Beyond Management

The question is, how?

We typically respond to unfolding threats with a two-stage strategy: first denial, then reluctant management. If we can get away with denying or ignoring a problem—like the increasing risk of oil shortages or the international economy's chronic instability—we do so. We tell ourselves that the challenges aren't that serious and then simply continue with business as usual. Sometimes, lo and behold, benign neglect is the best strategy, and we muddle through successfully.

But it isn't the best strategy now because the potential costs if we're wrong are too high. In fact, we'd hotly criticize any family that ran its affairs the way we're running ours. If a family—especially a family with children—lived in a dangerous place—say, in a house on a floodplain, while massive storms brewed in nearby hills—and if they ignored the warning signs and continued as if nothing was the matter, we'd consider them irresponsible, the parents in particular. And the same criticism holds for us today if we deny the seriousness of our global situation: fundamentally, we're shirking our responsibility to our children and grandchildren who'll live in the world we're creating today.

When denial no longer works, perhaps because the signs that something's wrong have become too obvious to ignore, we may do our best to manage the challenge. We'll analyze the data, forecast the future, and lay out detailed policies to reduce the problem's seriousness and adapt

"Let's change 'brink of chaos' to 'Everything is wonderful.

to its consequences. Today, most experts who take our global problems seriously advocate a management response.

While this is better than simply denying our problems exist, it often doesn't help much. Any management policies that really address the underlying causes of our hardest problems usually require big changes in the existing economic and political order. After all, that order is often a central reason why our problems are so bad. But big changes always run headlong into staunch opposition from powerful and entrenched interest groups—like companies, unions, government bureaucracies, and associations of financial investors—that benefit from the status quo. So they're hardly ever carried out.

A good example is the history of the North American electrical system leading up to the 2003 blackout. The blackout wasn't, of course, the first event of its kind. In 1965, a failure left thirty million powerless from Ontario to New Jersey. Soon after, researchers began to better understand the complex behavior of the electrical grid—the continent-wide network of electricity-generating stations, high-voltage transmission lines, control centers, and substations that supplies Canadian and American consumers with power—and the peril of grid breakdown. In 1982, two of America's most thoughtful energy experts, Amory and Hunter Lovins, warned that the United States "has gradually built up an energy system prone to sudden, massive failures with catastrophic consequences."17 Military, government, academic, and industrial experts reviewed the Lovinses' research, but willful denial, technological obstacles, and obstruction by powerful corporate and political interests blocked fundamental reform of the continent's electricity system. When asked a year before the 2003 blackout if things had improved over the previous two decades, Amory Lovins said, "I'm surprised the lights are still on."18

From the point of view of those with a vested interest in the status quo, efforts to manage our problems can actually be a useful diversion: such efforts provide a focus for research, discussion, and countless meetings for academics, politicians, consultants, and NGOs, while in practice nothing really changes. The Kyoto climate-change negotiations kept thousands of scientists and other experts busy for years (ironically generating vast amounts of carbon dioxide as they traveled from meeting to meeting) while providing cover for politicians who wanted to say they were doing something about global warming.

Because it's hard to challenge the arrangements that benefit vested interests, when we try to manage serious threats to our well-being we usually create new organizations, institutions, and procedures rather than reforming those that already exist. We might, for example, create another office in the government's bureaucracy to monitor the flow of nuclear materials that could fall into terrorists' hands, or we might sign a treaty like the Kyoto Protocol that says we're going to cut carbon dioxide emissions. Too often, though, this strategy simply adds another layer of complexity on top of an already cumbersome and dysfunctional management system. So, over time, our mechanisms for dealing with a more volatile world become more rigid and susceptible to catastrophic failure when exposed to severe stress.

What, then, should we do? We could adopt a more radical response to our converging challenges: while a management approach is sometimes useful, we could also recognize that sometimes it won't work, and that when it doesn't work, as time passes, breakdown becomes increasingly likely. When breakdown happens, our challenge will be to keep it from becoming synchronous failure, while at the same time exploiting the opportunities it provides to promote deep reform.

We can help keep future breakdown constrained—that is, not too severe—by making our technological, economic, and social systems more resilient to unexpected shocks. For example, to lessen the risk of cascading failure of our energy system—failure that spreads through the system just the way a row of dominoes falls—we can make much greater use of decentralized, local energy generation and alternative energy sources (like small- and medium-scale solar, wind, and geothermal power) so that individual users are more independent of the grid. We might lose some economic efficiency, and our economy's total output of wealth might be smaller, but we'd benefit from a more stable and resilient energy system—and that benefit could far outweigh the cost.

I'll outline later other such resilience-enhancing strategies. If widely adopted, they would profoundly alter the course of our societies. In truth, by shifting us away from a monomaniacal focus on greater economic productivity, efficiency, and growth, they would represent a wholesale challenge to current economic orthodoxy.

We can also get ready in advance to turn to our advantage any breakdown that does occur. Breakdown happens—in our personal lives as well as in our societies. If seldom desirable in itself, it's nonetheless rarely the end of the world, and much good can come of it. We can boost the chances that it will lead to renewal by being well prepared, nimble, and smart and by learning to recognize its many warning signs.

To help us recognize the signs and prepare for breakdown is a central purpose of this book. In the following pages, I don't provide a checklist of technical and institutional solutions we might apply to manage the world's tectonic stresses. Instead my aim here is to begin a conversation about why breakdown of some kind is becoming more likely, how we can keep it from being so severe that it's debilitating, and what we can do to exploit the opportunities it presents when it happens. If breakdown is to have an upside—and I fervently believe that it can—we have to work together to develop a wide range of scenarios and explore what we can do individually and together in each situation. You can join me in this conversation at

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