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Are we awake yet?: Science, economics and democracy


by Tom Atlee 3/19/2000


Bill Joy, chief scientist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc, the leading Web technology manufacturer, is seriously questioning the unreflective forward motion of technology (see news report below).  Painfully -- and significantly -- he seems to have no idea what to do about this problem, even though he fears it could cause human extinction within decades. 

Right after Bill Joy's amazing article in the April WIRED (which I urge you to read) is an equally amazing article (below) by Amory and Hunter Lovins, the brilliant founders of The Rocky Mountain Institute and co-authors (with Paul Hawken) of NATURAL CAPITALISM.

None of these folks are anti-science, anti-technology, or anti-markets. What they ARE is awake to the direction we are heading. As a Chinese says goes: "If we don't change our direction, we will end up where we are heading." Not a happy prospect.

How do we change that direction? Bill Joy reluctantly suggests government regulation. His reluctance is understandable. There is a serious limit to how far we can go with regulation, as necessary as it may be in the short term. The social, economic and techological systems we have built are far too complex and powerful to be adequately regulated. To prevent those systems from self-destructing or wiping out the rest of us, we need to build in feedback loops which can monitor and adjust the status of those systems on an ongoing basis. Democratic innovations like citizen consensus councils (especially citizen technology panels) and economic innovations like quality of life indicators are two such feed-back loops. There are many others. Right now the feedback loops we have (such as a money-controlled Congress and the Gross Domestic Product as the main economic indicator) are reinforcing our problems, not ameliorating them.

Study circles have also proven powerful in helping citizens become educated and active around technological issues. Citizen technology panels, study circles and citizen consensus councils are only a beginning, but they are a potent one.  If citizens are given a chance to reflect powerfully together on what's happening to their lives and technology, they will provide clear, useful and creative guidance about how to proceed.  Corporations, non-profits, governments and/or wealthy individuals could sponsor such citizen education and empowerment programs.  Perhaps if we raise consciousness during this ripe moment of public debate about essays like Bill Joy's and the Lovins', someone will surface who has resources to get this rolling.

The floods in Mozambique are a warning of things to come. Compassionate people around the world are moving to help those struck by this tragedy. However, we need to realize that ameliorating individual suffering without addressing the systemic causes of that suffering is foolhardy indeed, no matter how compassionate it feels. Who is speaking up about the role of global warming in such flooding?

The articles by Bill Joy and the Lovinses (and many others) tell us that we are entering an era of mass consequences -- not from our evil deeds, but from imbalances and dysfunctions in our social, political and economic systems. If we pour our resources primariliy into ameliorating individual suffering, the rising wave of suffering caused by our dysfunctional systems will soon overwhelm our ability to ameliorate it, and we will find ourselves swamped in disasters without neither the ability to aid the suffering nor the resources to change the systems that create it.

In my view it makes sense, when faced with natural and social disasters -- both actual and potential -- to ask, "Why is this happening? Is there something about the way we are all living and operating that makes this sort of thing happen?" And then to focus our actions on those deeper causes.

I offer this as a query to open up new possibilities, the next time you are choosing where to put your time, your concern, your dollars, your attention. Because the life energy we all invest now will make all the difference in the world. It is the only thing that will.



_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

A widely syndicated article ABOUT Bill Joy's essay, which summarizes some main points, is quoted below from this URL:

From Internet Scientist, a Preview of Extinction

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 12, 2000; Page A15

A respected creator of the Information Age has written an extraordinary critique of accelerating technological change in which he suggests that new technologies could cause "something like extinction" of humankind within the next two generations.

The alarming prediction, intended to be provocative, is striking because it comes not from a critic of technology but rather from a man who invented much of it: Bill Joy, chief scientist and co-founder of Sun Microsystems Inc., the leading Web technology manufacturer.

Joy was an original co-chairman of a presidential commission on the future of information technology. His warning, he said in a telephone interview, is meant to be reminiscent of Albert Einstein's famous 1939 letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt alerting him to the possibility of an atomic bomb.

In a 24-page article in the Wired magazine that will appear on the Web Tuesday, Joy says he finds himself essentially agreeing, to his horror, with a core argument of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski--that advanced technology poses a threat to the human species. "I have always believed that making software more reliable, given its many uses, will make the world a safer and better place," Joy wrote in the article, which he worked on for six months. "If I were to come to believe the opposite, then I would be morally obligated to stop this work. I can now imagine that such a day may come."

Joy enjoys a level-headed reputation in the industry. "Nobody is more phlegmatic than Bill," said Stewart Brand, an Internet pioneer.

"He is the adult in the room."

Joy is disturbed by a suite of advances . He views as credible the prediction that by 2030, computers will be a million times more powerful than they are today. He respects the possibility that robots may exceed humans in intelligence, while being able to replicate themselves.

He points to nanotechnology--the emerging science that seeks to create any desired object on an atom-by-atom basis--and agrees that it has the potential to allow inexpensive production of smart machines so small they could fit inside a blood vessel. Genetic technology, meanwhile, is inexorably generating the power to create new forms of life that could reproduce.

What deeply worries him is that these technologies collectively create the ability to unleash self-replicating, mutating, mechanical or biological plagues. These would be "a replication attack in the physical world" comparable to the replication attack in the virtual world that recently caused the shutdowns of major commercial Web sites.

"If you can let something loose that can make more copies of itself," Joy said in a telephone interview, "it is very difficult to recall. It is as easy as eradicating all the mosquitoes: They are everywhere and make more of themselves. If attacked, they mutate and become immune. . . . That creates the possibility of empowering individuals for extreme evil. If we don't do anything, the risk is very high of one crazy person doing something very bad."

What further concerns him is the huge profits from any single advance that may seem beneficial in itself. "It is always hard to see the bigger impact while you are in the vortex of a change," Joy wrote. "We have long been driven by the overarching desire to know that is the nature of science's quest, not stopping to notice that the progress to newer and more powerful technologies can take on a life of its own."

Finally, he argues, this threat to humanity is much greater than that of nuclear weapons because those are hard to build. By contrast, he says, these new technologies are not hard to come by. Therefore, he reasons, the problem will not be "rogue states, but rogue individuals."

Joy acknowledges that to some people, this may all sound like science fiction. "After Y2K didn't happen," he said, "some people will feel free to dismiss this, saying everything will work out."

Joy is less clear on how such a scenario could be prevented. When asked how he personally would stop this progression, he stumbled. "Sun has always struggled with being an ethical innovator," he said. "We are tool builders. I'm trailing off here."

                 © Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company


A Tale of Two Botanies

By Amory B. Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins

1. This abridged version (Wired 8.04, April 2000)
2. RMI original HTML:
3. RMI original PDF:


Plants, shaped into incredible diversity by 3.8 billion years of
evolution, make possible all life and are resilient against almost any
threat - except human destructiveness. From botany came the genetics
of Mendel and Lamarck, formalizing the patient plant-breeding that
created 10,000 years of agriculture.

Now, however, in the name of feeding a growing human population, a
completely different kind of botany, in the Cartesian tradition of
reducing complex wholes to simple parts, strives to alter isolated
genes while disregarding the interactive totality of ecosystems. Its
ambition is to replace nature's wisdom with people's cleverness; to
treat nature not as model and mentor but as a set of limits to be
evaded when inconvenient; not to study nature but to restructure it.

The new botany aligns the development of plants with their economic,
not evolutionary, success: survival not of the fittest but of the
fattest. High-yield, open-pollinated seeds abound; the new crops were
created not because they're productive but because they're patentable.
Their economic value is oriented not toward helping subsistence
farmers to feed themselves but toward feeding more livestock for the
already overfed rich. Most worryingly, the transformation of plant
genetics is being accelerated from the measured pace of biological
evolution to the speed of next quarter's earnings report. Such haste
makes it impossible to foresee and forestall: Unintended consequences
appear only later, when they may not be fixable, because novel
lifeforms aren't recallable.

In nature, all experiments are rigorously tested over eons. Single
mutations venture into an unforgiving ecosystem and test their mettle.
What's alive today is what worked; only successes yield progeny. But
in the brave new world of artifice, organisms are briefly tested by
their creators in laboratory and field, then mass-marketed worldwide.
The USDA has already approved about 50 genetically engineered crops
for unlimited release; US researchers have tested about 4,500 more.
Over half the world's soybeans and a third of the corn now contain
genes spliced in from other forms of life. You've probably eaten some
lately - unwittingly. The official assumption is that they're
different enough to patent but similar enough to make identical food;
Europe's insistence on labeling, to let people choose what they're
eating, is considered an irrational barrier to free trade.

Traditional agronomy transfers genes between plants whose kinship lets
them interbreed. The new botany mechanically transfers genes between
organisms that can never mate naturally: An antifreeze gene from a
fish becomes part of a strawberry. Such patchwork, done by people
who've seldom studied evolutionary biology and ecology, uses so-called
"genetic engineering" - a double misnomer. It moves genes but is not
about genetics. "Engineering" implies understanding of the causal
mechanisms that link actions to effects, but nobody understands the
mechanisms by which genes, interacting with each other and the
environment, express traits. Transgenic manipulation inserts foreign
genes into random locations in a plant's DNA to see what happens.
That's not engineering; it's the industrialization of life by people
with a narrow understanding of it.

The results, too, are more worrisome than those of mere mechanical
tinkering, because unlike mechanical contrivances, genetically
modified organisms reproduce, genes spread, and mistakes literally
take on a life of their own. Herbicide-resistance genes may escape to
make "superweeds." Insecticide-making genes may kill beyond their
intended targets. Both these problems have already occurred; their
ecological effects are not yet known. Among other recent unpleasant
surprises, spliced genes seem unusually likely to spread to other
organisms. Canola pollen can waft spliced genes more than a mile, and
common crops can hybridize with completely unrelated weeds.
Gene-spliced Bt insecticide in corn pollen kills monarch butterflies;
that insecticide, unlike its natural forebear, can build up in soil;
and corn borers' resistance to it is apparently a dominant trait, so
planned anti-resistance procedures won't work.

It could get worse. Division into species seems to be nature's way of
keeping pathogens in a box where they behave properly (they learn that
it's a bad strategy to kill your host). Transgenics may let pathogens
vault the species barrier and enter new realms where they have no idea
how to behave. It's so hard to eradicate an unwanted wild gene that
we've intentionally done it only once - with the smallpox virus.

Since evolution is a fundamental process, it must occur at every scale
at which it's physically possible, down to and including the
nanoecosystem of the genome. It's unwise to assume, as "genetic
engineers" generally do, that 90-plus percent of the genome is
"garbage" or "junk" because they don't know its function. That
mysterious, messy, ancient stuff is the context that influences how
genes express traits. It's the genetic version of biodiversity, which
in larger ecosystems is the source of resilience and endurance.

Transgenics is showing disturbing historical parallels to another
problematic invention, nuclear fission. In both enterprises, technical
ability has evolved faster than social institutions; skill has outrun
wisdom. Both have overlooked fundamentals, often from other
disciplines wrongly deemed irrelevant. Both have overreached - too
far, too fast, too uncritical.

Our key choices now are not between unwelcome alternatives - nuclear
power or freezing in the dark, transgenic crops or starvation - but
between those bad choices and attractive ones outside the orthodoxy.
For crops, the best choice would be fairer distribution of food grown
by a respectful and biologically informed agriculture that stops
treating soil like dirt. But sound choices tend to emerge and get
adopted in time only if we take seriously the discipline of mindful
markets and the wisdom of informed democracy. Botanists have a
professional duty to help us all understand the vital differences
between biology and biotechnology - between the foundations of their
traditional science and the scientifically immature but commercially
hell-for-leather enterprise, a billion times younger, that aims to
replace it.

Amory Lovins, a physicist and MacArthur Fellow, and Hunter Lovins, a
lawyer and social scientist, are cofounders of Rocky Mountain
Institute, the copyright holder. An unabridged version is available at

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