Q: Why don’t you tell us what took you into, the present moment in your life, what path, what significant emotional and cognitive events, participated to Daniel Schmachtenberger?
My goodness, that is such an impossible question. Because there’s so many different ways I could answer it, so I guess one through line that is pretty central and is relevant to things I think we might discuss today.
I was home schooled and my parents had wanted to kind of run an educational experiment of letting their kids design their own curriculum. And this was similar to some of the unschooling ideas now. But before unschooling was a thing. My parents interests were Buckminster Fuller and kind of design science and rich off capron systems, science and kind of the philosophy coming out of modern physics and world religions and spiritual traditions. And, you know, the best kind of thinking stuff coming out of the hippie movement time period.
And so obviously, as a kid, getting to design my own curriculum, being exposed to those things made a difference because no one’s going to choose to study something they don’t even know exists. And so it’s nice to have those. And so I was studying the sciences and interested in how the world works, studying the philosophic traditions around what we’re really here for and what is what is meaningful. And then in studying things like the Bucky Fuller design science work, thinking about how do we redesign? Technological substrate of civilization, fundamentally, those were kind of early, interesting questions, and I got into activism very young.
That was one of the other big areas and it got to be home school curriculum time. So I got to do a lot more like frontline activism stuff and research younger than a lot of people would. And it it started with animal rights stuff and started with factory farming and then went to whaling and overfishing and species extinction. And with PETA and Greenpeace and all those types of organizations. And that was the beginning of kind of existential devastation for me. Of how much human induced, unnecessary suffering and just rolling atrocity there is on the planet, and then how can I consider my life a success while that’s happening?
There has to be something wrong with me that I can disconnect from that and just be happy to party. And so I remember the very first thing when I was like nine years old that I had this feeling around with factory farms was if they still exist when I die, then I failed at anything worth living for because I can’t have a world that I feel good about where that exists. The hard part was I kept adding things to that list because, you know, then start studying extreme poverty and start studying the things that lead to unnecessary wars. And then and this was kind of like the centrally portering thing for me.
Everybody said that these all are such hard issues that nobody’s fix them. And so it would take all of my life focusing on one of them, maybe have a little bit of a chance. And that means ignoring all the other ones. And I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. And fortunately, the system science focus started to give me a sense that maybe part of the problem was focusing on these things in isolation and not what interconnected them and the underlying patterns that gave rise to them. Why do humans make shitty choices? Why are we not good stewards of the technological power that we have?
So there were things that I knew I needed to study to be able to even think about it well, so I I went and did university studies and studied math and physics and things that I knew would be like important fundamental disciplines and philosophy and then independently studying economics and social systems and things like that and trying to look at all of the proposed systems for how do we make a better world looking at the U.N., SDG kind of model and looking at the the builder model, can we make the whole world like the Nordic countries and looking at the anarcho capitalists and libertarian models and them?
And it didn’t take that long to see how all of those philosophies catastrophically failed in the face of planetary boundaries and exponential tech, and that they were just nowhere near deep enough thinking for the actual nature of the problems. And that was a bummer, because I think I hope I think I thought originally that there were adequate solutions and I could just find them and join them and add energy to it. And so it was very devastating for me the first time I went and engaged the people at the U.N. to see.
I remember the first conversation I had there was with the World Food Program director, where they were looking at a solution to address world hunger, which is great. But their solution involved commercial agriculture going into areas where it doesn’t currently exist to be able to feed the people in a way that doesn’t depend upon shipping food from other countries, which made sense, except it was bringing more nitrogen based fertilizers to more river deltas, which will increase the rate of dead zones in the ocean, which is an existential risk for the whole planet. When I brought that up to them, I’m like, OK, well, you’re going to feed more people per year for a few years and then speed up the death of the oceans. And everybody, they’re like, yeah, we never thought of that. And that’s a bummer. But those are not the metrics were tasked with. We’re tasked with the feeding kids metrics. I’m like, are you fucking kidding me? And then I saw that everywhere.
And I saw that most of the work was not only not adequate to succeed, but it was causing other problems in other areas, worse problems because we were defining the problems too narrowly and the world was more interconnected than that.
And so this just led to having to continue to step back and say, OK, maybe we just need to do an assessment of the whole problem space well enough to know what adequate solutions would take. So that was that was kind of the central thrust of my life focus and all the various areas of study were what do I need to understand to be able to look at that?
So we were mentioning economics. Obviously, we can see that if I have a metric of optimizing GDP for a nation or GDP per capita or some metric like that, that war is really good. GDP goes up under war, that sick people that spend more money on medicine is good,
that there’s a lot of perverse incentive that addiction is quite profitable. And so it’s like, OK, well, that’s a dreadful metric.
And yet we can see that underlying so many of the issues, like bad medical systems and bad food systems and driving addiction from supply side to manufactured demand is an economic system that has perverse incentive writ large. And there’s something like 70 trillion dollars of trades hands every day. And I’m like, if we got 70 trillion dollars of decentralized human incentive, almost all of which is causing harm along the supply chain of action somewhere.
Even if I had a billion dollars a day to spend that didn’t even need to make money, just pure non profit, and I was maximally effective with it and I’m going against 70 trillion dollars a day, that is harm externalising and it’s easier to break stuff than it is to fix it or to build it. I can I can destroy a house much faster and I can build one. I got so many orders of magnitude off of being adequate.
I’m like, anything that does not change perverse incentive is not even worth doing. So how do we change 70 trillion dollars a day worth of human activity to not have perverse incentive built in?
Well, it doesn’t look like our current economic system. It looks like a fundamentally new economic system. So ‘how do we make projects that succeed within this economic system and externalize a bunch of harm’ was never interesting to me. How do we make a fundamentally (..) economic system where the success of that economic system and the thriving of life are aligned with each other is a different question. And so, yeah, then one of the things I saw was, as I was looking at all these different problems and how they were looking at how they were interconnected, to see how trying to solve one would move problems somewhere else, you would see that all over the place.
Like the example that I gave about nitrogen runoff is one, but we can take pretty much any example. But then also looking at what do all the problems have in common as at the level of generator functions. And perverse incentive is one example. But there’s a number of things that are the underlying system dynamics and by system dynamics here, we’re not talking like health care as a system or or the judicial system as a system. We’re talking about underneath that the patterns of human behavior. What is creating patterns of human behavior. So I started forecasting also I was trying to see,
are these problems, are the problems getting better or are they getting worse? And the answer is, of course, both.
And so you can you can read plenty of books, Pinker and Hans Rosling and all those books on why everything is getting better. And if you cherry pick the stats and you decontextualized them, sure, that’s true. But you read most any environmental metrics, not any, but so many environmental metrics and also catastrophic and existential risk. And you can see how many things are getting not just worse, but precipitously towards the non viability of civilization worse.
And so when I saw that some things were getting better, some things were getting worse, I saw a phase of civilization destabilizing and that clearly we didn’t just need more of the type of actions that we were doing, more nonprofit projects, more impact investing, more UN SDG stuff, more laws being made, and more tech solutions, because the whole body of all of that was not converging towards adequate, because every year we were getting more total catastrophic risks and higher probability on each of them. When CRISPR comes along, we have way more chance of all dying from bio weapons with development of AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). We have way more chance of dying from AGI based risks. With the development of drones and the weaponization of drones and the ability to take out infrastructure.
So it’s like, OK, that the total probability space of catastrophe is rapidly expanding. And if you look at the UN world, we haven’t solved any of the SDG’s. They were called the Millennium Development Goals before. We didn’t solve them. We never succeeded with nuclear proliferation since the UN started. We went from two countries with nukes to lots of countries with nukes and faster nukes and better nukes. We haven’t stopped arms races on a single new type of technology. We have an arms race on drones. We have an arms race on A.I. We have arms race on cyber weapons, on bio weapons.
We haven’t been able to deal with any of the major tragedy of the commons like climate change or overfishing. So it’s like, all right, where are our problem solving processes writ large are not adequate to the problems we face.
So, we shouldn’t have 17 SDG’s. We should have one superordinate one that is ‘develop the capacity to coordinate effectively towards global level issues’.
If we don’t have that, we don’t get any of the other ones. If we do get that, we get all the other ones. So how do we develop better coordination capacities towards global level issues like arms races and tragedy of the commons and things like that?
Yeah, so that that’s kind of been the through line is seeing all of the problems, seeing how they’re interconnected, seeing what’s underlying and driving them, seeing where the solutions have some effectiveness but are inadequate and thinking about and working towards what what would new problem solving processes adequate to the problems that we actually face look like? And how do we bring those about?