Like many of my peers, I am constantly wrestling with the question: What does it take to steer the world into a saner, more sustainable direction? This text is not a definitive answer to that question, simply a summary of what puzzle-pieces I have found so far that seem relevant. I will release it in the form of a series of posts. My hope is that by putting my pieces on the table that others will pick them up and link them to theirs so that this act of distributed cognition can move the whole forward.
The Second Piece of the Puzzle: Daniel Schmachtenberger’s Analysis of Existential Risks
Daniel Schmachtenberger, not unlike Ken Wilber, is a polymath with deep knowledge in a variety of fields. According to his website, “he’s had particular interest in the topics of catastrophic and existential risk, civilization and institutional decay and collapse as well as progress, collective action problems, social organization theories, and the relevant domains in philosophy and science.”
What I most appreciate about Daniel and his work is his ongoing, almost visceral inquiry into all the potential failure modes of human civilization, and his analysis of major existential risks. With great compassion, he goes to all the places that are painful to look at, drills down deeply, and shares his findings with anyone unafraid to listen. He sometimes summarizes his findings with the image of a person running increasingly fast in a forest while the forest is getting darker and darker.
This is the state of humanity wielding the power of god-like technologies without having developed the corresponding love and wisdom of gods.
The Tragedy of the Commons — The Generator Function for Existential Risks
In looking at various issues from our inability to address climate change, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and AI-based weaponry, the capture of government by market forces, the erosion of the information ecology commons through social media companies to the obesity crisis (and many others), Daniel Schmachtenberger identified a common characteristic that all these problems share. They are all variations on a similar issue that can be described in terms of game-theory as “tragedy of the commons”. In such constellations, the behavior of an individual actor that is good for the whole and healthy in the long run is disincentivized because it is associated with losses and disadvantages compared to other actors. Although everyone understands what the right thing to do for the shared commons would be, the individual incentives are misaligned. The collective action results in the erosion of the commons, despite everyone’s best intentions.
Here are a few examples for “Tragedy of the Commons” type dynamics: the nation that wants to do the right thing by cutting CO2 emissions will lose its economic competitiveness by losing business and capital to those nations that don’t play along. The social media platform that doesn’t build its business model on an attention-driven ad model that drives us into a collective race towards the bottom of the brain-stem will lose out against those that do since its content is not as “sticky” and people are less inclined to pay a monthly fee for using social media when there are plenty of free alternatives. A nation that declares that it is abandoning its research into AI-enhanced drone weapon technology to prevent a destructive arms-race will lose its military edge in comparison to those nations that keep pushing for it (or are secretly defecting from treaties agreeing to ban these weapons). The peasant that doesn’t cut down the local rainforest in order to generate income for his family loses out to his neighbor who does and ends up with fewer resources while the forest gets cut down anyway.
Systemic effects of “plausible deniability”
All these examples illustrate that the actors, while “free” to make whatever choice they want, are bound by the likely short-term consequences (disincentives) of their choices. Additionally, by referring to the likely behavior of all the other actors and by virtue of the effects of the damaging behavior of the actors accumulating only in an indirect way over a long period of time, the actors can engage in what Schmachtenberger calls “plausible deniability”. It allows the individual actors to disassociate from the long-term systemic effects of their action by limiting their view to local short-term incentives and disincentives.
The “Tragedy of the Commons” dynamic is called the “generator function” for all these problems because it is the root cause of all similar situations that lead to race-to-the-bottom scenarios. All of these situations are variations on the same collective action problem. It begs the question: How can we set up a system that aligns the behavior of every individual actor with the interests of the commons that we all benefit from? Be it a sustainable planet, a world free from nuclear weapons and AI-killer-drones, social media platforms that actually foster our human connection, a market that serves the welfare of society, or an intact rainforest ecosystem that fulfills its function as a planetary lung.
“All For One — One For All”
Being able to identify the main generator function for existential risk is actually very good news. It means that solving one core problem contains the key for solving a multitude of others — at least in principle.
It means that we can focus our collective resources to generate strategic leverage. It allows us to stop wasting our time trying to fix the symptoms and directly engage to solve the root cause of untold suffering. It’s actually fantastic news. Solving the problem won’t be easy, but at least we have a sense of what to aim for.
The Other Puzzle Pieces
To be continued…
Follow me on Medium and watch this space for more puzzle pieces. Meanwhile, please share your own gems of insight with the rest of us. Thanks!
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