But now we have another pivotal moment.
By Bryan Greetham
Before the Second World War a German chemist was working to discover what we would call today an antibiotic. Each evening he would leave out Petri dishes with bacteria in them so they could grow during the night for him to work on the next day. But everyday he found them dead covered in mould spores, which he assumed came from the spores in the corners of the laboratory. Consequently, he had everything thoroughly cleaned and decontaminated.
Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in his search for an antibiotic. Yet, if he had only reversed his intuitive assumptions and seen the spores as a solution, rather than a problem, he might have realised that they were the very thing he was looking for. Eventually the Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin went to Sir Alexander Fleming after he discovered it in similar mould that had destroyed his own cultures of bacteria.
We are now caught in the same cognitive trap: our expectations are so constrained within the confines of the ruling ideas that we fall victim to unforeseen, deeply destructive events, which, with the benefit of hindsight, were obvious. This is what Nasim Taleb describes as a ‘black swan’: an ‘unknown unknown’.
We reassure ourselves that despite their destructiveness and transformative impact on our lives, they only come rarely. But now we are in the midst of our second in barely twelve years. On the eve of the financial crash of 2007/8 political leaders had no idea what was about to come. Gordon Brown declared that, as a result of the ingenuity and creativity of bankers, ‘A new world order has been created.’ He announced, reassuringly, that we have the privilege of living in ‘an era that history will record as the beginning of a new Golden Age’.
Equally confident, even when there were clear signs that the banking system was in trouble, David Cameron confidently declared that, largely as a result of the bankers’ efforts, a new world economy had been created. The Left’s misguided belief in regulation had been thoroughly discredited, he claimed, ‘Liberalism’ had prevailed and the world economy was now more stable than for a generation. And, as if to underline just how much leaders failed to understand, recently the Bank of England released the minutes of its meetings before the crash, which reveal that they had no idea what was about to happen.
Now we have another black swan. With the signs of the pandemic beginning to appear, in mid January 2020 the World Economic Forum that organises the Davos meetings of the global business elite released its annual global risks report. This is the collective wisdom of hundreds of experts about possible threats. The possibility of a global pandemic did not register, even though by late January cases of Covid 19 had already been reported in Europe.
To divert attention from the failings of his own administration, Donald Trump said that the coronavirus ‘came out of nowhere’, it ‘blindsided the world’, despite the predictions of those not caught in the same cognitive trap. After the Ebola outbreak in 2014 Bill Gates warned that it was now time to prepare for a new pandemic with scenario planning, vaccine research and health worker training. Instead, the Trump administration dismantled the National Security Council directorate at the White House charged with preparing for another pandemic.
But black swans are also pivotal moments, opportunities to address the urgent need for social and political change. Few would have thought such fundamental change was possible a year, even six months, ago. But now governments that pride themselves on their libertarian principles are curtailing freedoms in ways more typical of wartime. There are conservative governments that have for the last ten years been ruthlessly pursuing policies of austerity now sanctioning the spending of unprecedented billions on healthcare and emergency measures, the very services most affected by their austerity.
Like the German chemist, in 2007/8 we had a choice: we could either continue with our conventional beliefs and bail out the wealthy bankers with taxpayers’ money and then recoup it from taxpayers’ pockets with lower real wages and reduced services, or we could change our assumptions and create a more equitable and efficient system. Now we have another pivotal moment. In just about all countries the focus has shifted from individual consumption to collective wellbeing. We have the opportunity to end unlimited resource consumption and design a new economic system that addresses the levels of inequality not seen since the nineteenth century.
Bryan Greetham was born in Faversham, Kent, in England. He was educated at the University of Kent, where he gained a BA Hons in History, and at the University of Sussex, where he completed his MA in Intellectual History. He was awarded his PhD at the University of Newcastle in Australia for his work in moral thinking.
Currently Bryan is an Honorary Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham. Much of his work has been in moral thinking, applied and professional ethics and in complex adaptive systems. His current research involves what we can learn about moral thinking from the perpetrators, victims, rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust.
He is the author of How to Write Better Essays, How to Write your Undergraduate Dissertation, both on writing and thinking skills, Philosophy, an introduction to philosophy for undergraduates, Thinking Skills for Professionals and his latest book, Smart Thinking, all published by Palgrave, Macmillan.