Today’s problems can’t be solved with the same habits of thought that cause them. Here is a way for the scale of our ambitions to match the scale of our problems.
1.1 Security includes non-military threats
Security in the modern world means far more than military security and radical new non-combative solutions are needed to cope with new security challenges. This was highlighted by Professor Sir Brian Heap (2009), former UK Representative on the NATO Science Committee on the occasion of NATO’s 60th anniversary: “security includes non-military threats arising from incompetent governance, corruption, organised crime, insecure borders, ethnic and religious conflict, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, shortage of natural resources and, of course, terrorism.” Traditional narrow concepts of security are obsolete. The future security of individuals, regions and nations requires a broad ‘global security’ vision that encompasses rapid effective solutions to all major economic, social and ecological challenges.
1.2 Global security Is not happening
The ultimate threat to global security is not to be found among the long list of specific challenges; rather it is that the moment of opportunity for effective action passes whilst humanity is otherwise occupied. According to UNEP executive director Achim Steiner, “political efforts to curb pollution, protect forests and avert climate change have proven totally inadequate” (Reuters, 2008). Numerous other challenges are worsening, including insecure and unequal availability of energy, water, food, natural resources, funds, co-operation, trust and hope for the future. More than 50 states are already ‘fragile’ (United Nations University, 2008a) and all others depend upon complexities, energy dependence and running costs that cannot be sustained. The credit crunch is becoming a ‘planet crunch’ (Greyson, 2009b) of mounting instabilities and multiple converging shocks that threaten everyone.
1.3 The Age of Stupid
A movie documentary released in March 2009 called ‘The Age of Stupid’ (Armstrong, 2009) asked how humanity knew that climate change could make life unlivable and yet was entirely ineffective at solving it. This applies equally to every other planet crunch issue. Albert Einstein counselled, “We cannot solve today’s problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Problems that are divided up to suit society’s specialisms may appear more manageable yet global problems are indivisibly joined-up and codependent (Greyson, 2008). Reductionism hasn’t worked and ‘solutions’ devised within geographical, sectoral, organisational or symptomatic policy silos are inadequate, futile and illusory. The opportunity of seeking global security as a whole, for everyone, is neglected. The imperative of joined-up thinking and joined-up policy-making is a world-wide blindspot.
1.4 How To fail
Failure to achieve global security will mean the collapse of modern civilisation, just as surely as the fate of past civilisations that were not sustainable. The timescale of failure is not predictable but likely to be abrupt due to troubled global systems having positive feedbacks (problems causing further problems) and ‘tipping point’ thresholds that trigger cascading shocks. Failure is assured by continuing to seek each facet of security separately and by managing problems with patchwork policies (Greyson, 2008) devised in policy silos. The pursuit of ever more complex, expensive and tough controls on a barrage of worsening symptoms neglects the underlying circumstances that continue to cause those symptoms. Initiatives are considered practical and viable if they fit the same world-views and assumptions that perpetuate the problems. Security has been sought where it is ultimately unavailable, within financial, geographical and organisational ‘bubbles’ where some goals are temporarily met for some people.
1.5 The planet crunch proceeds unchallenged
The potential loss of all that is valued is more than our minds can admit. Psychological self-defense diverts attention away from the overwhelming reality of the planet crunch and towards theatrical debates about special-interest topics such as emissions, weapons or economic growth. Roles that are played include defending and opposing the status quo, announcing tokenistic ‘breakthroughs’, promoting ‘white elephant’ investments, denial, fatalism and distraction by trivia. Newspapers and TV publicise and review the performances. Researchers provide data and ideas for scripts. Policy-makers produce, direct, act and applaud, doing whatever it takes to ‘keep the show on the road’. Each successive shock becomes the new hot topic. The flourishing of drama at this evolutionary crisis point should not be mistaken for an effective response. Every converging threat of the planet crunch proceeds unhindered by any plausible challenge.
1.6 How not To fail
As Einstein suggested, we can think differently to solve today’s problems. The planet crunch is paradoxically less overwhelming and more manageable when approached as a whole. Churchman (1979) prescribed a ‘systems approach’ where “…no problem can be solved simply on its own basis.” Anyone can practise joined-up or ‘systems’ thinking. This can start with awareness that the selective targeting of intellect and compassion is the source of problems, not the solution. The relentless complexity of the planet crunch can be managed at ‘leverage points’ “where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything” (Meadows 1999). Leverage points are here described as ‘policy switches’ to emphasise that the purpose is practical not academic. Carefully-designed policy switches are ideal for situations where rapid progress is necessary with big issues that have previously resisted meaningful progress, including all facets of global security. Obsolete paradigms can be changed rather than just constrained or accommodated.
1. 7 Making the switches
The switches do not neatly match up with symptomatic problems; for example there is no particular switch for climate change, energy, population, poverty or health. Each of these can be tackled by making all the policy switches and by the further actions that would then become viable. Policy-makers have previously been asked to do the impossible – to solve problems within policy silos. Thus the biggest problems remain unsolved. Now politics can demonstrate its relevance to people’s lives by collaboration to create the circumstances for global security. The policy switches have the effect of aligning the self-interest of individuals and institutions with the shared imperative of a world that works, so the incentives are to do more rather than to resist change. The potential speed of an international response is illustrated not by the historical glacial pace of agreement on matters such as climate and disarmament but by the comparatively instant international action to bail-out the financial sector.
- Armstrong, F. 2009. The Age of Stupid. Movie documentary. Spanner Films/Passion Pictures. www.ageofstupid.net
- Churchman, C W.1979, The Systems Approach and Its Enemies. Basic Books, NewYork.
- Greyson, 2008. Systemic Economic Instruments for Energy, Climate and Global Security on how to reverse multiple global problems with systems thinking and systemic change.
- Greyson, J. 2009b. From credit crunch to planet crunch – or revival? Middle East Waste Summit, Turret ME, May 2009.
- Heap, B 2009. Don’t Forget the Science Bit. NATO Review, March 2009. http://www.nato.int/docu/review/2009/0902/SCIENCE/EN/
- Meadows, D. 1999. Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute, Vermont, p. 1. http://www.sustainabilityinstitute.org/tools_resources/papers.html
- Reuters 2008. “New Deal” needed for climate change. Wed Oct 22, 2008. http://uk.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUKTRE49L7B520081022
- United Nations University, 2008a. Naudé W, Santos-Paulino A, McGillivray M. Fragile States. Research Brief. University World Institute for Development Economics Research. March 2008. http://www.wider.unu.edu/publications/policy-briefs/en_GB/policy-briefs/
This text is part 1 of 8 of my Advanced Research Workshop paper, Seven Policy Switches for Global Security, for the NATO Science for Peace and Security Programme. Please see the abstract, full list of policy switches (also called ‘planet levers’) and downloads in this introduction blog, extracted from the full paper. Comments welcome below.