"You are not stuck in traffic," says the advert for a satnav system, "You are traffic."
The doors of perception often hang heavy on rusty hinges. Regardless of motivation, though, good advertising can work like good art. It issues an irresistible invitation to see the world differently. Here we leap from the familiar grumble about congestion, to the unsettling realization that we are the thing we grumble about.
Behind the advert is a familiar irony, that the solution proffered merely relocates the problem, or creates a new one (such as taking a large family estate car full of screaming children up a track fit only for athletic goats - well, it looked good on the computer's map). But, in well-crafted messages meaning can escape narrow motivation.
We are not hapless victims of circumstances, we are deeply complicit in creating them. At the heart of our complicity is how we allow ourselves, actively or passively, to accept versions of reality. These may be offered, or emerge as unintended consequences of what we do. Sometimes we are so biddable that we allow our perception of reality to bend to breaking point. It is not merely the fault of weak self-awareness: are we stuck in traffic or are we the traffic? It is also due to our poor judgment of risk and what will give us the world we really want.
John Lanchester's brief but magisterial account of the banking collapse provides a perfect example.
The financial system is the (shaky) foundation upon which the economy rests. In recent decades money became not just the medium, but the message, and excuse for all sorts of antisocial behavior. In turn, the financial system rested upon assessments of risk. To say that these, too, were shaky, doesn't quite capture the full picture. It mattered so enormously because - as we learned to our vast, incalculable cost - the foundations of our own livelihoods rested on this deeper foundation, understanding risk.
Here's what reality looked like down there. The edifice of modern, financial capitalism bet trillions of dollars and our collective economic future on the fact that people with often no income, job or assets were unlikely to default on large, relatively expensive mortgages.
To simplify, massively, after these debts had been chopped-up, sold-on and insured, the "masters of the universe" convinced themselves, using very impressive mathematics, that the chance of something going badly wrong (having lent lots of money to people with no obvious means of paying it back) would be, in Lanchester's words, "literally the most unlikely thing to have happened in the history of the universe".
The risks were, according to the CEO of Goldman Sachs, so-called "25 sigma" events. What's that? It's a number, a really big one, and worth quoting to demonstrate just how wrong the very influential and self-confident people who are running things can be. Imagine, says Lanchester, a number equal to 10 times all the particles in the known universe, and then move the decimal point 52 places to the right. Bang. We live with the consequences of a quite extraordinary collective delusion.
There were bad smells everywhere that should have alerted people in positions whose job it was to avoid collapse. But they hunkered down, ignored the signs. It was easier to go with the flow. Just like what we are doing now on the cusp of triggering potentially irreversible climatic upheaval.
What does it say when amid the global economic gloom a company like Control Risks, is handsomely in profit because it makes money by providing protection to oil companies in war zones?
Stick with those numbers. First, take the mega bank crisis, meant to be an unimaginably remote risk, but which happened. Second, roll the dice of potentially runaway global warming. Roughly, when this blog counts down to zero, the odds of getting "locked-in" to crossing the global warming danger line of temperatures rising by 2C becomes worse than 50/50. Not a number so large that only a savant could imagine it, but something more likely than coming up "heads" on the toss of a coin. With odds like that you might expect a flurry of activity, a rush to save energy, a great crushing of urban 4x4s, a drive to change the nations infrastructure. What we've had is a secretary of state for energy and climate change, reportedly suggesting that deficit reduction should come before financing a green investment bank.
For decades the financial sector demanded and received deference from virtually every government in the western world. It got its own way. In the UK we rolled out the red carpet. Yet their perception of risk and reality was so wrong that they wrecked the thing they were left in charge of.
If that is allowed to happen again with climate change, and the odds are looking a lot worse, there will be no way back. What can words do this new year? Perhaps, aid a simple shift of perception that may allow for change.
We are not stuck with global warming. We are global warming.
71 months and counting ...
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