This page provides monthly updates about a research program on "unwinding the human predicament," by Jack Alpert of the Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratory (SKIL).
The introduction and overall research framework was featured in the September issue.
Part 1, on injuries that exist on our civilization's path and are worth avoiding, was in the October issue.
Part 2, on a civilization design that does not create these extreme injuries, was in the November issue.
Part 3, on forces exist that transition to and maintain a sustainable civilization, was in the December.
Unwinding the Human Predicament is "work in progress," and the reader should visit the SKIL website for the latest updates.
Bad behavior selected by billions of individuals, when collected together create the forces that destroy our civilization and ecosystem. Good behaviors if selected by billions of individuals, when collected together, could create the forces that would lead to a sustainable civilization and ecosystem.
Our genes motivate us to take the bad behavior and reject the good. A patchwork of experience, education, and religion, struggle to alter our genetic (and dysfunctional) choices. Social contracts are part of this alteration process.
Social contracts operate on a simple principle that a small constraint on the behavior of all individuals results in a large group benefit. For example, a traffic signal, puts small constraints on all drivers at an intersection while providing the group with increased throughput and safety. At the civilization level, social contracts, for example the Hammurabi code, the Magna Carta, and the bill of rights constrain behaviors that would otherwise create slavery, wife subjugation, and unequal access to the commons.
However, with thousands of years of experience building social contracts, none creates the behavior that could create the forces that attain and maintain a sustainable human/earth system. None gets rid of approved behaviors driving us toward civilization collapse and environmental destruction.
Below I consider additions to, and subtractions from, our social contract that create the required forces. By subtractions, I mean removing elements of the existing contract that today unfairly allocate earth's resources among present and future members of the ecosystem (space, materials, water, air, etc.) By additions, I mean adding behavioral constraints to the social contract, that prevent consumption of a resources that can become exhausted, diluted, or contaminated, e.g. fossil energy, phosphates, or atmosphere.
1) maintain a future civilization in a sustainable state; and
2) transition our existing civilization to a sustainable one.
Actually creating these different sets of forces requires two social contracts. One that maintains a non injury producing sustainable civilization. And a second contract that causes the transition from our present civilization of 7.2 billion people spread over the entire world, into a 50 million person global population distributed in three city/states which occupy only 2% of the global land area.
The goal of this section is to convert the two sets of forces into two explicit social contracts (enforceable laws) that constrain the actions of individuals. Laws that can be placed before today's global population for their acceptance or rejection.
The laws that maintain a sustainable civilization after it has made the transition are by far easier to visualize because all constituents (present and unborn) already has equal rights within their civilization and equal support from the natural environment.
The laws that guide the transition have to reflect the scarcity, inequity, and conflict that is presently part of our existence. The laws have to address both existing overshoot, and a rapidly increasing overshoot resulting from the earth's rapidly decreasing carrying capacity (e.g. fossil fuel loss.) These laws also have to reflect the changes resulting from a plan to empty 98% of the world from human impacts. Also that the present in place world population is not migrating to the special city/states and living under the new laws but mostly living in their present places under the old rules. For example, equity holdings, religions, races, languages and customs will all be held by the remaining population until each disappears through old age death.
The dismantlement is a bigger project than that experienced by Rome. Rome was dismantled through 300 years of of internal decay and external attack not to mention the lose of environmental support. The envisioned dismantling of global civilization this century (84 years) will be a designed contraction providing full support for a rapidly declining (and aging) population using a contracting energy base.
The vote for these two new contracts is a little tricky because the unborn people and non human elements of the eco system that gain benefits from the new social contracts have no voice or vote. All the yes votes must come from existing individuals who hold power under the existing social contract. All the yes votes must be based on images on future conditions not past experience. The yes vote is based on a personally constructed abstraction that the new unpleasant path forward (new social contract) is better than the much worse path forward created by our existing social contract.
Group 1 new components of the social contract
-- maintaining the new civilization after it has transitioned to a sustainable design
The new social contract takes away some personal freedoms and assigns them to civic control. For example the distribution of earth's assets between humans and other species. The amounts of the human portion assigned to each member of the living population and each unborn member going forward in time. It controls if the population is small with large assignments per person or larger with smaller assignments per person. Below are six elements of a proposed contract that I designed. As you read them consider your vote for or against the package which is proposed as extensions to the present social contract required to create sustainability.
1) Civil control over number of global births each year.
(objective is to maintains a fixed human population)
i) universal applied reversible human sterility.
ii) birth lottery -- distributes a limited number of permits to reverse sterility
iii) birth incentives -- ensures that all the birth permits are used successfully.
2) Civil control of human use of the globes assets
individuals prevented from living outside of the designated human city/states.
the objective is to maintain:
the 2% -- 98% split of land assets between humans and other species
the energy density required to provide minimum level of services to individuals
(for example, a portion of each person's energy allocation goes to
maintaining hospitals. If people spread out too much the energy per
person allocated to hospital declines.
3) Civil control of access to non-destructible physical assets (metals and minerals)
since in a sustainable system assets cannot be increased by mining
access is maintained by mandatory recycling
The initial stocks of these materials are created by scavenging from previous
These initial stocks are stored in warehouses
leased in the name of the public (e.g. infrastructure)
leased by individuals from common ownership
all leases initiated with prepaid recycling back to storehouse
4) Civil control of the earth's renewing assets like air water, soil, etc.
total use capped to renewing flows created by human portion of earths renewing flows.
Each living individual is allocated an equal part of this flow.
Unused portions are held in common and is available for lease
for use in the public domain (e.g. infrastructure)
by individuals for private use
all leases initiated with prepaid recycling back to storehouse
Metals, minerals, may not be diluted or combined beyond
restoration by recycling.
5) Civil control of the earth's exhaustible e.g. fossil fuels or dilute-ables e.g. phosphate
Excluded from use by present and future individuals
Nothing can be consumed in the present time period that
cannot be equally consumed in each future time period
6) Civic controls on conflict
i) maintenance of minimum (high level) of support for each person
ii) limits on stratification of wellbeing (e.g. wealth or power)
(dilution of wealth and power at death)
(monetary units KWh tokens issued with expropriation dates.)
Group 2 components of the social contract that
facilitate the transition to sustainable design in 85 years
During the years of transition from our current global civilization to the envisioned sustainable city/states there are two groups of people and they live under different social contracts. The people that live within the city/states will follow the extended social contract outlined above. However, the 7.2 billion people continuing to live their lives outside of these city/states will have the social contract defined below.
While the objective of the city/state social contract will be to maintain sustainability in the years 2100 to 2400 the objective of this second social contract is help a global population of 7.2 billion people gracefully decrease in size to zero in one human lifetime -- 80 to 100 years. If there are no children achieving zero population is automatic.
For the most part, the second social contract is similar to what we have now with the following additions and subtractions.
While the second group is also subject to universal sterility and lottery permits to allow births, it has the added elements that ensures that any resulting child and parents move to a city/state. No children are born or live outside of the city/states.
If the permit is won by a person that wants a child but not at this time, is too old to conceive or does not want a child at all, the permit can be held, traded, or sold. The number of permits issued each time period adjusts to ensure an adequate cohort to maintain the appropriate population in the city state, by replacing the people who died of old age, disease or accident.
The social contract governing people outside the city/states will retain many elements of today's social contract. rule of law (code, courts and enforcement,) private ownership of earth's resources. It will allow consumption of exhaustible fossil fuels; and a market economy. They will be able to keep living pretty much as they have in the past.
However, there will be these additional constraints. They will:
not enter or interfere with the new city/states.
tax themselves to build-out the infrastructure of the new city/states.
allow/facilitate scavenging of resources to fill the city/state's warehouses
decommission (detoxify) abandoned infrastructure
transfer without cost proprietary science and technology
when the global civilization cannot maintain the world's art collections they will transfer,
without cost to the city/states
commit no acts that
increase the foot print of the city/states
damage the renewing capacity of earth e.g.
like nuclear winter
severe climate change
end diversion of resources to military use
Their freedom of movement about the world does not change,
except for exclusion from the 3 city/states.
They continue to develop technology.
2% of present private ownership (personal or national lands) allow condemnation by eminent domain. Ownership transfered to the commons of the city/states.
Ownership of land and infrastructure can be transfered at death only among people living outside the city/states. Being a member of a city state means you have no material holdings outside the city/state. Eventually these transfers will not be possible, no one outside the city/states will be available to take possession. In which case all of the world's private property transfers to the commons allocated to non-human species.
By 2100, 98% of the land area on earth will be abandoned because no people live there. People will either die of old age in these remote places or they will move to other cities where services are better and die there.
Because the material stock piles within the city/states can be scavenged from abandoned areas that acquisition will not reduce supplies in the conflating civilization.
Implements the conversion of existing militarily facilities and staff to civilian projects ; conflation tasks, city/state build out, detoxification of hazards infrastructure, scavenging to supply city/state warehouses, and transport of people and critical infrastructure from abandoned cities to the remaining operational cities. maintenance of support systems.
In voting for and implementing these new social contracts there is great risk of conflict with the minority group who voted against the new contracts. Certainly the American civil war demonstrated that huge resources, material and human, can be squandered in changing them. Since these resources are needed to make the transition, great efforts must be made to minimize these conflicts.
Expected decrease in the earth's carrying capacity will create conditions never before seen inhuman history. For example:
Supporting fossil energy supports are expected to decline to half by 2050 and over 90% by 2100
the consumer population, outside of the city/state, because
no births plus
the deaths from old age,disease, starvation, and conflict
will decrease ~ 90 million a year
Since there are no young people born, each year the population will lose the youngest age cohort. It will not need the infrastructure to support that cohort. For example after the first five years, the world will have no maternity sections in the hospital, no diaper manufacturers, no preschools etc. The people involved in these projects will retire or retrain.
Present consumption levels will not decrease until
the infrastructure that needs supporting contracts or
energy deliveries wont support the infrastructure.
The injuries caused by insufficient issued birth permits will be severe until the fertile cohort in the 7.2 person population is zero. Nominally 50 years. The replacement cohort within cities will be able to have
The ownership of industry will consolidate in a smaller group by inheritance.
Industry will produce a small number of products because the
the number of people in the car buying cohort is decreasing to zero,.
Just as farm towns became ghost towns, most towns will find no customers and will fold. People will go live in larger cities where there are more services.
Farms, industrial buildings, even rental property will cease to have value without consumers.
Expected conditions in 2100
non renewable resources like fossil fuels, fossil water, and uranium used to exhaustion
energy deliveries -- 360GW of hydro electric power.
For 400 years or until new energy source comes on line.
recycling will be cheaper than mining
Jack Alpert is director of Stanford Knowledge Integration Lab, a Lab which he started in 1978 at Stanford University. In 1992 the Lab left Stanford and became a non profit research foundation. The research focused on how people gather and process information to understand dynamic systems. Over the years the Lab has transitioned its focus to the relationship between human cognition and civilization viability. The current work is on discovering and implementing behavior that “changes our course” and creates a sustainable civilization. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.