Are there too many people in the world for it to survive without radical social change?

Are there too many people in the world for it to survive without radical social change?

[ 22/April/21 ]

The number of people present is not yet the major driver for social change, and it is rapidly growing in importance.

The two major drivers at present are individual expectations and technological change, and of those it is technological changes (some of which are on double exponentials) that are so rapidly changing the “systemic landscape” that many of the systems and ideas that arguably worked reasonably well for most of the past are now starting to fail in new ways for which there is no recent historical precedent.

It is this fact that is the major driver for social change.

Some of the major technological drivers are:

  1. AI systems can now beat any human level intelligence in any definable “game space”. That means that if the rules can be defined, AI wins – every time, no exceptions. That is as true for defined sets of legal or financial systems as it is any traditional set of games like chess or go.
  2. Fully automated systems can now be developed to produce any good or service without any human labour input. This destroys the balance that was arguably present between the ideas of capital and labour (though such simple ideas were always a vast over simplification of a deeply more complex reality, and they were often historically useful). It also fundamentally breaks the idea of measuring value in markets, as markets require scarcity to deliver a useful measure, and fully automated systems potentially remove scarcity and set all market measures to zero. Thus we see the many levels of artificial barriers to abundance (to preserve scarcity and keep the market systems in some degree of functionality). The human cost of trying to keep a competitive market system is huge – all the hunger and lack we see in the world today. And changing it is not simple, as many who thought a communist central control system could do it have found out, central control does not and cannot work. So changing our ways of considering problems from scarcity thinking to abundance thinking is extremely complex, as all real complex systems have multiple levels of real constraints that are required for their existence – and humans living in ecosystems are the most complex systems we yet know of. So there are no “simple” answers, and we do know enough about complexity theory to understand that we need both respect for life, and respect for liberty and diversity, if we are to survive long term. There can be no simple answers, as the real levels of complexity that are actually present demand the deepest levels of responsibility from each of us that we are capable of delivering.
  3. There are real limits on the amount of energy and heat that can be managed on this planet without causing major long term changes to things like climate and sea level. If we each have reasonable expectations of particular levels of lifestyle, there will be energy and materials associated with those, that do pose limits on populations. Those limits are a little way off, but not as far off as many think, so there is a real need to be moving towards a reality that delivers an average of one child per family. We have a little time to create such a reality, but not many decades.
  4. One branch of technology that is rapidly developing is biotechnology, and that will, in the not too distant future (within the next three decades), deliver the ability to extend life and health spans indefinitely. All individuals will in that future have the ability to live on indefinitely in their 20ish bodies with all damage and ailments repaired. It is not here yet, and it was obvious to me as I completed my undergraduate biochemistry studies in 1974 that there were no logical barriers to such a potential future. The last of the major technological challenges (being able to predict the structure of proteins from the linear sequence of the RNA coding for them) has now been solved. There remains a lot of work to do, and there are now no major technical barriers to that work being done.
  5. Those of us who now understand the fundamental systemic drivers of evolution are now clear beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that all levels of complexity in evolved systems are possible because of new levels of cooperation. The logic of complex systems is similarly clear beyond any remaining shadow of reasonable doubt that all real expressions of freedom are maximized in cooperative contexts, and that competition that is not built on a firm cooperative base tends to destroy and limit both freedom and complexity. So the common dogmas that competition is the friend of liberty, and that evolution is all about competition, are both fundamentally wrong. Competition can be an important part of the complex systems that are both evolution and liberty in social systems; but only if there is fundamental cooperation first and foremost (every level). To make that idea clear, think of the game of golf. Golf is fundamentally cooperative in that golfers are required to look after both the course and the welfare of other players. If one actually goes full competitive and takes a club and attacks another player one is banned from the game for life. Thus the fundamental basis of golf is cooperative. Our social systems need to be similarly cooperative, ensuring the life and reasonable liberty of all, and that demands responsibility from all, as all real systems have real limits that must be respected for their survival, and any form of liberty that breaks any of those real limits destroys itself.

So we have very real issues.

Many of our old social systems are no longer fit for purpose.

That is deeply complex, as many of those old social systems are deeply more complex than most people in them have any real idea of.

There are no simple answers, and there are some simple principles that can be reliably used to navigate through such complexity:

  1. Respect for life
  2. Respect for liberty
  3. Responsibility for ones own actions at all levels and as far into the future as one can reasonably foresee
  4. Respect for diversity

Everyone necessarily starts with simple models of reality.

That principle is deeply built into our bodies and brains, with our subconscious systems delivering a simplified model of the complexity present as our experiential reality. So even with the most advanced conceptual tools for dealing with complexity, we all necessarily are still working with perceptual and conceptual tools that simplify the reality that seems to actually be present for us. So it is entirely probable that reality is always much more complex than it seems (to all of us, always).

We all start out with simple ideas, and the simplest possible classification systems are binaries – sets of two, like true/false, right/wrong, good/bad, light/dark. Those simple ideas can be very useful when we need to make rapid decisions in complex contexts, and they are not very useful when one is actually trying to understand just how complex we are, and the reality of our existence is.

The logic of complexity is clear, that to be able to start to build a reasonable understanding of complexity one has to be able to deal with fundamental uncertainty, and accept levels of fundamental unknowability. One can then start to build understandings based on probabilities, and to understand the types of contexts where one can build very high reliability with some classes of systems, and the sorts of contexts where reliability is not possible. Most of the assumptions underlying classical economic and political thought are overly simplistic, and have catastrophic failure modalities. It will seem paradoxical to many that long term security is only reasonably possible if one accepts fundamental uncertainty, because only then does one have a reasonable probability of actually seeing where the real dangers actually are.

There are very real systemic dangers present, and there are available very real possibilities for long term security, but only if we accept that all such security demands cooperation between all levels and classes of agents with whatever degrees of freedom they have (that includes international as well as individual). And all levels of agent do in fact need to be fundamentally cooperative, any who are not need to be restrained by those who are. That is how it has to work. Any move towards single agent control is by definition a cheating strategy on freedom itself, and poses risk to all.

[followed by in response to Gordon Atkins]

Food production is one of the fundamental and necessary goods. I rank those as:
Freedom of movement;
Freedom of communication;
Diversity of experience.

To me permaculture as defined by the 12 principles goes in the direction of something but is too restrictive.

For me, it is all about understanding complexity and systems.

We definitely need to move towards optimising systems for long term survival. That will mean using some very high technology to close many of the open loops we have in the use of materials. We need to aim to recycle everything, and that does not need to happen quickly, and it does need to happen. (There is a real sense in which plate tectonics is a crustal recycling system that works on a scale of hundreds of millions of years. We don’t need to think on that sort of time scale, and we should be prepared to accept that some cycles may take decades or even centuries, and most will need to be much quicker than that.)

The idea of using technology to “do more with less” is something we need to continue to refine; and we need to be conscious of all the linkages.

Leonard Read’s “I Pencil” (I, Pencil by Leonard E. Read | Leonard E. Read ( is still a good read, and points in the direction of something important (even if I quibble with many of the details, the main themes are reasonably accurate).

Most of the reality that we take for granted is complex in ways that few begin to seriously consider. Our economic system is fundamentally flawed, and is as such a danger, and it is deeply complex, and does currently perform many essential functions; so changing it to something that is sustainable long term is a deeply complex exercise; and that has to start by seeing that the problem is real enough to warrant the effort.
Most people may never delve into the depths of the complexities present, and that is ok and workable, provided that everyone accepts that all levels of liberty have real responsibilities that come with them, real limits that must be respected, if they are to be survivable. If we all accept that every level of awareness is necessarily limited an fallible; if we all “have each other’s backs” – to the best of our limited and fallible abilities; then we do have a reasonable probability of a very secure and interesting future. And that future seems very likely to always contain novelty and interest and uncertainty – all levels, always.

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
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