Emergent Solutions for a World in Crisis (Part 3)
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.
In part two of this series, we identified a central root-problem that drives most of the most pressing issues we have to deal with in this planetary meta-crisis: the “tragedy of the commons”. At its core, it is a collective action problem. In general, we know what would be the best course of action to sustain our shared commons, yet all the individual incentives are misaligned and defecting on the common good is being rewarded under the cover of “plausible deniability”, while serving the common good is being systematically punished, due to the poor design of the architecture of choice-making we find ourselves in. This way, in the long run, we all miss out and — given the nature of exponential tech within the context of finite planetary boundaries — will likely self-terminate the human experiment one way or another (or in multiple ways). That truly would be a tragedy given how far evolution has made it in our neck of the Kosmic woods.
A Quadrant Analysis
Through the lens of Ken Wilber’s four-quadrant model, we can describe how most people look at the nature of the problems. While we trace them back to one single “generator function” — the “tragedy of the commons” — they see all the various negative symptoms or expressions of the one big issue at the surface level: climate inaction, degradation of worker rights, tax-cuts for the rich, hijacking of our attention through social media platforms, wealth inequality, etc. Yet each one of these can be explained in terms of similar game-theoretic dynamics.
For most people, the root cause of the problem is seen in terms of the upper-left quadrant, the interior of the individual, or in terms of the lower-left quadrant, the interior of the collective. Either the individual with his poor (morally reprehensible) choices is to be blamed (and shunned) or the entire culture is seen as rotten and morally degraded. While there certainly sometimes are reprehensible individual sociopaths and moral decay exists, this view is steeped in a form of anti-human sentiment. No wonder some environmentalists view their fellow species-members as a “cancer of the planet” — a rather thinly veiled expression of self-hatred.
I would rather locate the main part of the problem in the lower-right quadrant, the exterior collective dimension. This is the systems-perspective on things. Our collective action problem, our “tragedy of the commons” issue is a problem of poor/absent systems design which continually pushes individual actors to act against their own best long-term interests.
Sure, you can blame it on incompetent politicians, or greedy stakeholders, yet even those politicians and stakeholders can only pick among the choices that are on the menu. Meanwhile, the unrecognized “tragedy of the commons” dynamic makes sure to continue to generate shitty menu choices for all of us.
While it is human nature to personalize problems and give them a face, I suspect that this cognitive bias that may have worked in the savannah will do us a disservice nowadays, by distracting our attention away from the true culprit: destructive forms of competition.
Levels Matter: Developmental Issues in “Getting” Systemic Problems
Yet it is also true, that grasping systemic problems pre-supposes at least some form of systems-view, a 4th-person perspective, usually emerging around late rational and early pluralistic stages of cognitive development and blossoming at integral stages. The current estimates say that only around 15% of the population globally has developed the mental apparatus ready to even receive the message. For the rest, this very problem description is literally over their heads. They have no antenna for it. Unfortunately, objective third-person facts about systems don’t lie around in reality for everyone to see. They have to be enacted within a first-person at the right “Kosmic address” (epistemologically speaking), a term coined by Ken Wilber to index the precise (AQAL) configuration required to “light up” a given fact to make it “ex-ist”, that is “stand forth”, in the first place. Facts are only facts for someone. If you get the address wrong, the message will not be received.
This specifies an important design-constraint that any attempt of solving the “tragedy of the commons” problem would have to take into account: it would have to work regardless of the level of inner development the actors bring to the table. Any environmental movement that relies on sensitizing individuals to make the right individual choices based on the genuine understanding of the problem will never — and I repeat — never ever cut it. Development means that everyone starts at square one and skipping stages is not possible. Mastering one stage takes an individual on average 5 years — if it occurs at all. The later stages required for understanding the environmental issue may never be reached at all. It doesn’t help if only 15% of the global population cooperates in reducing carbon emissions (and gets punished by the system for doing so).
The Rule of Law
The classic answer to this conundrum has always been the rule of the law. A law doesn’t specify the (left-hand) interior preconditions for following it. It doesn’t care if you are for or against the use of masks to help prevent the spread of COVID, or if you like paying your taxes (or your carbon taxes for that matter). Your interior opinion is irrelevant. It simply mandates a certain exterior behavior you are supposed to comply with and sets up a choice of consequences in case you fail to comply with it. It doesn’t even concern itself with being “just” — that’s for politicians and moral philosophers to be discussed — it is simply a rule to bind exterior behavior for individuals and collectives. It works by significantly raising the costs on the not-favored behavior options and sometimes by incentivizing the desired behaviors. It is systems-design in action. It renders the broad menu of the most likely choices we can pick from.
Destructive International Competition in the Global Governance Gap
Modern communication technology, the internet, as well as international trade has led to a thick web of global interconnection. Information, capital, people, as well as goods and services move globally nowadays — a development we cannot turn back (as much as nationalists naively would like to squeeze the genie back into the bottle). The fact that money can move beyond national boundaries, escaping to tax-havens is one of many symptoms unveiling what businessman and creator of the international campaign for simultaneous policy (SIMPOL), John Bunzl, calls “the Global Governance Gap”. Absent any internationally binding regulation, destructive international competition — another name for the central issue of “the tragedy of the commons” — is running rampant to such degree that even some businesses that ‘benefit’ from this unregulated international space cry out “please regulate us!”
So, while information, capital, people, as well as goods and services move globally, binding legal regulation is still confined to operate on a lower level, namely the national level. The economy and capital operate on a world-centric level, while regulation is stuck in nation-centric thinking. Kind of embarrassing. Sure, there are international treaties and there are even global institutions like the UN, the IPCC, UNICEF, or the WHO but none of these entities is given enough power to effectively sanction the more powerful member-states like the USA, China, or Russia for non-compliance. This is the Global Governance Gap.
Effective Global Governance vs. a Global Government
As soon as one speaks about the need for regulations on a global level, fears about evoking a totalitarian world regime, a global government, flare up. One can easily see why that could be a complete horror scenario. One would have to flee a different planet to escape its overbearing reach (oh wait, Elon, now I get what you are trying to do with SpaceX…). Instead of this, the international campaign for simultaneous policy (SIMPOL) aims much lower. All it tries to do is to line up support for the simultaneous implementation of certain policies, effectively a form of Global Governance, not a bloated and dangerous Global Government.
A Virtuous Cycle in Exchange for the Current Vicious Cycle
It attempts to overcome the collective action problem by initiating a virtuous cycle in which individual national governments signal support for implementing simultaneous policies as soon as a sufficient number of other national governments have pledged to do the same for a particular issue. The simultaneous implementation of the policies worldwide, under the pre-condition of temporarily bracketing global competition in favor of global collaboration within a clearly specified framework, defuses the negative effects of acting unilaterally and enables a win-win-win solution as an incentive for individual nations to join the deal. That’s the carrot. Failing to globally coordinate and increasingly suffering the consequences of this failure are the stick.
Example: Carbon Tax
Here’s one illustrative example: If one single nation decided to introduce a carbon-tax unilaterally, it would be at the sucking end, suffering from the repercussions of destructive international competition. Production, money, labor, and tax revenue would simply move out and relocate internationally, leaving the local politicians hard-pressed to explain why they chose to destroy jobs while achieving little to nothing in moving the needle on global carbon emissions. It would be political suicide to act under these strong systemic disincentives of the tragedy of the commons.
Example: Appropriate Taxation of Corporations
The same is true for raising taxes for big corporations (obviously the right thing to do to close the wealth-inequality gap and secure sufficient funding for states to be able to perform needed services for the public). The nation that raises taxes significantly, disqualifies itself from being an attractive country to invest in and loses out to those that keep taxes low — a development that has led to a race-to-the-bottom in which countries compete with lower and lower tax rates while continually lowering the bar on what can be asked of corporations to tolerate in terms of taxation for every country.
How would SIMPOL help?
How would the simultaneous implementation of policies on a global level help with these (kinds of) problems? It would help by closing the glaringly open loopholes. With nowhere else to go, carbon polluters or tax evaders would have to board the next ship to Mars in order to escape regulation. Simultaneous implementation of binding rules by all nations would dramatically level the playing field and reduce evasion options for sneaky actors. At the same time, since everybody would experience the same restrictions, healthy competition (the motor of evolution and wealth creation) could return — only this time encapsulated within a framework of global cooperation. The dynamics of competition and cooperation can actually complement each other in a well-managed polarity on a higher level. But we need to build the necessary global scaffolding for that.
What kind of policies are eligible for simultaneous implementation?
Nation-states should retain the maximal amount of sovereignty to implement their own policies as needed. In order to guarantee the full amount of subsidiarity, only those policies, the implementation of which would lead to a “tragedy of the commons” problem were they enacted unilaterally by a single nation, are eligible at all to become the basis for a simultaneous policy. This filters out all those policies that attempt to impose local national values or agendas on other nations. Additionally, a given simultaneous policy only gets enacted if all (or sufficient) nations enact them simultaneously which incentivizes law-makers to explore and engage a higher design-space of solutions that lies in the interest of all nations, not just its own (otherwise it disqualifies itself and won’t get implemented anyway).
How do you convince nation-states to join SIMPOL?
The SIMPOL campaign has come up with an ingenious strategy of leveraging the very mechanism of political competition in order to motivate party politicians to arrive at supporting international political cooperation by signing the SIMPOL pledge. Since margins in national elections are often thin, a relatively small number of self-organized citizens that support the SIMPOL pledge is sufficient, expressing strong favor for any politician or party that additionally supports the SIMPOL pledge in any given local or national election. This creates an incentive for the politicians to sign the pledge, since doing so has no immediate negative consequences (it only gets implemented once sufficient nations have signed up, not before), while not doing so may mean losing the block of self-declared SIMPOL voters which could end up swaying the election in favor of your political competitors.
In the end, due to competitive pressure, both competitors end up signing the pledge. So, no matter what party (or politician) ends up winning the local or national election, it likely has signed the SIMPOL pledge — which also makes sense in itself, beyond it being a way to win more votes and not lose out to your political competitors. As this process of signing up for the pledge spreads through the population of politicians in a given country, more and more momentum and awareness for the problem of destructive international competition and its potential solution (SIMPOL) is being generated.
Proof of Concept for SIMPOL
Currently, members of parliament in eight countries + the EU have signed the SIMPOL pledge. Starting in the UK, the campaign has already managed to sign up over 100 members of the British parliament. The general mechanism has been demonstrated to work. Now it needs to be scaled worldwide.
In the end, even non-democratic nations are highly likely join the simultaneous policy implementation since they need global solutions for global problems as well and the growing global support for the campaign will not go unnoticed in the light of mounting pressures to resolve these issues. Joining the global community will increasingly be seen as advantageous.
Check out www.simpol.org and the book “The SIMPOL Solution” by John Bunzl and Nick Duffell for more details.
I also presented his approach in my article “Immunity to Climate Change”.
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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