The Lessons of Psychohistory

It’s interesting to me how casually we accept things like climate change, unchecked population growth, and environmental destruction. Not to downplay the many worthwhile and important steps one can take to help control these problems, but as a whole, humanity seems to sense that certain things have a momentum far greater than themselves. It is as if, at a certain level, we intuit the inevitability of certain trends once the momentum of the planet is headed in a particular direction. After all, the structure of our entire civilization and continued existence is built up around that momentum.

Isaac Asimov expressed this idea quite succinctly in his book Foundation. Early in the story Dr. Seldon explains to the Commission of Public Safety of the Galactic Empire just why the future is so difficult to change. “The psychohistoric trend of a planetful of people contains a huge inertia. To be changed it must be met with something possessing a similar inertia. Either as many people must be concerned, or if the number of people be relatively small, enormous time for change must be allowed.”

Although the future of a planetful of people may be difficult to change, it is not impossible. In fact, working to change the fate and suffering of future generations is exactly what got Dr. Seldon into the trouble he is in to begin with. Yet part of the problem, I believe, is an inability to deal with long term problems and problem solving. Dr. Seldon was looking at how events would play out over five hundred to thirty thousand years, and putting a project into effect that would span generations. In today’s world we have a hard time seriously looking and planning effectively for anything farther out than a few years, and even less hope of carrying out projects that last longer.

This limited attention span is understandable. After all, it has worked pretty well for us for the whole course of our evolutionary history so far. During the bulk of our existence, most dangers were quite immediate and our life-spans were even shorter than they are now. So it’s not surprising that we have a hard time dealing with long term problems. Our individual and group psychology has evolved so far to deal with fairly short-term problems. Avoiding various future crises in human history will take a willingness and ability to engage in longer term planning, and the global consensus to act accordingly. I wonder what the statistical probability of that is. Dr. Seldon?