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The Cowboy and the Beast. Understanding the risks we face and how to break the rings of hell (I/III)

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By Marco Vesters

· 9 min read

This is part one of a three-part series. You can find part two here and part three here.

Wanted dead or alive, I rode the digital revolution for over twenty years, beating it to death to close multi-million dollar deals to exceed my sales targets and push the world into 3G, 4G, and 5G. I was selling speed on Lucifer’s steed. It was intoxicating.

The results brought us cowboys to Las Vegas yearly to celebrate our successes and inject tons of dopamine into our system so we would do even better next year. Faster boy, faster, whip that horse to death. 

One night, after we all ended our last cheering session on the future of self-organizing, adaptive, and self-learning networks where your brain is directly connected to the cloud, I found myself alone in my room, looking down on the beautiful Las Vegas skyline. I felt like a tech god: Las Vegas, my glorious temple, and I Wrote:

How beautiful have we made the world? 

What protocol would build replicas of Pharaohs, King Arthur’s court, the Eiffel Tower, Pirate Bay, and Ceasar’s Palace filled with all manner of beasts, including Albino Tigers, in the middle of an unforgiving desert? 

The world is my Oyster, and I’m horny as F*ck.

Is this the best you can do?

What is the purpose of my temple? 

Sex, drugs, booze, poker, and techno music, and more sex and booze and techno music at the end of the world.

 Yes, please, let us have much more of this. Thank you very much.

Are we, the people, destined to follow each other like sheep into a recurring cycle of chasing the dragon? 

Are we already insane, or have we temporarily lost our minds and continue to search for it? 

Where is all this going?

Would a wise man approve of the existence of Las Vegas? 

Is it not humanity’s purpose to improve people’s lives overall? Or is humanity’s purpose to seek non-stop entertainment so we don’t have to think and, as a result, race like zombies into the Abyss?

I feel like a god looking down on man’s creation that built an empire of instant gratification oozing from cathedrals pointing to the heavens.

Am I one of the many gods being told what to do by an insane puppet master?

Is Pinocchio even real?

Where does it end?

Don’t write when you are high on coke. It has been five years since that night when I gave the reigns back to Lucifer after the dope finally wore off. 

However, his whisper continued to scream inside me that night, “You may check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”

Today, I find many places where we are busy designing systems and solutions to get us out of one crisis or another. I worked on a few and mopped the floor while the tap was wide open, causing more damage than good despite many telling me I was doing the right thing. 

Here is one example: Cleaning coral reefs of plastic pollution and returning a few months later to find more plastic and corals destroyed by unresponsible divers. COVID is over, and the tourists are back. Good for the Island Tourism Economy and bad for Coral Reefs. 

People don’t want to talk about the dark side of why climate change mitigation and adaptation, ecosystem restoration, and pollution clean-up are not progressing fast enough. To avoid a bloody thumb, we prefer to smell the roses and remove the thorns through genetic manipulation. 

I decided to dive into recent history to understand how the systems we created to further humanity’s prosperity and the health of our planet are causing existential risks.

It all started long ago during the warm month of July 1944 in New Hampshire, USA, when the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now The World Bank) were created. The first global financial system pegged to the U.S. Dollar and the Gold Standard. This system made two things possible: 

  • Global peace, as in no WW3 with Nukes and 

  • Economic growth and prosperity so everyone could partake in the economy with equal opportunity.

In 1971, the gold standard was removed to avert the balance of payment crisis, particularly the one that occurred in the U.S. Welcome to today’s FIAT system (vroom, vroom), which allowed economies to grow and extract more resources even faster. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the focus on our global financial system has been to maintain stability because, for one (there are many), we need to be able to finance our debts, which currently stand at 3X global GDP.

I know, that old chestnut again, but bear with me. 

First, remember that the Bretton-Wood conference happened during a time of global war, so one of the purposes of creating the IMF and the World Bank was to promote and keep the peace. Second, during its implementation, the Cold War started, and the nuclear arms race began, which quickly led many to understand that, for the first time in human history, we now have the capability to wipe out all life on our planet. Enter mutually assured destruction. Besides treaties that followed over the decades, you also needed to keep the peace by ensuring that countries with no nukes could prosper. Wealth creation keeps people happy. To all degrowthers and post-growthers, please consider conflict theory.

This pursuit of exponential economic growth has significantly damaged our Biosphere and exceeded our planetary boundaries, visible thanks to our pollution. Welcome to the Age of Consequences.

We still live in a linear material economy. Only 8.6% of our economy is circular, and circular economy CAGR from 2022 to 2031 ranges wildly between 5% and as high as 21%. Some optimists are here, and I can’t wait to see 20+% CAGR even if I only contribute a millionth of a percentage point in the process. But what does growing a circular economy mean? Does it mean we grow towards meeting planetary boundaries, minimizing overshooting, and restoring the commons? It sounds counter-intuitive to me because meeting these objectives would mean shrinking the current economy and creating a new one in parallel to feed our population, who increasingly would not have to work thanks to the growth of our technology stack. Something to think about.

What is clear is if we continue our extraction and exploitation of the Biosphere in a linear material economy on a finite planet to support our global financial system to service the interest payments on increasing debt, it will lead to one conclusion: civilization will collapse. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure that out. The key question is. Can collapse be averted or even prevented?

We are seeing the signs of collapse already:

  • Increased risks of catastrophe due to overshoot and exceeding our planetary boundaries

  • Increased risks of dystopia thanks to failing institutions, corruption, and polarization.

These risks ended previous civilizations. 

Thanks to our highly integrated and fragile global supply chains, production, and global technology, we are now a global civilization, the first in our collective history. We now have exponential growth in tech. Many of you would recognize it as Artificial Intelligence. Most of the A.I. development you don’t see because large language models such as ChatGPT are just the tip of the iceberg and are already changing human and societal behavior, especially towards content creation and the ensuing lack of creativity, perverse plagiarism and the amount of copywrite infringement. Result: it pushes creators to become even more radical to stay ahead of LLMs, leading to possible catastrophic unintended consequences.

As an ex-cowboy, I can tell you that we live in a world where tech builds tech without us. A chip engineer has no idea how the latest chip is created because the tech does it now. Software is developing new software on top of those chips at speeds our brain can no longer comprehend.

These risks are not well understood. While we have managed, barely, to halt assured mutual destruction with our Nukes, we now face additional technological risks. Nukes are hard to build, but access to newly developed A.I., once deployed in the cloud linked to my treehouse with WIFI combined with some basic synthetic biotechnology understanding or knowledge of chemicals, can design weapons no one can control or prevent unless you live in a society where everything is monitored, including your visits to the bathroom. Welcome to dystopia. Technology is inherently neutral; it is not bad, and it is not good. A screwdriver is a tool used within a technological ecosystem (saw, wood, wall, screw) and can also be a weapon. We have hackers. Some are state actors, so let us add some A.I..

I propose the following to understand our global civilization and current risks. Think of our civilization as a three-legged stool where the seat is a doughnut where in its center, we dump all our shit that falls into the Biosphere, creating the metacrisis.

The first leg of our stool is our Technology stack. Without Technology, humanity would not be where we are today because it enables us to change our environment to fit our needs. Food Technology Systems, Information Technology, Construction, etc., and we do an amazing job at creating so that it starts making itself. Enter Robotics, Automation, and Artificial Intelligence.

The second leg is our culture, institutions, economy, governance, law, health, education environment, military, arts, etc., which should manage our technological, financial, and economic ecosystems, security, and the environment which we try to support with management systems under law with justice. 

The third leg is where wisdom resides. It’s where we make sense of the world: discernment and coherence. We look at the big picture. Here, we collectively decide what is sacred to us, what it means to show constraint, and what sacrifice means. 

We need to understand the risks of each leg of the stool and how they are interlinked. Here are some.

Leg 1: Nukes, Exponential Growth of Technology, Synthetic Biology (e.g., DNA manipulation), Distributed Tech proliferation. Development of chemicals, etc.

Leg 2: Exponential economic growth, failing institutions to handle global crises, information wars, polarization, pollution, unintended consequences, mental and physical Health. Perverse incentives in game theory and multi-polar traps. Power asymmetry, etc.

Leg 3: loss of wisdom; Values, constraint, sacrifice, loss of the sacred, meaning in life, meaning of Life, etc.

Collective Vision 1995 Alex Grey WatermarkedCollective Consciousness by Alex Grey

These risks converge inside our doughnut, where we run in multiple races to get ahead in a post-truth society where facts are distorted to suit a particular camp, where we continue to dump our shit over the side and refuse to face the dark side. 

To be continued...

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.

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About the author

Marco Vesters is Chief Exploration & Curiosity Officer in the Age of Consequences and a deep thinking analyst on the metacrisis. Marco is on an expedition to discover and design frameworks for global protopian stewardship. He deals with topics related to the underlying dynamics of our global ecological, socio-economic, physiological, and psychological crisis.

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