Of Sandpiles, Immunity, Resilience and People

Allison and Joey

You may have a fresh start at any moment you choose, for this thing we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down. ~ Mary Pickford

When I first read Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book, The Age of the Unthinkable, I wondered how it all fit together. It made my head dizzy and took another reading to make some sense of it. He tells how the Danish physicist and biologist Per Bak created a hypothesis that world crises resemble sandpiles. Adding grains of sand eventually causes an avalanche, although just when is impossible to predict.

How can we become immune to disaster? No, this isn’t a reference to the TV show Survivor. Immunity here means protecting ourselves against the  crises which confront humanity from time to time. The human immune system depends on maintaining health through good nutrition, exercise and avoidance of toxins. Social immunity means living in a society where we support rather than take advantage of each other.

Helping others find satisfaction in their lives makes for a more peaceful society. Is it any wonder anger and violence increase as more people struggle for basic survival? As it is impossible to eradicate every health threat, so it is impossible to eliminate all social threats. Resilience is how society protects itself.

Governments tend to settle on one response to threats and stick to it doggedly. This is the opposite of resilience. While such an approach might have worked once, we now live in revolutionary times when society as well as threats to our well being are rapidly evolving.  How do we become resilient in the face of changing threats? Ramo suggest five ways: constantly revamping our thinking about problems, developing a wide range of ways to see the problems and their context, staying in communication with each other, encouraging new responses and making small changes in how we deal with each other rather than awaiting a catastrophe.

Remember the sandpiles? Per Bak originally used it to understand changes in nature. We can also view human society this way. But instead of inert grains of sand, humanity consists of breathing, thinking and feeling individuals interacting with each other for better or worse.

How can we make it easier for all of us to work together rather than undermining and destroying each other? Ramo suggests two simple but not necessarily easy approaches. One is to provide everyone with basic survival rights. The other is to give people the power to control their own destinies. We know we can do this on a personal level. We can also do it on a local community level.

Unfortunately the temptation to grab power and wealth, jelously hoarding them, overcomes not a few of us. Sharing our wealth and caring for each other as we would members of our own families remain challenges. Nevertheless, becoming a world family may be the price of world peace.

Life Lab Lessons

  • Learn what motivates people who bother you the most.
  • Find out what bothers others about you.
  • Discover values you and they have in common.
  • Decide what you are willing to release for the common good.
  • Don’t just think about it. Do something.
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