As I’ve grown older, it has become painfully clear how limited my vision of life is. Everything I see, I see within a frame. When I consider my perspective 5, 10, or 20 years ago, today I see more fully. And of course I face an inescapable conclusion: My view today is limited, just as it was then!
One significant frame that I’ve seen through has been this: I have expected that the general world order to continue. That includes peace between superpowers, a stable ecology, unending economic growth, and a continuation of the stable civilization I have expected.
Today’s leading thinkers and game theorists are challenging that frame.
Throughout history, every civilization has collapsed at some point. Collapses have always caused devastation while also seeding the next civilization. Even the bronze age collapse of 12th century BC, or the fall of Rome in the 5th century were regionalized, within a natural ecology largely untouched by the collapse. Man has not previously had the power to destroy all life.
Humankind has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. We have always been a competitive and acquisitive species. Those of us who aren’t become controlled by those who are – the peaceful tribe wiped out by Genghis Khan, the poor nation dominated by the rich one.
Formerly, natural limits curbed power. Before the invention of currency, there were only so many goods one could acquire and store (fungible currency allowed for power to be concentrated and the pursuit of it to become unlimited). Before weapons of mass destruction, there was only so much death and destruction one could cause. Impacts were local or societal, not global.
The invention and rapid acceleration of technology has changed that. Within militaries, capitalism, and individual consumption, technology now gives us the ability to turn more natural resources into goods. And we pursue this on an exponential curve – economies must grow every year, and GDP growth is required. How long can economies grow exponentially on a finite planet? This says nothing about population growth (the models are quite clear that the planet population stabilizes in the not too distant future). But our global civilization is built on the fundamental assumption that economic growth can continue forever.
We now have ONE global civilization, with a 6 continent supply chain, weapons that can eliminate life as we know it, and an exponential rate of consumption on a linear materials planet. And the exponential rate of technological growth is making weapons of mass destruction more widely available (drone swarms, bioweapons, etc.), unleashing misaligned AI monsters, and destabilizing culture.
The data is clear: our environment is nearing collapse, our economic structures are unstable, international peace is breaking down, and the post-Bretton Woods order is threatened.
Each nation, each company, and each individual is caught within the competitive and acquisitive dynamics. While any one of us (or group of us) may recognize that more weapons, more consumption of natural resources, more growth is a bad thing, we are each locked in a system of perverse incentives (in game theory, called a Multi-Polar Trap). If we don’t pursue the military breakthrough, our neighboring country will and will take you over. The US might think weaponized AI is harmful for us all, but if China doesn’t also, then we just have to invent it anyway. We might think our company shouldn’t consume so much oil, but if the other companies keep consuming it, we will be outcompeted and go out of business (and regulation is a poor answer, for that makes our country handicapped, and if ALL other countries don’t follow suit, we lose).
We are incentivized to continue to do that which we know is harmful, without a viable way out.
We are trapped.
The metacrisis is increasing fragility in our environment, our civilization, and our culture.
When fragility grows, along a long enough time axis, destabilization becomes inevitable.
Any major crisis immediately becomes planetary, as we now live as one interconnected civilization.
With proliferating types of weapons of mass destruction, any breakdown threatens complete extinction.
If you plot these risks out over centuries, the threat becomes even more clear. We may have decades or centuries of oil left, but we don’t have an infinite supply. We may have the ability to warm the atmosphere beyond predictions and keep the planet stable, but we can’t do that forever. We may be able to produce and consume at current rates for generations, but eventually enough natural resources become goods that there is a survival tipping point.
SOME civilization clearly must wrestle with the challenges of exponential growth on a linear materials planet, must have the courage to face the perverse incentives, and must fashion a world not built on unbounded competition and acquisition.
Even if this is generations away, why should we not face this now?
And unfortunately, the best data we have predicts that this threat is decades, not generations away. The interlocking crises that together make up the meta-crisis each have their own projected timelines and risk mitigations, but cumulatively, the risk is growing, fragility is increasing.
And with the rapid pace of AI, the timeline shortens further. AI is an enabling technology that (unless a drastically different approach is taken than the one we currently have, which would require overcoming the perverse incentives outlined above) will accelerate nearly every aspect of the metacrisis, by giving us more power (thus, more acceleration), within the current system.
As a lone individual, what can be done? Here’s my perspective:
- Be informed. As just a few examples, consider podcasts or videos from Daniel Schmactenberger, Liv Boeree, and Nate Hagens. I have found their frameworks to be incredibly helpful. Seek to understand the systems in which we live. Think deeply about the future over a longer timeframe than is comfortable.
- Avoid easy thinking paths. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions to this complexity. Regulation to these kinds of threats leads to dystopia (a government so powerful it becomes Orwellian). Ignoring the threats leads to disaster. Quibbling about one study or another misses the point. While there is no easy way out, together we can solve this.
- Make common sense preparation. COVID showed us how quickly supply chains can be disrupted and how vulnerable we are if food stops showing up at the grocery stores. There are many methods to build a multi-month store of food, create a plan for personal protection, and store the resources you may need in a crisis (drinking water, medication, communication, first-aid, etc.). I am an optimist who works hard for the Good every day – I do not hold to a mindset of simply preparing for the worst. But I also buy life insurance. Preparations help us focus on the work to be done, while tending to our future selves if we ever face a real crisis.
- Cultivate wisdom. You and I are prone to blindness and foolishness. We all are! The only way we can lead well is by being wise. It is only as we examine how we are trapped within the system, as we recognize where our behavior is not virtuous, and as we reckon with our own finitude, that we can grow in wisdom. Wisdom is the process of improving our cognition, the practice of integration, of gaining vision, learning skills, building an effective worldview, and growing in holistic wisdom. I highly recommend the work of John Vervaeke for the science and process of growing wise.
- Stimulate dialog. Share, communicate, and help others to see the world through an appropriate frame – with the dimension of time, of systems complexity, and of the technological progress which is extending our natural competitiveness and acquisitiveness to planetary-threatening degrees. Understanding the meta-crisis and the underlying causes frame the challenges we see in politics, in media, in social media, in economics, in world peace, and more.
- Look for your unique contribution. Do you have skills, influence, resources, or desire that can be used to help us all solve these wicked problems? Consider investments you can make towards a more beautiful future, informed by systems thinking.