Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

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8.2 Strategies in chaos

1. Emergence of irrational social processes

Many commentators agree that social turbulence, chaos and uncertainty will characterize the immediate future. Although a magnificent effort has been made by many over the past decades in order to respond to the range of problems of society and the environment, there is increasing recognition that this is far from enough. The dedication to specific strategies reflecting modes of thinking inherited from the past is increasingly matched by chaotic and irrational social processes. Programmes and projects designed with the skills of the past are strongly challenged, and overwhelmed, by social and institutional chaos.

2. Dangerous optimism

Such an assessment is readily challenged by the optimistic. It is commonly labelled as pessimistic and negative, and therefore part of the problem. But the optimistic are ill-equipped to respond to rising the criminality, social disorder and unfulfilled needs in their own neighbourhoods. They are at a loss in the face of Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Palestine, Afghanistan, Tibet and Sierra Leone --and their equivalents in the major cities of the industrialized countries, notably Washington and Moscow. New declarations of principles, global ethics, and action plans formulated by the international community may continue to be admirable. But the number that have been forgotten is indicative of the extent to which these are paper realities. Often they are merely designed for public relations purposes to paper over an emerging chaos with respect to which our old modes of thinking render us impotent.

3. Challenge to governance

As is being demonstrated in many social situations around the world, regulatory structures are being undermined, often to the point of collapse. Minority or special interest groups may become very vulnerable. Governments experience increasing difficulty in preserving law and order, especially of the less rudimentary kind. The situation is not expected to improve with the increasing gap between the few "haves" and the many "have-nots", whether between North and the South, or in any major city.

4. Gangs and fiefdoms: strategic "short-cuts"

In both industrialized and developing countries gangs, especially criminal gangs, are becoming of dramatic significance, notably at the local level where violence and threats of violence increasingly determine behaviour. Over a wider geographic scale, there is much discussion of the rise of organized crime "dons", drug "barons" or of "warlords" -- as a regression to a feudal era. Their emergence may even be welcomed where they ensure social stability, security and employment that government structures have proven unable to provide. As a result they may even acquire a measure of respectability, integrating into the social fabric as did the feudal barons before them. Their resources are quickly welcomed by the business community -- which is itself becoming increasingly "realistic" in the brutality of its strategic decision-making.

Matching the rise of gangs responsive to the basic needs of their members, has been the rise of other associative groupings in support of a myriad of special interests. These too are active from the neighbourhood to the global level, as the recent explosion of electronic clusterings via Internet has exemplified.

5. Weakness of intergovernmental institutions

In such situations it is naive to rely in practice on the ability of intergovernmental structures to provide the kind of coherence they aspire to be able to provide. Whether due to their own inherent incompetence, or to factors beyond their control, they can only be relied upon to a small degree under special circumstances, if at all -- as peace-keeping operations have demonstrated.

6. Failure of authoritative systems

Those in positions of governmental, academic or religious authority have little to offer to people faced with the daily challenge of survival. There are sufficient indications that:

  • governments can decree changes and can announce regulations, but are increasingly unable to implement them effectively or with any confidence that they will not have to be rescinded or watered down in response to other factors. Furthermore, any related programmes can be most effectively implemented only as crude and insensitive political compromises in situations where subtlety is increasingly desirable.
  • those with the power to implement new initiatives will either hold back (as demonstrated by Bosnia), or will be subject to severe criticism (as demonstrated by the Gulf War), or prove to be inadequate to the situation (as demonstrated by Somalia);
  • those with the acknowledged authority to advise those in power will continue to formulate proposals that address conditions of the past but fail to address the challenges and opportunities of the future;
  • academic and professional authorities have proven increasingly unable to respond to situations calling for interdisciplinary approaches. The traditional pattern of developing models as a basis for action programmes has proven to be of questionable value in practice, whatever their theoretical interest within a given discipline. Calls for further research are increasingly seen as self-serving rather than as enabling more effective action.
  • those with the resources to fund new research or experiments in alternative social organization will continue to invest in low-risk projects narrowly conceived in terms of fashionable programme areas credible to public opinion and peer review;
  • those motivated to dedicate themselves to new initiatives will continue to be forced either to compromise in terms of career prospects and long-term security, or to treat such experiments as a sideline, or to adopt a more radically violent attitude;
  • those with wisdom or spiritual insight will continue to fail to reconcile their differences with those of opposing philosophical or religious insights, or with alternative value systems --effectively reinforcing the pattern of violence to which their followers subscribe in order to protect the truths they uphold. Religious authorities are experiencing increasing difficulty in demonstrating the relevance of their perspective to the suffering, however much such suffering is deplored.

Not only are the "social safety nets" they provided now failing or expected to fail in the medium-term future. Such authorities have traditionally also provided the cognitive frameworks through which people have developed their strategic response to the challenges they face. But individuals and groups are increasingly faced with a need to develop their own frameworks, both at the cognitive and at the social level. The growth of gangs and cults amongst the marginalized provide a striking example. But, if they are to survive, multinational corporations are also faced with a need to develop strategies independent of the perspectives of traditional authorities.

7. Pre-crisis impotence

Under such circumstances, there are few indicators that the international community is capable of getting its act together in the foreseeable future. The strategies implemented, if any, will tend to be a case of "too little, too late", or public relations exercises in short-term overkill. At best they will be naively optimistic exercises that fail to take account of the nasty realities that corrupt and undermine initiatives as presently conceived.

8. Investment in learning for post-crisis thriving

There is therefore a case for using this current transition period to learn and prepare to thrive, rather than survive, more appropriately following the widely predicted economic and social collapse --exacerbated by environmental disasters. What is required is a fundamental shift in attitude nourished by the best of what civilization has generated to date.