Why We’re Doomed: Our Delusional Faith in Incremental Change

Better not to risk any radical evolution that might fail, and so failure is thus assured.

By Charles Hugh Smith

Photo by Denys Argyriou



When times are good, modest reforms are all that’s needed to maintain the ship’s course. By “good times,” I mean eras of rising prosperity which generate bigger budgets, profits, tax revenues, paychecks, etc., eras characterized by high levels of stability and predictability.

Since stability has been the norm for 75 years, institutions and conventional thinking have both been optimized for incremental change. This is an analog of natural selection in Nature: when the organism’s environment is stable, there’s little pressure to favor random mutations, as these can be risky.

Why risk big changes when everything’s working fine as is?

Absent any big changes in their environment, organisms’ genetic programming remains stable. Unlike natural selection’s process of generating random mutations and testing their efficacy and advantages over the existing programming, human organizations quickly habituate to stable eras by institutionalizing incremental changes as the only available process for reform / change.

Radical reforms are not just frowned on as 1) unneccesary and 2) needlessly risky, there is no institutionalized process to propose, test and adopt radical changes because there is no need for such a process.

Nature has such a process: punctuated equilibirium. When faced with a rapidly changing environment, organisms face intense evolutionary pressure to adapt or die. Mutations which confer a significant advantage in the new environment become part of the species’ genetic programming as those with the adaptation bear offspring who carry the advantageous adaptation. Those without the advantageous adaptation die and those with the adaptation thrive and multiply.

Once the environment stabilizes in “the new normal,” the evolutionary pressure lets up and the species returns to the stability of relatively few changes in its genetic programming.

Organisms which have lost the ability to adapt to rapid change die off once they encounter instability. Species that constantly face instability and rapid change will selectively favor genetic traits which optimize rapid evolution.

Nature tends to retain a basement closet full of fast-evolution tricks just in case the organism faces novel challenges.

Alas, human organizations and conventional thinking have no such closet of fast-evolution tricks. Rather, human organizations and conventional thinking marshal formidable forces to suppress anything which threatens the status quo, because why risk upsetting the feeding trough unless it’s absolutely necessary?

Therein lies the fatal problem: radical adaptation is never absolutely necessary in human organizations and conventional thinking until it’s too late–and even then, the leadership and conventional thinking will fatalistically accept oblivion rather than opt for a risky strategy of testing every mutation and fast-tracking whatever has promise, even though the odds of failure are high since 1) the challenge is novel and therefore unpredictable and 2) most mutations will fail to provide the radical advantages needed to meet the challenge.

In other words, what’s absolutely necessary to human organizations and conventional thinking is the suppression of potentially dangerous novel ideas because the worst-case scenario is that the novel ideas upset the feeding trough all the insiders have come to depend on.

Unfortunately for human organizations and conventional thinking, novel challenges demand precisely what they’re incapable of: risky rapid evolution. The risks will never seem worth it because some insiders might lose their spot at the feeding trough.

Since this loss is viewed as catastrophic by those at risk, they will fight with everything they have to stymie any radical reforms. Ironically, their resistance to rapid evolution only guarantees the demise of the entire organization / status quo, including the spot at the trough they were so eager to defend at all costs.

As the crisis deepens, the default setting in organizations and conventional thinking is that incremental changes and reforms will be enough, because they’ve been enough for four generations. I call this entirely natural default setting the delusional faith in incremental change because this faith isn’t guided by history or the logic of causality; it’s simply convenient and easy.

Nobody gets fired or demoted for agreeing to do more of what’s failed spectacularly.

I’ve prepared a chart of the delusional faith in incremental change showing how each new crisis is met by incremental institutionalized defaults that are completely inadequate to the novel challenges that have arisen. The blindness to the need for radical adaption has been institutionalized as well: this is what worked in the past, so it will work nowWhy risk everything when we have procedures that have worked well?

Each stage of the crisis draws whatever conventional response causes the least pain. First, the “rainy day fund” is drained to keep everyone at the feeding trough. Studies of options are funded, and so on.

The recommendations are either too timid and clearly inadequate or they’re too bold and risky. So incremental policy and budget tweaks are adopted as acceptable institutional defaults.

But rifts open in the leadership as the farsighted few demand rapid, radical adaptations and the conventional risk-averse crowd digs in their heels. The farsighted few are pushed out or quit / retire, eliminating the only people who had the ability and experience to actually pull off a radical change of course.

A reshuffling of leadership evokes hope that the modest reforms will work magic. Alas, incremental tweaks only work in eras of stability. They fail miserably in unstable eras of rapidly-evolving challenges.

As everything runs to failure, the only acceptable path is to do more of what’s failed spectacularly, a default to low-risk incrementalism that only accelerates the final inevitable collapse.

The delusional faith in incremental change guarantees systemic failure. Better not to risk any radical evolution that might fail, and so failure is thus assured.



This is why our status quo is doomed:

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