This is part three of a three-part series. You can find part one here and part two here.
What started as a good idea by a few people quickly became a monster that we can now recognize. But Sauron has always been there. We don’t have to look back far into our collective history to see where he has raised his evil head. Sauron created the Midgley effect.
The Midgley effect, named after Robert J Midgley, is when a product invention results in unintended consequences that cause significant harm to people, society, and the planet. The inventor(s) may not have known this at first, so we can’t really blame them, and it would be wrong to do so, for they had good intentions. Here are a few examples.
Leaded Petrol: First sale 2023, proof that it’s bad: 1960-70, Phase out: 1986-2002
DDT: First Sale 1942, proof that it’s bad:1950-60, Banned: 1972 - 2001
Teflon: First Sale 1946; proof that it’s bad: 1960-the 2000s, Phase out 2013 – today.
Plastics: First Sale: 1900s;Proof that it’s bad: 1950s – 2023, No ban
Glyphosate: First Sale 1974; Proof that it’s bad: 2015 - 2023, No Ban
Sauron is not some evil external being that came out of nowhere. We all built it. Some contributed more than others, but Sauron does not care; worse, those who contributed the least suffer the most. Just make sure we don’t scale that suffering too much otherwise, the system will collapse.
Technology is advancing so fast that it has become impossible to catch up. Our institutions are ill-equipped to deal with the surge, especially with Artificial Intelligence. Artificial intelligence is amazing because we can improve efficiency, find cures for diseases, monitor our planet, and ensure companies don’t illegally cut down rainforests and empty our fish from the ocean. This is wonderful as long as Sauron’s perverse incentives do not enter the technology, economic, and social ecosystem.
Most only see Large Language Models like ChatGPT as AI, but it has been around for a long time and is pervasive in our communications networks, financial systems, enterprise systems, and government systems. Very few see all this, and yet it is growing so fast that it will soon be possible for these systems to analyze us and potentially draw conclusions that would result in our quick demise. It won’t be from robots with red eyes spraying bullets. That's totally inefficient. Artificial Intelligence is now so pervasive there is no kill switch.
We can block Sauron’s access if we make these technologies and their applications part of our global commons. I see huge potential in Blockchain or other public ledger technology like Holochain to eradicate corruption, reduce food waste, and harden supply chains. We need to ensure Sauron stays away. Sauron is tricky and will do its best to insert its perverse incentives with sneaky questions like for example: How can we monetize this?
This leads me to cover sustainability and regeneration briefly. Climate mitigation and adaptation is now a global business worth trillions. Have we ensured the prevention of perverse incentives? Can you find the game theoretical games to find the smuck, the multipolar traps, the race to the bottom, abandoning our values, purpose, and objectives? I can see them everywhere, and let me emphasize that companies who have emerged as agents to mitigate and provide adaptation solutions for our crises have all started with good intentions. No doubt there, but unfortunately, as they grow, we see perverse incentives creeping in.
Take fast fashion:
Perverse incentive: Please Buy a T-shirt, and I'll plant a Tree. T-shirt ends up in a landfill and emits greenhouse gases (GHG) = more products sold at healthy margins.
Proposed incentive: Please buy a T-shirt, and I’ll support wastewater and solid waste treatment and infrastructure, support development to replace harmful components of my products, collection, and zero harm disposal – support ecosystem restoration projects – circularity = Joy of the commons
How about carbon tracking software? What happens to the company when its software sales stagnate as more companies achieve rock-bottom emissions? You diversify and increase game theoretical tension, multipolar traps in a competitive environment or you have to close shop.
So, how do we avert catastrophe and dystopia?
One idea I’m exploring is the concept of Stewardship within the need for a new cultural enlightenment, which could shield us from perverse incentives and potentially allow for enough time to drive Sauron and his emissaries into the fires of Mount Doom. For enlightenment to emerge, one must first understand the resistance.
Some ideas to contemplate:
The creation of the Joy of the commons – the opposite of the tragedy of the commons
- All technology that functions in service of the commons that we hold sacred, society, economy, and biosphere to become part of the commons managed by a system of complete transparency with the key principles and meaning of democratic, equal participation under chosen rules and law. A.I. can play a positive role in this.
- Remove the perverse incentives from the health care and pharmaceutical industry – E.g., Transition to permanent cure development and move away from long-term illness maintenance associated with upsell/cross-sell, which seeks to maximize profits. Remove Synthetic Chemicals vs Natural Solution patent incentives.
- Transparent, open information-sharing algorithms that focus on what is true and systemically positive for society and the planet. Thesis and anti-thesis analysis. Disinformation and deep fakes are identified and discarded. Participative perspectives are encouraged.
- Engineer artificial scarcity out of the system and focus on real value aligned with staying within planetary boundaries.
- Everyone to have access to the best education. A.I to provide an integrated “hologram or VR in the metaverse” of the world’s best thinkers/educators of personal choice as a technical tutor and a human teacher, providing human experience, values, and wisdom. Scale from STEM to aristocratic style education globally and equally.
- Increased public participation on issues affecting many people with maximum integrity and minimum bias.
- Create A.I. models that protect creativity and creators from LLM etc.
- Harden resilience of all complex systems that benefit the commons
- Maintain the peace through conflict prevention methods. Reduce the profitable arms machine.
All these ideas require us to repair the third leg of the stool: Wisdom, for that, is the most hollowed out of all. Sauron’s termites have brought it to the brink of collapse.
Fortunately for us, there is a vast emergence of new thinking from a boatload of people who are providing insights and potential pathways for our civilization to scale and shift towards a new evolved civilization that will emerge from our metacrisis.
These boatload of people are numerous. Some of these people are Liv Boeree, Tristan Harris, Jordan Hall, Dr. Iain McGilchrist, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, Sasha Luccioni, Daniel Schmachtenberger, Jacque Fresco, Timothy Morton, John Vervaeke, Doshin Roshi, Dabrowski and even people like Graham Hancock, Krishnamurti, and David Bohm. This article synthesizes just a tiny piece of the collective knowledge out there. The information I present in this article is mainly thanks to them, and my purpose is to spread the word, add my humble insight to current discourse, and improve my coherence and discernment for your benefit.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart if you managed to make it this far, for the topic of discussing risks is highly complex, and I have only written a tiny sliver of what it would take to avert catastrophic risk and prevent the risk of dystopia. I remain hopeful as I have faith in the goodness of humanity that has so far managed to stumble out of one crisis or another. Humanity is hardwired for empathy, love, and compassion; therein lies hope and the work we must do. I will continue my journey of discovery and do the work in service to you until my days are utterly spent.
illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.