This is the title (without the question mark) of Ilya Prigogine’s 1984 book. He made the radical suggestion that order always emerges from chaos, and he noted that it is impossible to predict exactly what kind of order will emerge from chaos. Specifically, he suggested that this happened when systems were in a “far from equilibrium” state. Although he was writing about chemical and physical reactions, I believe that his findings are equally valid for social and political systems.
There can be little doubt that we are living in “far from equilibrium” times. On good days, it feels confusing and dispiriting. On bad days, of which there are many, it feels dangerous. If you doubt this, you have not been paying attention. I will just mention a few items from a very long list. A lying narcissist has direct access to the world’s biggest nuclear arsenal. An extreme right-winger who wants to commercially exploit the Amazon rainforest (“the lungs of the planet”) has just been elected President of Brazil. The UK is committing an act of massive self-harm by exiting the European Union. Economic and social inequalities are now greater than they were in Victorian times. Human behaviour is changing the climate dangerously. As if all this were not enough, all this planet’s life-support systems – yes, all of them – are in serious decline. i.e. clean air, clean water, forests, topsoil, aquifers, fisheries, wetlands, and biodiversity. This is because we human beings (and only we human beings) overuse and abuse them.
In these circumstances, it is a matter of astonishment that we continue to believe that we are the most intelligent species on this planet! Yet I believe that Prigogine’s findings give us cause for hope. There is clearly a strong sense of collapse and chaos. Things are very evidently far from equilibrium. In the domains of chemical and physical reactions, this situation leads to great change – change that cannot be predicted. I suspect that this is exactly what we are going through now, on a human scale. I believe that we are right on the cusp of global changes that we can barely imagine. Yes, it looks dark outside now. But a new dawn is just about to break. Are we ready for it? It means that we have to be prepared for anything, including things we can barely imagine.