Fragmentation and Violence

I had a very interesting email exchange with a reader who asked why I wasn't talking about the potential for increased violence as our situation becomes more chaotic and fragmented:

But I think you avoid facing the worst possibility - world-wide chaos, fighting, and survival by luck and being in the right place at the right time.  In that scenario, maybe 100 million people survive 100 years from now (barring major nuclear war) and gradually re-stabilize a new society.  But is the experience of getting there covered in your approach?  I think most of us who write about the environment and the future avoid portraying the worst case scenarios.  Talking about fractures [between] regions along various lines does not point to billions of people starving to death or killing each other, etc.

 Since I think many others are getting worried about the potential for increasing violence in the coming years and decades, I'm publishing my response here.

You touch on something I've given a lot of thought to, culminating in my new approach.  I deliberately don't say much now about the process of getting from here to there, especially in terms of violence and the potential for authoritarian governments -- both of which are all too real.

The reason I made that decision springs from my realization that the decline will involve fragmentation.  Each fragment will exhibit characteristics that spring from its unique circumstances.  The regional characteristics that develop are likely to be widely divergent, even within what may seem to us right now as monolithic regions like countries (the USA is likely to experience significant fragmentation, for example).

As a result there is a basic epistemological problem regarding predictions of human behaviour under such circumstances.  The future is inherently unknowable in any great detail, and the further out you go the worse the problem becomes.  To compound the difficulty, the situation is inherently chaotic -- there are just too many variables, whose interactions cannot be accurately characterized. As a result, the situations that emerge will confound all attempts at prediction.

What that means is that any local level of violence or other social disruption is subject to the same (and probably even more) variability as the physical environment.  As the example of human reactions to being imprisoned in concentration camps hints (some became devils but some became angels), we have no way of predicting responses that will be intrinsically non-uniform.

So, in light of that, what is to be gained by dwelling on the (real) potential for escalating violence?  If someone accepts my premises, it seems that this potential will be obvious.  If I were to emphasize it, it would give the impression that I think violence will be a primary response.  The simple fact is I have no way of knowing.  Also, I do not want to give the "ammo and canned food" crowd any more support -- that attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and encouraging it is really bad karma.

Personal wisdom  will have to be flexible enough to cope with a huge variety of physical and social changes.  Fortunately, I'm coming to realize that this wisdom is not as rare as we might think .  There are a lot of people actively working to develop it, and their numbers are growing daily - it seems to be one very common response to the apprehension of the crisis.  I also believe that wisdom is an enormous "force multiplier".  A little wisdom goes a long way, and each person who has achieved some measure of it is a potential nucleus for a group of people who can respond even to prison camp circumstances with the best of their natures rather than the worst.

July 31, 2008
© Copyright 2008, Paul Chefurka
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