Sustainability and trust

Sep 5 · 10 min read

I was recently invited to debate on trust. It was a result of my comment:

What I like in crypto is the absence of need to trust. And this paradoxically makes this world more honest and fair.

on Twitter which the user HolochainCitizen contested saying:

“Absence of the need to trust” sounds dysfunctional/dystopian to me. Humans need trust, and I don’t mean the “trustless” kind that you say brings honesty and fairness, but actually real relationship and community based trust.

As I like debating I agreed to move our exchange of thoughts to the Holochain forum, to have more freedom in terms of lengthy replies. The thread is under this link:

This article isn’t a report on how the debate went and what arguments were brought — one can just follow the link above. Instead, it’s about a broader scope and about how often we have things wrong. So, let’s start.


We hear it now everywhere, often accompanied by adjectives like “environmental”, “social”, “economical”. Sometimes used in adjective form in, for instance, “sustainable development”. If one would have to judge by dictionary definitions, the word itself and its uses won’t have any descriptive value in given contexts. That’s because that word functions in the mentioned situations as a label for a philosophy/ideology.

I’m a simple person, I like things being clear.

There are many words to which we can more or less assign some observable phenomenons, but their actual definition is either deeply hidden, dubious or non-existent. “Sustainability” in ideological sense is one of them. I consulted different sources without finding any strict definition that would satisfy Mr.Hume. Probably because there isn’t any. UCLA mentioned three for environmental sustainability, here: Wikipedia has a full article without any direct attempt at going into details. Here: the author started properly, but then abruptly gave up without attempting to be consistently precise.

I like definitions. Inference from axioms is a tool I feel comfortable with. Definitions set axioms that further enable inference of conclusions. They also have another role of being a basis of common understanding of the same phenomenon. If we all agree with a definition then we are all on the same logical track.

Therefore, I built my own definition of sustainability as an ideological label, being a synthesis of definitions I could find, paying attention to strip it of all the useless emotional contexts that plague such broad words and trying to be as precise as possible.

So, the core is:

Sustainability is a doctrine postulating enforcement of a set of actions aimed at ensuring a perpetual survival of humans.

Putting words that way emphasizes several things:

  • it’s a doctrine. Doctrine here means that sustainability is a system of instructions on how should we act to ensure our survival, based on belief, as we cannot strictly predict whether our actions will give expected results;
  • there are some actions the doctrine defines and postulates to enforce, that, to our best knowledge, could lead toward…;
  • survival of our species. That’s the only thing that counts. It’s a strong paradigm as it derives from the central, and possibly the only, paradigm of life. If however, for some reason in the future, we are for instance forced to sacrifice our planet to ensure our existence, we’ll do it, and no amount of sweet pandas could change it. Meanwhile, we must take care of the environment, as we are dependent on its state;
  • we want to remain extant (instead of extinct) perpetually, we do not plan for any definite time. We want to survive indefinitely.

Caveat: Sustainability in a context of the doctrine can also be used to depict an expected result — a perpetual survival of humans.

The definition isn’t focused (as some others) on sustaining the standard of living. That would be dishonest, as some measures that the doctrine can instruct might lead to lowering it.

As you probably noticed, the definition also doesn’t mention the environment, resources, the society. Simply because those are part of the doctrine. We believe that taking care about certain aspects of our reality may be effective when it comes to survival. We cannot put them into definition, as they are variable and may change with accordance to the situation.

So, I have my pet definition. Apparently either people got smarter and realized that our existence is neither granted nor guaranteed or the ideology is catchy and useful to some, or both. No matter what is the actual reason, the sole fact that at least some of us started thinking about our survival in terms of our species and not of a single tribe is comforting.

Going deeper into the subject, what are the components of sustainability as a doctrine? In general different very important institutions, media, various people tend to differentiate three main areas it touches — environment, society and economy. The division is artificial as there is a tendency to build a separate category for economy. I understand that our economy is so scripted and corrupt that it requires special care, hopefully palliative. Nevertheless, I prefer another division, far more logical, into environment and organization. The former is everything external to humans, we may shape it but only indirectly and only to a certain extent. It affects us, but we can resist to a certain extent. The latter is all that defines us, is internal and under our control. The former contains resources, nature, physical limitations and threats. The latter is our society, economy, all internal interactions.
This differentiation is logical and gives better insight into mutual relations, besides, it’s important for the further part of this article.


The motivation to write this article arose from observations gathered during the debate on trust mentioned at the beginning. Some of my co-debaters uncritically (to a point of naivety) considered trust reliable, almost infallible tool, ascribing to it a magical property of being a solution to all problems that plague to our economy and society.

The reality is of course mundane — trust is only a tool used in social interactions. Tool that saves a lot of resources, which explains why so many people treat it with a level of affection so far from objective view.
Trust is a form of belief, therefore its opposite is test. The test may depend on knowledge known a priori or gathered during process. It’s more resource intensive, but far more reliable.

For the purpose of ordered debate I proposed in the thread the following definition of trust:

The “trust” is a social interaction tool specific to more developed animals that exhibits the following properties:

  • its aim is to provide a fair assessment of opportunities related to another member of society or other entity with minimal waste of resources (time including);
  • it depends on hints. Hints can have a form of:
  1. singular or repetitive behavior of the other party confirming expectations;
  2. perceived events matching expectations;
  3. feelings/intuition.
  • it’s subjective and irrational. “Irrational” here means that there is no requirement to have hints provably true.

One important matter in the definition, is that trust doesn’t directly depend on facts, even sometimes facts may go against it. It’s important because…

Trust is detrimental to sustainability

Bold, right? What if I told you that our whole history so far substantiates the above sentence? My co-debaters posited that our society needs more humane, trust based system of interactions and decision-making. We already have it, we always had it. Moreover, we invented a lot of tools to limit an impact of trust, because neither individuals nor groups can be fully trusted. Crowds cannot be trusted. Therefore, we invented social norms, laws, institutions to not have to depend solely on internalized irrational hints, but on more or less objective factors. Of course, those tools are far from ideal, but provided enough abstraction from trust throughout our history to counter its undesirable effects.

Let me serve some examples, starting from the positive ones:

Legal systems

Most modern legal systems, except some in states of authoritarian kind or with strong oligarchy, depend on a rule that decisions must be derived from de facto and/or de iure state of matters. Of course there is still a weak link — humans that make it work. But that link is going to be eliminated in the future, first attempts to get rid of it in less important and more obvious cases are already in place, namely in Estonia.
Theoretically, just by knowing a legal background and possessing factual evidence one could, in such systems, derive a decision that must be taken. In practice, our laws, give too much space for interpretation, though it’s still far better than trust that an unconstrained decision-maker delivers a reasonable decision;

Separation of powers

In a process of trial and error it was discovered that trust in a single ruler or a ruling group is a risky business. While most of them were just average, some above average, there were also idiots and guys with severe mental deficiencies. As a choice of a wrong person to do the job way too often resulted in scores of people sent to bite a dust and even more importantly seemed to be ineffective from organizational and economical points of view, some thinkers came to the conclusion that there can be a better way to organize the governance system. If we separate powers between several branches, introduce checks and balances, then the power would be fragmented enough to ensure that no action of a single actor does excessive damage. More, as they likely won’t trust each other out of fear of destroying a balance and losing their part of power, they will control each other depending on material facts. Of course, we know, that this system isn’t ideal, often gets corrupted, loses sometimes balance, but more or less works;

Now for negative ones:


Genocides happen, way too often. One of strange phenomenons of our kind is that we find it correct to trust some rulers selling a bullshit that groups of individuals must be murdered just because they were born to parents of a certain ethnicity, have different color of skin, believe in different ideas. That case alone is enough to be very cautious and suspicious when someone proposes trust as a universal solution for problems of humanity. Because that may quickly turn into an ultimate solution;

Creation of money

We entrusted banks and politicians with a task of money creation. The effect is that most money in circulation isn’t backed by any goods or services, instead by only a thin air. Trusting that a group of people, with absence of enforced responsibility, will create just as much of value medium as needed, is beyond my comprehension. It’s not even naive, it shows how dumb animals we are;

Tech giants

The most recent phenomenon. People trust untouchable technological giants that they will act honestly. The result isn’t surprising, they sell our data, enforce mass surveillance, manipulate masses. Who could have expected? The funniest part here is that many people claim that as they did nothing wrong, they do not have to worry. The Stockholm syndrome that spans whole societies. In light of atrocities mentioned above, that trust may be a little exaggerated.

Our history shows that with advancement in social and technological progress we attempt to limit trust impact turning to more reliable measures. Because we learned the hard way that trust is easy to alter and exploit. Testable measures aren’t.

I wrote that trust is detrimental to sustainability. It is — at the moment we have enough nuclear weapons to bring ourselves to extinction several times in a row. Every international tension means balancing on an edge of a razor. Yet, we trust that people responsible for those destructive toys won’t push the button. Another thing — we exploit our environment in a way that puts its stability in grave danger. Cutting a branch while sitting on it. Yet, we do very little and doesn’t care, as we trust that certainly someone is going to fix it. It’s easier this way.

A friend of mine suggested that I should elaborate more on cognitive biases that are in direct relation to trust. She’s probably right, however this article is intended to be a sketch of the matter not a detailed dissertation on deficiencies of humans. Nevertheless, depending on reception of what I write here, I may pursue that direction in future articles.


There is a paradox, named after Enrico Fermi, that boils down to the question: “Why can’t we detect any signs of other intelligent civilizations around?”. Prerequisites are obvious — the Universe is vast, there are many planets that could potentially support life, life needs very little to thrive. Yet, we can’t spot any sign that there is someone out there.

One of many explanations is the Great Filter. It’s a hypothesis that life must pass certain “filters” before reaching a level enabling gallaxy-wide (or wider) communication. Every step greatly limits the number of contenders, the chance to develop into a form able to communicate on vast distances diminishes fast. We know only one form of life so far, that achieved a level of being able to detect stronger signals from space — ourselves. We may never go further, as the next filter can filter us out. Its origin can be internal or external.

Thus enters Nassim Taleb. He formulated a theory of black swan events that describes events coming unexpectedly, having a great impact on civilization, including wiping it out. Without proper preparation the population cannot act in advance, as is unable to see it coming. We don’t know and cannot predict when the event hits and what will be its nature. Taleb suggested that to mitigate the issue the society must be robust, resistant to both known and unknown factors, certainly cannot trust in stability and status quo and should perpetually test as many factors as possible. Must stay vigilant to survive.

That way we come back to sustainability and trust. While we cannot eliminate the latter, as testing everything is beyond our reach, we can limit its use and impact wherever possible. As I mentioned above, the only area that we can freely shape is our internal, organizational structure. Voluntarily stepping back toward solutions that work well only for herds of few scores of individuals places our existence at risk. Doing nothing as well.

The invention of blockchain gave us a tool that can, at least partially, abstract decision-making from human actors. The next step, Bitlattice that I invented, contains a layer of internal to the network, independent actors making the decision-making process decoupled from any external manipulation.

These are tools that may help to ensure our sustainability. However, without conscious users, realizing how much depends on going beyond our own limitations, they won’t help much. Therefore, calls for more humane, trust based, society should be replaced with calls for a test based one. Rational, conscious, resistant to threats.


Written by


Creator of Bitlattice. I code. I write. Tech and cryptocoins enthusiast. Security paranoid.

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