Category Archives: global issues

The World in 2036–Nassim Taleb

Via The World in 2036: Nassim Taleb looks at what will break, and what won’t | The Economist.

Paradoxically, one can make long-term predictions on the basis of the prevalence of forecasting errors. A system that is over-reliant on prediction (through leverage, like the banking system before the recent crisis), hence fragile to unforeseen “black swan” events, will eventually break into pieces. Although fragile bridges can take a long time to collapse, 25 years in the 21st century should be sufficient to make hidden risks salient: connectivity and operational leverage are making cultural and economic events cascade faster and deeper. Anything fragile today will be broken by then.

The great top-down nation-state will be only cosmetically alive, weakened by deficits, politicians’ misalignment of interests and the magnification of errors by centralised systems. The pre-modernist robust model of city-states and statelings will prevail, with obsessive fiscal prudence. Currencies might still exist, but, after the disastrous experience of America’s Federal Reserve, they will peg to some currency without a government, such as gold.

Companies that are currently large, debt-laden, listed on an exchange (hence “efficient”) and paying bonuses will be gone. Those that will survive will be the more black swan-resistant—smaller, family-owned, unlisted on exchanges and free of debt. There will be large companies then, but these will be new—and short-lived.

The world will face severe biological and electronic pandemics, another gift from globalisation.

Religious practice will experience a revival, seen as a conveyor of robust heuristics, cultural values and rituals. Science will produce smaller and smaller gains in the non-linear domain, in spite of the enormous resources it will consume; instead it will start focusing on what it cannot—and should not—do. Finally, what is now called academic economics will be treated with the same disrespect that rigorous (and practical) minds currently have for Derrida-style post-modernist verbiage.

Nassim Taleb: professor of risk engineering at New York University; author of “The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms” (Random House and Penguin, January 2011)


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The End of Nature – Zizek in NYT

Via The End of Nature –

The big ecological disasters of 2010 fit into the ancient cosmological model, in which the universe is made up of four basic elements: AIR, volcanic ash clouds from Iceland immobilizing airline traffic over Europe; EARTH, mudslides and earthquakes in China; FIRE, rendering Moscow almost unlivable; WATER, the tsunami in Indonesia, floods displacing millions in Pakistan.

Such recourse to traditional wisdom offers no true insight into the mysteries of our wild Mother Nature’s whims, however. It’s a consolation device, really, allowing us to avoid the question we all want to ask: Will more events of such magnitude turn up on nature’s agenda for 2011?

In our disenchanted, post-religious, ultra-technological era, catastrophes can no longer be rendered meaningful as part of a natural cycle or as an expression of divine wrath. Ecological catastrophes — which we can view continually and close-up, thanks to our 24/7 plugged-in world — become the meaningless intrusions of a blind, destructive rage. It’s as if we are witnessing the end of nature.

Today we look to scientific experts to know all. But they do not, and therein lies the problem. Science has transformed itself into specialized knowledge, offering an inconsistent array of conflicting explanations called “expert opinions.” But if we blame the scientific-technological civilization for many of our difficulties, we cannot do without that same science to fix the damage — only scientists, after all, can “see” the ozone hole. Or, as a line from Wagner’s “Parsifal” puts it, “The wound can only be healed by the spear that made it.” There is no way back to pre-scientific holistic wisdom, to the world of Earth, Wind, Air and Fire.

While science can help us, it can’t do the whole job. Instead of looking to science to stop our world from ending, we need to look at ourselves and learn to imagine and create a new world. At least for those of us in the West, it’s difficult to accept being passive observers who must sit and watch as our fates are revealed.

Enter the perverse pleasure of premature martyrdom: “We offended Mother Nature, so we are getting what we deserve!” It’s deceptively reassuring to be ready to assume guilt for the threats to our environment. If we are guilty, then it all depends on us; we can save ourselves simply by changing our lives. We frantically and obsessively recycle old paper, buy organic food — whatever, just so we can be sure we are doing something, making our contribution.

But like the anthropomorphic universe, magically designed for man’s comfort, the so-called balance of nature, which humankind brutally destroys with its hubris, is a myth. Catastrophes are part of natural history. The fact that ash from a modest volcanic outburst in Iceland grounded most of the planes in Europe is a much-needed reminder of how we, humans, with our tremendous power over nature, are nothing but one of the living species on Earth, depending on the delicate balance of its elements.

So what might the future hold? One thing is clear: We should accustom ourselves to a much more nomadic way of life. Gradual or sudden change in our environment, about which science can do little more than offer a warning, may force unheard-of social and cultural transformations. Suppose a new volcanic eruption makes a place uninhabitable: Where will the inhabitants find a home? In the past, large population movements were spontaneous processes, full of suffering and loss of civilizations. Today, when weapons of mass destruction are available not only to states but even to local groups, humanity simply can’t afford a spontaneous population exchange.

What this means is that new forms of global cooperation, which do not depend on the market or on diplomatic negotiations, must be invented. Is this an impossible dream?

The impossible and the possible are simultaneously bursting into excess. In the realms of personal freedom and scientific technology, the impossible is more and more possible. We can entertain the prospect of enhancing our physical and psychic abilities; of manipulating our biological traits via interventions into the genome; of achieving the tech-gnostic dream of immortality by encoding our distinguishing traits and feeding the composite of our identities into a computer program.

When it comes to socioeconomic relations, however, we perceive our era as one of maturity, and thus acceptance. With the collapse of Communism, we abandoned the old millenarian utopian dreams and accepted the constraints of reality — that is, capitalist socioeconomic reality — with all its impossibilities. We cannot engage in large collective acts, which necessarily end in totalitarian terror. We cannot cling to the old welfare state, which makes us noncompetitive and leads to economic crisis. We cannot isolate ourselves from the global market.

For us, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than serious social change. Witness the numerous blockbusters about global catastrophe and the conspicuous absence of films about alternate societies.

Maybe it’s time to reverse our concept of what is possible and what isn’t; maybe we should accept the impossibility of omnipotent immortality and consider the possibility of radical social change. If nature is no longer a stable order on which we can rely, then our society should also change if we want to survive in a nature that is no longer the good caring mother, but a pale and indifferent one.

Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian-born political philosopher and cultural critic. He is a scholar or visiting professor at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, the European Graduate School in Switzerland and a number of American universities.

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Living in the End Times–Zizek on Dutch TV

YouTube – Living in the End Times According to Slavoj Zizek

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Slavoj Zizek and Nature: a Swedish view

Via Slavoj Zizek and Nature « enleuk

[A personal favourite bit: 38:30 to ~40 mins]

…and, now, Enleuk’s paraphrasing:

“Psycho-analysis shows only a temporary truth, like there is no big Other [I’m not fluent in Lacanian, but I believe this means God as a deistic or panentheistic force of will and not a pantheistic or transcendent(?) God], but then you have to return to the illusion. The idea is that our social lives are necessarily illusory. All you can do is get these momentary insights. If this is the case, then life is boring. Instead I want to know if we can make truth operative in politics and social life. My whole point would be, yes, we can. The whole development pushes in this direction. One example is ecology.

Ecology is on the one hand an absolutely real problem and one of the biggest fields of ideological investment. There’s a book called Ecology without nature, that should be our solution. It’s not some kind of subjectivism, what he means is that what we mean by nature, in the ecological paradigm, is automatically connected to some kind of homeostatis, some harmonious organic reproduction balance that is disturbed by human hybris and we should reestablish the balance.
I think we should drop this paradigm. If there is a lesson from radical darwinians it is that there is no nature, if by nature we understand this kind of balance which was disturbed, nature is crazy in itself.

The ecological crisis is more serious than we think, there is nowhere to withdraw, there is no balance to return to, the situation is totally open. Some German said the goal of humanity should not be to reestablished to some natural balance but to violate nature even more. Nature left to itself would explode and render human life impossible, since humans can only survive in certain weather or climate conditions. We should try to fix and freeze the earth, be even more violent.
Also we should totally drop all references to antiscientific jargon. Often people say ‘the source of ecological troubles is our overexploitation, objectivisation of nature, we act as if nature is out there, the object, as if we are not embedded in nature, breathing with it, we should step out of technological attitude and live with nature.’

This is a problem, not a solution. the problem for me is the following: We’re in deep shit, like global warming, so why dont we act? It’s an example of the fetischist disavowal: ‘I know very well but’ like when you hear a speech on ecology, then you step out, see the sun, the birds, the rain. Because we are embedded in it we cant really accept that this can change.

So paradoxically we need more alienation from nature in the sense we have to accept nature in its total contigency, madness. Nature is not balanced paradise, it’s madness. Every natural balance is temporary and fragile, the smallest imbalance and everything goes crazy. This brings it to the end: that the big Other doesn’t exist. Usually people say either you are a subjectivist and self-responsible, this means you are an arrogant absolute subject, or you defer to the higher authority and it’s a difficult thing to separate between these two but we must accept that we are totally responsible but nonetheless not absolute subjects. It’s a very difficult position to sustain but we will be forced into it.”

“We should try to fix and freeze the earth, be even more violent.”

I agree that we should manipulate the Earth, that’s what we have hands for, but freezing it will not be possible because that means canceling evolution, a chemical process operating at a molecular level since 3 billion years. Freezing for me equals a delusion of balance. The viruses will find a way. We have to accept that life is a constant fight, there is no pause button. However, we can fight it with nukes and science and metal and stone and nanotechnology. We can build airtight glass boxes filled with water and grow food in them. We don’t have to care about what people think food is, we can use any type of body and any type of energy.

“Often people say ‘the source of ecological troubles is our overexploitation, objectivisation of nature, we act as if nature is out there, the object, as if we are not embedded in nature, breathing with it, we should step out of technological attitude and live with nature.’”

I think I’ve said this myself, except I think technology is equally a creative and destructive tool and that it too is part of nature. I think the problem when people say this is that they limit nature to the greenery outdoors and fail to see that everything in the universe is nature, including forks and computers and humans. For me, the solution is not ideological, but moral and practical. My morals are that all sentient beings should be allowed their illusion of free will and when two wills clash a compromise should be attempted. That’s it, however naive it may seem. And practically, it means that we can’t build billions of cars and industries run by energy that is consumed at a rate of a million times faster than it replenishes (oil and natural gases). That’s just common sense. Also, the earth is mainly silicon and the biggest energy source around is the sun. It’s pretty easy to see what we should focus on. Plurality is not a goal in itself, only a tool for achieving the moral. If we kill all species we might suffer ourselves. We should consequently also only exterminate species with old and dying individuals. Don’t take that too literally though, it’s just an example.

“we are totally responsible but nonetheless not absolute subjects. It’s a very difficult position to sustain but we will be forced into it”. For me, simplifying this ontological (apparent) paradox, I accept that this body I call mine is a part of a contingent reality, yet its described unique history of action has ramifications for itself within the system.


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Sugata Mitra: Child-driven education

Sugata Mitra: The child-driven education | Video on

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Exclusive: Zizek on Iran

A collaborative translation of BBC Persian’s recent exclusive interview with Zizek. Cross-posted on the new site,

Many thanks to Kam, Mani and Sheyda for their help on this one.

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Slavoj Zizek talks to Ali Alizadeh on BBC Persian

YouTube – Slavoj Zizek talks to Ali Alizadeh on BBC Persian Tamasha

*UPDATE* — Fully subtitled version here:

BBC Persian discovers the joys of Slavoj Zizek.

Here’s a quick breakdown of their coverage (don’t mind my amateur translation):


The speaker introduces Zizek, saying how he’s one of the sharpest thinkers around today, and that you can find his work in the bookshops of all the world’s major cities. If you’d like to know more about the ideas of this renowned Slovenian philosopher, she says, have a listen to the exclusive interview he gave to [BBC Persian anchor] Ali Alizadeh, where he talks for the first time about his views on Iran, Iranians, and their culture and socialization.


Narrator: In 2005, he defended Iran’s right to a nuclear bomb… in 2008, he regarded the film 300, which offended most Iranians, as Hollywood’s most anti-imperialist movie…  in 2009 he publicized how the Green Movement in Iran was creating space for the repetition of European patterns of struggle… In his 61 years, Slavoj Zizek has written over 54 books which have been translated into over 20 languages… 12 of those works have made him one of today’s most renowned living European philosophers… [BBC host Stephen Sackur talks in English…]


Narrator: …

[to be continued…]

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