By fragility I mean something different than risk or danger. I mean 1) the volatility of risk, the cascading implications of systemic breaks and the height of the cliffs along the edges of which modern society is dancing, and 2) the ease and speed with which “normal” can turn into chaos.
Problems in the global supply chain have gotten a lot of media attention lately and they sharply illustrate the interconnected nature of modern systems. Global competition has sharpened performance and productivity in many industries. “Just-in-time” inventory management has reduced the carrying costs of dozens of industries. However, as with other manifestations of short-term thinking, such ruthless efficiency can be effective only if nothing goes wrong. And, when a ship gets stuck in the Suez Canal for a week, or labor issues (not enough truck drivers) slow down delivery times for the imported goods on which the British depend, things can spin out of control easily and turn into hoarding, price spikes and the like.
Democracy as a political art form is similarly fragile. There’s an interesting argument that its success from the 18-20C was due to changing socio-economic conditions rather than philosophical superiority or moral worth. What has been clear is that as a mode of socio-political organization, it depends on a level of social cohesion that is hard to achieve and requires constant maintenance. The Trumpian lust for power, manifested in the January 6 Insurrection is only the most dramatic evidence in a country where democratic politics has gone stale.
Beyond plausible theories of climate change and accelerating human disasters, environmentalists are justly concerned with human impacts on nature in terms of species extinction. In addition, industrialized agriculture limits the range of our sources of food, thus putting food supplies at risk, which climate change and ordinary disease can easily tip over into crisis (enjoy your Cavendish bananas now, and don’t be surprised if they cost $2 a piece in a few years if they are available).
The fact that “advanced countries have been growing “fat-and-happy” for a few hundred years and even the widespread human poverty of the 20C had become significantly abated made it hard to see (and hard to care about) Where the risks were. Overconfidence in technology, the accessibility of the vast torrents of the “information age,” and the general “march of progress” has led us to a certain smugness: an illusion of knowledge and expertise, which may be the only clothes our 21C “emperor” is wearing. All of this uneasily reminiscent of Europe on the eve of WWI or the US between the end of the Cold War and 9/11.
A few months ago, I wrote about the complexity of modern society and about the price of short-term thinking. The interconnection of so many aspects of our lives (or, at least, our increased awareness of that interconnection) makes it hard to understand the apparently distant ramifications of, e.g., supply chain disruption or climate effects. Short-term thinking and over-simplification make it easy for us to claim surprise when problems snowball.
Institutional sclerosis is another aspect of modern societal fragility. By institutions I mean not just formal organizations, like Congress or the Red Cross or your local public schools, but also the embedded sets of rules and practices by which our society operates, from “driving on the left” (in most countries) to tipping in restaurants to the way academic disciplinary boundaries drive university structures and the very way we help young people understand the world. Thomas Jefferson called for rewriting the Constitution every generation; but we haven’t had any meaningful change in ours since the Civil War. Deeply embedded bureaucracies and governance structures slow the pace of institutional changes precisely when we need more dexterity.
From a historical perspective, the huge (revolutionary) changes in social organization and mentality which began in the 18C constructed a modern society, rules and practices were established and were institutionalized, i.e., they were made difficult to change. From one perspective this was an unsurprising reaction to the extent of change that had gone on—a desire to catch our collective breaths by locking in what had been done and giving us security that we knew the new rules of the road. From another perspective, such institutionalization, including the difficulty of amending the Constitution, political parties, and other extra-market practices and organizations have made adapting to incremental change more difficult. What Schumpeter called the ”creative destruction” of capitalism has actually made the corporate sector more agile than the public sector.
To the extent we think of ourselves (proudly) as modern, it can be disorienting to imagine a life lived under different mindset. This is one reason I like to read science fiction—to get my brain out of its 20C rut. This is not a posting in which to propose substantive solutions, but it it does call for an awareness that we are mentally stuck in many ways and that the incremental change of the world will require larger and more radical reframings as an eventual response.
The essence of modernity is change—increasingly accelerating change. We have, to a large extent, papered over our struggling adaptation to this change with our vastly increased wealth/standard of living. Indeed, some portion of that apparent wealth has come from extracting resources for consumption instead of ensuring resilience and long-term stability (think deferring maintenance enables increasing short-term profits or deferring taxes). When we don’t build in resilience or some “cushion,” fragility results. When we defer maintenance on our institutions, they become stuck and outdated, and increasingly unable to resolve issues. Unsurprisingly, when a fragile society is managed by sclerotic institutions, there is reason for concern. This is what we face now.