The forces of change

Kara Martin

A review of The Big Mo by Mark Roeder

One of the characteristics of popular culture is the powerful draw of the "big thing" of the moment. Whether it is music, movies, TV shows… there is a momentum that grows and sweeps people along.

However this phenomenon affects other areas of life as well, such as technology. Consider the popularity of the iPhone, or any Apple product at the moment.

Could this idea of momentum be applied to other areas? What about economics? Or even religion? Is there a greater impact of the force of momentum because of modern technology? And the increased and almost instant communications and connectivity now available?

Australian author and consultant Mark Roeder was inspired to consider these questions in The Big Mo: Why momentum now rules our world? when investigating the causes of the Global Financial Crisis. During an analysis of UK stock prices some researchers discovered that once stock gained positive traction, it would continue to outperform. There was a similar pattern for negative performers. These trends were contrary to economic theory; markets are supposed to be self-correcting.

However, the rule of momentum has long been recognised in sport. Look at the Aussie cricket team: a positive performance by Mike Hussey seems to build and multiply; securing his position in the team, and is backed up by superior fielding. Meanwhile, Mitchell Johnson fails with the ball, the bat, spills a catch and misses a run-out, and is dropped from the team.

Roeder's theory is that the integration of technology, media, communications and markets has greatly accelerated and magnified the impact of events. Things tend to happen faster, with bigger consequences.

Thus, a deterioration of part of the US housing market triggers a global financial crisis. Other recent events include the swine flu outbreak, and the impact of the volcano erupting in Iceland.

Roeder points to Newton's theory of momentum to explain what is happening in world events. There are bigger (global) issues, moving at a greater speed, thereby generating greater momentum. Another factor is the reduction of friction (such as geography, distance, lack of common language) to slow down the momentum.

An excellent comment is that "this obsession with speed and efficiency is undermining our capacity as a civilisation to reflect on, and confront the more pressing issues of our time."

Change happens so quickly, and we tend to react so quickly; but how much of that is at the consequence of depth of understanding, consultation and application of wisdom.

Roeder has put together a comprehensive analysis of the phenomenon of momentum. Part 1 examines the history of momentum. Part 2 looks at why momentum has such a powerful influence over people and organisations. Part 3 explores the many manifestations of momentum in our world. Part 4 looks at the positive steps one can take to minimise the negative impact, and how to harness its power for positive outcomes.

The chapter on religion - "When Big Mo finds God" - examines the resurgence of religion as a global force. Roeder remarks on the unexpected growth in the four major religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism.

He highlights religious extremism as resulting from momentum. The concerning elements for Roeder (applying to all the manifestations of momentum) are when:

"¢ intellect is sacrificed to faith
"¢ the ability to challenge authority is dulled, discouraged or absent
"¢ there is too much centralisation of power and influence.

Roeder is critical of many elements of modern religion. In Christianity he is particularly negative about those forms of faith that question science, about prosperity religion, and even about tithing (because it reduces the effective operation of markets).

One startling fact: "those areas that were hardest hit by subprime mortgage foreclosures [in the US] were also those areas where the prosperity gospel was preached most vigorously." Christian leaders need to beware giving false messages of economic hope as spiritual outcomes.

Roeder quotes noted atheists including Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens to support his arguments; and selectively quotes Christian Historian Philip Jenkins who looked at 6th Century Christianity to make the claim that Christianity is as violent as Islam. The quote that is missed by Roeder is: "None of the violence or intolerance commonly seen in modern-day Islam is, so to speak, in the DNA of that religion, any more than Christianity. Change the circumstances, and any religion, too, can become the basis of a sane and peaceful society." (Jenkins in USA Today, 18th April 2010)

In this analysis Roeder has ignored the positive influence of many religions for creativity, care and peace.

In his conclusion, Roeder speaks about the positive role of momentum in the evolution of our society, and in the negative impact (such as climate change and the GFC) as correcting unsustainable activities.

He does, refreshingly, point to the fragility of civilisation and the flaws of capitalism. He remarks on the need to have ethical teaching, and to listen to the wisdom of elders.

Although he looks to secular humanism as our salvation, this is a useful and thought-provoking dissection that reveals that at the heart of all the issues he examines are the sins of greed, selfishness, envy, jealousy anger and revenge.

Unfortunately, no human systems, understanding, even passion, can save us from ourselves.