peter_schwartz's picture
Futurist; Senior Vice President for Global Government Relations and Strategic Planning, Salesforce.com; Author, Inevitable Surprises
A World Of Cascading Crises


Hardly a day passes when we do not hear of some major crisis in the world, one already unfolding or a new one just beginning and they never seem to end. We are now living in a world of perpetual crisis and the high anxiety it produces. Crises are not new. Human societies have experienced natural disasters, wars, famines, revolutions, political collapse, plagues, depressions and more. But two conditions are new. First, the actual interconnection of the worlds many systems often lead one crisis to cascade into the next like falling dominoes. Second, because of global communications and new media we are all far more aware of more of the crises then ever before.

One of the best examples of the first is the recent financial crisis that began in the sub prime mortgage market, when fear outweighed hope and cascaded through our banking system, our economy, triggering the Euro crisis, slowing growth in China and still continues in its impact as high unemployment persists. And it may be that the monetary measures we took to save the economy at the height of the crisis may yet trigger an inflationary crisis when growth starts to recover and capacity fails to catch up with new demand. So further crises on this path likely lie ahead.

The public's view of violence is a good example of the second new dynamic of heightened awareness. Steven Pinker has elegantly shown us that the real threat of violence in most of our lives has diminished dramatically. Yet most of believe because of the constant drumbeat of reporting on violence that the threat is far greater than it actually is. The absence of children playing on suburban streets is a sign of how scared parents are of the threat of kidnapping, which actually remains very small.

So if some of the issue is an actual increase in crises driven by interconnection and some merely a perceptual issue why should we be worried? The fact that we live in a world of high anxiety often leads us to do the wrong things. We take short term and local solutions rather than take a systemic and long term view. Does anyone believe that continuing financial innovation will not lead to another financial crisis in the near future? And yet the structural issues are not even being discussed. Our huge overreactions to 9-11 and to drug use have led to a perpetual security state from which we cannot return. Vast numbers of people are incarcerated at a huge cost for something that should not even be a crime. And we all pay the Bin Laden Tax when we put up with the costs and disruptions of airport security. And of course our political systems play into this with a vengeance, because they are notoriously poor at systemic and long term solutions and those perverse instincts are amped up by the public sense of perpetual crisis. There has been an inevitable loss of faith in institutions ability to get ahead of the curve and tamp down the trembling state of anxiety the world now seems to be unable to shake off.

There seems to be no way back from this sense of dangling on the precipice, ready to fall over, but not quite. We cannot disconnect the world's functional systems and we cannot disconnect our awareness from the world's information systems. This is our new reality: high anxiety driven by cascading crises, real and imagined.