Resource Insights from Plus or Minus 12 People on a Liferaft


Anthony Judge – TRANSCEND Media Service

Thought Experiment to Highlight Global Dilemmas in a Comprehensible Context


There have been numerous accounts of global resource constraints over past decades — and the nature of the crises predicted through failure to engage with them appropriately. The argument here arises from the classic observation that crises involving millions evoke a form of psychic numbing which severely inhibits such engagement. Suffering on the larger scale does not connect with ordinary comprehension, despite media reporting on a daily basis. Disasters involving millions are essentially meaningless to most. When the dilemmas are presented on a more human scale, involving very few, they then become far more comprehensible and meaningful. Hence the media tendency to focus extensively on single-person “human interest” stories.

The experiment described here is necessarily inspired by current debates regarding food security — whether or not these are explicitly related to those of immigration. The former is framed as the challenge for developing countries and the latter as that for developed countries. In systemic terms “food security” and “immigration” are effectively mirror images (or inversions) of one another — in contrasting parts of the world. Most striking is the optimistic strategic naivety with regard to food security as the global population increases significantly. On the other hand, immigration is now being framed as the major issue for Europe, if not for the USA and Australia. Most significant in the debate is the absolute lack of any demonstrably viable solution.

The phrase emphasized with respect to European societies is that current levels of influx constitute a form of time-bomb. The continuing build-up in population driving these processes is carefully avoided (Institutionalized Shunning of Overpopulation Challenge: incommunicability of fundamentally inconvenient truth, 2008). Most significant is the manner in which the challenge of immigration is now framed as what amounts to a “firefighting problem” (From Reactive to Proactive Management: getting out of “firefighting” mode, Mind Tools). Longer-term considerations are set aside. Food security is readily framed in those terms — how to deal with the hungry today.

The argument here is for a thought experiment inspired by many accounts — whether true or developed in fiction. The focus here is on 12 people who find themselves isolated on a liferaft with limited resources — or perhaps as classic castaways on an arid remote island. The experiment explores the dialogue between them as the finite nature of the resources becomes ever more evident — and there is increasing recognition of the improbability of being saved. Insights emerge as the dialogue progressively calls into question assumptions conventionally made.

Some form of lifeboat gives appropriate focus to the argument — given the thousands of “boat people” who use such means to escape the chaos of their own countries and to seek asylum in developed countries. Many die in the process (Mediterranean migrant deaths: a litany of largely avoidable loss, The Guardian, 3 October 2013). This curiously offers a symbolic mirror of the foreseeable future global situation — and the decision-making paralysis it engenders. However, for comprehensibility, the focus here is on the psychosocial dynamics within a single boat in that more classic survival situation.

The experiment acquires greater significance through a particular device. An extended timescale is assumed, namely that there are sufficient resources on the liferaft to sustain life over a period in which children may well be produced by those on the boat. This process represents a significant increase in the number of mouths to feed as the resources diminish — a “12 plus” situation. On the other hand some may become expendable and be abandoned (or eaten) — a “12 minus” situation. Of some relevance is the classic behavioural research on exploding rodent populations and on survival cannibalism.

As a thought experiment focusing on discourse and argumentation, it can be explored with different configurations of people. For example, these could be of various cultures, various religions, various lifestyles, various disciplines, various ideologies, and various ages — or any combination of such variety. One variant might explore the classic case of “12 wise men” and contrast it with that of “12 wise women”.

A further variation might explore the case where there is another similar group on a not-too-distant liferaft — or island — facing similar resource constraints and dilemmas. Of course, the isolation suggested by a “liferaft” can be understood otherwise, namely as a form of socio-economic “isolation”. This is characteristic of the living conditions of any small group of people — possibly confronted with neighbouring groups with their own resources (whether constrained or otherwise).



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