|Last night I had a strange and vivid dream. I was invited by a future unnamed president of the US (why he/she chose a Canadian was not clear) to work as part of a special team to save the world. I was ushered into a huge room filled with books where the president’s aides (all female, for some reason) began to brief me about why I had been selected and what was expected of me. The conversation went something like this:
Aide: We are very impressed with your creative thinking, and your ability to transplant ideas from one area of intellectual exploration or study to another, but we’re concerned that you’re a bit of a defeatist, or perhaps you’re too tired to really think things through because of your insomnia.
Second Aide: And you seem to use your idealism as an easy way out, an excuse for inaction. Basically we think you’re on to something with your systems-thinking chart about how nature works and why civilization doesn’t, but you need to pull it together with your ideas about The Cost of Not Knowing, both insofar as they relate to our failure to prevent catastrophes and our imaginative failure at not being able to conceive of better answers or better ways of living. Since you quoted him on your weblog, we assume you accept Lakoff’s thesis that we are incapable of thinking beyond what our embodied brains permit. But we need — you need — to do your utmost to synthesize all of the ideas you have been kicking around and apply the result to coming up with some truly practical ideas that we can implement to save the world.
Aide: You have a tendency to let everyone down after some hugely creative mental leaps, by leaving your reader with suggestions for action that are just plain inadequate, such as your terribly modest ‘What You Can Do’ article on saving the world, which you certainly must realize is just not enough to bring about the enormous changes needed, or alternatively, suggestions for action that are hopelessly fatalistic, cop-outs, we would suggest, such as your hysterical ‘Plan B’ post that advocated sabotage. Surely a mind like yours can do better than that?
Me: Well I did say that what we need is some biotech wizard to develop some airborne substance that would reduce humans’ ability to conceive drastically but in a non-discriminatory manner and not affect other life species…
Aide: Oh, come now, Mr. Pollard, there you go again. Surely you must realize that we already have a phalanx of scientists working on just such a virus, but the science isn’t there, and probably won’t be for another century, by which time it will be too late. And with respect to your related idea, we’re also working on a virus that will make livestock unpalatable or dangerous to eat, that won’t hurt the host animals but will encourage people to become vegetarian, and hence free up the 75% of arable land that’s now used for grazing and animal feed — that will take just as long to develop. There must be some better answers, some more practical answers that we can implement now?
Me: To reduce per-capita consumption we could do several things. We could create a new, responsible, sustainable economy that would undermine and destroy the old, wasteful one, and which would improve upon and use solar and wind energy and similar renewable energy sources…
Second Aide: This is exactly what we’re getting at when we say your thinking is initially brilliant but finally fuzzy, even, dare we say, lazy. Let us make this clear. We have billions of dollars that can be galvanized in moments to implement any bold, practical idea that warrants it. But to warrant it, an idea must be doable, now, without having to invent difficult new technology, without political upheaval or dismantling of economic or social systems. So use your imagination. We have lots of money but very little time. Tell us what to do.
Me: I think we have to start with the children, to teach them that the way we live is unsustainable, that there is a better way.
Second Aide: Let’s take a look at what you, yourself, have already written about how change occurs. You’ve acknowledged that the political system, the tax system and the legal system are basically designed to maintain the status quo, and that trying to bring about dramatic change in a short period through political or legal means is a waste of time. You have also acknowledged that educational and social change is cultural change, and that culture changes slowly. Unless, of course, something extraordinary happens that everyone can see — as you’ve said, you teach people by showing, not by telling. What are you going to show billions of children that’s so extraordinary it will get their attention, and change their behaviour from that of previous generations, quickly?
Me: Well, I’ve talked about building Model Intentional Communities that could show children a better way to live.
Aide: Good, we like that. It’s concrete, its globally translatable and it has a potential memetic, viral quality that could pick up steam and spread fast. We’re quietly funding several such Communities already, and we’re going to expand the program. It’s actually very inexpensive, as government programs go, and these programs can therefore operate well under the political and media radar screens. By the way, we also like your Save the World Think-Tank idea, and we’ve acted on it as well. You’ll meet the other Think-Tank members soon. And we like your novel, The Only World We Know, with the stories set in an ideal future world that teach people how to live better and more peacefully. [With a wink, she added] Something quite similar was tried about two thousand years ago, and worked exceedingly well at bringing about major social change. Perhaps too well. Imaginative, well-developed models and collaboratories and stories that develop and demonstrate radically different, viable alternatives to the status quo are the most effective means to achieve major social change. So we like some of your ideas. What else do you have?
Me: If you’re going to limit me to new technologies, and social change programs propelled by radical models and revelations, then I have to go back to my Plan B stuff that you’ve already dismissed.
Second Aide: What we didn’t like about some of your Plan B ideas is not that they were too radical but that that they were ineffective — blowing up dams and pipelines won’t get people to lessen their reliance on these technologies, and such petulant acts tend merely to entrench people’s thinking, make them change-resistant, and undermine your credibility. What do you have that will work, big time, fast?
Me: OK, then we’re back to disruptive technologies. How about new drugs that make it easier not to conceive and easier to die? Like an abortion drug or self-sterilization drug that you can take that works painlessly, instantly, anytime? Or a suicide pill that’s simple, cheap and painless? Or some drugs that feel really good but aren’t addictive, expensive, or dangerous. If people can feel good easily, they’ll be less prone to violence, jealousy, greed and all the other negative emotions behind many of today’s problems, and less preoccupied and paranoid about personal possessions, most of which are extravagant wastes of the planet’s natural resources. Of course these drugs would never be approved by any government, but my experience is that if a technology is invented and made available affordably and people want it, it will find its way around.
Second Aide: Now you’re rolling. Some ethical and tactical issues there, but go on.
Me: How about a very cheap, tiny camera that anyone can plant anywhere and broadcast wirelessly on the Internet to show the world what goes on in backrooms, in abusive homes, in factory farms, in old age homes and prisons and refugee camps and war zones and other places where atrocities depend on restricted access or closed doors and privacy. Not government controlled, but something anyone could buy at Radio Shack, or at least over the Internet. It would of course mean the end of privacy, but perhaps if the world could see what goes on in these places of horror they just wouldn’t tolerate the atrocities and would cede their privacy as a difficult but fair trade-off — to deter and drastically reduce human violence and crime everywhere.
Second Aide: Everyman as Big Brother. Terrifying but fascinating. Could backfire but perhaps not. Don’t let me stop you.
Me: And how about a technology that lets people understand what animals are saying, so that we could realize that our fellow creatures live lives as rich, emotional, sentient as we do, and that they therefore have every bit as much right to a fair share of the planet’s land and resources and a life free from harassment and suffering as we do. That might convince a lot of people of the intrinsic value of biodiversity and of wilderness, and the need to use land much more carefully, delicately, sparingly. Or how about an inexpensive technology that jams electromagnetic fields, so that we could literally take back the air from the internal combustion engine, and the airwaves from the oligopolistic media, by rendering these technologies sporadic and unreliable, and hence cause the vast majority of people to abandon them for cleaner, more reliable, less oligopolistic alternatives.
Second Aide: Now you’re wandering dangerously close to science fiction. These last two ideas are intriguing, and might work, but they would probably take longer to develop than we have. But you’re on the right track — disruptive technologies that don’t rely on political will or laws to make them effective, that are essentially voluntary technologies (which people can choose to adopt without coercion), and that yield drastic, rapid, healthy social change.
Aide: OK, so we have Model Intentional Communities, the Save the World Think Tank, The Only World We Know, instant and cheap abortion, self-sterilization, suicide and feel-good drugs, and mini-cameras to blow the lid off nasty behaviour. Three social and five technological ideas to save the world. Not bad for a start. Let me show you your quarters so you can rest up for tomorrow’s session.
[At this point, I’m ushered through the library’s huge doors into an incredible forest full of life and colour, but the light is blinding, and… I wake up].
And all day I’ve been thinking about “disruptive technologies that don’t rely on political will or laws to make them effective, that are essentially voluntary technologies (which people can choose to adopt without coercion), and that yield drastic, rapid, healthy social change” — the first words I wrote down, verbatim, when I awoke.
(Iris photo courtesy the inestimable and still blogless Steve Raker)