How To Solve All Societal Problems

The theme of Rebecca Costa’s 2010 book The Watchman’s Rattle* is that the complexity of modern life is itself the key to the complex problems we face. imagesOur brains did evolve to handle complexity, especially that of social relations. But the resulting cultural evolution outruns our brains’ biological evolution, and thus our cognitive abilities.

Early on, Costa discusses the Mayans, who she believes succumbed mainly to drought. Their end game degenerated into religious mysticism. Why, Costa asks, didn’t they instead continue pursuing rational solutions? – more wells, reservoirs, cisterns, etc.? In fact, she had earlier called the Mayan hydraulic systems “masterpieces of design and engineering.” But she thinks they hit what she labels a “cognitive threshold.” Actually, however, it seems that rational solutions reached their limit – there was nothing the Mayans could have done to overcome their water deficit.

Unknown-1Yet Costa draws a parallel with California’s water shortage problem. Here too, all current efforts seem doomed to eventual inadequacy. A frustrated Costa declares: “We need to manufacture more water.” (Her italics) What she means is desalination (making seawater usable). What’s stopping us? Not technology; unlike the Mayans, we could do it. Our problem, Costa says, is attitudinal.

To explain, she invokes the concept of the meme (coined by scientist Richard Dawkins), the cultural equivalent of genes. Memes are ideas that propagate, and can pre-empt other forms of thought. Like religion, a powerful set of memes that certainly obstruct other, incompatible kinds of thinking.

Costa uses the term “supermeme,” and focuses on several. One she calls “irrational opposition.” While I think this misapplies the meme concept, Costa is certainly on to something: a culturally rooted thinking pattern of “rejecting, criticizing, suppressing, ignoring, misrepresenting, [and] marginalizing rational solutions.”

Unknown-2Being against something can be far more emotionally satisfying than supporting it; criticizing a lot easier than defending. But, Costa says, people in opposition mode rarely have any positive solutions to offer. Desalination is a case in point – lots of vocal opposition but, typical of nimbyism, no answers to the problem. Similarly (not in the book), anti-fracking hysteria exemplifies Costa’s point – people need the energy, but obsess over largely hypothetical dangers, while ignoring the far worse ill-effects of familiar energy production modes we already use.

Climate change is a problem where a “cognitive threshold” does seem to be a stumbling block. Interestingly, it’s the environmentalists Costa faults here, for turning their beliefs into a kind of religion rather than a fact-based program for rational action. She’s talking about their insistence solely upon reducing carbon emissions. This does have earmarks of religious belief, both in its moralistic manichaeanism – casting humanity as a pack of sinners who need to don hair shirts in penance – and its disregard for factual reality. Indeed, it’s not just the climate denialists with their heads in the sand – the believers are wedded to a plan that cannot possibly work. Even if carbon emissions went to zero, global temperatures would still continue to rise significantly.

Costa instead advocates geo-engineering solutions – for example, replicating the effect of volcanoes by putting sulfate particles in the upper atmosphere to cool the planet – a vastly more efficacious and vastly less costly approach (as I’ve discussed). Yet all such proposals the McKibbenite climate zealots demonize as heresy.

Costa also applies her analysis to politics, where again inciting opposition is far easier than enlisting support for anything positive. That explains negative campaigning. All you need do is give voters one reason to reject an opponent. Thus we get Willie Horton and foofaws over “legitimate rape.” And while everyone says politicians should compromise, the actual elements of any policy compromise typically engender far more vehement opposition than support.

Though much of the book is great, unfortunately some is utter nonsense. While Costa pokes fun at the old wives’ tale about not swimming for an hour after eating, she falls for the equally false myth of needing eight glasses of water daily.

Worse, Costa doesn’t much hold with personal responsibility. One person’s obesity might be his own fault; but the obesity of millions rises to being systemic. She mocks personal efforts like recycling trash, explaining what little difference it actually makes (household trash being a small fraction of our industrial total). The problems at issue are societal, true enough. But who is society but us? On Costa’s logic, voting too is pointless because one vote can’t make any difference; but obviously, collectively it can be momentous. There is no sense in talking about what “society” can or must do, divorced from what its individual constituent members do.

images-2And while one of Costa’s supermemes is labeled “extreme economics,” I wish she had instead addressed economic irrationality — her own chapter being a prime exemplar. It’s the familiar trope that everything today is reduced to money and profit. Thus she laments that we can’t deploy a device invented by Dean Kamen to produce clean water with minimal electricity because, at two grand a pop, nobody can figure out how to profit. But who again is this “we”? If the economics don’t work, then someone must get stuck with the bill. Costa similarly bemoans things that used to be “free” but now incur charges. But nothing is ever really free. There’s no manna from Heaven. Economics is all about how non-free resources get allocated (and who pays). Failure to understand this can only impede solving the kinds of problems Costa addresses.

Anyway, after going through a litany of those problems, and all our mental obstacles for tackling them, Costa finally comes down with a single catch-all answer: insight. images-3Our brains have this fantastic capability for “Eureka!” moments – like when Newton “discovered gravity” (sic). So we just have to do more of that.

If I sound sarcastic, it’s only partly true. Costa argues that we can improve brain function through mental exercise, and there’s much supporting evidence. Indeed, it appears that fairly modest bouts of brain exercise can have long-lasting cognitive benefits. Why don’t our schools include this? I’ve written (“The Marshmallow Test”) about how inculcating some kinds of character discipline can have big effects, improving kids’ ability to thrive in school and life; and without this, conventional “3Rs” teaching may be largely futile for many students. The same applies to mental exercise to sharpen cognitive functioning. Oddly, Costa doesn’t say this, but our society’s failure to utilize these beneficial techniques is a perfect example of the problem, and changing this could be an important part of the solution.

Meantime, in fact, humans have been thinking smarter and better. This, as I’ve noted, is a key reason Pinker fingered for declining violence in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature. And, yes, it is declining (read the damn book). Of course we haven’t attained perfection but we’re getting there. And while Costa stresses that our lives’ complexity is outrunning our brain evolution, that only applies to our individual brains. But our mental power is collective. No single person today completely understands any advanced technology, but we don’t need that, when we can combine and coordinate the understandings of the many.

Unknown-3Further, the more of us there are, the more ideas are created; and modernity puts ever more of us in contact with other people and their ideas, so we get ideas bouncing off each other, flowering like branches off a tree, metastasizing. This is why progress happens, and in fact accelerates; it’s the very thing that produces all the complexity Costa talks about. So in the end it’s wrong to see complexity as the problem. It’s why I am an optimist about humankind.

* This title is intended to evoke old-time watchmen who used rattles to signal danger.

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3 Responses to “How To Solve All Societal Problems”

  1. bruce Says:

    that is why great leaders are so rare.
    the ability to move opinion, to quiet the believers.

  2. Joel Birkeland Says:

    Thanks, Frank, for another thought-provoking post.

    I’ve often wondered if my life is actually more complicated than those of other humans in other times. When I read historical accounts of classical Greece and Rome, it seems to me their day to day problems were equally complex. I think there may be natural mechanisms in place that regulate human behavior to a point of optimal complexity under any circumstances. As long as any restoring forces are not catastrophic (a key point) we will remain in happy equilibrium.

    I think you nailed it when you pointed out that our collective mental power can be applied to the task. This marvelous division of labor that somehow spontaneously arises reduces the complex systems to a set of smaller problems that can be solved.

    I have seen this first hand in my career designing microelectronic circuits. When I started, more than twenty years ago, my design contained 10 or 20 transistors on a single chip. Now, no one bothers to count the devices, which can number many millions.

  3. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks. Having read much ancient history, it may be true to say those were “simpler” times, but problems were very tough and they didn’t have our modern repertoire of complex tools to address them. As a result, life was far more fragile.

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