The greatest lesson you might ever learn in this life is this: It is not about you. Shannon L. Alder
The constant change that I mentioned in the last slide also applies to the resources necessary to our economic, personal, and social well-being. We are beginning to become used to the idea that something (a constantly changing something) will always be in short supply. We just don’t know what it will be until it is in short supply.
For example, there was a shortage of IV bags because the most important source of them was a factory in Puerto Rico and the factory stopped producing because of Hurricane Maria and our failure to respond to the devastation in a timely way. There are now chronic and ever-changing shortages of medical treatments of all kinds. And shortages aren’t restricted to healthcare.
There are many reasons for the unpredictability of resource stability, but the most important drivers of our inability to predict what will be in short supply is a combination of the increasing cost of extracting any resources from anywhere, increasing and unstable efforts to make production more efficient, and the unpredictability and size of disasters, political events like terrorism, and social/political upheavals of every conceivable kind.
The obvious answer is to steward resources and not waste them. But every pressure of social, political, and economic elites is to increase profits and to extract those profits for personal and family use rather than to conserve them to use when things go wrong with the system for the rest of us.
So, no matter how obvious it is that we need to practice stewardship, the short-term always seems to win out over the long view.
The groundhog is like most other prophets; it delivers its prediction and then disappears. Bill Vaughan
It is dawning on most of us that the world seems less predictable than it used to be. Every day brings events that are surprising. In trying to gain a foothold on this ever-changing reality, we bundle the surprises and give them some abstract name, like terrorism or climate change or natural disaster. But there are a lot of problems with trying to bunch very different things under a single term.
The biggest is that we tend to use the same response to all of the problems under a single umbrella.
To use terrorism as an example, some of the terror groups became friends of ours when they stood against the Russians or Assad or ISIS. The most illuminating example concerned the jihadists who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, backed by the US. They defeated the Soviets, and we abandoned them eventually moving them back toward the enemy category, only by then well-armed by us through our earlier friendly relationship. And then there was 9-11.
In the old days, these decisions about who was a friend and who was an enemy would have remained relevant for several years. Today, the label of friend or enemy can change in weeks, and decisions that made sense when a community or organization was a friend, suddenly make no sense. It becomes too late to change the earlier decision or its long-term effects. So, we treat the effects of changing a friend to an enemy as though it were a new problem unconnected to our previous decisions and actions, and we continue to ignore our role in the creation of those inevitable unintended consequences.
It has always been clear that we can’t predict large-scale physical events (say when an earthquake will occur or how powerful it will be) or social/political events over long periods of time. But now a long period of time in our society is measured in weeks or even days. We regularly make decisions that will turn around and bite us on the ass far into the future, long after our original assumptions are proven to be inaccurate.
So it isn’t just that we can’t predict. We also can’t assume that our “good-faith” decisions based on those poor predictions won’t make our lives more dangerous, violent, and costly than it seemed at the time we made them. There is no on/off switch that goes along with, “Oops, my bad” to stop the continuing damage to ourselves from our short-sighted decisions.
I believe that the core of life is the creation and sharing of meaning. It is easy to forget this core when things are going along smoothly and we can ignore most of what passes before us without any great risk.
That time is past.
We live in a period of intense volatility, and we not only lack tools for dealing with such rapid and unpredictable change, we carry with us a set of assumptions about how our society works that might have been useful as rules-of-thumb in the past, but are no longer so.
In fact, these assumptions drive us to make poor choices, triggering changes and consequences we can’t predict, and forcing more poor choices on us.
The only way to manage this astounding level of uncertainty is to craft a strategy that will provide us with a framework for making difficult and tentative decisions over and over.
Nowhere is this change in how we make choices more important than in the disability community.
As all of you are aware, our struggles to build access, inclusion, and choice into our society have stalled and retreated at the Federal level because of the actions of the current administration. But, our progress has always been incremental and hard-fought, requiring persistence and a relentless commitment to our values over decades.
Now, while persistence and relentless commitment will still be very important, there are many forces that will actively work to undermine and destroy the progress we have made.
I want to talk to you about our struggle for rights in the larger context of long-term changes in our society that are now and will be constricting our community’s social and political capacity to innovate and expand freedom and choice for ourselves. The legislative and regulatory frameworks we have used for progress in past decades are currently eroding, and it isn’t clear that we can stop that erosion, much less reverse it.
In addition, there are large social forces that will make those legislative and regulatory frameworks less effective even as we succeed in defending them against attack.
In the future, it will not be enough for us to demand our rights. We will also have to create the social frameworks within which our rights will have real meaning and through which we can live fulfilling lives of choice.
We will not be able to depend on others for the success of these efforts.
There is a deep similarity between the way we have used fossil fuels and debt to drive our political and financial economies. And the results of this use are also very similar:
There are unavoidable limits to both. These limits are not just an amount (quantity in fuels and bubble size in debt), but that both become increasingly difficult to extract as their use increases.
The habit of their use also makes it increasingly difficult to change their use. This is a kind of addiction.
Their use is always to allow short-term success and a parallel ignoring of long-term consequences.
When the consequences become too great to ignore, very significant costs are required to alleviate these consequences.
In turn, the costs of dealing with the consequences of short-term, non-strategic use further undermines the original advantage of their use.
This cycle of short-term planning in use of resources and the lack of attention to consequences is fractal. That is, the mistake occurs systemically at every level. It is a characteristic of our complex adaptive system, and it has as much to do with the momentum of our ongoing lost control over our future as anything else that we currently believe to be wrong in our society.
We can’t use the way we created and maintain the degradation of our society to change that degradation in anything other than small ways, ways that over time will wash out in the same way that ripples from the splash of a small stone wash out in a river.
We need a strategy, not more short-term operational planning.
All public communications are inaccurate: Doesn’t matter from who or why. No communication can be trusted on its face. In many cases, our choices are either to simply believe something from those we perceive to be in our community or spend time we don’t have researching the truth.
All political systems are corrupt: Not all individuals, just systems. Corrupt systems use corrupt practice to sustain corruption until collapse. Corruption is never eliminated by criminal proceedings, does not reduce until collapse, and impacts all the transactions of the system even when most of the system isn’t engaged in the corruption.
The legal system is too complex to be generally effective: The only way the legal system will simplify is a collapse. It is nearly impossible to eliminate laws without making the legal system even more complex. In the mainstream of legal practice, lawyers know more and more about less and less as every dimension of law increases in complexity and the corpus of the law “requires” more and more of all of us.
I don’t know how to demonstrate this, but my impression is that in any instance of legal use, more and more of the extant law is simply ignored.
A great example is the way plea bargaining has taken over the criminal justice system and its necessity has extended and made the corruption of the justice system more complex and more difficult to reduce.
All saviors aren’t: Goes without saying? Desperate people always make the same strategic mistakes. As life becomes more out of control, as our society=complex-system becomes more brittle, there are no longer obvious solutions to chronic problems, and we retreat to those beliefs that let us feel better or express our fear well.
Our society has some large-scale demographic, financial, environmental, and social forces that can’t be eliminated or even dramatically reduced. These forces will have a profound impact on our ability to pursue our disability community’s rights and freedom agenda.
These include (only as examples. There are many others.):
Debt-Fueled Growth: We have been using debt to fuel growth nationally since the Great Depression. But when debt is an order of magnitude bigger than wealth, how do we pay it off? Mostly through economic crashes, whether small or large.
The Aging of America’s Taxpayers: We are all getting older, which means our incomes will drop and we will pay fewer tax revenues overall. And we seem hell-bent on stopping any new young people from expanding our economy and making up for that loss.
The Missing $20 trillion: The 1% have been squirreling away wealth for decades. The recent Federal Tax law is only the latest example of supporting that loss of wealth. And, there is no politically practical way to get that wealth back.
Incidentally, American sovereign (government) debt has also reached $20 trillion and is now equal to the USA Gross Domestic Product ($20 trillion). I guess we could call this the triple $20 trillion threat;
Relentlessly Increasing Complexity: Every second of every day our society is getting more complex. Every effort we make to fix the broken parts results in greater complexity. Every local improvement we make in the system makes some other part of the system more complex.
The increasing complexity makes our society more brittle, and less able to respond to the unpredictable disturbances of our common future. And, the only way we have traditionally simplified the system is through some kind of collapse, big or small.
Symptoms of Decline: What are some of the more obvious ways in which our society is failing to support our freedom and choice? Some things are going better, and some are getting worse. There are large-scale forces that are degrading our society and economy and they aren’t the current failure of thought that passes for our politics.
The Aging of Complex Adaptive Systems: All complex systems (including us as individuals) age in more or less the same way. What are the signs of that aging? Once you give up the idea that our society is a machine that can be fixed by replacing parts, it is much easier to see how similar aging is in all complex systems.
What Is a Strategy?: If just fixing current problems in the short run won’t help us in the long run, we will need a community strategy to defend ourselves and build something more sustainable. What might such a strategy look like? Whatever that strategy might be, it has to live with the realities that t\our future is unpredictable and there isn’t enough to go around.
What Do We Do Next?: Where do we start in addressing the long-term abandonment of our community by the larger society?
The larger society within which our disability community lives is stagnating and past its peak, no matter how long economic growth continues.
Our community is more like the “canary in the coal mine” than most, and each small increase in complexity, degradation of supports, and corruption of social relationships generally affects us faster and more deeply than most other large social communities.
We can’t afford to wait and see if things will get much better than they are now.
This isn’t because some things won’t get better. They will. But we don’t know what they will be or how they will affect our personal and community independence. We also know that as some things get better, others will get worse.
We need to act on our community’s behalf, and on our own behalf, right now.
But how do we actually do that?
This current set of blog posts is an overview of a much deeper and longer work on the issue of how our disability community can act to preserve itself and expand our independence and freedom of choice. I will be posting this overview as a series of posts on this blog for some months to cover the basic ideas before I move on to those deeper ones.
Most change initiatives that focus on complex systems are organized to outcompete for the resources that the system currently uses to maintain and grow itself. For example, political parties in the United States fight in cycles both short and long to control the tax and decision resources of government.
Although competition for resources seems the most natural way in the world to change a complex system like government, competition has built-in problems:
No way of framing the use of taxes and decision-making (i.e., a political ideology) is perfect. Each model (and there are a lot of them) will produce different outcomes in the short term (with winners and losers), and if the frame is around long enough will deplete the government of resources and capabilities in specific and different patterns. Losers will organize themselves and expend more energy, money, and time to gain control of what they lost. Thus, a cycle of political control.What this means is that US politics is like professional football (or professional wrestling for that matter). There is a superficial appearance of total victory, but only until the next game or season or election cycle. The actual outcome of the competition is stable, if shifting, change in control, that mimics more or less well the current perceived needs of the social system. The point of the system is rough stability, not any particular pattern of resources and decision-making. The death of the cycle would embed the particular flaws of the winner in concrete.Elites invest in the stability of the long-run, not the particulars of the short run. They care only about the rough stability. As a whole, elites could care less about marginal or devalued communities and the hard realities they might face, other than the use they might be put to in supporting or undermining the larger stability.
The core assumption that supports the willingness of people to compete for a long time in such a complex system that is “big-picture” stable is the idea that the resources and decision-making power are easy to convert to the winner’s goals. Like the cash in your pocket or purse, taxes and decision-making seem to be simple resources that can be used for any purpose. But they aren’t.Taxes and decision-making are deeply embedded in the system that uses them, and they can’t be drawn out the way cash can be pulled out of your pocket or purse. Instead, like any complex system, all of the particulars of funding and decision-making are tied to each other in ways that aren’t clear and which take a long time to discover. As you make the changes that drove your victorious political effort, you find that the changes cause changes cause changes, etc. and that the very people that supported your victory get hurt, as well as the ones you were deliberately trying to turn into losers. This networked complexity supports the longer sort of stable cycle.
What I’ve just described is another way to look at the aging of complex systems. The cycle is maintained by the aging of the current winner’s reformulation of the funding and decision-making pattern. The winners’ plan becomes gradually encrusted with the control they have gained, just as a ship becomes encrusted with barnacles in its purposeful journeys.
Well, if competition does not produce a deep change in complex systems, what does?
Disruption does. It changes the processes that reproduce the system and drive the particular cycle of that system. Disruption focuses on altering the process of maintaining the system, not the superficial appearance of, in our metaphor, governmental policy and resource allocation. And disruption often does this from outside that cycling complex system.
Because mechanical models of system change have been our go-to for decades, we have developed wrong notions about how complex adaptive systems change and how we might guide that change. Our efforts to tap change through simple assumptions are doomed, but we keep doing them.
Because complex systems change unpredictably when disturbed (that’s how they are different from complicated mechanical systems like a 787 airplane, which simply breaks if it is disturbed too much), changing them is more like a game with a large set of possible moves from our target. While we might be able to make a good guess about what the target will do, we are almost never exactly right, and we can never know if this particular attempt at change will be the one where we are right.
This post is about the habits that we have substituted for the creation of a real change strategy:
Myth of Mechanical Change: We can use the same plan to make any specific change we want in a complex target system, in the same way that we can change a dirty oil filter in an engine.
Myth of the Simple Target: Our target is not as smart, committed, complex, nuanced, or capable as we are.
Myth of Resistence: The only way we can counter our target is by resisting their initiatives.
All techniques of change (step by step procedures) become less and less useful over time when they are used against complex systems. This is a direct result of the target becoming familiar with the technique (habituation) and developing mitigation approaches to minimize the impact of the plan (better control in the streets, more efficent arrest processing, better armor, a better social media plan, etc.).
When public protest first hit the national television airways in the 1960’s, it had an enormous impact on the thinking of audiences throughout the United States. Today, a public protest has to have a twist of some kind to be truly noticed. For example, the recent Women’s March had a spectacular turnout, and occurred in a hugely wide range of locations. The March was indeed noticed. The airport protests as DHS turned back Muslim passengers has also been noticed. But think about how effective the airport protests would be if the passengers had never been allowed on the flight to the US in the first place.
Follow-up me-too marches will have less and less impact, and if the best we can do is public protest, we are in for a long and unpleasant 4 years.
Our Target is Dumber Than We Are
We often use arrogance and contempt to substitute for strategic focus. I suppose we do this because it is scary to take on a complex system that has real power. If we see genuine risk in our efforts, it is consoling to think that our target just isn’t in the same league as we are. A simple way to assess the effect of this myth is the amount of grief and surprise you have when the target wins.
One of the hardest (and hopefully earliest) lessons a soldier new to combat must learn is that assuming the other side to be less capable, and thus not really deserving of careful consideration, is a quick way into a body bag.
American social, political, and military history is full of examples of this. You would think we would have gotten it by now. B. H. Liddell Hart reviewed roughly 3,000 years of military failure, in which arrogance and contempt for the enemy was a primary source of poor combat decisions. There is a famous aphorism that says those who start wars lose them more often than they would if chance were the determinant of victory, and arrogance and contempt are the primary reasons why nations start wars that they are doomed to lose.
Resistance is Futile
Well, not futile. Resistance is necessary, but not sufficient. Meet the new boss, Same as the old boss. Resistance basically says that we want the target to stop doing this specific thing, or some list of things, and if the target stops, we will go back to our daily routine.
If all we do is resist, we may improve our prospects for a time. But complex systems adapt without altering their underlying dimensions of control. There can be real improvements by changing bosses (especially if you are part of a devalued, marginalized community). But don’t relax too much, because the cycle of life will come back around in a decade or two or three and kick you or your children in the ass once again.
If you really want to change a complex system, you will need more than operational planning, contempt for your target, and reactive resistance. You will need to challenge the control dimensions of the target through disruption.