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Got ‘crises fatigue’?

 Posted by on November 19, 2010
Nov 192010

(Rebecca D. Costa is the author of The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction, which looks at how people can deal with an increasingly complex world threatened by global warming, pandemic viruses, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and failing public education. She is a sociobiologist and former CEO of Silicon Valley start-up Dazai Advertising, Inc., whose  clients included Apple Computer, Hewlett- Packard, Oracle Corporation and General Electric.)

Rebecca D. Costa

Oh, I know.

One minute it’s the Gulf oil spill and the next it’s toxic waste flooding the Danube.  Turn on the evening news and there’s a Tsunami in Indonesia followed by a stern warning from scientists that we are annihilating species at “100 to 1000 times the historic rate.” Our education system is in the dumps, terrorists are becoming sophisticated recruiters and milk is either good or bad for you depending on the day of the week.  We are getting fatter, burning too much fossil fuel and autism, breast cancer, depression and new strains of flu are on the rise.

Wait a minute.  I haven’t even touched runaway government debt or the fact that China is buying up mineral rights in Africa faster than we can print money.

Is it any wonder that I have “crises-fatigue”?

What’s crises fatigue?  That’s easy.  I should care more.  I should feel outraged, afraid, worried or sad.  I should get off the couch and do something – anything – about these terrible problems.  But I don’t.  I feel overwhelmed.

I watch the next crises unfold on CNN, read about overnight developments in the morning paper, then listen to radio personalities deconstruct every aspect of every problem from every angle ad nauseam.  There are too many problems – - everyday – - coming at me like planes all trying to land on the same runway.

So let me be the first to say it: our problems – - our world – - has become too complex for the cognitive abilities we have evolved to this point.  Simply throwing more money at our difficulties won’t help.  Neither will throwing out incumbents.  And more, faster, technology won’t do a single thing to stop our threats from growing in magnitude and peril.

Is there a cure for crises-fatigue?  You bet there is.  Start putting some of these problems to bed by adopting models for highly complex, chaotic problems – - enough with temporary mitigations.  Cure them.  Cure them like we once cured polio or brought peace to Japan.  Remember when we used to be able to actually fix our problems?  When wars were fought until one side surrendered?  When the President ordered every school in America to have one hour of physical education and they complied?  When we stopped a Great Depression instead of masking its symptoms?

Contrast that against today: opposition at every turn.  One party says left and the other turns right.  Dare to have an idea that might stop a problem in its tracks and watch as every imperfection is brought to light.  We argue, stifle, oppose, nitpick – all the while our problems, one after the other, circle overhead running out of fuel.  Why argue over which solution is better when we need to embrace them all.  That’s right.  When time is running out there is only one thing to do: throw everything and the kitchen sink at the problem – - and at the same time.

Americans like me are quietly sitting at home, waiting for the news that the next offshore oil rig has failed, the next hurricane has flooded the South, and the next unemployment and foreclosure statistics are worse than expected.  Is it too much to ask that we get on with permanent remedies for the complex problems that ail us? Even a little progress would make me feel a whole lot better.