“We’re breaking new ground here. It’s hard to write a plan for a catastrophic event that has no precedent, which is what this was,” [Admiral Thad] Allen said….
Volcanoes, floods, tornadoes, water infrastructure failure, pipe bombs in microwave ovens, propane tanks and fireworks cobbled together in an improvised SUV device, and the slow-moving dirty bomb that is the British Petroleum spill.
Yes, we are breaking new ground here. The sheer number of incidents that can be linked to homeland security (I learned today that the weather in space may be a FEMA responsibility) combined with means of communicating fact and rumor at almost quantum speed has turned “the march toward complexity” into a sprint.
David Segal’s April 30, 2010 essay on Making Sense of Complexity notes “Complexity used to signify progress…. Now complexity lurks behind the most expensive and intractable issues of our age. It’s the pet that grew fangs and started eating the furniture.”
The essay makes a distinction between something that is complicated and something complex.
One can figure out the complicated because it tends to adhere to knowable cause and effect relationships. That’s not as easy to do with complex issues, where cause-and-effect is often known only after the fact, and generally is unrepeatable. Whatever the cause of the British Petroleum spill, it is not likely to be repeated — at least not in the same way.
Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book “The Age of the Unthinkable,” is precisely about the kinds of inevitable surprises our exponentially interconnected world has in store for us.
Segal concludes his essay with the somewhat dispiriting conclusion that “complexity has a way of defeating good intentions. As we clean up these messes, there is no point in hoping for a new age of simplicity. The best we can do is hope the solutions are just complicated enough to work.”
Ramo is as realistic as Segal in his analysis of the problem, but more optimistic about what to do. He argues we need to be as complex as the world we live in.
“In a world that is changing fast, we need a grand strategy that’s capable of the sort of rapid change the world itself produces, because much of what we have to confront will be the things that have never occurred to us before.”
Another book — Kegan and Leahy’s “Immunity to Change” — describes in some detail the mental capacity leaders need to meet that confrontation. It essentially involves a switch away from learning how to lead, toward leading in a way that allows one to learn how to engage with these “things that have never occurred to us before.”
But back to Ramo.
In a very readable, almost New Yorker like book, he describes the causes and consequences of living in this new “age of the unthinkable.” He introduces the idea of deep security.
“Such a world demands a whole new way of composing a grand strategic view. I call this new approach “deep security” because it is about mastering the forces at work deep inside our sandpile world. [You will have to read the book to understand the appropriateness of Per Bak's sandpile metaphor. ] Deep security doesn’t answer all of our questions about the future. Indeed, it’s predicated on the idea that we don’t have all the answers and, in fact, can’t even anticipate many of the questions. What it is instead is a way of seeing, thinking, and of acting that accepts growing complexity and ceaseless newness as givens — and, used properly, our best allies. Deep security creates a context in which all of the change we now need and are planning for can make sense, can be as adaptive and flexible as the world we inhabit. Instead of starting with a view of how we want the world to be and then jamming that view into place, we start more reasonably with a picture of how the world is.”
This weekend the picture of how the world is — at least from a homeland security perspective — seemed unusually messed up. Tonight, the oil slick continues its slow moving invasion toward our southern coast, millions of Boston area residents have to learn how to make do without safe water, Mississippi and Tennessee residents start recovering from yet another weather assault, and New York City knows it will be attacked again.
Ramo — like Segal– believes a growing number of people are “aware that something dramatic is happening to the world around us. The people and institutions we might once have relied on to rescue us can’t.”
Who can we rely on?
Ramo answers with a question: “This age, what does it demand of me?”