Reflections on Sustainability & Web3, by Sunny Lu
We may have the feeling that the word sustainability has only been trending since the last one or two decades, and we hate to admit it, but whether practically or emotionally, we do not quite like that word, as it too often serves as a reminder that we have done something terribly wrong, or that we are about muster some extraneous effort and incur a big cost in order to achieve an intangible goal that is far off in the future.
This is not supposed to be the way, and I see no better time that we should collectively as a species re-examine this word, not only in the light of a task or a goal, but also as a way of thinking about our life all together. I pick this time because I and many others amongst you have a steady and firm conviction that we are already on this cusp of a new internet revolution, and this iteration of the web we now dearly call 3.0 share such a deep bond in on a philosophical level to the idea of sustainability, it can be said as an embodiment of it. And gosh we know the timing of this advent of technology is just impeccable.
Another look at Sustainability
Sustainability shouldn’t be a restriction or burden that is forced on our psyche, rather it is something we should demand innately. Moving towards sustainable practices is a reawakening of our very humanity. The goal of being sustainable is simple enough: keep what we have today going well, without messing up the future for our kids. We need to stop thinking in conflict between our choice for “now” and “future”, we need to understand that they are truly one and the same, because we don’t just want a good life for only one or two generations, we want to keep the idea of life going for as long as possible, even ad infinitum.
In the words of one of my, and many children’s favorite scientists, Carl Sagen–”If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” So let us zoom our point of view on life and sustainability out a bit. The history of life forms on this planet (so far the only place in this observable universe we know) has been laid down since almost 3.7 billion years ago, not too long after this magnetic floating solid was formed. This astrological time could seem to us like an eternity, and for such a long time the world never had a problem with being sustainable: life went on for billions of years without a problem (if you can overlook those several extinction events). If we believe life is accidental and precious, and it is, then nature must have some kind of system in place that keeps things going. In other words, nature has been practicing sustainability for eons already, and maybe there are just some good lessons we can take. And as not an lecturer, but only a student who is learning about becoming more sustainable and more human, I am here to share some of my thoughts and findings.
How nature does it
Nature celebrates transparency.
We are all too familiar with the idea of a food chain or a food web, and that is in itself a great design by nature to keep everything going. Yet I have always wondered how every player in this interconnected web knows its place: a rabbit knows to run from a coyote or at the sight of an approaching eagle, but it doesn’t dash away when a duck or a cat comes near. You can say that they learn by individual experience, group behavior or even through genetics, but there is little doubt that the passage of information is clear and transparent, and thus a great deal of efficiency is achieved. This is my first observation: nature achieves efficiency and becomes more sustainable by instituting transparency, because the greatest adversary to the idea of sustainability is not greed or selfishness, but inefficiency and waste. You don’t need to engage in repeated games to establish trust and reputation like detailed in an economic book, because in nature you usually don’t get that chance (trying to befriend a wolf if you are a rabbit is not recommended). A great deal of energy is wasted in a lack of information transparency, and nature in its infinite wisdom has of course seen to that, and fixed it.
Nature coordinates individuality.
Once you have information efficiency achieved through transparency, the rest gets a bit easier. Let’s take a look at an ant colony or a beehive, as they are quintessential examples when we wish to study group and social behaviors. Each individual member carries out a task which they are most apt to perform, usually dictated by genetic variations, and each individual knows not only the task they need to fulfill, but also the action of their neighbors. This sharing of information collectively results in efficiently self-regulated units, which completes a greater task that is important for the continuation of the colony as a whole, which in the process, each individual also gets a reward by completing its own tasks; in another word, their actions are incentivised automatically. There is no need for a bee battalion commander or an ant secretary; no one needs to be burdened to become the center and perform the act of coordination, and each individual owns up to its mission and collaborates in a dynamic and concerted fashion. Coordinating individuality may sound paradoxical, but now as you can see as well, it can be done and it has already been done by not just two species, but millions for millions of years.
We all have experienced hunger or fullness, but are these just feelings we get when interacting with food or are they something more? Why does nature give life forms the ability to have such feelings? If nature doesn’t care about keeping things going, why not let animals consume forever, i.e., let every living thing feel the torture of Tantalus and never becoming satisfied no matter how much it takes in.
Luckily, nature cares. It not only cares, but also keeps detailed ledgers like an amazing accountant. Nature quantifies.
From the capacity of energy intake and expense of an individual to an entire ecosystem, nature keeps what comes in and what goes out. Then it finds ways to create loops and cycles to reconstruct the out’s to in’s down to the molecular level, waste is minimized so things can restart all over again. Each individual’s or group’s actions are coordinated to complement the process, that’s why animals migrate when one food reserve is low or depleted, and with given time nature finds ways to regrow and reconstruct so life can be restored on track.
All these efforts need a great deal of calculation at a scale to the fraction of a calorie, so being able to compute on scales of both grand and miniscule is required.
Nature evolves continuously.
No one always gets things on the first try, and there is grace even in failure. Take evolution as an example, isn’t it just a very slow but continuous process of self-correction? If there are features on an organism’s body that are no longer needed, they get modified or eliminated overtime. If this weren’t true, every human today would still be walking literally with a tail between their legs. Even when life encounters dramatic events that alter the environment all together which results in those extinction episodes we spoke of, nature doesn’t just throw over the board like a kid losing a chess game, it redesigns and allows new life forms to take shape. Resilience and robustness are the hallmarks of a good system, so every good system is made with time.
Web3 is our inevitable path to join nature’s sustainable efforts
If you had reached here, I shouldn’t need to point out again the shared bond between sustainability and Web3 that I mentioned in the very beginning. A blockchain-based system of information has all the features of the design of a sustainable system: encouraging transparency, enabling individuals, coordinating through decentralization, and promoting precise accountability. It will change how we organize information as well as our social structures. Much like nature in its younger days, a lot of things are waiting to be defined, and many trial and errors are ahead of us. Volatility and speculating doubts will continue to be there as the system is being developed. However, progress will not rest, from finding new consensus mechanisms to finding new application venues, this new form of the internet is improving and making history as more adopters join the cause. And with it, we are finally ready to deliver on those sustainability goals we are eager to, and must reach.
Today, we should all reach this understanding that sustainability is not some grand quest we suddenly all decided to take on, nor is it a last ditch effort to save the day because we are backed into a corner. Practicing sustainability is nature’s job as it is the purpose of life itself, and nature has given a stellar performance for as old as nature has been. And we, as part of nature and through our own effort in building this new technology, have finally found our own ticket to join the game and contribute positively. So let’s take another lesson from nature when it comes to being sustainable: have faith, be patient, take actions, and don’t quit.
*Quick etymology of the word: sustain: sus=sub, which means under, and tain is from Latin tenere, which means to take or to hold. Literally, the world means to hold from the bottom up, a literal “bottomline.”
Being sustainable is not a lofty goal or a fever dream, it’s life’s bottomline.