Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 13, No. 2, February 2017
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Unwinding the Human Predicament: Part 5 -
Constituencies can implement social contracts

Jack Alpert

This article was originally published by
Stanford Knowledge Integration Laboratory, 18 January 2017

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 2016 issue.
  • Part 1, on injuries that exist on our civilization's path and are worth avoiding, was in the October 2016 issue.
  • Part 2, on a civilization design that does not create these extreme injuries, was in the November 2016 issue.
  • Part 3, on forces exist that transition to and maintain a sustainable civilization, was in the December 2016 issue.
  • Part 4, A social contract exists that creates the forces in Part 3, was in the January 2017 issue.
  • Unwinding the Human Predicament is "work in progress," and the reader should visit the SKIL website for the latest updates.

    Consider two human hermits on opposite ends of an island who are self supported except for their reproductive cycle. By some twist of fate, they bump into one another. And by another miracle they communicate and find that each grows food, makes clothes, builds fires, and cooks meals.

    After more conversation, they understand that if they divided up living tasks - for example, one makes shoes for both of them and other other makes food for both, there are more shoes and food for the same labor.

    The draw back is that their choice to merge their activities, also takes away some independence. The hermit that makes shoes is dependent on the other hermit for food. The hermit that prepares food is dependent on the first hermit for shoes. Should either hermit fail in his or her task they both have cold feet and empty bellies. .

    The agreement is a social contract. It comes into being because the extra benefits seem bigger than the lose of independence.

    Over time, the shoe maker forgets how to cook and the cook forgets how to make shoes. Breaking the contract not only loses the extra benefits it creates injury.

    As the conversation continues among ex-hermits the social contract evolves. The cobbler serves many hermits with shoes and each provides the cobbler with a range of services.

    The existence of a social contract becomes invisible to the new born, who finds the benefits and constraints the norm. They have no memories of the freedoms that previous generations forfeited to attain the extra benefits.

    As long as additions to the social contract provide extra benefits, it expands to influence a larger portion of previously independent personal behaviors. For example, when the two hermits lived far apart the garbage heap of one hermit had no influence on the other. However, as the community group got larger and people lived closer together, then throwing garbage over the back fence, means throwing it into another hermit's back yard. The social contract had to expand to include these new conditions. There had to be more constraints on the individual to get the benefits of group living.

    As long as there was space in which to expand into, a hermit could choose to reclaim his lost freedoms and give up the created benefits. However, the trend throughout human history has been toward a broader social contract with more constraints and more benefits.

    Hunter and gatherer societies had an unwritten social contract that determined who hunted and how the food was parceled out to the child and the care givers and boot makers.

    In agricultural societies, which produced surplus food, social contracts were expanded to control its ownership, distribution, and storage.

    The Hammurabi code, one of the first written social contracts, formalized an individuals ownership of, beyond harvests, to real estate, slaves, produced goods and means of production.

    The Magna Carta was a social contract that redistributed a king's assumed rights back to his nobles. And social contracts sometimes delineated resources that were defined as the commons -- belonging to all.

    Religions assigned ownership and control to god and his chosen designees to execute his preferences.

    More recently social contracts were adjusted to include abolition and suffrage and civil rights. Some things that were added to the social contract were removed, For example prohibition.

    The social contract was rewritten to redefine the commons, for example, individuals could not put wastes in streams, some exhausts into the air - or cigarette smoke into the rooms of public buildings.

    Some additions were subtle and there invasiveness was minimal. For example driving rules like speed limits in school zones and traffic lights at intersections.

    Which raises an interesting question. How were these changes in the social contract get implemented. For example, who became aware of the full injury at the intersection. Who figured out which constraints eliminated these injuries? How did these new constraints become part of the social contract? Was the street signal instituted by a traffic engineer or a group of mothers who did not want their children killed at a dangerous intersection.

    If the traffic light was implemented through the collective will of many mothers then the social contract was shaped by a consensus of people who saw a system creating injury and saw a rule that would limit it. By implementing the rule, the mothers forced their will on other more reckless drivers.

    Like the hermits, mothers saw taking away a few driving freedoms was a better way of life than letting every one follow their own driving preferences. So they collectively wrote new rules of behavior into the social contract.

    The reckless drivers tried to prevent the mothers from adding the rules, and penalties to the social contract and sometimes worked to build a new consensus to remove them. But the consensus is a powerful tool to change the social contract.

    Today, some people have figured out that 7.2 billion people following there own path forward on earth, constrained only by the existing social contract, will injure almost all children. A good future depends on defining and implementing additional elements to the social contract. And one way to do this is to build a consensus.

    Link to the Introduction      Link to Part 1      Link to Part 2      Link to Part 3      Link to Part 4


    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


    Source: Change the Course Video, Jack Alpert, 5 December 2013

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