WTF is Missing in the Future of Human Governance?
Despite huge leaps in progress, humanity still hasn’t found what we’re looking for — here’s why.
There is no question that human progress over the past 12,000 years or so since the Agrarian Revolution has been profound. As a specie, we have made immense leaps in development and we are surely maturing. And yet issues such as ecological and social disturbances are forcing humanity to find new ways of coordinating our activities at planetary scale, across geographic borders, political divides and ideological chasms. This search for what’s missing creates tension and we see the symptoms of this tension played out on the daily news, in every country.
The path toward what Charles Eisenstein calls “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible” is littered with uncertainties, externalities and unintended consequences. If we are to get there, collective decisions must be consciously made in order to progress toward a new type of world society. There is a general consensus among critical system thinkers that a global, sovereign society is inevitable — if we are to avoid specie extinction.
“We are in the early stages of the formation of a new type of world society which will be as different from today’s as was that ushered in by the Industrial Revolution from the society of the long Agrarian period that preceded it.” — Alexander King & Bertrand Schneider, The First Global Revolution, 1991
This essay first considers some of the macro activities humanity is undertaking to lay the foundations for this world society. Finally, it considers what’s missing and — more importantly — what those who care, can do.
Social & Ecological Macro Activity
Vast armies of activists have informally coordinated under the general guidelines of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, dedicated to restoring the environment and fostering social justice. Paul Hawken refers to this movement as Blessed Unrest and says that this is:
“…the largest movement on earth, a movement that has no name, leader, or location, and that has gone largely ignored by politicians and the media. Like nature itself, it is organizing from the bottom up, in every city, town, and culture. It is emerging to be an extraordinary and creative expression of people’s needs worldwide.” — Paul Hawken
The significance of this movement lies in its self-regulation. The movement provides evidence that humanity can coordinate at scale, without external pressure or incentives.
Technological Macro Activity
The World Wide Web laid the foundations for a more connected world and changed forever how humanity gets stuff done. More recently, the 10-year old Bitcoin whitepaper inspired a tsunami of what Stuart Kaufmann calls “adjacent possibles.” The ideas presented in that paper inspired thousands of initiatives united by common desires to:
- dismantle inefficient and often dangerous hierarchies,
- disperse power concentrations to the edges,
- dispose of central data repositories and give individuals control of their digital identities and personal data,
- distill ideologies of the commons and re-imagine value exchange and governance in more transparent, trustful ways.
In addition to the emergence of blockchain and crypto, there have been noteworthy advances in data storage and retrieval, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Virtual and Augmented Reality and Internet of Things.
The significance of these developments permit us, for the first time, to glimpse the possibility of what Buckminster Fuller envisaged in the 1960s: a single control panel for Spaceship Earth.
Geopolitical Macro Activity
At the macro-level — in other words intentionally ignoring the noise played out in national media — what we are witnessing globally is tension between the two dominant human organising systems that have helped humanity mature from Agrarian civilisations to City civilisations:
- Communism, which sacrifices interests of the individual to the collective, mostly overseen by a dictatorial state, and;
- Capitalism, which sacrifices interests of the community to the self-importance and independence of the individual (with even corporations legally defined as individuals), mostly overseen — allegedly — by the invisible hand of the market.
The significance of this tension is a slow yet growing realisation that, given our technological progress, new organising systems for humanity are a very real possibility.
Collective Macro Activity
Collectively, these macro-activities humanity has engaged in demonstrate the profound creativity of humanity. If one were to remain purely objective and ignore externalities, our achievements since the Industrial Revolution eclipse the massively complicated and hugely demanding effort required to erect the Great Pyramids.
Natural World Exploitation Macro Activity
Despite — or perhaps because of — our relentless progress, our planet is nearing the limits of its carrying capacity. The vast energy production, distribution and consumption — based almost entirely on fossil fuels — required to achieve this level of creativity and production has dire consequences, and some say we’re already in overshoot. In addition to our wanton extraction, the results of global waste production and distribution could end up being the largest artefact of the Industrial Revolution, a rather sad state of affairs.
Alongside the externalities of our activities, both capitalism and communism have resulted in concentrations of power, leading to gross inequalities and a world in which millions lead lives that are at best sub-standard and at worst miserable. The extremes of both late-stage capitalism and communism are placing the very structures of our complex societies at risk.
In his book, 1177 BC: The Year Civilisation Collapsed and accompanying lecture, Dr. Eric H. Cline, Professor of Classics and Anthropology at The George Washington University, lists the General Features of Systems Collapse as:
- Collapse of the central administrative organisation;
- Disappearance (or more specifically, withdrawal behind various types of barriers — build a wall, anyone?) of the traditional elite class;
- Collapse of the centralised economy;
- Settlement shifts and population decline.
Each of these features are playing out in various parts of the planet, leading some to believe that the complex societies we have built are at risk of collapsing. Without denigrating our sincere social & ecological macro activity, perhaps it is time to admit that something is missing and we’d better get comfortable with this idea, so that we can effectively plan what we do next.
“The world we see that seems so insane is the result of a belief system that is not working. To perceive the world differently, we must be willing to change our belief system, let the past slip away, expand our sense of now, and dissolve the fear in our minds.” — William James
What’s Missing for Humanity at a Macro Level?
To understand what’s missing, we first need to define 5 high-level concepts.
[Side Note: These concepts are a shameless summary of a number of riffs Daniel Schmachtenberger, Co-Founder and Director of Research at Neurohacker Collective, has recently engaged in. My apologies to Daniel if I’ve misrepresented his core ideas. These are complex topics, and in the interests of brevity I’ve included only the briefest of summaries. You can find links to the discussions in the Reference section at the conclusion of this essay.]
Concept 1 — Evolutionary Theory
The idea that the inhabitants of any ecosystem have the option to either compete for or cooperate over scarce or dwindling resources. This choice is a repeating pattern witnessed in the evolution of all living species over billions of years and has been repeated again and again in humanity’s evolution. Cities are an example of collaboration and wars are an example of competition. Elisabet Sahtouris has posited that competing for resources is the hallmark of juvenile species and collaborating is the hallmark of mature species.
Evolutionary Theory has a number of characteristics:
- It is an unconscious process — at least as far as humans are concerned — in that no-one is designing (the way we usually understand design) how evolution occurs;
- It is a slow (in human terms) yet highly parallel process (many activities occurring in different parts of the ecosystem simultaneously);
- It has a high failure rate (many species have gone extinct), but the species that survive enjoy a high level of complexity;
- Evolution is self-organising, meaning that wounded creatures or damaged ecosystems heal themselves without external tinkering (think of a forest after a forest fire).
Concept 2 — Micro-Rivalry, Macro-Symbiosis and Power Symmetry
The idea that Nature does not select for individuals in a specie nor does it select for entire species. Rather it selects for self-stabilising ecosystems, in which there is relative power symmetry between the strongest and weakest of a specie. Lions hunting buck are an example of micro-rivalry and the healthy coexistence of prides of lion and herds of buck on a large savanna are an example of macro-symbiosis. The strongest lion is only marginally more powerful than the next in line and the weakest buck is only marginally weaker than the one above.
A rogue specie (or subset of a specie) can kill an entire ecosystem, at which point the rogue specie itself dies out and recovery can happen. Considering all living species, power asymmetry (imbalance) is highest in the human specie — the SDGs refer to this as ‘inequality.’
Concept 3 — Systems Theory
The idea of an interdisciplinary and multi perspectival domain which brings together principles and concepts from ontology, philosophy of science, physics, computer science, biology, engineering, geography, ecology sociology, political science and economics, among others.
In general, our education systems focus on specialisation (Law, Economics, Arts, Journalism, etc.), which is why the world has so few system thinkers. Leading system thinkers (past and present) include Béla H. Bánáthy, Howard T. Odum, Eugene Odum, Fritjof Capra, Peter Senge, Richard A. Swanson, Debora Hammond, Alfonso Montuori, Ilya Prigogine, Francisco Varela, Humberto Maturana, Russell Ackoff, Anthony Stafford Beer, Peter Checkland, Robert L. Flood, Michael C. Jackson, Edgar Morin and Werner Ulrich, among others.
Concept 4 — Evolution of Technology
The idea that in the past, technology referred to the creation and use of tools to help humanity accomplish increasingly complicated tasks in their daily lives, where life itself is defined by a competitive worldview. As the human specie matures — and if we are to choose the option of collaboration with all other species instead of competition (Evolutionary Theory) — a new form of technology is required. For the first time, humanity is reaching a level of maturity which allows us to consider the design, creation and use of anti-macro-rivalrous, complex, closed-loop systems that restore power symmetry and evolve the human specie in a manner more aligned with the evolution of other species, who do not employ technology.
Concept 5— Evolution of Ecosystems vs Evolution of Technology
The idea that the driving ethos of the evolution of technology (driven by competition) is diametrically opposed to the evolution of ecosystems (defined by collaboration).
- Ecosystems → Unconscious Unfolding → Complex Systems → Comprehensive Loop Closure → Slow, Deliberate Adaptation
- Technology → Conscious Design → Complicated Systems → Open Loops → Move Fast & Break Things
The Question Again: What’s Missing?
Now that we’ve looked at the 5 essential concepts regarding humanity’s evolution, we can return to the question of what’s missing, or what’s the next natural step in our evolution?
“What will the world look like when large groups of people can coordinate and collaborate without the mediation of a central authority?”
This is, in essence, the central ethos of the blockchain community and some of the more engaging governance discussions can be found here and here and here and here and here and I’m sure many other places too.
As fascinating as these discussions are, what becomes immediately apparent — particularly if you’re not directly involved in the technology space and have a penchant for how Nature operates — is the complete absence of any mention of biomimicry, or more specifically, what lessons we can learn from the evolution of our specie and Nature in general.
If I were to add a few simple words to Mally’s question, it would be:
“What will the world look like when large groups of people can coordinate and collaborate as Nature does without the mediation of a central authority?”
Think of the efficiency of coordination of an ant colony, a bee hive, a murmuration of starlings, an Amazon Jungle… all operating without leaders, without voting, without capitalism, without democracy, without communism, without any form of organising system as humanity understands them.
This is what I believe is missing in discussions about the future of human governance: a deep understanding of how Nature has done this over billions of years, and what lessons we can learn from her.
As I write this, I’m about to board a flight to SFO, where we’ll be presenting to the Institute of Evolutionary Leaders one possible way of including the principles of Nature in discussions about human governance. If you’re in the Bay area on October 18th, I hope you’ll join us.
If you can’t join in person, stay tuned. Exciting developments are unfolding.
Thanks for reading. Claps are always appreciated — it helps more people stumble across what we’re doing.
Stay grounded, stay curious!
With thanks to the following conversations and writings, which have been helpful in cohering my thinking:
- Daniel Schmachtenberger’s discussion with Steven Kotler: Navigating the Upper Limits of Human Potential in an Interconnected World, specifically starting at 31:15 and ending at 53:45;
- Rhys Lindmark’s discussion with Schmachtenberger: Meta Existential Risk;
- Steven Kotler’s Rabbit Hole, specifically Environmentalism Steven Kotler Style and his innovation forum, Equilibrium, which brings environmentalists and technologists together;
- Annemarie Abbondanzo, who was the first to calculate a value for Ecosystem Services;
- Vlad Zamfir’s Intentions for Blockchain Governance and CleanApp’s series on blockchain governance;
- Scale: The Universal Laws of Life and Death in Organisms, Cities and Companies by Geoffrey West;
- And of course the fabulous late night conversations I’ve enjoyed with co-conspirators Gail Taylor and Elisabet Sahtouris, which we now affectionally refer to as GEM Calls.