of President Obama) was making the whole economy collapse?” And the answer is no and yes. No, because we didn’t do anything about it (and still are not doing much!). Yes because many of those who didn’t do anything about it were aware of the destructive nature of the financial system, but have inherited this system (so it was not their fault) and were merely trying to reap the most possible profit for THEMSELVES out of the system, before someone else cuts the last tree standing!

[1] I put Osama Bin-Ladan in quotes, because I am using it figuratively and not literally.

[2] Diamond, Jared. Collapse, Penguin Books, 2005, p. 421.

[3] In short, the theory of “under-provision of public goods” claims that people would rather spend less in building a public park with the hope that others (who will also benefit) will spend some money on it and the non-payer will also benefit as much as others without having spent as much. In this case, we are talking about a case that is slightly different from creation of a public good and is about consuming a public good. Applying the same framework to this case, will yield a very similar result, i.e. everyone will try to use up more of the public good (often in excess of need or capacity) fearing that others will soon deplete the whole thing. This is also referred to as "tragedy of the common."


  1. This is an interesting theory, or mix of theories.
    I don't want to sound too pessimistic, but could this be more human nature than system?
    Let's imagine that an incident stops this system, the profit maximizing nature of humans will come back in another shape to reap profits off of the island, this time perhaps, by condemning tree cutting, but killing island's inhabitants :).
    Regardless of the system, newly formed groups (if we are lucky, if not the same old group), will find a destructive path that is profitable to them. Then, all they have to do is to close their eyes!
    so if this is human nature, could it be fixed or controlled?

  2. I can understand the logic of your theory and explanation of current situation, but I didn't see any solution. In the case of financial crises are there any alternative? In the other hand I am wondering how this kind of problems can be prevented?

  3. Thanks for your comment.

    I understand your point. The issue is that looking for solution when the crisis hits is exactly what we should not be doing. It puts you in the vicious circle of reacting to external stimuli. What I would suggest (although I still have to write a lot about the problem before getting to any solution), is to employ the common sense rather than becoming the common. In other words, questioning what is considered "given" is key in not letting the flow take us to the point of crisis.

    Thanks again for your comment.