(see The Summary – an introduction to #TheBigDeal for more of this series of essays)
One of my collaborators called our goal “The Beautiful World.”
I want to revisit this concept and pull from it the thread of what can be done with the resources available.
Here’s the first thing I want you to believe: we can live in a world in which lack is unknown.
“The earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed”
I’ve discussed the precise details of this over and over again, but in essence there are three technologies which promise to half or quarter the world’s public health problems associated with poverty: the biosand water filter, the rocket stove, and the composting toilet. There are other candidate technologies: solar water pasteurization, the wood gasification stove and the thermophillic composting toilet, but the first three listed are enough. Add agricultural training, which can roughly double harvests, and we have the makings of a world in which being poor is no longer associated with dramatically increased mortality, or terribly early death.
By rebuilding the bottom of the world, by making the ghettos and slums and backwater villages places of basic dignity, rather than squalor and morbidity, we can write off one of the world’s major problems within our lifetime, and possibly within 20 years if the technologies can be packaged for self-build from local materials using instructions from the internet or presented on people’s mobile phones.
This is simple. I hesitate to say it, but this one is in the domain of probable futures. Unless I have dramatically misread the technical data, clean water to drink, a clean-burning stove to prevent life-long smoke inhalation and a sanitary toilet are accessible to almost everyone on earth using these technologies at a price that those who need them can afford.
This is unambiguously good news. That these essential tools for living can be manufactured cheaply enough to allow even the poorest to own them on their current budgets, without loans, is a profound breakthrough. Implementation awaits more concentrated political will, but the technical possibility exists to end much or most of the mortality from poverty without radically increasing system complexity, environmental impact or imposing new political structures. In all probability we can get most of poverty and most of hunger without changing the political structure of the world, just by adjusting the technical base a very little.
The difference between growing up in a household which cooks over a three stone fire, in which you and your mother breath smoke every morning and evening for your entire lives, and the same house with a little sheet metal rocket stove which uses half or a quarter of the fuel and smokes very little is only that you have a little more money and substantially better health. It does not degrade your culture, question your religion, fix your other problems, educate you or otherwise change your world. Because they do very little other than solve practical, technical problem there should be a minimum of resistance to the adoption of these technologies if they can prove their utility in a similar (though less dramatic) manner than the cell phone.
Yes, I am suggesting technological solutions to social problems. Yes, I am aware this is considered a state of sin by many. But Victorian London damn near doubled its life expectancy on the basis of public works like sewers and wells, and a “decentralized public works” approach to public health in the scattered villages and slums of the globe is eminently practical and well-suited to actual ground conditions, particularly in an age of austerity.
So onwards to this beautiful world.
The Big Three – a reappraisal
The big three problems we face are environmental destruction, nano-biotech risks, and nuclear war. We don’t have a relatively painless quick fix for these problems which will get the worst of them in the same way that the stoves etc. get the worse of poverty. All of these problems are soluble in good global governance (GGG), but GGG is something we’re all out of as I’ve explained at length in The Synthesis, which scopes some of the facets of the issues regarding GGG.
On the other hand, the Big Three risks (environment, nano/bio, nuclear) are the result of human action.
Seven billion of us, each pushing and pulling a little, exert a lot of force. Climate and environment are the results of what Antonio Dias calls “zombies” – many, many people acting without thinking collectively causing a massive global problem. Nanotech and biotech risks, and nuclear war, are a result of what he calls “vampires” – small groups of people with extraordinary skill or power who are screwing it up for the rest of us. The “nuclear vampires” command nation states, and generally speaking exist to combat each-other. The US nuclear vampire elite is created to combat the Nazi or Soviet nuclear vampire elite. The Nash equilibrium leaves everybody stuck in a position of sitting on top of nuclear stockpiles because unilateral disarmament leaves your vampires toothless and your population at the mercy of those bad vampires over there. Now, let me make a quick aside here – from my best estimates, the socialist vampires killed about 10 times as many people as the capitalist vampires have. So it’s not like this is all the same, and the guys in charge are all bastards and equally bad. There are real differences between sides, but nobody toting a nuclear weapon is a friend to animals and small children at the end of the day.
The biotech vampires are a vastly more dangerous bunch because nuclear capability requires vast, obvious, easy-to-detect technical resources to create. Biotech is different and increasingly tends towards machines which look like large photocopiers which take a bunch of very pure but fairly simple chemicals and print out living organisms. Now obviously we’re not there yet, nothing like it, but the basic machinery of biotech gets cheaper year on year and the push towards synthetic biology and similar breakthroughs is going to differentially empower biotech vampires who abuse their technical knowhow for destructive purposes, or simply screw up. The biotech vampires are particularly dangerous because you cannot see them coming because biotech can be done on a relatively limited budget, does not require a lot of energy, and emits no radiation. The nuclear vampires, on the other hand, sit in their bunkers of height and depth, backed by entire nation’s industrial outputs, softly glowing with an eerie radioactive luminescence. The different profile of the biotech and nuclear vampires, and the self-replicating nature of the nano-bio problem – hijacking the very machinery of life! – is why I worry so much more about biotech than bombs these days.
But this is an aside on an aside, because I’m struggling to know how to express the next part. Forgive me.
There are no evil men…
So let me show you the chink of hope through which I believe the Beautiful World can be pulled.
Nobody wants to destroy the world. There are no bond villains. There is an ancient Hindu saying: “Evil men are not dangerous because evil is self-limiting. Good men who are misguided are the dangerous ones.”
Sympathy for the devil. Hitler wanted to unite the world under an orderly system of government, and psychotically believed that getting rid of the Jews was going to be better for the entire world. This is mad, but the fundamental impulse is that of global reform, distorted by insanity. The Germans followed because they wanted change, and believed Hitler’s promises about making things better. Lenin and Stalin envisaged a peaceful, prosperous Soviet Union in which ordinary people had enough to eat and were no longer oppressed by Tzars and landowners. Mao succeeded in bringing more people out of absolute poverty faster than anybody could have imagined possible, and lived in personal hardship for decades to make it happen. These vampire lords envisaged a beautiful world, and screwed it up so badly their names will never be forgotten.
The great problem of the nuclear age is that we put the plutonium in the wrong end of the rocket (more detail on that argument there.) Because the ground on which these people stood was not solid, when they made the great push to transform the world, when they channeled the historic forces of entire generations seeking freedom and prosperity through the material power structures they built, the consequences were horrific.
Here is the mistake they made: they fought to control the power of the State, rather than fighting to constrain the power of the State. Jefferson and Franklin and Washington were no less the charismatic heroes but in their minds, the balance of power was to be shifted back towards the individual, on the fundamental believe that free individuals would basically figure out how to run a reasonable and kind society.
Although they accumulated power at the top, that power was hemmed in by all manner of measures – being divided into three parts (executive, legislative and judiciary), balanced by two houses on different electoral cycles, with regional powers like governors, judges and sheriffs all elected. I cannot stress how important the concept of elected law enforcement chiefs is to American democracy.
Mahatma Gandhi takes it even further, governing India by personal example and polite request. Nobody raises taxes which are his to command. If he requests that people do something, and you do not, nobody comes to your house and kicks down the door. Leading by example is a non-trivial act – it’s not obvious that this approach could work outside of the cultural institutions of India, with the concept of the Avatar and the Mahatma in the mind of ordinary people, but it proves that not all power flows from the barrel of a gun.
And in this we have our chance at the Beautiful World.
Treating the disease of tyranny at the source
What we actually want is pretty simple: a place to live, a home, something to eat, friends, a family, love, entertainment. These things are not complicated, but bad cultural values have tortured us into all kinds of strange distortions. Consider the history of sexuality – in the pre-birth control, pre-safe-sex era, the natural hazards in sex were so extreme, and the ignorance around its functions so severe that we wound up with all kinds of insane beliefs passed from mouth to ear, mother to daughter and father to son from the ignorance of antiquity to today. When Freud and Jung began to dig that stuff up and examine its contents, the systems of belief were so bizarre they qualified as pathologies. Had Jung had access to the language of memetics, perhaps he would have expressed the Collective Unconscious as the Ambient Memetic Flora and Fauna!
With our technical capabilities, providing for these basic needs, for all of us, should not be that hard.
For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option of becoming enduringly successful.
Thirty years ago Bucky said we could do it. Sixty years ago, Gandhi showed us how to organize without violence.
So here is the key. The strong men, the dictators, the folks at the top – they’re empowered by their genuine desire to see the world made into a better place, and we’re betrayed by their limitations. Stop caricaturing them as merely evil. Have sympathy for the devil – because if the founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation respects Dick Cheney, you have to consider the possibility that the world is much, much more complicated than it seems.
What leverage does this afford us? If you can see these men – and they are nearly all men – as solutions to problems then we are competing in a market of ideas and actions to solve the problems which bring tyrants into power before the problem can generate a tyrant to solve it. Do you see what I mean?
Let’s take Saddam Hussein. What kept Saddam in power for all those years is that he solved three problems for three different sets of people. For the US, he was a pawn in the middle east, and that was about oil. For elites inside of Iraq, he solved the problem of how to keep Iraq from exploding into sectarian violence or splitting into many countries. For the ordinary people of Iraq, he provided a secular socialist regime which provided free health care and free medical care of good standards. Iraq was a middle class country before the US invaded!
The man served a function. Knocked out of power by a violent hand, all the functions his regime had been providing stopped, and I suspect that most Iraqis consider that life was better before Saddam was removed from power. And that feeling, likely, is at the root of much of the tacit acceptance of insurgent activity.
To out-compete the strongmen means using voluntary cooperation to resolve the problems which a strong man might use to rise to power or stay in power. It means fighting the concentration of force in the hands of corrupt people by solving the problems on a local level, depriving the tyrants of the ground the stand on. This is not a conventional anarchist or libertarian perspective, rather what I’m talking about is systematically reducing the need for governance as a way of solving the problems outlined in The Synthesis.
Let’s take another example. Monsanto feeds off world hunger. They promise a cure for a problem – people go hungry, a billion every year are under-fed – and if you let Monsanto tinker with the genetic structure of the planet, Monsanto will fix it for you (at a pretty profit.) If we systematically scale farming education, organic agriculture, permaculture and the other fifty things which increase food production without harming the world, and if we push towards vegitarianism and healthy diets (don’t ask what I weigh) we are removing the moral justification for Monsanto to exist.
Laying out the stratagem in detail
- A problem exists.
- The problem is soluble by voluntary cooperation. Most are.
- Until we solve it by voluntary cooperation, somebody might suggest solving it by coercion, deception or some other toxic and evil practice.
- The world is plagued by incumbent powers which are each chained to a different global problem, doing the best they can. Nukes, oil companies and so on.
- The worst of these entities have become self-perpetuating in that they defend the very problems which they are constituted on our behalf to solve.
- However, many of the incumbents are willing to relinquish control if they can be shown that the problem they exist to solve is gone.
- Other incumbents are willing to cooperate enthusiastically with new forces enlisting to work on the problem alongside of them – Apple, for example, cooperates with the BSD community via Darwin. The Department of Defense would likely welcome American energy independence – see Jim Woolsey’s work.
- The progressive incumbents who are willing to cooperate with global civil society are likely our best allies against the repressive incumbents who attempt to corrupt our global problem solving processes to perpetuate their own existence. I’m looking at you, Microsoft!
- Therefore, work to differentially empower progressive incumbents in situations where the problem cannot be solved outright by progressive actors.
Now this strategy is not untested. I’ve had a great deal of success as a volunteer assistant to big incumbents, mainly through the Hexayurt Project, and I’ve found at least the US Department of Defense to be a very good home for a vision of the world based on local infrastructure and personal self-reliance. That’s not selling out, that’s a legitimate convergence of interests between two groups of people who both want refugees to be taken care of better. And it’s not an easy interface, but DoD has no stake in perpetuating the problem of refugees. They’d like that taken care of, and that’s an alignment of interests between them and the refugees themselves.
This highlights the delicacy of a strategy which involves close negotiation with incumbent powers. But what we’re looking for is breaching points in the global negative Nash equilibrium which is preventing the brilliant potential of our planet to become a Beautiful World from erupting from every corner and every basement into history and into reality – we’re looking for the keys to unleash our global potential to thrive and grow and blossom. And we are not going to get there without honoring the foundations on which our lives are built, including the work of governments to try and manage the world’s complexity and the exquisite horror and danger of the 20th century.
The Synthesis tells us, clearly, that government cannot hope to keep up with the rate of change and complexity of the world’s problems. It’s not just an issue of command and control, it’s an issue of transparency, integrity, participation, consensus and many other requirements for good government – they all produce horrible problems dealing with the modern world and the new challenges. One possible answer is a regression to bad government – to use feudal centralization to simply resolve the gordian knot of complex systems by fiat authority. This is the model which might well bring calls for continental and then global government, increasingly repressive as it becomes clear that to render the world governable will require cutting its exquisite pace, splendor and complexity down to size. Our counter-strategy must be to solve the problems which bring government into the fray in a manner which does not require government involvement, to allow government to do what it does well, and to remove the wicked problems on which dictators and monopolists feed. A good, usable Linux is the answer to Microsoft, not constant anti-trust suits by the European Union. We need central government to offer support and protection to Linux, to defend it from anti-competitive practices, for example, but at the end of the day it’s all about solving the problem in a way which leaves no room for the monopolies and repressive incumbents to exist. Peace in the middle east will come when the Israelis and the Palestinians no longer fear each-other enough to want repressive and violent State apparatuses to defend them from each-other. This is how it is done.
This approach is stable in that in cases where voluntary cooperation fails to solve the problem, the incumbent remains. A failed new open source operating system bid leaves nothing behind but some unmaintained code and wasted time. A failed attempt to crush a monopolist leaves bad law and millions wasted. Similarly, voluntary cooperation to lower the level of fear and mistrust in the middle east is likely to harm nobody even in cases where things do not go smoothly, and a critical mass of such activities is probably the only safe, sane way we could imagine the conflict ending. The problem is that all of the energy to solve the problem is channeled into the State, which then acts as a negative monopoly, a repressive incumbent, feeding off the problem which it is mandated to solve. Upon establishing that a repressive incumbent has come to exist, the question must then be whether to press on regardless, expecting pressure from above, or to move on to solving another problem.
What the Big Society really wanted to say, but couldn’t
The Big Society is an example of an ill-thought-out intuition from a rather slipshod government operating on slippey rocks in the dead of economic winter. The idea that the State is out of cards is at the heart of the Big Society, but one cannot simply say “we’ve got no money left and it’s only going to get worse” and still expect to get re-elected. So instead we hear a rhetoric of community empowerment without the necessary fire of financial necessity to back up the ideology. In this case, ideology is in conformity with necessity, but the incumbent government cannot reveal that fact plainly and expect to thrive. So instead we have a complex and messy interface around precisely how can voluntary cooperation begin to solve some of the problems which the State currently owns?
The questions of State responsibility, of shirking duties, of “where’s the tax money going then, banker’s bonuses?” only serve to obscure the fact that shrinking the State to a sustainable size now is critical to having an effective State at all if the global financial crisis turns into a second Great Depression.
So here is my thesis at last, a little rough around the edges and late, but in essence complete.
- Evolution, Complexity, Urgency and Unity represent hard limits on the effectiveness of both government and governance in the 21st century.
- Many problems, such as generation of renewable energy on one’s own roof, can be solved without a governance component. It’s not a National Grid, it’s your roof.
- A systematic approach to solving the world’s problems by voluntary cooperation in harmony with progressive incumbents has the potential to allow ordinary people to work on the world’s problems together without requiring a great deal of self-sacrifice or conflict with repressive incumbent powers.
I think this is a political grand strategy which might allow us to architect concerted programs to solve some of the world’s great problems without the kinds of destructive conflicts which made such a mess of the 1960s. I’ve been feeling my way forwards down this channel with the Hexayurt Project over the years, which has strong support from both the Burning Man community and the STAR-TIDES project (at US National Defense University), so I think I’m qualified to say that there is the real potential to dissolve the artificial distinctions between power and progress, between citizen and government, between the people on either side of the desk and the line of battle, to say we know you don’t know how to solve the world’s problems, and we’re here to help.
Because the 21st century is going to take all of us, and the split between activists and government has to be closed so that society as a whole can use its whole strength to push back against the chaos which the 20th century has unleashed. Understand your so-called opponents, find common cause, and cooperate to shut down the underlying problems which tie us into the negative equilibrium conditions we are stuck in.
(This presentation may take a few years to become as crisp, clear and concise as my other work usually is, and I apologize for the great length and complexity of this argument. I will simplify and find clarity as time permits. Thank you for your patience)
Vinay Gupta was featured in a Guardian video on the real big society last year.
(read more of this series in The Summary – an introduction to #TheBigDeal)