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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 12/12/2010

I have been feeling on the verge of a big change for a while but I now find that I'm in the midst of it.

Funding cuts mean that we're having to leave the office and go virtual.
This involves getting rid of a lot of the paperwork in the office. What a job. We have always been an on-line operation – indeed we couldn't have existed in a world without computers – yet we have accumulated so much written stuff. The predictions for 'the paperless office' have never come to pass.

We have a lovely spacious  office in central Glasgow and in some ways I'm sorry to lose it. I am also sorry to see Anna, my personal assistant, go. But on the other hand it also feels right to be reorganising to save money and to be rethinking what we do and how we do it.

The shift  should mean that I've got more time to put material on the website and for writing in general. I am also looking forward to more time to read although I'm finding with the long  dark nights that I'm managing to get a lot of reading done.

One interesting book I've read recently is The Watchman's Rattle by sociobiologist Rebecca Costa. Costa's  argument is fairly simple: human civlisations are in danger of becoming so complex that they generate difficulties and problems which cannot easily be solved. For contemporary western civilisation there is quite a list – climate change, the economy, terrorism, drug abuse to name but a few. Endemic problems were also the fate, Costa argues, of the Mayans and Romans, for example, who created magnificent, complex cities and cultures but which generated so many difficulties that they went through an inevitable period of decline and fall.

For Costa the heart of the problem is that the brain has a 'cognitive threshold' which means that it is difficult for it to keep abreast of the complexity of the world humans create. Of course, the brain evolves but over millions of years, not decades.

Costa is good at explaining how as problems start to emerge for civilisations the temptation is to ameliorate the difficulty through 'mitigation' rather than trying to figure out a solution to the problem. Thus the Mayans built water tanks to deal with the drought which was one cause of their eventual downfall. Such measures helped in the short term but did nothing to deal with the fact that their way of life was outstripping a whole range of resources and would continue to do so unless they changed fundamentally. 

Costa argues that as the problems mounted for the Mayans this sophisticated, and scientific, culture retreated to superstition and faulty beliefs. Human sacrifice, and attempts to placate or please the Gods became the order of the day.

For me the most interesting section of the book is where Costa describes our current, faulty thought processes. For example:

Irrational opposition (being opposed to what's happening in the world but never supporting any real change programme)
The personalisation of blame (attributing endemic problems to the supposed ineptitude of individuals)
Counterfeit correlation (believing that correlational data is actually useful in telling us anything significant)
Silo thinking (causing compartmentalization and making it less likely that people will collaborate to find solutions)
Extreme economics (whereby money is the end goal).

Ultimately Costa is upbeat because she believes that human beings have 'the gift of insight'– a gift of nature that is 'a brilliantly efficient way to cut through thousands of variables, multiple wrong solutions, and produce a correct and elegant answer.'   I can see why Costa wants to end with a positive spin on what is otherwise a bleak book but for me it isn't ultimately convincing.  Partly this is because Costa argues that some of the ways we might counteract climate change, for example, have actually been invented and what is stopping this from happening is 'profit – not technology'. 

This is not to say that I am not hopeful or optimistic; simply that I think that Costa's emphasis on insight as the answer is somewhat thin.  Tonight I looked at the trailer for a Hollywood documentary film which is coming out in February called "I Am". The director is Tom Shadyac, who has made films such as Bruce Almighty and Ace Ventura. After a life threatening incident he started looking at 'what's wrong with the world and what we can do about it'.  The message of the film is that humans are wired for cooperation, democracy and connection.  'The shift is about to hit the fan' says the trailer. Let's hope so.  


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