Afghanistan, Billionaires in Space, and the Opioid Crisis—Front Page News Reflections 9/21

Often I write articles that apply culturally mature perspective and the ideas of Creative Systems Theory to then current front-page news topics. Culturally mature perspective’s primary contribution lies with the big picture, with bringing a long-term, systemic vantage to understanding. But in just how it does this, it is often very pertinent to making sense of more immediate concerns. It puts front- page-news issues in context and helps us grasp what they most ultimately ask of us.

It is important to appreciate how this approach contrasts with news as we customarily think of it. Because what we call news rarely looks out past the next news cycle, business cycle, or election cycle, even if it can get beyond “if it bleeds it leads” headlines, it largely addresses particulars, the “what” of events. Culturally mature perspective has interest in such particulars, but ultimately it is more concerned with what generates the events we witness—questions of why. To me it seems obvious that if we are to address issues at all effectively, somehow we must engage them at this deeper level.

With this piece, I’ll reflect very briefly on three front-page-news topics—the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, our recent spate of billionaires venturing in space, and the opioid epidemic. With each topic, I will offer both reflections and a lesson.

Let’s start with Afghanistan: I first wrote about the situation in Afghanistan in the few months after the beginning of the war with the US some twenty years back. At the time, I pointed out that the chance of success—at least as people were thinking of it, the creating of stability through the establishment of a Western-style democracy—was nearly non-existent for a simple reason: The larger portion of the Afghan population resides in what developmentally is the equivalent of 7th, 8th or 9th century Europe.

But I also noted that because thinking with this kind of developmental perspective is rare—amongst politicians and the military certainly, but also, for reasons I address in my writings, essentially taboo in academic circles—it was unlikely that the limits inherent to the endeavor would be recognized. I also in my writings address how it takes Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes to grasp the deep differences that exist between the realities of different cultural stages and the implications of those differences.

So it does not surprise me that efforts in Afghanistan have ended without great success. In fact, it surprises me a bit that the US stayed there as long as it did. The fact that the Taliban were able to be victorious as quickly as they did is a bit unexpected, but that possibility too is consistent with a developmental picture. In a similar way to how we have imagined that Western style government would prevail because of an assumed innate superiority, we have assumed the innate superiority of modern military approaches and training. But we forget the immense strategic effectiveness that comes from a people being motivated by place—and in this case, also, by medieval religious fervor. For sake of comparison, we can look to centuries later developmentally in the West with the immense perseverance and commitment that it took to build Europe’s great cathedrals. That we might imagine that an Afghan army of soldiers who were often not much more than mercenaries might prevail against such fervency—certainly over any great time—was ultimately naive. As far as whether the withdrawal could have been better managed—without question—but I don’t think there was any way that it could have been done that would not have been messy.

The lesson for reflections here: If we are to make effective policy decisions on the world stage, we need to get better at understanding deep contextual differences—particularly those that relate to culture as something that evolves.

How about our recent spate of billionaires venturing in space—Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson? For me, watching it all brings a mix of feelings. These are significant accomplishments—and in ways great fun. But people have legitimately questioned whether this is the best use of resources given circumstances in the world where that scale of expenditure could provide great benefit. In the context of these Cultural Maturity–related reflections, it is reasonable to to ask whether all this noise and celebration is not about something that in the end is only a further—very expensive—expression of our now outmoded, Modern Age, onward-and-upward, heroic narrative.

I find a justification often found with people engaged in such endeavors more specifically problematical: that we should make going to Mars a high priority. Again, this could be a great fun, and a miraculous accomplishment. But a common argument for doing so is really quite ludicrous—that somehow going to other planets will provide a safe escape from our perils on earth. If we can’t get along here on earth and keep the planet healthy—a planet that we evolved to be a perfect match for—how is it reasonable to think that we could somehow do so on Mars’ wholly inhospitable landscape? Creative Systems Theory calls this kind of thinking Transitional Absurdity (specifically of the techno-utopian sort).

The lesson: When we look to the future, we need to directly confront the question of what in fact represents advancement and commit out resources to it—both our economic resources, and the ultimate resource, our attention.

And one more. Lately, we have again seen significant coverage of the opioid epidemic, now specifically around the lawsuits confronting Purdue Pharmaceuticals and the Sackler family. I find significant legal action wholly appropriate (and what we have seen so far not enough). But I also think that the focus on lawsuits ultimately fails to ask the important hard question when it comes to the opioid crisis. We need to ask why we are seeing an opioid epidemic to begin with.

Misrepresentation and promotion by people like the Sacklers have made opioids more readily available. But that doesn’t explain why a growing number of people are choosing to use them. I’ve written extensively about how we can understand our times in terms of a modern Crisis of Purpose. Addictive substances—whether it be addicting drugs with the opioid epidemic, excess food with the obesity epidemic, or jolts of digital stimulation with addiction to electronic devices—create pseudo-significance, artificial substitutes for real meaning.

The lesson: Really addressing the opioid epidemic—and related addictive dynamics—requires starting with the question of why people are consuming addictive substances at such a scale. We also have to address the even larger questions of what it would mean to make real significance the more obvious task of our time. I would suggest that it is here that we must ultimately find solutions.

I refer to culturally mature perspective as a “needed new common sense.” Some people might not find my conclusions with these short front-page-news reflections “common sense.” But viewed from a big-picture, systemic perspective, at least for me, they become just that.