I have a plan to write a series of posts about the book The Great Waves of Change, the most upbeat book on global catastrophe you’re ever going to read. My original plan was to write one post per chapter. I got two pages into the first chapter, thought about how to write a post about the first chapter, and then decided to go lie down for a while.
The material is tightly packed, and it’s going to take some work to unpack it. Change is coming to the world. Humanity is, for the most part, unaware of these changes, and unprepared to face these changes.
Humanity’s choices have unintended consequences
Does the name Robert K. Merton ring a bell? No, not Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. No, not Robert C. Merton, the Nobel Laureate economist. Robert K. Merton, the American sociologist.
Robert K. Merton wrote a paper in 1936 titled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” In this paper, he identified five causes of unintended consequences.
I don’t consider the first two causes, ignorance and error, to be particularly surprising.
The third cause is something he called “the imperious immediacy of interest.” It is turning a blind eye to what might happen, because the blind-eye turner has a strong desire for his actions to turn out a particular way. When I read this I thought “Oh, Merton is observing a particular instance of Step 5, ‘I believe what I want to believe.’”
Merton observed that certain value systems contain the seeds of their own destruction. For example, sometimes poor people work hard and forego pleasure to become wealthy, and then forget what made them wealthy.
I find Merton’s fifth cause to be particularly interesting. He coined the term “self-defeating prediction” to describe the phenomenon of a prediction which inspires people to action which keeps the prediction from happening. I consider the book The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich to be an instance of this. If we didn’t have a Paul Ehrlich, we might not have had a Norman Borlaug, whose agricultural innovations doubled the wheat yields of India and Pakistan, thus preventing the hundreds of millions of deaths by starvation which Ehrlich predicted. Unintended consequences aren’t always a bad thing.
The point of all this is that just as people and nations make choices which have unintended consequences, humanity’s choices have unintended consequences. And The Great Waves of Change describes what some of those consequences will be.
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