Essay: External Shocks and Transformative Change

bolide External shocks — the type that bring about radical change in large, complex systems — is the focus of my recent piece on Niti Central. When things are at their worst, what’s needed is a push to put matters on a different trajectory. I believe that the next general elections has the potential to deliver that for India.

Here’s the text of my piece, for the record. I should also add that in the last paragraph of the piece, I made up an “old Indian adage” just to make it sound profound. Have fun.

External Shocks and Transformative Change

There’s an old joke about a hot dog vendor and a Buddhist monk which goes something like this. The vendor asks, “What would you like on your hot dog?” The monk says, “Make me one with everything.” The sublime desire to merge boundlessly with the universe contrasted with the mundane toppings of a hot dog provides the punch line. But the joke has a follow-up. The monk pays for his meal with a large bill and waits for his change. After a while he asks for the change. The hot dog vendor says, “Change comes only from within.”

When we are concerned with individual spiritual awakening, perhaps change comes only from within. When the person is ready, something within arises and brings about the necessary transformation. But it appears that in the case of large collectives and complex systems, change does not arise from within. In all such cases, change is in response to what is called an “external shock.” Radical or transformative change is exogenous — arising from factors outside the system — rather than endogenous — arising from within the system.

Systems are temporally stable, and they evolve but only gradually. Over long periods of time you can tell that changes have happened but each stage of that change is imperceptible. For instance, speciation takes place in biological time — hundreds of thousands of years — although the change between the generations is not noticeable. Evolution is like that but revolution is sudden, disruptive and dramatic. Systems move from one stable equilibrium to another driven not by some internal impulse but from an agent that is external to the system. This is an external impact or shock to the system.

The primary thesis of this piece is that external shocks bring about radical change and that without external shocks, it is generally not possible for systems to change their trajectory radically. Transformations are revolutionary, not evolutionary. Now for some examples that illustrate the basic point. These are just-so stories and although they don’t prove the thesis, they do support the conjecture sufficiently to make it plausible.

One of the most cataclysmic events in earth’s history is the one which is called the Cretaceous–Paleogene (K–Pg) extinction event. Around 66 million year ago, an asteroid or bolide hit the earth in what is today the Gulf of Mexico. The 180-km wide impact zone is known today as the Chicxulub crater discovered in the late 1970s.

For hundreds of millions of years, life on land was dominated by the dinosaurs. Then the K-Pg event happened and destroyed three-quarters of all plant and animal life — including the non-flying dinosaurs. (Birds, including the chicken in the tikka masala, are the descendants of the surviving flying dinosaurs.) The big boom heard around the world was an external shock. Nobody experiencing the event liked it. And no 0ne could have prepared for it because no one was expecting it. But what it did was it shifted the trajectory of life on earth and allowed the mammals to take over. We humans owe our dominance on the planet today to that external shock delivered so brutally by a stray asteroid.

That was the mother of all disruptive events. They do not happen frequently but system-wide disruptions happen often enough to keep the story interesting. Things go on uneventfully for hundreds of years — and then BAM! An external shock.

External shocks come in various forms. You can have a disease that kills off a significant proportion of the population. The devastating pandemic known as the Black Death killed an estimated 30 to 60 per cent of the population of Europe in the years 1348-50 CE. Between 75 and 200 million people died but it changed the course of European — and human — history. That was an external shock that cleared the field for social and economic transformation of Europe.

Fires and earthquakes are external shocks. San Francisco was destroyed by the fires that followed the earthquake of 1906. It is a fine city today because it was built anew following that disaster. Wars are large-scale human actions but they too provide external shocks. London, Berlin and Tokyo are examples of cities that were destroyed and then rebuilt. Destruction of the old order forces the creation of a possibly better new order. Cities which have never had the misfortune of being massively destroyed don’t get the opportunity to rebuild. Metros such as Mumbai and Kolkata are the poorer today for not having endured any external shock ever.

Foreign invasions are examples of external shocks. Marauding armies disrupt and lay waste the land but for better or for worse, disrupt and bring about radical change. We have to be very clear that change is probably good for someone but change is always bad for someone or something. Change is never good for those who prospered in the old order: which is precisely why in human society, radical change is so strenuously resisted by those in power. Revolutions are not started by those who dominate the existing order.

This brings us to what appears to be a dominant theme in the context of India today. If I had a penny (small change) for every call I hear for change in India, I would definitely be a millionaire. Every two-bit politician and social activist is clamouring for change. None of them are credible because they are doing quite well in the existing order. The most non-credible calls for change are the ones that come from the members of the ruling dynasty and their lackeys. It would be more believable if the dinosaurs were calling for an asteroid to hit the earth and bring about change.

For decades, the politicians and political parties in India have had a great time. India has suffered and failed to keep pace with the developing world but the politicians have done remarkably incredibly well. They have become rich and have impoverished India in their greed for wealth. It would be insanely unrealistic to expect them to bring about the transformation of India into a developed country because it would mean the end of their dominance.

What India needs is not evolutionary change but radical change. This radical change can only be delivered by someone or something that is external to the system. In other words, an external shock. How would we recognise that external shock? The simplest test is this: if everyone prospering in the current system is against someone, that someone is capable of bringing about the disruptive change. Their fear is well founded because any disruptive change will certainly put an end to the cosy little scheme that has worked so well for them for so long.

For decades India has been forced to follow the ‘socialist’ path. Great prosperity has been promised by those in control. Prosperity did happen but it was only for those in power; the rest of the people languished in poverty. Those same people in power continue to talk loudly about progress and growth but it should be clear that their policies cannot deliver even if they really wanted to. It is also easy to understand that they will not change their policies because if they did, they would be admitting that they failed disastrously. Policy change can only happen following an external shock.

India needs radical, transformative change. It cannot be delivered by the same old policies made by the same old parties. The old Indian adage goes, if you want to change your life, change your mind. I would add: to change your mind, change your brain. In the context of India, only change in leadership will bring about policy change. And that change in leadership can only be through an external shock.

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