In all of the descriptions of perilous situations that I have studied, arising during adventures on the high seas or in the high mountains, or during armed conflict, a single mistake rarely proves fatal. More often than not, death comes as a result of a sequence of bad choices which reinforce each other. These choices may not appear bad at the time—but they certainly do in retrospect! The end result is a situation in which no further steps can be taken that would not be either harmful or futile. This is the essence of checkmate: no moves left. At that point, none of the previous moves can be undone. Nor do they even exist, really: they have gone off to an imaginary universe populated by the regretful ghosts of those who didn’t make it.
As one should expect from a natural phenomenon, failure is fractal—observable at every scale. The same pattern of maladaptive strategy leading to untimely demise constantly replays itself at the level of viruses and bacteria, and all the way to individual plants and animals, populations, societies, countries and civilizations. Nature moves forward by canceling its unsuccessful experiments, which far outnumber its successes. Most people have come to terms with the theory of natural selection, and can understand individual and group failure. But over the last few decades—quite recently, in fact—it has become unacceptable to speak of accepting the failure of very large corporations, societies and countries as a terminal state. They are always considered to be in need of bail-out, reorganization, aid, reform, reconstruction, development and so forth. Perpetual degradation and decay followed by a headlong plunge into merciful oblivion is simply not on offer. Haiti will one day be prosperous, Somalia a model democracy, and perhaps even low-lying coastal and island nations can have a bright though wet future, provided the people there are fitted with snorkels to help them cope with rising ocean levels. When attempting to come to terms with the regularly observable demise of civilizations, and the forthcoming demise of this one, our failure to cope is complete: ancient pagan archetypes take over our thinking, our unconscious mind takes over, and we are transported to a realm of second-rate fantasy films. All reasonable people agree that the future is either Mad Max or Waterworld; take your pick, end of discussion.
The concept of strategy, and of games of strategy, is a useful one, although when applying it to serious matters (instead of childish distractions like sports) our thinking tends to be distorted by the bad habits that sports instill in us. We tend to think of games as enjoyable learning experiences that teach us to play better the next time. The idea that there always has to be the next time is insidious. The vast majority of the games we can observe being played out, both in nature and in society, are played specifically to determine whether there should be a next time. “But I have learned my lessons and the next time we play I will win!” says the defeated champion. “That won’t be necessary,” says Death. “We must hurry. There is a horny old man who’s dying to meet you. He’ll be your personal trainer for the rest of eternity.” But even this ageless little narrative has a flaw, for Death is rarely in much of a hurry, and the leading edge of eternity is quite fuzzy. Defeat overlaps decay, which overlaps demise. We continue playing far beyond the point at which our defeat would have become clear to us in retrospect. In the meantime, we come to accept our personal trainer as the devil that we know, and might even delude ourselves into thinking that we are winning.
It is a serious matter that much of life has been recast in terms of sport. We are all supposed to be good sports, team players, when we fail we pick ourselves up and try again, or fall into a safety net. When we get into trouble we can always call for rescue. When someone dies, it is always the result of an accident, never the inevitable result of bad judgment. People who fail repeatedly yet always try again are lauded for their persistence, never mind that they are serial failures. This isn’t necessarily bad; people should and do safeguard each other. What’s worse is that the higher in society one goes, the more dilute the consequences of failure tend to become, until we rise up to those exalted places whose existence is safeguarded by the magic incantation “too big to fail.” This incantation is quite effective: many people are hypnotized by it. It prevents them from seeing something quite obvious: when serial failures are continually rescued, this allows them to bloat up until they are too large for the rescuers to deal with, at which point they become too big to not fail. When any one of them can no longer be rescued, the result is a cascaded failure that overwhelms the rest, and failure becomes crippling. Past that point, nobody gets to try much of anything ever again: society has checkmated itself.
What happens after that point bears a striking resemblance to what came before. After all, there were many insoluble problems before, and many degenerative cultural trends could be observed. It’s just that there are more of them afterward, and they are more severe, but there may not be an obvious qualitative difference. It may not be immediately apparent that checkmate has arrived, and the specific point in time can become visible only in retrospect, if at all. Emergencies come and go, and people get used to the fact that the beaches are black and sometimes catch fire and burn for weeks, or that there is a ravine running through the center of town where the riverfront used to be, or that electricity is only on for a couple of hours a day. Dogs and children turn feral, but nobody remembers when that started happening, so everyone assumes that that’s the way it’s always been. Nor does anyone remember when it became fashionable to tattoo corporate logos on one’s scalp, or to proudly display one’s naked buttocks in public. An expatriate who leaves and later comes back might think that this now is a completely different country, but those who stay would be at pains to detect the difference because for them changes were too slow to rise above the threshold of perception.
The population can dwindle quite rapidly, but this too is often imperceptible. Large swaths of the landscape become depopulated, but that is not noticed by anyone because nobody goes there any more. When births exceed deaths, population increases exponentially. When deaths exceed births, population declines exponentially. There are always some maternities, and there are always some funerals; the change in the ratio of the two is not something that can be directly perceived. Societal extinction doesn’t make any noise when it finally happens. Survivors simply move on. Non-survivors might as well have not existed, and the more gullible survivors come to believe the extravagant ruins they left behind to have been the work of extraterrestrials.
How does a society go about checkmating itself? There is no shortage of real-world examples, but real life is complicated, so here is a simple allegory. Let’s suppose that there is a tribe called the Merkanoids, which remains quite ordinary for most of its history, but which at some point undergoes a strange cultural mutation. An accidental synergy between atmospheric electricity and chemicals in the water produces a strange effect on their minds that causes them to decamp from the towns and villages wherein they had hitherto happily dwelt, and take up residence in little huts scattered throughout the surrounding pasture, fields and woods. They then proceed to move around and switch huts a lot, until few of them know or trust their neighbors. This makes them feel rather unsafe, and the way the Merkanoids decide to make themselves feel safer is by burying land mines about their property and posting signs that read “No trespassing! Land mines!”
This makes them feel a whole lot safer while in fact making them much less so: the social predators among them become reasonably good at avoiding land mines, while the rest of the population generally does not, producing a large subclass of people whose legs have been blown off. These, being relatively immobile and defenseless, present an even more desirable target to the social predators, and naturally compensate by acquiring more and bigger land mines. This cycle repeats a few times, until two-legged people become the minority. Since people who are missing a lower limb or two are somewhat less productive than two-legged ones, in due course the Merkanoid economy can no longer produce the surplus necessary to invest in anything beyond more land mines (which they now find it cheaper to import from China on credit than to manufacture themselves). As debt service swallows up more and more of the Merkanoids income, their disposable income plummets. As a consequence, crutches, wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs became luxury items which fewer and fewer of them can afford. Without these devices the ever more numerous legless people can no longer move around, making it more difficult for them to remain productive members of the Merkanoid economy, causing economic output to plunge even faster.
When this vicious circle becomes too obvious for any half-intelligent Merkanoid to ignore, a reform movement springs up. Activists organize community de-mining activities and promote the idea of an annual “land mine-free week.” Entrepreneurs work to develop “green mines” which stun people instead of maiming them, but these come to be regarded as less effective and therefore unsafe. Some political extremists take the radical step of de-mining their own properties. A lot of them then find their huts repeatedly burgled and quietly put the land mines back in. At one point a brilliant Merkanoid visionary has an epiphany and exclaims: “It’s not the land-minds that are killing us! It’s the huts!” Everyone thinks that he had gone off the deep end: how can anyone not live in one’s own private hut? It’s the Merkanoid way of life!
In the meantime, small groups of as yet two-legged people begin to band together on the margins of Merkanoid society. Instead of living in widely dispersed huts, they live compactly in tents, moving about the non-mined parts of the landscape. They eschew land mines and defend themselves (and each other) by keeping a sharp look-out at all times, and, if necessary, with pointed sticks. They also spontaneously develop a sort of crazy talk that turns out to be highly disruptive to the mainstream Merkanoid mentality. So disruptive is this effect that Merkanoid society, having no energy to oppose these outside groups, is forced to strenuously deny their existence. In turn, the outsiders happily ignore much of Merkanoid society, patiently waiting for it to fade from view, which, in due course, it does.
I hope that the meaning of my little parable is clear. A society takes a series of bad turns (which may not seem bad at the time). Once that happens, it’s all over but for the waiting. The turns are irreversible, and attempting to make a society undo them is futile. In this situation, the only adaptive thing any of us can do is to learn to live as if these turns had never been made in the first place. This, of course, is very difficult and, should you succeed, will make you unpopular, so you should definitely consider the alternative: do nothing. In the timeless words of the I Ching, “Perseverance does not further. No blame.”