22 February, 2013

Understanding Saturation and Stagnation

Adversity is one of the primary factors that molds the culture of a population. Just about any aspect of a society's culture -- be it the way they dress, the food they eat, the social protocols they follow -- have some roots in past adversity that the society has had to face.

Some kinds of adversity are of an instantaneous nature -- the cause and effect of the adversity are clearly visible. For instance, adversity due to cold weather or hot deserts or volcanic action or earthquakes, are clearly visible. Cause and effect are both apparent from the adversity.

However, there are some classes of adversity that are of a more insidious nature. This article talks about two such kinds.

The first is the kind of adversity that arises due to saturation of resources in a population. Resources at first, appear to be plenty and not much thought is given to what happens when the resources deplete. Most of the thought would have gone into utilizing the resources.

Saturation is a process that builds up slowly and has no one root cause. There is no one place that saturation starts -- it is everywhere. From an individual's perspective, saturation starts as a mild irritation. This irritation persists and slowly grows till an extent that it is no longer possible to ignore it or live with it. And this process typically takes such a long time, perhaps even over generations, that the physical cause of saturation is lost. Most of our response in turn, would be directed against the irritation than the source of the saturation itself.

The dangers posed by saturation is best illustrated by the parable of the boiled frog. Whether literally true or not, the idea is basically the same -- we do not equip ourselves sufficiently to deal with slow moving dangers and when the extent of the danger is apparent, it is too late to do anything.

Be it fuel crisis, depleting forest cover, increasing pollution, depleting water table, terror threats or climate change, slow moving dangers are everywhere. Because their threat is not immediately apparent, they tend to get trivialized or rationalized away by citing more immediate, pressing crises. Unfortunately, there will always be immediate, pressing reasons at any time to rationalize away slow moving dangers. And neglecting the slow moving threats can undermine all that we do to keep ourselves safe in the immediate and present state.

The second kind of insidious danger is that of stagnation. Stagnation is a state where our mental models of the world around us, have ceased to evolve. Stagnation ironically, usually sets in when we experience long periods of relative stability in our society. When a society does not face large crises for an extended period of time, our worldview does not have much motivation to change. And when the society does indeed face a real crisis, its response to the crisis is often woefully inadequate or incompatible with what is required to address the problem.

As an example, consider the earthquake that struck Latur in 1993. It was a magnitude 6.4 quake, which resulted in a loss of more than 9000 lives. However, a much stronger earthquake of magnitude 6.8 struck Seattle in 2001, resulting in just 1 casualty.

But, as the saying goes: earthquakes don't kill people, buildings falling on people, kill them..

Seattle had bigger and more multi-storeyed buildings than Latur and in the face of such a strong quake, it should have resulted in a much higher casualty. But then, building technology in Latur had not evolved to face up to the threat of earthquakes, while technology in Seattle had evolved. This stagnation in building technology and practices is perhaps because Latur was not as prone to earthquakes as is Seattle. But the stagnation resulted in a greater tragedy when the crisis did occur.

The same is true of a lot of practices related to safety. I remember once when we went on a sailboat over the sea, we asked the guide whether we will be given life jackets to wear. To which, he laughed and gave this all too familiar reply -- that he has been sailing from the past 22 years and nothing has happened, so just trust him.

A lot of safety practices look unnecessary and even amusing; and most of the time, they are redundant and do not matter. If we stagnate ourselves and neglect the importance of safety, in the rare cases when they do matter, they make a difference between life and death.

Stagnation, like saturation is not immediately apparent. It is hard to tell when our mental models have stagnated and are not keeping up with the time to face potential challenges.

However, there is a telltale sign of a stagnated population. This is when a population looks for "social" solutions to just about every problem, almost impervious to the more fundamental physical reality underneath.

As an example, I was reading a news article recently where the parents of a sailor who was drowned in the choppy seas in a storm last October when their ship ran aground, were asking for the "guilty to be punished."  It is almost as if the storm had nothing to do with his death -- it has to have someone guilty to be the cause of his death.

If our worldview provides only social explanations and looks only for social solutions to all problems, it probably means that we have not been jolted enough to think deeper about the physical reality and its underlying challenges. And that should be an ominous warning sign..