Have We Lost the Ability to Adapt to Rapidly Changing Circumstances?

Successful adaptation requires a willingness to accept the risks of experimentation, innovation, flexibility and failure.

The idea that the pace of change in technology, the economy and society is accelerating is increasingly self-evident. That this acceleration exceeds our built-in ability to adapt to change is the thesis of the influential 1970 book Future Shock: as the pace of change accelerates, we can no longer process the transformative circumstances and enter a sort of brain-freeze/shut-down mode.

I discussed this most recently in Future Shock and the Greening of America (June 19, 2015) and Present Shock and the Loss of History and Context (May 22, 2013).

My insightful Facebook friend/correspondent A.A. recently proposed another reason why we’re failing to adapt to rapid, systemic change: we have grown too accustomed to affluence and comfort and have consequently lost the tools and values required to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

Here is an excerpt of A.A.’s Facebook post: “My own theory is easy postwar affluence leached intelligence from the US population. That is to say, the survival pressures that normally select for the smart and realistic were no longer operating.”

The word intelligence is of course loaded, but A.A.’s commentary defines this as smart and realistic–in other words, practical intelligence that enables successful adaptation.

This calls to mind one of the key elements of natural selection: that the ability to adapt successfully boils down to recognizing and conserving/ encouraging advantageous traits and eliminating /discouraging disadvantageous traits.

Here is Charles Darwin’s definition of natural selection: “This preservation of favorable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection.”

Two other quotes attributed to Darwin shed light on the role of intelligence in this process:

“Intelligence is based on how efficient a species became at doing the things they need to survive.”

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

In summary: our ability to adapt successfully is based on enabling a wide range of variations and weeding out those that are injurious. Entrenched interests–self-serving fiefdoms and elites–have zero interest in the risky process of adaptation: their goal is to preserve their status quo power and income. If this requires sacrifices and risk, they push the sacrifices and risk onto others.

Successful adaptation requires a willingness to accept the risks of experimentation, innovation, flexibility and failure. As A.A. observed, decades of easy affluence leached out the pay-offs to accepting risk and sacrifice. Easy affluence nurtures a counter-productive sense of entitlement: affluence should be automatic, risks should be near-zero, and nobody should have to sacrifice or take risks to get their share of affluence.

In effect, the skills, moxie and values required for fast, successful adaptation had little selective advantage in the decades of easy affluence. And as easy affluence gave way to rising wealth and income inequality, access to cheap credit was widely viewed as the easy solution to the end of earned affluence based on savings.

This reliance on easy credit further leached the system of adaptive traits, and incentivized a mal-adaptive dependence on credit as the “solution” to every structural obsolescence.

The decline of selective pressures and the decay of adaptive resilience has parsed the populace into three categories:

1. Those who still believe the Status Quo narratives of credential-based meritocracy, a democratic, functioning central state, and a marketplace that can seamlessly solve whatever the central state cannot.

Those in this class are finding the gulf between these narratives and reality is widening to the breaking point.

2. Those who are losing faith in the Status Quo narrative but are resigned to its eventual messy demise.

Those in this class indulge in dystopian visions of the future, a world view that compellingly combines resignation, powerlessness, distraction and entertainment.

3. Those who understand the Status Quo is unsustainable and toxic and who see its demise as enormously positive and a huge opportunity for the planet, communities, families and individuals.

This is the group which understands that obsolete systems cannot survive the encounter with emerging realities, and that the only way to adapt successfully is to let a thousand flowers bloom and nurture what works for all participants and eliminate what is mal-adaptive and injurious to the interests of the many.

The status quo benefits the few at the expense of the many; it is exploitive, rapacious, increasingly fragile and morally indefensible. It is optimized for a specific type of cheap-energy/ cheap-credit /growth-must-be-permanent affluence–an era that is fading into history, whether we like it or not.

Those who cling to this status quo are clinging to a toxic collection of mal-adaptive values, incentives and traits that will only hasten the collapse of the current unsustainable arrangement. 

If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.

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  • Zartan

    Credit is not Affluence.

    Credit is a tool to make Slaves.

    Rome was the first used modern credit to make slaves of its Citizens. The Root of this Article is to Bash the Individual and Spare beloved Government. The Individual ( omitting JESUS) cannot save the World. The World has become hostile to the Individual. Blaming the Individual is Childish. The Society has made “Housing,Education and even Basic Healthcare” unaffordable. Anyone can be taught skills, but if you have no place to “employ” those skills you will end up paying 100-percent interest on SLSC/AES loans for nothing. Companies have become too greedy and despise Labor. Those at the Top are way too Spoiled. Nobody can afford to pay for an education to be underemployed.

    Stop Blaming people, because they are not the Problem … The Fish Rots at the Head. Your leaders and Industial Chiefs are the Problem. They have intentionally “sucked the blood of America” and scattered the people to the four winds so that they could enjoy more! More grotesque profit at any Cost! They should be Jailed. H1-B is nothing short of CRIME, as it is modern slavery. Who would be DUMB enough ( a test) to pay for an Education only to be replaced by an H1-B slave who did not have to pay for its Education.

    Wake up and Smell the Coffee!

  • Mike

    Thank you for your interesting and educational essays Charles.
    Is it possible to make a one-time,$50 contribution via Patreon?

  • JerseyCynic

    CHS is the man. Everyone should follow him!


  • Gary Youree

    The ability of our consciousness, the ability to second guess our instinctive survival of the fittest arms race since the beginning of multicelled organisms, has/or is being squandered. IMO once a species has reached the ability by survival of the fittest to dominate its environment consciousness is the only adaptation that can keep a species from continuing the process that got it where it is, stop that process due to the fact that it eventually leaves but one man standing, and begin working together to plan the continuation of the species.
    We cannot help our huge gap in the ratio of our ability to communicate and our technology. This was due to the adaptation of appendages when creatures of prey – to creatures of the predator type once climate changed and we had to live more on the ground and use tools for shelter and to hunt – but we must recognize it.
    Social darwinism = extinction. All monetary systems are an extension of survival of the fittest. Due to a medium of exchange (money/land ownership) hoarding becomes possible and slowly erodes the self-correcting mechanisms that more advanced technologies should naturally change the status quo.
    Technology has been hijacked by the elite. Planned obsolescence, restricted and subdued energy technologies, and all the profits made due to profit being set higher than the needs of humanity are all results of the hoarding of wealth, the power of wealth, the need of money leading to the corruption of growth for the good of the species.
    All things that lead to what does our species need to survive leads to the only nontransient truth. There is no other.
    There is no “we” in humanity.
    There is the psychopathic elites, those who worship and attempt to be psychopaths due to profit being the moral god – all making up a smaller and smaller fraction of the whole of humanity – and then humanity; the domesticated prey of the .01 and .001% who create and profit off the chaos.
    Consciousness is a very fragile thing. It can easily slip into cognitive dissonance. – and it has due to the creation and manipulation of the many social divides.
    We are very quickly becoming a non viable species (one which could reach a potential that would both preserve this host planet and the travel to other planets.
    There are no empires in space. That is absurd. If a species does not use its technology efficiently to balance its population and its energy needs with those of a needed diversity in life on its planet – it will never travel beyond its planet.

    This will be the only moment in our history where all the information is available, technology is available, when the answers should be obvious.
    Equitable education is essential and needs to be available to all. Everything should be done globally without competition – except for the efficiency of a product.
    The planet belongs to us all. Population could be reduced within a few generations. The tech exists to stop all climate change. We are just on the cusp of a rare 50k year break between ice ages…. a we are likely to blow it on the path we are on.

    It is just too easy and obvious what the world of humanity needs. The vast majority of humanity has been enslaved and is existing in cognitive dissonance.
    Democracy is just too corruptible with large populations. Capitalism corrupts everything. Denial is rampant.

  • animalogic

    As with many CHS’s articles one agrees with much- even most- & then a great “clanger” is dropped: in this case —
    “Those who understand the Status Quo is unsustainable and toxic and who see its demise as enormously positive and a huge opportunity for the planet, communities, families and individuals.”
    Sure, no one should disagree that the status quo is toxic etc, but to suggest that it’s “enormously positive” & to “let a thousand flowers bloom ” in such a blithe way is the height of … optimism.
    Let’s be clear: we are talking about revolution, on potentially a global scale. A few points:
    1. Can anyone expect such a social transformation to be bloodless ? Indeed, given the unhinged bellocosity of the US & it’s elites, we will be LUCKY to survive.
    2. Just because the status quo is pushed to the brink doesn’t mean they will fall: it’s up to united working people to do that. Should working people fail…then the future is quite possibly dystopian, regardless of CHS’s over weening optimism.

    • Zartan

      You know what I have been Repeating … I operate on the Wavelength of Repeating.

      Who knows who may pick it up?

      Bloodless Revolution is possible, but only if “1-MILLION Protesters ” with some Fire, set siege and occupy the NY stock exchanges and close wall street. When the Elites lose half, or more, of their ill gotten gain they will be begging for forgiveness. Downgrades will flood the US government if it cannot restore peace. So, they will be taken out -by the NWO, via, Downgrades to Credit- if they do not OBEY the people. This is easy and the people have all the power.

      With 1-Million people “military and police” are Checkmated and will only run away.

      The Idea will work, but the protesters have to have some salt or they are useless.