• The Synthesis

    by  • February 5, 2011 • The Big Deal • 7 Comments

    (see The Summary – an introduction to #TheBigDeal for more of this series of essays)


    People of earth, we’re out of time for gradualism and compromise positions.

    People of earth, we need to act in unity on our real problems, but without creating a global government which could buy and sell the lot of us.

    People of earth, we are as scattered as a bucket of lego, and our old methods of creating form have failed.

    The Blind Watchmaker has made our bodies, but our minds are failing to cope with an environment we never evolved in.

    People of earth, I think I have an idea.

    The Evolutionary Basis

    We evolved in the jungles and then on the plains. Field monkeys. Tribal bands around rocky outcrops like baboons, then fire and the farming settled us down. Somewhere back there the synergy between wheat and pottery, brewing, set our course to today.

    But five thousand years is not long. Our brains are still heavily adapted for function in a social environment where we spend most of our lives with the same dozen-dozen people. For most of our evolutionary history the technological backdrop was completely static. Then we began inventing things, and now the technological backdrop is a vortex of continuous innovation pushing further and faster into increasingly dangerous unknowns. We live so long we have no idea how to tell the difference between the old and the young any more… “50 is the new 30” doesn’t mean anything, but I’m practically 40 years old and I still feel like I just left university. We don’t know, at an instinctive level, how to handle this environment.

    Let me give you an example: if a reproductive-age man and a woman had a lot of sex at almost any previous time in human history, if neither one was biologically impaired, she’d be pregnant by the end of the year. There are occasional references to effective birth control breaking out here and there in the ancient world, but in evolutionary terms it’s an entirely new regime. How much of our confusion about how relationships work is a clash between an ancient evolutionary expectation that sex equals babies, and the modern environment where, no, actually there’s forebrain steer here.

    Now imagine that confusion multiplied by our long lifespans, small families, super-abundant food supply, continuous technological change, intercontinental travel, artificial light, strange chemical environment, pheromone-suppressing hygiene practices and six thousand other simultaneous changes as we’ve moved from living in nature to living in a world increasingly of our own making.

    Humankind have become masters of their environment in the developed world, and it’s by no means clear that we know how to handle it. Just look at the obesity epidemic.


    What is the smallest team one can assemble which entirely understands the current state-of-the-art science of the climate debacle? My guess, if you start with the orbital sensor design at one end, work through the atmosphere, the sea, the carbon absorption and emissions of plants and the complex issues around biological (even human) formation of cloud cover, plus the factors around the activity of the sun – if you put all of this together, from the action of a given plant through to the continental geography, and now add all the scientists and software engineers are required to understand the implementation of the simulations of the climate, and want to be able to work it all out from relatively straight forward basic science – is that the team is around the Dunbar Number. The Dunbar Number is a fair estimate at normal human tribe size, the number of people we’ve evolved to keep a decent biography of in our head. These hundred and fifty specialists in a group can probably work it out from the sensors through to the sky, given a few years.

    This is a problem at a level of complexity which so far surpasses the ability of a single person to verify what is going on to their own satisfaction that we wind up having to trust groups of people to know things for us. No specialist, no matter how bright, can load the entire state of the system into their head and verify what is true, even given perfect data. And the data is far from perfect – we have few sensors in the oceans, where most of the heat is, and our guesses about the sun are just that. The models are fairly coherent, but by no means so secure that it is impossible to imagine radical breakthroughs in our understanding of the situation. So at the end of building this imaginary superteam to make sure we understand the whole thing end-to-end, we’re left with a confidence interval – 95% sure or 99% sure or 80% or whatever it turns out to be.

    In the real world, we have a group that we call the “climate community” or the IPCC or whatever name we give it today that is much larger than our imaginary panel and collectively knows what is going on as well as it can currently be known.

    Now, to this complexity, required just to be sure that there is warming, add a second team. This second team understands, as well as we can understand at this point, the economic, political, policy, technology and environmental measures which can be taken to reduce the human race’s impact on the climate. And this second team has country experts and industry experts and technology experts and policy experts and a few dozen other kinds of experts, and this team is also around a Dunbar Number of humans, a tribe all of its own.

    Now put both groups together in a room. 300ish people, all geniuses at the top of their field, and it’s too many people to even remember everyone’s name, never mind what they have to say.

    We’re fucked.

    Now, in the real world, the way we handle this kind of complexity is that we have one team report results to another, usually in the form of a peer-reviewed paper. We trust the oceanographers to understand each-other’s work well enough to tell the climatologists “yeah, this guy has good models for the thermal structure of the Atlantic” or whatever it is. We segment the problem, and we split it into smaller and smaller parts, and we swarm all over it like brain ants, with thousands of times more people looking at it than the nice end-to-end team which I suggested a few paragraphs ago.

    But how sure are we, really, that when you put everything together, we really know what is going on?

    Not sure enough to act, that’s how sure.

    Not sure enough to act.

    At a gut level the complexity has grown past the point where we feel a satisfied sense of understanding a problem well enough to actually say “well, damnit, the sky is on fire so I’m going to stop driving to work” en masse, resulting in a transformation of our environmental impact.

    This pattern – horrendous runaway complexity requiring Dunbar-sizes social groups to even get a rough handle on the problem – repeats for at least four other critical fields:

    • climate (and by extension, environment) we covered, plus
    • managing the global economy
    • regulation of biotechnology
    • international relations including defense
    • medicine

    And, of course, all these things interact with each other.

    It’s not just that the world is complex, it’s that the world is too complex.


    In the last couple of hundred years, according to Rudy Rummel, governments murdered approximately a quarter billion of their own citizens. To give you a sense of scale, that’s about half the number of people that smallpox killed in the same period, or roughly a 1% chance that any given individual would die in a prison camp, artificial famine or secret police execution. Rummel’s way of describing the scale is to say it’s as if we had a nuclear war, but a little at a time over a century.

    Even relatively politically sophisticated people look at me funny when I talk about genocide as being a key political issue. Even though we lost 4 million people in Rwanda, even though Congo is a beyond-horror nightmare right now. The idea that government can go wrong so badly it slaughters its own people, and that such collective dysfunction is as dangerous as any plague seems unimaginable.

    Where is our global anti-genocide task force to nip the next Pol Pot in the bud? Same place as the guys who should have gotten on top of North Korea before they went nuclear, that’s where: out to lunch.

    Now genocide is a big, clear, red flag issue. It takes time, and real effort, to kill millions of people. Rwanda (4 million in 6 months) was as fast as its ever been done, as far as I can tell, and even in that case some observers say that a thousand peacekeepers on the ground in the first months would have stopped the whole thing completely. After all, all they had was machetes. Genocide lacks most of the complexity of climate – it’s not that hard to get reliable estimates of how many people are being killed, and by who – and the interventions all basically amount to “tell them to knock it off, and if they don’t, send gunboats.”

    But genocide is fast compared to the speed with which complex social organizations like governments make decisions. The slow warm up, the massing of public opinion and energy behind a proposed intervention, the checking and rechecking lest an election-losing mistake is made, the logistical delays, the squeamishness, the push through the psychological resistance to act and…

    It’s all over by the time anybody can get peacekeepers on the ground.

    Why, precisely, isn’t the international community all over Congo right now? My god, the reports coming out of the country – rape and mutilation camps run by poorly-armed militias – and everybody in power looks the other way or distracts themselves with running the local cat shelter.

    Urgency. Some of these problems can be nipped in the bud, if you can act fast enough. Some of these problems are simple enough to get to, but fast moving enough that we can’t get the damn barn door closed in time.


    John Nash went mad realizing that we can take a situation in which everybody could be doing quite nicely, and because we get into the situation in a funny way, we wind up unable to realize that good potential because every step towards it is bad for somebody.

    Let me say that again in a different way.

    John Nash went mad realizing that we can get locked into local minima – disappointing ways of doing things – because every step towards a better world is worse for somebody with veto power.

    It’s even worse, actually.

    John Nash went mad realizing that we can get into a situation where for anything to change, everybody has to change at the same time and there are seven billion of us, constrained by Evolution, Complexity and Urgency.

    All of these are different ways of discussing Nash equilibria, for which he got the Nobel Prize. Nash was working in a tight, formal, mathematical style but once you get to know the feeling of a situation which is stuck in a Nash-type way, the rigor can be relaxed somewhat.

    Nash situations are situations in which all of us are dumber than any of us, and nobody seems to be able to take effective action to change anything. Not every situation which is stuck in that way is stuck for Nash’s reasons, but usually if you do the analysis, Nash equilibria rear their ugly heads.

    John Nash went mad realizing why everybody’s doing the best they can, and everything sucks.

    You could change your life in radical, holy ways if everybody around you would change at the same time. We could all bicycle to work easily if they’d just take the cars off the road in the mornings. We could all go veggie together – it would be easy, the meat would be off the shelves and out of the restaurants – and we wouldn’t miss it that much if we all did it together. We could all cut our energy footprint if we could get coherent policy and good engineering to show up at the same time as new consumer demand for efficiency and new investment in clean energy.

    But the world is fractured into so many competing factions that getting even an inch of progress in any direction is nearly impossible most days. There are occasional sudden, unpredictable cascades of change (hello Egypt!) but, for the most part, our divisions render us unable to act effectively even when our very lives depend on it, as they do every single day we ignore nanotech/biotech risk, nuclear weapons risk, environmental risk and the rest.

    Now this position is a relatively recent occurrence. Back in the day of autocratic kings, when authoritarian rule was the norm, if the King wanted it different, he said how it was going to be, and it was so. The society could operate as a whole because it lacked checks-and-balances – power was unified in the person of the King, and a certain class of whole systems problems simply did not emerge. If A and B could not work out how to cooperate effectively in a way which made the kingdom run smoothly, the King could settle the matter with an ultimatum: “get it together or I’ll cut your heads off.”

    As we’ve stripped back this authoritarian power, we’ve opened up the whole domain of problems which are unmanageable because they require more cooperation to solve than we seem to be able to scrape together on the day. Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun would not have come out that way if the King of the World was going to behead everybody involved if they failed to reach a workable agreement.

    In short, the price we have paid for freedom, for the end of the age of autocrats, is that we each go our own way as the world crumbles for lack of severe measures to constrain our headlong rush towards catastrophe.

    We lack the unity to find safety. We cannot agree to stop rowing the boat towards doom, and each time somebody tries to stop rowing, they get mashed by the person ahead of them and behind them who are still pulling back-and-forth on each stroke.

    We lack the unity to stop the process of our own destruction.

    Nobody is in charge

    The great myth of the left, and especially the right, is that the government is in charge.

    But the government is fully effected by Evolution, by Complexity, by Urgency and by Unity. Indeed, the government is the very epicenter of where these problems find their fullest flowering, as 200-odd nations meet to fix the world’s climate problem by constraining our collective emissions of CO2 and fail, over and over again.

    Now, here is the punchline of the joke I’ve spent all this time building up to.

    Stop expecting the government to fix this.

    I don’t mean this in a limited Big Society type way, I mean do the analysis in a rigorous way. Look at these four factors:

    • Evolutionary biases in thinking, particularly group size issues
    • Complexity of the situation and managing that complexity
    • Urgency of need for action in a consensus-building environment
    • Unity and the lack thereof, as each department sells the other’s furniture

    Government loves the market because the market is an abrasive jet of tiny individual actors sawing their way through the problems of the day like a waterjet cutting through steel. You throw out some money, and the abrasive particles of the market soon carve a solution to get to the money. The problem is that the market is effective, but there’s no way to constrain the actions of the market to the intended consequences. Subsidize mining and oil exploration, wind up with global warming: the market cuts through all obstacles, including safety, good taste and fundamental human well-being. By the time you build an efficient framework to control the unbridled force of so many individual actors each optimizing their own part of the system, like molecules of water finding their own level in a vessel, you have a command economy and none of the messy vitality which makes the market operate. You cannot handcuff the invisible hand and still have a effective servant.

    This is the council of no hope, but revolution, and revolution in understanding, not in the streets.

    Let me say this again: stop expecting government to fix this.

    The talking heads on television exist to assure you that Somebody can fix this, just not the guy who’s currently trying to fix it. The radical rhetoric of the far left exists to tell you that more centralization will result in better action. The far right says more centralization will fix it. The anarchists – whether Libertarian or Syndicalist – assume that a network of local solutions can sort out the problem that cannot be solved by centralization, that small steps somehow turn into an efficient journey. But still you have the infernal boundary conditions – what happens if my syndicalist enclave decides to build it’s own dirty industries and contaminates the local area? What happens if a monopoly arises and there’s no government to reboot the market? Everybody wants to sell you a solution.

    There is no solution within our existing models of reality. We do not know how to govern the planet in a way which will regulate our environmental impact. We just do not know how to do this, and avoiding the fact that we have no idea what to do is the predominant function of alternative politics.

    You give up on the current system, and you look to another system which, frankly, even if tried would be vulnerable to the same conceptual logjams and boundary condition problems that all existing systems of governance display when faced with the absurd complexity of a seven billion person planet with runaway, uncontrolled technological acceleration.

    We don’t know how to do this. Fundamentally this crisis – that we do not know how to govern our affairs at the current level of complexity – is the gigantic lump under the global rug that you can see every nation state on earth tripping over every time they try and get something done, and it is especially clear when many nations come together at some international venue to try and act together to get something done.


    Muddling through while maintaining the existing status quo will simply wreck the climate beyond all repair by the time we get a global agreement in place.

    Even if we clobber climate, we still have nano- and bio-technology to clobber before we wind up with genetically engineered globally invasive species running amuck in the biosphere.

    And that’s before we deal with political radicalization of the poor as the network arrives in their villages and they get to organize themselves on a global scale to fight for their fair share of the global energy and resource budget.

    So this is what I’ve got for you: give up on the idea that government is capable of solving any of these problems: bound by Evolution, Complexity, Urgency, Unity and more, they are more helpless to manage their responsibilities than we are to manage our own lives. And I do not mean decentralizing governance to the markets, the communities or the bioregions. I mean something much more fundamental. I mean that we may have exceeded the scope of the paradigm of government just as surely as a 500 meter tall man would be subject to more gravity than could be supported by the paradigm of bone. We have a scaling problem, where the exponentially increasing complexity of the global situation has grown so quickly as to overwhelm our decision-making apparatus. We’re flying blind because runaway-technological-change-to-the-power-of-seven-billion is too large a number for anything like governing.

    Stop believing that better government can fix this.

    That’s all. Just stop believing that better government can fix this. Then you can see, much more clearly, how radical our thinking must become to posit an effective solution to managing the joint account of seven billion people, and an unknown number of animals and plants, on the world we all share together.

    (read more of this series in The Summary – an introduction to #TheBigDeal)

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    Vinay Gupta is a consultant on disaster relief and risk management.


    7 Responses to The Synthesis

    1. February 6, 2011 at 1:56 am

      Well said.

      The only way out of the trap of futility is knowing what we’re up against. You’ve made a great case to explain why government, ideological “solutions” of any stripe, are not going to cut it. They’re not going to get beyond futility.

      The next step is to get past the belief that any of this can be managed. Period.

      That’s where Disillusion needs to take us. Then we’ll be ready to look at what’s at stake, what’s going on and what we can do to accommodate.

    2. Zeb
      February 6, 2011 at 10:34 am

      If I can use your words:

      “You give up on the current system, and you look to another system which, frankly, even if tried would be vulnerable to the same conceptual logjams and boundary condition problems that all existing systems of governance display when faced with the absurd complexity of a seven billion person planet with runaway, uncontrolled technological acceleration.”

      I think this is where it begins and ends. Humans and their systems have adapted, survived, evolved successfully because their environment was generous to them (i.e. we had the space to move around): the prophetic stories of old tell us often about the migration of ‘the aware ones’ away from corrupt, crumbling empires to make a new life, start over.

      So the movement of migration away from something to something else (moving from system to system, in ever increasing complexity) could be seen as us fighting the biological, energetic, whatever forces of entropy. We are fighting The End, continually. Is it the fear of death that is wired into us?

      At the end of your piece you posit that our current way of thinking – believing that govt’s have solutions etc – will not get us anywhere, so by giving up that specific belief and ‘thinking radically’ instead we will get ourselves out of the mess.

      Replacing one part with another part – i.e. using thought itself as a tool to keep digging us out of these messes – regardless of whether the next system is radical or not, is surely destined to fail in the long term too?

      I’m not proposing that we all sit on our laurels and welcome in the collapse that is likely inevitable, because ultimately, we face some real horrors which we should be as prepared for as possible – but my (probably limited) understanding is that belief in the products of thought, when it could be argued that thought is what got us here in the first place, can only ever be a false hope. We are in effect in a dead end (no pun intended) so long as thought is concerned.

      Further, I think that it is easy to let thought cover up a crucial problem for humans: how we relate to each other, our own selves, and other parts of the system earth, at a fundamental level.

      Without getting into it too deeply, it seems to me that our relationships with others are for the most part still based on seeking security, comfort, acceptance etc. and I posit that this seeking security, especially in uncertain times, is what gets us into trouble: when faced with a problem, we fight desperately against our own extinguishment, using thought, our most advanced tool, in the ego’s fight for survival.

      Which brings us back to this fear of death. I think humans are at their most capable, and have been throughout history, when we are able to conquer our biological wiring to fear extinguishment. Facing our mortality allows us to act in a way that affects real change, crucially for better or worse, depending on the nature of the ideology that has historically driven us.

      So if there were a way that we could face our own mortality moment to moment and collectively, not because an ideology drives us but because we recognise that it is the real force of change, then is there a chance we could take appropriate action?

      I know what I’ve just said sounds airy fairy and not the most practical ‘solution’ to what we face (never mind the fact that I seem to have rambled a bit here!) but I guess what I’m saying is that although I agree with your sentiment – to think clearly (and practically) in uncertain times – I cannot see how solutions can be brought into fruition by using the same methods, the same tools. There is something missing and it isn’t going to be found so long as we keep looking in the same places.

    3. February 6, 2011 at 12:11 pm

      Summaries like this make our minds explode.

      Things are messy == it’s all open space == this welcomes “thinking” as part of it.

      No fantasies about our own mortality. The “six ways to die” model applies to us as a species too, in full strength. With some threats we can see, and quite possibly some threats we can’t see.

      We will react (proaction is reaction to perceived future stuff, amoebas of the mind that we are) along the individual-team-org/network-state spectrum. SCIM fans out the possibility space, but doesn’t tell us exactly what to do.

      It’ll get even messier for a while. Letting go off the (centralized) governability meme – “replacing kinds is the answer” – may be part of it. And – they say – the (post-governance) future is already here, it’s just that it’s unevenly distributed.

      Or can we imagine what we can’t imagine, and most of the new stuff isn’t even born as tiny prototype cells yet? Neurologic systems evolved before neurologists were born.

      Also, just imagine if/when twitter gets a nice and easy tool to retweet-with-translation. More messiness, not less?

      [It’s almost fun to watch how “syntheses” (plural) shake us. I wonder what the neurology of sudden insight looks like, at a cellular level.]

    4. February 6, 2011 at 12:13 pm

      Sorry, that should have been “replacing kinGs is the answer”. Oops.

    5. InKyDo
      February 6, 2011 at 2:33 pm

      I concur on all counts.

      The hardest realization is this: Nothing any of us can write or do is likely to save humanity collectively from the destructive operations of the complex systems we have created, and we have to choose not to let fact that drive us mad.

      We are like individual cancer cells waking to discover our role in killing the patient of whom we are a part. We find that our DNA is faulty and replicating out of control. It’s rather an untenable position.

      The only path forward that I can see would be to square our lives with what we see, to trace not only with words but also with the trajectory of our lives the thought, the spiritual path, and the courses of action that might have proven durable had we embraced them together as a species. We can make an effort to fix the DNA of our motives, thought, and action. Something of worth might then survive us, though none of us can say what.

      But even this small venture is a great one and much easier said than done, given all the ways in which our lives are beholden to the malignant systems that will consume a planet and leave us all bereft. It would take that enlightened tribe of adequate size to make real headway. Perhaps that tribe exists, but it is widely scattered.

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