Climate Change & Other Existential Risks
Over the last couple of weeks there has been talk about a new take on climate change that predicts we may have less than 10 years before global civilization collapse. It’s a very sobering read, and it’s definitely made a dent on my otherwise sunny disposition.
The main argument behind it is that because our climate and civilization are so complex, they are increasingly subject to *non-linear* disruptions. Such disruptions have the potential to precipitate various cascade effects, resulting in very rapid phase transitions. This is self-organized criticality at work. It’s a fundamental of how most complex systems work, and we’re starting to see such effects in the climate and our fragile food system. Given the fragility of our civilization’s supply chains, the argument goes, it won’t take much of these types of disruptions to destabilize our civilization off a cliff.
A quick review of some of these existential threats shows what we are up against. These include growing political fracturing and instability, financial and economic collapse, accelerating climate instability, species and biodiversity loss resulting in ecological collapse, depletion of natural resources such as top soil, ocean fisheries, and asymmetrical technological threats such as garage engineered superbugs, killer drones, and run away AI.
All of the above support systems are so deeply interconnected with each other, that should one collapse, others are likely to soon follow. Our extremely ‘complicated’ built system is becoming increasingly fragile and ill-equipped to deal with the increasingly ‘complex’ challenges of the 21st century. For more information on the differences between complicated versus complex systems, please review the Cynefin framework of Dave Snowden.
After discussing this with some friends, I remarked at the cosmic tragedy of it all, assuming we only have 10 years, given how close we are to actually solving the problem. By my reckoning we are about 20–30 years away from reversing global warming. On the timescales of human history, this is mere seconds before reaching the finish line. Some took issue with my assessment, saying that even 50 years is not enough time to get our act together. I disagree, as I will now elaborate below.
Multipolar Traps: The Meta-Existential Risk Behind Them All
All of the above problems are the result of a decoupling between our technological capacity to extract resources, and the planet’s ability to regenerate them. This decoupling started with the emergence of tool making capacity in early humans. Historically, nature always had a way of balancing out such mutations, by co-evolving other mechanisms to reestablish relative homeostasis. But technology is another beast altogether. 30 million years ago, had sharks developed mile-wide fishing nets like we have today, they would have quickly depleted the world’s oceans of all their fish, resulting in the shark’s own extinction. In evolutionary game theory this is a classic race-to-the-bottom scenario that results in a multipolar trap known as the tragedy of the commons. In a race to the bottom, rivalrous actions by individuals result in all of them being collectively worse off than before. If the process continues unabated, it eventually results in self-termination. In a very deep sense, all species who developed some capacity for tool making are at risk of falling into one or more of these traps. An astute cosmic observer, upon seeing early humans first develop tools, could have predicted with a high degree of accuracy, our likely demise this way. For an excellent and highly recommended review of the “deep code” that underpins such problems, please read Meditations on Moloch by the always brilliant Scott Alexander. There are many such multipolar traps, but at the root of all them is just one problem, and that is the problem of coordination. Had the sharks been able to coordinate their actions, assuming they could see what was happening, they would have coordinated their actions towards more sustainable fishing practices.
So how do we solve the coordination problem? How do we transition from a rivalrous system to an anti-rivalrous one? According to Alexander, the way out is to instantiate some kind of overarching “gardener” function. He lists two possible gardener types — a global monarchy, or some kind or super-advanced singular AI that is friendly to humans. However, in my opinion he misses the more promising third option, that of decentralized self-organizing collective intelligence (SOCI).
Promising Trends to Reverse Collapse
Before I explain how SOCI may solve the root cause of these problems, here’s a brief review of two megatrends that are already solving it.
The first is an accelerating shift to clean renewable energy. It’s predicted that by as early as 2030, the majority of energy production will come from renewables. Combine this with the accelerated pace of battery and electric engine capacity, and the majority of current carbon polluting sources (coal burning plants, airplanes, ships, automobiles, etc.) will be entirely renewable, thus reducing the amount of human produced atmospheric carbon by 80% or more. This results in a reversal of total carbon in the atmosphere, because it reduces human contributions to atmospheric carbon below what the Earth can reabsorb, potentially reversing global temperatures before its deleterious effects can destroy civilization. There is also some very promising work going into atmospheric carbon scrubbers (here, and here), and drone reforestation systems capable of planting more than a billion new trees a year. Such projects have the potential to accelerate the rate of atmospheric carbon reduction even further, without resorting to more dramatic forms of geoengineering.
The next big revolution has the potential to reverse our extraction of resources below what the Earth is capable of regenerating via the development and implementation of fully regenerative and localized manufacturing capabilities. These circular economies have the potential to undo the damage we’ve caused after 200 years of industrial processes. Unfortunately at its current pace, it’s going to take another 10–20 years for this revolution to really start making an impact. But what it means is that given enough time it will become cheaper to reuse and recycle existing local materials, rather than source them non-renewalbly from other parts of the globe. At some point in the circular economic adoption curve, open-sourced 3D printing develops tools with far-longer life cycles, using locally sourced materials amenable to full recycling. Materials such as plastics can be replaced with fully biodegradable alternatives, such as those already being used at places like Trader Joe’s. Ocean fishing can be replenished with things like iron fertilization (which might sequester carbon too), and/or replaced by fully regenerative, high density fish farming. Existing monocrop agriculture can be replaced with high-density polycrop permaculture, including vertical farming methods, where phosphorous run-off is recaptured and recycled back into the system.
By taking civilization’s industrial capacity and turning it into a fully closed and regenerative circular economy, we can significantly reduce consumption of natural resources outside that closed loop. Doing so, allows the biosphere to regenerate faster than humans take from it, resulting eventually in an almost complete restoration of the biosphere to pre-industrial levels. All of these trends are already well underway. The problem is they may not scale soon enough to stave off civilization collapse from overshoot. In short, if we have 20–30 years, we might very well be on our way to completely reversing all of the current trends leading to ecological collapse. But as the above report states, we may have less than 10 years. How does one process the potential reality that we are just 20–30 years away from solving almost all of our existential problems, only to have that opportunity close on us just a few short years before we get there? If one didn’t know better, it’s as if there was some kind of cosmic sadist overseeing the situation, dangling the grand prize right in front of our eyes, only to snatch it from our sight just moments before.
So what are our options? Is there a way to accelerate the above trends to give us more of a fighting chance? Is there a way to fundamentally solve the coordination problem soon enough to help us transition through this technological adolescence bottleneck? I think we can, and I believe a big part of that answer is self-organizing collective intelligence (SOCI).
How did you do it? How did you evolve, how did you survive this technological adolescence without destroying yourself? — Ellie Arroway, Contact
Self-Organizing Collective Intelligence
The positive trends already in motion are not enough. Given the growing discontent of people everywhere, the advent of things like CRISPR-9 gene editing, will soon make it possible for a small number of highly motivated people in a garage to engineer virulent pathogens capable of wiping out a large majority of the human population. It can be argued that the growing discontent is from the lack of agency people have over their own lives — they are becoming increasingly subject to forces that do not have their best interests at heart.
I believe a sufficiently scaled SOCI can liberate healthy human agency, thereby reducing or even eliminating such existential risks. I will now give a brief overview of the infrastructure that can make such SOCI’s possible, and why I think they are so promising. Personally, I believe we must develop some kind of globally scaled SOCI, or our extinction is inevitable.
Scaling Trust & Coordination
As I mentioned above, the root cause of all of these problems is our inability to coordinate our actions at a scale sufficient to reverse course on our race to the bottom. Until recently, it was impossible for more than about 150 people to coordinate in any meaningful sense without organizing into some kind of hierarchical structure. The reason is because of something called Dunbar’s Number, a neurological limit on the number of people we are able to maintain stable social relationships with. In the age of social media, you may have noticed this. When a new person enters your social sphere, inevitably someone at the periphery drops out of your awareness. “Whatever happened to Bob and Sally? I haven’t seen them in ages”.
In groups smaller than 150, it is possible for everyone to know everyone else well enough to know who to trust and who not to. You can trust John with fixing your car, but not with watching your kids. Once a group exceeds 150 people, it becomes increasingly difficult to know who to trust with what. This makes it easier for one person to cheat another, which is why we see it more often in bigger cities. In game theory this is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. In any one-time encounter, the incentive is to cheat, rather than cooperate. If you’re never going to see this person again, what does it matter? Most of us chose to behave ethically, but in a such a scenario, the ruthless have an advantage. However, if there was a way for the players to coordinate, cheating would be much harder to get away with, as people would inform each other about you, and call you out on it. For example, if the same people keep meeting over and over again, as they do in smaller groups, cheating is a loosing strategy. The winning strategy is something called “tit for tat”. This tit-for-tat strategy resolves the prisoner’s dilemma, thus helping us avoid the race to the bottom and the inevitable tragedy of the commons that results from such actions. For an educational and playful demonstration of how and why this tit-for-tat strategy works, take a few minutes to play the Trust Game below.
The Trust Game (play time: 20 minutes)
Next, I’ll explain how this strategy is currently being implemented to scale in specific market segments, then discuss how it can be scaled globally for all use-cases.
Historically, hierarchies naturally emerged because they allowed for larger scale human organizations to form. Working within Dunbar’s limit, the top person in such an organization only had to know and trust a handful of advisers, generals, lieutenants, and so forth, who in turn only had to know just a few mid-level managers, and so on down to the minions at the bottom. The larger the hierarchy becomes, the more mid-levels or “ranks” are required to maintain cohesion. The problem with hierarchies, as we all know, is they often get co-opted by the most ruthless and sociopathic, while sacrificing individual agency and human potential for the sake of the collective good.
A part of the solution to scaling human organization without hierarchies is the implementation of some kind of reputation system. If people’s reputation is on the line, they are more likely to behave differently. If they are designed properly, they can work wonders for all good faith participants, and if designed poorly, they can be turned into horrible systems of oppression and abuse, such as China’s new “social credit” system. For a great example of how not to do reputation, please see the Black Mirror episode Nose Dive.
We’ve seen the success in these first generation of reputation systems with places like Amazon Marketplace, EBay, and Airbnb. Should someone cheat, it immediately shows up in their reputation score and comments page. The incentive then for all participants is to act in good faith. So while the original “tit for tat” solution requires repeated experiences with the same entity, reputation allows for “tit for tat” to occur in parallel, crowd-sourced by the public at large. You can with great confidence know who is the most trustworthy in a group of a million, or even a billion people. Therefore, reputation systems change the incentives from cheating (race to the bottom, tragedy of the commons), to cooperating, long-term sustainability, and good behavior. The problem is these types of solutions have yet to penetrate those systems where they are most needed — large-scale human organizations such as governments and corporations.
Enter Liquid Democracy (12 minute read).
Don’t let the word “democracy” fool you. It’s not just a revolutionary new political system, it’s a fundamental core logical framework for human organization that can be used for all types of human activity. I consider liquid democracy to be the single biggest sociopolitical breakthrough in the last 500 years, and likely the biggest breakthrough in human organization since the advent of civilization itself 10,000 years ago. If implemented widely, and it’s combined with the right kinds of reputation systems, what emerges is a fully democratic meritocracy, where the very best, brightest, and most willing to do a particular task, are the ones most empowered to do it. What we end up with is globally scaled trust and coordination network, but without any central leader. Order without orderers. It’s all determined from the bottoms-up in real-time by everyone who participates. Think of liquid democracy as the engine which liberates and channels people’s agency towards reaching their goals by helping them coordinate and empower others like themselves towards achieving shared goals. I can’t think of a better solution to resolving people’s sense of hopelessness and discontent that is driving so much social and political divisiveness and decay. Rather than getting a run away set of negative externalities, we get a full accounting and appropriate response to all problems and risks as they arise.
One of the greatest benefits to such a system of decentralized collective intelligence, is that those with the highest social/emotional intelligence and empathy /perceptiveness, are the ones most capable of forming stable connections, thus acting as the strongest influencers and cohering nodes in an otherwise decentralized network. What liquid democracy plus reputation does is change our civilization from one dominated by sociopaths to one dominated by empaths. In a fitness landscape of competing SOCI’s, those with the most empathy win.
So besides the best and brightest, we have those with the most empathy tying it all together in real time as situations arise — a genuinely “complex” human organizational system capable of adapting and responding quickly to the complex challenges of the 21st century. A system of wide-scale human organization that solves the fundamental coordination problem at the root of all multipolar traps and existential threats we are currently facing.
It’s difficult to predict what this SOCI civilization would look like, but it seems pretty clear to me that if given a chance, what emerges is a system far more adaptive and anti-fragile, more harmonious with planetary life support systems, and far more beneficial to wide-spread human flourishing. A SOCI in which we are all imaginal cells in a planetary transformation.
I could spend more time going into specifics about how such systems address and ultimately resolve each of the original existential problems listed above, but for now I’ll just leave what I’ve said as food for thought for potential future discussion — that the root cause of our problems is a lack of coordination capability, and SOCI gives us that coordination capability.
The question then is can we scale SOCI sufficiently in time to avoid an irreversible collapse into extinction? The answer to that question may be coming sooner than we think.