Overtaken by Events

We rarely solve big problems; we just go beyond them, usually by redefining our goals and priorities and often by employing knowledge and technologies that were unavailable when the problem was initially defined.  In other words, our vision of solutions for the future is often limited because those solutions have not been invented yet. We have a phase “overtaken by events” (OBE’D). It refers to facts, ideas or plans that are invalidated by subsequent events.  Most problems are not really solved; they are just OBE’D. 

Stuff happens sometimes for no reason we can understand

The future is uncertain by definition, but we have learned to manage risk.  Our increasing ability to identify and manage risk is one of the too often overlooked foundations of our complex modern civilization but we never eliminate it and there are many situations where there is so much uncertainty that we cannot even properly assess the risk, i.e. figure out the odds.  (I read a couple good books on this.  I recommend “the Black Swan” & “Against the Gods.”) This is what drives people crazy.   It seems counter intuitive to some, who seem to think that if we could solve our big problems if just worked hard enough and planned well enough.   We things go badly wrong, they look to blame someone.   Well, sometimes we just have uncertainty.  Shit happens in ways nobody could have reasonably predicted and sometimes in ways nobody could have predicted at all.

Not all of this is bad, however.  In fact it is mostly good.  There are upside and downside surprises but in the long run the upside surprises are more important.   Why?  Even if the ups and downs are distributed randomly, we can apply human intelligence to adapt to them.   Within broad parameters, the quality of our lives depends less on the good or bad luck we experience than on the responses we make to what comes along. We have to use an iterative approach that learns from experience and changes responses to changing circumstances.

Einstein was right when he said that we cannot solve problems with the same kind of  thinking that we used when we created them.  

O Fortuna velut Luna

The best system is not one that plans in detail for all the challenges but rather one that is robust enough to adapt to changing conditions and exploit opportunities, one that embraces the statistical nature of the future and takes advantage of it. We need more of a planning process than a precise plan.  We cannot anticipate all the events but we can have processes in place that can recover from setback to adapt to changes. I think of it like a tool box and portfolio.   In an uncertain world, you have to diversity and empower those closest to evolving events. This is how markets work, BTW.

This is a harder sell than the dishonest or self-deceptive statement that you have anticipated and planned for all the eventualities.  Most people crave certainty and they love those who claim to have it, even when they know or should know it is bogus comfort.   We make systematic errors in the direction of imposing patterns of certainty where none exist.  That is why we think clouds look like Snoopy or Albert Einstein.  There is even a five dollar word for it “apophenia”.

Anyway the simple advice is to find or create adaptive robust systems that can survive downside shocks and move quickly to exploit upside opportunities, all the time understanding that the Lady Fortune’s Wheel  never stops turning.  (BTW I am thinking of this in terms of Boethius, not Pat Sajack and Vanna White) It can pull you up and down and some big things can come up pretty fast.

Now you’re cooking with gas

One upside surprise that is a real game-changer is the recent technological advance that allows us to get natural gas from shale deposits. In the last couple of years, we have made available natural gas deposits with more than the energy potential of all the oil in Arabia. A solution that was unavailable and largely unforeseen five years ago will change all our lives … soon.  I wrote about this a couple of months ago as I drove through the Pennsylvanian coal – and now natural gas – country.

Natural gas is the perfect partner for wind energy, since gas plants can be turned on and off relatively easily.   Wind is very good when it is blowing but it can cut off quickly.   In other words, it is unreliable w/o backup.  Nature gas is the backup.  

Natural gas can help us squeeze oil out of our transportation network. According to the linked article, “the chief obstacle to developing a natural gas infrastructure capable of supplying service stations and highway rest stops is regulatory. If that is removed—and here we do need government action—we could expect to see trucks, buses, and cars running on natural gas in a relatively short period of time. The reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be considerable.”

This new energy future will not only help us free ourselves from the despots who control most of the world’s oil reserves (it seems like kind of a divine joke that most of the world’s easy to get oil is under such regimes) but it will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions w/o the draconian measures contemplated just a short time ago. Natural gas is cleaner than oil and much cleaner than coal in terms of pollution and in terms of CO2.

So a problem that was intractable with the conditions and technology of 2005 could be party solved in ways that nobody really anticipated. But we have to use our intelligence to make an upside surprise into good fortune … before it is OBE’D or Fortune’s wheel takes another turn.