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Our Single Biggest Challenges

Vincent Arena
Social Change
Nov 24, 2020

The single biggest problem of our time is climate change. No, it's the breakdown of discourse leading to polarization. It's the economy and social unrest.


We are in an era of interconnected mega-messes, as one would call a series of "wicked problems".  The "single-biggest-problem" thinking is insufficient to the adaptive change required to resolve our predicament, however, this does not mean that everyone needs to focus on everything. In fact the overwhelming complexity of these intersecting crises beyond what one person can comprehend (let along decide where to begin working on) is one factor in our inability to act. We need to agree that everything is important and figure out how to support each other in coordinating and acting towards a collective set of goals that based off of our current collective understanding of the world will solve/meliorate the biggest problems in a way that does not create other problems. Simple stuff here.


Now….we all know the devil is in the details, however, if I had to summarize/categorize the types of problems that we have to solve they are the following: a looming ecological crises with feedback loops that threatens to make it progressively harder and more expensive to solve the longer we wait, a slew of social problems including but not limited to social unrest, poverty, depression, and refugee crises - all of which are directly connected to a lack of basic needs/resources (food, water, shelter, clean air, a livable habitat). Climate change directly threatens our resources via droughts, storms, fires, and biodiversity loss, therefore the ecological feedback loop directly feeds into a social/economic feedback loop in which more people in poverty will cause not only more poverty (war leads to poverty which leads to more violence for people to be able to meet their needs) but more issues on the individual level that make it even harder to solve the collective social and environmental problems.


How did we get into such a mess?


At it's roots, a complicated history in which those in power were plagued with ideologies such as colonialism, extractivism, and consumerism are the leading causes of our destruction of the planet and the ensuing social impacts. Our culture serves as the protective mechanism that propagates the political and economic systems that continue to support these broken and outdate ideologies for profit. We spend most of our time in politics distracted from the real issue, and arguing about false dualities on the left and right, not questioning the larger systems that invisibly guide and restrain one's ability to see the truth. The current form of neoliberal capitalism does not align with nature, the planets carrying capacity, and quite simply: values money over life. Buying political power, touting deregulation as beneficial for everyone, a justification of lobbying by painting companies as individuals, are embedded within the system as normal in order to perpetuate the profit-making machine and make anyone who questions the system seem insane. A less sinister but equally as damaging notion is advertising, combined with the exponential technology to psychologically understand and target customers at an individual level therefore maximizing the effectiveness/persuasion to get someone to buy something or buy in to some idea. At an individual level it is a subtle reminder that our self-worth and happiness comes from a combination of our value in material possessions and our thoughts and beliefs that we hold on to with the same strength as we do to our iPhones. At a systems level it has caused an explosion of unsustainable production of goods, services, and products that are by design extractive, non-circular, and most of the time we don’t even need. Not to mention the explosion of information of varying levels of important and relevance that is vastly too much for anyone to consume in a day despite our natural tendencies to do so.  Our culture furthermore propagates this as normal by rewarding those who follow along with these broken ideologies - entrepreneurs are touted as the superheros of our time because they "change the world", however I would argue that a majority of these “thought leaders” at their best have an immaturity to accept reality and the collective responsibilities they have of telling the truth, and it its worst corrupted value. There are exceptions and those who strive to create the most positive impact they can while they exist within the current system while also trying to shift that system, even if it is not in their own financial self interest. Anand Giridharadas argues that the idea that billionaires will save us is a false premise, since the bias of who is creating social impact changes what that change is. Those with the power and resources to create change primarily use it to do so in a way that preserves the current system (donating money or resources in a way that doesn't give people agency to solve their own problems in a sustainable way), or in a way that outright benefits themselves at the expense of the already broken system. Money as the objective of life is a misaligned value and rewards system that creates the sort of greed, sociopathic cultural tendencies that drive competition for competitions sake. At a bigger picture, the relentless pursuit of status, success, and survival is blinding. When the end goal is playing and wining within the current system - those that win will be even less likely at questioning whether or not the game board itself is rigged and broken.


So what do we do?


Nature is deterministic - just like the laws of physics, there is no arguing that we need to reduce carbon, stop polluting, and scale back our economy from infinite growth mode. We need to get out of the current basin of attraction (Game A) to a new one that's more stable but hard to get to (Game B).


I believe this entails a fundamental shift to a new economic system and a compelling plan to make the transition. I would argue that this requires creating a parallel, regenerative social cultural and economic system that is based off of education of the thinking and information required to lead up to this conclusion as well an economic system created at the global view and executed at the local level via intelligence systems design. The emphasis has to be placed on self-sustaining localized regenerative and resilient connected economics based on cooperative ownership and collective action. This shift has to be done together, via a collective consciousness of every human anti-rivalrous dynamics. (BF)


The current paradigm of entrepreneurship and the worldview at the core of it threatens to derail the quick and effective transition to such a system because of core assumptions. One such assumption is the idea that each individual startup on their own needs to solve the issue of how to survive financially. In farming we've found that this doesn't work - which is why we created insurance in case one year crops fail, you aren’t completely bankrupt - so why does this idea not scale to other sectors, especially social impact. If each solution is constrained to those ideas which can exist within the current market system and make a profit or stay alive, then the speed and efficacy in which these solutions come into the world is going to be at stake, as well as the unintended consequences and suffering that comes with the cognitive dissonance of creating something to create impact which causes harm in the pursuit of financial sustainability. The paradigm of "create something that customers want" breaks down when you look at things in a systems perspective. The needs of our planet are like laws of nature - fixed and cannot be changed, our planet and the connected laws of nature that govern it is the meta system which we have to play within - the culture, economic, and social systems need to be flexible to that. Therefore it may be important to create solutions which no one person individually is incentivized to  pursue, and doesn't necessarily ask for or even want, but game theoretically will end up benefiting that person and everyone else in the long run. In essence this is about creating a win-win future where we make our economic system match reality: tie together the well being of the individual, to the well-being of the collective from local community to global ecosystem.


Our current economic systems are not very economic at all. But humans have learned.


A good analogy is surfing - the wave is flowing a surfer cannot change the wave. They can only adjust themselves in a way that they can stay on top of the wave and keep moving forward. We have control over how we react, but not on the nature of the world. Inner satisfaction and fulfillment - to love and be loved.


Working backwards from the end goal:


We need collective actions towards solving these problems together. We need to be able to coordinate our efforts to not be pushing the boulder in different directions, and we need to be able to understand and think about the holistic best path for change and impact. In order to get there we need to learn how to collaborate and work together, because the human dynamics of the situation and bureaucracy threaten to cause failure even if everything else comes into alignment. A big factor towards successful collaboration will depend on collective goal setting - of groups and networks and eventually of the global community, and the problems worth solving including the tradeoffs between them. The sustainable development goals are a start at this framework but the how of solving these problems is an issue. I would argue, and will back up in detail later, that values such as regenerative systems and cooperative ownership are key to fair agreement of goals. To be able to do this we also need to be able to do collective sense-making - to understand the world and the problems in it for what they are. This may include making hierarchies of narratives, knowledge mapping, systems mapping, and conversations between diverse people and cultures with the intention of understanding, comprising, and synthesizing. Doing this at scale is predicated that we can be in the same room (or zoom) together, and even finding the people that are most eager to do this (to start) as well as avoiding duplicitous efforts that will tend to play back into the sort of rivalrous ego-driven dynamics that are incentivized in the current economic system. I foresee a open project, individual, and group database that serves to connect the dots will be vital to bringing new people into these conversations as well as constantly evolving and changing as the world changes.


To be continued. To comment, collaborate or add to this train of thought - Google Doc.

Vincent Arena
Vincent Arena is a designer, entrepreneur and engineer.

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