The Watchman's Rattle
November 15, 2010
I have been looking through an interesting new book titled The Watchman's Rattle by Rebecca Costa. Though I am not finished with it yet, I can't resist mentioning a little about it here on Evolver.net.
Basically, the book is about the pattern of collapse of many past civilizations, and how we can learn from their mistakes. Costa argues that typically what happens first before a collapse is that nations face ever more complex problems, until such complexity overtakes their ``cognitive thresholds'', at which point they experience `gridlock'. She compares this to swimming in water with undertows, where no matter the effort, one becomes unable to ``move forward'' (or back to land).
At this point, nations start substituting belief and faith for fact and reason. In the case of the Mayans, when their preparations against long droughts didn't pan out, instead of trying to work out logical solutions, they started sacrificing animals and people, believing that these would appease the gods and bring back the rains. In our own times, politicians casually speak about God saving us all from the perils of global warming. And a less dramatic, but much more common example of belief-for-reason substitution occurs when a people think that ``the problems will just work themselves out,'' and then they push off such problems onto the next generation to solve. Fitting this mold is the following example taken from the book (page 16 in my copy):
In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel Laureate Dr. Steven Chu expressed the urgency of the situation [dought]: ``I don't think the American public has gripped in its gut what could happen. We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California. I don't actually see how they can keep their cities going. I'm hoping the American people will wake up.''
During the past decade, development has been dramatically restricted along the coast of California because existing homes scarcely have enough water to make it through the summer months. The fresh water we all depend on comes from a small amount of rainfall in January, February, and March. That's it. No matter how nicely our civic leaders paint it, that's the bottom line. Examining a fifty-year trend, it is easy to see that the situation worsens a little bit every year.
We have a time bomb on our hands, but in California we treat it the same way we treat the threat of earthquakes: We pretend it's not going to happen.
Of course, says Costa, some amount of belief is necessary to do anything at all. For example, in crossing the street we sometimes start before the cars have come to a complete stop, believing that they will obey the stoplights; but that is a far cry from believing that human sacrifice will affect the weather.
Once the civilization is no longer able to solve its problems, and has turned its back on the types of approaches that might actually work, the stage is set for collapse. There is a small window of opportunity, however -- a civilization can right itself if it pays attention and approaches its problems rationally.
Furthermore, the human mind has an amazing ability, says Costa, to find almost magical (though still rational) solutions to seemingly intractable problems using what I am temped to call ``the third brain'': We all know about analytic and synthetic reasoning. Analytic reasoning is what we often refer to as ``left brain thinking'' (although this isn't completely true -- we use both parts of our brains in doing most tasks), and is all about ``taking things apart and putting them into categories''; and synthetic reasoning is what we often term ``right brain thinking'' (again, not completely true), and involves ``putting things together -- unifying, sometimes creatively and artistically''. What's missing from this equation is insight, a completely separate, almost preternatural faculty that is perhaps a much more recent endowment by the forces of evolution than either analytic or synthetic reasoning. Costa cites a striking example of insight from a New Yorker article by the neuroscientist Jonah Lehrer, and it is worth quoting in full (page 27 in my copy):
On August 5, 1949, one of the hottest days recorded in Montana history, thunderstorms ignited a small fire just outside Missoula in Mann Gulch.
That day, sixteen smoke jumpers led by Captain Wag Dodge left Missoula in a C-47 to extinguish a few burning acres. It was a routine mission, similar to brushfires the crew had faced hundreds of times.
When the smoke jumpers hit the ground, the fire was burning trees on one side of the gulch. But in an instant, the wind reversed itself and began blowing toward the firefighters. A violent updraft took hold. The fire quickly cut off the only access route to the river and began moving at ``seven-hundred-feet-a-minute'' toward the men.
Dodge ordered his crew to drop their gear and run.
The men scattered and raced toward the steep canyon walls. But when Dodge saw that the flames were less than fifty yards away, he realized the fire could not be outrun. In a moment that can only be described as ``insight,'' Dodge made a decision to turn toward the fire, quickly lighting matches as he ran.
Remember, this was 1949. Facing a wildfire waving lit matches was the act of a suicidal maniac.
Or so it appeared.
Dodge quickly lit the grass around him, shouting frantically to the crew to follow his lead. He then crouched down in the middle of his burned perimeter. Breathing through a wet handkerchief, Dodge pulled his jacket over his neck and head and waited for the wind-whipped inferno to pass over him.
On that day, thirteen smoke jumpers perished at Mann Gulch. Only Dodge and two other men who found shelter in the crevices of a canyon wall lived to tell the story of one of the worst tragedies in U.S. forest fire history.
Later, when Dodge, the oldest of the smoke jumpers, was interviewed by investigators, he was unable to explain why he spontaneously lit a backfire and laid down in the middle of it. He admitted that he had never entertained the idea before that fateful day at Mann Gulch. What puzzled Dodge and the experts was that the idea of destroying the fuel around him occurred so suddenly, even as the flames rushed to claim his life. Yet as soon as the idea appeared, Dodge was filled with overwhelming certainty that it would work . He never hesitated and never stopped to consider the risks. In fact, he had been so confident that he had discovered a way out, he had ordered his men to follow his example.
[People often speak of psychedelics as raising their powers of insight. Assuming this is so, it makes one wonder whether there is a safer, more reliable way to do it.]
What I take from this story is that there are rational solutions to our problems out there, and the human mind has hidden powers that can come online when they are needed. We only have to believe that we capable of finding those solutions, and to try to find them, while not succumbing to the temptation of substituting voodoo for science and reason.