Preparing for the Unthinkable

Preparing for the Unthinkable (Video 5 minutes)

Can Compression Thinking help navigate a future limited by resource shortages and ecological degradation? Such foreboding seems unthinkable. How can we defy our human instincts and learn to think about the unthinkable – and prepare for it?

We react better to “unthinkable” disasters if we think about preparing for them. For example, when a fire alarm goes off in a hotel, most of us wait to see if the alarm annoying us is false; most alarms are. Therefore a real one surprises us. We react in stages: denial, recognition, planning; finally action, but delay is often fatal. People exit a hotel faster if they mentally note the location of the nearest stairwell. If they also know where the stairs go, they have mentally mapped what to do. That’s simple preparation.

The best preparation is preventing a fire; precluding disaster. But no news features a story that didn’t happen.

Fight, Flee, or Freeze

When caught unprepared – in fires, air crashes, or sinking ships – most people freeze. Oblivious to impending doom, they do nothing. They may even keep playing cards while their ship slides into the sea. An interesting book, The Unthinkable, researches the actions of both prepared and unprepared people in mass disasters.

Freezing is one instinctive response to surprise attack by a predator (fight or flight are the others). In the wild, freezing is not a bad survival strategy. If a predator thinks you are dead, it may go away. A human mass shooter may do the same. However, to survive most modern disasters, we need to be prepared to do the right thing immediately.

Targeting Our Risks

Human appetites for risk range from paranoid to extreme. Some of us with a high target risk crave extreme sports, from parasailing to bull riding. Risk takers usually learn the sport and thoroughly prepare, betting on their skill to do what most of us can’t – or won’t. Optimists, they trust that “it won’t happen to me.” Unskilled spectators experience the riders’ risks vicariously, and gamblers risk money betting on them.

In auto safety, driver’s target risk profiles are well known. Risk takers tend to offset safety features designed into vehicles and roadways. They learn to drive faster and brake later, restoring their risk taking to nearly the level of before.

In financial portfolio investing, quantified target risk zones commonly guide investment strategies. In operating businesses, market disruptors take big risks, while risk-averse leaders of disrupted businesses counter by minimizing risks to existing income streams. But almost all leaders seek better control of their risks. Some regard their employees as such serious risks that systems tightly control them. Political lobbyists tilt the game rules to favor their clients. Rigging any game minimizes the risk of playing it. Perceived risk explains a great deal of business behavior, ethical and otherwise. That the whole nature of the game might go out of business leaders’ control is unthinkable to them.

Unthinkable Business Risks

Unless necessary, few business leaders plan in detail more than 2-3 years ahead; too much changes too quickly. Immediate financial threats and opportunities overshadow creeping threats like pinched resources and degrading ecologies. Businesses keep playing their business games, unable to see the game itself sinking in a morass of environmental ruinations. Changing the basic beliefs underpinning the game is unthinkable and unspeakable, so keep playing the game.

Why this reaction? Ecological changes are slow, giving us time to dream up excuses why all may be false alarms. And our business and economic belief systems serve up plenty of fodder for the excuses. Giving up long-successful orthodoxy is more unthinkable than the steady drip-drip of environmental ruination. Grasp this intellectually, and it slips away emotionally – for almost everyone, including the author. I too came of age as a true believer.

Obsolete Orthodoxy

Financial computations and supply-demand economic models cannot admit much beyond changing the rules of market competition (taxes, laws, regulations, and customs). Assumptions are taken as axioms, undeniable truths. There are many.

  1. Endless economic growth.
  2. All companies must individually make a profit.
  3. Effects outside a company’s P&L statements (external costs) can be ignored.
  4. Every investment must pay back; other decision criteria are subordinate.

Many more assumptions are buried so deeply within us that we do not realize that we are making them. Suppose none of them hold, certainly not in all situations. Economic and financial models are no longer guides to planning and control. To be of help, prior experience must be deeply questioned. By comparison 20th century capitalist-socialist conflicts were minor spats.

When so totally at sea, we had better be powerful swimmers. Or in this situation, we have to become powerful learners, and about much more than onrushing technology. Otherwise we will waste our time and energy in useless conflict, if we’re not already doing so.

Preparing for the Unthinkable

How shall we think about the unthinkable – and prepare for it? None of us can foresee in detail how billions of us might live if our “business models” became compatible with nature’s “nutrient cycles” so that we let nature regenerate. However, we can set a direction in which to head. That’s Compression Thinking.

Naturally, Compression Thinking is open to improvement; it’s a philosophy of continuous learning – original learning. That’s huge. We have to upend old orthodox assumptions and deeply think anew.

For example, by Compression Thinking principles, thinking through the consequences of major actions using the Precautionary Principle means to project its effects on all stakeholders, ecology being one. But as interpreted by economics, the Precautionary Principle means that if one cannot quantify risks, do nothing – freeze.

We cannot afford to freeze. We have to do differently, go in a different direction from orthodox expansionary business. Doing differently may or may not require investment as defined by business today. Even now, if a patient is critical in an emergency room, or if a community is in an epidemic, return on investment is not the first decision priority. Our health is. That’s why thinking of the long-term health of “everything” may help us imagine possibilities that old assumptions rule out.

Systemically considering a lot more for each decision means putting much more effort into making much wiser decisions, and taking the time to do it. Timeliness of action portends that we begin developing a system of governance and decision making that is efficient while being much more inclusive, for both working organizations and for communities. In all but crisis situations, experts and elites can’t tell everyone else what to do without extensive mutual education and checking.

And that leads to another principle of Compression Thinking, quality over quantity always. That is, decision criteria favor how well we can live, our basic physical and psychological health, rather than pressing for more stuff and more activities at lower and lower prices. Decisions must factor in that our health depends on the ecological health surrounding us. Great life experience beats great accumulation of what today passes for wealth. Doing anything close to that entails a huge shift in economic values – cultural maturation, not just a structural change in how an economy works.

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