The Sorry State of Our Ship of State

Every time we wake up and look around, we find another example of how our society has become completely dependent on systems, standards, and complex technologies for the fundamentals of daily living.  While hardly anyone understands these systems, we are all asked daily to simply trust everything and proceed blindly through our lives.

This brings to mind the story of a magician who went as an entertainer on a cruise ship.

Another passenger on the cruise had brought his pet parrot. Whenever the magician performed his tricks of hiding/losing things, the smart-ass parrot spoke up saying “It’s under the chair. It’s under the chair”. The magician, understandably, was not crazy about the parrot. Four days out the ship hit a rock and sank. The magician and the parrot found themselves facing each other, clinging to a piece of flotsam. The parrot stared quizzically at the magician and finally said: “Ok, so where is the boat?”

The question facing our society today is: “What can we trust to help us when the ship is sinking?”

Consider this short list of some of recent disturbing events that have shaken mass confidence in how our world works:

–One volcano in Iceland erupts and completely breaks down air travel between Europe and the United States for over a week;

–One deep offshore well in the Gulf of Mexico unleashes perhaps the biggest oil spill in history, putting at risk much of the Gulf of Mexico and its marine life, and the livelihoods of thousands;

— The government of Greece for 20 years fails to take steps to adjust its economy and social costs to its national income, causing the rest of Europe to bail them out to save the Euro.

–A momentary, but nearly galactic, breakdown in securities markets gives investors everywhere pause about the reliability of the systems they trust with their savings.

–A simple snowstorm of about 3 feet shuts down a good deal of the East coast for about a week.

— The near collapse of the US and World economy brought on by a bubble of housing prices and the bankruptcy of one of the major US investment firms.

–Everyone has experienced hearing “sorry, we cannot help you, our computers are down!” And what happens when everything we depend upon in our computers is in the ‘cloud’ and IT goes down?

—Listening to “Car Talk” on the radio makes clear that almost no one any longer knows how to fix their car because they do not have the faintest idea how it works.

That is a short list of 8 items – who can’t add their own tales of woe in the face of failed technologies or faulty systems?

What it boils down to is that our advanced modern civilization is increasingly ill-equipped to cope with the world we live in, unless that world functions perfectly.  The inevitable bumps in the road (or ships run aground) leave us stranded, threatened, and seemingly helpless.

As is evident in viewing the National Museum of Natural History’s  current exhibit on the Evolution of our human species, our forbearers, when hit with catastrophes, simply regrouped (smaller in numbers no doubt) and quickly returned to hunting prey and gathering berries.  They understood the systems on which their survival depended, and were well-equipped to carry on after adversity.

Our modern fellow men and women, on the other hand, would be in for quite a rude awakening if robbed of electricity, transportation, communication and fully-stocked grocery shelves for even a short period of time.  Our penchant for panic, driven in part by our dearth of survival skills, makes our prehistoric brethren look positively advanced in comparison.

Should we be introducing “outward bound” training in all our schools to equip people for that kind of world? I doubt it. So, what can we do to equip ourselves, our children and grandchildren to deal with such bumps in their lives?

I guess first we have to teach them to be fatalistically-optimistic. But, we also need to teach/train them how to recognize problems that they should be able handle, if they properly anticipate and prepare. I have in mind, in particular, their developing a culture and system that constantly seeks a fundamental political will to deal with foreseeable problems well in advance of their actual occurrence, for example the inevitable American version of what just happened in Greece.

To do that, we need to work on educating people first to understand the modern world and how it works (and doesn’t).  From there, perhaps, we can rebuild a trust in the modern world, and the confidence of people to be able to rely on more than a simple hope that the sun will always come up bright and shiny every morning.

If we can do that, our grandchildren may NOT, while they are holding on to the flotsam in their future, have to say:

“Ok, so what happened to our Ship of State?”


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