Tempo, Timing, and the Translucence of the Future
Foresighted strategy in the real world, which is to say a weird world full of discontinuity, deception, and opaque transformations.
Blunder not forth, plan-less. It is possible for a person to competely improv their way through a successful life. It is also possible for dogs to walk and gorillas to use sign language, but don’t hand a walking stick to every mutt you meet, or expect every passing jungle primate to make good use of an iPad. Most of us need to plan to thrive, and plans involve strategy.
This is a moment of great urgency and upheaval and all-around weirdness. The paradox? This strategy’s finest hour — especially foresighted strategic thinking that casts ahead to understand the longer-term structure of the planetary forces unfolding around us, and brings that insight back into present decision-making. That’s rare.
Not being able to see ahead to plan better is not necessarily a sign of stupidity or laziness. This stuff is hard. These are steep mountains we’re climbing, visibility is low, and as William Gibson says, there are no maps for these territories. It’s easy to misstep. Even for people whose job it is to think about the future, the smart move is a sagacious nod towards the science and some gentle hand-waving about the difficulty of predicting the present.
There are reasons for the reticence to tread too heavily. For one thing, being too loud about how the planetary crisis threatens our employer’s future can be a good way to find ourselves boundary policed right into the search for a new employer. For another, the reward for our trouble is to better understand some slippery concepts and develop some educated intuitions about what they’ll mean. That’s a powerful level-up if we’re trying to actually know what we’re talking about — if we actually want to be good at strategy in the real world — but it’s hard to put on our resumes.
But what the hell, if some fool doesn’t rush in, we’ll be here all night. So, how do we get better at seeing ahead, smarter at plotting a course forward, when everything around us is in unprecedented tumult?
Let’s talk Tempo, Timing, and Translucence.
Speed is everything, I’m fond of saying — mostly because it’s true.
The speed of our actions over the next couple decades will largely decide the ultimate magnitude of the planetary crisis.
The speed of our responses will decide how much of the natural world can be saved, and how much of the human world can be ruggedized for the coming chaos.
The speed with which we center the planetary crisis in our society — whether we hurtle ourselves forward at the speed demanded, or delay progress to preserve the profitability of the unsustainable — is the core political conflict of our day, and how that conflict plays out will shape society for generations to come.
How fast we go is the future we get.
But the planet is already changing plenty fast on its own, now. The tempo of change in this planetary crisis is the largest discontinuity (or set of discontinuities) we face, indeed, the largest discontinuity we’ve ever faced since humans first started putting seeds in the ground on purpose.
The convulsive shifts in our climate and biosphere freak sensible peeople right-the-fuck-out… and we’re still at the start. As the IPCC puts it:
“Global warming, reaching 1.5°C in the near-term, [will] cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans. …global aggregate net economic damages generally increase non-linearly with global warming levels … Climate change impacts and risks are becoming increasingly complex and more difficult to manage. Multiple climate hazards will occur simultaneously, and multiple climatic and non-climatic risks will interact, resulting in compounding overall risk and risks cascading across sectors and regions. … Multiple risks interact, generating new sources of vulnerability … causing economic and societal impacts across national boundaries through supply-chains, markets, and natural resource flows…”
The pace of change has never run so quickly before. Our ideas about the speed of change are themselves behind the time. The planetary crisis is the overarching context for every important decision we make today, a context of profound, rapid and as-yet-largely-ignored upheaval. Looking straight at this ecological accelerando precedes seeing everything else with a clear eye.
Storm-lashed disaster zones are trying to tell us something. Megafires spawning their own weather are trying to tell us, too. Relentless, repeated heat waves have a message. Floods do, too. Zoonotic pandemics, crop failures, collapsing ice sheets, weird hail storms — all are trying to get through to us. What they’re saying is simple: The material world we’ve built is no longer at home on the planet we’ve remade. (You know, the one we’ve irreversibly altered with reckless exploitation.)
The tempo of change, and our refusal to acknowledge its acceleration, has turned our visions of continuity, stability and value into fantasy worlds. We’re cosplaying people who live in past decades before discontinuity ate our societies. We’re chanting ideological mantras to avoid seeing (and having to do something about) the scale of uncertainty we face. Our markets are only partially connected to reality: nothing around us is worth what we think it is.
Because humanity as a whole can no longer afford to worsen the planetary crisis, and because action is so profitable (and its benefits so many), rapid action is now inevitable. It is not a matter of whether we remake the unsustainable, but when.
And because the value of the unsustainable depends on being allowed the affordance of inflicting harm without cost — of dropping the “externalities” of ecological destruction on others, while reaping all the rewards — it is extremely uncompetitive in a world where those costs are being recognized, and priced back into politics and the economy. And the true costs of unsustainable practices are ruinous. Others are less and less willing to bear those costs. The unsustainable is a bubble.
Because the crisis we’ve caused is largely irreversible, and a flood dumpster of further harm is barreling towards us, large-scale responses to growing threats and risks are also certain. Those who live on this new planet and do not respond to its realities will come to ruin.
Much of the world is brittle, that is, subject to sudden collapse as the range of realities for which it was built are exceeded. Maintaining value in brittle systems rests on the ability to ignore the changes in tolerances unfolding all around us — to ignore the message all these disasters and tragedies are telling us. But hiding brittleness is not a victimless crime: it is a form of fraud, and real people, serious institutions and society as a whole stand to lose massively. Again, risk being forcibly priced in to the value of brittle assets is a matter of when, not if. When it happens, the bottom will fall out from under trillions of dollars in assets. Brittleness is a bubble.
Because the ways we’ve learned to work in the world are based on denying externalities and ignoring risks — and on climate/environmental forces being “issues” that we might need to consider, rather than the core context of all change around us — much expertise is now outdated.
I wrote recently about our outdated worldviews, and how triangulation is often meant to obscure an incapacity to face the future:
Today, crafting strategies for success means preparing plans to prosper in a planetary crisis. Reality matters. That means being ready to understand, anticipate, and prepare for a radically different strategic landscape than most institutions have ever faced — as I’ve said before, discontinuity is the job, and that job demands different approaches than what has worked in the recent past.
For millions of those currently in positions of influence, though, new approaches lie outside of their acumen and authority. Their expertise is expiring, they lack enough insight into what’s happening now to anticipate what’s emerging, and the forms of strategic thinking they’ve mastered largely cannot turn discontinuity into opportunity.
As long as the interval of predatory delay holds, such short-term triangulation can seem savvy. The problem is, it will not hold, because too much danger and too much opportunity are piling up behind it. The torque grows with every minute. And the strategies needed to avoid danger and seize opportunity are not at all in line with the kinds of efforts that most often are presented and climate, sustainability and risk-management strategies today. Being a triangulator doesn’t prepare you to deliver those strategies — indeed, it actually entangles you in ways that make you less able to innovate and disrupt.
Triangulators are, as I said before, shackled to their sunk-cost expertise: the financial value of their expertise depends on not their not being forced to deliver what they don’t know how to build.
Large as they are, these bubbles are part of a froth of other bubbles (or as eminent investor Jeremy Grantham puts it, a superbubble). Real estate, equities, bonds, commodities and intellectual property are all unstably overvalued, Grantham says. This makes the immediate future more volatile — and the timing of the bursting of the carbon, brittleness and expertise bubbles harder to gauge. Add in a bear market, the specter of the return of stagflation, the SPACdown, the Crypto crash and war in Ukraine, and I wouldn’t put much faith in anyone’s crystal ball. (I don’t have any more predictive capacity for calling markets than most folks, or else I’d be sending this from a Montana eco-ranch the size of Belgium.)
Again, reality counts. “Great bubbles,” Grantham reminds us, “have very, very little to do with the underlying realities.” [link] The underlying reality here is planetary reality. And even in the medium term, planetary reality is the house, and if we bet against it long enough, we always lose.
The pressures on all these overinflated systems and assets is piling up. That torque is already much greater than most people think [link ice dam]. The tempo of change keeps galloping forward even as nothing seems to change. Everything looks much like it did; everything is different than it was.
Every future is discontinuous with the past, and many of the forces driving change now are nonlinear. Getting a better sense of how fast various systems are changing and could change helps us bring questions of tempo back into the present. It helps us think about timing.
To clarify the implications of rising tempo we consider timing. “What is changing now?” is an important question. “How fast is it going?” is another. “When are we?” is perhaps the most important of all, and the hardest to answer.
To a real extent, we are in this crisis in the first place because many of us still can’t see the crisis. We can’t see it because of the success of predatory delay — the largest and most successful set of for-profit disinformation campaigns in history.
Climate denialism, downplaying, regulatory capture, academic corruption, intentional political polarization and civic sabotage, triangulation and boundary policing… a host of strategies have kept most people from first seeing that there was a crisis at all, and then understanding how deep the crisis was spreading into our societies. The whole point of predatory delay has been to put off that recognition.
The lies that made it possible have been a political deliverable. As I wrote before:
The fundamental axis of conflict now is between those who benefit from delay and those who need to go faster ; between those who already have a good grasp of the kinds of changes that are happening around us and those who don’t yet know about them, because if they knew, they would throw themselves forward at breakneck speeds.
The politics of tempo is at the very core of why all conflict is now contextualized by the planetary crisis. Everything we’re doing now is about speed — about people who want different paces of change; people who see themselves able to benefit from slowing change, or limiting the amount of knowledge people have about coming changes, or being able to get in early and lock down resources before others have a chance to get to them.
There is an unprecedented gap between how people think everything is working, and what have actually already become the world’s new operating realities — never mind how fast it is screeching towards even weirder tomorrows. But torque is building on the gates of perception. The breech is inevitable.
The rude awareness that we’re not ready for what’s already happened and we’re unprepared for what’s coming is about to crash home for millions of people. Many, many people are about to realize that they, personally, are profoundly unprepared for the world they can now see is all around them. The popular recognition of those facts is shaping up to be an explosive societal shock.
The Snap Forward is how I describe that recognition — the sudden re-calibration of assumptions, plans and priorities in the face of the truth of our moment.
This sudden collision with unreadiness is not one aspect of the broader crisis, it’s the beating heart. I’ve written elsewhere about the terrifying, tragic and transapocalyptic aspects of that kind of a societal singularity, and about how many people will be seeking security, power and cohesion.
The other thing to remember is that the largest barriers to faster action (to sustainable prosperity, more effective ruggedization and wiser policies and plans) are barriers of perception. The same upheaval that is set to throw millions into uncertainty and alarm is also the upheaval that will realign politics and markets with a more real-world sense of tempo. As the Snap Forward hits, the power struggles between fast and slow will become more intense and more public, because predatory delay has no end-game. It’s not built to win. Losing slowly is its victory. When it is finanlly clear to most people with power that it has lost, it will collapse.
When we reach this end of the road for predatory delay — how close we are to The Snap Forward (the two are closely entwined) — has worldchanging implications. Indeed, how successful slow interests can be at controlling the pace of their own defeat, and for how much longer, is arguably the biggest unanswered strategic question in the world.
The strategic environment is increasingly translucent. It lets through enough light for us to know the direction we’re heading, but keeps the road ahead too dim to know what’s ahead. Understanding that murkiness, though, helps us seeing differently in the gloom.
There are a few reasons why our tomorrows are particularly murky at the moment.
LOSS OF PREDICTABILITY
Some people describe traditional foresight as a “scan-predict-act” loop: we look for early signs of change, predict their outcomes and strategize accordingly.
The rising tempo of change, and the imminent revelation of the magnitude of change to a much wider group of people mean together that everything is changing, all at once. This simultaneity of shifts in interconnected systems is a profound challenge to our ability to predict what’s coming. The models excurse their boundaries. The data become contextually unreliable. The odds go wonky in combinatorial explosions.
We can’t assume our answers are as robust as we once thought them to be. We have to hedge.
Hedging a decision involves spreading our bets about future outcomes across a broader landscape of possible outcomes. It’s like diversifying a financial portfolio. But the more hedging we have to do the less the choices we’re making are optimizable.
RADICAL UNCERTAINTY / LANDSCAPE RISKS
That would be bad enough, but we need to not just hedge our bets in the game, we need to hedge against the possibility we don’t know the rules of the game anymore.
We find ourselves needing to hedge the landscape itself; that is, accommodate gaps in our knowledge that we may not even be able to perceive yet. We have to cover the risk that we don’t know everything we need to know about the bet we’re trying to make, or even worse, that what we think we know is no longer true. That might be because the risks we face have grown in ways we can’t yet see. It might be because the opportunities involved are different than they once were. There are a variety of ways in which we can find ourselves not knowing what we need to know about the bets that it’s our job to make, or that our family depends on us making.
There’s also the need to hedge volatility. As the beat of change rattles faster, the odds rise that things that were true when we made a decision will not longer be true when the decision plays out. We need to cover the risk that the game itself might change before we know the outcome. Not only do we risk making a bad bet, and not only do we risk making a bet based on imperfect or insufficient knowledge, we also risk making a good bet in a situation that changes so fast that it becomes a bad bet.
TECHNICAL DEBT and LEGACY FOG
We work with the tools we have. In the case of climate-informed strategy, many of these tools don’t work very well. We have to work with tools that were designed to produce outcomes under very different assumptions In particular, we have a sort of intellectual technical debt around how we imagine, plan for and create solutions to address climate and sustainability issues.. Thinking in new ways demands compensating for triangulation, outdated worldviews, predatory delay and garden-variety incompetence. It also, though, demands routing around older ideas about what the problem is and how to solve it that may have made sense in their moment, but stand in the way of clear thinking now (see, for instance, the idea that what makes a city more sustainable is making it less urban). I think of this as “legacy fog.”
Strategic translucense produces some interesting effects — and by “interesting effects” here I obviously mean “thing that will fuck us up when we get them wrong” — and top among them is that it makes it very hard to see the states that are likely to emerge after (or even as) bubbles pop and discontinuities rock.
For instance, abundent evidence leads us to the understanding that while on the other side of the bubble of the unsustainable could be decades of decline and unplanned degrowth, it’s more likely that we’re looking at a sustainable prosperity boom… even if such a thing seems hard to imagine today.
And while it’s already clearly true that when we combined a growing brittleness bubble with a widespread lack of preparation, we created a bottleneck (full of transapocalyptic tragedy), it’s also looking likely that some places will thrive as never before, and the overall ratio of places that benefit from transformation (even with staggering impacts and losses around the world) could by much higher than many assume.
While it’s true our society will be staggered by its collision with unreadiness, it is also often the case that shocks to society produce not only fear, hate and reactionary politics, but cultural upwellings and previously unimagined creativity. Often the cultural advances outlast the turmoil and tragedy; every once in a while, they set the conditions for a societal renaissance. Becoming native to our time, we may find ourselves surrounded by new possibilities.
No guarantees. Yes, we live in a polarized, traumatized society that’s lost its cultural center. We work in a time where professional thought has been deliberately hamstrung and the future has been deliberately painted as unavoidably apocalyptic. As part of continuity propaganda we’ve been conditioned to assume that whatever we can’t see well in this crisis is an even greater danger — you know, that the dark shape drifting towards us in the fog is probably a starving polar bear. Still, we’d do well to keep in mind that the current bias against optimism and possibility is itself part of what keeps us from seeing farther. Despair and rage are a set of blinders. The darkest view is not the clearest one. Sometimes it’s worth keeping calm and alert until the sun breaks through the fog bank.