Friday, March 29, 2019

The Black Swan Event – One Small Reason For Optimism

Yesterday I posted a rather dour essay about the difficulties of social change. Today I offer a somewhat more hopeful viewpoint – the very uncertainty that makes us question the possibility of change is also something that may allow for that change.

We are living in the bleakest time in human history. In case this sounds extreme, consider that all the great horrors of the past, such as the two world wars, did not threaten the lives of everyone on the planet the way climate change does. But in the midst of this gloom there is a ray of light.

The world and its many problems are not determined in a clanking, inevitable, mechanical way. Everything clanks along for a long while, and all of a sudden a Black Swan Event (BSE). A BSE seemingly comes out of nowhere and has a paradigm-altering impact. (The term BSE comes from the fact that until the "discovery" of Australia all Europeans though swans were only white in color) A good example would be the French Revolution of 1789. [Indeed, most revolutions, both attempted and victorious, are BSE's)

If you could hop in a time machine and go back to 1788, they would think you were crazy if you said that next year both the monarchy and feudalism would be overthrown. Of course, after the fact, historians can come up with evidence as to why the revolution happened, but at the time no one saw it coming. In the case of France prior to the uprising, there were decades of pamphleteering, small discussion groups, the persecution of dissidents, occasional riots, a rise in government debt and crop failures. In 1789 a tipping point had been reached, one small event was like the tiny salt crystal added to a supersaturated solution that causes the entire solution to crystallize. The thing about BSE's is they cannot be artificially created or planned for. They just happen when they happen.

Though not as dramatic as the French Revolution, there are contemporary Black Swan Events, such as the Battle of Seattle aftermath, the Arab Spring and Occupy. No one saw them coming, they could have just as easily ended up as quickly forgotten, if recognized at all minor protests – as there were all throughout the benighted 1990s. But again, a tipping point had been reached in each situation, and researchers can give you all the after-the fact explanations you could ever want. These BSE's did not become social revolutions, in spite of the participants wishes, because their support was limited to a minority of the population. A tipping point had arisen to create these movements, but not the tipping point to mobilize the bulk of the population for broad social change.

The tipping point is a key to understanding the BSE's that cause rapid change. It can arise when as little as 10% of the population strongly believe in something and the next most politically aware and more numerous sector of the population is somewhat open, or at least not hostile, to their ideas. [While anti-abortionists make up about 10% of the Canadian population, they will never cause a tipping point in their favour, because the vast majority of Canadians are openly pro-choice.] All of a sudden the minority viewpoint makes sense and the mass of the population adopts it as their own.

What really helps the development of tipping points is the existence of a multitude of small groups attempting to deal with a common problem. Many groups allows for creativity and new ideas to emerge. If everyone was in a single large group they would be subject to pressures to conform to an ideology or theory. There would also be bureaucratic pressure to conform to certain tactics and the inevitable squabbles over who was to lead the movement.

Small is the important operating word. Study after study shows that humans can only relate closely with about 150 individuals. (this is our pre- tribal heritage) These bonds of friendship and comradeship, help create the energy that is needed to promote change, to fire up a movement. Each of the 150 will have friends and family, many of whom will be sympathetic, and thus news of the movement travels via word of mouth, which is still the best form of communication. [I am not, however, fetishizing the small group, people also need to come together through mass assemblies and delegate-based federations, it is just that the small group lies at the foundation of movements toward a tipping point.]

BSE's come out of nowhere. This gives us hope. At any moment there could be a tipping point, as years of climate and living condition degradation combined with decades of small group activism produce a BSE that catches the oligarchs completely off guard and begins the transformation to an environmentally sane, egalitarian and democratic social system.

** Note that neither the BSE nor the "tipping point" are my ideas. Both were subjects of pop sociology books, "The Black Swan – A Theory of the Highly Improbable" by Nassim Taleb and "The Tipping Point" by Malcolm Gladwell. Like pop sociology generally, these books take one idea and beat it to death, but this does not mean these simple ideas do not have some valid application. (It should also be noted that both concepts can be found with earlier thinkers, the Surrealists for the BSE and Engel's concept of "quantity changes into quality" can be seen as a tipping point.


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