I spent seven weeks doing a Workaway at Kadagaya Project earlier in 2016 and had a marvellous and challenging time. Now, as I consider returning, I ruminate over exactly what challenged me about my experience there. Part 1 denotes what the experience was like and Part 2 is on how I changed. Welcome to one of the longest blog posts I have ever written!
CHALLENGES I FACED
Kadagaya Project challenged me in many ways intellectually and this blog series wouldn’t be complete without exploring some of my ruminations on this also.
A key underpinning of Kadagaya’s philosophy is the idea of a resource-based economy, a concept that dually inspires me with its broad philosophical base and irritates me on the specifics. A resource based economy is essentially the brainchild of Jacques Fresco, who defines it as an economy in which ‘all goods and services are available to all people without the need for means of exchange such as money, credits, barter or any other means. For this to be achieved all resources must be declared as the common heritage of all Earth’s inhabitants.’ Resourcebasedeconomy.com defines it as the ‘basic notion of an economic system where no money is used, ownership and trade is abandoned and replaced with usership and giving and all resources (both human and planetary) are shared and managed properly,’ and reckons other names for it include ‘Natural Resources Economy, Resource Economy, Moneyless Economy (MLE), Love Based Economy (LBE), Gift Economy (GE), Priceless Economic System (PES), Trust Economy (TE), Voluntary Collaborative Economy (VCE), Sharing Society, Resource Based Society, Moneyless Society, Love Based Society, Ubuntu’.
A quick definition provided:
“A resource-based economy is a society without money, barter or trade, with the awareness that Humanity is One family and where technology, science and spirituality is used to it’s fullest to develop and manage the planet’s resources to provide abundance for everyone in the most sustainable way.”
And here’s an extended definition:
“The continual emergence of a system of self imposed management of human and natural resources both locally and globally where money, trading and ownership is replaced by gratitude, sharing and usership in a way where everyone’s needs are met.”
The page (http://www.theresourcebasedeconomy.com/about/) continues to give a wonderful and long description of what RBEs are all about and how they operate, and I find it much more informative than the Venus Project’s website.
I also love Peter Joseph’s TED talk discussing resource based economies and how the word economy and ecology share the same root: oikos from Greek, meaning ‘home.’ So ecology is the study of our home, planet Earth. Economy is the management of it. One of the central tenets is also that such an economy would seek to make things more abundant for all rather than the current model based on scarcity – and again, it does not matter that things are actually abundant or limitless but that we think and experience them as being so (RBEs do well to recognise the finite nature of Earth’s resources) as opposed to the mindset of scarcity which reinforces fear, greed, ownership, theft, oppression, blame, disrespect and more. Another key idea is access – RBEs are not communism, socialism or newfangled techno-capitalism because in communism, the state owns everything, in capitalism, individuals own things but in RBEs no one owns anything but as a planetary humanity we all have ACCESS to everything. It means we need much less by way of total global resources than we think we need now because no one needs to own anything and sharing (transferring access) is relatively costless and easy. Hence there would be less resource usage overall, less ‘waste,’ and less production.
Some things that challenged me about RBEs (and I’ll try not to confound Venus Project with all RBEs here as I understand even some permaculture systems and various other forms of moneyless human organisation could be counted as RBEs):
One of the first discussions I had with Vladimir was on the idea of ‘human nature’ and ‘free will.’ It took us a grand total of thirty seconds to agree our behaviour is largely shaped by the environment and not innate. From what we know of nutrition, whatever genetic disposition we have does not make so much of a difference or influence in our quality of life so much as the environmental factors we expose our blueprints to. However, we must be careful not to presume that just because so much of behaviour is environmentally shaped, that 100% of behaviour is environmentally shaped – there are some behaviours written into the genetic code, such as blinking, breathing and survival and reproduction, obviously, and many automatic reactions to painful stimuli – heat, cold, sharpness, or that doctor tapping you on your knee and so on. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are many more ‘automatic’ responses that we overlook precisely because they are so obvious. Moreover, there are genes that code for aggression, pacifism and so on – we seem this most obviously in many animals, such as dogs and chickens and their obvious hierarchies – which is not to say such behaviours cannot be changed through environmental factors (perhaps they can), but also not to dismiss the role of genes in behaviour.
What I like about this thinking in RBEs as far as humans are concerned is that there is no such thing as human nature: it cuts out survival of fittest as a social ‘truth’ and highlights dangers of taking naturalistic laws into the social realm. It says, there is no ‘nature’ of humans, that there is no unchanging ‘essence’ of human behaviour, hence immediately rebuts any ideas that such a RBE society cannot work because people will never change (from survivalist competitive fighters) or that’s just the way things are – and in doing so, breaks us out of the unexamined assumptions of static, immutable behavioural patterns. TVP especially states that competition may be a fundamental ‘law’ of some animal and plant species for survival, but there also exists cooperation, mutualism and symbiosis and that none of this applies when we translate such observations into the human realm because we are so change-able. Hence natural phenomena cannot be used as moral compasses – something which would result in social Darwinism. But then Venus Project makes the same mistake afterwards and says, ‘well if nature does this then so should we’ – its emphasis on biomimicry, the design of human environments based on ‘objective’ truths about certain facets of environments yielding certain behaviours and the idea that science can and should be used to answer moral questions speaks to this position.
The notion that humans behave according to universal laws has always been dismissed throughout history. Philosophies of the past have taught us that people have free will and that there are intrinsic factors, which essentially categorize us into good or bad people. There is also a very prevalent notion that people cannot change. All these verbal and mental exercises have never been tested therefore it would be unwise for us to conclude that they are correct. Only if we put these hypotheses to test would we discover the actual underlying reasons for many of the actions we consider harmful in our society.
Greed, rage, envy, bigotry, jealousy, aggression and prejudice are only a small part of a list of behaviours considered socially offensive but scientists have never really investigated what might be the root causes for these behaviours. Sociologists and psychologists continue to invent new explanations without considering the degrees of environmental influence on human behaviour. In order for us to discover what makes men and women behave the way they do in different situations we would have to use the scientific method.
— TVP Website
(There is an inherent contradiction in the above: first, that there is the idea that ‘people cannot change’ and second that they have ‘free will’ (which would imply the ability to change those behaviours)).
Niki Harré, in her book on finite and infinite games, neatly sidesteps the issue of free will entirely, writing to the effect of it does not matter whether or not we actually have free will. What matters is that we THINK we have. Such sense of autonomy and, well, ‘freedom’ can be considered under NVC as fundamental human needs, basic psychological needs for a flourishing human society, or as basic foundations for creativity. Under NVC, if freedom is a need which, when fulfilled, results in an internal ‘opening’ – then we have liberation. If – as TVP purports – the purpose is to ‘free’ people from the ‘tyranny’ of government, imposed social order, and special interest-based corporatocratic ‘democracy,’ then we may assume that there must be some benefit to acknowledging and recognising such freedom gained as a basic precursor to, well, everything we hold of value in life, and the creation of new life itself. Indeed, Dan Pink in his TED talk speaks to autonomy, mastery and purpose being basic prerequisites for more complex tasks and creativity – that people feel they have control (autonomy), that they are able to become more proficient at a task, and that that task be directed in some way (purpose – the notion of which would also require some recognition of free will, real or imagined).
It should be noted, however, that any decision cannot be made in a vacuum, that is to say, in a space completely disjointed from present, past and future perceptions of reality, experiences, knowledge and environment as all thought processes and actions occur within a context, conscious and subconscious. So no decision can ever be made that is 100% ‘free,’ in the same sense that no individual could exist in a way 100% ‘free’ if free means being fully divorced from any external influences. Owing to the deep interdependence of all life, one might possibly argue that no life could ever really be ‘free’ given the sheer number of interdependencies on other life forms and other environmental factors that exist. But again, psychologically, it doesn’t seem to matter so much if we actually are free or have free will, but that we think we do for overall wellbeing – and, paradoxically we also have needs to belong, contribute, be nourished, connect. Such paradox of human needs is something science will probably find difficult to grasp – freedom (disconnection) and belonging (connection), free will (being in control) and flow (being in the present), autonomy (power) and letting go (relinquishing power), purpose (playing to win / playing fully) and play (playing playfully), needs for silence and music, solitude and companionship, anonymity and recognition, spontaneity and stability, and so on.
TVP says that there is no such thing as human nature (static essence), then goes on to argue that we may design environments that produce a (predictable) set of ‘beneficial’ human behaviours, which implies, well, there must be some predictable process to our behaviour i.e. a kind of human nature that is dynamic but predictably so. After all, we assume in TVP that resource scarcity leads to competition, abundance leads to sharing, violence breeds violence – a kind of if A then B, if G then X, if Y then L sort of ‘human nature’ or the nature of nurture. Of course, this assumes that while we may have few ‘innate’ qualities or behaviours from birth, we do have innate patterns, which humans seem to follow time and time again – or natures of behaviours themselves. So human nature isn’t that humans are born greedy and selfish – the nature of things is this: humans + environment of scarcity à greed + selfishness. It’s that humans + environment of abundance -à collaboration and creativity. And so on. There is a big difference between the ‘nature of things’ and the ‘nature of how things change,’ but if you can point to a pattern, you are still talking about the ‘nature’ of something. In other words, again – the nature of nurture.
That said, even the nature of nurture isn’t 100% deterministic nor predictable – randomness and chance probably have larger roles to play than we think, also a feature TVP overlooks or sidesteps.
Moreover, if feelings and needs are universal laws (or the nature of nurture – certain ways of nurture (the environment) result in certain (predictable) unmet needs yielding certain (predictable) feelings) then sure, we act in accordance with our unmet needs – the way we act depends on the level of inner knowing we have about these needs (jackal or giraffe) and the level of responsibility we take.
Using the scientific method to solve global social problems would also demand actions that are considered unthinkable today. We need to realize that we are one human species regardless of race, belief or nationality. We need to consider human and environmental welfare an international priority. Otherwise, we would be using the same old methods of thinking resulting in the same old problems we face today.
Fine rhetoric, and an admirable call to unity, the casting aside of differences and collaboration. But – as Schlosberg writes of what difference does difference make in ‘Environmental Justice and the New Pluralism’ – a lot, it seems. Let us take, from the outset, that justice is a fundamental human need under NVC and that any participants in an RBE would feel a sense of justice (or fairness). After all, and RBE wouldn’t be an unjust society, would it? So – is justice merely the equitable distribution of outcomes (or opportunities)? According to Schlosberg, such a scientific/economic definition of distributional equity overlooks a more dynamic aspect of justice: procedure or justice as participation. So somehow it’s not just enough that things happen to be ‘justly distributed’ but that we feel we had a hand in its just distribution, that all parties were consulted, talked to, involved. The third wave of environmental justice literature moreover considers justice as recognition – recognition that diversity exists in the first place (or at least, perceived diversity exists) and respectful, inter-subjective understanding of it. The scientific method is a great tool for drawing the map of possible solutions for distributive equity. But to walk and orienteer through the landscape of possible just solutions, we need participation and deeper than that, we need recognition, both of which lie somewhat outside the realm of what science currently serves. Fresco is spot on in the final line, otherwise we would be using the same old methods of thinking resulting in the same old problems we face today – indeed, if we considered justice as merely equitable distribution of environmental and social ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ attained by some scientific algorithm, we would be following overly simplistic thought patterns leading to the same issues we face today – just outcomes with unjust processes and lack of recognition.
Moreover, such thinking around science being the only route to solving social problems as stated in Fresco’s first line places us at only level 2 of listening in the U process:
Most learning concerns learning from the past – indeed, most scientific learning is such: old knowledge lays foundations for new knowledge and every subsequent researcher stands on the ‘shoulders of giants.’ Yet Theory U highlights that for the kind of global challenges we face, a new kind of learning is required – one that is not based on learning from the patterns of the past but from the emerging future, a dynamic process it terms presencing – a combination of being present and sensing.
Level 1 listening is downloading; downloading, memorizing, replaying, regurgitating – what we are taught in schools. This is equivalent to a man sitting in the dark room of his own being(/knowledge-space, ego, identity etc) and watching a projector replay the same images over and over hence reconfirming past patterns. Presumably this is what RBEs refer to when they say we can transcend this level of consciousness and behaviour. The second level concerns going to the windows of this dark room, opening the blinds, and looking outside the window – noticing differences and, in many cases, disconfirming new data. This is Open Mind, based on logic, facts, data and some conceptualization of true/false, right/wrong, good/bad. This is the realm of the critical, divisive mind, seen in conversation as debate. It seems to be largely the level from which it appears TVP operates from, fundamentally and philosophically, even if it is machines doing this work. It’s step up from Level 1, but – for full human flourishing – it is not enough.
The Level 3 listening is about walking outside this room (of one’s identity / knowledge-space, consciousness / being) and stepping into another’s shoes: empathetic listening or Open Heart in addition to Open Mind. This is NVC, about feelings and needs, and about dialogue, not debate, story and not fact. At some level, there is a recognition of the lack of objective truth or the insufficiency of intellectual knowledge gleaned only from the inside of the window of one’s mind, and the beauty and joy of connection by transcending that space. It’s also a step up, but alone, it’s not enough.
Level 4 listening is about sensing not merely from the point of view of one person outside ourselves, but of multiple beings (stakeholder awareness) – a kind of distributed consciousness, a systems-consciousness that is adaptive, dynamic, complex, and being able to fully sense from the field. When individuals are in this state of consciousness, it is seen as a moment of transformative stillness in groups, an aha moment, or of collective generation – it’s creative, generative and deeply tuned into the future that is wanting to emerge – what is ‘dying’ in a system and what is ‘being born.’ It requires Open Mind, Open Heart and Open Will – or at least, the perception of open will. It results in deep transformation and profound, authentic shifts in identity – such conversations we leave thinking, I’m no longer the same person I was before. This is Presencing, a kind of ultimate ‘letting go’ of all baggage, norms, ideas and ideals, patterns of thought, and ‘tuning in’ to exactly what is here, right now.
Some RBE proponents might argue this is an impossible state, existing more in the realm of pseudoscience, spirituality and meditation, and therefore having little validity for human decision-making. Scharmer would argue it occurs almost all the time in groups that are highly effective – a moment of transformative stillness and collective shifting – and is a basic and necessary prerequisite for creating something new that does not replicate failing patterns of the past but adapts to and learns from the present (or future as it emerges). I imagine, then, the RBE or TVP response might therefore be to say, but a machine can do this and probably do it better than a human. I have no doubt a machine would make a far more comprehensive and reliable data collector than a human for all manner of environmental variables. I also have no doubt that, with the level of programming we are already capable of, through algorithms and adaptive learning functions, it would be able to analyse all this data in some way far faster and more accurately than one human brain. It might even be able to discard or modify or evolve existing functions and formulae to create better ones more specifically suited for certain environments or ecosystem types.
But it’s still within Level Two listening, for one simple reason: the moment of full Presencing requires throwing all of this out the window, a full letting go. No algorithms, no formulae, no functions, no evolved functions, no data collected in the past. It’s momentary, for the human consciousness, to be in this state, but it’s a complete stripping away of past patterns of thought – which means, yes, that the mind is instantaneously free in this moment, that therefore a temporarily accessible state of ‘free will’ might potentially exist.
In many ways, I’m not even interested in whether a robot / AI could or couldn’t do this at some stage. I’m interested in what that would mean for human ability. I’ve noticed, in my travels throughout South America, that technology is a great tool that also simultaneously seems to reduce human capacity for the same functions (mundane as they may be) or result in near-dependence. Cultures without written language, for example, had indigenous tribes with incredibly impressive memorization abilities for long messages across vast distances, stories and information – now all of which we store externally in books, the hard drive and the cloud. Now, we barely remember our own to-do lists unless our phones tell us what to do, and most people could not even list the phone numbers of their five best friends (outside of family, of course). Similarly, as the ease of access to technology increases, the ability to perform even the most basic of functions decreases – shopkeepers whip out calculators and smartphones for simple additions and multiplications, and the ability to perform more complex mathematical calculations in the brain at lightning speed through clever shortcuts starts becoming lost. So even if AI could perform the deepest level of the U, would we want it to? Would we lose the ability to enter that state? And – most importantly – would it matter?
It follows from Fresco’s idea that if there is no such thing as human nature and free will then there can be no such thing as intuition – knowledge that arises from an unnameable source within – as all knowledge must therefore be externally sourced and later internalized (consciously or subconsciously). So there is no room for intuition – it all just seems ‘ex-tuition,’ or arriving at knowledge through an external source. Whatever it is we call intuition would, presumably, be a few neural paths becoming joined up in a way that gives an aha! moment, but that the knowledge itself would have been sourced from outside and the steps in the logic chain collected subconsciously long before. The aha moment is simply putting the arrows in between and connecting the steps – or so I would presume, under Fresco’s model anyway. Or that ‘funny feeling’ that ‘turned out to be a correct warning signal’ could also potentially be put down to hindsight bias and our capacity for being ‘meaning making monkeys’ – perhaps it was just chance that a particularly stimulus elicited a wary response.
This doesn’t, however, seem the most satisfactory explanation for the simplest building blocks of knowledge – only all the steps that come after the first. For example, in much of my high school years, I never felt I was ‘learning’ maths. I felt like I was just ‘uncovering’ the knowledge that was somehow already inside me – because all the things I had already ‘learnt’ in the past obviously led to these supposedly ‘new’ concepts I was being shown in the present – the corollaries of the logic chains had long been created. Algebra follows from basic mathematics. Differentiation and integration follow easily from algebra. Imaginary numbers follow easily from algebra. Matrices follow from vectors. And so on. But what about the first step, the step that says, say, that 1 + 1 = 2? Does that knowledge come from outside? Perhaps, for every human after the first human to discover and codify it – but what about the first human? Who taught that one? It seems like it would be such an obvious ‘fact,’ that even an animal could figure it out – but I do find it frustrating when scientists use the mathematical truth argument to purport there is actually objective truth because they fail to see a finer detail: 1 + 1 = 2 only in the linear plane. In two dimensions, 1 + 1 no longer adds to 2, nor in three, nor when the frame of reference is warped, nor when we are talking vectors moving in opposite directions of length 1, and so on. There exists only the objectivity within the reference frame (of dimensions etc) – which you can either call partial objectivity paradoxically or just concede is subjectivity. Reference frames matter.
Moreover, I have a hunch that psychological theories around education would point to the fact that the most profound kind of learning occurs not when we have had some irrelevant fact forced down our throats, but experienced an aha moment that causes us to believe we learnt nothing from the outside and merely uncovered knowledge that was existing inside ourselves – it’s why independent and experiential learning is so much more powerful, lasting and meaningful. Again, as with free will, perhaps it is not so important whether or not we have the capacity for intuition, but that we think we do for the deepest learning to occur. Real sharing of knowledge, then, has nothing to do with talking while the listener shuts up and listens, but rather, asking guiding questions so the other person feels a creator of their own knowledge. I spent 7 weeks at Kadagaya and many volunteers came, bright eyed and open, with question abound. And Vladi would be tired – tired of answering the same questions over and over, tired of the same debates. I suppose we assume automatically, when people ask us a question, that they wish to know the answer. It’s true, up to a point – more than wanting the answer, they want to feel PART of the answer and that has much to do with feeling like they happened across it all by themselves. There’s really no need to have a stock series of responses or stories ready, a stock series of scientific factoids about how chimps in certain scientific situations behave competitively and in other situations behave cooperatively and so on. It’s irrelevant, because it assumes what we as the external stimuli say is important. In the long run, it’s not. The holy shit moment others have from a lightbulb that goes off within them is much more powerful and brighter than any floodlight we can blast in their directions from where we are, on the outside.
Estes, in Women Who Run With Wolves, writes of intuition:
“This great power, intuition, is composed of lightning- fast inner seeing, inner hearing, inner sensing, and inner knowing.
“This intuition we are speaking of is not the same as the typological functions Jung delineates: feeling, thinking, intuition, and sensation. In the female (and male) psyche, intuition is more than typology. It is of the instinctive psyche, of the soul, and it appears to be innate, having a maturation process, having perceiving, conceptualizing, and symbolizing abilities. It is a function belonging to all women (and men) regardless of typology.”
Moreover, I am also interested in the consequences of perceiving empiricism, rationalism and logic as the only way to arrive at this supposed ‘truth’. I imagine Fresco might respond by saying, ‘Yes, well, it seems that humans value knowledge more and learn better when they feel they have “intuitively” uncovered it. But that’s something that can – and should – be changed; by designing the ‘right’ environment, we can encourage them to value knowledge arrived by logic, experiment, reason and science just as much if not far more and that will make decision-making so much more efficient.”
Well, as I said above in the section on Theory U, it would still leave us at Level 2. Exclusive use of logic entrenches logic, and there does seem to be a difference on whether that ‘truth’ is arrived at through logic or emotion or presence, even if we arrive to the same something.
Even if intuition or ‘inner knowing’ could just be boiled down to being self-connected with our feelings and needs and the signals, concepts and signals arising therein, it seems important to have this even in an RBE. Surely, we want individuals who are emotionally intelligent, self-empathetic and exhibit capacity for empathising with others and presencing or letting go?
The thinking around this follows easily from the thinking around free will and intuition being non-existent: if you cannot find knowledge inside yourself that didn’t come from an external source, then how can you find symbols or stories or imagery inside yourself that did not come from an external source – hence how can you possibly be ‘creative’ or ‘imaginative’ in the deep sense of the word? It must all just be lots of ‘logic chains’ based on external knowledge, observation and inputs that have all been mangled around and popped out the other end looking somewhat different, right? So one cannot imagine unicorns if they’ve never seen horses and bulls or something similar, the idea goes. Vladi often used to say, you can only imagine what you know, which to everyone somehow always felt like an inherent contradiction.
Again, if you say you cannot imagine what you don’t know, it implies that you cannot reach Level 4 Listening – which means precisely to toss out exactly anything and everything you do know and be present to how things are and are changing and re-express that in a way that has not been done before, leading to authentic, profound shifts in identity and self, and hence creativity.
RBE.com writes ancients used Intuition AND Observation to learn about the world – current science is mostly deductive by contrast. Perhaps the hunch could be chalked up to an ‘odd feeling,’ a random or ‘lucky’ guess:
By labeling all the scientists (Mystics) of the ancient world heretics they used associative thinking to label anything they ever developed heretical as well.
Perhaps the issue here once again lies in the inherent contradiction of the ideals of RBE and where some of its philosophies ultimately lead to: the idea is that, free from the tyranny of scarcity, money, work and the mundaneness entailed therein, human beings will have the space and time to follow their own dreams, to reach their fullest potential, to imagine and create a world even more wonderful than that which they live in. There’s an assumption here also that art and creativity are barely valued in the current society and an RBE would necessarily liberate us from the imposition of work to engage in what society currently terms ‘frivolous’ endeavours. This is all wonderful and admirable…except when it’s own ideas on psychology, human nature, knowledge and imagination themselves then go on to imply that true imagination doesn’t really exist. So…all these people in the RBE maximizing their human potential as creative beings are just kidding themselves?
There are, also, many things emergent in dreams or hallucinations that do not seem to correspond with any kind of reality perceived by the individual to date. We wondered, at Kadagaya Project, if baby Pachi – were he never to be told about nor exposed to any kind of language, imagery nor concepts of ‘monsters’ – would ever have nightmares about ‘monsters’. Or if he did, say, see a fairy in his dream, would it just be an amalgamation of a bird and a human and a butterfly – old knowledge mashed up in a way that appears new? Or can dreams really create previously unknown images? Besides Level 4 Listening (presencing), how do images or ideas that have never before been seen nor perceived in what we call ‘reality’ turn up in the brain, anyway? From my conversations with Eilif – who became a kind of Norwegian Fukuoka for me in the Andes of Peru – perhaps we are forgetting a field science generally sidesteps – archetypes and collective consciousness. Is there such thing as collective memory? And if there is – then can we tap into it and access fields of consciousness we would not otherwise reach into?
By now, you may have gathered RBEs and especially TVP are heavily based on and integrated with technology. One of the ideas behind RBEs is that computers are perfectly capable of – and potentially better equipped for – decision-making, at least of the routine, day-to-day kind of monitoring global resources, production, distributing resources around the world according to need and so on. Since such a global system would, in theory, take care of all our basic needs for food, shelter, fuel, water, clothing and so on, it could free up time for us to engage in tasks we find more meaningful, creative and engaging and hence fully utilise the our capacity.
The day to day decision making can largely be computerized and be based on need and our input, with highly developed, self maintaining and self producing machines and robots combined with the loving care of humans. If there is a need and want for housing in a particular area, the houses will be built by machines in accordance to the specifications of the future inhabitants. If there is need for more of a particular food, that will be produced and provided. Already today cars can run by themselves only guided by GPS and sensors. Several hospitals use robots for inventory and logistics. Planes have had autopilots for years and can both take off, navigate and land by themselves. Factories produce all kinds of products faster and more efficient than any human being could ever do. Billions of big and small decisions are already taken for us every day by computers.
Just a few small caveats: no technology is infallible, so such a system would need to have some decent ‘backup’ systems in case it failed. Given it’s a global system that interconnected to, well, everywhere, it seems highly probable that failure in one area could result in systemic collapse. Moreover, such a system would need to be able to monitor not just environmental factors and resource availability, but also human ‘needs’ and ‘preferences’ associated with those needs – in real time and reasonably accurately. This part I find highly amusing, since humans themselves do not have a clue what they want half the time. I know I’d like some land in the subtropical area of New Zealand – 5-15 hectares in the north of the North Island would be great to play with, with a river or two, past land use history not involving pastures of cattle or dairy, with plenty of sun and rain, access to a major city centre about 30-45 minutes away, and so on. But what of people who do not have such definitive criteria in mind? How does the AI just ‘divine’ that from reading their brainwaves? Does this apply to finding mates too – would the algorithms be adapted to some glorified form of resource-based-economy-tech-orchestrated dating as well?
Some larger caveats: all decision-making is based on information, and the more ‘present’ the information – the more real time data on individuals’ states, feelings, needs as well as biological resources etc – the better. But we forget a fundamental fact about observation: the very act of observation modifies the subject being observed. GPS and radio trackers make many birds uncomfortable, who then potter about spending a great deal of time attempting to wrench them out in the forests or have altered flight patterns as a result – modifying what we are trying to measure. To know precisely how many trees of papaya there are in the world to be able to corroborate it with the human population and preferences, we’d need some kind of monitoring device on every goddamn papaya tree (which, seeing how fast these things grow in the rainforest, I’m highly dubious is even possible) – likewise with being able to measure how many trees in the woods there are in general, how many fish in the ocean and so on – firstly, it’s highly unlikely that it’s possible to ever get an absolute in ecological monitoring: the best we can do is proxies and estimates. Second, even if we somehow did manage to tack on some kind of tracker onto every last rabbit and fish and rooster, it would alter the very thing we were measuring because – in the beginning anyway – it would not be invisible, weightless, wave-less, soundless, odourless and so on. Even our proxies would come out half-mangled, because the biological world is changing so fast. I’m also dubious that we’d be able to figure out where and how and when precisely to get the best representative sample from – perhaps for minerals and the world of physics, the techno-utopian decision-making solution of Fresco works fine, but those of us working in the field of life sciences and ecology know how complex this system is. Thirdly, the issue of time: perhaps such systems can read human preferences/needs for the present but it is more difficult to predict for the future – an issue if their production requires time as in the case of long-lived species, fruit and nut trees that take 10-20 years to yield, timber trees of higher quality wood that takes up to 200-500 years. I have a funny feeling most RBE/TVP enthusiasts come from physics and not life sciences, where decision making is potentially much easier and systems less complex.
“What TZM currently calls “System’s Approach” is a broad conceptual framework, with little details, whereas Permaculture formulates truly a (w)holistic way to handle resources and the relation with Earth – and, there are existing communities applying those concepts in real world, and thereby verifying and refining the concepts further.”
On a large scale, this is especially important with respect to basic human needs and calibrating population size with planetary capacity. How do you know you’ve overshot unless you can precisely measure resource abundance? I mean, that’s a question for the here and now as well, but it seems even more pertinent and pressing for the TVP, given the whole thing hinges on this.
Post Scarcity Economics has a great article on TVP and Decision Making which highlights how TVP and RBEs confound hierarchical politics with all politics – forgetting that non-hierarchical forms of human organisation still count as political and often still require ‘laws’ (even if those laws be merely rules such as ‘no money, no top-down power’ etc):
“There is an inconsistency with the prescription of “no laws” + outlawing the market and the state. This is a “meta-political law” against political laws except itself. We must separate hierarchical “politics”(statecraft) from non hierarchical politics. They are incompatible and antithetical to one another. TVP/TZM members and anti political anarchists often conflate statecraft with politics, and in doing so conflate the non hierarchical management of the city by the citizens to hierarchical management of the city by some form of rulership.”
“Rather than trying to abolish political processes (processes for management of the city by the citizens) and by extension ignoring the question of power, we should ask “what kind of political processes are consistent with non hierarchical principles?”
“Not every decision is purely quantitative. Not every decision is purely economic. Decision making can be assisted by experts in relevant fields and computers rather than taken over by them.”
“In an RBE, there is an interactive resource calculator that allows people to makes demands within economic limits or laws that are guided by ecological principles. This is rather inconsistent with the “no laws” prescription but it is clear that a RBE advocates economic laws but not political laws. However there are issues with this interactive resource calculator: What if there are incompatible preferences? Certainly the use of liberatory technology and a value system shift away from conspicuous consumption and resource library systems would minimize such incompatible preferences, but they will still come up. Also there are decisions that are not purely economic; There are questions that are political. What will the city look like? How will we maintain the city? What will the relationship be between the polity and the economy? What laws should we have? What institutions will govern the commons? How? The polity should be entirely integrated with the economy.”
Interestingly, later I realised something: in order to have decision-making on resource distribution and then distribution itself done by some tech global entity, you have to take away resources from people first. Even if there is no idea of ownership in the RBE, what about local access? So now some primitive population can’t even hunt in their own lands? Until the technology thing tells them they can?
And here’s a great article highlighting other issues with RBEs and the difference between RBEs, permaculture, gift and sharing economies.
Technology will save the world
Tech should help human thriving and connection (e.g. cellphones) but our misuse of it results in it hindering human thriving. Can we be ‘conditioned’ to ‘not’ misuse it? I always hark to Jevron’s paradox here – as tech more and more efficient, our use less and less so. In a way, I like the RBE idea of making our use of tech more efficient so it allows maximal time for just being and connecting and living and creating. That’s admirable, and also, to a large extent, what permaculture would like of ‘appropriate’ technology also.
But all technology requires energy. Well, actually, everything requires energy, but technology in particular at this global scale…the scale itself of the TVP implies somewhat instantaneous resource distribution…which, for physical resources anyway, requires transport (unless someone develops a teleporter, which I’m still not convinced on), which in turn requires more machines and ultimately energy.
While he may be familiar with embodied energy and EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested), I’m fairly sure Fresco hasn’t come across the ideas of emergy or exergy or energy quality so here’s Mary Logan’s series covering Odum and Odum’s original paper on the topic:
Bottom line: I’m not convinced we have the energy available to power the technology to ‘save the world,’ much less reach a global population of 10 billion with this supposedly ‘limitless’ supply (from renewables or otherwise). The calculations don’t add up, when ALL factors are properly taken into consideration.
I am, also, rather nervous of what all this heavy reliance on a ‘magic bullet’ of current or future technology means:
The problems we are faced with today cannot be solved politically or financially because they are highly technical in nature. There may not even be enough money available to pay for the required changes, but there are more than enough resources. This is why The Venus Project advocates a transition from a monetary-based society to the eventual realization of a global resource-based economy.
In the WakeUps we run, we often put ‘Technology will save the world’ as one of our ‘ideas for the future’ and get young people to pitch themselves on a spectrum from Most Agree to Most Disagree. Those on the ‘disagree’ side tend to point out that sure, technology is great, but ultimately humanity will save the world. To think otherwise is to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our planet’s woes and project it onto some external entity, and, when it perhaps doesn’t go so well, to put ourselves in ‘victim,’ and blame the very tech that we hoped was going to answer our prayers – again, playing the jackal game of blame, shame, guilt and fear. Again, the point here is not even so much as to whether we have the technology/energy to make it all happen, but what happens if we put all our faith in this. Even Fresco, though, at one point remarks that ‘taking responsibility’ is important, but I’ve yet to be convinced he really understands what responsibility deeply means. It doesn’t just mean to say, oh yup, I’ve taken responsibility, now let me go fiddle with my gadgets and save the world – responsibility is something far deeper than mere recognition, acceptance of information and perception of the interconnectedness of the world, our actions and the planet.
The Resource Based Economy website is not too impressed by Fresco’s delusion either, it seems:
‘As pointed out above, TVP and TZM view on RBE is a rather mechanistic and technocratic solution, and lacks some of the humanistic, spiritual and holistic perspective…”
Fresco’s technotopia based on utter faith in limitless energy (or more or less limitless energy) also results in a rather interesting conclusion: that if we have limitless energy, we can have a much bigger population – potentially even larger than 9 or 10 billion. Permaculture – as it is applied to agriculture – is one of the most efficient, environmentally sound, resilient forms of food production we have available and even with permaculture applied worldwide, I have yet to encounter any proponent claiming that increases in population size would be even imaginable.
I was, also, reminded of my initial nervousness of TVP which seems to lie squarely in TECHNOTOPIA with its ‘Global Machine System’:
Eventually, the central cybernated systems will coordinate all of the machinery and equipment that serve the entire city, the nation and ultimately the world. One can think of this as an electronic autonomic nervous system extending into all areas of the social complex.
To ensure the efficient operation of the city’s various functions, all of the processes and services are equipped with electronic environmental feedback sensors. These sensors are coordinated with redundant, back-up systems that operate in the event of failure or breakdown of the city’s primary systems.
In theory, it sounds great. In practice, I remain yet to be convinced – I’ve already stated my uncertainties around sensors above, and energy a little further along.
Science is god
According to TVP anyway. If it doesn’t give us a definite answer for what to do right now, through the scientific method, we can keep successively iterating the process and arrive at one. Or perhaps a slightly better one.
I hold out that science is fallible and dependent on human judgment:
“I wonder at the ignorance of RBE people who don’t put in any effort to understand the Calculation Problem. The crux of the calculation problem presented by von Mises is that all such calculations finally at their bottom turn into subjective value judgements. Do I want 1% more safety at the cost of using up 1kg more aluminium ? Do I want to reduce 1 tonne carbon emissions in the environment at the cost of having to walk 10 miles a day ? These are not mathematical problems which a computer following rules can find answers for. These require a human to prioritize options by making choice . Choices which can be made only when artificial constraints are not imposed on the human.”
During the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, values were separated from facts (as we discuss in Chapter 1), and ever since that time scientists have tended to believe that scientific facts are independent of what we do and are therefore independent of our values. Kuhn exposed the fallacy of that belief by showing that scientific facts emerge out of an entire constellation of human perceptions, values, and actions – out of a paradigm – from which they cannot be separated. Although much of our detailed research may not depend explicitly on our value system, the larger paradigm within which this research is pursued will never be value-free. As scientists, therefore, we are responsible for our research not only intellectually but also morally.
-Systems View of Life
I kept telling people this at Kadagaya over and over. Science is not as ‘perfect’ and ‘objective’ as we think, because it DOES require human judgment and values at every step.
Here is the scientific method:
At every step, there are so many questions we must answer, so many judgments and decisions to be made. Firstly, the research question and the hypothesis, null and alternative. Secondly, the method of experimentation and results analysis – do I keep these results or those? Do I use visual counts or aural counts or proxy sightings or number of bird nests I find, given that I have limited equipment / time and so on? How do I analyse the data – this method or that method? What are the assumptions of each statistical model I use? Are those assumptions even actually valid or do I just pretend they are? Again, easier questions to arrive at an ‘objective’ answer for in physics than in biology/ecology. I reckon the science for discrete measurable things is great – Newtonian physics and so on. The science for complex ecosystems – terrible. I studied this for four years at university and left with more questions than answers. My professors have more questions than answers. We realised something rather fundamental: we actually have no idea how anything works. From over 8 years of reading nutritional science as well, one thing is clear – and I was immensely grateful to share this view with Julie at Kadagaya Project – we have no idea what the ‘optimal’ nutrition for the human body really is. The studies just don’t make any sense, beyond the rather obvious ‘eat real food, not too much and mostly plants’ idea. The details are murky thereafter.
As I said above, the TVP version of the RBE is dependent on a worldwide survey of resources. This is probably easy for material resources but for ecological resources – we still have no idea what biodiversity we have, and even less about social resources. So our ‘best guess’ is a proxy NOT truth, NOT fact and always changing.
Moreover, the use of science for the path as opposed to just the map risks turning science into dogma, hence resulting in fewer alternative social-cosms that can be realised, social hub infrastructure lock-in and systemic fragility, and entrenches science as the only guide for global decision making.
The psychological implications of treating science as god I’ve mostly discussed in the section on decision-making – living in ‘victim,’ and potential to devolve personal responsibility to an artificial entity or external process. I’d like to point out here that the same applies for the idea of ‘no free will’ – if there is no such thing as free will, then how can there really be real ‘choice’? One thing I heard often at Kadagaya was that ‘RBEs give people infinite abundance therefore choice’ – an inherent contradiction, if there is no will to start off with. And also I heard, ‘RBEs mechanise menial tasks and free people to follow their passions,’ – again, how can there be real, internal ‘passions’ to ‘freely follow’ if there’s no free will?
TVP also writes:
Our method of thinking helps us choose between formulations, ideas, thoughts, notions, hypotheses and theories. They enable us to decide what is true and what is false. They should also help us pick the most reliable action that offers maximum predictability and should allow us to reject ideas that do not correspond with observable facts.
But is there a TRUTH and a FALSENESS?
Again, perhaps it works in Newtonian physics, but this is so much harder in complex realms like human health or ecosystem health. An observable ‘fact’ would imply something unchanging…when the planet is in constant flux. Scientific methods sound great, but there is so much uncertainty, immeasurability and judgment at every step – it’s more subjective than we think.
I cover this idea of ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ enough in my article on what is nature that I don’t feel the need to repeat my musings here.
Also, the idea that science is god idea cuts out diversity of possibilities. For example, RBE.com says:
We don’t need 100 different flat screens, we only need one, the best.
But who decides what is ‘best’? An automated computer system that inputs a whole lot of variables, pumps them through an algorithm and spews out a ‘most probable’ answer? So who decides which variables are important and how to weight them? Another automated computer system that plugs into and sense the whole of human consciousness and uses universal human ‘needs’ (read: preferences)? Okay, but who decides that using all human preferences is best and not some? Well, maybe another automated computer system that can distinguish between the say, mentally impaired or handicapped or technologically inept and adept. But at some point human judgment comes into this – human preferences are, after all, based on judgment and bias of some kind. So I imagine that even the supposedly ‘simple’ task of figuring out which is the ‘best’ flatscreen will have to rely on human judgment at some point…and I somehow don’t think we’ll get just the one answer there…
Crucial to the contemporary understanding of science is the realization that all scientific models and theories are limited and approximate (as we discuss more fully in Chapter 4). Twentieth-century science has shown repeatedly that all natural phenomena are ultimately interconnected, and that their essential properties, in fact, derive from their relationships to other things. Hence, in order to explain any one of them completely, we would have to understand all the others, and that is obviously impossible.
— Systems View of Life
A rather intriguing paradox I found whilst at Kadagaya was also the jarring contrast of two ways of thought: first, there is the idea that ‘if we do this, we get that, because science says so’ (a deterministic model, which largely ignores complexity and randomness) and, at the same time, they do not ‘believe’ in ‘Mother Nature’ or that you can’t improve on nature’ because nature itself doesn’t PLAN or DESIGN things really – it’s all random and ad hoc. So there’s the contrast that oh, nature’s just a mishmash and it’s probably all chaotic and random and non-directional anyway, but let’s design our society in the most orderly, non-random, deterministic way possible using science, especially science of nature, as a guide.
Lastly, focusing on science and biological/technological resilience so heavily means that social resilience seems to have gotten left by the wayside, which arguably is the most important. For all its pages and pages worth of notes and articles on ‘human nature’ and ‘free will’ and ‘universal moral code,’ TVP seems seriously lacking in this department and fails to acknowledge several important things around human psychology.
Science can answer moral questions
Here’s a TED talk that irritated me no end:
Out beyond the ideas of good and bad and right and wrong, there is a field. I will meet you there.
Firstly, the language of good/bad, right/wrong – entrenching Level 2 Listening or ‘jackal’ language as we call it in NVC. Interestingly, the talk mentions a multiple moral landscape…which invariably would question how there can therefore be ‘moral experts.’ Secondly, as per above, science requires subjectivity. There is subjectivity at the micro-level, of deciding which equations and statistics to use, which data to keep or ignore, which analyses, which assumptions, how to form proxies and so on. But there is also subjectivity at the most fundamental level in this talk – Harris says we can use science to maximize human flourishing or thriving (or ‘human good’ in jackal language). But Harris fails to note that science itself cannot answer why human thriving is ‘good’ or ‘important’ in the first place. Because – and we all know – if all humans disappeared tomorrow, the planet would be fine. All science would say this. So science can answer how but not why – if WE WANT humans to continue existing and thus thrive, then we must admit it is a judgment call and value statement that exists outside the realm of what science tells us is best for planetary health or health at the holistic level. If you increase the scale further to the universal level, well, the universe doesn’t care (or at least we can’t prove it does (yet)).
So science MAY be used to answer questions of HOW to live well together and use some judgment and assumptions in that, and generate multiple answers in a multi-peak moral landscape. But it cannot answer WHY humans should live at all – the ultimate moral question.
Vladi said, in response to this, that humans should stick around because we have (a) the responsibility to do so because (b) we need to transfer this consciousness we have. Well, it’s still a value judgment (and anthropocentric at that) – and there is nothing wrong with feeling and needing life, collective life of our species, even if it cannot be rationally explained. But he failed to see the issue that science cannot be used to answer the ultimate moral question of why we should exist in the first place.
From the notion that we can live in a world without money to the idea that we can acquire more appropriate action patterns, people immediately ask if these ideas are ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We cannot consider such simple bipolar categories to be used for the analyst of the proposed complex system. We would need to investigate what works in order to answer these questions. Since everything is a matter of perspective, we need to take as many perspectives into account as possible when we are trying to come up with functional ethics. For instance, a poor woman stealing food for her children might be considered ‘bad’ for a shop owner but how can we talk about morality or ethics when we live under social conditions that produce such behavior?
Exactly – so at least Fresco recognizes the complexity of decision-making and the pointlessness of good/bad dichotomies. But he goes on to assume technology can perfectly well tell us what to do and, with the scientific method, there will be only one right answer (one path for optimisation of utility) and if there are multiple, that somehow subjective judgment will not be needed.
On designing a value system, Fresco writes:
The ancient values, inherent in our social structure from past generations, emerged from a hostile environment based on extreme scarcity.
But here’s a question: What happens when there is no scarcity though? Do we just ‘waste’ things, for example leave the tap running, shower longer, throw away perfectly good food (i.e. compost it)…Is eco-consciousness even needed when machines figure it all out for us, do it all for us? Does it matter?
Blame the system
The recent video starring Fresco and TVP is full of techniques and quotes which lay blame squarely on the system as it currently stands – the economic systems, the political system, the educational system. Note the abrupt scene changes and voiceover coupled with Fresco’s comments itself, all of which more or less harks to statements such as:
‘Politicians are corrupt,’ and ‘Money is bad.’
Blame entrenches guilt and fear (NVC) and lies in the realm of the finite game. Acting from blame results in self-victimisation, assertion of the ego, assertion of the ideas that some things are ‘right’ and others are ‘wrong’ and that everyone else is ‘bad’ and therefore needs to be ‘punished’. Ultimately, it lies in the realm of the head, and hence alienates us from our inner realities further – alienating us from our feelings and needs.
The video demonises money but doesn’t realise it’s just an energy currency at base. Permaculture starts with assuming fossil fuels led to expansion of credit and current monetary system. Fresco skips that step and blames money straight up. Money is bad also forgets that money may just act a regulatory tool for comparability and commeasurability or as an ‘agent of gift,’ according to Charles Eisenstein in Sacred Economics.
And sure, we cannot blame the individual for their actions as the individual is product of their environment BUT that does not mean not being able to take responsibility. RBE confuses blame and responsibility, environmental conditioning with will. For them, it’s just “capitalism is the problem” or “system is the problem” NOT that “WE are the problem” (since we are the system) and we must change ourselves to change the system – as I wrote here on the matrix – their idea is that our change is constrained by what “the system” allows us. But it’s much more complex than that since we can “exit” the system psychologically.
At its essence, it is a nice idea: we design a system that encourages certain behaviours – similar to permaculture – design the system to encourage creativity. Interestingly, the system cannot be too designed, otherwise little creativity can arise – creativity invariably requires an environment that is somewhat unpredictable or random. Were it to be 100% controlled or designed, we would be living in victim once again. So the environment may be designed but people must not feel as if it is and it must feel emergent and spontaneous otherwise one lives in victim, resulting in inner contraction, paralysis and this blocking creativity and human ingenuity – the exact things the RBEs hope to nurture!
Moreover, would we be consciously undertaking ecologically-sound behaviours if the system were designed to automatically and effortlessly ruled out alternatives? For example, if all lights in the household are controlled via sensors. The system would make the question of consciously turning lights off moot, so the question then arises: would we be ecologically conscious with regards to energy use? Would it matter?
Julie, Vladi and I also spoke of a system being designed to be highly responsive and adaptive to feedback – not static, but emergent. So, if the system needs to change, there are many ways this is possible, and RBE and TVP is just one – and overlooked initiatives such as the Next System Project may provide intriguing answers.
RBEs involve getting rid of so-called ‘menial’ jobs and automating everything that can be automated – RBE.com states – “Technology could probably replace 99% of all human labor in a few years if we want that to happen.”
Moreover, TZM (The Zeitgeist Movement) writes:
As noted, advancements in science and technology have shown that we can automate a great deal. The more we have applied mechanization to labor, the more productive things have become. Therefore, it is not only negligent for us to waste our lives waiting tables, working at a bus station, fixing cars, or other repetitive, monotonous jobs, it is also entirely irresponsible for us not to apply modern mechanization techniques to all industries that it is possible for, apart from strategic resource management, this is a powerful way to achieve balance and abundance for all the world’s people, thus reducing crime generating imbalances.
I’ve already linked above my misgivings around the energy calculations required to support such a hi-tech, automated society – I suspect Fresco’s work on EROEI (Energy Return on Energy Invested) would leave Holmgren and Odum laughing.
Minimising human effort in provision of basic human needs because seen as “waste of the human mind” – but what if I WANT to grow food? Perhaps modern agriculture is a ‘waste of the human mind,’ but permaculture is a complex system and so interesting as a result. Additionally, it allows us to be closer to nature. The Moneyless Man does lot of hard work for basic human needs which they want to design out of RBE system (so these are magically automatically met) and Julie and Vladi said he was doing ‘too much work and it was waste of his mind’; but his descriptions are beautiful and he felt SO ALIVE, shouldn’t that be measure rather than that it all looks like “menial” tasks to us? Stop measuring days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence. The ultimate system should therefore be one that doesn’t get so hung up on productivity (of human and machine nature) that it forgets presence, but one which recognizes, values and supports the quality of human presence (/consciousness) at every moment of the day, in any context or setting.
And what about people CREATING things – what if we WANT to create simple things that even a machine could create for us, just for the fun of seeing how it works? Of course, we don’t do it as a job, but if tech and resources available, would we even try that? How can we create complex things if we lose touch with how to create simple things – in effect, if we are to maximise our potential, then how can we make incredible nano-fabrics when we can’t even sew a hole in our socks? Hands-on practice teaches a lot about actual construction and design, more than leaving tech to do it all and just computerizing everything. It also fosters closer connection with nature and our surroundings rather than being removed from it. Isn’t that what an RBE is supposed to be about? Removing the money interface so we can directly access resources more easily? So what happens when we remove the money interface and replace it with the technology interface? We are still removed.
“…it also completely ignores such things as meditative and simplistic living, which often work really well with certain tasks. In my own practices of gardening I find that weeding is not a chore or a problem in the sense that I want to have someone else or a robot or machine to do it. That would be yet another way of alienating myself from the soil, critters, plants and from the processes of growing, harvesting, cleaning, cooking, recycling the scraps and yes, the eating too… some things I decidedly do not want done for me.”
— The Zeitgeist Movement’s ‘Resource Based Economy’ vs Permaculture (Permaculture News)
RBEs and TVP in particular are based on the idea of maximising efficiency – which could be defined as minimising inputs and maximising outputs. Ecologically, it sounds fair enough.
But what maximising efficiency really means is removing redundancy from a system, which results in bottleneck, highly fragile systems that rely on few parts/processes or input and low diversity – ultimately resulting in a lack of resilience. Redundancy is required to act as a buffer for shocks – dynamic stability calls for components in a system to be run in a sub-optimal way for the system as a whole to be optimal – James Key writes to the effect of: “One cannot assume that that imposing efficiency criteria on every component in a system will lead to the most efficient system overall. Frequently, it will not. If we don’t monitor the whole system, we get a false sense of how well the system and/or redesign works.”
Ecological systems, for example, have many buffers before collapse actually occurs. For example, as the number of species increases in an ecosystem, so too does the number of functional types – up to a point. Beyond that, any further species in the system are generally fulfilling the same or very similar functions insofar as their ecological niche is concerned – so extinction of these additional species will not result in ecosystem collapse until a certain minimum threshold is reached. Similarly, in aquatic systems, addition of pollutants often do not result in a noticeable change – because of the incredible ability of the river and its fauna/flora, for example, to buffer minor disturbances – until a rather large critical threshold or tipping point is passed – for example, 70 parts per hundred. At this point, the system shifts and enters an alternative stable state – presumably one with very few species and eutrophication – and to reverse the damage requires more than just the removal of the 70th or 69th part: it often requires cleanup until 20 parts or less. The critical threshold changes depending on the ecosystem state. Without the buffers, the threshold would probably be even less. Similarly, in the human body, we note many redundancies – two-part organ systems, and a rather extraordinary capacity to take in poison after poison found in the environment without obvious symptomatology of harm…until a certain threshold is passed, of course.
I was excited to read of Fresco’s own requirements for backups and redundancy:
These sensors are coordinated with redundant, back-up systems that operate in the event of failure or breakdown of the city’s primary systems.
BUT that’s where he leaves it. No further explanation. No indications as to how the backup systems might actually function, if he truly understands what kinds of backups might be needed, what his thoughts are in the case of a Black Swan event which cannot be predicted nor avoided nor explained in hindsight. Is there a limit to the resilience that redundancy provides? Are there diminishing marginal returns to backups? If systems-thinking is at the heart of Fresco’s work, why isn’t there more talk at a systems level of such important facets? What does Fresco think of sub-optimisation of parts for optimisation of the whole? Instead of ‘maximising efficiency,’ how about ‘maximising resilience’? And the next step up – how about maximising antifragility?
One Global System
To nobody’s surprise, Fresco’s focus on efficiency leads to an obvious ultimate conclusion: to best distribute resources and product across the planet in the most efficient way possible, there should be just one global system to orchestrate the flow of materials and energy, rather than the many disparate and haphazard sub-systems we have currently.
However, Fresco forgets the importance of scale and that while some things may initially have increasing returns to scale, after a certain point in time, their returns to scale declines. In this case, the level of interconnection and size of critical hub infrastructure in the operational fabric of a system have diminishing returns to scale past their respective critical thresholds. Highly interconnected global supply chains coupled with ‘too big to fail’ critical hub infrastructure (such as systems of energy, food, water, sewage, banking and communications), increasing co-dependence and integration result in lock-in:
“The net benefits of increasing complexity are subject to declining marginal returns — in other words, the benefit of rising complexity is eventually outweighed by its cost. A major cost is environmental destruction and resource depletion. There is also the cost of complexity itself. We can see this in the costs of managing more complex systems, and the increasing cost of thresearch and development process.  When increased complexity begins to have a net cost, then responding to new problems arising by further increasing complexity may be no longer viable. An economy becomes locked into established processes and infrastructures, but can no longer respond to shocks or adapt to change. For the historian Joseph Tainter, this is the context in which earlier civilisations have collapsed. 
“One of the principal ways of gaining overall efficiency is by letting individual parts of the system share the costs of transactions by sharing common infrastructure platforms (information and transport networks, electric grid, water/sewage systems, financial systems), and integrating more. Thus there is a reinforcing trend of benefits for those who build the platform and the users of the platform, which grows as the number of users grows. In time, the scale of the system becomes a barrier to a diversity of alternative systems as the upfront cost and the embedded economies of scale become a greater barrier to new entrants, especially where there is a complex hub infrastructure. The lack of system diversity is not necessarily due to corporate monopolies.”
– -“On the Cusp of Collapse” – David Korowicz
Moreover, Korowicz writes that the current system as it stands has certain resilience thanks to parts of the system being somewhat disconnected and de-centralised. But even the system as-is is not immune to total collapse given the hub infrastructure:
“One of the great virtues of the global economy is that while factories may fail and links in a supply-chain break, the economy can quickly adapt by fulfilling its needs elsewhere or finding substitutes. This is a measure of the resilience within the globalised economy and is a natural feature of a de-localised and networked complex adaptive system. But it is true only within a certain context. There are common platforms or ‘hub infrastructure’ that maintain the operation of the global economy and the operational fabric as a whole, and the collapse of such hubs is likely to induce systemic failure. Principal among these are the monetary and financial system, accessible energy flows, transport infrastructure, economies of scale and the integrated infrastructures of information technology and electricity.
–“On the Cusp of Collapse” – David Korowicz
This will, unfortunately, apply whether we have a money-based economy or a resource-based economy if ‘one global system’ is assumed- it is a highly fragile system unable to cope with shocks. What plans does Fresco have for maximizing system resilience by sub-optimising parts of the system, by decreasing interconnection, by de-centralising, by encouraging experimentation with alternative systems in disparate microcosms and by focusing on local resilience?
Moreover, system behaviour (1) may be more chaotic than we think and (2) totally depends on scale. Ecosystem studies that yield certain insights into the behaviour of certain systems suddenly make no sense once the scale is reduced or enlarged. Equally with socio-cultural systems. Given that what Fresco knows of socio-ecological systems comes, invariably, from the sample studies conducted so far on subsets of the population or physical spaces, it may be reasonable to assume that such findings will not translate to the large scale of ‘one global system,’ rendering any global systems-design Fresco might undertake subject to much more unpredictability in actual behaviour than he might have expected.
I’d be curious to hear what Fresco believes the words ‘complexity,’ chaos,’ and ‘randomness’ to mean. Julie at Kadagaya equated ‘randomness’ to ‘just what we don’t know (yet) therefore cannot explain nor predict,’ hence denying that there might exist true randomness and affirming that the universe is deterministic and everything is explainable (given enough data or given all ‘hidden’ variables).
“It took a while, but hidden variable theory was eventually disproved by John Bell, who showed that there are lots of experiments that cannot have unmeasured results. Thus the results cannot be determined ahead of time, so there are no hidden variables, and the results are truly random. That is, if it is physically and mathematically impossible to predict the results, then the results are truly, fundamentally random.”
“As an aside, it turns out that the absolute randomness comes from the fact that every result of every interaction is expressed in parallel universes (you can’t predict two or more mutually exclusive, yet simultaneous results). “Parallel universes” are not nearly as exciting as they sound. Things are defined to be in different universes if they can’t coexist or interact. For example: in the double slit experiment a single photon goes through two slits. These two versions of the same photon exist in different universes from their own points of view (since they are mutually exclusive), but they are in the same universe from our perspective (since we can’t tell which slit they went through, and probably don’t care). Don’t worry about it too much all at once. You gotta pace your swearing.”
And good ol’ Wikipedia on chaos:
“Chaos theory is the field of study in mathematics that studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions—a response popularly referred to as the butterfly effect. Small differences in initial conditions (such as those due to rounding errors in numerical computation) yield widely diverging outcomes for such dynamical systems, rendering long-term prediction of their behavior impossible in general. This happens even though these systems are deterministic, meaning that their future behavior is fully determined by their initial conditions, with no random elements involved. In other words, the deterministic nature of these systems does not make them predictable. This behavior is known as deterministic chaos, or simply chaos. The theory was summarized by Edward Lorenz as:
Chaos: When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.”
In other words:
“In short, chaos embodies three important principles:
- extreme sensitivity to initial conditions
- cause and effect are not proportional (!)
Perhaps this is why Fresco would do well to re-think his carefully designed One Global System again – given chaos, randomness and non-determinism, what happens if particular initial conditions do not lead to desired outcomes? What if Fresco is – like most people on the planet – fooled by randomness? And is there room in RBEs in general (outside of TVP) for local (resource-based) economic organisation, lifeplace?
Fresco puts much faith in AI to do all these ‘menial jobs’ and even some more complex tasks such as operations in the hospital and so on.
In permaculture, we usually talk about using appropriate technology.
Appropriate Technology is often described as having:
1) Limited impact on the environment;
2) Sensitivity to ethical, cultural, social and economical aspects of the targeted
3) Fewer resource requirements which can decrease maintenance and reduce overall costs.
In practice, appropriate technology is using the simplest level of technology that can effectively achieve the intended purpose in a particular location.
Technology, ultimately, is supposed to make thing easier. Easier, faster, less effort and so on. But our preoccupation with increasing efficiency to the maximum level – where AI probably come in – could be counter-productive for our own mental wellbeing and sanity: as everything become faster, we become more impatient. In ‘One Straw Revolution,’ Fukuoka writes:
“Happiness does not reach us any more quickly, nor is joy delivered, by automobiles. Cars appear to be means for speeding up time and shortening distances, but instead, they create human beings who are bound by time and suffer from impatience and restlessness. The result is that the more people create things that go fast, the more time they lose…
“None of man’s actions are useful in mastering or acquiring time. Rather they are bound up within human time and make it imposible for man to move. If he tries to gain time, he will only lose it.”
Interestingly, Holmgren writes:
“Although this new global ecosystem is clearly born from human organisation and culture, a strong case can be made that it is anti-people, anti-nature, and set on a course of self- destruction. When I describe the corporations and their global ecosystem as “alien”, I do not mean that the people who work in and depend on those structures are in any way alien. Instead, I use this term to emphasise the emergent potential of institutions and structures that become self-organising without the constraint of human values and ethics. Serious researchers in artificial intelligence talk optimistically about continuing growth in technology that will allow human informational and organisational networks to generate intelligence that is a kind of hive mind. The successful transformation of the large banks from service organisations employing large numbers of people into informational networks with little need for people, either as workers or real customers, baffles many people. Potential future developments that hybridise technology with biology, through genetic engineering and a limited number of “well-connected” and highly rewarded human employees, could see new autonomous symbiotic lifeforms emerge with remarkable speed.
“Some of the latest developments in evolutionary theory suggest that this type of symbiotic leap in evolution is not unprecedented…
“While the corporate capital version of an emergent hive mind is in a race against the limits to growth in use of energy and materials, the real Achilles heel of this vision may be the denial of the spiritual side of humanity.”
Science and Language
Fresco sees the main issue with language being its ambiguity resulting in less efficient conversation and information flows, and sees the response to be to design a new universal human language from scratch, a more scientific language that is precise:
Language has evolved over centuries through ages of scarcity, superstition, and social insufficiency, and often contains ambiguity and uncertainty when important issues are at stake. Polar opposites are often implied — good or bad, beautiful or ugly, fast or slow, black or white, even though the world in which we live usually shows a large number of degrees between extremes. Our language also fails to use a precise and universally intelligible means of conveying knowledge, making it difficult for the average person to share ideas with others whose worldview may be very different than their own.
Many of us lack the skills to communicate logically when we are emotionally invested in an outcome. If a person or group has difficulty in communicating the point in question, rather than seeking clarification, they will raise their voices. If this doesn’t work, they may resort to physical violence, punishment, or deprivation as a means of achieving the desired behavior. Many of these attempts to control behavior actually increased violence and drove parties farther apart.
– TVP website
(An obvious paradox here: the main issue with language is its ambiguity (or nuances) yet also the main issue are its polar opposites (which oversimplify the shades in between)? So we don’t want the shades in between…but we do want the shades in between?)
Fresco is annoyed by ambiguity – but that’s where we get art, story, fun, play, games from…the things that stretch our creativity and imagination. Discussing the ambiguity in people’s actions in storybooks (and Jodi Picoult, who writes from multiple perspectives so you never really know who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’) taught me much more about morality than having a cookbook list of rules to follow or a Universal Moral Code, as Fresco suggests. I highly doubt it will be possible to ‘design’ a ‘perfect’ language, and, to be honest, I rather enjoy the fact that the Inuit have over 50 different words for snow, that there exist such nuances in different languages – diversity in language arises from diversity in culture, which, as I argue further below, is necessary for social resilience.
But Fresco reckons we can get rid of ambiguity entirely:
Designing a language
We need a language that correlates highly with the environment and human needs. If we apply the same methods used in the physical sciences to psychology, sociology, and the humanities, a lot of unnecessary conflict could be resolved. In engineering, mathematics, chemistry, and other technical fields, we have the nearest thing to a universal descriptive language that requires little in the way of individual interpretation. It is deliberately designed — as opposed to evolving haphazardly through centuries of cultural change — to state problems in terms that are verifiable and readily understood by most.
Firstly, he writes the language must ‘correlate highly with the environment’ – BUT ‘the environment’ is not the same everywhere in the world, is not static and is not predictable. In other words – ecosystem context has a large influence on linguistic development (and often human social organisation and spirituality), which may explain why different places in the world have such different vocabularies, intonations, grammars and nuances. In my opinion, it’s beautiful and a reflection of ‘lifeplace’ – a single global language would have to include all variations and linguistic possibilities developed for more and more niche descriptions of natural phenomena by different cultures…and to contain all of it in a human brain might be rather difficult if not impossible (and probably unnecessary).
His second note is that ‘we need a language that correlates highly with …human needs.’ Perhaps the language of feelings and needs (NVC) would help us communicate more clearly our emotional states and ‘needs’ as Fresco states above, and this would certainly resolve much ‘unnecessary conflict’. But it would not be as ‘technical’ or ‘scientific’ as he suggests – from having attempted to translate words for feelings and needs into two other languages, I’ve noted that some languages just don’t have words for feelings that are so common in English, and some have words for feelings we just don’t have in English. Would a universal language incorporate all potential words possible? How would it know it hadn’t missed one or accidentally cut out one that for some folk, somewhere, held a nuance? And the ambiguity would remain: what is weariness to one person could be exhaustion to another; what is devastation could be deep sadness to another – and, in many ways, it is only in playing with this ambiguity that we come to make the effort to connect further with our fellow human beings and empathise with what is really alive for them. If we assume we know exactly what they are talking about at every given moment, we risk alienating ourselves from the truth of their inner worlds – because we assume these must surely be the same as ours – and so we risk dismissing rather than connecting. If we are aware that there may be ambiguity, then we are more humble, more open, more receptive, and less likely to judge a priori based on our own idea or perception of their language/experience – and hence more likely to ask questions, probe further. Fresco reckons ambiguity only dis-connects us, whereas I’d argue it also has the wonderful property of deepening connection. It is in the play zone we are, after all, most alive.
I asked the question, what is consciousness to Julie and Vladimir, and Vladi responded something to the effect of degree of interconnection. And then, I asked, by that definition, what has consciousness and what doesn’t? He reckoned that everything has ‘consciousness’ – just to varying degrees. There was a great example he gave of crystals, the details of which I now forget. I am also reminded of a book my friend Gianmarco recommended to me, ‘Messages in Water,’ which denotes how words and language affect crystal formation.
The infinite game asks me to play with ideas, so I played with this one: what happens if I act as if it’s true? What happens if I don’t? Is there a middle ground for ‘play’?
The RBE is, after all, supposed to be based on fact but even Julie and Vladi didn’t claim to hold a single universal ‘truth’ (which would be fundamentalist). The work of IONS (The Institute for Noetic Sciences) in San Francisco, which I visited in 2013, is largely regarded as ‘pseudoscience’ – based on the idea that in the universe, there are three constants: matter, energy and consciousness. They have various experiments along the lines of showing how consciousness affects matter, consciousness affects energy and so on – arguably just ‘playing’ with the idea that perhaps everything has consciousness. Whilst Julie found the concept intriguing – although was a little skeptical at first – I doubt the RBE would be so forgiving of experiments that seem so blatantly ‘un-scientific’. I have a funny feeling science and consciousness won’t make good friends, given that hypotheses around telepathic control of light in double-slit experiments for example, is unlikely to be able to be properly falsified.
So…is consciousness something that just doesn’t exist (as a third state of the universe that is, alongside matter and energy)? How does science explain consciousness, collective consciousness, and – dare I say it – collective visioning, clairvoyance, clairaudience, clairsentience, collective trance, telepathy?
You can improve on God (/Nature)
To some extent we could argue that permaculture does this, orthomolecular medicine does this, biomimicry likewise – but its ‘improvement’ only insofar as human purposes are concerned. We can also help or speed up process of environmental regeneration, ecological restoration faster than nature would normally, sure. But is it really ‘improving’ on nature or just ‘restoring what we messed up?’
When you take this to AI – would you replace all legs with artificial legs to be able to jump, fly, and do gymnastics like your human body couldn’t? Would you then also replace your arms, your torso, your neck, back, head? How far would you go? Would it really be an ‘improvement’ on nature?
The reason that man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques that the land has become dependent on them.
This line of reasoning not only applies to agriculture, but to other aspects of human society as well. Doctors and medicine become necessary when people create a sickly environment. Formal schooling has no intrinsic value, but becomes necessary when humanity creates a condition in which one must become educated just to get along.
‘In raising children, many parents make the same mistake I made in the orchard at first. For example, teaching music to children is as unnecessary as pruning orchard trees. A child’s ear catches the music. The murmuring of a stream, the sound of frogs croaking by the riverbank, the rustling of leaves in the forest, all these natural sounds are music – true music. However, when a variety of disturbing noises enters and confuses the ear, the child’s pure, direct appreciation of music degenerates. If left to continue along that path, the child will be unable to hear the call of a bird or the sound of the wind as songs. That is why music education is thought to be beneficial to the child’s development.
‘The child who is raised with an ear pure and clear may not be able to play the popular tunes on the violin or the piano, but I do not think this has anything to do with the ability to hear true music or to sing. It is when the heart is filled with song that the child can be said to be musically gifted.’
‘Almost everyone thinks that “nature” is a good thing, but few can grasp the difference between natural and unnatural.
‘If a single new bud is snipped off a fruit tree with a pair of scissors it may bring about disorder that cannot be undone. When growing according to the natural form, branches spread alternately from the trunk and the leaves receive sunlight uniformly. If this sequence is disrupted the branches come into conflict, lay one upon another and become tangled, and the leaves wither in the places where the sun cannot penetrate. Insect damage develops. If the tree is not pruned the following year more withered branches will appear.’
‘Human beings with their tampering do something wrong, leave the damage unrepaired, and when the adverse results accumulate, work with all their might to correct them. When the corrective actions appear to be successful, they come to view these measures as splendid accomplishments. People do this over and over again. It is as if a fool were to stomp on and break the tiles of his roof. Then when it starts to rain and the ceiling begins to rot away, he hastily climbs up to mend the damage, rejoicing in the end that he has accomplished a miraculous solution.’
– Fukuoka, ‘One Straw Revolution.’
People just need information and then they will change
So TVP reckons that change will not occur politically as the problems are ‘technical.’
There’s a flawed idea here of how consciousness actually changes – people don’t just need to know, they also need to care and do. (Open mind, heart, will). To create that openness to know you need to FIRST create connection (see Smartmeme’s Story Based Strategy, empathetic civilization, Niki Harre’s Psychology for Better World) – otherwise, we get the kind of fear-mongering environmental action of vegans and animal rights activists and climate change groups. Humans are irrational. We don’t make decisions based on logic but on feelings and needs. And there is little wrong with that except when we lose touch with our feelings and needs.
I see little room for story and emotion in RBEs – which seems to think that if you just give people the right resources and design their environment, they will change. But, after many conversations with travellers to Cuba, I’ve noted one important thing: it is not CONSCIOUS change. It’s sort of subconsciously-forced / automatic change. When Cuba has opened up borders to the rest of the world, little by little, their wonderful ‘environmentally conscious’ practices around waste and agriculture have fallen by the wayside: there was no consciousness to the practices in the first place. Stories are required to perpetuate that kind of consciousness, by creating contrast and alternative worlds, and hence reinforcing values for this world.
The corollary of TVP thinking is that problems in world can be solved by technical people. Again – science HELPS decision-making but cannot DICTATE it. Engineers are great, but you’ll need to storytellers to actually convince people.
Lastly – and possibly for the third time: if Jacques Fresco reckons people can consciously change then that implies they have some degree of freedom to their will – or at least, they think they do.
Critical thinking / Knowledge vs Experience
One of the smaller conversations I had at Kadagaya Project was that baby Pachy should just have serious skills developed in critical thinking rather than experience pain for the best/most efficient learning. This is also mirrored in Fresco’s thinking:
The main objective for people is to learn how to expect change so they can step into the future without experiencing pain. (VP website)
My whole body of facilitation revolves around experiential learning as being far superior to rote-memorised learning (Level 1) or critical-debate-head learning (Level 2), both of which we see in schools to date – we don’t really get anything deeply through our heads unless we experience it (emotionally, somatically, spiritually) first. And people who think they do are generally kidding themselves – they can go for years with particular belief systems which say one thing, yet live their lives in stark contrast to their own principles. I don’t really need to cite the wide variety of literature out there on experiential learning vs the current system – anyone familiar with RBEs and revolutionary education should already be well-read on this.
For perhaps avoiding the most basic of pain (putting one’s hand in the fire, a dangerous Amazonian insect or serpent, not jumping from too great a height…), I have no doubt that straight-up informing the cute chap would be the way to go. But for more complex kinds of pain – which, after all, last with us longer and have deeper emotional impact – such as the first breakup, a pet dying, losing a loved one, and so on, I doubt simply telling Pachy ‘Oh, this is more or less what it’s going to be like, be prepared – this is what you will feel and this is what you will need,’ will stop it from being any more painful. Sure, there are techniques we can use in such circumstances to allow emotions to flow, to presence ourselves, to connect with feelings and needs, to not get lost in jackal-land (or victim) and see things from giraffe…but these techniques are nothing to do with ‘critical thinking.’ More like, ‘deep feeling and connecting’ – it’s the realm of facilitation and inner work. No amount of information can help here. These techniques may lessen the pain a little, or may result in it flowing through us and out of us a little faster, but pain is something that we must experience to have the full experience of being alive: Fresco’s blatant avoidance of pain disregards a rather important fact – pain and love are two sides of the same coin. “Blessed are those that mourn,” writes Joanna Macy, and the points to the enormous power of grief – it is a sign we are living, human, feeling; it is a sign that we give a shit about what is happening, that we care, that we love or have been loved. Grief is a very powerful place to be and act from, because it enlivens us by reminding us of what matters to us. It points to our most fundamental human values and needs, and when we are connected to that space, we are closest to our source, our essence. For this reason, the work of NVC is what Susie Spiller terms, “The closest I’ve come to spiritual communion.”
Moreover, it seems that his all-important ‘critical thinking’ would require being able to see things from multiple perspectives which means that there ARE actually multiple perspectives to see it from – i.e. that there IS actually diversity. Fresco writes:
People need to have access to information to investigate different perspectives and widen their understanding to expect change.
BUT Fresco later argues that the ‘different perspectives’ (different cultures) are redundant because we are all one species, and there is no need to complicate things further – all the wars, conflict and so on we see are because of imagined differences. He is asking, fundamentally, what difference does difference make whilst simultaneously encouraging ‘critical’ thinking, which requires, well, differences to think critically about – an inherent paradox. I’ve already covered the importance of recognition of diversity above – somehow Fresco seems to think we can wipe the cultural-consciousness slate clean and start somewhat divorced from all our history and cultural background, which I am also rather skeptical about.
Goodbye culture: science rules all
John Lennon’s song comes to mind here, Imagine. It’s a beautiful idea, and one I’ve been drawn to all my life – no divisions, no boundaries, nothing to divide us. But it also means something I feel a little uncomfortable with: no distinct stories/art (if we take art as a reflection of culture or as a vehicle for stories). Fresco’s failure to bring about a TVP microcosm in New Zealand due to difficulties with the Maori only serves to prove the point – he wants to start from an ideal ground-zero state where culture doesn’t exist anymore, and in doing so makes implementation of his RBE extremely difficult in areas populated by the indigenous with a deep and strong history, culture and tradition. I agree also that culture should not be fundamental nor divide us…but why can’t we have cultures that are as if or playful?
To a large extent, it makes sense not to have divisions for the sake of divisions, nor say ‘more cultural diversity is good just because diversity is good.’ BUT I would argue that cultural diversity does not just exist ‘for the sake of it’ – diversity builds resilience and is the basic building block for evolution. The areas that are most biodiverse in the world also happen to be most culturally diverse, interestingly, and as we lose biodiversity in these areas, cultural diversity worldwide declines dramatically. Cultural diversity aids localization and helps us veer away from critical-hub infrastructure lock-in. In effect, it’s like saying, if this version of social organisation does not work out, that is okay – because there are pockets of people all over the world who have been experimenting with different ways of social organisation and we can call on one or more of them to prevent our society from collapsing entirely. In the TVP model, where this are no sub-cultures and just one global culture, it leaves us extremely fragile to disruption and collapse. Of course, Fresco reckons it will be more or less perfectly designed from the outset so collapse is really unlikely…but every civilisation that has collapsed in history has also thought exactly the same thing before it ended: that it was the pinnacle of human achievement.
“There’s also the thing about it being a single, large culture with little differential. We already see what happens when you have one, large culture in control of the planet. We need thousands of cultures, because culture is one way we evolve, just like technology. With thousands of cultures, we have resilience as a species. We need to stop telling each other that “this is the right way to live, and your way is wrong”. Permaculture allows, and even suggests, multiple ways to everything. The more I study Permaculture/observe, the more impressed I am with the flexibility of all the systems.”
— The Zeitgeist Movement’s ‘resource base economy’ vs permaculture? | Permaculturenews.pdf
Everyone has a voice but not everyone has a vote
One of the seriously uncomfortable ideas I battled with at Kadagaya Project was that democracy is flawed if ‘people don’t know what they are doing’ so only experts should vote.
But who decides who’s an expert or not? Well, if there are no degrees or certifications as such, then someone somehow has to decide if this person has studied enough to be an expert and if multiple someones decide then they probably do so democratically – so just to be able to vote, somebody first had to vote about criteria about how you’d be able to vote.
Moreover, participatory democracy as well as other inclusive forms of non-hierarchical politics leads to an overall feeling of interconnectedness, empowerment, and giving a shit about what goes on in your community (planetary community) and actually taking time to learn about it, whereas ‘leaving it to the experts’ only entrenches that the ‘ordinary human being’ is an idiot, cannot learn or change and therefore should not enter into complex decision-making and remain a puppet of the designers of society.
I understand that for something seriously technical, such as the angle a particular bridge should be pitched – most people would be comfortable, and even somewhat relieved, at leaving it to the ‘experts.’ But that is not to say that we should alienate ourselves from the construction of our societies just for lack of knowledge: the aim should, rather, be that in an RBE everyone would know at least a little bit about everything, enough to see interconnections between disparate fields, as opposed to further entrenching the current system of specialisation we have currently which invariably leads to a mechanistic and disconnected model of the world. So rather than assuming that just certain people know things and the rest are idiots, the aim in an RBE should be to cultivate a healthy amount of generalist knowledge amongst all to at least result in a feeling of empowerment and connection.
Also if we move away from specialists and have more generalists and systems thinkers (holistic vs reductionist) in RBE, then who votes? Or does everyone become a specialist in something? Or are there ‘serial specialists’ who have the capacity to be generalists?
Furthermore, if there are no boundaries in the world, then at what scale do you decide? To what extent do you meddle with what’s going on in the other side of the world? Just the experts from this ‘town’ or region for the hydro dam? Or if they are rather mediocre, then experts from all over the world? Do they all have to vote?
There seems to be a real sense of the finite game here, where it’s decidedly exclusive and only certain people can play. But Fresco doesn’t seem too impressed by the way democracy has played out and sees it as a finite game in itself:
Democracies, on the other hand, use manipulative tactics to indoctrinate their populations into believing that individuals have an array of choices but in fact this array is extremely limited compared to what can be accomplished if humanity uses science and technology intelligently.
Again, he holds that technology can ‘save the day’ as far as decision-making is concerned, so we can probably boot democracy out entirely.
All government is corrupt
Besides the fact that this is clearly living in ‘victim’ or jackal-land, I found it rather difficult at times to even mention I’d been to UN talks / UNESCO / APCEIU / MGIEP events and scripted ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) declarations, and that I used to lurk around the Green Party offices in New Zealand. Is everyone in government corrupt? From the friendships I have with people in these spheres, I can say no. I asked Vladimir, what is corruption? What does it mean to you? He said it is not acting in line with your principles – but this is entirely possible in an RBE also. Just because we have an RBE doesn’t mean we have 100% integrity…one might even argue that it is impossible to be 100% in integrity (a kind of fundamentalism) in any kind of system and we should abandon the idea entirely, and rather live in ‘play’ – playing with our ideals. Julie pointed out a rather important point, which I think escaped Vladimir: we do not even know what we want half of the time and our principles are paradoxes. I additionally think that we are irrational and fooled by randomness, so what our brain tells us are our values/principles may not be how we actually act or react in real life.
But of course, TVP is rather more deterministic and simplistic when it comes to human behaviour, and does not really understand randomness.
Food and Healthcare
Julie once asked me at Kadagaya Project: “If I gave you a piece of food that was made in the lab, say, a tomato or cucumber or something, and it was exactly the same as a real tomato or cucumber – exactly the same chemical/genetic composition and everything, and looked and tasted the same – would you eat it?”
I was like, “Er, I dunno. It’s exactly the same? Like genes, DNA, chemistry and all?”
She nodded. I still wasn’t so sure.
This is, after all, a key idea that spills out from TVP thinking – food is just magically created in a lab, reducing pressure on the environment for agriculture, and sort of emerges from nothing. I have some real beef with this one: first, loss of genetic diversity. No two tomatoes in nature are alike – so there is no way that a lab-manufactured tomato would be exactly the same as a real one; I suspect there would remain important differences in non-coding DNA, that mutations would arise just by chance or errors in cell division by mitosis would invariably alter the code, even if it once started off exactly the same as the natural one. I highly doubt we could pick the ‘perfect’ tomato to copy in a lab, and even if we did, it’d result in a massive drop in tomato diversity worldwide if just that one – or very few supposedly ‘best’ varieties – were to be used, something which is not too dissimilar to our current selective breeding, but at a frighteningly more specific scale. Loss of genetic diversity would make species populations more fragile, and potentially result in less nutritional value also – although perhaps TVP would argue, ‘But we can just genetically engineer the diversity back.’ I’m with Fukuoka on this one: humanity knows nothing. We think what we do ‘know’ is all we need to move forward and what we do not can safely be ignored, and unfortunately when we are at the level of tinkering with the stuff of life itself – DNA – there is so much to be learnt.
Secondly, energy costs and considerations. I’m reminded of Taoism here, and the principle of ‘do less work’ – it just seems so laughable, to go through the whole ridiculous process of building the lab, the machinery, the devices and so on to lab-manufacture food – a process requiring probably many important (and scarce) minerals for the construction and energy – when nature can just do the work for us. There are hundreds of thousands of bacteria and microorganisms in soil, which I suspect even hydroponics systems – with their shiny, ‘clean,’ perfectly controlled iceberg lettuce – haven’t managed to assemble sufficiently. A simple route is to put seeds in soil, let the process of photosynthesis occur, and eat the food. A hard route is to use all the fossil fuels and poor EROEI renewables to create the lab and equipment and provide energy for the food to be grown…when nature provides it for nothing. Sure, the lab is more controlled, but it’s also unnecessarily more complex.
Thirdly, the issue of taste. A common cry of volunteers on this note was, oh, but it just wouldn’t taste the same! To which Julie and Vladi responded: taste is firstly rather cultural (hence subjective ideas of taste are unimportant or can be ignored or changed) and secondly, can be easily broken down into the four components of sweet, sour, salty and bitter…and therefore, we can totally have robots cooking for us, because they would be able to taste test our food! Also a waste of energy and materials – a human tasting something in the kitchen takes a few minutes. A robot requires energy and materials and time to create, and I suspect probably won’t do the job well, given that taste preferences are also dependent on a large variety of internal and external conditions such as mood, time of day, weather, appetite, thoughts, which – unless the robot can also mind-read – are rather opaque to anyone but ourselves. It feels almost absurd even attempting to rebut the robot-tasting idea.
Fourthly, they mentioned that in the realm of healthcare, there would really be no need to have doctors, or one might have fewer doctors in the RBE. Robots come to the rescue again! Robots take all the measurements, tell you what is wrong with you, prescribe medication, operate…I’m rather nervous about the loss of human capacity in this regard – the current healthcare system already leaves patients feeling powerless and even less connected with their own bodies, nature and easy remedies for ailments: a technocratic system would deepen this division yet further. Moreover, the function of a very good doctor is not merely to act as a repair mechanic (which I suspect a robot would do and probably do very well) but promote full self-transformation to prevent such an ailment occurring again in the future – which requires being able to access Level 4 Listening (Presencing) which, as I already mentioned above, I’m not convinced AI can.
When I compare TVP urban design to permaculture urban design, the former leaves a rather bland and metallic taste in my mouth. Skyscraper cities (‘total enclosure systems’) in particular don’t excite me particularly:
In some respects a nice idea: you concentrate human waste (if any) and impact, there is little energy used in transport and hence distribution of resources make it a very efficient system and there is no need for work/play/life division – it’s all life. But there is one glaring problem here: the very nature of concentration means that it is not only a highly efficient system, but also highly fragile – if it is damaged in a big way, then everyone dies. Fresco makes the mistake of assuming physics will get it perfectly right so that NO black swan event can ever smash it up. There are a couple of other issues, however:
Firstly, there’s a deep psychological issue of the distance from nature that the living environment is – sure, everyone might have a view of blue skies and green grasses and, with a flick of an elevator button, be able to reach there, but there is still something off about these skyscraper cities – I’m sure breathing real air (and not AC air) and closer contact with earth and direct earth-materials practically re-wires our brains, grounds us in life-place and helps on all sorts of social and spiritual fronts. Living in skyscraper cities only serves to entrench the mentality that humans are apart from nature and should therefore be jailed up as tightly as possible to keep all their waste, radiation and other crap afar from the pristine beauty of nature, which therefore only serves to make us feel less connected to nature and less likely to care for it, or know really how to live inside it ecologically.
Secondly, Fresco seems to assume – in many writings and videos – that equatorial regions are inhospitable. Has he ever visited the Amazon jungle? And if so, does he seriously believe that his skyscrapers or other circular cities will have the smidgen of hope in areas with changes of such magnitude (for example, the rainy season and climate change with El Niño phenomena)? The equatorial regions also happen to be areas which produce a huge biodiversity and hence food diversity and quality – so many superfoods and medicinal plants are found in this area, so it makes sense to locate human civilisation here, to reduce transport costs and access these incredibly nutritional species directly, whilst also building up databases (scientific or indigenous / traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)) of how these species behave, grow, reproduce, survive, propagate and so on.
I feel it’s much the same with subterranean cities – ecosystem impacts would be hard to gauge because science not there yet – and unfortunately, I don’t subscribe to the belief that science has reached the pinnacle of its knowledge and “what we don’t know, we can safely ignore.”
Assumptions and Energy
Science and methods of science are based on ASSUMPTIONS (even if you don’t want to believe in belief or judgment), which is an ‘as if’ – take it as truth for now.
ALL of VP hinges on one key unexamined assumption, and that is that ‘we have enough energy to do all this.’
Renewables are hailed as being enough to provide more than several times current energy demands…including thorium and nuclear fusion – but see the Odum and Odum paper linked above. Moreover, it seems odd that TVP’s projections and optimism on this is from info taken from sources such as Wikipedia.
Lastly, we also tend to overestimate the future – we thought we would be living on the moon by now. We have no idea what the future will REALLY look like.
For his particular version of the RBE, Fresco has an array of blueprints for the design of various – if not mostly all – aspects of TVP-type societies. But, nobody has seen them – they are under wraps to presumably prevent them getting into the wrong hands, being mis-used, mis-interpreted or, in other words, Fresco is a perfectionist and wants to see the first implementation of the RBE exactly as he envisions it!
Many people have asked: how can one person hold the key for solving all humanity’s problems? Fresco talks a lot about using machines in decision making. I wonder – what kind of complex machine algorithms did he use to guide his designs, and if none, how does he think his brain has been able to conjure better ones than machines when he puts all faith in machines for guiding social decision-making? Secondly, under the RBE, there is no real concept of ownership or property – hence no IP, no possessions, and all information and resources would be open access/open source – an idea which I am very enthusiastic about! However, by keeping the blueprints to himself, Fresco is rather obviously creating a dichotomy between his words and actions: from what we know of the social enterprise sphere in New Zealand in any case, the best way of disseminating a world-changing idea is to open source it, and allow as many creative minds around the planet as possible to play with the designs. So there’s something there that doesn’t quite fit for me, and unfortunately I find it hard to empathise for his need for perfectionism, given that the social and ecological issues we face are so urgent and profound – as he himself says.
“Open design [is] design whose makers allow its free distribution and documentation and permitted modifications and derivations of it… Although technological progress is the driving force behind… new forms of design, distribution and production, we must look for and develop more satisfactory forms of intellectual property rights in the near future. The Creative Commons licences were designed to give creative people the freedom to deploy copyright in a flexible manner. They allow a creator to retain all rights while giving permission in advance for his or her work to be shared, distributed and modified – depending on the specific terms stated in the licence”.
— Bas Van Abel, Lucas Evers and Roel Klaassen
Many people have also misinterpreted his use of the word ‘blueprint’ as a Bible – a static, unchanging design plan for the world, and we know that any future society should be much more responsive and adaptive to a changing environment, especially an environment in which we have runaway climate change. But, er, that’s exactly what blueprint means, at least, especially if Fresco keeps it to himself to avoid others tinkering with it – a static plan. The word additionally connotes a top-down approach and entrenches a feeling of powerlessness and the lack of procedural justice (even if distributive justice is served) and probably also failures to recognise diversity in its various forms. If this is not how Fresco intends to use his design plans and drawings, I suggest he change the word.
A last word…
I want to reiterate that while I have many doubts about the RBE being a viable alternative to BAU in its specifics and insofar as some of its philosophical bases are concerned, being opened up to the idea of the RBE through Zeitgeist Addendum in 2012 has changed me in deep and lasting ways, and for that, I am extremely grateful. No longer do I view competition and survival of the fittest as some inherent fact of human behaviour. I feel freer of the tyranny of ownership and possession – ideas I’ve never really felt fully comfortable with in any case (how can one species own a part of this Earth, the waters, the air? ‘We are born naked; we die naked’ – is an Indian saying that has remained with me throughout my life). I no longer see money as the Great Big Important Factor for all decision-making, and have felt more able and empowered to reduce its role in my life, and can even envision a world without it. I am more aware of the things we hold as ‘constants of society’ could be just illusions – powerful, compelling, enduring illusions but illusions nonetheless. I have a healthy suspicion and cynicism for various power structures that exist – not to the point of paralysis, fear and scapegoating, but enough to hold their ideas, policies and practices at arm’s length for examination. I have little faith that TVP in particular – as a specific form of the RBE – will see the light of day, for many reasons, but perhaps the biggest among them being energy constraints (/technoutopia), critical hub infrastructure lock-in of highly interconnected global structures, ignorance of the complexity of ecological systems and the human psyche, and the stubbornness of its founder in keeping all details under wraps and potentially being too old to change.
And being at Kadagaya Project – where Julie and Vladi’s newborn son’s middle name is Jacques, after Jacques Fresco – was an interesting delve into ideas I had long since left behind a few years ago. I left many long conversations at once amused and irritated – I no longer live in the science-will-save-all world; I’m a storyteller, an artist and heart-person and careful not to confuse the tool with the thing being changed. Predictably – and understandably – as the pair come from science backgrounds and not deep activism, they haven’t had exposure to what it really takes to change other fellow human beings: I admire their commitment to simply ‘designing’ environments or systems where ‘destructive’ behaviour naturally disappears through meeting human needs. But it takes more than the environmental design – as Vladimir himself admitted, people need resources (/fundamental human needs being met) and people need to want the change – people need to care. And that’s the realm of story, emotions and values – information is not enough, even though the two might think it is.
Regardless, I see them for the fullness of their humanity and their potential – I sense their heart-space and have had the joy of running Compassionate Communication sessions (NVC) at Kadagaya Project, and I’ve seen them both, at times, deeply moved, deeply connected to their feelings and present at Level Three or more. That gave me hope, and the ability to connect human-to-human, rather than simply distance brain-to-brain. I look forward to hearing how their upcoming encounter with Fresco himself fares!