Fear and looting in New Orleans

In the 1960s the math wizard Jay Forrester pioneered systems analysis. That is a way of modelling complex interdependent relationships in corporations, cities and whole societies. His work resulted in the now classic book ‘Limits to growth’ that became the foundation for the sustainablity movement. The basic point being that the world’s ecosystems cannot sustain infinite economic and population growth. In fact it predicted that there would be a point of collapse.

In ‘The parable of the sower’, Octavia Butler paints a disturbingly bleak picture of the US in the not too distant future, after the collapse Forrester prophesed. Global warming led to the rise of sea levels and coastal towns are gradually falling into the sea or simply flooded. Law and order have largely collapsed except for towns that have been bought by large corporations where people no longer work for a wage but for food and board only. Marauding gangs roam the country looting and killing at will. Everybody, even children, are armed to the teeth. Petrol has become so rare and expensive that most people move on foot or on bikes, that is, if they dare to leave their walled communities at all. Seeing the disaster of New Orleans unfold before our eyes I cannot help but think of ‘The parable of the sower’. People shoot each other over a bag of ice, guns and electric gadgets are cleared out of department stores and old peoples’ homes are thinking of training their guards in handling rifles.

And then I wonder why this kind of frontier mentality of all against all is coming to the fore in this situation. Maybe it is deeply human to look after yourself first in times of crisis. At the same time I don’t remember hearing of looting and societal collapse to such an extent in the aftermath of the tsunami. Was, for exmple, Sri Lankan society equally unravelling? The pictures that are stuck in my head are predominantly of people grieving for loved ones or simply staring in disbelief at the scale of the disaster. And also pictures of people working together to do the humanly possible to return to some kind of normality.

Another point made by Forrester was about self-defeating policy. He found that often solutions for problems are based on too simplified mental maps – common sense approaches if you wish – misunderstanding the complex causal relationships at the root of a problem. Forrester found that “problems for most companies were not brought on by competitors or market trends but were the direct result of their own policies. ” By repeating policies that are believed to be solutions but actually are part of the problem, failure becomes inevitable. In fact some would go as far as to say the point of policy is not to solve problems and that failure is a necessary part of applying policy because the real function of policy is to sustain institutions. So the World Bank is not in the business of alleviating poverty but in the business of keeping itself in the business by generating policies for poverty alleviation.

A related fundamental question is whether social change can be planned at all. Often enough one can witness how rational choices produce irrational outcomes. Say for example the rational organisation of the planned economy in the Soviet Union that dried up the Baikal Lake for an economic development that never materialised. Similarly, the forced relocations to communal farms in Nyerere’s Zaire uprooted and tore apart familes and led to ethnic conflict. Most of those farms now lay abandoned as do many Israeli Kibbutzim, similar utopian projects of organised socialist bliss. Planned cities, like Brasilia, often turn into distopian hellholes for the people that are lured to live in them by promises of lucrative jobs and modern commodities. Instead they breed gang violence and drug abuse. Applying rational planning in the form of monocropping to tree farms in Germany led to the deforestation of entire regions because of acid rain.

The point is that we live in a complex world and that no one can seriously claim to understand how it really works. Planning social change to me always smacks a bit of social engineering, it’s prize counted in the millions of lives that have to be sacrificed for progress. Follow the enlightened leaders and Nirvana is just around the corner. This is the basic premise of fascism. A kind of religious short-cut to the good life that absolves you from finding your own solutions.

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