The Man Whose Job It Is to Constantly Imagine the Total Collapse of Humanity in Order to Save It
An interview with Vinay Gupta: software engineer, disaster consultant, global resilience guru, visionary.
"You know that scene in Jurassic Park where they're being chased by the Tyrannosaur? And Jeff Goldblum is in the back of the Jeep watching the jaws come closer and closer? So I'm Jeff Goldblum. The difference is I'm carrying a gun. I think of my role in the futures game as sitting in the back of the car shooting at the bad scenarios so they don't get any closer... Shooting down the bad scenarios means identifying them, figuring out what they're contingent upon, and then wrecking the hell out of them or replacing them with something better... This is an incredibly aggressive stance towards the future. But given that no-one else is on watch – what am I supposed to do?"
So asked Vinay Gupta, software engineer, disaster consultant and global resilience guru, in a talk he gave to a group called the Association of Professional Futurists in 2012. You can see it here on YouTube:
He is explaining his mission.
"It's all I do. I get up in the morning, I figure out what to hit, and I hit it."
Coming from almost anybody else, this would sound like the ravings of a madman with a particularly entrenched messiah complex. But when it comes from Vinay Gupta, not only is the self-description of the intensity of his efforts entirely believable, but he is likely to be the person in the room with the most clear-eyed understanding of just what those "bad scenarios" are. Giving serious intellectual consideration to identifying the very worst things that can happen to people in crisis situations, and working out what to do about them, has long been his stock-in-trade.
Starting out in the 1990s as a computer programmer, Gupta shifted his attention to environmental and infrastructure risk around the turn of the last century, becoming involved with the Rocky Mountain Institute, a leading US think-tank dedicated to the sustainable use of energy and resources. He was on the editorial team for two of its books, the Pentagon-funded Winning the Oil Endgame and Small is Profitable, winner of the 2003 Economist book of the year. Since then, his work on state failure and critical infrastructure has seen him contribute to US Department of Defense research projects, consult for the engineering and design firm Arup on urban resilience and most recently, take on a role as an associate fellow at the UCL Institute for Security and Resilience Studies in London. War, natural disaster, pandemics, economic collapse, resource scarcity, how the poor die: these are his abiding concerns. Horsemen of the apocalypse he negotiates with a humorous sense of the absurd as much as a deeply thought-through philosophical and spiritual base.
Born of Indian-Scottish descent, Gupta's dual heritage is reflected in his two chief inspirations: Gandhi, with his vision of the moral outrage of poverty; and the global technological, engineering perspective of Buckminster Fuller, the visionary American systems theorist and inventor who created the geodesic dome. He is highly unusual – someone driven by a sense of the world's profound injustice, and its growing dangers, who has been willing to work solely for his vision of the global common good without promise of personal material gain. Despite his collaborative efforts with government and military institutions, he is essentially a maverick one-man team, relentlessly putting forward his case at conferences, festivals and through an online catalogue of critical infrastructure models, video lectures and essays. His aims are heroically vast in scope and at the same time unarguably sane and straightforward: find basic technological and engineering solutions that prevent people dying of extreme poverty (22,000 children die each day due to poverty, according to UNICEF); that mitigate the suffering of those who are displaced by wars and other disasters; and that stop the slide into a dystopian global future created by resource scarcity and all its attendant evils.
Central to the practical side of his operation has been the Hexayurt, a six-sided refugee shelter Gupta invented in 2002. Made from 8x4 sheet building materials such as plywood, it is simple and relatively cheap to construct. Non-patented and available open-source, it has become widely used at the Burning Man festival held annually in the Nevada desert. Gupta believes the Hexayurt is capable of lasting for many more years, and provides more secure and protective shelter than the relief tents used by large aid agencies in refugee camps today. He feels sure it's only a matter of time before it finds a wide application.
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?
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.
What role can government play in addressing these issues and why are they so ineffectual in getting to grips with something like climate change?
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.
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?
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.
The counterpoint is India; a country paralysed by democracy, with something like 50 percent of the world's worst child poverty concentrated inside a single nation. You could also look at Haiti and Cuba: roughly parallel histories, but one is a hell hole, and the other a mildly oppressive functional socialism. Where would you rather live?
What about here in Western Europe. Do you think a managed retreat from the high-consumption European-American lifestyle model that contributes to so many of these global problems is possible through Market Activism or would it require enlightened authoritarian government? Is it possible at all?
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: 20 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 subsidising 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.
But we are still piling into nanotech and biotech, and while there are a lot of potential solutions there, there is also much – very much – to fear!
What are the potential dangers of nanotech and biotech?
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.
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
Is it right to say that a lot of your work lies in trying to get away from centralised power structures?
Some people want to fix inequality and centralisation. 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 "decentralisation" certainly, but not in the usual sense that people use the word.
Refugees, homeless people, disaster victims, migrants, all these people often face the same basic challenges: staying warm, staying cool, avoiding hunger, thirst, illness and injury. For those of us left scrambling in the dirt – that's a billion people today in the slums, and another two billion barely making a living on tiny little mud hut farms all over the world. For those people to make a decent life, that has been my goal.
I don't know how to fix inequality. But I do think we can – with safe, available, even cheap technology – stamp out nearly all of the suffering that poverty causes. As Gandhi said: "Poverty is the worst form of violence." So my decentralisation is at the very bottom.
You've said in the past that "a vision of the certainty of death" is at the heart of your work. Do you think the sanitised separation we tend to have from death in the "developed world" makes it harder to confront the realities you've spent much of your working life thinking about?
In my case, a lot of what enabled me to do the worst case scenario work (I did nuclear terrorism, pandemic flu, some areas of genocide, economic collapse, state failure and a few other things) was the realisation that I could not save anybody. Old age or something else would get them in the end. I can buy people time, maybe save them in a disaster, add a few decades to their life, but only that.
I realised that 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
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?
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.
Religion plays a role. But here's the problem... All religions are full of lies, Hinduism included. Medieval or ancient peasants who stared up at the sky without understanding, speculating on the origins of humanity and the eventual destiny of souls. Without evolution to provide objective answers to the questions of human origins, the entire semantic map of the ancients is filled with Here Be Dragons and marginalia of sea monsters. We sometimes call them "gods".
Yet I've had all the experiences which cause people to believe in a religion like Hinduism: enlightenment, what seem like past lives or reincarnation, gestures towards immortality, various other impossible things and it's all there, all valid experiences that one can have. But if I embrace the story about those experiences which the medieval peasants came up with, I'm simply joining the people of the past in their ignorance.
Why are we like this? Because we evolved, and we're not done evolving. That's liberation, right there, in the palm of your hand. An unfinished work by a non-existent creator, crying out for meaning and justice in a land gone wrong.
If we're talking about evolution... is the next step into Space for human beings?
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.
Creatures we cannot even imagine, evolved from us, our passengers on that trip, will thank us – their nameless ancestors who carried the fire of life away from one sun, and into the potential bay of eternity. This is actually within our reach. I'm sure we could, say, launch Orion-class starships (designed, what, 50 years ago?) from the moon or from Mars, and really get our striding boots on.
Without space, humanity is meaningless. A billion years from now, beings will theorise about how life came to spread across the cosmos. They might even remember us, their humble ancestors. We owe it to them in exactly the same way the fish clambering up the muddy beach owed it to us: we have a duty to life. Our duty is to go!
William Burroughs once said, "This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games." Can we get away from that among 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 colonising 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.
Is basic human irrationality a problem here as well as lack of imagination? Modern advertising was pioneered by Sigmund Freud's nephew with theories of the unconscious. Consumerism is so mad and so damn successful.
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?
Okay, so to bring this back to the here and now, what do you think could be practically done to address the current refugee crisis?
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.
The third question is where do they return to regular life? Syria when it is at peace, and so on for Iraq, Afghanistan, and all the rest? This "Refugee Nation" concept is certainly appealing, but I hope they have some ideas for an economy to go with their policy. In my novel Mother of Hydrogen a lot of the action is set in a temporary city which became permanent, called Harappa after an ancient Indian hill fort. The economics of building essentially countries from scratch are a lot better than you would expect: it's dirt cheap to provide a population with all the denim and bicycles they could possibly need, but once again, you have to be a soft paternalist about this to get the job done at those prices.
The final question is this: 3 million or 10 million today? Tomorrow, well, the estimates are 150 million climate refugees. That kind of disruption is likely to bring a global austerity, even if we are booming in the age of cheap solar panels and manufacturing robotics.
When we admit that the allegedly-temporary status of "refugee" is actually the permanent status of "displaced, never to return" maybe we could start to design a lifestyle that works cheaply enough for the international community to continue support, while at the same time producing a high standard of living to the point where refugees have some real utility.
Turn refugee camps into universities. If we won't let them get jobs and work, let them get PhDs
My proposal, along those paths, is that we turn the refugee camps into universities. If we won't let them get jobs and work, let them get PhDs on the internet and become huge academic centres of excellence. There is no problem in this world that access to 150 million more educated human beings would not improve, and maybe in the long run they could fan out across the globe as school teachers.
But an explicit mandate is required for this to work well: a ground-up reconceptualisation of what a refugee is, and what their lives should be like. At a technical level, we can certainly build as many temporary cities or countries as are required, at very reasonable prices, but surely we can do better than shoring up these broken legal fictions.
We need a legal replacement for the "refugee" concept, in the age of people being forced off their land by climate crises. All the rest comes from that. Global citizenship?
Do you feel like a lone voice in the wilderness with this stuff or do you have a sense that there is an emerging body of people with the skills, as well as the vision and energy, to face up to and tackle these problems?
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 aeroplane. 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 favoured 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 (@leashless) 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 realised 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 neighbourhood 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 generalises 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...