It is embarrassing to be lost. It is even more embarrassing for a leader to be lost. And what's really really embarrassing to all concerned is when national and transnational corporate leaders attempt to tackle a major disaster and are found out to have been issuing marching orders based on the wrong map. Everyone then executes a routine of turning toward each other in shock, frowning while shaking their heads slowly from side to side and looking away in disgust. After that, these leaders might as well limit their public pronouncements to the traditional "Milk, milk, lemonade, round the corner fudge is made." Whatever they say, the universal reaction becomes: "What leaders? We don't have any."
Getting lost can be traumatic for the rest of us too. When we suddenly realize that we don't know where we are, urgent neural messages are exchanged between our prefrontal cortex, which struggles to form a coherent picture of what's happening, our amygdala, whose job is to hold on to a sense of where we are, and our hippocampus, which motivates us to get back to a place we know as quickly as we possibly can. This strange bit of internal wiring explains why humans who are only slightly lost tend to trot off in a random direction and promptly become profoundly lost. After these immediate biochemical reactions have run their course, we go through the usual stages of:
- denial—"We are not lost! The ski lodge is just over the next ridge, or the next, or the next..."
- anger—"We are wasting time! Shut up and keep trotting!"
- bargaining—"The map must be wrong; either that or someone has dynamited the giant boulder that should be right there..."
- depression—"We'll never get there! We're all going to die out here!" and
- acceptance—"We are not lost; we are right here, wherever it is. We better find some shelter and start a campfire before it gets dark and cold."
Some people don't survive, some do; the difference in outcome turns out to have precious little to do with skill or training, and everything to do with motivation—the desire to survive no matter how much pain and discomfort that involves—and the mental flexibility to adjust one's mental map on the fly to fit the new reality, and to reach stage 5 quickly. Those who go on attempting to operate based on an outdated mental map tend to die in utter bewilderment.
Working with an outdated mental map is a big problem for anyone; for a leader, it may very well spell the end of the position of leadership. After the catastrophe at Chernobyl, the Soviet leaders attempted to operate, for as long as possible, with a mental map that included a relatively intact and generally serviceable nuclear reactor called "Chernobyl Energy Block No. 4". "The reactor has been shut down and is being cooled," went the official pronouncements from the Kremlin, "we are pumping in water to cool it." After a while it became known that there is no reactor—just a smoldering, molten hole spewing radioactive smoke—and the coolant water, prodigious quantities of which were indeed pumped in and spilled in its general vicinity. It instantly boiled away into radioactive steam (which drifted downwind and eventually rained out, poisoning even more of the land). The rest of it leaked out, forming radioactive settling ponds and threatening to further leak into and poison the river that flows through Kiev. As you might imagine, that little episode turned out to be just a little bit embarrassing. Anyone who could think started to think: "Following these leaders is not conducive to survival. Let's make our own plans." Gorbachev went on with his usual long-winded blah-blahs, but the milk-milk-lemonade routine would have served him just as well.
More recently, we have been exposed to the spectacle of corporate leaders and public officials attempting to operate, for as long as possible, with a mental map that includes a blown-out but otherwise serviceable deep-water oil well in the Gulf of Mexico variously called "Deepwater Horizon" or "Macondo" or "MC252". A number of unsuccessful attempts have been made to capture the oil and gas that have been escaping from it using at least three different techniques. BP—the well's owner—is an oil company, and so their first reaction was to get and sell that oil no matter what. They tried to fit the well with a "top hat" to get all of the oil, but when their contraption didn't work because it got clogged by methane hydrate crystals they stuck a smaller pipe into the leak, just to get and sell some of the oil, and when that worked it made them happy. But, coming under pressure to do something about all the oil leaking out and poisoning the environment, they finally decided to try shutting down the well by squiring various substances into it. The procedures they've tried, going by idiotic Top Gun names like "junk shot" and "top kill"—have all been to no avail. At some point it becomes clear that there is no oil well—just a large, untidy hole in the sea bottom with hydrocarbons spewing out of it, forming huge surface slicks and underwater plumes of oil that kill all they encounter and eventually wash up on land to continue the damage there, turning the Gulf Coast into a disaster area. Starting in another month or so the toxic soup composed of oily tropical seawater and decomposing coastal vegetation and sea life will be stirred up and driven inland by tropical storms and hurricanes. Gulf Coast oil-grunge will become the de facto new national style: oil-streaked skin and clothing and perhaps a dead pelican for a sunhat.
When things go horribly wrong, it is natural for us mere mortals to try to obtain a bit of psychological comfort by holding on to familiar images. A person who has totaled his car tends to continue to refer to the twisted wreckage as "my car" instead of "the wreckage of my car." In the case someone's wrecked car, this may be accepted as mere shorthand, but in many other cases this tendency results in people working with an outdated mental map which leads them astray, because the properties of a wreck are quite different from those of an intact object. For example, our lost leaders are continuing to refer to "the financial system" instead of "the wreck of the financial system." If they had the flexibility to make that mental switch, perhaps they wouldn't insist on continuing to pump in more and more public debt, only to watch it spew out again through a tangle of broken pipes so horrific that it defies all understanding, with quite a lot of it mysteriously dribbling into the vaults and pockets of bankers and billionaire investors. It will be interesting to watch their attempts at a financial "top kill" or "junk shot" to plug the ensuing geyser of toxic debt.
It is natural for us to naïvely expect our leaders—be they corporate executives or their increasingly decorative and superfluous adjuncts in government—to be our betters, having been picked for leadership positions by their ability to lead us through difficult and unfamiliar terrain. We expect them to have the mental agility and flexibility to be able to revise their mental maps as the circumstances dictate. We don't expect them to be stupid, and are surprised to find that indeed they are. How is that possible? Mental enfeeblement of the ruling class of a collapsing empire is not without precedent: the British imperial experiment was clearly doomed as early as the end of World War I, but it took until well into World War II for this fact to register in the enfeebled brains of the British ruling class. In his 1941 essay England your England, George Orwell offers the following explanation:
...[T]he British ruling class obviously could not admit that their usefulness of was at an end. Had they done that they would have had to abdicate... Clearly there was only one escape for them—into stupidity. They could keep society in its existing shape only by being unable to grasp that any improvement was possible. Difficult though it was, they achieved it, largely by fixing their eyes on the past and refusing to notice the changes that were going on [a]round them."
And so it is now: as the American empire has been crumbling, its leaders, both corporate and corporatist, were being specially selected for being unable to draw their own conclusions based on their own independent reasoning or on the evidence of their own senses, relying instead on "intelligence" that is second-hand and obsolete. These leaders are now attempting to lead us all on a dream-walk to oblivion.
Back in 2008 I published the prediction that while Chernobyl was rather decisive in putting paid to the Soviet scientific/technological program and in dispelling all remaining trust in the Soviet political establishment, the US program of scientific/technological progress and ruthless exploitation of nature is more likely to suffer a death by a thousand cuts. But if one of these cuts hits an artery early on, a thousand cuts would be overkill. Just as with any wreck, the properties of a radically phlebotomized body politic are rather different from those of a healthy one, or even a sick one—not that our lost leaders could notice something like that! They will no doubt go on going on about money and oil (and the predictable lack thereof), but they might as well be telling us about their milk and lemonade, and please hold the drilling mud. How embarrassing!
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.