If you look at the lessons of history, it’s easy to conclude that:

  • People change only when they must, or when a change is both very easy and very compelling
  • When they do, reluctantly, change, people change their behaviour first, and their beliefs and values only much later, if at all
  • Fast, enduring change has been wrought not by political revolution (which usually replaces one despot with another, and takes a century or more of agonizing, small change to get any real traction), by war, or by broad change in social attitudes (which, even in egregious cases like slavery and disenfranchisement of women, takes centuries of sustained effort to become entrenched), but rather by new innovations and technologies. The agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution were both driven by new, frightening, counter-cultural, and initially very unpopular innovative technologies.

Clay Christensen in The Innovator’s Dilemma explains that the undoing of most Fortune 500 companies has come about when new competitors unexpectedly began to devour their markets, sneaking up on them by stealth, often by accident, but always because of a new technology. And Bucky Fuller echoed this when he said that “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

Could we apply these lessons to invent technologies that, like the technological inventions that ushered in the agricultural and industrial eras, might usher in a new, post-consumer, post-capitalist, post-corporatist, post-population-explosion, post-environmental-destruction human culture? That means giving up on attempts to bring about political, social, economic and educational reform, and instead focusing strictly on what Christensen calls ‘disruptive innovation’ and what technophile Fuller calls ‘a new model’, to undermine instead of trying to overcome the culture that threatens us all with catastrophic extinction.

Some definitions are in order:

  • Innovation is an invention or discovery with useful applications. Examples: The wedge, agriculture, trade, the engine (steam-powered and later, electrically-powered), solar and wind energy
  • Technology in the broad sense is any useful application of innovation. Examples: Spears and arrowheads (applications of the wedge), selective breeding of plants and animals (application of agriculture), money and credit (applications of trade), industrial and automotive machinery (applications of the engine)

I have posited before that, as the systems thinking chart above illustrates, the two root causes of our culture’s destructiveness and unsustainability are overpopulation and overconsumption. It may seem crazy to think that we could invent some new, innovative technologies that, without any social, political, educational or economic help, would transform our culture (behaviour first, beliefs and values later) so dramatically that they would solve these huge, intractable problems.

But imagine you were the inventor/discoverer of monoculture agriculture, showing the first few unbelievers of your new technologies that, after three million years of doing so, the only life they knew, they would never have to hunt or gather again? Or imagine you were the inventor of automation and the assembly line, trying to convince people that you can achieve orders-of-magnitude improvements in productivity by having people work in the service of machines? Both these improbable, radical new technologies succeeded quickly, ubiquitously, extraordinarily, in part because they were easy, the path of least resistance in very troubled times, and in part because people realized that there really was no other choice.

Is the possibility of us now launching a third human cultural revolution, by inventing technologies that encourage and enable us to live better with fewer humans and less ‘stuff’, really any more incredible than the success of these previous two revolutions?

And, even more importantly, is it so hard to believe that, with the ingenuity and interconnectedness of six billion people, we could invent technologies that would, for the third time, transform our culture quickly and utterly?

Well, maybe it is. But it seems to me foolish not to at least try.


I don’t have all the answers, but I think I have the problem-solving process that could allow us, together, to find them. And I have some interesting ideas to get the process going. For example:

  • What if we started providing the necessities of life free? Food, clothing, shelter, information, music, literature, recreation, education, health care. Just started giving them away, and getting them free from others in return.
  • What if we created a new currency that would monitor our spending on non-renewable and polluting resources? And then those that voluntarily minimized such spending, kept their personal ecological footprint small, and boycotted socially and environmentally irresponsible companies’ products and services, would get some kind of wearable award, a kind of reverse status symbol.
  • What if we created sustainable living standards for communities that would allow them to be Certified Green if their ecological footprint was less than, say, 50% of their total area.
  • What if we invented a safe, easy, highly reliable, free form of birth control that you’d only have to take every five years, without a doctor’s prescription, and which ideally also protected you from STDs?
  • What if we got scientists to designate non-essential consumption and indebtedness as dangerous and unhealthy addictions, as forms of mental illness?
  • What if we invented reconfigurable, space-efficient homes with multi-functional rooms, so that 400 s.f. per person would seem huge? And what if we built them underground, energy self-sufficient, surrounded by large virtual digital ‘windows’ that made them look bright and airy, so that the land above could return to its natural state? And what if that surface land was protected as commonwealth land, owned by no one, in perpetuity?
  • What if we modeled solar energy collectors on nature’s perfectly-evolved model, the tree?

Well, you get the idea. I think my problem-solving process, applied to one problem at a time, and engaging as many people and as many ideas as possible, could work.

Instead of just blogging and worrying and conversing in aimless, isolated small groups, what if we instead spent some of that time, that million hours a day, focusing together, collaboratively on specific unsolved problems?

Imagine what we could accomplish together by learning, listening, understanding, organizing, thinking ahead, reaching out, brainstorming, designing, experimenting, challenging, and deploying collectively-developed solutions. We don’t need to get together physically to do this, and with the right preparation and the right team working on it, is there really any limit on what we might accomplish?

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  1. Intersting essay, Dave. Why don’t you suggest one topic, lay out a few ground rules and expectations, and invite the blogosphere to brainstorm on it?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Karen: You guessed my plan, exactly. I was going to do exactly that, next week. I wanted to give people a few days to mull it over, and see if anyone wanted to tweak the process or suggest groundrules, or propose a first topic. My reader ‘Dilys C’ thinks it could be done as an online conference, with some proper prep. I think we should start small, figure out what works, and compare notes before we try to scale it up.

  3. Patrick Keenan says:

    I have been reading this site for a bit and have found it as a good feed for important information. I am working on a project that involves mindmapping and collaboration. I am attempting to create a process where people would no longer blog in the traditional sense. Rather they would create structures of truth and describe properties and objects. By visualizing concepts and relations a better understanding of the whole can be had. Do you live in Toronto? The problem with my work is that no one around me understands it and I need someone to talk to about this.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Reader Steven Hill is getting blocked from commenting, presumably because of new Radio Userland policy requiring commenters’ ISPs to dovulge the sender’s IP Address (a spam blocking device that several readers are struggling with). He says:Interesting post. How about setting up a wiki where anyone interested could brainstorm this stuff. Happy to track down a hosted wiki service and start the ball rolling (and of course contribute).My reply: I’ve received several good ideas like this on Next Steps for this idea. I’ll be a doing a follow-up post next week.

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