Today we live on a fragile planet, heavily consuming finite resources, wary of our own powers of invention and destruction. The ice caps are melting, NASA reports that 2015 is going to be hottest year of global temperatures on record, swathes of the Middle East are trapped in cycles of savage violence, sending millions of displaced people into Europe, a phenomenon that is likely to persist for decades and may well be amplified as the effects of climate change push other desperate people to leave their homes. The future as a shiny utopia probably started dying somewhere back in the 1960s. Now it seems the future we have long since feared is starting to arrive and we are going to have to face up to it. So how do we react?Gupta's brand of brutally realistic, technologically literate, practically engaged, and highly original thinking could be what we need in this increasingly volatile environment. I spoke to Vinay on the phone and then we conducted an interview via Gmail chat. We talked about the opportunities and dangers of the technological revolution, poverty, war, refugees, evolution, and the new age of space exploration.VICE: Can I start by asking you a very general question? As a global resilience guru, what do you see as the biggest threats to peaceful human existence on this planet in the 21st century?
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Vinay Gupta: Well, the bottom line is that there are too many of us using too many resources, and we're too smart. And we're in a double bind. The technologies which could give the answers to resource scarcity (running out of oil, food, fresh water, and other raw materials) are inherently very powerful, very dangerous technologies—chiefly nanotechnology, biotechnology, and robotics.
Governments evolved to solve the territorial/cultural integrity problem: control land, put up a border, and maybe provide some services. There's no cultural or technical background in the nation state to automatically enable them to handle strategy up an exponential curve as we try and adapt to wave after wave of disruptive technology. There's also no mechanism inherent in the nation state for handling genuinely global issues.
In an era dominated by consumerism and market individualism, is it possible to develop a global perspective, and a belief in collective responsibility, to deal with problems such as poverty, climate change, and environmental degradation? We can't. We've failed, and this strategy is consuming enormous resources for almost no actual measurable return. Elon Musk's approach—what the Las Indias group would term "Market Activism"—works. Fixing problems by changing the technology base, and the buying options available to the public, seems to be a fairly painless way to move us forwards, but political change on all of these issues is basically a dead end.Is it inevitable that increasingly authoritarian governments will be a consequence of climate change and resource scarcity? Do you see a challenge to democracy coming?
There's also no mechanism inherent in the nation state for handling genuinely global issues.
That challenge is called China. China is a mess right now: economic instability, horrendous pollution, and internal political strife that threatens to tear the country apart. But it's also a country of 1.3 billion people that started the century in a feudal aristocracy, the Qing Dynasty. More people have been pulled out of poverty in China faster than the entire rest of the world combined.
Best estimates put the EU at four planets worth of consumption, and the US at nearer eight. So when we talk about getting to sustainability, we're talking about a 75 percent to 90 percent reduction in natural resource use. My friend Jay Springett terms this "asperity"—the slashing of an economy down to a sustainable level.This simply cannot be done on the existing technological base.However, fortunately, we aren't restricted to the existing technology base. I think there's far more likelihood of success by rampant, even foolhardy acceleration of our technological progress towards sustainability, than the false hope of mass social change. Take a look at "Is there a Moore's Law for Solar?" by Ramez Naam in Scientific American: Twenty years from now, solar's likely to cost a quarter of what it does today. Do you see the current political problems with rolling out these renewable energy technologies as a temporary hitch?
As they become profitable, governments want to stop subsidizing them and spend that money on other priorities. The subsidies were designed to get them to scale, and now they have scale. Of course, it's probably better for everybody if those subsidies stay put and keep the acceleration going, but I don't think at the 40-year mark it's going to make any difference at all, subsidy or not. We are over the tipping point.
The big worry is that a small university team could pull off something like the destructive power of a large nation state: 14 nerds and a gene printer makes you a superpower, although the nanotech stuff is further out, it's even worse. Personally I do not think we have a future—not a long term future, anyway—unless we get really, really solid control of these technologies.
Is it right to say that a lot of your work lies in trying to get away from centralized power structures?
There's far more likelihood of success by rampant, even foolhardy acceleration of our technological progress towards sustainability, than the false hope of mass social change.
Some people want to fix inequality and centralization. But when we try to fix inequality, 1) it keeps coming back, and 2) it often leads to mass murder (Stalin, Mao, etc.)So stop and think about this for a moment: What if the objective isn't to level out the game between winners and losers, but to make life as good as possible for the losers? If we accept that most people will be losers at some point in their lives, how do we design a good life for losers, for the mediocre, the untalented, the unlucky—for every single human being, no matter how "undeserving" they may appear to some means-testing meritocratic aid bureaucracy. This is "decentralization" certainly, but not in the usual sense that people use the word.
I know you also spent a period of your life training in meditation and studying Hindu thought. How has that experience informed what you do? You stress the importance of science and technology in getting human beings out of the mess we appear to be in, but do you think the old insights of religion have a role to play too in how we approach these problems?
I can't save anybody… I can buy people time, maybe save them in a disaster, add a few decades to their life, but only that.
Meditation, particularly meditation on death, is as old as fire-hardening a stick at a campfire. It produces people that can face death (their own death, or the potential death of the planet) without flinching. Gandhi is, of course, the poster child for this.
Making life interplanetary, and then interstellar, enables creation to generate untold wonders over potentially trillions of years. We have no idea how long human life could last, if we can get it off this one fragile, risk-filled, tiny sphere into the ocean of darkness and light above our heads, and into every nook and cranny of the observable sphere. We owe all the potential futures that could emerge from our present the possibility of existence, and to accomplish this, we must go not only into space, but eventually, by any means found necessary, into the stars.
A global minimum standard of living is the way to go here, and it's cheap to produce if you think of it as "manufacture and distribute for free" rather than trying to hand out cash and hope people will buy what you want them to buy. And, yes, this is absolutely a soft paternalism strategy. Who makes the decisions about what to produce? But if you want to know what's possible, that's what's possible.This still leaves the psychological problem: an ape that has two modes, "explore" and "conquer." So my hope is that the High Frontier will keep us in "explore" mode indefinitely, and we won't have to resort to bombing each other to relieve our territorial aggression in a too-small dog cage. But the truth is that we could solve that territorial problem right now pretty easily if we made an all-out assault on solar water desalination: all the dry coast and most of the desert in Africa, America, and especially Australia would become habitable if there was abundant, affordable fresh water. So colonizing the desert areas would be a big win. There's a huge leap of imagination to take our existing physical resources and purpose them into this kind of pseudo-utopian project, but it's only a leap of imagination. We have all the technology, right here, right now, this very day.
Nobody will admit that we are apes with ape problems. Everybody is carrying around the essentially colonialist fiction that we are in some way more than the other animals, and once that error is made, our heads fill with imaginary needs and imaginary stories. We can pretty much perfect the happy ape level of consciousness in this world, and all that it's going to cost us is our history of over-complicating all of this with our pre-evolutionary mythology about the nature of humanity.And remember, I'm saying this to you as an (occasional) teacher of Hinduism. If god is real, it's not going away just because nobody believes in it. Those who care can rediscover it in time if their minds lead them in that direction, but for the rest of us, a radical Year Zero atheism and a focus on the basic human needs are the best strategies in town right now, I believe. Brutalist, but have you seen how the rest of the world actually lives, and dies?
There are basically four questions here. Firstly, is the existing UN Refugee legal abstraction really fit for purpose any more? People who have to leave where they are because staying will get them killed aren't necessarily fleeing political oppression or war any more, now we have to increasingly contend with climate-induced famine and economic factors. Second question is: Where are these people going during the period of their dependency? They've largely abandoned jobs, and their savings won't last long. Where are they to go in the short term, and who is to house and feed them. It seems to me that the obvious solution would be for the oil-rich Gulf States to take them in en masse—build a couple of new cities instead of (or, hell, as well as) Masdar and do some of that "make the desert bloom" stuff in Saudi Arabia, and settle a few million people there. Problem solved.
Turn refugee camps into universities. If we won't let them get jobs and work, let them get PhDs.
I'm very much not alone. I'm a successor to Buckminster Fuller, and he has many heirs: WorldWatch Institute, the Buckminster Fuller Institute itself, Open Source Ecology, even the 3D printer / maker movement. On the political, post-colonial theory side, Vandana Shiva is a far, far more advanced form of the same thinking that I'm doing, and I can recommend her work wholeheartedly. So, no, I'm far from alone.But you could probably fit all of the people in the world with a realistic model of our resource constraints (i.e. how much metal and how many calories per person per year?) who are actively working full time on solving these problems at the most basic and realistic level on one airplane. That community is a few hundred of us at most. Knowing the truth and acting on it brings a peace which surpasses understanding.Where do you get your information about the world from? What are your favorite news sources?
My information about the world comes from three mains sources: Reddit, Hacker News, and Boing Boing. Until I was 25, I read everything I could get my hands on, and did very little useful work. Now I read book reviews, and try to write more than I read. I do an immense amount of thinking in community on Twitter where I'll essentially write an essay in real time as a series of tweets, and take feedback, criticism, and debate from people as we go. This produces much better, much clearer thinking than blog posts used to, because of the element of real-time feedback and improvement through dialogue.What are you working on right now?
In November of 2014 I sold my soul. I'd spent about 15 years working only on problems that were directly relevant to human survival on earth, under the rule that I wouldn't do something for money if I wasn't willing to do it for free.Then I got older and started to slow down, and I realized I was broke, and that even worse, an awful lot of my heroes who had gone before me on this path were begging on the internet for help with their medical bills: Howard Rhinegold, Robert Anton Wilson, John Draper (Cap'n Crunch) among others.So I gave up.The trigger event was seeing the Cosmic Trigger stage play in London. Robert Anton Wilson, without who's work I'd probably have killed myself in my twenties (I mean that quite seriously) lost a daughter to poverty. They lived in an awful neighborhood because Bob had quit his job working for Playboy to write the literature and analysis that helped me to save my own life. And a crazy homeless person killed his daughter. And, at that point, I snapped.Fate then takes a hand: Vitalik Buterin started the Ethereum project, which generalizes what Bitcoin did for currency for all kinds of software, and I get a job working on topics like music and identity for poor traders. I'm now working for both the Ethereum Foundation, and Consensys Systems, building all manner of interesting futures.I've found a niche in the world that balances my need to change my life with my need to change the world. I feel happier and better balanced than I ever have done, and I'm looking forwards to a brighter future than I'd hoped. It's not bad, is it?And the hexayurt is coming: I expect to see small test deployments within the next year. So it'll all come together, soon and soon enough. Maybe we'll even have the software for self-governing refugee camps written for Ethereum by the time the first big camps go up…Follow Joe Banks on Twitter.