Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Of Moonshots and Slingshots

Jun 18, 2014

In all my projects, from developing disaster-relief shelters to researching global system risks, the hardest question I have found is: "If this works, will it matter?" It is a question that haunts me.

In all my projects, from developing disaster-relief shelters to researching global system risks, the hardest question I have found is: "If this works, will it matter?" It is a question that haunts me.

It haunts me because I envision a world that works—for everybody. Can you see it? No starvation, not much fear, only very rare violent death. Vaccines. Proper management of pandemic risks. Clean energy, clean water. Stable climate.

But I have to question whether all our efforts—and I'm thinking of climate change in particular though also youth issues in general—are delivering measurable progress.

The engineers have been ready to deliver utopia for years. Buckminster Fuller placed the date somewhere in the 1980s. Today almost nobody on the technical side doubts we can do it. It's not even that expensive in most cases: $100 for 1 million gallons of virus-filtered drinking water is a pretty typical figure, or $6 for three to five years of solar light.

But the policy side often seems to lag, or even hinder. Maybe if policy people and technologists worked together better we could change the world in ways that are congruent with the most critical human needs, and get a lid on our appalling environmental actions.

The ambitious height of policy is to support some technology revolution with effective and ethical implementation. The Internet is one good example of a revolution that got appropriate support at the policy level: strong protection for free speech, no taxation, and lax enforcement of copyright law contributed to a free-wheeling culture of innovation. It was possible to start a dotcom business without a single regulator or inspection. It was a free domain because the policy support got in there in time.

It was a total win for all parties, and indeed for humanity itself. Every battle fought for freedom of speech and thought on the Internet was worthwhile; all those inches of progress bought with years of life added up to a golden age of peace and freedom online. This is one of the rare examples of policy accurately and effectively backstopping the opportunities of a new situation and getting pretty much everything right to great effect. I'd count the ozone hole and CFC ban as another example of a near-total win.

That's why people in the nonprofit sector do this work: the chance to win, and win big. Charities piggyback on the free market, begging for scraps to improve things. Policy workers, at least the emotionally motivated ones, try and steer the Leviathan to a better future. It's an uphill struggle: We finally find out what governments have used the Internet for, and suddenly our previous victories need another decade's worth of defense.

The question is: Can we move the Leviathan enough to ensure human survival, to ensure peace and prosperity for those who do not have it? Certainly we have had a very tough time since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started.

In a world where Market and State are fused together like rebar and cement, can we move the Leviathan enough to ensure human survival, to ensure peace and prosperity for those who do not have it?

But we went to the moon once. An American President staked national pride on it, during the coldest period of the Cold War, and the world benefited greatly from this bold action taken amid global conflict. It's been a long time since any nation staked its national pride on exploring space, or, frankly, doing much of anything useful at all. An endless series of botched wars and generation-impoverishing bailouts has left us questioning: Are things getting better, or worse?

All too often the bedrock we drill against is The Free Market. Without a doubt, since the fall of the Soviet Union, politics in Europe and America have swung further rightward with each passing decade. The tension between left and right has been released, much like cutting a rubber band, and the resulting recoil has injured many. Wealth inequality is on the rise, and to many ears the rhetoric of the Market-State has become the only reality.

Is it still possible for a government to move against the market to favor society? The May Day PAC established by Lawrence Lessig takes the stance that U.S. electoral politics are entirely controlled by corporate interests due to the realities of campaign financing: Politicians who do not attract lavish spending by corporations and wealthy individuals simply cannot succeed under the current rules. The situation may be considerably more complex than that (the Republican-Democrat split in America is as much cultural as political), but legitimate questions can certainly be asked about the ability of the U.S. government to go against U.S. business interests.

Has the market become a reality as fundamental as our own biology, an unchanging fact, like salmon migrations? If so, where does that leave policy, this domain of well-meaning mahouts swatting the monster of State? Does the market make the road, and we simply try and steer the beast between the painted lines?

Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project, Nevada. CREDIT: Matt Hintsa (CC).

Burning Man, where Gupta's hexayurt shelters have been deployed. CREDIT: Duncan Rawlinson (CC).

The ascendency of the market as a model of society, indeed as the only model of society following the fall of the Soviet Union, has no natural counterbalance. Social Enterprise is the reaction of a generation that might once have been policy geeks, attempting to produce "social good" as a product. Charities with their own financial engines, social enterprises are in theory the apotheosis of capitalism: social good and material good in a single package.

Alas, genuine successes in the social enterprise field are rare, and they represent only a very small segment of the market.

There is no easy way to manage positive social change and intelligent (or wise) decision-making in the gridlocked societies we live in now, with Market and State fused together like rebar and cement. Can policy bend the Market to curb its excesses? If not, will we see a century of bailouts? Can policy contain our ecological footprint to sustainable levels? If not, no charity on Earth will be able to handle entire nations of environmental migrants.

How many of us are actually succeeding in pushing back against the market's dominance of our societies, or the onrushing collapse of our biosphere under the constant assault of human needs? It is sobering to stop and ponder: "If everything I do succeeds completely, will I have made any difference at all." It is a much harder question than "Can we do this?"

I do not have answers. In addition to being a policy researcher I am also a technologist. I have noticed that over time my policy work washes out but my technologies gather strength and support. Can we draw lines and rally around them? When does policy or technology become politics?

I want you to stop for a moment and ask the hard question about your own work. Given the onrushing global issues of various kinds—the big, bad ones with gigadeath tolls or near-permanent cultural damage, never mind the ecocide—if everything you are working on succeeds, will it matter? If not, you have failed before you started.

How many of us are actually pushing back against the market's dominance of our societies, or the onrushing collapse of our biosphere under the constant assault of human needs?

It takes a spine of steel to tell the truth in this world. We get by on projects by not challenging the lies our funders or superiors tell themselves about the real significance of the work we are doing, while the ungoverned invisible fist of the free market blasts us into oblivion with ever more devious carbon extraction schemes, which the poor will bear the brunt of when the winds shift, the rains stop, and the seas rise.

Consider only this: Maybe we need to put all our force into a few absolutely critical targets; massive triage of the endless list of good causes that attract our attention, focused down to a sharp spike, something with a clarity and focus just as strong as the financial motive of the markets, or the desire to perpetuate power in politics. Perhaps if we discontent policy actors abandoned our posts on this planetary Titanic, we could actually fight our way to the engine rooms and do something about this mess.

It's not hard to assess whether what you are doing matters. It is hard to choose to make that assessment, and to disengage with what is irrelevant.

If we are honest with each other about our doubts and fears, perhaps we could negotiate a better settlement between the impulse that brings us into public service, and our burning desire to keep a roof over our head and stay gainfully employed. If we wanted to make money, we would be running hedge funds. The skills are not entirely different, at least not for some of the analysts and managers. But instead we toil in middling jobs, or as perpetual freelance consultants, trying to buy an inch of progress toward a better world with years of our lives.

Perhaps if we slowly started to level with funders about our fears, then we could bring some realism into the funding process and accomplish the heavy work the world so badly needs. We would be happier in a world where we could simply say, "If we do not change radically, many will die, and possibly the green world with us," and have funders respond without flinching.

It's time to face this head on: Policy alone will not solve the most critical problems. Good policy won the Internet an online golden age of some 30 years. Lack of effective policy support is starting to bite the solar revolution hard, with anti-solar measures in several countries, and if that revolution flounders... You know the rest.

The big risks we face today were created by bad technologies—leaky homes, two-ton cars, megaton payloads—and it is not until policy and technology work hand in hand that we will have any hope of replacing those technologies with something better.

Perhaps the real mechanism for policy to regain some measure of influence on our Market-States is by partnering with the radical possibilities emerging from technology, to help foster adoption of what is good, suppress the growth of what is bad, and maintain social relevance at all times. Because until somebody finds a way of steering the mess we have now, the only way to a brighter future that has any realistic prospect of success is a series of technology breakthroughs that get rapid adoption, fast enough to solve problems like clean water supply, and above all, climate change.

The market exists within the scope of possibility created by science and technology, and it acts within a cost landscape generated by these underlying forces. Most policy people still hope that the State can steer the Market, or use its nonmarket discretionary options to change things. But real change, increasingly, only seems to be possible at the border between the possible and the impossible, and on that margin technology (and science) are the primary actors: They (and we) make what is impossible possible.

Massive policy support will be necessary to drive the critical new technologies we need to survive. Of course, we cannot solve all our problems through new technologies and rapid adoption—many of the toughest problems are social, historical, spiritual. But the big risks we face today were created by bad technologies—leaky homes, two-ton cars, megaton payloads—and it is not until policy and technology work hand in hand that we will have any realistic hope of replacing those technologies with something better.

Does what you are doing today really matter? If not, stop pushing that boulder, and pick up one of these slingshots instead:

Vinay Gupta is a Scottish-Indian consultant and activist with extensive experience in disaster management, cryptographic application design, and community building. He invented the hexayurt, a free/open source building system designed to help refugees, including climate migrants.

A Mongolian yurt with solar power. CREDIT: UN Photo / Eskinder Debebe (CC).

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