If it feels as though every system on the planet—both man-made and natural—is at an inflection point, and that the decisions we make next could deliver us to long-term, sustainable prosperity or result in the collapse of our species, it’s because that is exactly what is going on.
Right. This. Very. Minute.
The good news is that the reason the world is topsy-turvy is not only because we screwed the pooch on our way here. That notion is at least partly a human conceit. Rather, from the 50,000-foot view, we are little different from fruit flies, trees, or yeast. All living systems follow the same general path as we have: one that starts flat, incubating kinetic potential; then uses that energy to fuel explosive growth and prosperity; whose rate of growth slows, at some point, either due to external limits (fuel) or internal ones (choice); and which finally—once the fuel is spent—employs one of two forces to establish what comes next: resistance, then collapse; or re-invention, then equilibrium.
If “what comes next” is a question we are likely all pondering right now, we’re not alone. An unrelated pair of philosophical luminaries whose work I recently read has advanced our collective thinking on the matter. Theirs are ideas worth sharing.
The Sigmoid Curve
Just 40 years ago, Jonas Salk (of polio vaccine fame) and his son Jonathan employed the use of the sigmoid curve in a neat little book called A New Reality, to demystify the complex trajectory of our species.
The Salks’ principal goal was to help us understand how the choices we make today will either result in our collective long-term prosperity tomorrow (which I have represented in dark blue, in the graph above) or in collective catastrophe (which I show in light blue, just beneath it).
We’ll come back to the Salks shortly.
Just four years ago, shortly before he died, Swedish physician, academic and Gapminder founder Hans Rosling published the optimism-filled book Factfulness. It made such an impression on Bill Gates that he makes every prospective Microsoft employee read it. In it, Rosling uses the sigmoid curve and decades’ worth of data to prove that the current inflection point of the human species is not only here, it is both normal and good news, insofar as we are collectively transitioning from a point of explosive growth (the bottom half of the ‘S’) to one of global stability (the upper half). Don’t take my word for it; read Gates’ own appraisal of Rosling’s work, here.
It was the Salks that got me thinking today, and unsurprisingly, their work aligns well with Rosling’s. That’s because the things they are investigating are on everyone’s minds these days.
What the father-and-son team illuminated, for me, is that miraculously, we are living through the very transition that every species experiences; and depending on how well you do with instability, that fact makes this either the most exciting period in history, or its most terrifying.
I have felt for just a handful of years that we are drinking from the fire hose of karma. That is, that the planet we have depleted of resources (soil, water, trees, ice, fauna) and filled with waste (the detritus of a throw-away culture) on the (mistaken) assumption that resources are infinite and the planet is too big for us to destabilize, is showing us with biblically proportioned insistence that we are dead wrong.
As I wrote in Rebalancing the Earth is Dead Simple, back in December:
“Record wildfires, droughts, storms, swarms, erosion, temperatures, floods, collapses, and mass die-offs are the rule now — not the exception. Nearly every nation on Earth is experiencing “unprecedented” everything, and not the good kind.”
It’s true. The Salks referred to the phase of explosive growth that ended just a few decades ago as “Epoch A”. It ran under the assumption that we could take whatever we wanted, without repercussion, to serve—chiefly—“us and ours”. They explain that Epoch A is characterized by persistent expansion, short-range planning (for maximum short-term gain), competition, sub-division (aka narrowed focus), independence and power, transactional relationships, and an “either-or”, “win-lose” mindset.
You know: basically, the past 150 years.
The Earth is showing us the error of that thinking.
But rather than use our own bed-shitting ways to punish us, the Salks show us that Epoch A is designed to deplete resources. Or, at least, in that sense, we’re no different from fruit flies or yeast, all of which keep gobbling up resources until there are none left.
The good news is that unlike fruit flies, we don’t need to have a mass die-off. We have agency in our lives, and can make choices.
And the specific choices we make, in their words, could yield vastly different results.
Jonas Salk and Hans Rosling have one major thing in common, apart from the use of the sigmoid curve. Both luminaries are unabashedly optimistic about what comes next.
As an antidote to the Epoch A mindset, they point toward what they believe to be an inevitable future of socio-cultural human evolution. Pragmatically self-preservative, they believe that Epoch B will be characterized by dynamic equilibrium, long-range planning (for maximum sustainability), collaboration, integration (aka polymathic focus), interdependence and consensus, deep connections, and a “both-and”, “win-win” mindset.
In short, they foresee humans playing what James Carse calls “The Infinite Game” because we will have to, if we want to survive—not because we are altruistic.
Moreover, he says, we are already there. And we are feeling its growing pains.
The Salks illustrate this shift with the use of resources:
“[Through] industrialization in both Europe and the United States, resources seemed limitless. They could be exploited without regard for the effects either of consumption or of the disposal of waste. This would correspond with Epoch A, in which positive value was placed on growth, consumption, and unlimited use of resources.
In the last 50 to 70 years, however, there has been increasing awareness that resources are limited and that unfettered consumption, along with disregard for the effects of waste products, endangers our survival. Our adaptive response has been to place increasing value on awareness of limits, conservation, and on sustainability.
Thus, the conditions of Epoch A support and are consistent with the values of unlimited growth and consumption, while the different conditions of Epoch B lead to the different values of sustainability and conservation.”
In other words, the Salks don’t believe our values will change out of altruism. Rather, they will out of self-perservation.
Said another way, we will refocus human ingenuity with a new set of drivers that achieves long-term viability in a resource-finite world.
No Pain No Gain
The second critical point that the Salks make in their book is that there is no gain without pain. One cannot expect eight billion human beings to simply jettison their existing systems and lifestyles and start again, without difficulty, resistance and/or mutiny.
The change is generationally inevitable. That’s because the Millennials—the largest generation in human history—were born into the understanding that resources are in fact finite, and that our actions do in fact bear consequences.
To them, it’s not abstract or faraway. It’s record-breaking environmental calamities every day, nation-sized plastic gyres, mass extinctions, chart-topping man-made mortality rates, and a yawning abyss between the haves and the have nots.
With this change “from accelerating growth to decelerating growth, a major shift must occur in human values, attitudes, behaviors, and relationships.”
No sh*t, Sherlock.
And so, the Salks illustrate that “the tension we feel at this time” is “an inherent part of this developmental and evolutionary process. [It is] not necessarily a sign of the impending end of the human species but instead reflects the process of inversion in values.”
That is, what we are feeling is growing pains.
Epoch B (aka Game B)
Here, the Salks describe a future that tracks closely to observations I have made over three years of research-fueled writing. Sociologically, that future will come to resemble pre-modern societies that were based on “traditional” ways of “child-rearing, care of the elderly, conflict resolution, family relationships, and sustainable adaptation to the ecosystem—fit conditions of relative equilibrium.”
They will do so because they will have to, in order to thrive.
Once these Epoch B value sets are applied to the complex, industry- and technology-powered institutions we’ve built in Epoch A, “the creation of altogether new societies for the future” will emerge, because they will need to.
Epoch B goes by another name, inspired by James Carse’s 1986 treatise (and one of the best books I’ve ever read) Finite and Infinite Games.
Jim Rutt, entrepreneur and the former Chairman of the Santa Fe Institute—one of the world’s top science and technology think tanks—gives a great primer on Carse’s concept, which is also called “Game B”.
“To give a brief description of Game B — if Game A is the current Western civilization status quo, then Game B is a new civilization-level social operating system that at least hundreds of millions of people can live in. It’s not something for just elites or outliers.
Game B is something that doesn’t yet exist — it’s what comes next. Some of the principles of Game B are that it is self-organizational (not top-down), network-oriented (not individualist), decentralized (not centralized), meta-stable (evolving but not volatile), oriented towards human flourishing, and towards the flourishing of non-human life as well.”
Well, Game B is being incubated everywhere: on social media (Game B Communities), in corners of the physical world (Civium Project), in new corporate governance models (B-Corporations), and elsewhere, as people beta-test human communities based on Carse’s “infinite values”—the same values that the Salks insist will overlay onto the brilliant gains we’ve made in technology and productivity.
Thus, the “brave new world” of Epoch B is not a repudiation of the existing order; it’s a reappraisal of the things that must drive those gains if they are to be sustainable.
It will take the best of both worlds, and remake it.
With regard to Epoch B / Game B, pragmatic examples abound.
Specialization (and the resulting conflict between sciences and art, intuition and reason, emotion and cognition) will be reconciled in the coming century, and is already giving way to “integrative, interdisciplinary approaches to human problems, human thought, and human creativity,” everywhere.
Treatment of disease in healthcare is already beginning to shift its focus onto “prevention and health promotion” that recognizes the partnership between brain, body and biome.
The separation of work and play is well into its reintegration, fueled by the creation of “the third place”, supported by a meteoric rise in self-employment (nearing 50% of the labor force) and the corollary co-working boom. Work as “a place you go” is on its death bed, and the current gyrations that employers everywhere feel will finally force them to accept that the office was never designed for people, which is why nobody liked it.
The ivory tower of education, too, is crumbling, as more and more real-life learning moves online. MOOCs, the Khan Academy, TED… these are just the beginning of the democratization of education, to everyone’s benefit. The more minds we have creating the future, the better. Moreover, Epoch A specialization that saw people as units of productivity is giving way toward Epoch B generalization that seems humans as engines of polymathic creativity. David Epstein’s excellent book Range is about this. He writes:
“A rapidly changing ‘wicked’ world demands conceptual reasoning skills that can connect new ideas and work across contexts.”
I could go on. Politics. Home ownership. Public Safety. Nutritional health. Media (social and conventional). Nationhood. Economics.
Every single one of these human systems is broken. And all are symptoms of the end run of Epoch A.
Which is great news.
So, while nearly no one likes change, we are already there. We have passed the inflection point of our own evolution; and with the right choices, it’s only going to get easier from now on.
Which makes this, seen the right way, not the most terrifying time in history, but rather simply its inevitable inflection point, for which we have front row seats (and steering wheels!).
Time to get on with it.