Yet another of Vaughn Tan’s weekly attempts to develop practical insights about not-knowing. The ideas below are increasingly likely to be only partially baked.
News since the year turned has been pretty grim. (Honest: I’m not even going out of my way to look for this stuff.) The copies of the FT on the reception desk at the office remind us that uncertainty is everywhere and increasingly unavoidable.
The UK is heading ineluctably to Brexit. There’s a “situation” emerging between the US and Iran (yesterday, the situation developed: Iraq is now a stage for weaponized brinksmanship).
Oh, and Australia has been on fire for months. (Researchers estimate that a half billion animals have died so far.)
These are all external sources of uncertainty that affect us to a greater or lesser degree, more or less quickly. The implications of global climate change (widespread, slow to start) or US-Iran hostilities that escalate to nuclear deployment (slightly less widespread, potentially rapid) are both so profoundly awful, that I’ll focus on the slightly less grim and more drawn-out prospect of Brexit.
The UK and EU are both large and complex systems, and they have been economically and regulatorily conjoined for so long that the details of their interdependence can only be guessed at in advance. Perturb a stable, highly interconnected, complex system enough and it will respond unpredictably, going through a period of instability before it (maybe) settles back into a new equilibrium. The question is whether the perturbation from leaving the EU is enough to destabilize the UK temporarily or permanently. Probably yes—but no one knows how exactly.
In one of the more extreme yet still plausible scenarios, shortages of food, treated water, and medicines lead to civil unrest. (Did you know?: the last relatively widespread civil disorder in the UK was in 2011.) A more moderate prognosis would still see trade between the UK and EU curtailed at least temporarily while goods which used to move freely find new—slower, more expensive, more bureaucracy-laden—ways to make the same journey. This temporary dampening will probably become entrenched since business success depends on momentum. The economy already feels fragile even in the comparatively well-off southeast and it probably won’t do very well if given a shock, no matter how brief.
A recession or a depression in the UK would be bad news. Where I work, in so-called higher education, more than a handful of universities will probably to have to downsize a lot or go out of business entirely. A grim prospect. London feels febrile in the let’s-party-while-we-still can sort of way. But the economic impact of Brexit is insignificant compared to its implications for the geopolitics and stability of the region and the world. Brexit will mush up the UK, but will also affect the EU and the world more broadly.
As a political and defense union, it is one of the four big military powers that have acted as counterweights to each other. This global balancing of powers has probably been essential for preserving inter-nation stability in Europe and the world. The UK’s departure means one strand of the EU is about to unpick itself. And the rest of the EU isn’t looking so great either.
It is distinctly questionable as an economic union—some might say the only country that should be in the EU for economic reasons is Germany. Political union has become questionable too, with the rise of right-wing politics (often advocating leaving the EU) even in historically centrist/centre-left countries. This movement to the right and dissolution has probably been triggered by Brexit and the effects of uneven economic performance across the EU in the last decade (especially in Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal, etc). And the EU’s investment in defense has been systematically low for decades because the US had (until recently) been picking up all the slack.
If the UK survives and thrives post-Brexit, it’s hard not to imagine Europe moving further right and unraveling even more. And we’ve been on the cusp of a global economic “adjustment” for at least three years. And investing in military capacity takes years, if not decades. What happens to the balance of powers worldwide if (when?) the EU economic/political/military union begins to dissolve without a dominant US invested in peace in the western hemisphere?
A common interpretation of the post-WW2 period is that it is the beginning of a trend of sovereign nations recognizing their mutual (economic) advantage in not warring with each other. Post-war stability, peace, and prosperity in the developed/western world lasted long enough to lull us into believing that this multi-decade trend would continue indefinitely along essentially the same trajectory. It became easy to create and believe in a narrative of steadily increasing peace, prosperity, and—above all—stability. Essentially, the story has been that countries come together in various associations and unions, and we move ever closer toward the end-state of a stable, prosperous, cooperative world society. Like the original Roddenberry Star Trek, much of the science fiction of the latter half of the 20th century had this as an implicit world-building assumption.
The events of the last maybe five years make it impossible (for me at least) to continue believing in this story without reservation. The last few years and decades, when set in the context of what we remember of the longer-duration past, suggest that we tend to experience periods of great stability interrupted by great change. Instead of a stable trend toward a world society, punctuated equilibrium may be a more accurate way to understand the past and think about what might be the future.
Brexit will or won’t happen (more accurately, it will take any one of an infinity of possible intermediate forms between no-deal and a surprise revocation of Article 50). No action I can take will have the least effect on it. Even for the most powerful individuals involved, the ones with the nominal control and decision-making ability, only the precipitating actions truly lie within their control: calling a referendum, signing a bill into force, pressing the big red button that says “DO NOT PRESS,” that kind of thing. But the train of events which that precipitating action sets in motion—the knock-on effects, the unintended consequences—is not predictable and thus cannot be said to be controllable. As individuals or organizations, we cannot control external uncertainty especially in a complex and interconnected work.
Even if we miraculously make it through Brexit and US-Iran this year (like we made it through US-North Korean last year), there is still anthropogenic climate change to think about (situations like Australia ablaze will become more the norm than the exception). There will be more acute and more chronic perturbations of the world, which has become extraordinarily and complex-ly interconnected and interdependent. Involuntary external uncertainty is increasing and we’ll have to learn to deal with it without conventional ideas of control.
Sometimes, the external uncertainty we face is either invisible or easily ignorable because it doesn’t affect us. If you live somewhere temperate, urban, and inland outside the equatorial zone, climate change so far hasn’t really been easy to detect. Sometimes, as now, it becomes so overwhelmingly present that there is no option other than to see it. Its existence can no longer be denied, nor it be misinterpreted as a risk that can be calculated and risk-managed away.
When you can see the writing on the wall, it’s definitely time to commit to learning how to do something new—or, more accurately finding a new life. Not necessarily because what’s new will definitely be useful or correct (there’s no way to know for sure, or even probabilistically). Instead do this to gain practice in and learn the meta-skill of doing new things and living a different life from the one before.
New means going through a phase of being not very good at all. New is hard because we’re individually wired to like being good at things and our societies are wired to reward those who are good at things. The hard part of this commitment is going through the internal uncertainty of not knowing the right question to ask or the right thing to do, of failing repeatedly for poorly understood reasons—and being profoundly uncomfortable through it all.
My suggestion is to take on this internal uncertainty voluntarily, by design, repeatedly.
If the logic of the past and future really is punctuated equilibrium, and the reality of the present is that we are entering a time of great change, then business as usual (for both individuals and organizations) is unlikely to keep working as it used to. If things get uncomfortable, it will happen fast—and we will have to learn how to deal with it.
Repeatedly choosing to be uncomfortable is the only way to learn how to be uncomfortable and to get good at working through discomfort productively (instead of breaking down or resorting to therapy).
The advantage of choosing discomfort is being able to strategize about it: to pick a discomfort that will push the envelope without tearing it. The advantages of choosing discomfort repeatedly and with gradual escalation are: (1) the envelope of comfort grows larger over time, and (2) the gut-reaction to run away from discomfort can be tamed by the mind-reaction of evaluating and dealing with discomfort productively.
Voluntarily exposing yourself to internal uncertainty—by choosing discomfort—is probably the only viable way to train for the cognitive and emotional discomforts of involuntary external uncertainty.
Si vis pacem para bellum.