Last week, I Reacted to an article exploring something that is rapidly approaching: likely the fastest, deepest, most consequential disruption in history. The Article was authored by Tony Seba and James Arbib, founders of RethinkX, an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society. In the article, they describe a world where our most intractable problems are solved. A book was referenced by the authors titled Rethinking Humanity – which I just finished and added to my Book Library. As an aside, I found two other books while researching their organization: Rethinking Food and Agriculture and Rethinking Transportation. These books are next on my list.
I committed to reporting back on Rethinking Humanity and will do so in this post. First, an incredible piece of work, my compliments to the authors. They have really captured the challenges faced by society in this decade and beyond. Second, in the spirit of driving dialog, the book is available free for download via their Site. Given the critical need for dialog and awareness, this should be commended. Now, on to the general themes of the book.
I have described what I believe is the likely Third Tipping Point in human history. I view a tipping point as a fundamental change in the nature of being human. From this perspective, the previous tipping points were from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, and agriculture to our current industrial society. A similar story emerges from the book, and it is from this storyline that the authors draw the conclusion above: we are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most consequential transformation of human civilization in history. The authors capture this as two distinct ages: the age of survival (hunter-gatherer) and the age of extraction (agriculture, industrial). Truth be told, the authors view is more precise. The change from hunter-gatherer to agriculture was more profound then the change from agriculture to industrial. Regardless, this coming tip will likely represent the biggest shift in what it means to be human.
A new age is born when a change in the fundamental drivers and structure of the production system occurs. A description of ages varies among thought leaders, but all have the same purpose: to impress upon the audience that profound changes are coming. For example, author Byron Reese describes the coming Fourth Age, where he sees society using computers and robots to outsource more and more of our thoughts and actions. From his perspective, the first age was defined by language and fire, the second by agriculture and cities, and the third by writing and wheels. The authors of Rethinking Humanity on the other hand describe two prior ages and an emerging third.
Age of survival: this first age covers most of human history, where humans saw little improvement in quality of life, and existed by fishing, hunting, and gathering plants and animals. The fundamental driver of this age was survival. The authors provide some estimates from that time: the earth could optimally nourish about 8.6 million people, and by the end of the Age, the world’s population was probably around four million.
Age of extraction: in this current age, the key resources in the production system are productive lands, materials, and labor. These resources are available in finite quantities in limited regions of the world. The production system involved extraction and the ability to reach and access new resources. A growth imperative was unleashed that drove competition for control of or access to resources. The age of extraction ushered in the need for military power, the emergence of cities, and the birth of the nation state. Geography in this age plays a critical role in determining the success of civilizations, specifically, the availability of key resources, and transport routes for trade and military capability.
Age of freedom: this is the emerging age positioned by the authors, as they focus on a similar belief in an approaching Tipping Point rather than another phase of the industrial revolution:
“This is not, then, another Industrial Revolution, but a far more fundamental shift. This is the beginning of the third age of humankind – the Age of Freedom. This is not a third or fourth industrial revolution as the mainstream narrative implies. The emerging system of production, and the civilization it will enable, will be based on fundamentally different drivers and attributes to those of the Extraction Age – a difference as profound as the shift from foraging to agriculture and cities, but condensed into a fraction of the time.”
They describe this new age by looking at the emergence of a new system of production, one that fundamentally disrupts the five sectors of food, materials, information, energy, and transport. The book describes the expected changes across each of the five. This emerging age according to the authors replaces our current, large-scale, centralized system with an entirely decentralized system based on a model of resource creation, not extraction. In their view, billions of producer-consumers will generate their own energy, develop novel foods, materials, and products, and exchange blueprints and ideas globally, with physical production and distribution occurring locally. As this happens, the world approaches the Near Zero Marginal Cost Society described by economist Jeremy Rifkin. In this new age, the cost of our basic needs – energy, food, water, communications, transport, education, shelter, and healthcare – fall towards zero.
Let’ start this section with a quote from the book:
“Indeed, the 2020s will be the most disruptive decade in history. Covid-19 has simply pulled the curtain on the fragility of current models of production and governance. It is just one of a series of predictable shocks that threaten to devastate our civilization if, collectively, we do not make the right choices.”
On the other side of this disruptive decade could await a world where our most intractable problems are solved. But the journey will not be easy, requiring a bridge to connect the period of transition to the human advancement envisioned. I am a firm believer that extreme events will be the rule, not the exception. The authors seem to agree, as they describe a world of system shocks from pandemics, geopolitical conflict, natural disasters, financial crises, social unrest, mass migrations, and even war.
The companion to massive technological advancement is an organizing system. Per the authors, while technological capabilities dictate the potential of any civilization, the organizing system determines how close to this potential a society can get. This is where it gets tricky. In order for a new organizing system to form around a massive shift in technological capabilities, we must Unlearn. In one of the more concerning messages from the book, the authors describe an historical phenomenon: fundamental change in societal capabilities has happened only when civilizations collapse or as new civilizations break through with a new organizing system to replace the old one. A collapse is inevitable when the existing system can no longer adapt fast enough to order-of-magnitude improvements in technological capabilities.
The phrase “organizing system” captures it well. Those institutions, rules, belief systems, conceptual frameworks, and models of thought that govern our world. As technological progress advances, new ways of organizing and managing society must emerge, but history says it has never happened along-side this advancement, it has happened only after collapse.
The invention of the printed book helped to catalyze the collapse of the Medieval Organizing System. The authors state that every leading civilization, from Çatalhöyük and Sumer to Babylon and Rome, has collapsed in this way. The inability to adapt was their undoing, leading to a dark age (a collapse to a lower level of capabilities). The authors see the emerging period of Great Invention creating the conditions for the collapse of the Industrial Order. They describe it this way:
“While the proximate cause of collapse is often pandemics, invasion, social unrest, long periods of drought or environmental degradation, the context has been set far earlier – namely a civilization that has passed the limits within which it can sustain itself and has lost the ability to adapt at every level.”
Humans invent organizing systems, and as stated in the book, the foundations of these systems are therefore variables, not constants. We are creatures of our experiences, education, and the beliefs that have been reality during our lifetimes and those of our immediate ancestors. For quite some time, all aspects of the system have been constant, and as the authors point out, the idea that foundational concepts like modern democracy, nation states, capitalism, or individual rights could change radically seems inconceivable. We believe the structures of society represents the way it has always been, the status quo gives us comfort. We therefore limit our resilience by avoiding the pressing need to adapt. The authors describe it this way:
“In the face of collapse, rather than adapt, civilizations have tended to re-double their efforts on what had worked previously – more extraction, more walls, more blood sacrifices, or more power for the center of authority, be it king, emperor, or the elites that endorse them. Civilizations lose adaptability as they approach collapse, blinded by incumbent mindsets, beliefs, incentives, and interests. They double down on what brought them to greatness instead of adapting to the new reality. Clinging to the principles and beliefs that underpin it, seeing them as immutable constants for all time rather than the man-made, ephemeral constructs they are, will simply accelerate this collapse.”
History is therefore indeed instructive. The authors do a great job of weaving history into their perspective, and in troubling ways, as every leading civilization has followed this path to collapse. This is what we face as a society. We will continue in our efforts to force an antiquated organizing system on top of a new system of production. Will Catalysts emerge to reverse this historical response? Can we appreciate our man-made constructs for what they are – variables not constants? For a deeper look into these questions, I highly recommend the book. I’ll close with this from the authors:
“Humanity is at a new threshold, one that puts us in a unique position: for the first time in history, we have the opportunity to enable the emergence of a new organizing system without first descending into a dark age.”