May we have your attention, please?
On turning down the radio while searching for an address, SWOT analyses, and the UN Security Council
If you've ever doubted the capacity of human beings to ignore a festering problem, you must stop whatever you're doing and go check out your nearest office breakroom microwave. Once we convince ourselves that a problem isn't imminent, we tend to stop seeing the sensory evidence in front of us and instead reduce the thing we're seeing into an abstraction.
■ This process of switching between the evidence and our abstractions of the evidence can be helpful; when we drive or walk down a familiar path, most of us shift into a mental mode that is a lot more like following a simplified map on a screen than checking for every new block of pavement that comes our way. The unfamiliar situations -- those times when you have to turn down the radio so you can see a street sign better -- are when we need the additional cognitive processing capacity to handle the hard work.
■ The problem emerges when we rely too heavily on the abstractions and fail to recognize that a problem really is new, changing, or growing. Our brains may literally have evolved to recognize threats detected by peripheral vision, but we just aren't very good at stepping back from the world in which we live to see the holistic nature of the real problems we have assigned as abstractions.
■ No matter how smart we are, we still have a finite amount of attention to deploy. There is only so much cognitive load any one of us can bear.
■ But the consequences of compartmentalizing so many problems as "not a threat for now" are certainly coming to bear. Should the world have pressed harder for nuclear disarmament sooner -- before thinly-veiled threats from the dictator holding the world's largest nuclear arsenal? Should we have expanded rather than contracted our pandemic-planning infrastructure -- before Covid-19 hit? Should our energy industry have done more to prepare their infrastructure for cold weather -- before natural gas wells froze and power systems entered cascading failure loops during cold snaps?
■ There is something of an art to raising issues and focusing attention on necessary solutions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has chosen to pull the fire alarm on their issue, its co-chair saying, "Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future". But...any further delay? And how brief is the window? And is the alternative a truly unlivable future? The problem of anthropomorphic climate change is indeed real, but it can't be the only problem suitable for high-stakes attention or "concerted global action".
■ In business, people sometimes conduct SWOT analyses: Assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. It's a practice best conducted periodically: Often enough that a threat or weakness doesn't boil over, but not so often that it swallows up all the attention that needs to be paid to the day-to-day.
■ At the civilizational level, we need better practices and institutions for conducting SWOT analysis on behalf of us all. Some might have imagined the United Nations to be just such an institution in the past, but the fact that Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution about its invasion of Ukraine (while holding the presidency of the council) is ample evidence that the UN either cannot or will not do the job. (For further evidence, see China's membership on the UN Human Rights Council, as it sends Uighurs to internment camps.)
■ Just as membership in many international organizations is held for cyclical terms and the chair's gavel is passed from one country to another, so ought we to look for organized, thoughtful ways to keep an eye on the world's problems, both imminent and long-run. It's not healthy to light our collective hair on fire every time a new panicked report is issued, nor to wait until a problem has sparked a global meltdown to take it seriously.
■ A bit like a radar scope, we need institutions that can scan the horizon and report back with each "sweep". And if we don't have those institutions now (or if the ones we have are failing us), no amount of waiting will make our problems better.