06/26/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Cardinal Sins - and the Cardinal Virtue - of Our Time

These are times of change. We don't know yet when or how our world will change, but we do know that it will change, for it cannot remain as it is. If the range of possible changes embraces on the one hand a breakthrough to a more peaceful, equitable, and sustainable world, and on the other a breakdown into chaos, the question of whether we can consciously and purposively orient and manage the processes of change becomes vitally important.

The cardinal sins and cardinal virtues of our time are defined by how we ourselves relate to the change that will come about in the world. The cardinal sins are convenient complacency and facile skepticism.

Complacency borne of the convenience of not having to do anything or change anything claims that things are basically all right as they are. There are problems in our world, and occasional crises, but they are being managed by those in charge -- or perhaps they will just resolve themselves. The world has seen problems and crises before, and has muddled through without people like you and me doing anything about them. We don't need to bother trying to change the world -- in the final count the world will take care of itself.

Convenient complacency is the sin of the uninformed optimist.

Facile skepticism is the reverse of convenient complacency; it's the other side of the coin. It tells us that we don't need to do or change anything not because things are basically all right as they are, but because things cannot be changed -- certainly, not by people like you and me. If we managed to get through problems and crises before, it may have been because we were just plain lucky, or because the problems and crises were not really that serious. We cannot tell whether those that are ahead of us will be really different; they could be resolved by a happy turn of events, or could just play themselves out. In any case, there is not much we can do about it. The world is pretty much what it was in the past, and so is human nature. So, if we are still here tomorrow, it will not be because the world has changed, and certainly not because we have changed it. Perhaps we are just lucky, or because our problems are not that bad. And if our problems are really that serious, and if we are not so lucky, then we won't be here. That will be too bad, but it's the just way it will be.

Facile skepticism is the sin of the uninformed pessimist.

Why are both the optimist and the pessimist uninformed? Because they ignore the most fundamental fact about our world: that it's a complex system that's no longer sustainable. It's on the threshold of chaos. If it doesn't change in time, it collapses. But at the threshold of chaos, complex systems can change. They are unstable and supersensitive to everything that happens in them and to them. Even small fluctuations can catalyze major changes in their structure and their behavior -- the famous "butterfly effects."

The choice offered by complex systems at the threshold of chaos is simple and straightforward: transform or collapse. In the sphere of life, it's mutate or become extinct. In the sphere of society, it's create reform or lapse into anarchy.

The critical choice -- the so-called "bifurcation" -- in complex systems near chaos is a well-documented fact. It's illustrated in the evolution of living species in nature, and in the development of human societies in history. It can even be modeled by mathematical simulation. It turns out that near chaos, the "attractors" that appear in the "phase-portrait" of the systems shift. Relatively stable point and periodic attractors yield dominance to so-called "chaotic" or "strange" attractors, and these are prone to create fundamental change. It's not reasonable to question the reality of the bifurcation process. But the optimist who takes the stance of complacency doesn't necessarily question its reality, he just ignores that it's coming. It's more convenient than facing it.

The pessimist is similarly uninformed, because otherwise he wouldn't be so sure that our world cannot be changed. It's simpler to assume that the world is unchangeable: then there is no need to feel guilty for not doing anything about changing it.

The sins of convenient complacency and facile skepticism are sins of ignorance -- willful, unnecessary, and therefore inexcusable ignorance. Because it's not true that anyone, at least in the industrialized, information-imbued parts of the world, must remain ignorant of the basic facts of sustainability. More and more, these facts are spelled out in the news, but they are also implicit in the stress we experience in the everyday sphere of our lives. They are equally implicit in changes in the climate: we are unbalancing not just the human world, but also nature. It's absurd to continue to act as if these worlds were not on the threshold of a bifurcation.

Uninformed individuals believe that the world cannot be changed, or that it doesn't need to be changed. Superficially informed individuals see that the world needs to be changed, but they're not sure if it can be changed, at least by them. Truly informed individuals know that the world is supersensitive and prone to change, and that they, and people like them, can do all that needs to be done to change it.

Truly informed individuals do not lapse into the twin traps of convenient complacency and facile skepticism. They know that the world will change, for it must change. They also know that they can have a role in changing it: a decisive role. Their stance is that of the activist: the informed activist.

Informed activism is the cardinal virtue in these critical times. It's our best hope for taking control of our destiny: for creating a world we can live in, and can leave in good conscience to our children.