Humanities Phase Shift
Vonversation with David Fuller of Rebel Wisdom looking at what a genuine 'phase shift' for human progress might look like.
Input Claudia Heu
Transcription of the interview:
A lot of people have a felt sense that things are starting to break down. Do you sympathise with that and how would you sort of sum up what that means?
If we look at the history of the thing we call civilisation today, one very obvious thing that we notice is that all the early civilisations don’t still exist. Wether we look at the Mayas, the Aztecs, the Egyptians, the Roman Empire, the Greek Empire, they all collapsed. And so the precedent is actually that civilisation collapses, not that it maintains. The real difference is that this is the first time we have a completely global civilisation. There really is no such thing as USA and China as separate from each other when you understand globalised materials economies, technology, economics, there’s actually no country in the world that can make its own consumer electronics, without the mining and manufacturing and technology that happens around the world, so our process of civilisation is one that has inherently self terminating dynamics built into it. When that happens at a fully global scale, basically the catastrophe is just unbounded. Where it has always been bounded. As big as the Roman Empire was when it fell it wasn’t everything. And limited by not only its total geographical size but the level of technology it had, it caused desertification throughout the noble agriculture, but it wasn’t able to destabilise the biosphere at large. In a hundred years of industrialised fishing we’ve removed most of the large fish species from a water planet, a 3/4 water planet took three and half billion years to get those fish species. And so you recognise we’re operating the same way that has always led to war and environmental destruction, collapse of civilisation, just factoring exponential technology. And so when you start to think about exponential rivalry, rivalrous dynamics that lead to polarisation that ends up leading to war, but now exponential warfare, it becomes larger than a finite biosphere can handle and it becomes existential. When you think about exponential extraction and exponential pollution, which means depletion and accumulation from open loops in a network diagram you go to an eco system with no open loops, every thing is the food for something else, there is no unrenewable resource, no waste. Our civilisation is characterised by materials economy that is linear, not circular, so toxicity is depletion on one side, accumulation on the other, whether we’re talking about on the depletion side, whether we’re talking species extinction or biodiversity loss or any of the issues we look at there, and on the accumulation side wether we’re talking about co2 levels in the air or in the water or nitrogen runoff or degraded uranium or whatever else it is, those are all specific instantiations of open loops in the way we do civilisation in relationship to the close loop dynamics of the ecosystem that both have a civilisation that is increasingly fragile and that is making increasingly fragile underlying ecosystem, it is basically debasing the substrate upon which it depends, and so when you think about exponential extraction, exponential pollution, that obviously gets larger than the playing field can handle, when you try and think about exponential expansion of the monetary supply that has to be based in goods and services, that can’t keep happening, when you think about - we compete using narrative and information - when you start to think about exponential information tech used for disinformation and population control, you get to a place where the information ecology is so broken, that what’s actually happening with North Korea or not, are we gonna have nuclear war, what’s actually happening with Syria, what’s actually happening with Putin’s relationship to the Trump administration, how long do we really have before all do coral die-off, like all the most important questions as to whether or not we make it as a species nobody really knows how to make sense of. And so when you have a situation where you’ve actually got an exponentially decreasing sense-making capacity, right? An information ecology that is increasingly more broken, with an exponentially increasing capacity to make big choices right? Technology is basically a lever of our choice making. So a fist has one level of harm, and I extend to a stone tool it’s a bigger harm, to bronze tool, to a gun, at the level of an ICBM, that’s just a really big extension of that type of choice making capacity, but when I have exponentially increased choice making capacity with exponentially worse sense making, that. Always runs into a cliff. And so the underlying dynamics that are leading to the self-termination that people feel and sense right now are not different in kind than the ones we’ve been facing since the beginning of what we call civilisation, they’re different in magnitude and in the speed of process factoring the exponential curves involved.
And some people talk about the shift, we can talk about it in material terms or we can talk about it in terms of an evolution in consciousness or the way that we operate. What do you sense is that leap that we need to make in terms of how we operate?
You actually have to think about it on all of those levels to be able to make sense of it in a meaningful way, otherwise it’s kind of like asking when we are talking about the health of a person wether that means the health of their liver or kidneys or their blood; it’s like that doesn’t even make sense. You can’t separate those things from each other. So when I think about what economics is: economics is our value system codified as value equations that determines how much we value one thing relative to another thing, that determines what we’re incentivised to do and what we confer power to. So if a dead whale is worth a million dollars on a fishing boat and live whale in the ocean is worth nothing, that’s a value system codified in a value equation that incentivises behaviour, but it also incentivises psychopathology, right? Psychopathy, actually. I have shut empathy down because leaving the whale in the ocean, it actually isn’t even gonna stay in the ocean, another guy’s gonna hunt it out, right? So I’ve got a tragedy of the common so I have to kind of deaden to be able to do the thing that is incentivised by the system, or somebody else does and I’m just not effective in the system. So you can’t think about the evolution of human consciousness and the evolution of economics differently. But if you look at the way economics then needs to protect its own profit stream and the way it will learn how to influence media to control people’s sense making frameworks, in the way it will influence governance; again, this is getting to consciousness. Or the way it will influence legislation on the nature of what happens in education to prepare people for the work force. And so the paradigm shift is basically… everything. We need new systems of governance. If we think about how much how much we love the word democracy, and we love the word democracy because it’s better than tyranny, and it’s better than the other really horrible systems that we’ve experienced at any scale, but when Winston Churchill said: “democracy is the single worst form of governance ever created, except for all the other forms”, what he was saying that was really insightful was that getting lots of humans to agree on anything is just a hard thing to do and we suck at it and we’ve never actually done a good job at it, and this is a really flawed system. Now we like it because, as we said, it’s overcoming things that were even more problematic, but if you think about democracy for a moment, and wether we’re talking representative democracy or liquid democracy using a voting currency or binary vote, fundamentally you have a process of saying: ok, we can’t get everybody to agree beyond a very small number of people. Dunbar number, tribe, you can get everybody to agree because they can all be in a conversation together. Beyond the level of which you can have a conversation together, you can have a few people control everything and they can be in a conversation together, some type of oligarchy or meritocracy, but then you’re like: no, we wan’t most of the people to agree at least, right? That seems like a good idea. But somebody puts forward a proposition to do something that they think is important based on their limited sense making that is never everything, that proposition, because it wasn’t informed by comprehensive sense making, will always, in the process of benefiting something, also damage something else. And so some people love it, based on if what it’s benefiting is directly relevant to them, and other people hate it based on what it’s damaging is relevant to them. You just created inexorable polarisation, because you made shitty propositions and then asked people to vote yes and no, binary on a shitty proposition. So you notice people actually don’t all get to contribute to the sense making of what a good proposition would be. There’s no kind of collective input there. There isn’t even a generation of what would good mean here. So really even their choice making is just yes or no on a frame that was already controlled, and typically who’s going to be able to even put forward a proposition is someone who has vested interests. And so you’re stuck with polarisation in that particular system, right? So we need new systems of governance that are not any systems of governance the world has ever done so far. They are systems of: how do we individually and collectively make sense of what’s going on, make sense of what we actually value, and how those values can be synergistically satisfied, rather than in a theory of trade-offs with each other progressively better, and how do we create design that are optimal synergistic satisfiers. So that’s totally new thing, governance wise. We need totally new systems of economics we need totally new systems of education, healthcare, all the way down to, at an individual level, a new basis for identity, values, our own individual sense making - choice making. As long as I think that I’m an individual that is fundamentally separate from you and the biosphere and everything else, I can think about optimising my own quality of life independent of, and maybe even at the expense of your quality of life, or the biosphere or anything else. As soon as I start to say: ok, well, I’m not that tree. But what would I be without trees? Well, I would not exist, right? There would be no atmosphere if there weren’t plants photosynthesising, so I fundamentally am not even a meaningful concept without plants. So if I think of myself as me that is not fundamentally interdependent with plants, I’m actually not even just thinking clearly, right? It’s just a bad ontology, it’s a bad semiotics. And then I start to run that, and say: well, what about soil microbiota, and it turns out that my life depends on the whole thing, right? So I can be better thought of as an emergent property of this whole thing, not just the biosphere, cause what would it be without the sun.. So as long as I have a sense of ‘I’ that is separate, and maybe even rivalrous, in rivalrous competition for some scarce status, resource, attention, partner or whatever it is, then we have a fundamental basis for war, and in a world of exponentially increasing technology, which means that the warfare gets to be more and more consequential, that will self-terminate. So rivalrous dynamics multiplied by exponential tech self-terminate. Exponential tech is inexorable. We cannot put it away. So we either figure out anti rivalry, or we go extinct, and the human experiment comes to a completion. That’s the core thing. Figuring out ant rivalry is a psycho-spiritual process inside of ourselves: can we actually even get along with our family members, can we pay attention to our own emotions and triggers that hijack us from sovereignty, because the moment I’m getting pissed, and my value system is not to be an angry person, I’m actually hijacked. Can I pay attention to that and actually have some sovereignty over my own inner state and how I show up in the world, and can we figure out how to do that collectively as well.
But that was my question: how do we give people a sense of that connection beyond themselves to give them a felt sense of their connection to the natural world and to what they depend on?
So an important thing to understand about Homo sapiens, that is different than all the other species, as far as we know, is: you look at a horse and it’s up and running in 20 minutes, and it takes a human a year to walk. And you think about how we can be helpless for that long evolutionarily, like think about how many 20 minute segments go into a year, to think about how many multiples of helplessness that is. And even a gorilla or a chimpanzee can hold onto its mom’s fur in the first few minutes and we can’t move our heads for three months. ... We’re fetal for a very long time, and the reason is because all these other animals evolved to fit an environmental niche. We are niche creators who went to the Arctics, who went out to the islands, who went to the desert, we were able to create niche adaptation everywhere, and then we made new niches like cities. And so we wouldn’t come with a hardwired program for how to be adaptive to a certain environment, we had to come not hardwired, learn what the environment was, because it used to be super valuable to throw spears, now we don’t throw spears that much, we text and do other things, so we have to actually be able to softwire. That means that we are radically more affected by our environment than all the other creatures are too. And not just in childhood but even into adulthood, and with neuroplasticity we are continuously being affected by our environment. So when you think about that our whole evolutionary history was in ecosystems that we depended upon where the complexity of nature, the self organising dynamics of nature was what our nervous system was taking in and getting an intuition for, and then we grow up not connected to any complex system - nature. To a little bit of manicured nature, that’s about it, and all man-made structures that are complicated, not complex. They’re all fragile. You burn this house down, it doesn’t repair itself. You burn a forest down, it does. You damage this camera, it doesn’t repair itself. If you cut me., I’ll repair myself. So we don’t even have an intuition for what nature is, or what complexity is, or what self-organisation is, because haven’t been spending time around it. And we are that conditioned by what we’re around. Now younger generations are growing up with almost their entire life, from the earliest neuroplasticity is two-dimensional, and that it responds to them in a way that doesn’t have physics it has some other pre-programmed in physics, so there isn’t even an intuition for how physics works. So all of that is preface to say: reconditioning a felt sense with everything is not actually a trivial thing to do. It’s a deep process. And there’s a cognitive development that people can start with, which actually matters, which is: as soon as you just really think about it and think about who am I without plants, and who am I without pollinators, and you realise - I don’t exist, and you start to get that there is this kind of narcissism that we’re stuck in almost all the time thinking about ‘me’, ‘I’, and it’s not even a good thought, it’s not even a rational way to optimise my own life, let alone the fact that it creates depression. Just thinking cognitively about the interconnectivity of everything actually helps a lot. How to get a more embodied sense? Go spend time in nature, do psychedelics, do any kin of state practise that creates expanded states, see how you can have more intimate relationships with more people. All those things.
And when you sketch it out like that, it seems immense. The challenge. Are you hopeful or are you pessimistic?
I think that the shift that we are on the precipice of is not like the shift from the Dark Ages to the Enlightenment or even the Agricultural Revolution. It’s more like a shift from single cell to multicellular life. It’s like a really deep fundamental shift in the level and type of complexity, in the nature of reality that we’re talking about. Evolution brought about rivalrous dynamics, but then it also brought about our prefrontal cortices, our capacity for abstraction and our ability to do design and technology. Lions can’t make themselves radically more capable as a predator in a very short period of time faster than the gazelles can get away. If they could, they could eat all the gazelles and go extinct, because they debase the substrate upon which they lived. So as the great whites getting a little bit faster, the seals are also getting faster. The whole system is co-evolving, so there are no radical power asymmetries. We start modelling ourselves as an apex predator but then developing tools that increased our ability to do that on an exponential curve when the environment wasn’t increasing its capacity to deal with that on an exponential curve. That self-terminates. So that’s evolution modified by technology. We need something that is neither of those things to be able to take the next step, and one way of talking about it is: evolution is an unconscious process. It’s an algorithmic process of which species survive and reproduce, and it’s extremely slow and most things fail, what makes it through though, it has a profound degree of complexity. Design is much faster process, but we always build things that optimise for some number of functions that we intended it to optimise for but they affect more things than we intended to optimise, which usually is an externality. There’s some harm or wasn’t intended. Evolution by design is something that is different than just technology design where we’re designing complicated systems, and it’s different than complex design that is unconscious. There’s a process by which; we can think of it in mythopoetic terms and say: the evolutionary process kept increasing orderly complexity, until we got to the capacity for abstraction that could contemplate evolution itself and look at the principals of evolution, see what it’s doing and choose to consciously participate with immediate evolution itself. So then we get to move from, we have the possibility of moving from the parts of the whole that are competing with each other but moving to having power that makes that no longer possible, to actually being agents for the whole. Because we can’t model ourselves as apex predators when we have the ability to extinct whole species, ruin whole biospheres, make new species. That’s no longer an adequate model. The only thing in nature that has the kind of ubiquitous power that can make species and destroy species and change the geography, is nature itself, but now consciously mediated through agents that have kind of woken up as that. So I think this next shift is us realising that as technology that results from our abstraction, but focused on parts, and not focused on how the whole thing fits together, as technology is kind of giving us the power of gods, we have to get the love and wisdom and understanding of gods or we self-terminate with that power. That’s a big task. I don’t think that we can say that anything smaller than that could possibly be adequate.
You didn’t say wether you think we are to make it or not…
Let’s take the standard narrative on evolutionary history, and we say: ok, there’s no life in universe till when it started on Earth three billion years ago. So you’ve got billions of years, ten plus billion years where there’s no life, and a lot of shit happened. There was a lot of physics and chemistry and cosmology happening. You could say, based on that, that probably there’s never gonna be this thing called life, because forecasting from the current curve, it would seem like we’ve run all the combinatorics. And then life emerges. And then there’s about a billion years where there’s just single cells, and it seems like a billion years is a really long time to figure stuff out, there’s not gonna be multi cells, and it’s actually when the single-cell creatures are at a phase shift of near self induced extinction that leads to the environmental pressures that lead to multi cells, and one narrative of how that happened. So it’s kind of the nature of universe to do unprecedented stuff. That is kind of what evolution means, is that new epochs are unprecedented…
So you say we need a miracle but we had miracles in the past…
I’m saying we need an epoch shift that is not the continuation of the current curve, that is a discrete non linear phase shift, and that if we think about as just continuation of current curves - ok these things keep getting better with tech, let’s just hope they keep getting better - it doesn’t work. But if we say: what are the necessary and sufficient criteria of a civilisation that doesn’t self-terminate in the presence of the emerging power, we can actually identify with those criteria, and there are actually things that we can do. Then that becomes the only MO that makes sense, working to bring that about.
But then looking at the current political climate, looking at the current leaders we have at the moment, do you have any hope that they are going to be equipped to bring this about?
Of course not. Because they are part of the system that is obsoleting itself.
Do you have a sense of how that shifts then, if they can’t do it?
I’ll say things that probably everyone has already heard, when Bucky Fuller famously said: Don’t try to fight the existing system or fix it, just build a new one that obsoletes it, that has the right characteristics. It’s very much that. When we think the caterpillar to butterfly metamorphosis, inside the chrysalis it’s not a caterpillar or a butterfly. It’s goo. And that goo phase, that liminal phase, the caterpillar is actually dying. Because the caterpillar doesn’t just loose weight and grow wings. If you look at it, the caterpillar has a genetic code to go gather parts, to gather minerals and amino acids and sugars that are going to then be reassembled into a butterfly, if we were just looking at the caterpillar we didn’t know it was gonna be butterfly and we were looking at it and it’s getting bigger, it’s eating everything, it’s not pollinating anything, we would predict that it eats itself into extinction. Except that at a certain point it gets rich enough blood chemistry that it triggers this movement into the chrysalis, it starts to dissolve, it gets reorganised at an amino acid level into something that now pollinates the plants the caterpillar decimated across these vast spaces and helps the evolution of the whole system; the butterfly phase could not have been predicted from the caterpillar phase. So if we look at capitalism and the military industrial complex and all those systems as ‘gathering parts’, very much like the caterpillar was, net consumption, and very much like a foetus is in utero, the foetus couldn’t go past 40 weeks, 50, 60, it dies and the mom dies, but it also couldn’t come out much earlier, because it wasn’t ready to make a phase shift, it comes out when it first can, it has finally evolved to the place that it can actually do breast milk rather than get food from the umbilical cord directly, but it also comes out when it has to, there’s a fairly narrow window of transition, the same is true for an animal developing inside of an eggshell, there’s a finite amount of resources, and when it runs out, it has to emerge, but that’s also the first time that it can emerge, that its system can handle the transition; so we see in nature this kind of precedent that these discreet non-linear phase shifts - cause there’s a curve of ‘in utero’, and then there’s a shift, and then there’s a curve outside, but that discreet phase shift to come through the birth canal is different than either the phase before or after - so when you’re asking: are any of the caterpillar is gonna be able to do the pollination thing, it’s the wrong question. The problem that we see is the caterpillars are eating everything, that’s true, and that is to gather the resources that get assembled for a fundamentally different set of reasons. If we say: how do we maintain strategic competitive advantage? That’s what the leaders are trying to do. A leader of a company is trying to maintain strategic competitive advantages against the other companies, a country is across other countries, but of course the moment you have some sort of asymmetric advantage and you deploy it, everybody sees it, reverse engineers it, makes modifications on it, and you just up the level of rivalry for the entire playing field. That itself is what is terminating. The seeking of strategic competitive advantage, the rivalrous dynamics, because that is what actually self terminates with this level of power. So it’s how do we take all the technological capacity and start to use it for something that is not trying to have power over, but to have strength to not be deformed by there power, and be able to be anti rivalrous and etc…
So if there’s a society we’re going from this sort of idea of the caterpillar to the butterfly, does that mean each individual person has to go through that same shift, and if so, what does that mean? Or how does that look?
Individually: yes. As families and small groups of people: yes. As communities, villages, tribes, larger groups of people: yes. All the way up to everybody. So individual and collective sense making and choice making process. An individual is necessary, but it’s not sufficient. If you have a bunch of people that are making sense on their own, they can never make sense of the complexity of the whole world if they don’t figure out how to have meaningful collaborative dynamics to other people. And if they have collaborative dynamics with some, but then not others, they get into a competitive dynamic, ten the others figure out how to disinform them in order to win, and now you get the same dynamic… So we either figure out anti rivalrous omni collaborative type dynamics, or we cap out at a level of collective intelligence less than need. So as individuals, saying: ok, on my own, I don’t know how to change macroeconomics. I don’t know how to create whatever the post-democracy governance system is. I don’t know how to make a closed-loop materials economy. What can I do to at least start to become to a citizen of the future world myself? One thing I’d say, is: stop trying to win at the dying game. And not just the dying game, but the game that’s killing everything. If you’re still trying to win at that game, you can’t also claim to take seriously anything meaningful. That’s one thing. And then also: don’t just get stuck in being angry or hopeless or just your own personal development and go off to a Lotus Eater thing. Actually be dedicated to progressively better, figuring out what you can do to make a new game that works for everybody.
Sounds like there’s almost kind of a spiritual dynamic to it, in term of getting past one’s own ego.
If you can’t get along with your family members and your ex-partners and you’re pretty sure that you’re right about things and they’re wrong about things, and you think you have any idea of how Israel and Palestine can get along, or how the US and China can get along, you are just silly. So you really don’t get to even have an idea about politics of you don’t actually know something in an embodied sense around how to deal with differences and how to do real conflict resolution.
So it sounds a bit Jordan Peterson. Clean your room, pay attention to what you can pay attention to before you try and fix anything else.
Foundations are foundations. And those are important. So the other critical thing is that you can’t assume that other people are gonna fix these issues and you can just kind of chill and the world will work out. That also doesn’t mean that you should freak out and go into existential angst on hyperdrive without knowing what to do. But to progressively lean in more and say: ok, there’s a path where we can make it, but it’s not a given at all that we do yet. Rather than ask wether we do or not, how do I help determine that we do, how can I engage, and that will require learning a bunch of shit that you don’t currently know and that maybe nobody has synthesised well yet. And that’s what being an imaginal cell in the transition from caterpillar to butterfly really means, is taking some empowered responsibility for being someone who’s recognising that you can’t just run the instruction manual that was given historically, and the new instruction manual doesn’t exist yet, and it’s actually the time of people in that liminal phase is to work on developing what are the new structures.
What does that look like for an individual to learn, like of someone watching this would say: ok, right, I need to learn stuff. What are those things that we need to learn?
Well some people might have a very clear sense of, in the picture of all that needs done, working on the future of education and how to facilitate the development of young humans to be healthy sovereign humans is really their focus. There’s certain things they’re gonna focus on for that. Or healthcare or the new materials economy or whatever it is. If one is wanting to become comprehensively more educated civilisation changes needed at large, pay attention to the people in this video that you resonate with and go find more of their work and then pay attention to the footnotes and follow them.