I’ve put myself in a position where, for the past decade and a half, I’ve been able to take the last two weeks of the year and disconnect. To one degree or another, that is. I’m still doing urgent email and texts as well as some writing, but we’re talking minutes a day instead of hours. For the most part, this is time to enjoy the moment and some peaceful contemplation.
Usually I emerge from this forced abstention from professional life with enthusiasm and focus. A big affirmative on enthusiasm – I’m really excited to be back and I think 2016 is going to be an important year for the Strong Towns movement – but I’m not feeling real focused. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot in my brain I’d like to share, but I’m struggling to make it coherent.
To help myself, I wrote a list of the books I’ve gone through in past two weeks. Here’s that list in chronological order:
- The Martian by Andy Weir
- Dave Collum’s 2015 Year in Review from the site PeakProsperity.com
- Stalingrad: The City that Defeated the Third Reich by Jochen Hellbeck
- Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn
- Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science, Professor Steven Gimble in the Great Course Series
I think you can look at that list and see a lot of anxiety there. Stalingrad was perhaps the worst battle of the 20th Century (Verdun would be the only real competitor, I believe); the level of suffering was catastrophic. What Stalingrad is to a culture, Shackleton's adventure and that of (the fictional) Mark Watney abandoned on Mars are to a smaller group. Both books detail an unbelievable level of tribulation -- physical but especially mental -- over a long period of time. Throw in Dave Collum -- who is on the gloomier side of the investment spectrum -- and you can start to worry that I'm in a depressive state.
Yet, I found all of those reads to be exhilarating, especially when buttressed with the two works -- Kuhn's book and Gimble's lecture -- on the changing nature of science. May you live in interesting times is a double-edged English saying. Interesting times are looked back at historically as times of transition. Change. Revolution. These are interesting in hindsight because one way of doing things is abandoned while another is begun. In real time, they can be terrifying for the same reason.
At one point between Christmas and New Years, I found myself sitting in a Taco Bell with my two daughters explaining to them how cancer happens (don't ask how or why). I'm not a medical expert -- and they are kids -- so I'm not going to pretend anything I said should appear in an AMA journal, but I tried to explain to them how cells mutate. And how sometimes those mutations go bad. As the conversation went on and they kept asking good questions, I found myself defending cancer. I found myself explaining why, despite the fact that things sometimes go bad, we need cells to get mixed up occasionally. In fact, if this didn't happen -- if we didn't run the small risk of having things go bad -- humans would not exist. That first single cell that formed out of the amino acids and protein soup on early Earth would just replicate and never change. No change equals no humans thus, if we accept that experimental change is a necessary part of progress, then we must also accept failed experiments -- in this case, cancer -- as a byproduct.
I was a little horrified with myself as I thought about this because, while it might be true in a macro sense, it's not like I'm wishing cancer on anyone. Or signing up for it myself. Both of my grandmothers died of cancer and it was a terrible experience, for them and for all who loved them. I would feel compassion for anyone who found themselves with such a diagnosis. Yet, this all led to a very interesting thought in my head: If we could stop cancer but the cost of that was to end all other genetic mutations -- in other words, the ability to adapt and change from generation to generation -- would that be a good trade?
There are many who would say YES! Of course, yes. Immediately. Why is there even a debate here? There are few people reading this who have not been impacted, in one way or another, by the ravages of cancer. If we could take that away -- say there was a political debate on whether or not to make the trade I've proposed -- where would be the politician against it? The only question would be how quickly we could get it done (and whether or not a tax cut or a new entitlement program -- likely both -- would accompany it).
This is human nature. Whether it is compassion or selfishness, it would be very hard for us collectively to look beyond our immediate needs to what would be good for all of humanity, not just today but for thousands of years into the future. It is really hard for us to agree that some people will suffer and die today so that future humans -- distant, distant future humans -- can retain the ability to adapt and change. In fact, it's almost barbaric to even suggest it.
If we back down from human existence to something more banal -- say, the way we have arranged ourselves on the landscape -- we see the same human tendencies to resist change, to try and fix things today -- often for all righteous reasons -- despite the fragility it creates. Despite the fact that it will put future generations in a more difficult condition. Despite the fact that: Change. Won't. Be. Stopped.
I'm not going to predict that 2016 is the year all of these fragile systems we've erected come crashing down -- I'm not going to suggest that the massive stock market bubble we've created will burst, that negative bond yields for insolvent governments will be shown to be a horrific investment, that state and local governments that rely on the illusion of wealth will not see reality come crashing down on them -- but I will predict that these systems will become more fragile. That we'll resist the forces of change with all our might. That we'll gladly exchange a stable present for a less certain future.
That doesn't mean we're bad. It means we're human.
My favorite part of Thomas Kuhn's book was information I had never heard before about opposition to Charles Darwin upon publication of On the Origin of Species. We would expect those who are outside of the sciences to have reflexive reactions, those like clergy whose world view was deeply challenged by Darwin's insights. It was those inside the sciences, however, who had their own way of doing things -- their own established norms, hierarchies and professional heroes -- who were some of the harshest critics. Darwin addressed them towards the end of the book:
Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume under the form of an abstract, I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all viewed, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mine. A few naturalists, endowed with much flexibility of mind, and who have already begun to doubt on the immutability of species, may be influenced by this volume; but I look with confidence to the future, to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality. Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.
The primary truth about change is that it is inevitable, despite how vigorously we might resist it. A secondary truth helps illuminate why the first is immutable: Change will always be less scary for those who don't have enough life experience to fear it.
(Top photo: Vector Open Stock)