I asked my friends “What do you think are the biggest challenges facing humanity and which ones are best to work on?”.
Cursory impressions; a laundry list
The range of responses were things such as:
- short term thinking
- economic disparity
- parasitic thinking; consuming natural resources
- thoughtlessness; driven by ego, apathy, greed, fear rather than seeing ourselves as part of a larger whole
- coal stock fires in huts, fake drugs, banking collapse, garbage science
- climate change
- filter bubbles, attention economy, outrage farming, mob mentality, identity politics
- grey goo scenarios
- bullshit fact propagation — anti vaxxers.
- economic policies that have dismal outcomes; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Piketty
- greed, winning the wealth game; myopic capitalism
- blind faith which feeds polarization, fake news even war; a lack of critical thinking skills
- a lack of therapy, a collective mental breakdown
- greed, violence, corruption
- lack of science and research
- lack of effective education infrastructure
- per capita resource consumption (USA versus India for example)
- sugar, drama addiction cycle
- broken mental health systems
- high frequency trading, derivatives markets
- replication crisis — bad science
- insect population collapse
- underfunded retirement and benefit plans for aging populations
- next plague issues; we’ve had 50 years of avoiding these kinds of things
- underfunded education system
- inability to communicate complex issues in a complex world
- social manipulation — persistent bad actors in social networks
- climate change, global health, urban sprawl, energy use, finance and monetary collapse, authoritarianism, isolationism, nuclear mishap…
(Unsure if people want to be credited for their comments — happy to include the person who mentioned them if you wish).
What is tractable? What are priorities?
Are any of these topics more central? Are any especially tractable? Are there pragmatic solutions that can actually move the dial, that are not fantastical or optimistic?
I’ll attempt to organize challenges from “outside of us” to “inside of us” (environmental or not human versus purely social or political). Also from intractable to tractable — from things we can’t immediately control to places where we have leverage. As well, from root causes to secondary or knock on effects. A root cause could be co2 pollution, a knock on effect is sea level rise. There is also an implied ring of dependencies — co2 contributes to sea level rise and sea level rise can cause of mass migration (such as in Bangladesh or other low lying regions).
What organizations, lists, efforts exist already?
Clearly there are many that we know of. Newer efforts to enumerate global challenges include: http://www.millennium-project.org/15-global-challenges/ and https://www.futuretalks.today/oslo . https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/15/21-lessons-for-the-21st-century-by-yuval-noah-harari-review . https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/02/11/the-machine-stops . And of course the Human Rights Foundation and Oslo Freedom Forum group are also a part of this thinking.
What’s going well, or at least not badly?
It is first worth acknowledging that some issues may be improving. Steve Pinker and several other folks point out that there are many discrete data points which indicate that the world is in fact getting better rather than worse, as the media would have us believe. https://www.macleans.ca/society/steven-pinker-the-world-is-getting-better-not-worse-seriously/ . In his thesis he argues that human life spans are increasing (except in the USA), there is less poverty per capita in the developing world, violence is decreasing around the world including war, more people can read, clean energy options are becoming competitive.
Some of these may be over-simplified. Greening for example may be of mono cultures at the expense of diversity. https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/nasa-says-earth-is-greener-than-ever-thanks-to-china-and-india/ . Other examples such a decrease in “poverty” measure a dependency relative to cash dollars — and may not be a true indicator of “resiliency”. Arguably the social contract or “safety net” used to be the land itself and tribal affiliations. Rather than applying for low income housing, or applying for food stamps, one could simply back off from some of the more expensive areas, or pluck food directly from the natural environment. Today the idea of shared land resources is not competitive with the idea of private ownership and earning dollars within a large and powerful system. It’s difficult for some of the historical or tribal patterns to compete with modern systems. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/29/bill-gates-davos-global-poverty-infographic-neoliberal .
CLIMATE CHANGE / ECOSYSTEM FREE FALL / COLLAPSE / RAPID CHANGE
The largest issue — climate change itself — is a consequence of human population growth (the core issue), poor systems level thinking and extractive wealth generation. It’s hard to fix directly, it’s something we have to fix at a different level, by changing our social or political systems. It’s also itself made up out of many pieces, each moving at different speeds.
The big risk here is sudden state changes. We as humans tend to think of change as fairly smooth and slow over very long periods of time, but there’s increasing press that clamors around ideas of sudden ecosystem collapses. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/10/plummeting-insect-numbers-threaten-collapse-of-nature is one example. The Clathrate Gun hypothesis is another example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clathrate_gun_hypothesis . You and I cannot know the absolute truth; but there’s largely a science consensus here — and we are witnessing extreme weather events that hint at this.
Smaller risks here are localized — local pollution and the like which harm quality of life but aren’t quite ‘systemic’ https://www.timesunion.com/opinion/article/Don-t-give-up-the-Hudson-13611897.php .
I believe solving this has to be done indirectly — through tackling group consensus and group decision making (which I will visit later on).
BLACK SWAN EVENTS / GREY GOO / STRONG AI / NUCLEAR MISCHIEF
There isn’t much we can do about these scenarios as far as I can tell. These are the random bad luck cards that we may draw.
Examples here include the “Gray goo scenario” where bacteria-size nanoreplicators get loose and eat the biosphere. Runaway systems are fairly common in most complex environments; we’ve seen them often when we accidentally introduce predators to new ecosystems. We can add strong AI to this (it’s not knowable what a truly self aware AI is capable of doing — it could appear from our perspective more like an explosion than growth as it converts all available matter to computronium as fast as possible). Another example here is some kind of nuclear trigger that leads to deploying some of the worlds nuclear stocks. An asteroid or other spark could ignite this storm. Also with weapon treaties being abandoned there’s a new class of hyperkinetic weapons that may upset the delicate balance of peace.
WEALTH EXTRACTION / BANKING CRISIS
This is a side effect of poor systems thinking, but is something we may be able to fix. It is certainly worth addressing.
There’s a realm of crisis that is entirely unrelated to the environment, nature and the real world. One that hypothetically we could solve overnight if we could think of a better financial system. This is a class of problems almost entirely caused purely by poor money management, by corruption and by conflict among very large very powerful entities. We hear that economies are over-leveraged and that we could see global bear markets or even monetary collapse globally. Some people suggest that high-frequency trading and derivatives markets are a time bomb waiting to explode. Clever minds have build financial systems of bewildering complexity with cash equivalent derivatives that may not reflect real value — may or may not be prone to self-induced criticalities (such as the 2008 housing market collapse). Deeper than this is a problem of how we manage money, and it’s relationship to the real world, real value and real energy, products or labor.
There does appear to be a successful end game being played out of concentration of decisions around planetary wealth and power into the hands of a few. We tend to focus on the idea that a few people have power and the unfairness. But if it were possible to steward the planet fairly from the point of view of a few then that would be technically a successful system — concentration of power isn’t necessarily equal to system failure — even if it feels unfair. The deeper issue is that a few people cannot manage a large system efficiently — or understand all the local bioregional issues as well as locals, so will always end up making heavy handed poor decisions; decisions that tend to be extractive — treating populations as resources to be harvested as efficiently as possible — or fighting over those resources for their attention by changing the legal landscape: https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-09-08/fentanyl-maker-donates-big-to-campaign-opposing-pot-legalization. The problem is that concentration of ownership is also extractive right now. These planetary scale entities are also extremely powerful — they have flags of convenience — presenting as state assets or as having local values; but are in fact transnational.
The common concern with concentration of power is the humanist concern, around self determination and basic freedoms which are highly limited by not having dollars. As well (as mentioned) there’s less brainpower free to focus on hard problems — local decisions matter less. There’s a concern about revolution or societal break down as we’ve seen happening in Venezuela; where abundant natural resources are poorly managed and foreign countries meddle in local affairs to try and tilt decisions in their favor.
Fixing money may be doable. It makes sense for people to work in this area and to try and fix our ideas of money. There’s clearly a tension between local energetic resources — a farmer, local crops, local services — and how we keep track of debts locally — with the larger idea of money. Once money is successfully extracted from a local system it becomes more powerful. Being able to wave around 100 million dollars in order to curry favor with the local city council (to get a tax deduction for building a new factory for example) is an example of the disproportionate power of the concentration of money. What starts off as merely local bookkeeping becomes something with undue influence. Probably any solutions here require a local economic currency system. However smaller economies need to network together to be able to fight off large economies — so some kind of network of local economic systems seems needed.
INEFFECTIVE OR CO-OPTED GOVERNMENT NO LONGER REPRESENTING STAKEHOLDERS
This is a side effect of just bad decision making at a grass roots level, we’re not thinking very clearly as groups and we’re letting our will be co-opted. This may be fixable, certainly will take a lot of work.
It does increasingly look like Governments are becoming co-opted by powerful interests. https://www.democracynow.org/2019/2/1/headlines/reports_epa_wont_set_limits_on_harmful_chemicals_in_drinking_water .
Fixing Government may be in fact be doable. It has to dovetail with fixing money or at least access to money. The root strikers effort notes that corruption in Congress affects many laws that govern us. Fixing some of these root issues may have healthy knock-on effects. The problem is that the people making laws won’t pass laws that make them obsolete. New systems of governance may have to be built virtually in parallel with real systems; structural change rather than procedural change.
DEPRESSION / PSYCHOLOGY / LACK OF AGENCY
Many human minds are not participating in our world at a systems level. It takes a lifetime of commitment and energy to effect civic policy and there may be a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. People may have entirely opted out; purely pursuing their own selfish short term goals. There’s an argument that we need better tools to understand our own minds — to be able to see ourselves better as a prelude to engaging others effectively. https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability . Some of this may just be a lack of risk in our day to day lives; we may feel stagnant or not vital. We may not see any routes to the kinds of successes we see our peers having. We may even simply be bored. This is only likely to become more serious as machines take over more of the work of maintaining a civilization. Even in a Universal Basic Income scenario (which seems unlikely to me) there will need to be some meaning to being alive. Humans, like most animals, tend to get into destructive mischief without any real monsters to fight. Also some of this may simply be a need to take basic chores off the table so that more kinds of people can participate in other ways. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/09/opinion/sunday/child-care-daycare-democrats-progressive.html .
BAD SCIENCE / BAD TECHNOLOGY / WEAK THINKING / PSEUDO SCIENCE / FAKE NEWS / PSYCHOLOGY / RELIGION / FAITH / POPULISM
Being better informed may be the best place to focus our energies. At the end of the day the large human populations around the world have the power to change systems of governance, to change law and policy, to change how financial systems work.
There are multiple ways that bad information is exhibited. There are poor or suboptimal technologies used around the world that cause needless harm — such as https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/proof/2017/07/guatemala-cook-stoves/. As well bad actors often exploit gullibility of other parties for personal profit — against causing much harm: https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/may-2013/counterfeit-drugs-raise-africa%E2%80%99s-temperature (we lack the tools to discriminate good from bad).
There are also poor information technologies being used as well that are polluting our minds — not just our bodies. People are mis-informed, there is bad science, deliberate fact manipulation, and a host of other problems that plague us as a group. I do feel that Facebook and similar services have contributed strongly to mis-information simply by their structure. There are also deliberately selfish actors which have exploited the lack of decent bullshit filters and the gullibility of the masses. These are all related — filter bubbles, shallow knowledge sharing, attention economy limitations, outrage farming, intellectual laziness, Dunning -Krueger effect, mob mentality, and even weaponized identity politics. There are many efforts to correct this of course — http://publiceditor.io for example.
Even our best tools may not be as entirely solid as we imagine. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replication_crisis .
WHERE TO FOCUS
Beyond just ‘bad data’ and ‘poor filters’ there’s a real tension between short term survival and long term thriving.
We already saw what happened in France with non-consensual top down attempts to create gas taxes: https://www.pri.org/stories/2018-12-04/frances-yellow-vest-protestors-gas-tax-tip-iceberg . We also see significant battles shaping up for the next round of federal elections here in the United States that split audiences between these competing goals. The new populism looks like it is going to have a backlash moment against large scale capitalism; and it appears there’s a lot of frustration growing (something already visible in the surprising outcome of the previous federal election and the emergence of strong man politics, isolationism and unilateralism around the world).
I believe that the main battle will be to get people to vote against their own perceived short term self interests. Many people are living month to month, and it’s hard for them (even knowing better) to hold off on personal needs today for a better future tomorrow.
I think if there’s any one question I have it is how do we get people to look further into the future. I don’t see clear answers to this. All the other ideas need money, and to get that money we need consensus. So solving this seems like the best area. How can we tangibly and practically connect people to a sense of their future selves? We see art projects like http://longnow.org — but what actionable practical mirrors or lenses are there for a far future perspective? How can we make people feel deeply the risks of their choices?
if we can find ways to answer this then we can answer the rest.