The Universalization of Uncertainty

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This post probably won’t make a lot of people happy.  The news from our world, and from its human populations, seems to be generally bad, and seems likely to be worse in the future.  I am hoping, however, by helping you understand why everything seems so much more difficult these days, and by passing on some tips for trying to help you to live with it, that there might be some reward in the future. 

We all want to be able to have certainty in our lives, We need that certainty: rocks are hard, ice is cold, my bedroom is this room over here, person B in my life is really good  to me, or maybe person D in my life is just awful.  Yet many of the “big” things in our lives have always been uncertain, unpredictable.  Basically every question we might have about the future, anything that involves other people in our human/social world is always uncertain: what happens next month, next year, will my plans succeed, can my dreams be fulfilled?

Yet we can all feel it, it’s hitting us in every area of life.  Almost every question involving the future, or the cooperation of other people,  is more uncertain now than it was ten, twenty years ago.  Can I count on my job?  It’s more uncertain now.  Should I live here or there?  It’s more uncertain.  Should  I start this particular business?  It seems like there’s many more variables to consider.  The increasing uncertainty is a basic aggravating factor in why life seems to get more messed up with annoying details, while everything gets more expensive as we move further and further into the 2020’s.

We all want certainty, our minds work by trying to find patterns and make sense of them.  Modern society is based on forming stable patterns of social interactions.  The modern economy requires us to be as stable and reliable as possible, while fulfilling social roles that are presented to us as certainties requiring specific behaviors: nurse, teacher, janitor, construction work specialties, and not just being a “manager” or “executive,” but being a “manager or executive in our specific business.”

It’s very rare a person is seeking or selling uncertainty, this is not a goal that anyone aspires to. Think about it: just about every advertisement that you encounter in your environment, on your phone or computer, TV or radio, billboards, posters, everything, 95% of the time they’re trying to convince you of the certainty of some outcome if you buy the product.  Tide pods?  Jet skis?  The fashion choices of some teen-age influencer? It’s all the same, follow our lead, use our stuff, you will feel cleaner/more excited/more-high-status or whatever it is they’re trying to sell.

Now it is true that the level of uncertainty we are all suffering from over recent years has been increased, on purpose, by a particular type of advertisers and/or aspiring religious and political cult leaders, who are often selling a particular product: doubt.  Doubt is a neighbor of uncertainty, doubt can work together in a mind to increase both doubt and uncertainty, and that’s a negative loop to be avoided. 

Yet if you examine the details of what doubt-sellers are saying, they may often be playing on generalized feelings of doubt and/or uncertainty, yet they are almost always attacking some particular “certainty” that is out there in the media environment, in order to sell a particular alternative “certainty” – which the doubt-seller just happens to believe gives the seller more credibility as a particular business,  religious or political leader – or is just another bald-faced lie to get you to buy whatever ridiculous piece of grift they need to move. 

Organized dishonest doubt-sellers are just one new aspect of modern society that is leading to a sense of increased uncertainty in all aspects of life in the 2020’s.  Indeed, just about all the aspects of our current political-economic evolution as a global civilization seem to be dedicated to increasing uncertainty.  We have magical new technologies that create great wealth and power for a few, but when they’re set out (to replace actual customer service) as hastily-written software on government and business websites, this tech magic turns  into hours of hassle and headaches for the mass of citizens and consumers who can’t get what they want.  We have an  increasing exponential divide between a tiny plutocratic elite, that easily gets governments and other businesses to listen to and  cater to their needs, and the increasing billions who lack basic modern services and infrastructure,  and  who have no voice in government and business to obtain any basic services and  infrastructure.   There’s the fact that in over a half the land area and for half the population of  today’s globe, people  suffer greatly because  a basic part of modern civilization, organized government,  is in the hands of selfish dictators and autocrats of all types who do everything for themselves and  nothing for their people, this creates huge piles of uncertainty  for all our futures .

And then there are  the specific incidents of ‘crazy’ disruption  that have affected much of the globe in recent years, starting with the surprising – to all rational thinkers –victory of Trump in the 2016 American election, developing into what seems to be a cult of 40% of Americans pursing a vision of truth that appears quite irrational and dysfunctional to the rest of us, and of course introducing huge new postulates of uncertainty into American political life (and that affects many others)  which many of us – especially the narrow-focused  national political reporters of major news outlets  — are finding hard to grasp.  The old certainties of American politics are gone. 

Then we had to suffer the pandemic of COVID-19, which has thrown many of our old economic / industrial certainties into the trash heap of history.  Stable supply-chains  keeping production managers and customers happy?  No more.  Everyone expecting that business requires workers in offices? Not so much.  Stable expectations that a career path could mean decades of relatively stable and prosperous  life?  Also way down.  It is generally positive that many folks are finding it possible to live out the individualism that helps them feel free and  happy (although some folks are pursuing their individual happiness by expanding a hatred of others) , yet even the most creative and  positive  aspects of your individualism (and everyone else’s) is generally contributing  to uncertainties in our personal and social lives that we can’t  escape. 

All of these problems are of course being propelled, accelerated and intensified  by the great existential problem of  modern society.  The pollutions we can’t stop releasing because they’re being caused by the production and use of the comforts and conveniences that no one can sacrifice using even for a moment, appear to be quite capable of ruining the basic  food, water and shelter patterns  of continental areas,  destroying  the pleasant futures,  hopeful dreams and  perhaps even the lives of everyone who hopes to be living their lives in 2030 or 2040. 

Do you understand how bad  it is, how deep the universalization of uncertainty is going to reach?  No asset is ever going to be really “safe,”  no real estate is going to be assured to be valuable,  no physical or financial asset will necessarily hold its value in the emergencies of tomorrow.  No education, no career path will be secure (though some may be desperately needed), no personal relationship has ever been able to be guaranteed, and  in the future  it is likely even the most trusted  persons in your life may be facing unprecedented,  unusual pressures you can’t control.     

It is possible that modern economies may stabilize and prices may even fall for a year or several years,  however in general it appears to this economic historian that supply shocks and price shocks will be contributing  strongly to the “universalization of uncertainty” that will continue to plague our civilization, because these price and supply shocks are being pushed by the severe weather events that are affecting all areas as we disrupt  the atmosphere (and the oceans) with our waste and emissions from the fossil fuels that power our outward prosperity.    Which rich privileged people  are going to give up their privileges and conveniences to help save  the planet  for the rest of us?  Who among us ordinary folk can sacrifice any type  of convenience or emotional need, to attempt building a new society for our children that is not based on consumer greed ? 

Without piling on the pessimism and dark tones, that’s the  unfortunate  summation of our situation.  Almost all of our “progress” in the 21st Century is contributing  to a “universalization of uncertainty,”  where very little of our human social environments  can  still maintain the institutions and  attitudes  that upheld feelings of “stability” and “reliability” that many of us old folks can remember – being widespread — from past decades.   Nearly all political and  religious groupings can see a pessimistic  vision in which the institutions  protecting  their visions and privileges seem to be failing, because nearly all privileged institutions and attitudes are indeed being threatened by all sorts of uncertain threats, and so far we are all too individualistic to build new institutions and attitudes that might serve us better.   Nearly all aspects of our human social environments are becoming more uncertain,  and we’ve got a lot of work to do if we hope to reverse this tiresome, depressing trend.  Things are bad, and they are unlikely to improve significantly without a lot of human attention to details.

Before I try to end this essay on a more positive note,  there is one talking point I’d  like to make clear for you.  As a historian, and  as someone who’s tried to watch the world more scientifically than wishfully,  I’m very clear that there are no alternative  physical facts.  Atoms and energies are in one precise pattern, in every nanosecond of time, and  that includes the atoms that make up our bodies and  the sound vibrations that come out of our mouths.  There is no alternative physical  history of  this earth (even though there are innumerable details of that past history we don’t  yet know about).

All the uncertainties come from human beings, who can and will contradict each other over what was said or what was done, out of all sorts of misunderstandings and  false assumptions  and mistakes, and a few people who tell self-serving lies.  In human environments we absolutely do see “alternative “facts” in the sense that populations in conflict can each believe a set of truths that are directly contradicted by the truths of  the other population in their conflict   And because of the conflict,  both sides become more and  more invested in the “truthiness” of their side of the stories.  That’s a big bad  pattern creating lots of uncertainty as we try to face the world and what it’s doing to us. 

Is there anything we can do help ourselves deal with all this increasing uncertainty?   In trying  to think historically about things, I hope  I’ve been sliding into the better mental attitude for quite a few years now.   It’s fairly simple.   Just try not to think in terms of  “yes or no,” “good or bad” types of categories and assumptions.   There  isn’t any human situation  out there  that’s  pure  “negative’ or ‘positive,’ everything is shades of grey. 

There are no certainties; some things may look like certainties today, but they could conceivably fall the day after tomorrow.   Everything is possibilities and  probabilities.  Yes, some things in our human environment can seem like certainties,  but they just maybe might  be overthrown by a  war or a flood  or a social movement or a pandemic the day after tomorrow. 

So the mental attitude that works for me is try to see things in terms of probabilities, “there’s an 80% chance Maria will say yes to this change at work”  or maybe it’s  “there’s a 50% chance I can make all these connecting flights out and  back without any big hangups or lost luggage.”  You’re  looking at the possibilities of the answer or result you’re seeking, yet also looking at the possible  mistakes and  outside interventions on the other side of the question. 

 Every possibility has a probability,  and I try to always remember  a 1 or 2% chance of “some crazy outside event disrupting all my plans/ideas/hopes” in every situation.   Of course  you’ll start out guessing at every choice, yet experience should  help you refine your assessments.    I also find that thinking this way helps me anticipate and think through better responses if my favored probabilities don’t work out. 

I’m a guy who has mostly tried to be both a scientist and an optimist; that’s getting to be a pretty tough road  to walk these days.  The physics of the climate emergency are extremely frightening; the sea level rises or the food supply failures or other unforeseen mass disasters – far beyond anything we’ve already seen — could start affecting every nation and every economic system any year now.  If we’re still allowing tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants to flow into the atmosphere in 2035 or so,  it seems over 50% likely that this crazy un-balanced so-called industrial civilization we have created for ourselves  is going to have a nasty painful extinction event from food supply disruptions and/or other severe consequences of extreme weather and global sea level rises and god-knows-what- else awaits us. 

The history of  human selfishness and  ignorance is also quite frightening, for most of us at the bottom of the economic pyramid, we simply can’t make any choices besides doing the best we can with our little bit of funds and  whatever industrial-economy junky “band-aids” we can get our hands on,  for whatever  crisis is hitting us today.    Generalizing over thousands of  years of history over all the  inhabited  continents,  social systems with highly stratified decision-makers do not have a good record  of  making  timely decisions to ameliorate  negative outcomes for their populations,  when unforeseen crises hit.  

Nevertheless, let’s try to end on a positive note.  It’s just possible we will learn to deal with increasing uncertainty in our physical and human environments, it’s just possible that we will able to follow the wisdom of indigenous peoples in creating alternatives to wasteful industrial economics in colonial social systems, it is just barely possible that millions of people  in Asia and Africa and elsewhere can learn the lessons for resisting authoritarian regime, it is just barely possible that we can get through this mess we have created without great pain and the loss of all pleasures.  Is it even possible that we can learn the lessons of how people create history with their thoughts and  their actions, and begin to create new patterns of personal and social behavior, new patterns of economic action and  government support  that  will help us survive  the climate emergencies our past behavior has given us  ? 

 It’s going to take a heck of a lot of work, I think, and probably a lot sacrifice of privileges for the benefit of future generations, I wouldn’t give us  more than a 30%  chance of success even if a whole lot us start working very hard  to create something  better – but darn it, the alternatives are so bad,  we’ve gotta try, and try hard  to do better.  Please, let ‘s not allow the uncertainties of our selfish past to destroy all possibilities for our children’s and grandchildren’s sustainable futures.  

About philosophical Ron

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