Only ‘collective intelligence’ can help us stave off an uninhabitable planet

Humanity needs new tools to overcome the global crisis of collective insanity

Published by INSURGE intelligence, a crowdfunded investigative journalism platform for people and planet. Support us to report where others fear to tread.

The world faces an unprecedented convergence of crises. The ecological crisis, which points to a near uninhabitable planet by end of century if business-as-usual continues, is perhaps its most apocalyptic dimension. But the ecological crisis is intimately bound up with the business-as-usual political, economic, and cultural structures of industrial civilization-as-we-know it.

The crisis

Last year, I reported on an analysis by British investment firm Scroders, which concluded that at our current rate of burning fossil fuels, global average temperatures would rise by as much as 7.8C by 2100. The catastrophic collapse of GDP at this point, by more than 50%, would be the least of our problems. Also unleashed would be uncontrollable amplifying feedback processes that would lead to the loss of most of the world’s coral reefs; the disappearance of major mountain glaciers; the total loss of the Arctic summer sea-ice, most of the Greenland ice-sheet and the break-up of West Antarctica; acidification and overheating of the oceans; catastrophic sea-level rise swamping major cities from London to New York; the collapse of the Amazon rainforest; and the loss of Arctic permafrost; to name just a few.

The ecological crisis is, then, bound up with both our civilization’s addiction to oil, gas and coal; and its addiction to endless economic growth. The imperative to continuously grow our economies has pushed forward an escalating hunger for hydrocarbons as the fuel for that growth. And yet, with every year, we encounter increasing evidence that we are depleting the planet’s natural resources at unsustainable levels — beyond the planet’s capacity to renew itself.

This means that the core ecological assets required to produce the natural resources and services we consume are become more difficult and more expensive to acquire, undermining the health of our economies.

Even as fossil fuel production accelerates, the costs of production are increasing and the returns diminishing — the quality of the fuels we are extracting has been declining the last few decades and will continue to do so. These costs, coupled with the growing deficits in the ecological assets that underpin our economies, are among the many factors that mean the global economy is unlikely to be able to grow much further without intensifying inequalities, and expanding debt-based risks.

The reaction

As such crises converge and intensify, efforts to shift toward a new civilizational configuration — one that operates in parity with environmental conditions — have been positive, but decidedly inadequate. In the meantime, governments respond to the immediate manifestations of these crisis — civil unrest, political instabilities, social breakdown, conflicts — in reactionary fashion. They attempt to exert ‘stability’ by strengthening traditional political and military structures of power.

But instead of solving global challenges, this makes things worse. It has largely emboldened short-sighted reactionary forces, and empowered authoritarian tendencies — while fueling social divisions. Instead of the human species addressing our crises systemically and holistically, we point fingers, turn against each other, and demonise surface symptoms of the problems we perceive, through the narrow lenses of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality and nation-state.

In doing so, we get irretrievably lost in the labyrinth of reacting haphazardly to the ‘surface symptoms’ of such threats. This in turn inhibits us from even fully understanding — let alone responding meaningfully — to the structural and systemic drivers of those threats. As such, the real threats continue to rumble along beneath the surface of the everyday, worsening and radicalising the issues we respond to in the headlines.

Faced with the fact that our current path is heading toward unmitigated disaster, the reaction of the human species has been tepid, inconsistent, and self-defeating. While important and potentially transformative initiatives are being explored and identified in different ways all over the world, these initiatives face an uphill battle, are usually not being scaled, and are often seen as dangerous by elements of the incumbency across, for instance, fossil fuel companies and the military-industrial complex.

In short, the biggest inhibitor to effective action in the face of the current convergence of crises is a fundamental lack of collective intelligence on the part of the human species as a whole.

The real solution

Intelligence is the ability to deal powerfully and creatively with contradiction and change.

We don’t act as a single species. We don’t act as a collective. We don’t identify as a whole. We operate as completely dislocated entities — individuals, families, communities, towns, cities, tribes, nations and continents. But here, the issue is not geography — the issues are intelligence, communication and adaptation.

Human beings are complex adaptive systems. The biological systems of which we are constituted evolved through genetic adaptations — adaptations to changing environmental conditions.

To succeed in evolution, our bodies had to succeed in collecting and processing information about our environment, in such a way that our bodies were able to use that information to bring into effect genetic adaptations that would allow us to survive in changing environmental conditions. And of course, it couldn’t just be one human being by themselves who adapted.

For evolution to be successful — adaptation has to be collective.

As the human species scales the most perilous, self-made global crises it has ever experienced, we are called to evolve beyond the old paradigm, the ‘business-as-usual’ forms of structure and behaviour — across politics, culture, economics and ideology — that have brought us this far, but now threaten to destroy us, by our own hands.

In the same way that we have evolved throughout history, we are called to continue to adapt — but today, to meet the unprecedented challenge we see ahead, this requires an unprecedented capacity to collect and process information about our operating environment as a collective, and to translate that into effective civilizational adaptations on behalf of the human species as a whole. If we are unable to develop this capacity for collective intelligence by which to inform species-wide adaptations, we will simply not be able to avert the current trajectory.

This calling applies at multiple levels — not merely the abstract level of the human species; but also at levels we are more familiar with: ourselves, as individuals; as families and communities; as tribes and nations; as companies and institutions; as nonprofits and as businesses; as governments and intergovernmental organisations; as nodes and networks.

For any human collectivities that are serious about meeting these challenges, the capacity for collective intelligence is an essential requirement to survive and prosper in this new era.

Human beings organise ourselves in numerous social forms. But in all and each of these forms, a new form of collective intelligence is required for that social form to fully engage with the challenges it faces; to truly understand them in their systemic and holistic contexts; and to thereby adapt to them powerfully and creatively.

This requires a form of collective intelligence that has not yet been fully cultivated and practiced in human history — though it may well have had various past iterations and manifestations. It will be truly ‘new’, in the sense of building on the best of what we have so far achieved as a species, to deal with the unprecedented scale and convergence of contradiction and change we now face, together, on the planet.

Whichever actor/agent adopts true collective intelligence will not only be supremely positioned to survive and prosper in this age of converging crises, they will be a beacon of hope for others to learn from.

No matter what the issue or challenge might be, whatever the actor/agent in question, the unique conditions of our current time require a collective intelligence process based on three fundamental tracks: a systems approach; a holistic approach; and a logical approach. These are approaches that you can train yourself in and beginning applying in your own lives and institutions right now.

A systems approach:

In order to be able to adapt effectively to changing conditions, we need to be able to truly see them. The first requirement of seeing them is using the right tools by which to fully engage with our operating environment.

That requires a ‘systems’ approach with the tools to see events, incidents, and processes in their true systemic context.

Currently, one of the biggest epistemological inhibitors to responding to global crises is that we don’t see them as they are — interwoven crises of a single system. Instead, we abstract them so that we can understand them easily. So we see climate change as separate to the economic recession. We see political violence as separate to food crises. And even if we realise that they are interconnected, we lack the tools to apply this realization by understanding precisely how these interconnections are structured.

So the first tool-set we need is one capable of integrating data about our operating environment from across multiple disciplines, across the natural and social sciences, across ecological, economic, political, cultural and other domains, into a coherent scientifically-validate cognitive framework.

A holistic approach:

In order to apply this cognitive framework to specific challenges and issues that emerge in our daily operations and practices, we further require the capacity to engage across multiple perspectives.

Today, the news and media environment gives us a sense of how badly humanity’s collective intelligence capacity has become diminished. In the midst of the greatest convergence of crises we have ever faced, our ‘organs’ of sense-making, communication, and information processing have broken down spectacularly.

The wonders of Big Data have ushered in a ‘brave new world’: an overload of vast amounts of information that no one person or even institution can ever begin to process or understand; technology platforms that are cannibalising their journalistic predecessors to maximise profits; and irreconcilable bubbles of polarised discourse along ‘leftwing’, ‘rightwing’, etc. lines.

As a consequence, instead of collective intelligence or consciousness, we have a vast, fragmented, broken landscape of contradictory and polarised narratives, outside of which we are often incapable of communicating.

To overcome this, we require mechanisms for generative dialogue by which to begin communicating beyond and outsides of these closed bubbles and narratives — that requires an explicit effort to capture multiple perspectives, across multiple disciplinary domains, across multiple ideological positions.

Failing to do so puts us at grave risk of only processing the information we are cognitively biased toward accepting — effectively imprisoning us within closed feedback loops incapable of attracting and accepting new information about the world, which simply re-process the same patterns of old information which we are comfortably familiar, and which re-affirm long-held beliefs and thinking patterns (the same ones which hold us in limiting, and destructive patterns of behaviour).

Instead of fearing contradiction, collective intelligence requires us to embrace it, to seek it out.

Instead of fleeing difference, we should build the capacity to navigate different, opposing perspectives into the core of our intelligence process.

A logical approach:

And yet, to navigate multiple perspectives beyond the boundaries of any particular ideology is almost impossible in the conversation spaces that prevail today. Any glance at conversations on social media, or the comments on news articles, demonstrates that in online spaces, people are losing the ability to converse intelligently.

As social media has become ubiquitous, its polarising and oversimplifying conversation forms have seeped into everyday, impacting on the way everyone, but young people in particular, perceive the world, process information and converse on a daily basis.

In order to apply our systems approach to harness validated facts from across multiple disciplines; and in order to apply our holistic approach to cultivate informed insights from across multiple points of view; we need a generative approach which cultivates constructive dialogue based on critically evaluating information without concern about ideology.

This requires an approach to information that aids us in moving beyond our cognitive biases, and focusing on the issues that matter that can help us learn. Our approach is inspired by Euclid, with a view to focus on identifying three categories of information in the narratives we produce or assess:

Axioms, which pertain to the ground-level data-points that logically underpin the arguments we are making. Behind every argument, are the assumptions we make. By bringing them to the surface, we demand of ourselves that we do our best to validate these assumptions in real data, so that our assumptions are either irrefutably true in a logical sense or empirically-validated; and if we can’t validate them, then we become empowered to acknowledge this and respond accordingly.

Insights, which consist of new information about the world that we did not know previously, derived from careful systemic and holistic analysis of our axioms. By recognising that our new understandings of our operating environment are grounded in prior assumptions, we open up our own internal reasoning processes to scrutiny. By seeking to validate our assumptions as axioms, we move our insights about the world as much as possible from the realm of speculation to knowledge.

Actions, which consist of the practice and behaviour implications that our new knowledge of the world holds for ourselves, and all relevant stakeholders. Instead of producing information for information’s sake, we aim to produce actionable insights — insights about our operating environment that can underpin powerful, creative and effective action in the world: action that contributes, ultimately, to the social, political, economic, cultural, and ecological adaptations required to bring us in parity with our environment.

Across each of these information categories, we are able to test and refine the information available by applying our systemic and holistic approaches to cross-reference their accuracy across all relevant systems and a multiplicity of perspectives within those systems.

We have developed, tested and applied these tools in a wide range of contexts: through academic and scientific research; through journalistic practice in reporting on big issues like Facebook/Cambridge Analytica; through an online symposium on the future of the post-carbon economy; in the development of a working prototype of our intelligence platform; and by working with various companies, nonprofits, communities and other stakeholders.

What next?

This is a call and an invitation to all and each of you who holds concerns about the health and future of our and other species on the planet. The toolset and processes described here offer practices that you can begin to apply in your own contexts.

These processes can be used, fundamentally, to develop collective intelligence on key challenges and issues — especially contentious ones — that generates a framework for positive action: a new cognitive framework consisting of a deeper and more expansive mode of awareness — and therefore, a greater capacity for specific actions to create effective change. It is an approach that can help us to begin regenerating our communities from the ground up, and working together the transform the systems around us (and within us) that are contributing to degeneration.

But let’s not have any illusions. Collective intelligence is hard. It requires discipline. It requires continuous training, vigilance, self-critique and self-reflection. It requires evaluating the commitments we are really making as individuals and organisations. It requires the cultivation of self-awareness at the height of uncertainty and change. It requires letting go of the consoling illusions which have held us back in a state of paralysed complacency. It requires embracing the unknown and accepting the unknowable while constantly striving for knowledge. It requires transcending the boundaries within which we felt comfortable, and accustomising ourselves to the perpetual discomfort and pressure of going beyond. It requires holding ourselves and those in the circles of our particular collective to high standards of ethical consistency in alignment with the planetary commitments that really matter. It requires learning and practicing new tools of learning and analysis to confront wide new landscapes of narratives and perspectives that we may not be familiar with, and which will challenge our core assumptions. It requires an openness to building new capacities that can integrate these perspectives in frameworks of ideas and action that were previous inconceivable. It requires a willingness to take action on our commitments where others fear to tread.

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Dr. Nafeez Ahmed is the founding editor of INSURGE intelligence. Nafeez is a 16-year investigative journalist, formerly of The Guardian where he reported on the geopolitics of social, economic and environmental crises. Nafeez reports on ‘global system change’ for VICE’s Motherboard, and on regional geopolitics for Middle East Eye. He has bylines in The Independent on Sunday, The Independent, The Scotsman, Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Foreign Policy, The Atlantic, Quartz, New York Observer, The New Statesman, Prospect, Le Monde diplomatique, among other places. He has twice won the Project Censored Award for his investigative reporting; twice been featured in the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 list of most influential Londoners; and won the Naples Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award created by the President of the Republic. Nafeez is also a widely-published and cited interdisciplinary academic applying complex systems analysis to ecological and political violence.