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The third attractor: a framework for navigating wicked problems
Last year, in the murkiest depths of wondering where to go with our non-profit and my own personal work, I discovered the work of Daniel Schmachtenberger and the Consilience Project.
His description of the “metacrisis,” the collection of existential risks that we face as a species, and the “third attractor,” a way out of the escalating coordination failures that characterize geopolitics, spoke to me and haven’t stopped speaking to me.
This is not a post about getting answers; rather it’s about finding a useful framing of the problem. I think Daniel gets there.
The best place to start is this 90-minute YouTube interview; there’s surprisingly little available about his work so I’ve summarized what I see as the key points for reference.
Oh no, we’re fucked: facing the metacrisis
As a species we are currently exposed to many catastrophic risks, sometimes called x-risks.
There are many, many x-risks. Within one such risk, eg., global warming, we face multiple sub-risks: eg., an extreme weather event causing massive human migration, or dead zones in the ocean due to nitrogen runoff causing biodiversity loss. Any of these issues may lead to breakdowns of supply chains, spark a large scale war, etc.
Many of these environmental risks are the result of “an economic system that requires exponential growth, attached to a linear materials economy” that can’t keep up.
Outside of environmental risks, we also are seeing risks due to powerful and exponentially growing tech – bioweapons, cyber-weapons, AI. These have their own sets of causes.
The metacrisis is the daunting collection of catastrophic risks that we face as a global society.
In order for us to make it through the metacrisis, we have to prevent all the catastrophic risks; to fail, we only have to let one of them happen.
The first step to addressing the metacrisis is to look for underlying patterns, with the hope that they share some fundamental property and are in fact all symptoms of a single issue.
There is in fact a single underlying issue: coordination failures.
A failure to coordinate: the two attractors
In complex systems, attractors describe the general direction that things take; if you throw a 100 sticks into a stream, the attractors are the eddies in the stream the sticks are likely to come to rest in.
Our current coordination mechanisms lead our activities toward one of two undesirable attractors: catastrophes and dystopias.
Catastrophes are the result of “multipolar traps,” which happen when:
Many different agents act in their personal best interest in the short term
Those actions lead to outcomes that are in everyone’s worst interest in the long term
Agents fail to stop acting in their personal best interest because doing so will cause them to lose in the medium term
Examples of multipolar traps are collected in the essay Meditations on Moloch; they describe arms-races, pollution, the end of hunter-gather societies. These all describe systems in which long-term thinking is disincentivized
One way to address multi-polar traps is with the centralized threat of violence or coercion. This leads to the other attractor, dystopia
When there is a centralized power system in place, corruption is inevitable. This is because any enlightened dictator will be usurped by malevolent people, who are unconstrained by benevolent values. This process is described in Rules for Rulers
The current two-attractor system leads to a feedback loop where a crisis happens, and then control mechanisms deal with it through centralization of power; centralized powers compete and get corrupted and another crisis happens; etc.
The Middle Way
Any serious attempt to address catastrophic risk must simultaneously anticipate other catastrophes that a proposed solution might lead to, as well as any dystopia that a categorical solution to catastrophe might lead to.
To encourage such attempts, a third attractor is needed – a new set of incentives and design constraints that leads us out of the metacrisis.
The characteristics of this third attractor are the subject of another post