Collapse or Emergence of a New Civilization?
Bruno Marion is a futurist, an expert on global trends and innovation. His latest book is Chaos, a User’s Guide
Bruno has been travelling around the world for 30 years, meeting CEOs, monks, all kind of gurus, people in jail, super rich people, super poor, artists, scientists, high level politicians,special forces, activists and successful entrepreneurs, and at the same time reading over 100 books a year about the latest innovations in science, technology, philosophy and spirituality. He has been experimenting cutting edge technologies, investigating new types of governances, exploring new smart cities and new disruptive ways of living.
Bruno has discovered that the world is getting better, worse and faster than ever. We are going through an amazing « reset » in our personal lives, in our families, in our institutions and our organizations. A world shift of unprecedented scale and speed.
Our world has become chaotic. And we can use new mental models and new tools powered by the science of chaos to make it a better world :)
Why has the world become chaotic or turbulent?
Essentially for three reasons: increase in the number of people, speed, and connectivity.
First, within hardly a few generations, the population grew incredibly. We have gone from 3 to 7 billion in just one or two generations.
Our world is also moving faster and faster. It took man 3 million years to go from the ‘hunter & gathering’ era to ‘agriculturist & breeding’ era; then 30,000 years to enter the era of ‘industry & commerce’; and only 300 years to pass into the age of ‘creation & communication’ which itself is only 30 years old. Technological, social and economic revolutions happen today over two generations or even a single one. Neither human beings nor cultures have time for gradual adaptation. During previous transition the “human world system” had time to change and adapt in a “near to equilibrium” way and traditional Newtonian mechanical could be used to understand the transitions. But at the unprecedented speed of change we are seeing now, the system is put out of equilibrium, even very far from equilibrium and classical rules and views don’t apply.
Human civilization is also facing an unseen increase of number of connections between people.
More than 50% of the world population is living in cities. We are living closer to each other. But not only that, at every moment, 1 million people are flying above our heads. Over 100,000 flights land and take off each day in the world and make it possible for millions of people to meet across countries.
We are even more connected in the virtual world than in the real one. Over 3 billion people have access to the Internet. And since 2014, they are more mobile phones than people on this planet.
More and more agents (people) being more and more connected. All that happening at a speed that takes the whole system (human world) far from equilibrium, that’s exactly what we need to have a chaotic system. As David Ruelle, one of the first scientists to speak about the theories of chaos, writes: “The more oscillators there are and the more interconnection there is between them, the readier we should be to see chaos.”
What is chaos?
We learned at school that entropy reigns and nothing can escape the implacable hold of the second law of thermodynamics: with every passing second our world, our solar system, our entire galaxy come progressively closer to their inevitable death at the end of Time. Disorder or entropy will only grow. “And to dust you shall return.”
The theories of chaos teach us that all this is but one facet of the story! They show us the emergence of an incredible complexity ever since the universe began. At the dawn of time, matter emerged followed by life and then consciousness. The universe has not stopped growing in complexity. Man and humanity have done the same. From atoms to molecules, from unicellular organisms to multicellular ones, from the reptilian brain to the brain of mammals until we arrive at the neocortex in man, the universe has not ceased to surprise us with its inexhaustible creativity. Continually integrating the already existing in order to grow in complexity and evolve, passing from the mineral and life to a greater consciousness, to more beauty, truth and goodness. Evolution, self-organization, integration – that is the other facet of history.
We are living at a unique moment in which humanity suddenly has become conscious of this evolutionary process. And unless you volunteer for a return to death and dust, the theories of chaos show us how a system can evolve towards either greater entropy (collapse) or towards greater complexity (breakthrough). They enable us to observe and take part in this evolution. For the first time in human history man has become conscious that he is not merely a spectator but also an actor in the evolution of the universe.
Any system can go through different stages, each one having very different properties. It may be stable, in equilibrium. Then after a certain moment, the system may start oscillating like a swing. In this condition the system is still under some sort of control or negative feedback, like a thermostat. If the heat exceeds a certain temperature, the heating is cut off.
At a certain threshold called the Tipping Point, the system can go out of equilibrium. The oscillations just keep increasing after that. The theories of chaos teach us that once the Tipping Point is crossed, the system will never be able to regain its previous equilibrium. This is due to the effects of positive feedback. The phenomenon is self-amplified. There are numerous examples of positive feedback in physical, biological and social systems.
We can see this with the creation of social networks like Facebook. If only few people use it, then few people want to join it. On the other hand, if you have more friends who use it, then the temptation is greater to subscribe to it. The more people use it, the more other people want to use it, and so it goes. Positive feedback then is amplification of a process by itself on itself. Other examples include: demographic growth, nuclear chain reaction, economic depression, panic in a crowd, etc. Our newly crowded and connected world is subject to many positive feedbacks.
What happens post-equilibrium, after the oscillations, after coming out of control, after what is called the Decisive Point? Two possibilities emerge: either the system collapses – this is the working of the second law of thermodynamics: “And to dust all shall return” or there is a breakthrough, and the system finds a new equilibrium at a higher level of complexity.
This is how the living and the universe have evolved: from atoms to molecules to the brain of mammals, until we arrive at the neocortex in man. The system continues to integrate what was there earlier and self-organizes in order to grow in complexity.
Several civilizations already collapsed in the past and today’s civilization can collapse as well. The differences between previous collapses would be the scale and speed of the collapse. Previous civilization collapses were more or less regional. In a connected world the collapse would likely be global. Seemingly, a global emergence for a new civilization can happen in this connected chaotic world.
What can we do?
One first thing we can do is to learn from Nature. After all, life has survived and developed in a chaotic environment for billions of years! Life has been able to adapt for millenniums in order to survive, grow and evolve in environments that are naturally turbulent and chaotic.
Let us then observe some of the principal characteristics of each basic element of life that has made such an achievement possible: the cell.
- A higher goal: A cell first works for the well-being and survival of the body as a whole; it looks after its own interests only subsequently. The cell is ready to sacrifice itself and die in order to protect and ensure the growth of the whole. Each cell in our body, therefore, lives but a fraction of the time of our entire life. What could be the higher goal of a new civilization?
- Exchange: A cell is always in contact and communication with other cells. Messenger molecules wander around the whole body in order to keep track of what is going on even in its remotest part. Indeed Internet is already providing amazing tools on that aspect. How can we make sure all human has access and takes part?
- Consciousness: A cell is conscious of each moment. It is capable of adapting to any change of circumstances, however sudden, and to respond to it in an adequate manner. What information tools, what data should we use to know and feel what’s happening at a global human civilization level?
- Otherness: A cell recognizes and accepts the importance of all the other types of cells. Every bodily function is important and inter-dependent. Cross-cultural studies has made incredible progress in the past decades. How can we go further to embrace and use human diversity?
- Efficiency: A cell functions with the minimum use of energy. It also stocks a very small quantity of it, equal to three seconds of supply. It trusts the whole completely to provide it with what is required. There is indeed here a great challenge regarding how we use and produce energy as human beings and as a civilization level.
- Links: A cell knows, beyond differences and distinctive natures, that it shares the same DNA as its peers. Liver cells are different from the heart cells. The cells of the skin are different from those in the brain. However, they all know that they share the same identity that transcends them. As we see with questions raised by transhumanism, how could we collectively define what defines a human being?
- Giving: The essential activity of the cell is to give, which fosters the existence of other cells and the soundness of the whole. There is a total commitment to giving which constitutes one half of the natural cycle; the other half is receiving. As many say, it may be time to redefine how we see our economy.
Can we be like our cells, not at the scale of the cell in the body but at the scale of humans as part of a new civilization? In this way we could naturally and instinctively find the means not only to survive but more importantly to live and to blossom individually and collectively at the scale of humanity. We will then be ready for the breakthrough described by the theories of chaos. We will thus be capable of realizing our own metamorphosis and the metamorphosis of humanity towards a more complex and a more harmonious system in which each person finds his place in a natural and organic way.
Collapse or Emergence of a New Civilization: Our Choice!
The meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered that “The simple fluttering of a butterfly’s wings in Japan can unleash a few weeks later a storm in New York.”, what is known as the butterfly effect. Today similarly, a few words on a smartphone can unleash a revolution in a country… He who has understood that the world is now far from equilibrium understands that one single action, one single project, one single individual transformation may change the world.
Evolution is the fruit of a ceaseless battle between order and disorder, entropy and the emergence of order. From this titanic struggle chaos comes forth out of the delicate balance between the atomic forces and those at the human scale. It is this delicate and improbable balance that is the source of the evolution of life and of consciousness.
That which is at the source of chaos, the increase in number, the increase in connections and interactions enables one to develop a cosmic and global vision. It is this increase in the volume of interaction and exchange which generates turbulence and chaos, that actually permits the emergence of a level of complexity, needed for living harmoniously among several billion human beings, the emergence of a new civilization. Will you join me on the journey?