I am not the only one to notice that we seem as a nation, and as a world, to be reeling from one catastrophe to another. I have seldom seen a period of pessimism like the one that envelops us right now. The last time I can remember this type of feeling in the U. S. was in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. I am generally an optimist about our nation, because we have always been a country whose people learned from its mistakes and made better decisions when encountering similar circumstances. We have made gradual progress over the last 234 years with respect to issues of racial equality, and caring for the poor, and providing justice. It comes in fits and starts, but it comes. We have had a history of growing wiser, and learning from our mistakes.
But I cannot remember a time when we have been more shortsighted. People like to blame the media because of the short news cycle and the immediacy that comes with internet coverage of every minor glitch, along with the need to endlessly feed news consumers. Long-term thinking is boring. But, as Tufts University’s Robert Sternberg would say, wisdom requires both dialogical and dialectical thinking. Dialogical thinking involves interacting with others and actively considering their perspectives. Dialectical thinking requires a focus on the long-term, rather than just considering short-term outcomes. These two seem to go hand-in-hand; rarely do you see one without the other.
I see evidences of these failures in thinking in all the major issues in the headlines, and perhaps worse on the horizon. We are not just drilling in depths we have never drilled before. One of the reasons that energy prices remain stable is the vast expansion of natural gas reserves, mostly in shale formations. Exploration and production companies are producing this natural gas in close proximity to homes and schools in bedroom communities around Dallas/Ft. Worth. Many homeowners have suddenly become royalty owners. But there have also been interesting impacts on neighborhoods, and no one really knows what the seismic effects will be long-term. They have stopped drilling in Flower Mound because of concerns. Earthquakes anyone?
Our country, like others, is taking on precipitous debt, playing fast and loose with our credit standing. There has been no serious discussion about whether it is worthwhile as a strategy. There is a dearth of long-term thinking, and people mostly shout past each other. The borrowers are in the majority, so we dig the national debt to depths no one could have imagined twenty years ago. Those financial tremors you feel in Greece and Spain are real.
But one good thing that failure brings is the opportunity to change, to acknowledge our failures in thinking. Sternberg says that the five fallacies of thinking are egocentrism, omnipotence, omniscience, invulnerability, and unrealistic optimism. Disasters that are in your face every day tend to mute these fallacies. Not too many people at BP believe they are all powerful to stop disasters, or know everything about how to make a well a mile deep in the Gulf stop spewing out oil, or that they are invulnerable to the anger and financial consequences that will wash over them as surely as the crude washes up on the shores of the Gulf Coast. An unrealistic optimist now hopes the damage is contained to this summer, and that ecosystems largely recover in a decade or two.
We are creative and intelligent. We know how to drill deep into formations we could never reach, to produce gas in places we never thought we would, to temporarily wash away crises with floods of money. But we are not wise. We think about now, and we refuse to seriously engage one another about the future. We are neither dialogical nor dialectical.
We have a chance, if we grab it, to throw aside the fallacies of thinking and admit that there are real risks that accompany what we are trying to do, and that some of them are not worth taking. It will take humility and teachability. But the best time for something like that to happen is when we get it really wrong.
Now is that time.
I completely agree with what you have to say. The world seems to have become so centered on the short term, and how to make a quick dollar. Politicians have become egoists instead of thinking about the broad picture. They all want to be remembered for some new achievement, instead of fixing what needs to be fixed. It has become the new normal to pass the problems to the next guy and make him deal with them. Just to be clear, I feel like this is an issue with both political parties.
It’s not just the politicians that have this mindset. People no longer care about what they can do for their country, but only worry about what their country can do for them. The average person doesn’t value a hard days work, but instead just wants to be giving a handout. I’m amazed when I hear stories such as my grandfathers. He worked to put himself through college, dental school, and orthodontist school without any help from anyone. No one cared if he made it or not. I feel like the world needs more people that are willing to do the work required, and not just take the short cuts to get a short-term result.
I completely agree. I think that the focus on the now stems from the concern for self. We live in a world where everyone looks out for mostly only himself. We think, “What can I do to make my life better?” We are all susceptible and have given into this mindset that is becoming more acceptable in society. It takes situations, sometimes tragic, for people to realize that we need change. As I continue my life with hopefully a family and a career, I can only hope and pray that it doesn’t take tragedy to remind me to think about the long term and other people rather than myself in the now.
I agree that this last decade has been a pessimistic time for us. I think in large part that is due to the nature of the media news coverage. When I watch the news the majority of it is negative. The anchors are always talking about something bad that is happening in the world. They are right though, there are bad things going on all over the world all the time. Horrible things have been happening since the beginning of time. I wish there was more time spent on the positive.
The celebration of Osama bin Laden’s death is very interesting in relation to this. We discussed the reaction of Americans to the news in class. Some people wonder why there are such jubilant celebrations after another human being’s death. I’m not here to say whether it is right or wrong to celebrate the death of a mass murderer. I think the main reason there was such a proud celebration of his death was because a rare opportunity presented itself to the American people. There haven’t been many things that we as Americans have had to collectively celebrate. So instead of taking the time to think if we should celebrate or not, we simply did. We saw the chance to do it and it felt good to do it. I looked at this more as an interesting sequence of events than as a right vs. wrong dilemma.