Thoughts on health, happiness and sustainability

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We need little big systems

One of the keys to the success of humans as a species has been our ability to collaborate to achieve common goals. Coordinated efforts have allowed us to not only survive difficult times throughout history, but to accomplish feats that would be impossible as individuals. Our entire industrial system and modern way of life is a product of our collective efforts. It is the ultimate demonstration of the power of teamwork.

What’s really exciting is that it makes me realize what amazing things we could achieve as a global community if we focused our collective minds on common goals like tackling climate change, providing food, water and health care to all, ending conflict, eliminating toxic chemicals, ending cruelty and restoring the ecosystems that we have destroyed.

We live at a critical time in history, where there is so much to do and to do urgently and when we have the proven capability to achieve the impossible. Our species has achieved the impossible time and time again throughout history, and we must believe that the challenges we now face are possible to overcome. We must embrace the challenge. We must set clear goals as a species and build a culture in which achieving these goals is central to our way of life, wherever we live in the world.  We must put ourselves in the driving seat of our immense human machine and move it in new direction.

Human led systems

But can we really? There’s an inherent problem with any system that humans create, which is that if it becomes too big or too old, it develops a life of its own.

The system’s primary goal becomes to sustain its own existence for the sake of sustaining its own existence. This inevitably becomes true of most human institutions, but when they’re small, it’s relatively easy for people to influence their direction because they can see what is going on and their voices are sufficiently loud within the small group of people involved. It isn’t perfect, but we can maintain human led systems and use them to achieve our goals.

Power and accountability

However, sometimes to achieve bigger goals, we need bigger systems. Instead of a handful of people working together, we might need tens, or hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of people. This is where the problem comes.

As the size of the system increases, so does its potential power to impact the world, but at the same time, it’s accountability decreases at the same rate. We have a divergence of power and accountability.  Our focus on our true human goals becomes eroded and corruption, particularly at the higher levels, becomes rife. What we end up with are organisations filled with good honest people, yet all working together to create and maintain systems that exploits the planet, the poor and the weak. We have corporations that exploit their workers and their customers to increase profits for distant shareholders.  We have governments whose reason to exist is to get elected and make money from their connections with big business. We even have charities whose core mission becomes raising more money, at the expense of what the charity stands to achieve.  We end up with systems that pursue money for the sake of money, power for the sake of power, work for the sake of work.

The runaway train

I genuinely believe that most people are inherently good, but we are creatures that are driven by our culture more than we drive our culture. When we put our human systems on steroids, we inevitably create systems that have great power without responsibility, no matter how pure the hearts of those that power the machine. Science fiction has warned us of the day when we create intelligent machines, which start to make their own decisions and fight against our best interests as humans. Yet we’ve been living with this reality for centuries already, not in the form of intelligent robots, but in the form of the economic and industrial machines that we are all a part of.

We are all workers within the system, but more importantly we are workers for the system. Our priority is to protect and grow the system, rather than to protect and grow our own health and happiness as humans. Our systems have become so large that they have unimaginable inertia, so much so that even the wealthy elites that sit at the top have little power to make fundamental change.

We are all crewing a runaway train, which most of us don’t realise is out of control and those who do realise feel unable to stop.  We have a crisis as a species. The systems that we’ve built to improve our own health, happiness and sustainability have become the greatest threat to our health, happiness and sustainability.

What can we do about it?

As I’ve explained, there is an inherent danger in large systems, yet also an inherent advantage. We need to find ways to harness the benefits of mass collaboration, while retaining control and accountability. What we need to do is start to break down our systems and societies into smaller more accountable chunks, yet harness modern technology to coordinate and connect with these smaller elements sufficiently. We need to devolve more government decision making to local levels and ideally give a voice to all individuals in key decision making. We need to break large corporations into smaller pieces that are driven not by external shareholders, but by their workers, their customers and the communities that they impact.

A good example of this is the emerging opportunity of micro generation within the power sector. We currently have an entrenched system where most power is supplied from a small number of huge power stations owned by multinational corporations and distributed through a single grid, but we now have the opportunity to generate and store small amounts of energy at a local level, at home, at our businesses and within our communities. This can then be distributed locally and nationally via smart microgrids, which are owned by each local community, but connected to each other to allow wider distribution when required.  This gives people far more control over the sources of energy they use and also helps to strengthen communities financially and socially. It also massively shifts the equation away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy sources, which are easier to implement on a small scale, free communities from long term fuel imports and are much less polluting.

We now have the technology to have the best of both worlds if we grab the opportunity.  Technologies like the internet, renewable energy, battery storage, CNC manufacturing and 3D printing, and even micro-currencies and peer to peer finance models are opening a world of opportunity to redress the balance and get the system working for the people.

A positive future

The mistake that we have made as a species is to build single systems that are far too big to be accountable. To achieve a positive future, I believe we need to use our technology to enable a new type of system to emerge formed of many much smaller, more accountable systems working in synergy to achieve our true goals of health, happiness and sustainability for all.

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