Physical objects resist any change in their position and state of motion. This is inertia, often defined as the physical principle that moving objects keep moving in a straight line with constant speed unless or until something stops them or changes their direction.
Inertia doesn’t just apply to physical objects, however, but to social (and other kinds of) objects as well. Social structures and systems, or “institutions”, are as inert as physical objects. If an institution is moving in a certain direction, it will keep moving in that direction with more or less constant speed (which can be zero, of course), unless or until something stops it or changes its path.
According to Newton’s second law of motion, 𝐹=𝑚𝑎, the greater the mass 𝑚 of a physical object, the greater the force 𝐹 needed to change that object’s path. (Note that 𝑎 stands for acceleration, and that acceleration is a change in the path or momentum of an object.) The same applies to social objects: the greater the “mass” of the institution, the more force is needed to change its direction. This raises the question what exactly “mass” means here, and how it is measured – certainly it makes little sense to measure the mass of a society or other kind of institution in kilograms. Newton’s second law of motion is equivalent to 𝑚=𝐹/𝑎, or in words, mass is resistance to change. Mass just is a measure of the resistance of a physical or social object to a change in its position and/or state of motion.
If you shoot a tomato out of a cannon in space (and that tomato survives the blast), it will keep moving in a straight line. On earth its trajectory will be curved, however, as gravity continuously pulls on the tomato (and everything else), and as friction slows it down. On a short distance that matters little, however. If you shoot a tomato out of a cannon 10m away from a brick wall, then the tomato will fly to that wall in an almost straight line until it hits it. Gravity pulls a bit on the tomato, but not enough to prevent it from smashing into the wall. And neither will friction slow it down in time.
You could, of course, try to alter the tomato’s trajectory by shooting it with a water pistol, but it is unlikely that that will prevent it from smashing into the wall. Perhaps, something else could be set up halfway between the cannon and the wall to rescue the tomato – some kind a tomato catcher.
Societies, civilizations, and other institutions also keep moving in a straight line. (Sometimes it may appear that they are standing still, but that’s just appearance.) As in case of the tomato, there may be forces (the equivalents of gravity and friction) that gently pull them in a different direction or otherwise change their motion, but on short time scales these forces matter little. On short time scales only walls and tomato catchers matter. (And water pistols, perhaps.)
From a physical point of view, all of these outside influences are pretty much the same thing – what they do is to change the tomato’s momentum: they make the tomato change its previous path. (Or end it, but that is just a kind of change.) That the wall does so in a more destructive way than the tomato catcher or the water pistol might matter for the tomato, but from a physical perspective (or at least from the inertia perspective) that’s a minor difference.
A change in the tomato’s path is a change in its momentum. A change in a society’s or other institution’s path is a change in its momentum. Walls and tomato catchers are momentum-changers for flying tomatoes. What changes the momentum of an institution is a crisis. A crisis is a turning point, and that is exactly what a change in momentum is: a turning point, a change in the institution’s path.
Even if the wall, the water pistol, and the tomato catcher are all just momentum-changers, they have significantly different effects from the perspective of the tomato (if it makes sense to talk of a tomato’s “perspective”). Similarly, while all crises are social momentum-changers (however small or large that change is) the manner in which they bring about that change and its side effects may be rather important to us. Crises are turning points, but end points are also a kind of turning point.
In case of the flying tomato, three momentum-changers were mentioned:
- the wall, which ends the tomato’s movement, but also ends the tomato itself by turning it into pulp;
- the tomato catcher, which – supposedly – ends the tomato’s previous path without destroying the tomato itself; and
- the water pistol, which subtly changes the tomato’s direction, but not enough to prevent it from smashing into the wall.
We can distinguish the same three kinds of momentum-changers for institutions and other social objects:
- a terminal crisis is analogous to the wall: it ends the institution’s (society’s, system’s, etc.’s) path by destroying it;
- a major (non-terminal) crisis is analogous to the tomato catcher: it significantly alters the course of the institution while leaving that institution mostly intact; and
- a minor crisis is analogous to the water pistol: it very subtly changes the institution’s direction, but the change is so subtle that that it is almost unnoticeable.
There are intermediate crises (between major and minor, and between major and terminal), of course, but this is a convenient classification to discuss kinds of crises and their effects.
It would take considerable naivety (or blindness) to not realize that humanity is facing several crises. Some of these may be minor, others may be terminal. Some people fear that AI (artificial intelligence) will do us in, for example, while others think that climate change will terminate human civilization. If there are terminal crises, and we want to avoid them, then we need something that changes humanity’s momentum before we smash into the metaphorical wall – something like a tomato catcher. Or in other words, if there is a looming terminal crisis, we need a major crisis to avoid it.
One may wonder whether that is possible, however. Recall the tomato and the cannon. There really is no tomato catcher. No mechanism can safely catch a tomato traveling at gunshot speed towards a wall 10m away. If something manages to catch the tomato, then the effect on the tomato will be (nearly) identical to the effect the wall would have had: the tomato is reduced to purée (although probably not of an edible kind). The force needed to stop the tomato is too great for the tomato – it cannot survive that force. It might be the same for us. If our current momentum is too great, if the resistance to change is too great, then any crisis with sufficient force to change humanity’s momentum will have so much force that it will rip everything apart. Catching a tomato traveling at gunshot speed reduces it to pulp; “catching” humanity traveling at a blistering speed towards its own doom will bring about doom. Maybe not the same doom, but doom nevertheless. (And for the tomato it doesn’t matter much either whether it is the wall or the “catcher” that reduces it to pulp.)
I don’t know (with the certainty that “knowing” implies) whether there are terminal crises ahead of us, and I don’t know whether those can be prevented by means of major, non-terminal crises, but I’m rather pessimistic. Pessimism too easily becomes an excuse for a kind of self-realizing fatalism and laziness, however, and I’d rather avoid those. So instead I’ll try to get a clearer view of the crises we are facing, and of the resistance that would have to be overcome to avoid the worst of them.
I won’t do that in this post, however. Rather, this is the beginning of what I intend to be a series of posts on crisis and inertia. The next post will deal with what probably is the biggest crisis humanity ever faced: climate change. After that, I intend to discuss several other crises: the decline of democracy, continuing economic crisis, radicalization, the antibiotics and insecticide crises, AI, cultural crises (such as the hegemony of psychopathy), and so forth. Many of these crises cannot be seen in isolation, however – they interact with and reinforce each other – so I’ll have to address such interactions as well. For all of these crises, what I want to know is whether they are terminal, major, or “mere” minor crises, and how resistant they are to a change of momentum (i.e. how much force is needed to avoid them). But it will require more than a few posts to get some clarity on all of that.
Part 2 – Climate Change
Part 3 – Technological Threats and Crises
Part 4 – Economic, Political, and Cultural Crises
Part 5 (conclusion) – Derailing a Speeding Train
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