5 Feb 2024

Brian Klaas: how we control nothing but influence everything

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 5 February 2024

Social scientist Brian Klaas finds it uplifting to recognise how much of his own life is the result of random chance.

"It liberates me to say maybe there's no cosmic purpose to my life and what I'm supposed to do is [just] enjoy it with people I love and care about and try to make the world a little better for other people," he tells Afternoons.

a child in a field of flowers facing the sun

Photo: Melissa Askew

American political scientist and writer Brian Klaas

Brian Klass Photo: Supplied

Brian Klaas is a professor of global politics at University College London. He is the author of Fluke: Chance, Chaos and Why Everything We Do Matters. 

Fluke opens with the story of Clara Magdalen Jansen who killed her four young children in a Wisconsin farmhouse in 1905.

When he was in his mid-20s, Klaas discovered Clara was his great-grandfather's first wife and realised he therefore wouldn't exist if it wasn't for her murder-suicide 119 years ago.

"It is an extraordinary story that helps me make sense of my life as a cosmic accident. But it also I think, speaks to the intertwined nature of cause and effect that we often ignore."

The most important factors in Klaas's life – where and when he was born, who his parents were, his upbringing and his brain – are things he had absolutely no control over.

"If I was born in rural Madagascar, we wouldn't be talking. I mean, there's just no way. Forty per cent of the island has electricity, the average person makes $1.50 a day. I the odds of escaping that no matter how lucky you are, are very, very low."

The American Dream – an idea that if you want to be successful you just have to work hard – is not only untrue, Klaas says, it creates victim-blaming.

"People in places like rural Madagascar simply can't escape the forces that they have arbitrarily been placed in because of where they were born."

In Fluke, Klaas writes about a man who was scheduled to attend a conference at the World Trade Centre on 9/11. The man would have been inside one of its towers for the terror attack, he says, if not for a coworker gifting him a tie printed with a Monet painting.

"He went back to his hotel room to iron a different shirt that would match the tie. And as he went back to do this, he looked out the window. His colleague who'd given him the tie had gone up to the conference centre on the 101st floor of the World Trade Centre. And she dies because the plane hits and he sees the plane hit the building while he's ironing his tie."

The most upsetting thing that people said afterwards, this man told Klaas, was that 'everything happens for a reason'. 

"But he says 'This was an accident that I survived, it was totally random. And I don't like the notion that there was some grand plan that said my colleagues were supposed to die and I was supposed to live'."

In a quest for efficiency and optimisation, we've designed a world prone to 'black swan events' - unforeseen, catastrophic events such as a boat getting struck by a gust of wind in the Suez Canal causing billions of dollars worth of damage.

"We basically engineered a world in which Starbucks will never change day to day and we can always expect this to have extreme regularity and predictability but democracies are collapsing and rivers are drying up.

"We have engineered a system that is more prone to shocks simply because we have created rapid technological change with very little slack built in. And I think it's a mistake that's going to create more and more of these shocks as we go through the 21st century, particularly with AI and other technological shifts like that."

Fluke book cover

Fluke book cover Photo: supplied

Although it might be overwhelming to imagine that hitting the snooze button is a life-changing event, the idea that 'we control nothing but we influence everything' is actually helpful, Klaas says.

"I think it's an antidote to some of the malaise that many people feel in modern life, its sort of interchangeability or replaceability with AI or robots taking our jobs or whatever. Because we all are reshaping the future constantly."

It can be uplifting to accept how much of your life is beyond your control while acknowledging that you still have influence, Klaas says.

"I have a lot of stuff that is outside of my ability to harness or manipulate but I am not unimportant. 

"Because I'm the byproduct of this mass murder, I feel like a sort of accident of a tragedy. And it liberates me to say maybe there's no cosmic purpose to my life, and what I'm supposed to do is sort of enjoy it with people I love and care about and try to make the world a little better for other people."

This way of thinking is actually the opposite of nihilism, he says.

"You're constantly affecting the world and therefore your actions are important. They do matter and you matter.

"Your pathway through life is going to be affected by what other people are doing right now and you're just completely oblivious to it.

"Maybe it's a bit nerdy to think this way, but I really like imagining that my life is being reshaped in ways that I cannot perceive by the actions of people I'll never meet.

"It takes the pressure off to think that we are sort of a cosmic accident and I think that also a lot of our lives are. And you should take a little bit less credit for your success and a little bit less credit for your success and a little bit less blame for your failures."

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