A world unexpected: III
Do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.
- Seneca, Letter CIV to Lucilius
We now face a crucial question. How exactly should we act with regards to an unknowable future, one where we cannot fully predict the scope of possible environmental change? How should we navigate into the dark abyss ahead?
The consequences of environmental change vary according to context. This is why some of us are necessarily more fragile than others. Just think about the peoples of island nations such as the Maldives, which have already started eroding away as a result of rising sea levels, or the peoples of the Sahel facing increased desertification. It is true that these are particular cases. In the long term, however, it is not to be excluded that all of us may be affected in one way or another, whether directly or indirectly, by environmental change.
Taleb defines robustness as the capacity to withstand shocks, and antifragility as the capacity to thrive on them. Achieving antifragility in the face of environmental change is a difficult thing. Modern societies are built upon the premise of a stable environment. If that stable foundation crumbles, so does social stability. It might just be that human civilization was made fragile from the very beginning.
When it comes to climate resilience, the most antifragile social institutions are probably to be found in hunter-gatherer societies. These societies were both highly adaptable and highly mobile, and replicated forms of practical knowledge that allowed them to react efficiently to unexpected changes in their environment. No more food? No more water? Looming threat? Just move on to somewhere else.
Back to the future. Few of us aspire to remain on the run, nor do many of us dispose of the kind of primordial survival skills that our ancestors had. Furthermore, having people move around on a planet of ten billion people certainly brings its share of complications. Exit strategies have become more costly and more risky.
There are two levels on which we can act in order to cope with systemic risk: the individual (the small-scale) and the collective (the large-scale). Although policy change at the collective level is undoubtedly the most effective, it is also the most difficult to achieve. It is therefore no surprise that small-scale strategy, out of which the modern resilience movement was born, is becoming increasingly popular.
This bottom-up movement values self-sufficiency and preparedness over individual specialization and dependency, precisely because the latter render us fragile to social change. Self-sufficiency requires the acquisition of knowledge and resources that reduce dependence on others. Preparedness requires backup systems and working exit strategies.
But there can be something quite individualistic in this resilience mentality: according to many of its proponents, what matters is the welfare and survival of the individual, his closest friends and relatives, as well as his descendants. The rest of society can become suckers to Mother Nature if they so wish.
Resilience as a small-scale strategy is quite praiseworthy. But it is not the only possible strategy. Moreover, grounding ourselves in excessive individualism seems highly questionable from a moral standpoint. That is, I do not believe one should give up on society and humanity just that easily. Seeking guidelines on how to act in the face of environmental change, I again turn to Taleb’s work.
Taleb advances a very interesting investment rationale, called the ‘Barbell Strategy.’ When allocating resources for future gain, a large portion of spare resources (say 90%) should be invested in extremely safe assets, while a small portion of spare resources (10%) should be invested in extremely risky assets. Investing in so-called ‘medium risk’ is misleading because quantifying long-term risk is difficult if not impossible.
If we assume that the ‘future gain’ to aim for is reduced loss from environmental change, then a large portion of resources should be invested in what is most likely to work: small-scale projects aiming for individual and community resilience.
Meanwhile, a small portion of our spare resources should be invested in the kind of activities that are least likely to work, but that may generate disproportionate gains if they are successful. In our case, this means activities aiming for large-scale collective change.
Today, even the most high-ranking political figures have a hard time achieving any significant social reform, being confronted with a panoply of forces favoring the status quo. One should mentally prepare for the fact that efforts aimed at collective change will not yield any significant returns. One could spend an entire life on political campaigns, NGOs, and other pro-environmental activities; one could try being creative, experiment with different strategies, and tinker with different possible solutions; still this does not guarantee success.
This is not to say that the probability of achieving collective change is zero. Sometimes, a single individual investing the right kind of resources at the right place at the right time can change the world. But the probability of that happening remains very small. Think of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, or Julian Assange. We may read their biographies and attribute their success a posteriori to exceptional personal qualities, but none of them had a priori knowledge of what their actions would trigger.
What successful high-achievers tend to have in common is their propensity to take big risks. Yet behind every star lies a sea of unsung heroes who, having similar talents and taking the same risks, were not successful. Not all work is rewarded according to a linear function of talent and effort. In some domains, there simply is no certain success, not even for people of quality.
Taking this into consideration, the Barbell Strategy is intended as a heuristic for antifragility, as it is the least likely to render the investor a victim of bad fortune. If my risky investments (say, in trying to affect collective change) do not pay off, I should not be seriously affected, as I still have 90% of my resources secured in the safest investment there is (say, individual resilience).
Investing our resources in such a manner requires an uncommonly cold-headed calculation. It is also requires that we carefully assess our personal sensitivity to the losses that environmental change could inflict.
In this context, neither defeatism nor optimism are warranted. The risks that we are facing are real. There may be no more time to undo our past wrongdoing, and it just might be that future generations will have to get used to living with less than we do. Nonetheless, there is still time to avoid recklessness and to prepare for change, both at an individual and a collective level.