The world we live in

History has always witnessed self-destructive individuals and societies. The dilemma of our generation is that destructive power has gained such devastating strength. Not so long ago the human race was small and relatively powerless and its actions could not significantly affect the grandeur of Nature. Today, human beings have access to power which threatens their own habitat and existence. Modern industrial societies are so intertwined that the consequences of bad decisions, harmful technologies and self-destructive behaviour will be felt across all traditional boundaries.

Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, man has taken over many of the control mechanisms of the global system. In fact, today he is part of the mechanism itself and problems earlier managed by nature are now a human responsibility. In turn, the problems facing human societies have increased in complexity and the stakes are set higher. All too often mistakes cannot be corrected and the defrayal of errors is impracticable. Very often short-range solutions have shown themselves to be both risky and highly uneconomical. Also, the once second-order effects — such as exhaust gases from motor vehicles — have become primary problems influencing the global climate.

We have created for ourselves, in an overpopulated and over- engineered world, a multitude of systems, existing in a state of fragile stability rather than natural balance, and demanding constant maintenance. A real understanding of their interaction and complexity has shown many of these systems to be both wasteful and dangerous.

In this situation, concluded as globalization, an economy dependent on the general continual consumption growth has been the most important driving force. Supporters of globalization are for maximizing profit as the engine of world development, while supporters of sustainability are against misuse and depletion of the earth’s natural resources. The two sides are speaking different languages and those against something are always fighting an uphill battle.

Today, instincts to reproduce and consume are enormously amplified by technology, economics and politics. This force must be considered the main cause of ecological problems and lack of sustainability. Within the next century, man will face suppression of modern industrial society by a natural resource shortage, extinction of large groups of the world population by food shortage, pollution, diseases, climatological changes, war and social stresses caused by physical and psychological crowding. But if growth were to stop and heal the environmental crisis, major economic, financial, social, and military disasters would threaten human survival in any case.

Ecological awareness is a good example of systems thinking but adherents lack the political power to realize their ideas. As long as nuclear reactors are a thousandfold more effective than windmills and solar panels, such equipment will not change the world for economical reasons. As long as it is cheaper to dump nuclear waste in the third world than to process it at home, the NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome will prevail.

This lack of a comprehensive view is one of the main reasons that during the past twenty years, we witnessed an increasing number of ecological, social and technological disasters. From an inventory of the 20th century’s most serious threats to life, the following stand out in our memory

  • A nuclear war would pose the most extreme threat; the possible consequences are convincingly analyzed (nuclear winter, ). Since the Cuba crisis at the brink of such a war in the 1960s, the risk seems to have diminished substantially. After the breakdown of the Soviet Empire and the dismantling of the cold war, the so called ‘holocaust clock’ in Washington DC has been set back more than an hour.
  • The ecological catastrophe, of which local overpopulation is the major imminent threat, relates reciprocally to most of the other problems occurring throughout our environment. A significant change in the global climate and a diminishing ozone layer are consequences of the activities of the inhabitants of an inequitable world, seeking an ever-better life. The same goes for food and water pollution and the spread of deadly diseases such as cancer and AIDS.
  • Social and economical degradation can be illustrated with pathological examples from the former communist countries or in the Middle East, where there are signs of the devastating potential of modern ideological and religious fanaticism. The relatively rich and relatively stable Western countries are however no exception: bureaucratic paralysis, alienation, criminality and political corruption are producing degenerative, even fatal effects.
  • Social disasters have by no means come to an end. One typical example is the 1992 riot in Los Angeles with many dead and the destruction of property running to billions of dollars.
  • Great planning disasters where the building of the Aswan Dam on the Nile River is the most spectacular. It is a perfect example of the impact of man-made systems on natural systems, initiated by political prestige and realized as a demonstration of power. The motivation of the dam was a solution of the age-old problem of the annual flooding of the Nile. After the conclusion of the project several serious new problems arose. In the eastern Mediterranean the food chain was broken, thereby severely shrinking the fishing industry. Erosion of the Nile delta took place, causing soil salinity in upper Egypt. In the absence of annual dryness, the water-borne snail parasite Bilharzia grew explosively, initiating an epidemic of intestinal disease along the Nile. All these side-effects were never considered by the leaders responsible for the project.
  • Technological breakdown is the most spectacular threat to modern man, sometimes killing thousands of Such breakdowns are presented by the media as front-page stories but are seldom given an adequate background analysis. The strong correlation between social degradation and technical disasters is obvious: even first-class passengers in the best of existing worlds die when arrogance is the managerial lodestar of their Titanic. One example in our memory is the exploding spacecraft Challenger spreading its burning wreckage  off the coast of Florida while being watched by millions on television screens around the world.

In 1989 an Iranian aircraft was gunned down by an apprehensive crew aboard an American cruiser in the Persian Gulf. One year later a bomb was hidden on board an American aircraft; it exploded over Lockerby and more than 500 people lost their lives. A similar tragedy, that of the Korean aircraft blown up over the Kuriles by an over- zealous Soviet jet-fighter pilot, took the lives of nearly 300 people.

Traffic on the seas offers other examples. An English ferry departed from a Dutch port with its stern gate open, took in water and suddenly sank, taking with it more than 400 passengers. When a Swedish passenger ferry was set alight by a pyromaniac while at sea, the loss of life exceeded 150. An overloaded passenger ship was hit by a storm in Malaysian waters and went to the bottom with all of the more than 3500 people on board — the world’s largest peace-time ship disaster.

Another ferry, the Swedish Estonia, abruptly sank in stormy Baltic waters during 1994 with 900 victims who lost their lives. According to new sea-safety regulations it had no radio officer on board, and its two automatic satellite-operated emergency radio beacons were never activated during the catastrophe.

Being on land can be just as disastrous. One of the most horrifying examples is the escape of poisonous gas at a factory in Bhopal, where more than 300 persons were gassed to death. In a similar accident in New Mexico in 1991 gas in culverts under the street exploded, destroying a whole main street and also killing several hundred people. Another gas catastrophe occurred in the former USSR when a crowded train ran into a cloud of gas leaking from a tube running parallel to the railway. A spark from the train caused an explosion, which devastated a huge area and killed more than 600 persons.

  • The Chernobyl disaster, in which a nuclear plant melted down with immediate, long-term and still unpredictable consequences, represents the great number of still current, and potential, combined, ecological, social and technical catastrophes.
  • On 11th of September 2001, 3000 persons inside the towers of World Trade Center literary took part in the Last Judgement when two aircrafts navigated by terrorists smashed into the two skyscrapers. After this attack the world left ten years of recovery from the finished cold war and seems to have entered an era of coming religious At the same time an old and devastating weapon was reborn — the suicide bomber.

After the Chernobyl disaster, some kind of ‘distrust movement’ showed itself in the daily press. Don’t trust technology and don’t trust those who trust it — especially if it concerns nuclear plants, super-ferries, jumbojets, or spaceships. Many people express their private concern that anything whatsoever could strike them at any time — a fear related to the that of mediaeval man waiting for the Last Judgement. Others have begin to ask why we are destroying mother Gaia in the very attempt to enhance our own condition and why so many attempts at salvation are suicidal. It would be a great mistake not to take this concern seriously and not to admit its justification.

Source: Skyttner Lars (2006), General Systems Theory: Problems, Perspectives, Practice, Wspc, 2nd Edition.

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