Complacency: The Chronic Threat To Progress

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright August 2017


Complacency is powerful instinctive thinking in humans. "If things are doing fine then let the sleeping dogs lie." is thinking that is widespread. It centers mostly in older adult thinking but the effects spread throughout the communities those older adults are part of.

One of the constant casualties of complacent thinking is progress. In anything but Stone Age lifestyles complacency leads to stagnation and decline.

It works in the Stone Age

The Stone Age lifestyle is the one humans have lived in for thousands of generations and is the one human thinking is best adapted to. This is a lifestyle filled with uncertainty. Lots can go wrong and it goes wrong for reasons that are a mystery to the inhabitants. In such an environment when things are going right, it is fine to just keep enjoying the bountiful fruits of things going right. This is complacency in action. If things are going right, sit back, continue what you have been doing, and enjoy. When things stop going right, then you change -- you move and you experiment hard to find out what works well in this new place you have moved to.

It doesn't work beyond that

Complacency works well in the Stone Age living conditions. But Agricultural and Industrial Age lifestyles are a big revolution from Stone Age lifestyles, and complacency works less and less well as these lifestyles get further and further from Stone Age living.

The big problem with complacency in Agricultural and Industrial Age environments is it leads to stagnation and then decline. Today we have countless ruins scattered around the world that were once shining structures built by ancient people who were shaking up their worlds, but these glorious works were then abandoned when the civilizations these people created declined and the people moved on.

Why were these places abandoned?

Because the people inhabiting them became complacent. When they did they stopped improving. For a generation or two they lived with "We're doing just fine." -- complacent-powered stagnation -- and then came a complacent-powered, quiet, comfortable decline, and finally abandonment which left behind the ruins we see today.

It is happening today

Complacency is very much with us today. And the stagnation and decline it brings on is also very much with us today.

Consider the fate of the American Midwest region: from the 1800's to the 1950's this region grew steady in infrastructure, population and prosperity. In the 1950's it was the Steel Belt and contained many of America's most populous and prosperous cities.

In the 1960's complacency grew strong in the region. "We're doing just fine with our steel-related industries." became strong thinking. The result: the ambitious left, and we have Silicon Valley in California, not Silicon Belt in the Midwest. Instead the Midwest first stagnated, then declined, and became the Rust Belt, a regional basket case with lots of ruins in the form of abandoned factories and houses.

This is complacency in action.


Complacency is powerful instinctive thinking. It is well-suited to Stone Age living styles where if things are going well this is a blessing and letting sleeping dogs lie works well.

But it is thinking that works against progress, and for this reason it is not well-suited to advanced human lifestyles. The result of mixing complacency with Agricultural and Industrial Age lifestyles is stagnation and decline, leading to the many ruins we have with us today.

And, if we do not become aware of what complacency does to a community, we are going to see many more of our current communities stagnate and then comfortably decline.

This is a deep threat to American exceptionalism and the three centuries of constantly growing prosperity it has supported. The more American communities become complacent, the slower progress will be in America during the 21st century.



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