We face a series of decentralized, transnational threats: jihadi terrorism, a global financial crisis, global warming, energy scarcity, nuclear proliferation and...possible health pandemics like swine flu...Do we build centralized global institutions that are strong enough to respond to transnational threats? Or do we rely on diverse and decentralized communities and nation-states?..The response to swine flu suggests that a decentralized approach is best. This crisis is only days old, yet we’ve already seen a bottom-up, highly aggressive response.Kakutani reviews "The Age of the Unthinkable" by J. C. Ramo. Ramo argues:
First, the decentralized approach is much faster. Mexico responded unilaterally and aggressively to close schools and cancel events. The U.S. has responded with astonishing speed, considering there are still few illnesses and just one hospitalization...Second, the decentralized approach is more credible. It is a fact of human nature that in times of crisis, people like to feel protected by one of their own. They will only trust people who share their historical experience, who understand their cultural assumptions about disease and the threat of outsiders and who have the legitimacy to make brutal choices...Finally, the decentralized approach has coped reasonably well with uncertainty. It is clear from the response, so far, that there is an informal network of scientists who have met over the years and come to certain shared understandings about things like quarantining and rates of infection.
A single global response would produce a uniform approach. A decentralized response fosters experimentation...The correct response to these dynamic, decentralized, emergent problems is to create dynamic, decentralized, emergent authorities: chains of local officials, state agencies, national governments and international bodies that are as flexible as the problem itself.
that today’s complex, interconnected, globalized world requires policy makers willing to toss out old assumptions (about cause and effect, deterrence and defense, nation states and balances of power) and embrace creative new approaches...The central image that Mr. Ramo uses to evoke what he calls this “age of surprise” is Per Bak’s sand pile — that is, a sand pile described some two decades ago by the Danish-American physicist Per Bak, who argued that if grains of sand were dropped on a pile one at a time, the pile, at some point, would enter a critical state in which another grain of sand could cause a large avalanche — or nothing at all. It’s a hypothesis that shows that a small event can have momentous consequences and that seemingly stable systems can behave in highly unpredictable ways...It’s also a hypothesis that Mr. Ramo employs as a metaphor for a complex world in which changes — in politics, ecosystems or financial markets — take place not in smooth, linear progressions but as sequences of fast, sometimes catastrophic events.
So how should leaders cope with the sand-pile world? How can they learn to “ride the earthquake” and protect their countries from the worst fallout of such tremors? Mr. Ramo suggests that they must learn to build resilient societies with strong immune systems: instead of undertaking the impossible task of trying to prepare for every possible contingency, they ought to focus on things like national health care, construction of a better transport infrastructure and investment in education...leaders should develop ways of looking at problems that focus more on context than on reductive answers. And he talks about people learning to become gardeners instead of architects, of embracing Eastern ideas of indirection instead of Western patterns of confrontation, of seeing “threats as systems, not objects.”