Two Questions Could Help Save Us From Collapse
It’s hard to believe that current systems are the best we can do. We could be thriving as communities and societies, rather than facing extreme risks. It’s time to investigate what might work better.
It’s not news that human civilization and ecosystems are at risk of collapse in our lifetime or that of our children. Biologists, sociologists, ecologists and others have been issuing dire warnings for easily half a century on all the big issues. We’re well aware of them: climate change, habitat loss, pollution, topsoil degradation, groundwater depletion, rising rates of species extinction, financial meltdown, poverty and wealth inequality, and nuclear war, to name a few. A recent headline captures the flavor: Plummeting insect numbers threaten collapse of nature.
What might be news is that we can do something to help change course, without waiting for governments to act.
First, let’s clarify the goal. We wish to thrive, not just survive. We want healthy communities where collective wellbeing runs high and the environment is protected and restored. Among other things, this means access to quality and affordable education and health care, meaningful jobs, eradication of poverty and excessive income inequality, and systems of organization that are just, transparent, and deeply democratic.
I believe we can reach this goal, in our lifetime, if we think outside the box. The first step is to ask this seemingly obvious question: Out of all conceivable designs for systems of societal self-organization, which ones might improve wellbeing, resilience, and sustainability the most? I’m referring here to the systems by which communities and societies organize to make collective decisions and coordinate behavior: governance, legal, economic, and financial systems, among others.
The question has a natural follow up: If we were to develop new, high quality systems, how could we best implement and monitor them?
These are scientific questions at heart, begging for rigorous study. Think cutting edge R&D using simulations, AI, field studies, virtual trials, community engagement and education, and more — all the tools of established and emerging sciences like complex systems science, cognitive sciences, evolutionary biology, ecology, game theory, information theory, earth sciences, and computational social sciences.
The goal is to achieve thriving communities, societies, and natural environments. The question is how to get there, in our lifetime. Every person and community on the planet has a stake in this effort. All have ideas, insights, and information that could help guide and further the process.
These two questions — what kinds of system designs might work best and how could we implement and monitor them — have the power to change our world. At face value both are utterly sensible to ask. Why wouldn’t we want to know the answers? But beyond that, they embody several profound realizations.
First, the questions are being posed to a partnership between individuals, communities, and the world scientific body. While support from governments and mega donors would be helpful and welcome, success is possible through a public-science partnership funded by small donors, foundations, and social entrepreneurs. However it is funded, the program could produce clear evidence of which system designs might best serve humanity and how and to what degree our lives might improve.
Second, to reach the goal of thriving in our lifetime, tweaks to current systems are not enough. Our big problems are symptoms of a deeper defect. As societies, we could have long ago taken sensible actions to address pressing problems. But we didn’t. Why? Because the systems by which we self-organize are too often inadequate, even dysfunctional, when it comes to solving common-good problems.
The dysfunction isn’t due to bad leaders in business or politics, although these exist. The rise to power of too many selfish, dangerous, or unqualified leaders is just another symptom. Rather, the dysfunction is due to the mechanics of our systems — their very designs, built-in motivations, concentration of power, and embodied world views. Because of these, they lack the capacity for solving today’s big problems.
This failing should not be a surprise. Our systems largely evolved to solve a different, older problem, which is how to maintain and concentrate wealth and power for those who already have it. In this they have been wildly successful. Consider how quickly the billionaire class is growing, and how fewer and fewer corporations control ever larger swaths of the world’s economy. Consider how the legal system favors the rich.
The last realization embodied in the questions is that bold change is possible. Given advances in science and technology over the past 50 years, the hard work of many on issues of social and environmental justice, and the looming threat of collapse, we’re overdue for an evolutionary jump. We’re ripe for sweeping change.
You might think that universities or research groups would have long ago started the R&D program called for here. But no. Perhaps political pressures or funding realities have gotten in the way. Or perhaps it’s because core fields like complex systems science, cognitive science, and ecology needed to mature a bit before questions about societal self-organization could arise. Whatever the reason, the work has barely started.
So let’s get on with it. After all, it’s hard to believe that current systems are the best we can do. We could be thriving as communities and societies, rather than facing extreme risks. It’s time to investigate what might work better.
If in this moment you’re thinking about comparing socialism to capitalism, I’d ask you to think bigger and further outside the box. Those are economic systems, not whole-system, integrated approaches to demonstrably improve wellbeing, resilience, and sustainability.
Rather than thinking of isms, it might be better to think of biology. Humans are highly social animals. Our communities and societies are akin to living organisms — metaorganisms, if you will, composed of many interacting individuals. Just like biological organisms, the natural purpose of a society is to learn, rise to challenges, adapt to changing conditions, and solve problems that matter. Learning requires information, and so also information processing. Action requires decisions and thus decision-making processes.
Start there. What kinds of designs for whole, integrated systems might best help us to perceive, process, communicate, learn, predict, make decisions, and orchestrate action, at scale, as communities and societies, in order to solve problems and thereby increase social and environmental wellbeing? And how would they be monitored and measured?
Keep an open mind. In this exploration, the very concepts of business, money, wealth, voting, governance and more might evolve into something new. Wealth, for example, might be understood not as personal financial gain but as the degree of shared wellbeing. Money might be understood not so much as a static store of value but as a transparent voting tool in economic democracy, valuable only through use.
A Viable Path to Development and Implementation
The task of developing and implementing new systems of organization might seem daunting at first glance. But on closer examination, a viable and affordable path can be seen. I’ve described it elsewhere, along with results of a computer simulation that illustrates potential benefits (including eradication of poverty, higher and more stable incomes, greater income equality, and economic democracy).
One bedrock characteristic of the approach is that it’s science based. An R&D program lies at its core. New systems would be thoroughly tested, similar to the way new designs for a jet airliner would be tested. This means simulations, field trials, and more, using various measures of quality that address wellbeing, resilience, sustainability, and problem-solving capacity.
Another key characteristic of the approach is that new systems are designed for implementation at the local, community level through a civic club model. This allows progress without waiting for governments to act. And it allows for rapid field testing of multiple systems in parallel. A club can be started with just a small percentage of an urban population, perhaps a thousand people, without any legislation. Participation in a club is voluntary and free. Club members engage with the local economy and community, and help to stabilize and improve local conditions.
Inherent to the club model, the R&D program is a partnership between the scientific community and individuals, communities, civic groups, and other interested parties. By working together, we help ensure that new systems are highly beneficial and popular, as well as fair, transparent, efficient, effective, and safe.
Once field trials demonstrate that better systems are possible, interest will naturally spread and new clubs will form in new communities. As they do, networks of clubs will also form. Part of the R&D effort is to ensure that these display the same characteristics that make individual clubs successful — like rich communication, deep democracy, and high transparency.
The R&D program is affordable. The annual budget in the first decade would likely be no more than several tens of millions of dollars, which is modest enough that the world’s young adults could fund the program alone through donations, if sufficiently motivated to do so. So too could any other group or set of groups. A social investor could fund it, and receive reasonable economic returns — a social business model exists.
We could fund it — the collective we who are aware, concerned, willing to think outside the box, and willing to take action and try something new. For arguments sake, let’s say we’re 5 to 15 percent of the world population. We’re large enough and powerful enough to see this through to fruition. It doesn’t matter if the other 95 percent or so have no interest. Enough will, later. All that’s needed to start are early supporters; feedback, ideas, and assistance during bench scale and usability testing; and in time, early adopters who will participate in scientific field trials. The rest will follow naturally.
If we initiate this R&D program, much of the scientific community will be on our side. They’ll understand its potential and view the project as exciting and timely. Even the big players — the Harvards, MITs, and Stanfords of the world — might eventually join in.
The potential gains are large and downsides small. With better systems of self-organization we could increase our capacity to solve problems and improve conditions within our communities. Transparent and deeply democratic systems could build trust and engender a greater sense of shared purpose and hope.
If systems are well designed and deliver what they promise, worldwide participation will grow. At some point along the way, and it might take several decades, a tipping point will be reached where new systems spread like wildfire to become the norm. When that happens, communities almost everywhere, or maybe everywhere, will be enjoying greater wellbeing, resilience, and sustainability. They will cooperate, by design and by choice, in successfully solving problems that matter.