Setting a course

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

In the midst of the various storms roiling our economy and culture, it’s easy to get the feeling that everything from thousand point swings in the stock market to riots in the streets to the emergence of lethal viruses just emerged out of the blue, to everyone’s surprise.

This was how everyone a thousand or so years ago thought about everything from weather to death and disease to romance.

We now have theories regarding germs, we routinely monitor and project the weather fairly effectively.

Romance, in spite of a plethora of research, breathless talk shows and wishful thinking still leaves us all baffled.

Everything else, for better or worse, from economic trends to disease vectors, finds itself in the horizon, if not under the microscope of science and experts of all stripes.

As every mother knows, nothing emerges from nothing.

Every economic collapse from the automotive rust belt to real estate bubbles is in fact the inevitable summation of years of neglect and possibly, deliberate manipulation.

Our several decades of tax policy has led to the obvious infrastructure maintenance problems we have nationwide right now. But anyone who looked, even a generation ago, saw this coming.

On the weather front, we have hurricane “seasons” alongside the usual summer, fall, winter and spring. And we now have fire and flood seasons, each one, to a large degree, relatively predictable.

Even earthquakes and volcanoes, once the domain of furies and angry gods, are monitored and, to some degree at least, predicted.

But what about human trends and movements – especially those that throw the whole world into turmoil like wars and famines?

Every small business, romantic relationship or utopian community goes through its predictable phases, from infatuation and vision to the real work and inevitable heartbreaks and disappointments, businesses, relationships and national identities coalesce around these patterns and shared experiences.

When you think about it, there’s not much difference between a solid marriage and a unified nation state.

Threats, internal and external, come and go. A relationship, or a business, like an individual human body, is a mix of strength and flexibility.

Strength by itself becomes brittle, and flexibility on its own bends beyond recognition.

Any successful business flexes and holds at the right times. Each society and nation struggles with this precarious, and ever changing balance.

Situations demand attention – and emphasis on different aspects at different times.

Our biases, racial, class, ethnic or any other, cloud our vision and muddle our decision making.

As World War I era pioneer English physicist and mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson put it “counting is an antiseptic against prejudice.”

I’ve always been puzzled by signs in stores that say ‘We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Isn’t the core of any business to provide a good or service and make a profit? Why would a business refuse a profitable transaction?

If your measure is productivity, sales or even results or action of any kind, why would ethnicity enter into the equation?

Pure counting, and the analysis of statistics might seem dry and dreary, but can be liberating – and certainly informative.

Any civil upheaval or summer storm is to a large degree predictable, and if not preventable, at least possible to be prepared for. (It’s difficult to imagine a more prophetic book than James Baldwin’s 1963 The Fire Next Time.)

Lewis Fry Richardson put this same reasoning to the ultimate of human (self) destructiveness – war.

We, as human beings, seem remarkably ill-adapted to preventing or even preparing for the most obvious of catastrophes.

Economic recessions, even global depressions, take us by surprise even though they come on a regular basis – with the usual train of predictable categories of contributions.

Even global pandemics come on a nearly predictable century schedule.

You’d think that with our history and even a philosophical model like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (one horseman on a white horse, carries a bow, carries a crown, and rides forward as a figure of conquest, the second carries a sword and rides a red horse and is the creator and host of war (civil or global). The third is a food merchant riding upon a black horse, symbolizing famine. The fourth and final horse is pale green (the traditional color of a corpse), and upon it rides the carrier of death and final destruction.

These are symbols of course, but as 2020 has shown us, disruptions in our community fabric and our supply chains of groceries and other essentials leads to ever-increasing tensions and susceptibilities. And obsessions with secrets, conspiracies and extremist beliefs of all sorts.

And these tensions and susceptibilities accumulate and the appetites for conspiracies and scapegoats become ever more consuming, the opportunities for cooperation and productive growth becomes secondary, if that.

We rarely think of it this way, but civilization, like the life of any single one of us, is astoundingly fragile.

Just a few harsh words or a misunderstood hand signal can ignite a city or neighborhood – or even at a time like this, a nation on edge.

Our streets, our airwaves and too many of our relationships from families to business to politics make their way into the interplay of predictability and randomness that is turbulence.

Whether in weather, urban streets or world affairs, turbulence is by definition unforeseeable. Movements quickly outpace the visions or intentions of their founders.

Like everything else, the cycle from dreams to ashes seems to have sped up by several factors. Idealism turns to crude and senseless violence before our eyes.

As always perhaps, as we have seen across history, we have to decide where we want to go. Our words and our actions, whether we want them to or not, reflect our deepest and most enduring values and beliefs.

As much as circumstances might seem determined to pull us away from each other, to get anywhere desirable, we need to pull together and make our way together to the next step in the journey.

You don’t always need a weatherman, but sometimes the tools they use can tell us about much more than the chance of rain. To see more on the analysis of weather and human activity, I recommend this article –