Thursday, 5 November 2020


Suppose, we tried to anticipate the future of plant Earth: What could possibly go wrong?

Imagine one day, models of the future of Earth would predict the collapse of economy and civilization, and a dramatic drop in population, e.g. due to anticipated resource shortages. What might be the issues of such an „apocalyptic“ forecast?

First of all, remember that – even though some are useful – “all models are wrong”. This may lead to wrong conclusions and actions, which could cause harm. (I expect such a situation, for example, for current “world simulation” approaches. These neglect important innovation, interaction, context and network effects, particularly symbiotic ones, which could considerably increase the carrying capacity compared to current estimates.)

Think tanks may start discussing the consequences of an “apocalyptic scenario”, and propose what to do about it. First of all, they might conclude that resources would not be enough for everyone, and hence access to them would have to be surveilled, centrally controlled, and prioritized, say, by means of some kind of citizen score. Therefore, it seems that emergencies would require and allow one to overrule human rights. One might argue that democracies would have to be overhauled and replaced by a global technocracy that manages people like things.

One might argue that one would have to act according to the principle of the “smaller evil”, as exemplified by the “trolley problem”. According to this, any regulation, law or constitutional principle could be teared down for some supposedly overarching principle (such as “global health”). This could even touch the right to live, which might be overruled by triage decisions.

Now, suppose such considerations would lack transparency. They would then be discussed mostly by insiders, but not by parliaments, the science community or general public at large “due to the sensitivity of the issue”.

Then, these insiders may start working on their own solutions of the problem, without democratic legitimacy, and turn problems of life and death into profitable business models.

From then on, these problems would be mainly seen from the perspective of profit maximization. The bigger the problem or the greater the emergency, the more profitable things would get…

The excess deaths would be handled by the triage principle, and saving lives would probably not be a priority anymore.

This is how anticipating an ”apocalypse” can actually cause an apocalypse like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and overrule all and any ethical principle, even if factually such a scenario would not have to happen at all (which is what I think).

I would not be surprised if there were people smart enough to understand that, if one wanted to replace democracies by hierarchical, neofeudalistic systems, disasters and crises would be just the perfect means to accomplish the job.

In any case, to avoid that anticipation ends up with irresponsible, immoral or even criminal action or neglection, we need a suitable ethics of anticipation.

Anticipation, of course, does not have to be a bad thing. It can open up our minds for opportunities and risks. Such insights should be transparently and publicly evaluated and discussed.

Modeling complex systems, for example, has provided us with a better understanding of traffic jams, crowd disasters, and epidemic spreading. This can be used to reduce problems and risks. Such models can guide proactive measures that can avoid or mitigate potential trouble and harm.

In case of expected resource shortages, it is clear what needs to be done: reduce resource consumption, where possible, build reserves, increase capacity, improve resource efficiency, build a circular economy, share goods and services.

However, this is not all: When faced with uncertainty (which is the case, when probabilistic effects are coupled with network-related cascading effects), damage may hardly be predictable and large. In such cases, a resilient organization of society is in place, as we need to be able to flexibly adapt to surprises and recover from shocks such as disasters and crises.

Resilience can in fact be increased by a number of measures, including redundancies, diverse solutions, decentralized organization, participatory approaches, solidarity, and digital assistance – solutions that should be locally sustainable for extended periods of time.

Note that these solutions are very different from global surveillance, behavioral control and triage. They are rather in support of digital democracy, City Olympics, a socio-ecological finance system, and democratic capitalism. In other words, even if the analysis “there is trouble ahead” (assuming a lack of sustainability) were correct, the conclusions and measures should have been very different.

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