Skip navigation

Crisis Prevention in a Time of Radical Change

We are living in a time when familiar patterns of order and power structures are becoming fragile, yet no replacement has been found: “Liberal Western society is breaking down, but no alternative exists yet” (translated from German).1 Many people are experiencing these times of accelerated change in the political and economic sphere, and in society in general, as a crisis. Others see more of an opportunity to shake off traditional limitations, and explore something new. At any rate, such a world of transitions is marked by a wide variety of surprises, tensions, and multipolar conflicts. The “intensification of the frequency of changes” (translated from German)2 suggests that this is an epochal change. As such, it also requires new ethical, political, and military orientations.

In a complex world, the possibilities and reference points of certainty change: the only thing that is certain seems to be that the future will be different from what was expected. Predictions and the promise of control come to nothing. We need to rethink our concepts of planning and crisis prevention. Conventional strategies of risk avoidance become ambivalent, as they sometimes result in necessary adjustments being delayed. Resilience – in the sense of robustness, adaptability, and anti-fragility as familiar certainties fall away – becomes a key value.3

In this wide field, the following article attempts to outline the challenges for crisis prevention from the perspective of Christian social ethics. On this basis, the model of risk maturity is proposed. It is based on “systematic ignorance” when acting in complex system contexts, and it aims for a robust and peace-promoting way of dealing with surprises, crises, and collapse phenomena.

Climate change as a security risk

In Earth system research, analyses of accelerated change are empirically underpinned by a wide range of indicators. There is plenty of data to indicate that environmental and climate change is already close to “tipping points” in many regions. This means that threshold values for critical parameters are close to being exceeded, and if they are, a change in the system dynamics will result. In their “big report” to mark the 50th anniversary of the Club of Rome (1968–2018), Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Anders Wijkman and their co-authors compile many such global trends which create instability and are unsustainable. The Italian chemist and ecologist Ugo Bardi sums up the analysis of change in his 2017 report, also addressed to the Club of Rome, titled “The Seneca Effect.”4 He refers to an observation made by the Stoic philosopher Seneca, according to which systemic orders generally take a very long time to arise, but collapse very quickly. He analyses the collapse of empires, financial systems, food production structures and the possible end of the planetary ecosystem in its current form, before considering strategies to prevent or manage systemic problems of this kind. We are currently in a phase of transition, he argues, in which collapse phenomena are accumulating and the survival of institutions depends largely on their ability to react to these phenomena in a flexible and anti-fragile way.

Against this backdrop, global climate and environmental change not only constitutes an ecological risk, but also – to a significant extent – a security risk. Ten years ago, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen, WBGU) comprehensively analysed this situation.5 In the absence of comprehensive counter-strategies (and there have been none so far), climate change will exceed many societies’ adaptive capacities within the next few decades: “This could result in destabilization and violence, jeopardizing national and international security to a new degree. However, climate change could also unite the international community, provided that it recognizes climate change as a threat to humankind and soon sets the course for the avoidance of dangerous anthropogenic climate change by adopting a dynamic and globally coordinated climate policy. If it fails to do so, climate change will draw ever-deeper lines of division and conflict in international relations, triggering numerous conflicts between and within countries over the distribution of resources, especially water and land, over the management of migration, or over compensation payments between the countries mainly responsible for climate change and those countries most affected by its destructive effects,” (WBGU 2008:1). In conflicts over distribution, conflicts of interest and conflicts of domination usually overlap; the former concern the question of how resources are distributed, the latter the question of who decides on the distribution.6

WBGU does not assume a direct correlation between climate change and an increase in violence. Instead, the Advisory Council diagnoses an indirect correlation via an amplification of mechanisms that lead to insecurity and armed conflicts: “Climate change could thus lead to the further proliferation of weak and fragile statehood and increase the probability of violent conflicts occurring,” (WBGU 2008:2). As a push-factor for the increase in migration within developing regions, and between North and South in the context of the North–South conflict, climate change is increasingly overstretching national and international governance structures (cf. WBGU 2008:14). There is a great danger of escalating conflicts. A warning example of this is Syria. Before the escalation of political conflicts, there was a massive drought. First of all, this triggered distress and migration at regional level, which overstrained governance structures and ultimately, together with other factors, led to the destabilization of the entire region. Syria is also an example of the complexity of conflicts: what started out as a conflict of interest (the question of the distribution of resources) became a conflict of domination (over the question of who will control Syria and in what way), with a high readiness to escalate among all actors involved.

As long as knowledge was considered to be a key resource, there was a decrease in violent conflicts (since knowledge can hardly be acquired by military force). But today, a struggle for increasingly scarce resources is emerging. Their sustainable management, however, can only be achieved through collaboration. In many areas, humankind has come to share a common destiny, where the ability to survive depends on adopting cooperative strategies. “All our main problems are global in nature: the nuclear threat, global warming, global inequality and the rise of disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and biotech. To successfully master these challenges, we need global cooperation,” (translated from German; Harari 2018:14). Particularly when it comes to ecological resources, there are certainly encouraging experiences from history with regard to the cooperative management of common use. Rivers, lakes, and coastlines show that this has often worked relatively well across national and ethnic boundaries. Yet the complexity of present-day conflicts means there is a challenging need for a new quality of international, intercultural, and intergenerational cooperativeness on the part of many actors who are involved, affected, and capable of acting in very different ways. Expressed positively, and relating to the concept of foresight: the sustained process of stabilization of habitats and management of collective goods would be a key dimension of crisis prevention.

The superimposition of ­conflicts of recognition and conflicts over resources

Conflicts in the current phase of global change have a dual nature: firstly, they are hard conflicts of interest and power with regard to access to ecological and technical resources. Given the massive, largely underpaid transfer of resources from the global South to the rich nations of the North, one can certainly talk of a new phase of colonialism. According to studies by the UN, the lifestyle of the “externalization societies” of the North, mediated via climate change, is today already curtailing existential human rights for several hundred million people (e.g. the right to food, safety, water etc.).7 Climate change is mostly anthropogenic, i.e. caused by humans. Since its victims in the global South are not identical with those in the global North who are mainly responsible for it, it is interpreted as a conflict of justice. It is not accepted as fate.

On the other hand, identity conflicts are coming to the fore, with an intensity that would not have been expected even just a few years ago. Globalization and migration bring cultural and religious pluralization – including within many societies. As a result, different cultures and religions meet in a confined space, with their specific conceptions of humanity, interpretations of the world, ideas of morality, and legal systems. People experience these as alternatives, comparing their advantages and disadvantages, between which they can or must choose. Transcultural encounters result in whole cultural systems competing at national and international level. Their representatives constantly battle for recognition. Because of this, many people feel alienated and overwhelmed. At the same time, such conflicts are always also a construct, since cultures are never closed systems. Their dynamism is always a result of diverse internal tensions as well as encounters with other patterns of interpretation. In overburdened situations, however, this internal heterogeneity is often forgotten.

At the present time, the link between liberalism and capitalism in particular is perceived by many as an aggressive threat to their cultural identity, or is portrayed as such in discourses of discrimination. As a counter-reaction, closed systems of reference and the rhetoric of populist discrimination seem attractive. The associated conflicts of identity and recognition are not less virulent than the experience of exclusion and misery. The reason why identity conflicts are so politically and ethically explosive is that unlike conflicts of interest, they generally cannot be solved by compromises, and are often linked to strong emotions that are scarcely amenable to reason.8

On a geostrategic level, Samuel Huntington predicted and stimulated interest in the changed constellation of global conflict situations with his theory of a “clash of civilizations”9 – so-called “fault-line wars” between cultures. Conflicts between Western and Islamic countries or groups appear to confirm Huntington’s thesis in the most dramatic way: the conflicts triggered by the 9/11 attacks are not primarily focused on material interests. Instead, they are a symbolically charged conflict in which cultural systems are held to be irreconcilably opposed. One highly problematic aspect of Huntington’s theory, however, is the construct of cultural blocks, which he describes in rather generalized terms. In the Middle East, for example, the highly complex differentiation between the different Islamic movements and groups is key if we want to understand these conflicts and identify possibilities for viable solutions. Another problematic point is that interpreting and enacting cultural conflicts can become a self-fulfilling prophecy: such activities may in themselves create and reinforce the very feeling of being threatened which they seek to counteract. The superimposition of resource conflicts and identity conflicts appears to be highly explosive in political terms.

A productive engagement with uncertainty in morality

In a complex world, there are no simple solutions. The current world situation understandably produces feelings of being overwhelmed and of anxiety. Today, therefore, a critical task for politics, ethics, theology, and culture is to face down the temptation of easy, but false solutions with their black/white, good/evil and friend/enemy dichotomies. This can also be described as a task of building trust in the project of an open, plural society. In addition to the mentioned phenomena of radical change, as well as global resource and identity conflicts, there is a third fundamental uncertainty that needs to be overcome: the fact that morality itself is becoming uncertain – in respect of its foundations, and its individual and societal validity in a plural society marked by breaks with traditions.

If morality today is to acquire a general validity in everyday life, it has to prove itself under conditions of contingency, where justifications are plural and hence always disputable. Moreover, it should critically reflect on and fend off patterns of unresolved complexity in politics and society, which often lead to false solutions, kneejerk reactions and fragmented perspectives. At the same time, morality should not allow itself to be paralyzed by the high degree of ignorance about complex interactions. It should instead develop a way of engaging with risks which is capable both of restraint and caution, as well as innovation and decisive action.

In the ethical debate, the experience of uncertainty is relevant in several respects: it relates to the consequences of action in complex contexts, and the justification and responsibility for particular decisions. In plural societies, it is often impossible to find a consensus regarding the justification, validity, and scope of moral postulates. This can generate considerable uncertainty on the part of the individual. A carefully considered admission of ignorance and doubt with regard to the traceability of actions, motives and consequences of actions is a strong and reasonable basis for establishing freedom. To reserve judgment and allow different opinions in situations of uncertainty follows from a logical system for dealing with ignorance that is constitutive for the rationality of ethical decisions. Many individual and societal decision-making conflicts have such a high and specific degree of complexity that the type of rationality that consists of calculating expected consequences doesn’t seem to guarantee adequate decisions. Hence, utilitarian models of ethics also have a limited reach, i.e. models based on calculating the consequences of actions in relation to individual or collective benefits. Because the comparability of benefits in complex situations is limited, their usability as an ethical guiding category is constrained, too.

Instead of a rationality type based on the predictability of consequences, we need one that calculates with open variables and can respond to surprises – a type of rationality that pays attention to non-linear interactions and takes secondary effects, cross-sectional relationships and cultural contexts into account. We need a rationality type that not only sets goals but also optimizes decision-making and communication processes – one that expects the unexpected and shapes systems so that they can absorb unforeseen events elastically through “buffer zones”. “Resilience” is currently becoming established as a key interdisciplinary concept that transforms traditional concepts of progress, risk and security, and shifts the focus onto the question of robust crisis management strategies. What makes the concept attractive is that it asks about immanent problem-solving potentials, rather than external aids and certainties. It often seems that the challenges of change are necessary to activate these potentials.10 “The most important ability for the future is to adapt ourselves permanently to changes. Who­ever can do that is well prepared,” (translated from German; Harari 2018:14).

In geostrategic terms, too, there are considerable consequences if we take the reorientation from consequence optimization to resilience seriously: the current world situation is so confused that any action guided directly by benefit calculations could prove to be very ill-considered. We need robust alliances and approaches to stabilization policy at various levels (cultural, economic, political, military etc.) The multidimensionality of conflicts and the complex interactions between them requires a corresponding multidimensionality in prospective security policy. The paradigm of the “just peace”11 may offer important guidance here. In the conflict situations of the present – charged with identity conflicts, frequently asymmetric and highly complex – this paradigm is a necessary accompaniment to military strategies through civil society. Given the complexity of current global conflicts, preventive security policy needs new forms of intercultural, inter­religious, ecological and social competence.

“Learned ignorance”

The uncertainty triggered by accelerated change and the high complexity of conflicts leads to calls for more knowledge about the future. Today, this is no longer seen as a prophetic gift based on divine revelation. It has long been established as an interdisciplinary research field. Thus there are a large number of institutions and practices, with scientific methods which promise “to turn the uncertainty of possible events and developments into predictabilities: demographic trends, climate change, the energy supply, assessing technological and geopolitical consequences, not least the economics of the stock exchange,” (translated from German).12 At the same time, however, there remains a considerable degree of uncertainty to take into consideration: “We only have the future in its social and societal constructs. Even the divinatory knowledge of the ancient world, with its oracles, never claimed to ‘really see’ a future reality, but it did state and judge what was visible, identifiable and plausible for a perspectivization of power and morality. Knowledge about the future is orientational knowledge. That remains true today for any kind of ‘political counselling,’” (translated from German; ibid.) Prediction quality results from the ability to understand the underlying structure of current change at any given time, and the logic of the forces at work in it. But there always remain many open questions. Instead of knowledge about the future or predictions, today we often hear the term “scenarios” in the sense of if-then correlations.

Wisdom consists mainly in the ability to distinguish between what one knows and what one does not know. Scientific and ethical progress, too, often results not from additional knowledge, but in the first instance from the realization that there is something one does not know and cannot know. This is particularly important for theology, for example. As “learned ignorance” (docta ignorantia, Nicholas of Cusa), theology is designed to remain open to the non-knowable, the non-calculable, and the mysterious. In the plea for “conscious ignorance,” links can also be drawn with secular traditions, e.g. the Socratic “I know that I know nothing.” For the philosopher, this is considered to be the starting point of wisdom. Hence foresight should be interpreted not only as looking ahead, but also as being cautious and taking care in uncertain situations.

In very different ways, the difference between repressed or unreflected ignorance (which limits the validity of the respective theory) and conscious ignorance (which is included in the form of variables, or factors kept open) is constitutive both for philosophical and theological traditions and for modern complexity theories. Conscious ignorance is the basis for curiosity and a willingness to learn. Knowledge of one’s own ignorance is a crucial virtue when it comes to acting under uncertain conditions. A key conclusion, particularly for ethics, is to acknowledge that there is no getting round the fact that different perspectives exist, and hence that the right to plurality must also be acknowledged. From this follows the idea of tolerance as the peace principle in plural societies, and the legal principle of reserving judgment when charges are unproven. Thus the decision-making maxim in dubio pro reo ([when] in doubt, for the accused) arose in the moral theology of the Baroque period, and today is legally acknowledged to be self-evident. The admission – hard-won at the time – that it is unjust to condemn someone unless their guilt can be proven, creates trust in the legal system.

Trust in legal and political processes of conflict settlement is an essential form of complexity reduction in situations where differences of opinion and ignorance prevail. But trust also has a personal dimension: it draws its certainty not from objectively knowing something, but from interpersonal relations. Acting in uncertainty requires compensation for the limits of individual knowledge through the communicative ability to network with other knowledge holders and perspectives critically and on a basis of trust. Trust in no way precludes the ability for criticism. Here, there is a fundamental link with belief as a form of knowledge. According to the biblical understanding, belief is not an uncertain assumption. It is at its core a relationship of trust (Hebrew aman = belief, trust).

Risk maturity in the face of systematic ignorance

Wolfgang Kersting uses the term “risk maturity” (Risikomündigkeit) to describe a responsible approach to uncertainty. “Thinking in terms of probabilities, weighing up multiple possibilities, forms part of the cognitive infrastructure of the modern era, for the modern era is the age of only relative, certainty-free rationality. [...] Hence in technical and moral respects we should become risk-mature and develop a system of managing uncertainties” (translated from German).13 Risk maturity is the ability to take justified and responsible decisions even in situations characterized by high complexity and uncertainty. Uncertainty here refers to the consequences of actions, to the different standards of judgment on the part of those affected, and to the limits of moral rationality, for which there is no ultimate justification and no complete coherence under conditions of modernity.

In methodological terms, one can identify three main criteria that need to be taken into account for risk-mature crisis prevention:

(1) When assessing the evils in an actual decision-making situation, in order to avoid a distorted and one-sided consideration, we should always systematically include the consequences of failing to act in our concept of responsibility. Owing to the abundance of uncertainty in complex systems, the maxim “if in doubt, priority for the worst-case scenario” postulated by Hans Jonas (Heuristics of Fear)14, if consistently applied, would lead to the paralysis of our ability to act. Strict avoidance of any risk results in a resigned loss of innovation. It could therefore ultimately turn out to be a strategy that blocks potential for action and thus creates more risks than it avoids. From a military ethics point of view, too, the risk of not acting always has to be systematically taken into account. Risk maturity therefore aims not to absolutely minimize all risk, but to avoid a critical threshold of risks and increase flexible problem-solving potentials.

(2) A key element of risk maturity is a clear hierarchy of problems and dangers in assessing complex situations, as well as the weighting of risks that are not directly comparable. Systemic risks are particularly problematic – such as those that are typical of climate change, or in the field of financial markets, which are mainly determined by systemic ­interaction processes. Risk analyses have traditionally limited the assessment of undesired effects to numerical probabilities, which are generally based on relative frequencies and the respectively assigned damage potentials. A key feature of the main present-day conflicts, however, is that the probability of occurrence and extent of damage are not sufficiently known, while the public’s assessment of risk deviates significantly from that of the experts, or the experts themselves cannot agree. Additional assessment criteria (alongside the probability of occurrence and extent of damage) include ubiquity (geographic extent), persistence (extent in time), and reversibility (particularly in the case of delayed effects). Risk maturity requires systemic thinking and, derived from this, a hierarchy of problems and action options. These criteria also apply to military action in complex conflict situations, for example in Afghanistan.

(3) “Yet precisely because the perception of risk is not shaped by the grammar of absolute rationality, but is instead embedded in a plural perceptual behavior which balances different value perspectives, it should remain embedded in participatory decision-making models of risk management” (translated from German; Kersting 2005:318). To the extent that many situations involving complex interrelationships are particularly context-sensitive, the judgment of those who are directly acting and affected acquires an essential importance over that of external experts. Risk maturity requires democratic processes that include the different competences as well as the citizens concerned in a representative way. In view of the current transition from a hegemonial world to an extremely confusing, multipolar world that is marked by heterogeneous identity conflicts and conflicts of interest, communicative strategies are centrally important – particularly also for military ethics. Anyone who not only wants to win the war, but also peace, needs cultural competence and a willingness to engage in dialogue beyond technical superiority in order to achieve reconciliation and the consent and participation of the population in the construction of new power structures. Such an expansion of military strategies in the sense of just peace is today a necessary element of crisis prevention.

1 Harari, Yuval Noah (2018): “Zucker ist heute gefährlicher als Schießpulver.” Interview on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference 2018.
In: Süddeutsche Zeitung, February 15, 2018, p. 14 (henceforth quoted in abbreviated form as “Harari 2018”; the same applies to the other quotations).

2 Osterhammel, Jürgen (2009): Die Verwandlung der Welt – Eine Geschichte des 19. Jahrhunderts. Munich,
p. 51.

3 Cf. Taleb, Nassim (2013): Antifragilität – Anleitung für eine Welt, die wir nicht verstehen. 3rd ed. Munich; Vogt, Markus/Schneider, Martin (eds.) (2016): “Theologische und ethische Dimension der Resilienz.” Münchener Theologische Zeitschrift [MThZ] vol. 67, 3/2016; Karidi, Maria/Schneider, Martin/Gutwald, Rebecca (eds.) (2017): Resilienz. Interdisziplinäre Perspektiven zu Wandel und Transformation. Wiesbaden.

4 For the two reports, cf. Weizsäcker, Ernst Ulrich / Wijkman, Andreas (2018): Come on! Captalism, Short-termism, Population and the Destruction of the Planet – A Report to the Club of Rome. New York; Bardi, Ugo (2017): The Seneca ­Effect – Why Growth Is Slow but Collapse Is Rapid. Cham.

5 WBGU (2008): Climate Change as a Security Risk. Berlin.

6 Cf. Imbusch, Peter/Zoll, Ralf (eds.) (2006): Friedens- und Konfliktforschung – Eine Einführung. 4th ed. Wiesbaden, pp. 67–81. On the analysis of climate conflicts, cf. Vogt, Markus: “Klimaschutz im Gestrüpp der Interessen – Philosophische und theologische Perspektiven.” In: Felix Ekardt (ed.): Klimagerechtigkeit – Ethische, rechtliche, ökonomische und transdisziplinäre Zugänge. Marburg 2012, pp. 54–78.

7 UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] (2007): Human Development Report 2007/2008. Fighting climate change – Human solidarity in a divided world. New York.

8 Cf. on this point Vogt, Markus (2017): “Politische Emotionen als moraltheoretische Herausforderung.” In: Münchener Theologische Zeitschrift [MThZ] vol. 68, 4/2017, pp. 306–323.

9 Huntington, Samuel (1996): The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York.

10 On the concept of resilience, cf. endnote 3 as well as the website of the Bavarian research consortium ForChange: www.forchange.de [accessed
June 5, 2018]; see e.g. a study on resilience and risk by M. Vogt.

11 Die deutschen Bischöfe [DBK] (2000): Gerechter Friede. Published by Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz (Die deutschen Bischöfe 66), Bonn.

12 Cf. Mosse Lectures 2016: www.hsozkult.de/event/id/termine-30701 (accessed June 5, 2018).

13 Kersting, Wolfgang (2005): Kritik der Gleichheit – Über die Grenzen der Gerechtigkeit und der Moral. Weilerswist, p. 317; on risk maturity see the whole section on pp. 317–320.

14 Jonas, Hans (1984): Das Prinzip Verantwortung – Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation. 2nd ed. Frankfurt, pp. 63f.; cf. also p. 385 (on the anthropological fallacy of utopia) and pp. 390–392
(on the relationship between fear, hope and responsibility). [Translated version: The Imperative of Responsibility. In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago.] 

Author

Vogt_Foto_3-2018.jpg

Prof. Dr. Markus Vogt, born in 1962 in Freiburg, studied theology and philosophy in Munich, Jerusalem, and Lucerne. Since 2007, he has held the chair of Christian social ethics at LMU Munich. His research focuses on anthropological and socio-philosophical bases of ethics in modern society; human–environment relationships; sustainability and bioeconomics; business ethics and welfare state theory; and political ethics and peace ethics.

m.vogtkaththeol.uni-muenchende