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.