Welcome to postnormal times

Ziauddin Sardar
2010 Futures : The journal of policy, planning and futures studies  
It never rains but it pours, says the proverb. And it has been pouring a lot in recent times. If the multiple threats from climate change were not enough to give us sleepless nights, we are now in the grip of one of the worst recessions in history. Overnight, banks collapsed like houses of cards, giant insurance companies buckled, household names began to disappear from the high street. Our government had to pump in an astounding £1.3 trillion in guarantees and quantitatively ease our financial
more » ... system just to keep it ticking. Before we had time to draw breath, a pandemic of swine flu threatened to engulf the globe. Lurking behind all this is the energy crisis, dwindling natural resources-such as oil (possibly) and fish (definitely), the continued threat of nuclear proliferation, and the ever present menace of terrorism. Not to mention the pensions crisis, the crisis of gang violence and knife killings on our streets, and the crisis facing the 'Mother of all Parliaments'. We hate the bankers, distrust our politicians and worry constantly about the security of our jobs, safety of our children and the blight of our communities. Nothing is definite, truly guaranteed, or totally safe. Welcome to postnormal times. It's a time when little out there can be trusted or gives us confidence. The espiritu del tiempo, the spirit of our age, is characterised by uncertainty, rapid change, realignment of power, upheaval and chaotic behaviour. We live in an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. Ours is a transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future. It is a time when all choices seem perilous, likely to lead to ruin, if not entirely over the edge of the abyss. In our time it is possible to dream all dreams of visionary futures but almost impossible to believe we have the capability or commitment to make any of them a reality. We live in a state of flux beset by indecision: what is for the best, which is worse? We are disempowered by the risks, cowed into timidity by fear of the choices we might be inclined or persuaded to contemplate. All that was 'normal' has now evaporated; we have entered postnormal times, the inbetween period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have not yet emerged, and nothing really makes sense. To have any notion of a viable future, we must grasp the significance of this period of transition which is characterised by three c's: complexity, chaos and contradictions. These forces propel and sustain postnormal times leading to uncertainty and different types of ignorance that make decision-making problematic and increase risks to individuals, society and the planet. Postnormal times demands, this paper argues, that we abandon the ideas of 'control and management', and rethink the cherished notions of progress, modernisation and efficiency. The way forward must be based on virtues of humility, modesty and accountability, the indispensible requirement of living with uncertainty, complexity and ignorance. We will have to imagine ourselves out of postnormal times and into a new age of normalcy-with an ethical compass and a broad spectrum of imaginations from the rich diversity of human cultures. ß In the normal scheme of things, we know where we stand. The winters are cold and the summers are hot, the seasons flow-spring forward, fall back like clockwork-in a natural cycle. The economy grows steadily, at rates varying from sluggishly to dramatic, but guaranteeing a reliable general increase in prosperity and security. Markets work, warts and all, they regulate prices and we have confidence and trust in our financial institutions. Politicians, never the most trustworthy of breeds, acknowledge, and by and large adhere to, accepted principles of behaviour as they legislate effectively to order the affairs of society. When we are faced with a new disease or danger, science and medicine come galloping to our rescue. A global balance of power, with all its imperfections, maintains a semblance of peaceable law and order; tin pot dictators, fearing the consequences of their actions, know where to draw the line. We live in coherent and cohesive communities, safe in the knowledge that the futures of our children are secure. In normal times, when things go wrong, as they so often have, we know what to do. We identify and isolate the problem and apply our physical and intellectual resources to come up with a viable answer. The solid foundations and proven theories of our disciplines, from economics and political science to biological and natural sciences, guide us towards a potential solution. The weight and sheer power of intellectual, academic and political orthodoxy ensures that we successfully ride the tiger of change. Little of this now holds true. Much of what we have taken as normal, conventional and orthodox just does not work anymore. Indeed, normality itself is revealed to be the root of all our ills. Take the current economic crisis, for example. This provides ample evidence that the old business model on which we have relied for centuries is bust. Not only has free market capitalism become dangerously obsolete but the branch of economics, which provided theoretical justification for this edifice is also intellectually bankrupt [1]. Economic man, the intellectual construct underpinning the edifice, a species once vaunted for his rationality, is extinct [2] . Markets propelled only by the profit motive have become ungovernable, predicated only on personal greed and unconscionable accumulation of unimaginable private wealth concentrated in few hands. Competition and the free flow of capital around the liberalised, deregulated globe is a revolving tale of beggar my neighbour to produce ever cheaper consumer goods that leave more and more 'rust belt' communities as de-industrialised wastelands while the realignment of global trade imbalances increases volatility and mutual distrust within and between nations [3] . The world itself is now a far more uncertain place than it was during the second half of the twentieth century. It is not just that our own political system, based on self-regulation and comradely rules of gentlemen's clubs, is irreparably broken; the more politicians legislate, reform and amend the less significant and effective laws seem in achieving or delivering appreciable social benefit the more unintended and undesired consequences appear. The global geopolitical landscape is also changing rapidly. There is hardly a country where politicians, of whatever persuasion, are either trusted or respected. Even the regular cycles of our weather cannot be trusted anymore-thanks to global warming, with its attendant rises in temperatures and sea levels, changing ocean composition and transformed ecosystems. 'The first decade of the 21st century has been a series of wake up calls', says an advertisement for IBM. 'These are system crises-from security, to climate, to food and water, to energy, to financial markets and more ' [4]. What is unique about these crises is that they have occurred simultaneously: 'we have never seen any era when we have been hit by all these multiple crisis at the one time', says UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-moon [5]. It is not just that things are going wrong; they are going wrong spectacularly, on a global scale, and in multiple and concurrent ways. We thus find ourselves in a situation that is far from normal; and have entered the domain of the postnormal.
doi:10.1016/j.futures.2009.11.028 fatcat:au55zmkk6bavfcsu32hdhmws3q