Worldchanging editor discusses optimism and technology
Originally, I was going to run this interview alongside a rather ambitious long-form piece of my own, but as time has passed — and I really can’t believe how much time has passed — it’s become clear that said piece is indefinitely postponed. Since I have a baby due [checks calendar] three days ago, it’s unlikely I’ll soon have time to return to it.
Lest it get even older, I’m going to go ahead and run it here. There’s lots of good stuff in it, but it’s very long, so I’ve broken it into three parts — I’ll publish the first today and the others in coming days.
In part one, we discuss optimism, technology, and the open-source movement.
Dave Roberts: How can you not view humans as the essential problem, given the destruction we’ve wreaked and continue to wreak on the planet?
Alex Steffen: Philosophically, I differ from some folks in the environmental community in that I think our goal should be to create a human civilization in balance with nature. We can’t weigh either element more heavily. I would certainly not be happy to have a planet barren of human life, even if it were spectacularly abundant biologically. At the same time, there’s no worthwhile human future on a ruined planet. And so the real question is not whether humans are the problem, but rather, what are we doing that’s the problem?
There’s a William S. Burroughs quote that I love — words that came to him in a dream, he said: “They did not fully understand the technique. In a very short time, they nearly wrecked the planet.”
I find that so liberating and true. The critical question here is not a matter of morality, of religious virtues, of human beings being somehow Fallen. It’s not a matter of ecological sin. It’s a question of intelligence, design, and imagination. It’s a question of seeing truly and acting accordingly. Put that way, it becomes a problem we can solve, rather than some tragedy of human nature.
When you build a moral construct that places human beings in opposition to the planet, you lose the future. You’re left only with a longing to go back to some mythological, noble-savage kind of world.
DR: Right. It’s also worth emphasizing that a vision of the future that’s structurally impossible is not moral. There’s no virtue to that. Like running and jumping off a building — it would be great if we could fly, but the practical result is that we end up squashed on the pavement. It just makes us irrelevant.
AS: Absolutely. The idea that we could just go back to some model of human civilization in our past and everything would be okay is intellectually bankrupt. No past civilization could support us in our billions today in a sustainable way.
We need to invent a sustainable life from scratch.
And more to the point, when environmentalists suggest that the proper goal is for us to go back and wear furs and shoot deer with longbows, we make ourselves irrelevant in the planning of the future.
And that’s a terrible thing, because we’re in the midst of making vastly important decisions about the fate of our planet, and environmentalists need to be heard in that debate.
We can’t go back. But what does moving forward mean for us? That’s what we need to discover. That’s what we need to invent: a vision of the future that is both prosperous and ecological, both attractive and sustainable, both bright and green. We need to present an optimistic future worth fighting for. That’s job No. 1 for the environmental movement.
DR: Given human irrationality and territorialism, what evidence is there from the past that we are capable of this long-term, rational planning of a better future — not only capable as individuals of conceiving it, but capable of persuading large numbers of people to do it?
AS: Democracy. Human rights. Reason. They’ve worked. That’s the best evidence. Look at human history: It’s been a pretty shabby ride from the beginning. As Joyce said, history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.
The Enlightenment is what woke us. We forget how much progress has been made in the last few hundred years. Yes, there are still terrible tragedies — genocides, awful disasters, children dying needlessly from hunger and preventable disease — but that said, there are many, many more good things. There are many, many more people on the planet who are living lives of relative prosperity, in relative freedom, pursuing their ideas of happiness. Feudalism, mass murder, slavery, ignorance: we’re winning against them.
The percentage of human beings in absolute poverty has been going down for a long time and if we do our job right it will eventually wind up at zero. More and more people live in democracies. Fewer and fewer people are persecuted politically. More and more people accept, at least in part and in theory, science and reason.
The very fact that we have this backlash of radical fundamentalists of various stripes is a sign that we are winning. You don’t get extremists pouring out of the backwoods of Afghanistan to blow up buildings in the U.S. unless they feel like our values are beating theirs.
We can design a human civilization, a material civilization, that uses far fewer resources, delivers far more prosperity, and is far more just and sustainable than anything we’ve ever imagined.
DR: This sounds to me like a variant of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” — the idea that democratic capitalism is basically right, and what remains is just the rest of the world coming around to it. That view had great currency in the 90s but has hit a bit of a rough patch since, as a lot of the countries we’ve attempted to spread it to have been, shall we say, intransigent about accepting its benefits. Do you think it’s fair to say that your vision is a version of that?
AS: No, because I don’t believe in Millenarianism. There’s no point at which humanity is going to just stop. As my friend Bruce Sterling puts it, “The future is a process, not a theme park.”
That said, I do think there are problems we know how to solve. And we’re getting better at solving problems. And we have it in our grasp to solve once and for all a number of the problems that have vexed us since the beginning. Solving these problems doesn’t mean that we’re going to suddenly run out of problems and all’s going to be well.
The prize for solving the problems we now face will be to have more interesting problems to solve in the future.
Enormous threats still loom over us. If nothing else we’ve done massive damage to the planet and we’re probably going to be managing the blowback for lifetimes. An asteroid could smash civilization to bits. A superflu could come along and kill us all. People are weird. Strange things happen. We are on a wobbling top. There will undoubtedly be huge setbacks — we are seeing some huge setbacks now.
DR: This seems to be an era of huge setbacks, the 00s.
AS: Well, yes, but it’s important to keep the big picture in mind. Are we going as fast as we ought to be toward a world of peace, justice, prosperity, and sustainability? No. Are we moving in that direction? Very clearly, yes. We can’t afford the luxury of getting discouraged by the setbacks. I think optimism is a prerequisite for human survival.
DR: Lots of folks will wonder how you could plan a future like that. But one of the strengths of democracy is the lack of central planning. Instead, you get this emergent intelligence out of distributed power and distributed decision-making, structural resistance to concentrations of wealth and power. Although there is always pressure from those who want to concentrate wealth and power, we’ve done a fairly good job in this country of distributing power, and as a result there’s this sort of fraught, stumbling, halting movement in the right direction. And I see that theme of distributed, collaborative decision-making running through a lot of what I envision as a positive future and a lot of the things you write about. Could you address that idea, perhaps first in regard to technology? Because technology is another famous bugaboo of environmentalists, many of whom have written it off as intrinsically harmful.
AS: To be anti-technology in this day and age is to be anti-environmental. No positive future exists without vastly improved technology.
The criticism you always hear is that we’re relying on a “techno-fix,” an artificial solution. But techno-fixes are what have improved all our lives the most. The fact that you and I beat the probabilities and didn’t die of a childhood disease is directly attributable to technology; the fact that we don’t starve once every few years is directly attributable to technology; the fact that we know enough about what we’re doing to the planet to be worried about things like climate change is directly attributable to technology. Since we wobbled out of the trees and grabbed the first burning branch we’ve been using technology. Inventing better tools is part of being human.
When it comes to technology, there are only two questions worth asking: Number one, how do we make sure the technologies we embrace are good ones? And number two, how do we innovate more quickly?
In terms of the first, I’m a huge fan of democratic control over technology. It’s not just a good idea, it’s a better process. It gets better results. Collaboration, distributed control, transparency, democratic debate, public access to basic research — these things are the engines of innovation, yes, but they are also the best checks against catastrophic failures.
One of the powerful attributes of approaches like open-source software, to take an example, is that when you develop a technology in public, you get an increased ability to apply the Precautionary Principle. You get an increased ability to look ahead at problems it might create.
DR: Where does that increased ability come from?
AS: Because you can actually see how it’s being put together. There’re only a handful of people on the planet who get to look inside the operating code of Microsoft Windows. So there could be some disaster waiting to happen in there, and most people would never know.
In contrast, with something like Linux, there are tens of thousands of people who routinely check the code and discuss different ways of changing it.
Extrapolate that out to something like a power system. If you have a deeply secretive, centralized power system like nuclear power, it’s very difficult to get more eyes watching for problems — for one thing, it is a violation of the law. Whereas with a distributed power grid like San Francisco’s, based on solar panels tied back into the utility system, you have more ability to look at potential problems, to see ways that the system might be brittle. You are safer using a system that’s more open.
DR: Again there is this theme that ties together democratic culture, open-source technology, and distributed power systems. Another feature of those systems is the ability to degrade gracefully. Modularity allows individual pieces to fail without broad, systemic failure — in contrast, again, to nuclear power, where one piece’s failure could lead to catastrophe. I just read an article today in which somebody claimed that the costs of the Chernobyl meltdown were greater than the value of all the energy provided to the Soviet Union by nuclear power throughout its existence.
AS: Yes, so improving the reliability of the system through openness has real value. But there’s a second and to my mind sometimes more important benefit to these open and collaborative approaches, which is that we innovate more quickly. Right now we are entering a period I like to call the Tech Bloom. A lot of people think that when the tech boom ended, technological innovation went flat. The exact opposite is true. We are seeing many, many more people inventing many, many more useful things at this moment than we have ever seen. There is an explosion in innovation happening all around us. A big reason is that many of the people doing the inventing are sharing their inventions as freely as they can.
Why does that matter for the environment? Because much of the destruction caused by American consumerism is accidental. Americans, as we’ve all heard, make up five percent of the planet’s population, but use between 20 and 50 percent of its resources and energy sources. Our economy generates nearly one million pounds of waste per person per year. Most of that isn’t used to make anything. Amory Lovins and his crowd found that we almost never achieve a better than 6 percent efficiency in the way we use materials. The rest is just pure waste. As William McDonough says, “What people see in their garbage cans is only the tip of a material iceberg.” You might say that our society’s major product is not wealth, but waste.
Nobody set out to design a system that works like that. It’s an accident of history. We can design systems that create a minute fraction of that waste, deliver the same — or better — products, often save money, and make us more competitive in the process. We can break the connection between wealth and waste.
Think about that for a second. The implications are huge, if we’re used to thinking that wealth causes environmental destruction. Because if we’re only, say, one-twentieth as efficient as we might be, the main thing stopping us from being just as rich, with one-twentieth of the ecological footprint, is innovation.
No nation on Earth has more opportunity to innovate. The United States is not only the richest nation on the planet, it’s also home to the largest educated population, the most scientists, designers and engineers, the biggest universities, charitable foundations and research labs. If anybody has the money and brainpower to create a future that’s not only green but bright, it is us. So then the question becomes, just how innovative are we ready to get?
And if the answer is, we’re ready to get revolutionary in our approach to design and innovation, we need open source, we need free exchange of ideas, we need public information and collaboration and the whole Tech Bloom package.
Because that’s how we will get not only the pace of innovation we need, but products of innovation that will serve the public good.
DR: Just the other day I read about the equivalent of an open source pharmaceutical research firm, trying to cure diseases that are not profitable for the big pharm companies.
AS: Absolutely, and there’s a whole movement of open source biotechnology, which would make us safer and probably provide better biotechnology. The kind of failure that we were talking about in terms of Chernobyl — well, for a long time now people have been worrying when we will see our genetic Chernobyl, when we’ll see somebody release a proprietary piece of life into the ecosystem that goes amok and causes all sorts of problems.
The way to beat those problems is not to try to ban the technology, which is quixotic at best, but to make sure the form it takes is democratic, collaborative, and turned toward useful purposes — in our jargon, that it’s worldchanging. And when you look at things like collaboration and distribution, you start to see the ability to make really vast leaps.
And here we bump into a real problem in the environmental movement, which is a complete misunderstanding of how technology works. There’s an assumption that technology sort-of progresses steadily — every year we have a marginal increase in our ability to do stuff. And when you believe that technology is linear, but our problems are geometric, or even exponential, of course it seems like we can’t solve them.
But that’s not how science and technology work in the real world. In the real world we are in the grips of some powerfully exponential forces — like Moore’s Law and Metcalfe’s Law — which mean in practice that you have a little progress, then a little progress, and then this huge categorical leap to a better technology, a better idea.
DR: punctuated equilibrium, as it’s known in the study of evolution. An example people are familiar with is American pop culture, which is the ultimate open source development, right? Though people try to get centralized control over it, despite their efforts you have this sort of equilibrium — in fads, in clothing, whatever — and then like that, everything changes. Grunge went from nowhere to everywhere overnight. Any idea that pops up, everyone can access it immediately, so good ideas propagate at light speed.
AS: A point you just touched on there, that people are trying to gain control over it, is really important for environmentalists to get our heads around. There is a big effort underway these days to redefine the rules of intellectual property. That seems like a really abstract, wonky, not-green thing to worry about. Not so.
What’s happening right now is an effort by some of the most powerful, centralized corporations on the planet to take control over people’s ability to share information freely. They’re doing it, they claim, to fight “piracy” — I love that we now equate two teenagers sharing a song with murder and looting on the high seas — but in reality they’re doing it to set up essentially feudal control over new technologies. And the extent to which they succeed is the extent to which we lose our ability to innovate good technology quickly.
DR: The channels of communication are eventually going to evolve into being not only about exchanging culture — music and video, etc. — but also ideas about scientific, software, and technological developments.
AS: When large corporations break our computers and break the Internet to protect their property, it becomes much, much easier to break them for every other use. So the assault on the public’s rights, the public domain of intellectual property — the “intellectual commons” as it’s being called — is very directly an assault on the environment. Because without an intellectual commons, we might lose the ability to innovate, to make the kind of leaps we need to create a material civilization that’s truly sustainable.