What future shall we choose? Equality or inequality? Deep democracy or more limited forms? Sustainability and wise stewardship of resources, or exploitation for profit? You have a good idea of where current systems are taking us. A viable alternative path exists, and that path is science based.

In March 2018, Bloomberg news reported that income inequality in the United States had hit a disturbing new high. Not unlike atmospheric carbon dioxide, income and wealth inequality in the United States have been rising since at least the 1980s, under Democratic and Republican presidents, and Democratic and Republican Congresses. The Occupy Wall Street movement crystallized public attention on inequality in 2011 with its slogan “We are the 99 percent.” In 2014 the French economist Thomas Piketty wrote a masterful book on the subject that became a global best seller. His take-home message? Capitalism itself produces severe income inequality.

Yet with all the written words and public discourse on inequality, very little attention has been paid to its complement, income and wealth equality (or near-equality, essential equality). That discussion is long overdue.

Obviously, severe inequality of income and wealth benefits those at the top. But what about everyone else? Pick any dividing line, say the 70th, 80th, 90th, or even 99th percentile of family income or wealth. It’s difficult to argue that inequality helps those below the line as much as those above it. If it benefits everyone evenly, there would be little reason to prefer the 60th over the 40th percentile, for example, or the 90th over the 60th.

But we do have preferences. We toil and sweat, even sometimes step on each other’s heads, in hopes of climbing one rung higher. Higher is almost always preferred to lower, all else being equal. That’s because wealth has real benefits.

The typical person might prefer being near the top, but to the degree that a society has inequality, he/she will live life closer to the bottom. It’s a mathematical fact, stemming from the lopsided distribution that characterizes inequality. Perhaps that’s why the American public apparently views income equality as the ideal. But if equality is the ideal — if it’s the fairest arrangement for the whole — why is inequality still a thing?

Perhaps it’s still a thing because the public doesn’t realize that equality is a viable choice, or that inequality is as extreme and corrosive as it is. Income and wealth equality (or near-equality), combined with deep democracy and deep transparency, are highly desirable and urgently needed. An R&D project is introduced here that could make them achievable. The carrot to spur action is the potential for greatly improved public health and wellbeing, including the elimination of poverty, a cleaner and more stable environment, reduced violence, and greater economic security. I claim that all these and more are achievable in our lifetime. The stick to prod action is the impending collapse of both the environment and civilization, possible in our lifetime or that of our children, if we fail to implement fundamental change.

To set the stage, let’s start with some basics.

Income and Wealth Inequality = Inequality of Influence

Money is power — the power not just to obtain material things, but also to influence others. It already serves as a de facto voting instrument in our (mostly undemocratic and un-transparent) economic systems. Those individuals and corporations with the most money have the most say — the most votes — in where investments flow, what get produced, where it is produced, at what pay, and creating what wastes and so on for long list of economic and financial decisions that affect the vitality and wellbeing of families and communities, even of whole regions and societies. Sometimes the public bands together, such as in a boycott, to use its combined economic voting power. But the basic equation remains the same. One billionaire has, roughly speaking, a billion times more influence on society than the average person.

In addition to economic decisions, a wealthy individual or corporation can have greater influence over political decisions (via contributions to candidates and political parties), legal decisions (via hiring expensive and connected law firms), science (via donations to colleges and research foundations), public welfare (via donations to favorite nonprofits and pet projects) and public discourse (via public relations campaigns, funding for media projects, and the purchase of media advertising, not to mention ownership of media).

For anyone who wonders about the power of wealth over politics, professors Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwesten) published a now-famous study in which they concluded that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” Their explosive conclusion was criticized on several grounds, to which they published rebuttals.

Apparently, the public agrees with Gilens and Page. A 2017 Associated Press poll found that 75 percent of Americans — across political, economic, racial, and geographical lines — agree they have too little influence over the decisions made by elected officials. Eighty-two percent agree that the wealthy (followed by large businesses, political lobbyists, and Wall Street) have too much influence. No wonder public confidence in Congress is just 6 percent. Half of US 18- to 29-year-olds believe that today’s politics are unable to meet the country’s challenges, and a majority reject both socialism and capitalism.

Similar problems of inequality — of income, wealth, and influence — are seen within other nations. Some fare better than others. Worldwide, the richest 42 people hold same wealth as the 3.7 billion poorest.

Given that money is akin to economic (if not political and legal) votes, it should come as no surprise that inequality of income and wealth are dangerous to the long-term sustainability of a society and civilization. As the wealthy wield greater influence year after year, decade after decade, they shape to their advantage both public discourse and the structure and function of political, legal, and economic systems. This happens not because the wealthy are evil or even very different from you and me. Practically any group of wealthy would do about the same. Those who have massive resources, especially in a system with insufficient checks and balances, quite naturally tend to use their resources to secure and improve their standing and to bend systems to their will. Moreover, they tend not to use resources in ways that would negatively impact that standing.

The long-term result is a public narrative, and political, economic, and legal systems, that benefit the wealthy far more so than others. This in turn causes societies to focus on solving the short-term problems of the influential, while too often disregarding the long-term problems of common people and the environment. As could be expected, unsolved problems accumulate and worsen over time, and eventually reach a breaking point.

We Are in Trouble

Global civilization faces a number of difficult, some scientists use the term wicked (as in highly complex and intractable), problems. These include pollution, habitat loss, soil erosion and degradation, exhaustion of underground water supplies, climate change, political and financial instability, epidemic rates of largely preventable chronic disease, waves of economic, political, and environmental refuges, proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons, and the militarization of society. New wicked problems loom on the horizon, including legions of killer robots, high unemployment due to robotics, and even larger waves of economic, political, and environmental refugees.

All existing major problems are intertwined rather than independent. It is perhaps due to interactions that the rate of species extinction is now so high that scientists warn the sixth great extinction may have already begun. During the fifth, about 66 million years ago, 76 percent of all species perished. No land mammal much larger than a cat survived.

Our great suffering might not be far off. The risk of systems collapse, even mass die-off of humans, in our lifetime or that of our children may be dangerously high. To reduce risk, we have urgent need for a dramatic shift in trajectory. The time for tweaks and nudges has long since passed.

In making sense of how we arrived at the precipice, and what to do about it, keep in mind that all of our major problems were predicted. Scientists and others have been ringing alarm bells for decades. As one example, in 1992 the Union of Concerned Scientists and more than 1,700 independent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates in the sciences, issued a stern “Warning to Humanity.” They outlined major problems, including climate change, and urged us to take swift action to prevent catastrophe. Of the many problems mentioned, only one, ozone depletion, has been somewhat successfully addressed (although now new production of banned chemicals is suspected). The other problems still haunt us.

An updated version of the warning was published in 2017, this time with more than 15,000 signatories and an even more urgent call for change.

Let’s pause for a moment and collect some pertinent facts. Humanity is at risk. You and your children are at risk, not some nameless generation far in the future. Serious problems have been left unsolved, even though common sense solutions have been available. All this has occurred under, or has been coordinated through, political, economic, and legal systems, and systems of public discourse, over which the wealthy have massive influence. The very structures of these systems, not just their policies, favor the wealthy.

Stresses are already being felt in societies worldwide, and still our political, economic, and legal systems seem incapable of implementing adequate solutions. There is no viable global plan to avert extreme climate change, or for that matter, extinction of the human species. The 2016 Paris Accord, our Hail Mary pass for climate change, increasingly looks like a failure. As we hurtle dangerously closer to collapse, our systems appear increasingly dysfunctional. Public trust hovers not far from zero.

As public strain, anger, and fear mount, populations are becoming more polarized. Authoritarianism is gaining ground — global democracy indexes have been falling for more than a decade. In coming years we shouldn’t be surprised to see currently stable nations and alliances splitting apart. If public trust continues to fall, power will naturally shift toward local control, which could in some cases be corrupt or authoritarian. Neither the United States nor the European Union should consider itself immune from splintering.

Trajectories of societies are difficult to change. Change takes time. In that sense we are now so close to the edge that some degree of catastrophe may be unavoidable. Yet I believe we can greatly reduce the extent of damage and loss of life, and speed a recovery to thriving societies. Progress will depend on whether we acknowledge our current danger with sobriety. In particular, we can ask ourselves if we believe that the systems by which we organize society — political, economic, and legal — are likely to deliver an eleventh-hour dramatic shift that can steer us away from the cliff. If that answer is no, or even probably not, there are options. Good options.

To be clear, important and laudable efforts have been and are being made within the confines of existing systems. It is crucial that such work continue. Improvements and reforms can ease suffering and provide some additional time. For example, the global rate of extreme poverty has been falling for decades. And investments in green energy are on the rise. But wonderful as they are, these efforts are largely too little, too late, and/or too piecemeal to sufficiently change our overall trajectory. Indeed, some major factors are hardly addressed at all, including inequality of influence due to extremes of income and wealth.

Think of political, economic, and legal systems as the mechanisms by which people self-organize to make collective decisions. That is, think of them, in the ideal, as problem-solving systems. Or, because learning and problem solving go hand in hand, think of them as learning systems. Then it is easy to see that current systems are dysfunctional. The fact that societies and civilization now teeter on the edge of destruction strongly suggests that our decision-making, problem-solving, learning systems are grossly inadequate.

Further, we can expect them to remain grossly inadequate as long as wealth and influence remain concentrated. They will continue to be used to solve the short-term problems of the influential, and to block otherwise positive actions that would negatively impact those who hold power.

Functional systems would almost certainly distribute decision-making power far more evenly, perhaps via some form of deep democracy (including deep economic democracy), and would embrace transparency, reward cooperation rather than vicious competition, and excel by design as decision-making, problem-solving, learning systems. Greater access to quality and affordable education would also play a role — the more individuals learn, the more likely it is that their societies will make wise and informed decisions. So too would latest advancements in fields such as cognitive and computer science regarding meta-learning, or learning to learn.

These would be transformations, not tweaks. Many of the institutions we now take for granted — capitalism, stock markets, private ownership of intellectual property, for-profit investments, and representative democracy — would likely be barely recognizable in our better future. They would be (gradually) replaced with institutions of new designs that are demonstrated in scientific field trials to be among the best in class at elevating the common good.

If we don’t make a timely transition to functional problem-solving systems, it won’t matter much in the end if electric cars can drive themselves, power comes from the sun, or financial transactions are recorded in blockchains. Even the best of piecemeal improvements won’t be enough to keep us from destroying ourselves, and perhaps also life on the planet.

That’s because our problems, at the core, are not caused by a lack of technology per se, or entrepreneurial spirit. They are not even caused by too many bad apples in leadership roles, although these exist and don’t help (and serve as yet another sign of dysfunctional systems). Our problems, at the core, are caused by inequality of influence, combined with lack of transparency. Our systems reward greed and selfishness, rather than cooperation. Further, we have failed to recognize that all of life on Earth is connected in one big complex adaptive system — all living things are our cousins, and we thrive when they thrive. Finally, we have failed to recognize that economic, political, and legal systems either excel as decision-making, problem-solving, learning systems, by design, or they self-destruct eventually under the weight of unsolved problems.

To summarize, I argue that the designs of our political, economic, and legal systems are inadequate for the purpose of solving pressing problems and we shouldn’t count on these systems to steer us away from disaster at the last moment.

Apparently, I’m not alone in holding this view.

According to a 2015 poll, a majority of adults in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom believe that their normal way of life will end within the next 100 years. Almost a quarter of respondents rated the probability of human extinction as 50 percent or greater.

Even some wealthy seem to agree. They are buying rural land, planning escape routes, and securing provisions in case civilization starts to crumble. A growing band of rich Americans, including some Silicon Valley giants, are building safe havens in New Zealand and elsewhere.

If there ever was a moment to wonder, as a child might wonder, why we don’t live in a healthy, secure, peaceful, and sustainable world, that moment is now.

Solving Problems that Matter

Given that civilization faces existential threat, we might start by asking if human nature is to blame. Are we as individuals fatally flawed? Maybe the dysfunctions in our economic, political, and legal systems simply reflect dysfunctions at our core.

Abundant evidence suggests this is not the case. Biologically, we are a wonder. We and other mammals are composed of billions if not trillions of cells that as a whole display levels of cooperation and integration that are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Biologically, we exist because of cooperation. It pervades us.

Cooperation is one of nature’s favorite strategies for survival — it can be seen in cells, and also in species across the spectrum, including molds, insects, and mammals. Humans display it to an extreme degree. We are deeply social by nature no matter what part of the globe we hail from. We instinctively favor cooperation and value fairness. It makes us feel good to help others, exercise creativity, and to love.

That’s no accident. The long path of evolution, over countless ancestral species, has inserted core needs like love and the desire to help others deep into our biology. Some investigators have proposed categories of core human needs. The economist Manfred Max-Neef recognizes nine: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom. Others, including the psychologist Abraham Maslow, propose somewhat different arrangements. However we define them, core needs make our survival more likely by focusing our attention on solving problems that matter. These are the problems or challenges that relate to core needs. These problems impact our vitality, sustainability, and wellbeing, and so hold meaning for us as individuals. By extension, they hold meaning to us as societies.

Humans are gifted problem solvers (when not overly stressed, manipulated, distracted, misinformed, exhausted, etc.). One could even say that problem-solving is our natural, or ostensible purpose. Our needs drive us forward and keep us focused on solving those problems that hold meaning. And therein lies the disjoint between who we are at our core and the means by which we make decisions at the collective level, via current economic, political, and legal systems. In short, our external systems poorly reflect who we actually are. They poorly reflect our purpose and thus represent a distortion of ourselves. While not completely dysfunctional, they are so grossly inadequate as to be dangerous in the long run.

If you are unconvinced that our systems poorly reflect who we are at our core and what we value, consider that billions of people have little interest in their jobs, apart from receiving their paycheck. Worldwide, only about 13 percent of employees are engaged in what they do for a living. This is a sure sign that our systems waste our talents, ideas, interests, and time. And it’s a sign of servitude, or forced labor.

We are programmed by evolution to solve problems that matter and to rise to challenges. If we want our economic, political, and legal systems to reflect this natural purpose, that is, if we want them to be fit for purpose, we will have to consider completely new designs.

We have the tools, science, knowledge, and urgent need to design new systems. I suggest that we also have a viable strategy by which to develop, test, implement, and monitor new systems.

Engage Global, Test Local, Spread Viral

It’s no small task, of course, to design and implement new systems. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible, or even impractical. In fact, it might be far easier than most would imagine. The trick is to understand that existing systems cannot be directly replaced. Abrupt replacement would be too disruptive, expensive, risky, and difficult.

In contrast, out-competing existing systems, gradually but predictably, offers a relatively smooth, affordable, low-risk, and viable path forward. If you can out-compete, direct replacement isn’t necessary.

The suggested strategy is to address each of the five primary characteristics that influence the rate and spread of new technologies and ideas: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trial-ability, and observability. The task is to demonstrate the potential benefits of new systems, for individuals and families, first by computer simulations and then by scientific field trials in real communities. Design new systems to function locally, at the community level, via a club model, so that a whole city doesn’t need to start at once. Make participation voluntary and free. Create friendly and effective user interfaces and tools. Finally, design new systems to complement, even stabilize, current ones. In short, make the barriers to participation low and the rewards high.

If this is done, there will be early adopters, just as with any technological innovation. If the new systems work as designed, others will follow, first in trickles, then in waves. I call this strategy engage global, test local, spread viral.

Global

The global part is an R&D program aimed at engaging the science, engineering, and technology communities, as well as grassroots groups and others, in developing defensible answers to two simple, powerful, but largely unexplored questions:

1. Out of all conceivable designs for social choice systems, which designs have greatest potential to minimize systemic risk and maximize collective wellbeing at multiple scales — local, regional, and global?

2. How is system quality best measured and monitored?

Here the term social choice systems refers to the rules and mechanisms by which a community or society organizes to make decisions, solve problems, and coordinate actions. Thus, social choice systems span all aspects of self-governance, including political-legislative-electoral, economic-monetary-financial, legal-justice, educational, data collection and forecasting, and more.

Not all social choice system designs are functional or sustainable. The goal of the R&D program is to identify, test, develop, model, monitor, and promote those that are demonstrated to be among the best at minimizing systemic risk and maximizing collective wellbeing — physical, mental, social, environmental, and more. Think evidence-based self-governance, akin to evidence-based medicine.

Local

Test local means that after passing extensive computer simulations and laboratory studies, new systems undergo scientific field trials hosted by local clubs. The new systems act like an overlay to existing systems, offering an extra layer of coordination and cooperation. A field trial could occur with as few as about 1,000 volunteers, just a small percentage of the population in many urban centers. Further, no local or national legislative action is necessary to start a trial in most areas.

If systems are well designed, they will produce large benefits for club members. To give some idea, a computer simulation of a prototype local economic system illustrates how a small US county (Lane County, Oregon) could eliminate poverty, nearly eliminate unemployment, and more than double median family income, all while bringing deeper democracy to local economic and financial choices. What administration of a US county does not want a higher tax base? What family does not want a higher and more secure income, or better quality of life?

Viral

Given expected benefits, clubs will naturally expand in size, and new clubs will form in new locations. This is the viral part. Clubs are also networked, and as they grow in number and size they increasingly cooperate in matters of trade, education, health, environmental protection, and other aspects of collective wellbeing. Similar to individual clubs, networks of clubs also make decisions through new forms of deep democracy, economic and otherwise.

As discussed in the R&D proposal the club model could achieve semi-global spread of new systems within several decades. Clubs that organize to host a scientific field trial would be among the first to experience new systems. A club would likely be active in your community within about 11 years of the first implementation. Within about 25 years of the first implementation, more than a hundred million individuals around the globe could be participating in a local system. Within the first 35 years, more than a billion could be participating. All could happen more quickly if public acceptance runs high.

This is to say that, within the lifetime of most alive today, a semi-global shift to new, vastly improved social choice systems, complete with greater cooperation and higher wellbeing, is possible.

A Visualization

If you need help visualizing what the club model might offer, imagine seeing this ad, posted by your local club.

Help Wanted: Join our large and growing team of engaged, creative individuals. Thousands of local opportunities in teaching, small-farm and small-business management, technology and open-source development, research, medicine, media, arts, and more. Interest in cooperation and helping others and the planet a plus. Free health care, child care, and training provided. Great job security, full retirement benefits, and a healthy working environment. Annual salary equivalent of approx. $110,000 per family, adjusted for inflation. 30-hour work week.

On inquiring, you learn that the salary is given for life, whether you are working or not. The club views money as a semi-formal voting instrument, a tool in its arsenal of economic direct democracy. As such, every family makes about the same high salary and so has about equal voting power over the club’s economic and financial decisions. New forms of digital money, local money managed by the club, supplement the national currency. The local currency aids economic direct democracy and acts as a type of buffer or protective bubble to cushion the club from the ails of the greater economy.

The club manages itself via a form of direct democracy, which gives you fair influence over the club’s decisions and actions. Dashboards of pertinent trends allow members to monitor progress and predict future conditions. Rich information helps members to make wise decisions. Unlike Facebook and Google, participants in these clubs own and control their own data. Each person decides who can access his or her data, when, for what purpose, and for how long. The core infrastructure is available via an open source or similar license, so the club has complete access to and control over its own system, from the ground up.

Which Path?

When Facebook first rocketed to global success, many were surprised to see that humans had such a pent-up need to communicate and share. In comparison to what lies ahead, Facebook may be just a warm-up exercise. The next step is bigger and more exciting. It addresses a need that is more pent up, closer to the bone, and more encompassing of purpose — the need to solve problems that matter, to communicate and share for a meaningful purpose. To achieve shared goals. To flourish.

The big hurdle is funding, although the R&D cost is not excessive. In fact, the budget is small enough that just a tiny percent of the world’s population — just a tiny percent of, say, young adults, alone, could fund it. Or a tiny percent of women, teachers, nurses, or college students, alone, could fund it. One percent of the world’s PhD’s, alone, could fund it. (And maybe they should, along with their students; the path puts science — the discovery of truths, and learning how to learn — at the center of collective flourishing.)

In case you are wondering, no R&D program like this exists, anywhere in the world. Not in any university. Not in the nonprofit sector. The issue, again, is funding. I am confident that if a secure source of funding were available — for example, a small annual commitment by millions of individuals — the response by the academic, scientific, and technology communities would be large and positive.

What future shall we choose? Equality or inequality? Deep democracy or more limited forms? Sustainability and wise stewardship of resources, or exploitation for profit? You have a good idea of where current systems are taking us. A viable alternative path exists, and that path is science based. Time is running out. By action or inaction, you will bet your life on some path. Whichever you choose, there are risks. What will it be?