It is the feeling you get when events around the world are unfolding in a certain direction, but you are uncertain exactly how they will unfold or exactly where they will finally leave us. That is the nature of complex, dynamic systems, and more systemic complexity usually means less certainty. Perturbation theory is commonly used by physicists to describe the behavior of complex physical systems that involve equations which cannot be solved exactly. Take the movement of planets in our solar system and through our galaxy, for example, which, at first, may seem relatively simple to predict.
In reality, the existence of multiple planets and moons with inter-acting gravitational effects make the necessary calculations extremely complex and render exacting predictions of planetary paths through space-time impossible. Instead, astronomers attempting to predict the path of planet Earth would first start with the gravitational effect of the Sun, as it is the body with the largest gravitational influence.
Then, they would "correct" the solution with the second, third...nth-order gravitational effects of the next most influential bodies of mass respectively. It was discovered, however, that even the last correction in a perturbation analysis can end up being larger than the first one, which means that a relatively small perturbation can disproportionately effect the dynamics of the entire system. This "butterfly effect" of perturbations also operates at the smallest scales of our Universe, and presents a major obstacle to other physical theories, such as those encompassing the quantum scale.
An example would be String Theory, commonly referred to as a potential "Theory of Everything", since it posits that the fundamental constituents of the Universe (strings) are way too small to be directly or indirectly observed (via experiments such as particle accelerators) because of technological (energetic) limitations. Therefore, it must provide precise predictions of their behavior and its correspondence with known properties of the Universe to verify their existence. But the strings, like all other constituents of matter, interact with each other through multiple spatial dimensions and make such specific predictions practically impossible.
If the specific behavior of massive planets or one-dimensional oscillating strings is too complex for prediction, then what are the chances for a global human society consisting of economic, social and political systems that are enormously specialized and inter-dependent? We spend a lot of our time thinking about how much prices for specific goods will rise or fall next week or next month, and telling others what we imagine will happen. How much will the price of gold be at the end of the Summer, or what about local real estate prices?
Perhaps we are wondering how U.S. and European stock market valuations will be affected by the ongoing disasters in Japan, or the worsening sovereign debt situation in Europe. We ask people to tell us where and when the next Middle Eastern revolution will break out, and exactly how the global community will respond. In the final analysis, the "predictors" just end up using the same speculative "value at-risk" models that global financial investors followed right off of an economic cliff in the first place.
Instead, we should content ourselves with knowing the generalized "solutions" derived from perturbation theory, and embracing its shortcomings. We start with the biggest influences on our global society and work our way down, until it becomes meaninglessly complex to continue. The size of the influence must be measured by its approximate timing and its systemic impact, which is largely rooted in the scope of the system which it affects (financial, industrial, environmental, etc.). We attempt to "calculate" the general pressures that will be exerted on civilization's path by each influence, adjusting the path's course as new influences are incorporated.
It is not a process that is nearly as simple as going from the Sun to the Moon, but it is still useful for calculating the general direction in which our global civilization is headed and the path we may all be on. These are the biggest influences that I perceive in general order of size (biggest to smallest), with an emphasis on the temporal contribution to influence, but there is certainly room for re-arranging the order or assigning equal weights to multiple influences:
(My personal calculations, with the exception of those relating to climate change and imperialist policies, are referenced by the relevant articles linked under each listed influence.)
#1 - The peak of speculative private debt in the global financial system, including both on and off balance sheet liabilities of individuals and institutions (the shadow derivatives markets). "Speculative debt" means liabilities that are only supported by deceptive accounting methods and/or worthless government guarantees, rather than productive cash flows.
THE DEBT-DOLLAR DISCIPLINE (CONSERVATION & RELEASE)
THE MATH IS DIFFERENT AT THE TOP (FINANCIAL THREATS TO POWER)
EXPORTING SPECULATIVE DEBT
#2 - The fiscal and monetary policies of governments and central banks in regions with relatively large economies. Among these institutions, the biggest influences would include the Federal Reserve, the IMF, the European Central Bank, the Bank of China, the Bank of Japan and the governments of the U.S., several European states, China and Japan.
JUMPING THE TREASURY SHARK
BAILING OUT THE THIMBLE WITH THE TITANIC
#3 - The peak of the total percentage of public debt and deficits relative to global GDP, including unfunded entitlement obligations in developed economies.
WELCOME TO SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FINANCE
#4 - The peak in global oil production that most likely occurred sometime between 2000-2010, and it's negative impact on economic growth for developed economies that mostly rely on imported oil, as well as major oil exporting countries.
WHEN THE LIGHTS GO OUT
#5 - Environmental degradation issues, such as water scarcity, and their contribution to widespread famine, disease, industrial instability and violent conflicts.
WILL WATER SET THE WORLD ON FIRE?
#6 - Accelerating trends in climate change and its contribution to the issues listed in #5.
#7 - The imperialistic (militaristic) policies of developed countries and their contribution to economic disruption and violent conflict around the world.
#8 - Deterioration of the psychosocial and political structures of developed economies that are struggling with all of the above factors, and its contribution to systemic fear and violent conflict around the world.
FEAR & LOATHING IN THE DIVIDED STATES OF AMERICA
A GLIMPSE INTO THE STUBBORN PSYCHOLOGY OF "FISH"
THE SHORT STORY OF HOW WE LOSE
By now, it should be clear that, even though the above is an extremely general list of influences, the interaction between them makes for a very complex task of prediction. There is a lot of room to add detail to the listed influences, such as specifics about public debt held in the EU and the U.S. or the range of policy tools at the hands of powerful institutions, as well as new generalized influences that will develop over time. That is why we must sacrifice high levels of certainty for generalized accuracy and a somewhat reasonable sense of where we are headed.
I will not rehash my calculations here, because that is obviously not the point of this article. Everyone must evaluate the objective evidence on their own, and use their mind's "calculator" to determine humanity's most likely destination. We must accept that our margin of error will necessarily be large, and we must also pay strict attention to details, because even the slightest perturbations can lead to radically different outcomes. It is often an extremely tedious, frustrating and mind-numbing process, but, frankly, there is no other option.