Quora – Steps to a sustainable world

Quora – What steps need to be taken for a completely sustainable world?

What do you mean by sustainable?

What is being sustained?


Some people have tried to build a system that promotes and sustains competition, at the cost of security and freedom for most.

For me, what needs to be sustained is the value of individual sapient individuals (human and non-human, biological and non-biological).

Next after that comes the freedom of those individuals to do whatever they responsibly choose, where responsibility means acknowledging the rights to life and liberty (so defined) of every other individual; and includes the aspect of liberty being in contexts that are both interesting and diverse so includes social and ecological responsibility as part of it.

Freedom so defined is a very long way from following whim or fancy, though most impulses to action start with whim or fancy at some level. This sort of freedom demands a reasonable level of conscious exploration of the reasonably foreseeable consequences of actions before taking them, and involves a responsibility to clean up any unforeseen messes that are created.

If one starts from that premise, and explores deeply the strategic contexts of evolution, including the evolution of the complexity that allows for the emergence of awareness such as ours, then it becomes clear that such a process is predicated upon cooperation at every level (both for its emergence and its long term survival).

Once one begins to see that for complexity like ourselves it is much truer (to a first order approximation) to say that evolution is all about cooperation, than it is to say that evolution is all about competition, understanding changes.

In this sense, complexity like us can only emerge and continue in deeply cooperative social contexts.

Competitive contexts always drive systems to some set of minima on the available complexity “landscape” (and such minima are devoid of real freedom for most).

Thus for us, and the ecosystems of which we are part, we need to see ourselves as eternally seeking a balance between our individual freedom, and our need for cooperation to survive.

And there can be no simple set of rules or solutions to that need for balance which are applicable across all contexts.

For every different context there will be an infinite set of possible solutions, and a far greater infinity that lead to extinction. It is a bit like crossing a busy road. Lots of possible ways of doing it, but any that involve long pauses in the wrong place will result in death by truck. Yet most of us safely cross busy roads most days.

Many such choices are just so obvious we don’t think about them.

In terms of the choices available to us in the broader social context; the useful choices often are not nearly so obvious.

Our current context is changing in ways that have no direct historical precedent, we can only use history as a guide by quite deep levels of abstraction and analogy. Many of the ways our grandparents did things simply don’t work in our modern context, and some do.

One of the hardest ideas to get that don’t work is the idea of measuring value in markets, value in exchange.

It was undoubtedly a very useful approximation to value in our past; but the automation of computation, production and delivery is fundamentally changing that in ways that few can yet appreciate.

Rather than such automation delivering universal abundance of the reasonable needs of everyone, the context of market exchange value has forced us to adopt ideas like “Intellectual Property” simply to maintain an exchange value that could not possibly exist without it. Exchange value can only exist where scarcity exists.

When most things were genuinely scarce, this was a useful approximation.

Now the major reason most information is scarce is the need to maintain market value.

The injustice of that, the fact that poverty is created simply so that others may make money, is now the arguably the greatest existential level risk we face (and there are many existential level risks that we need to cooperate to effectively mitigate, this is just one).

Thus, in this sense, of the context in which we each view our self interest; long term sustainability demands of us that we see our individual long term self interest in being cooperative members of complex diverse and constantly changing societies. That will be deeply uncomfortable for many (for all of us at some level).

A useful transition strategy would seem to involve some form of universal comfortable income, enough that every person could meet their reasonable needs for food, housing, healthcare, transport, communication, education, etc. Even as the delivery mechanisms for those things changes faster and faster (eg high speed electric rail replacing air travel, self driving electric cars, etc).

And we need to see this as raising the low end of the distribution of resources, not putting any limit on the upper end. And of course there are physical limits to the amount of energy we can put into the earth’s ecosystem and maintain it; so if someone want to use more than that, then they will have to go off planet to do so. And technologies to do that safely a re rapidly being developed and will mature over the next couple of decades.

We need the exponential growth in computation and manufacturing capability to solve the many real issues we currently have, and those technologies will drive changes that currently seem impossible to many, but actually scale very quickly once key technological tipping points are reached.

Thus, if there is one key concept that needs to become generally understood, it is that the evolution of complexity is all about cooperation.

The cells of our body do not compete to make us what we are, they cooperate. We have a name for competitive cells (cancer), and they threaten our existence. Yet at the same time each cell is an autonomous entity doing it’s own thing in the environment in which it exists.

That is what we are.

That is what we need to become.

The cancer of growth for growth’s sake must be removed, before is destroys us all; even as we must accept eternal change, and the eternal exploration of novelty as part of what it means to have liberty expressed responsibly.

We need to have our conservative sides present to keep our liberal sides in balance – every level needs both. It can never be an either or sort of thing – both need to eternally be in communication to find a responsible way forward (placing those aspects of ourselves in competition, rather than cooperation, is one of the deep dangers and pathologies of our current social and political systems).

We must stop over simplifying complex systems.

We must accept that simple rules are not a viable response to complexity. Complexity demands an iterative approach, one of probing, testing and adapting to how the system responds. Every system must have boundaries, but those boundaries cannot be too simple. There must be an eternal search for balance in this dimension also.

We human individuals are the most complex thing that we yet know of in this universe.

We need to stop pretending that any of us are simple.

We are all profoundly complex; and we can all develop simple responses to dangerous contexts.

We can create sustainability, and if it is to have any meaningful freedom, it must include eternal novelty.

That seems to be the nature of the reality in which we find ourselves.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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