“The Really Big One”

The greatest disaster ever faced by the U.S. is overdue in the Pacific Northwest. A long but viral article “The Really Big One” describes in detail what we can expect and why. It also notes that this isn’t the only catastrophe faced by homo sapiens’ limited capacity to see, think and respond. The impending great Cascadia earthquake is a teachable metaphor for what we need, not only to survive, but to make our world a sustainably better place for our children.

“The Really Big One” is a “big picture” scientific look at the growing prospect for a devastating earthquake in the Pacific Northwest. When the “Cascadia subduction zone” – the fault line that is accumulating pressure off the Pacific Northwest’s coast – breaks free in an extended paroxysm of violent shaking and a mega-tsunami, it will generate a catastrophe unprecedented in US history.

This is very scary, not the least because I live in Eugene, OR, within the impact zone of this inevitable but unpredictable event. But that’s not why I’m sharing this story with you. This particular article is most important, in my view, because it explicitly relates to so many other issues. Check out this excerpt:

“On the face of it, earthquakes seem to present us with problems of space: the way we live along fault lines, in brick buildings, in homes made valuable by their proximity to the sea. But, covertly, they also present us with problems of time. The earth is 4.5 billion years old, but we are a young species, relatively speaking, with an average individual allotment of three score years and ten. The brevity of our lives breeds a kind of temporal parochialism—an ignorance of or an indifference to those planetary gears which turn more slowly than our own.

“This problem is bidirectional. The Cascadia subduction zone remained hidden from us for so long because we could not see deep enough into the past. It poses a danger to us today because we have not thought deeply enough about the future. That is no longer a problem of information; we now understand very well what the Cascadia fault line will someday do. Nor is it a problem of imagination. If you are so inclined, you can watch an earthquake destroy much of the West Coast this summer in Brad Peyton’s ‘San Andreas,’ while, in neighboring theatres, the world threatens to succumb to Armageddon by other means: viruses, robots, resource scarcity, zombies, aliens, plague. As those movies attest, we excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones. But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action. Where we stumble is in conjuring up grim futures in a way that helps to avert them.”

We don’t prepare for a mega-earthquake because there are so many other demands on our attention and our resources. That, and its horrors feed our individual and collective denial; we just don’t want to look. How do we respond to threats that will someday be all-consuming but have only a tiny chance of happening this week? There are so many such threats arising in our lives lately. And it seems that every day we have fewer resources and less attention available to address them, individually and collectively.

That, to me, is the challenge that can only be met by a wiser, deeper form of democracy. We have tremendous expertise available on virtually every issue. We have remarkable and advancing knowledge about how to host generative, insight-producing dialogues, deliberations, and choice-creating conversations. We have ever-advancing means to crowdsource our collective intelligence and to spread insights and possibilities to millions of our fellows in compelling, action-stimulating media. We know how to prevent and respond to disasters.

But we haven’t yet put it all together to produce the empowered collective wisdom we need.

I promote the various forms of citizen deliberative council not so much because of what they already are and can do – which is remarkable – but because of what they COULD be and do if we looked at them as nascent sources of real wisdom from ordinary people. If we seriously undertook that developmental challenge, we would take a close look at what we meant by “wisdom” and then we’d ask ourselves under what conditions ordinary people could ACTUALLY produce such wisdom to guide our collective affairs.

We would probably think of ways to help those ordinary citizens to see “the big picture” that includes deeper views of the past (the causes and dynamics behind what we face today) and the future (the possibilities, probabilities and impacts on future generations of what’s happening today and how we might address it). These are the very factors highlighted by the author of “The Really Big One”. We would research ways to help ordinary people look at their (our!!) situation systemically (tracking interconnections and feedback dynamics) and holistically (investigating how it all adds up and how we can respond, given what’s actually going on and who we actually are). We would learn how to help them overcome common human limitations on our thinking and feeling – from our outdated cognitive capacities (as described so vividly in the book NEW WORLD NEW MIND) and our tendency to engage in psychological cognitive distortions such as denial, projection, and confirmation bias to the ways we’re subjected to falsehoods, distortions, and omissions generated by special interest groups, corporations, politicians, and the media.

We’d do this because we want real wisdom that can help us transcend the limits that constrain our responses to the challenges that threaten our lives and our future and that hold back our enthusiastic pursuit of the positive dreams and possibilities we see for our lives, for our children, and for a world that really make sense at last. And we seek this wisdom from ordinary people because we believe We the People can be trusted more than anyone else to look after our collective well being – IF we can figure out how to make We the People wise.

When I read this article, I think of climate disruption, corruption, artificially intelligent robots, financial meltdowns, drained aquifers, cyberwar, homelessness, resource depletion, rising seas, nuclear accidents…. We confront so many “earthquakes” whose early shakings we can already feel. When is the right time to step out of business as usual and ask, “Really, What Will It Take?”

A civilization that knew the answer to that question would not only be able to solve its problems. It would know how to be just, sustainable, and joyful as well, because it would be tapping the full life energy of its people, who would know how to think and work together to make the world they wanted.

So the “really big one” is not the earthquake that will one day devastate the Pacific Northwest. It is the challenge we face remaking our societies into a civilization capable of true collective wisdom.

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