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A dangerous category of wild card is one seen by experts as having a high probability of occurring (if present trends continue) with significant likely impact but that has not yet influenced common thinking – low credibility.
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Staying Resilient in a Wild-Card World
Many futurists today believe that civilization is heading into a series of disruptive changes – a tipping point – that will lead to either the rebirth of a sustainable society or to system-wide collapse. What will actually happen? What are the most likely scenarios? To help address such questions, it will be useful to discuss some concepts and terminology used by researchers when considering plausible, probable, and preferable future possibilities.
The Forecasting of STEEP Surprises (aka “Wild Cards”)
Futures researchers often use the acronym STEEP (Social/demographic, Technological, Economic, Ecological, and Political) to remind themselves to keep a 360-degree perspective when anticipating emerging trends and plausible/probable/preferable/feared types of change. As you might expect, most futures research is focused on relatively probable future patterns that are either desired or feared by a given population or client (technological advances, terrorism threats, global trade trends). However, another important type of futures research focuses on possible events that may have a low probability but would create a highly disruptive impact if they were to occur – for example, an asteroid hitting the earth. Futurists have traditionally used the term “wild card” for such scenarios.
The above example of a colliding asteroid can be called a Type I Wild Card or STEEP Surprise (suggestive of the steep wavefront with which tsunamis of change sweep through, leaving systemic disruption in their wake). Such an event carries an unstated assumption, among virtually everyone, that it has a low probability of occurring. A more dangerous category of wild card is one seen by experts as having a high probability of occurring (if present trends continue) with significant likely impact but that has not yet influenced common thinking – low credibility. This is a Type II Wild Card.
In the 2006 book The Bubble Economy,1 David Wiedemer and colleagues detailed how the subprime loan crisis would “bubble up and pop,” becoming a trigger point for widening systemic disruption and perhaps even disintegration of normal functioning throughout the global banking system. Although others also warned of an impending crisis, those warnings were generally ignored, and we all know how painful things turned out. This was a classic Type II Wild Card. Wiederman’s more recent book, Aftershock,2 describes a series of collated bubbles, at least one of which he feels is likely to pop within one to three years. Other credible researchers, such as Lester R. Brown,3 Thomas Homer-Dixon,4 and Duncan and Graeme Taylor,5 warn that a systemic socioecological tipping point downward is almost certain if current trends continue. Still others, such as John Michael Greer6 and Bill McKibben,7 argue that it has already occurred and that a “best case” alternative future is one of gentle decline rather than something more abrupt that may still lie ahead.
It is thus important to track changes in the degree to which the credibility of specific Type II forecasts grows, along with associated supportive data, so that researchers can monitor the emergence and impact of such events. To this end, it is useful to distinguish two additional “types” based solely on changes in perception by thought leaders and, by extension, the general public:
- Type I Event: low probability, high impact, high credibility
- Type II Event: high probability, high impact, low credibility
- Type III Event: high probability, high impact, disputed credibility
- Type IV Event: high probability, high impact, high credibility
The historical case of warnings about global warming makes the reasoning behind this typology clear.
When initially introduced as a threat, there was insufficient general knowledge to know its magnitude, and the science behind it was so new that no one considered the possibility to be credible. (Type I Wild Card)
More credible (though still early) studies indicated that there would be serious problems if current trends regarding the use of fossil fuels and other anthropogenic factors continued, but this contingent forecast was not widely promulgated. As a result, the need to significantly limit growth in fossil fuel use was still not credible to many. (Type II Wild Card)
When the contingent forecast, along with accumulating supportive data, were widely promulgated, the new view was strongly disputed in a variety of ways, including propagandistic advertising and political lobbying. In the view of many, it was “junk science,” which limited what was a growing level of credibility. (Type III Wild Card)
Now, for most informed people, the reality of global warming as a major threat to the sustainable well-being of social and ecological systems is generally accepted – although it is still so controversial that many socioecology professionals have taken to speak of “climate change” rather than “global warming.” (Type IV Wild Card)
The above typology can be quite useful to futurists and their clients in scenario generation and contingent risk assessment; it can also be used for strategic monitoring of noetically interesting occurrences such as remote viewing or psi phenomena (for example, see IONS Director of Research Cassandra Vieten’s blog “It’s About Time – Psi Research at a Tipping Point”).
The Importance of Guiding Images
Thirty years ago, a small team of futurists at Stanford Research Institute wrote the following:
Images of humankind that are dominant in a culture are of fundamental importance because they underlie the ways in which the society shapes its institutions, educates its young, and goes about whatever it perceives its business to be. Changes in these images are of particular concern at the present time because our industrial society may be on the threshold of a transformation as profound as that which came to Europewhen the Medieval Age gave way to the rise of science and the Industrial Revolution.
That report, Changing Images of Man,8 coauthored by a team led by social scientist-futurist Willis Harman and this author, became the template for the work of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (where Harman was president for nearly two decades), and those words have never been more relevant.
As made clear by the SRI study, the dominant image that led to the flowering of the Industrial Era was one of economic growth and exploitation of the environment. Now, with the continued flowering of the Information Era, the systemic growth based on the earlier image has badly outstripped the ability of that image to provide wise guidance for the next era.
Figure 1 portrays a hypothesized cyclical lead/lag relationship between the operational guiding images of a society (from an ongoing community of practice to an entire culture) and the actual societal conditions that emerge.
Figure 1. Hypothesized time/phase relationship between guiding images and social/cultural development. (Source: Adapted from Changing Images of Man and based on original work by Duane Elgin: http://www.imaginalvisioning.com/changing-images-of-man/.)
The type of transformational change modeled by figure 1 can be thought of as comprising socioecological “regime shifts,” which a recent essay in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (“Overcoming Systemic Roadblocks to Sustainability,” Beddoe et al., 2009)9 models as involving worldviews, institutions, and technologies. These correspond to what the late environmental scientist Donella Meadows called “leverage points – places within a complex system . . . where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything” (“Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” 1999).10 Such shifts are increasingly being seen by experts as unlikely to emerge unless profound crises first occur that disintegrate the orderly functioning of existing societal systems. At the same time, it is hypothesized that the avoidance of profound civilizational collapse and evolution toward more benign alternative future possibilities, where resiliently sustainable socioecological systems can flourish, will be strongly shaped by the extent to which appropriate new guiding images quickly become an essential part of the zeitgeist.
Guiding Image Renewal – The Increasing Importance of Resilience
The Changing Images of Man study derived a provisional list of six characteristics that a new image must possess to be adequate to the challenges ahead:
1. provide a holistic sense of perspective on life
2. entail an ecological ethic
3. entail a self-realization ethic
4. be multileveled, multifaceted, and integrative
5. lead to a balancing and coordinating of satisfactions along many dimensions
6. be experimental and open-ended
Thomas Hurley expanded this list still further in his powerful essay, “Changing Images 2000”, and in complementary fashion, Thomas Homer-Dixon11 suggests that such a systemic transformation toward what he poetically phrases as “the upside of down” must incorporate
- a cognitive transition
- an economic transition
- a political transition
- a normative transition
In light of the research described in this article, however, it is clear that yet another characteristic – that of resilience – is emerging as a keystone concept within any guiding list of transition-informing principles. In contrast to recent socioecological guiding images emphasizing sustainability, the new emphasis on resilience embraces new understandings about complex, nonlinear, self-adaptive systems that have natural – and often unavoidable – cycles of growth and dissolution. The emphasis shifts to systemic resilienceinstead of exploitive growth and efficiency as the keynote for pursuing ecological and sociocultural sustainability and well-being.
A key component of resilience research is panarchy theory (Gunderson and Holling, 2001; Garmestani, Allen, and Gunderson, 2009)12 – the relatively new paradigm of inquiry developed in large part under the auspices of the interdisciplinary “Resilience Project”. At the core of panarchy theory is an adaptive cycle, which portrays how what ordinary people think of as “boom and bust” tendencies are in the nature of all complex adaptive systems – whether at the scale of the cell, the individual, the culture, or the biosphere. Panarchy researchers have showed that the properties of the adaptive cycle do much to shape the responses of ecosystems, agencies, and peoples to a crisis.
In an online article titled “Our Panarchic Future”, Homer-Dixon describes his interview with panarchy theory cofounder C.S. “Buzz” Holling:
. . . for a variety of well-established natural systems principles, [Holling] thinks that the world is reaching “a stage of vulnerability that could trigger a rare and major ‘pulse’ of social transformation.” Humankind has experienced only three or four such pulses during its entire evolution, including the transition from hunter-gatherer communities to agricultural settlement, the Industrial Revolution, and the recent global communications revolution. Today another pulse is about to begin.
As Duncan and Graeme Taylor describe in their article “The Collapse and Transformation of Our World” (Journal of Futures Studies, 2007), this pulse is taking civilization toward a bifurcation point: As crises worsen and people lose faith in the industrial system, support builds toward both an inclusive (sustainable) solution and an exclusive (ethnocentric or privileging self over others) solution. If sustainable solutions are supported, then a constructive reorganization begins and a new global system accelerates. If ethnocentric values and structures dominate, then conflicts over scarce resources intensify and global civilization disintegrates.
Which of these alternative outcomes emerges will depend to a great extent on the degree to which civilizational threats of the Type II kind become credible enough for citizen activists, thought leaders, and the public at large to start taking action. What are the principal reasons that the credibility of Type II forecasts are discounted, and how can this be remedied?
The Architecture of Denial
The original research effort leading to the STEEP Surprises/Wild Card typology identified six reasons why Type II forecasts have low credibility:
1. Passive Disbelief (aka “Ignorance”) – wherein a given wild card isn’t seen as credible due largely to a lack of knowledge rather than a competing point of view. Subsets of this category, suggested by Canadian futurist Ruben Nelson, include
- Lacunae – where no thought or attention has been given, so there is no basis for believing something new and different
- Cultural Entrainment (aka “Paradigm Blindness”) – wherein inherited worldviews and lifestyles do not permit investigation that would lead to consideration or acceptance of a given wild card
- Insufficient Dissemination – while some in the culture have the knowledge required for informed acceptance of a wild card, it has not yet been disseminated widely enough for general acceptance
- Insufficient Cultural Knowledge Base – the knowledge leading to the credibility of a given wild card is considered a “known unknown,” representing a void that has not [yet] been filled and disseminated in a convincing way
2. Active Disbelief – where the occurrence of the given wild card is asserted to be impossible due to it contradicting other beliefs held dear (which in turn can result from establishment positions that involve disinformation, censorship, or both). Global warming is a good example of this.
3. Disinformation – where the relevant knowledge about the wild card has been convincingly camouflaged by propagandistic distortion. Again, see global warming.
4. Taboo – where there is an “elephant in the living room” that will severely undermine your legitimacy as a credible actor if you even talk publically about the given wild card being credible. See psi phenomena such as remote healing, telepathy, and precognition.
5. Censorship – where the relevant knowledge is suppressed by prevailing authorities in power over public policy, the mass media, or both. There are those who would argue that this applies to the suppression of UFO evidence.
6. Disrepute – where the dubious reputation of the “prophet” prevents a credible hearing. Nikola Tesla is a good example of this.
In addition to these six reasons for low Wild Card II credibility are other research findings on why people tend to discount future forecasts – especially if the forecasts are fearful and threatening. Futurist Harold Linstone’s book Decision Making for Technology Executives, for example, is a pioneering study on the discounting of long-range forecasts that often occur because decisions are overly influenced by solely analytical and scientific viewpoints that overlook organizational and personal perspectives. The more recent concept of system justification is a political-psychological model of why long-range threats are discounted by many. As shown by Irena Feygina, John Jost, and others (2010),13 the psychoemotional need to maintain a positive view of the existing social order, whatever it may be, has been found to lead to the denial of problems such as climate change. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger (“Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing the Public on Climate Change“) further suggest that the combination of a “low sense of imminent threat (what psychologists call low-threat salience) with system justification leads to a public opinion that is highly resistant to education or persuasion. Most Americans aren’t alarmed enough to pay attention” [to such socioecological problems as climate change] – even though cogent evidence suggests that they should be.
Moreover, recent research evidence by Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer (2011)14 takes the above reasoning a step further with this explanation:
Dire or emotionally charged warnings about the consequences of global warming can backfire if presented too negatively, making people less amenable to reducing their carbon footprint . . . Our study indicates that the potentially devastating consequences of global warming threaten people’s fundamental tendency to see the world as safe, stable, and fair . . . The scarier the message, the more people who are committed to viewing the world as fundamentally stable and fair are motivated to deny it. But if scientists and advocates can communicate their findings in less apocalyptic ways and present solutions to global warming, most people can get past their skepticism.
In a sense, Feinberg and Willer’s finding replicates the early experience of the nuclear disarmament activist Joanna Macy, who in the 1970s found that many potential citizen activists were so deeply disturbed by the threat of a nuclear holocaust that their sense of despair had turned into a type of denial, making them unresponsive. After much experimentation, Macy developed a powerful workshop designed to bring potential activists from “despair to empowerment” – an approach that after years of successful replication has been updated with new socioecological crises in mind (Macy and Brown, 1998; Macy, 2006).15
Avoiding the “Ostrich Effect”
“Threat communication” strategies about Type II Wild Cards using fearful imagery (“If Wall Street doesn’t change how it does business, another meltdown is inevitable!”) may well be counterproductive unless credible solutions are communicated at the same time, allowing receivers of the communication to retain their belief and trust in “destiny control.” Otherwise, people tend to act like the proverbial ostrich, which sticks its head in the sand in response to threat, unthinkingly diminishing the credibility of the communication. How can this be avoided or at least minimized?
The “ostrich effect” fundamentally reflects a lack of trust in self-efficacy – the belief that one is capable of attaining one’s goals – where “self” is both individual and collective. It also usually involves a narrowing of perspective, where the immediate sense of threat overshadows one’s ability to see things in a larger perspective, for example, the short-term costs of global warming solutions eclipsing the much greater cost if the problem continues to grow, or the anxiety caused by establishment leadership failures overshadowing one’s ability to embrace the power of citizen activism, leading to inaction. Thus, anything that provides an expanded sense of perspective while also increasing a realistic sense of trust and resilience is of benefit.
Will enough people wake up to both the seriousness of STEEP threats and the tools available for navigating their impact to ensure a more stable future? That will be up to us.
* * * * *
This essay is based on two forthcoming journal articles: “A New Methodology for Anticipating STEEP Surprises” (Technology Forecasting & Social Change) and “Research and Action toward the Upside of Down” (Journal of Futures Studies). Prepublication drafts are available here.
1. David Wiedemer, Robert A. Wiedemer , and Cindy Spitzer, America’s Bubble Economy: Profit When It Pops (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006).
2. David Wiedemer, Robert A. Wiedemer, and Cindy Spitzer, Aftershock: Protect Yourself and Profit in the Next Financial Meltdown (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010).
3. Lester Brown, “A Civilizational Tipping Point,” Book Bytes, August 12, 2009.
4. Thomas Homer Dixon, “Disaster at the Top of the World,” New York Times Op-Ed Opinion, August 22, 2010.
5. Duncan Taylor and Graeme M. Taylor, “The Collapse and Transformation of Our World,” Journal of Futures Studies 11(3): 29–46, 2007.
6. John Michael Greer, The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 2008).
7. Bill McKibben, Earth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010).
8. Campbell et al. The Societal Consequences of Changing Images of Man (Menlo Park, CA: Center for the Study of Social Policy, SRI International, 1974). [Later published commercially: O. W. Markley and Willis W. Harman, eds., Changing Images of Man (Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press, 1982).]
9. Beddoe et al. “Overcoming Systemic Roadblocks to Sustainability: The Evolutionary Redesign of Worldviews, Institutions, and Technologies,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106(8) 2483–2489, 2009.
10. Donella H. Meadows, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System (Hartland, VT: Sustainability Institute, 1999).
11. Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006).
12. Lance Gunderson and C. S. Holling, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2001). Ahjond S. Garmestani, Craig R. Allen, and Lance Gunderson, “Panarchy: Discontinuities Reveal Similarities in the Dynamic System Structure of Ecological and Social Systems,” Ecology and Society 14(1):15, 2009.
13. Irena Feygina, Rachel Goldsmith, and John Jost, “System Justification and the Disruption of Environmental Goal-Setting: A Self-Regulatory Perspective,” in Social Cognitive and Neuroscientific Approaches to Self-Control, R. R. Hassin, K. Ochsner, and Y. Trope, eds., in press (New York: Oxford University Press).
14. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, “Apocalypse Soon? Dire Messages Reduce Belief in Global Warming by Contradicting Just World Beliefs,” Psychological Science 22, 2011 (summarized online as “Dire Messages about Global Warming Can Backfire, New Study Shows”).
15. Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1998). Joanna Macy, The Work That Reconnects, DVD (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 2006).
Suggestions for Further Research and Action: The Institute of Noetic Sciences has a long tradition of encouraging its members to engage in experiential inquiry and altruistic activism. I hope that this essay will fuel a “fire in the belly” for anyone interested in helping to catalyze the emergence of enough resilience to weather the “Perfect Storm of STEEP Surprises” that appears to be coming our way.To learn about other types of activism that I strongly support and am working to develop, check out the “home-brew” video of a speech I gave to the Houston IONS Community on October 3, 2010, titled “Manifesting the Upside of Down: Noetic Approaches for Citizen Activists to Help Transform the Perfect Storm of Disruptive Surprises Heading Our Way."