By this, I strictly mean: how to improve our lives, how to live more sustainably on this planet and what are the common strategies to make this happen? The way we currently live has been shown to be unsustainable; we lack the resources to provide the same quality of life for all the world’s inhabitants, we are losing the battle with the planet’s weather and, on top of everything, our deranged behavior could wipe us off the surface of this planet.
As I do not want to spend more than this line explaining morality and the justification for saving humans as well as other existing species, I will continue writing with attitude that every living or dead but resurrectable species *1 is immensely precious and that variety/diversity of life is the most important thing in the universe.
Having said that, let us explore some possible ways to change the world/system:
Imagine that you have a system or an organization (we will call it “Oxygen Inc.”) where you have a number of people. You are the person in charge of those people; you are the manager . Every person has his own moody behavior, which does not accord with the corporate rules. For one job task to be completed, by the means of simple math you know that the expected time should be around two hours and you also know what the desired outcome is. But whenever you ask those people to complete a job, you always get a different outcome and delivery time. In order for the system to work normally you have to find a way to make those people work in line with the required/desired parameters.
Elements are: system, required output or goal and the people.
In order to achieve the desired result we know that something has to be changed, because the way the system currently works will produce serious consequences.
Let’s start with goal:
When we see that we cannot accomplish a task in the given time, we can simply change the time in which we need to deliver something. Therefore, we can still accomplish the goal and have success. This option involves tweaking rules; the issue with that is that mostly it does not work. Maybe tweaking the rules is a good strategy in the short run, if, for instance, we fight personal procrastination, but in many other real world systems this is not economically viable. Simply put: if you produce oxygen in an enclosed space more slowly than you use it by breathing, you will suffocate very quickly.
Although there is a tolerance time, there is always a maximum time after which the product will not be cost-effective anymore. When I say cost-effective, I mean more as a broad abstraction, not necessarily in the economy-market-capitalism sense.
For the above example, let us imagine that two hours is the maximum time to deliver. That means that we cannot change the goal, as change, in this case increasing the time, will reflect on the life span of the system.
To make things more rigid, we will imagine that the task is oxygen production and that all the people in the system are living under the same dome and they are all the part of the same enclosed system. If the system “dies” (runs out of oxygen), then all the people in the system will die/suffocate. [*]
Knowing that goal change would not help, let us move to people:
As most of our organizations have a pyramidal structure of management, we will split people into two groups: a manager, in this case you and a work force.
Consequently, in order to produce a positive impact on your “Oxygen Inc.”, there are also two things you can change: management or the people.
We will start with management, or changing yourself.
Often you can read inspirational, almost spiritualist, quotes, such as the following:
- “When you stop trying to change others and work on changing yourself, your world changes for the better.”
- “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world; today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
- “If you want to change the world, first change yourself, then tell the others how you did it. Never demand that people change. Inspire them to change as an example instead.”
Many of us believe that this will work, but if you apply a simple analytic approach and rely on history, you will see that this is not efficient enough. I am not saying it is not working, just that it is not applicable to an entire system.
If you decide to “vote” for this one, you will have multiple choices for what to do. You can change yourself emotionally, or you can choose to upgrade your skill and therefore become smarter and more efficient.
Emotionally you have a few choices.
- First you can become a nicer person.
You can be polite to everyone, help out whoever needs help with their own tasks and, generally speaking, do good things for others. But even becoming the nicest person in the world will still not finish the job, as you are dealing with lazy and moody people who do not want, or do not know how, to do their own share. You may end up in a loop where other people are using you to do their own job. Although the idea of doing else’s jobs may work in small organizations, in big ones that would not be physically feasible as you would not be capable of covering for everyone. Even when you have become a better person, your “Oxygen Inc.” has not produced enough of the main product – and as a consequence you have died along with everyone else.
- What is the second option?
You can become a tyrant, you can be terrible to people, you can start chasing them, you can try to force them to complete the job, but if the organization does not have strict rules, you will still fail. Basically, if you do not have anything to back up your rigid approach, you will quickly discover that all your threats and intimidation are just empty promises and that no one cares. During my professional life I have seen companies struggling because they have a very weak policy about dismissing people. Being a manager there is quite a challenge, as they have the very difficult task of managing people in order to meet demands.
- What is the third option?
You can stop caring. A non-attachment or defeatist approach where you rely on the policy “whatever happens will happen” will not yield any mentionable outcome either, although it will give you peace of mind till the end. The system will end up as the sum of all individuals and in this case the date of failure will be random. This is the favorite approach of the group of people who think that we are too insignificant to make any significant change, although they frequently forget the part where we are significant enough to mess things up. This is pretty much in line with the saying that evil prevails when good people fail to act. Burying your head in the sand will not make scary things go away. If you want to live, and you would like for your children to live as well, this approach is not an option because it is destined to failure.
On the other hand, learning new skills may help you up to a certain point. Everything depends on how skillful you are and whether you will be able to create a miracle device to replace everyone in time before you are completely out of oxygen. On this path, people similar to you can help you by taking interest in the things you are doing. They will probably do it for the sake of fun anyway. And using this approach together with becoming a nicer person will also help.
Also consider this: generally speaking, we are not very kind to our leaders. We envy, complain and gossip about them and very often make their lives a living nightmare. Through history we even used to burn them, crucify them, assassinate them or chop their heads off. So you have to admit at least one thing: being a spiritual leader, as history has showed us, is a tough job to do. And, probably not the first and happiest choice of job you would sign on.
How about changing people?
That is a Sisyphean task, to say the least. Trying to change people in order to resolve a problem is a most impractical thing to do. I am not saying it is not possible, but by the time you change people in “Oxygen Inc.”, everyone will be long gone. Mainly because this is against human nature - and the older people are, more difficult they are to change. I am not denying that people have changed during the course of history, and that they are mostly domesticated, but this process is painfully slow. Generally speaking, character change requires more time than learning a new skill does. For just a small change of character we need months and years, and even then one can easily slip back into old habits.
If you ever decide to go down this route, it is worth mentioning that there are a variety of methods if you want to succeed in this, but going around preaching that people are lazy, stupid or wicked is the one — that will certainly fail.
Population-wise, there is one more case worth mentioning, and I am mentioning it as a possibility because of an additional unexpected new player in the game. This is generally known as Malthusianism *2, where a population is actively controlled in order to avoid scarcity events. With the coming of AI (Artificial Intelligence), the ongoing discussion is that giving a general AI machine the task of solving our problem for us (in the case of our “Oxygen Inc.”, production of oxygen), while failing to clearly define the parameters of the solution, could end up really ugly. Basically we could end up extinct, as the machine may think of us as part of the problem and, therefore, in order to resolve the problem (because the machine is not burdened by the morality of its actions) it could depopulate the system completely, thinking that if humans do not exist, the problem of losing oxygen will not exist anymore.
Lastly, what can we achieve by changing the system?
There is a general notion that our system is like a moving car, and that changing the system would be equal to changing motor parts while it is running. Although this looks a scary prospect, it should not scare us at all. We just have to remember one other field of science – surgery. Surgeons have been doing this for more than a hundred years now, on a more complex system than a car, and they are quite good at it. They can operate on limbs or internal organs, they can replace parts, they can bridge kidneys or lungs, or stop hearts and brains (medically induced comma ) and they can do all this while you are still alive and your body is running without killing you or causing any permanent harm to your body. How can they do this? Well, it is all about knowledge and following the rules of the system.
Let’s go back to our “Oxygen Inc.”. Just like any other organization, it can be complex, but applying changes inside an organizational system is a far from changing the engine parts of a speeding car. Organizations have bodies, people, structure, laws, policies and rules. If we just tweak these a bit we can change the way in which they function significantly, and that will not stop them or break them.
So what will happen if we change the rules in our “Oxygen Inc.”?
- If we change the policy regarding discharge?
- Or/and if we monitor people closely and make them aware that they are being monitored?
Just these two would change behavior and productivity *3. Objective feedback combined with punitive measures, creating an atmosphere of fairness with mathematical precision, would have an effect both on productivity and also on the people in the system, and this might be both positive and negative, all depending on what kind of changes we are making.
To add a final piece to our imaginary “Oxygen Inc.”, what if all the issues with people who are not willing to contribute anymore are just because the oxygen is not evenly distributed? What if they have experienced that certain people in the organization receive more oxygen than they can spend and they keep it stored in special oxygen tanks, not allowing other people access to it? Because all the excess oxygen is ending up in these huge tanks, people have been misled to think that there is not enough of it, so that they can work harder. What if those same individuals who have those tanks are creating artificial demand, which means that the system does not need that much oxygen in the first place?
The system and the people have a unique bond. The system influences the behavior of the people and the people can also have an influence on the system. The issue arises when the rules are followed blindly, overlooking the system behavior while having impossible or unsustainable parameters, which will usually cause failures of the system and everyone in it.
Change the system first and change in people will follow. When rules change, people will change too. Bruce K. Alexander’s “Rat Park” experiment is a good example of this and it gives great hope regarding positive influence on people when the system/environment is changed *4.
We have enough technology and enough resources and people to make this change. When people are immersed into a learning environment they will make positive change effortlessly. So we have to consider that maybe it is our cage that mostly makes us behave in the way we do now.
If we can consider the system as the source code of a computer program that is already running but does not need compiling, then when we change the code, the way the system behaves will change as well. It may crash, but if everything is carefully planned and tested, the chances of that happening are very low. Especially if we apply small incremental changes and we test first on a small number of people before applying a final version to the entire system.
The good thing about large systems is that you can always create an experimental/test environment to run under the new rules and assign people to live under these new rules. Monitoring people’s behavior for a certain period of time can provide enough data in order to make a decision about the applicability of change to the system as a whole.
Think about Monopoly, and how players behave in it. Now imagine that our game is a computer program instead of being a board game. We can still play it on the computer by taking turns (pass-and-play) in the usual way, but we can also write a small computer program (an autopilot) that will play the game on its own indefinitely. Every player will have all the resources necessary to do whatever he wants, but he does not need to stay in front of the screen. So while the game plays itself, you can choose to do whatever you think is a more interesting thing to do or spend your time on.
“There is nothing wrong with being lazy, we should work toward it.”
Notes & References:
2. Thomas Robert Malthushttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Robert_Malthus
3. Hawthorne effecthttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawthorne_effect
4. Everything We Think We Know About Addiction Is Wronghttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ao8L-0nSYzg