Small Solutions To Big Problems

by Nate

“What if the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis?”

Bayo Akumalfe

The world is faced with insurmountable problems, from pandemics to climate change, global terrorism to global poverty. Everything is a crisis.

Humanity has been on the rise for thousands of years. We just continue to become more impressive, and more impressed with ourselves. This has gone on for so long that we don’t think there’s any other way. And it doesn’t help that any relevant prehistory which might offer credible alternatives has long since been obliterated by floods and the passage of time.

As a species we believe, by and large, that it is our natural imperative to grow (and grow). This is what Charles Eisenstein refers to as “The Ascent of Humanity”.

It is a story of endless growth, and the money system we have today is an embodiment of that story, enabling and propelling the conversion of the natural realm into the human realm. It began millennia ago, when humans first tamed fire and made tools; it accelerated when we applied these tools to the domestication of animals and plants and began to conquer the wild, to make the world ours. It reached its glorious zenith in the age of the Machine, when we created a wholly artificial world, harnessing all the forces of nature and imagining ourselves to be its lords and possessors.

Charles Eisenstein – Sacred Economics
Image: Rocket Launch by PhaseRunner

Our species’ obsession with growth has lead us to prioritize efficiency (and profitability) above all other concerns. In the ancient world this lead to the use of slaves as a labor force. In the modern age we call it human capital management. In both cases, the pursuit of efficiency (for the sake of greed) has stripped labor of its sacredness and corrupted it into a purely extractive practice.

Turning people into assets and the fruits of their labors into commodities changes the nature of that labor. Performed in veneration of nature, gods, and spirits, labor can provide balance and purpose to human life. Compelled by the instinct for survival, labor becomes greedy, consumptive, and soulless instead.

Our instinct to grow was corrupted into an instinct for greed in the same way dogs are trained to be vicious through duress and trauma. Eisenstein’s “Ascent of Humanity” is made possible through cruel, inhuman efficiency.

Our appetite for cheap, convenient productivity has lead us from the threshing floor to the assembly line and beyond within a comparatively small window of human history. In the near future, maintaining up-and-to-the-right growth will demand increasingly more dramatic sacrifices as individuals, and alternative ways of living will begin to look more palatable.

However, the view from the top of this pyramid of power becomes progressively pinholed by a quasi-religious belief in perpetual ascension until it can only see directly ahead, further down the path we’re already on.

Change the story, change the world.

Terry Pratchett
Image: Monument by jbrown67

A species as marvelous and as big as ours has equally massive and unconquerable problems. Our fears have to balance out our appetite for ambition; which is ravenous. Thus the belief in our ultimate superiority is the seed of our doom, because any challenge we don’t know how to solve must be unsolvable.

When we grapple with issues like pandemics and climate change we assume that A) these are completely new problems humanity has never faced before and, B) that any solutions to humanity’s big problems must be big as well.

The modern concept of scale reduces labor to the simplest, most reproduce-able set of steps, with no room for interpretation or deviation. Efficiency distills our labor to mere production and strips it of humanity. It forces us to standardize and centralize our activities so that we can produce identical copies of the same solution for everyone in the cheapest, fastest way possible.

Modern problems take place at scale, so it is assumed that any solution must necessarily be scalable as well. In our blind pursuit of growth, a solution isn’t valid if it doesn’t consume valuable resources, generate massive profits (growth), and scale to the size of the entire world’s population.

Responding to the crisis this way is part of why we’re always in a crisis. Bigger and more elaborate solutions beget more complex problems, and the more we enable opportunists to profit on crisis response, the more crises we’ll have.

Bigger and more numerous crises enable expansive growth for the nations that sponsor their solutions. Emergency powers authorize future emergencies. Big solutions, often rushed to the front lines of the crisis at hand, always prioritize scale over effectiveness. There is no room for nuance at the scale of a global solution -and this is why they fail.

If big, centralized solutions only cause more problems then perhaps it is time to try small, decentralized ones.

Image: The Farm at the end of the World by Silberius

Centralized solutions fail at scale for the same reasons that governments do. Scale generates bureaucracy, which attracts corruption and waste. The larger the effort, the more bureaucracy that forms around it. Decentralized solutions, which can operate in the absence of a central bureaucratic authority, are superior when small, independent cells coordinate their efforts.

There are very compelling examples of this principle in action; the radical mycology movement, decentralized finance (defi) cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, open source software projects, and (notoriously) terrorist groups. Each of these examples leverage the flexible, nodal qualities of asymmetrical networks to maximize efficiencies and mitigate risks at scale.

Radical mycology is a little known area of interest that is growing in popularity quickly among the horticulturally-inclined, resilience-minded, and environmentally-conscious crowds. In some instances, amateur mycologists are pushing the boundaries of remediative mycology, experimenting with ways to use fungi to reverse damage done to the environment. In other cases, fungi fans are refining and disseminating mushroom growing strategies to popularize a cheap, high protein source of food that can be easily grown at home.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies that function on a decentralized (and anonymous) blockchain offer the means to extract and store wealth outside the central banking system. The central banks are arguably the most powerful institutions in the world and, therefore, defi currency is one of most revolutionary examples of decentralization in action. The global popularity of Bitcoin and the central blockchain might disqualify it from being considered a small solution, but in comparison to the global financial markets, it is relatively small. Also, the many derivative cryptocurrencies following in Bitcoin’s footsteps prove that smaller fragmenting of defi currency will always be one of its main characteristics.

The oldest open source software projects have been around for decades at this point, demonstrating that decentralized / authority-less projects are both feasible and, in some instances, superior to other problem-solving models. Linux, WordPress, Apache, and other projects have all been good examples of this system in action at various times in the last 20 years.

Other more subtle examples exist as well:

  1. Home school networks allow parents to source expertise and support without relying on the public school system.
  2. Growing your own vegetables, raising chickens, etc. reduces dependency on centralized supply chains.
  3. Local farmer’s markets allow smaller producers to contribute to food supply chains without grocery stores as intermediaries.
  4. Direct-to-consumer bulk butchery services break the monopoly of industrial meat producers.
  5. Alternative healing modalities circumvent the pharma cartel’s attempts to standardize global healthcare.
Image: Pitey by Vincenzo Pratticò

In some cases these projects are enormous but the key difference between centralized projects and decentralized projects, even at scale, is that the lack of a central authority acts as a defense against corruption. Independent contributors, unimpeded by the bureaucracy of centralized authority, can continue to push boundaries and drive results regardless of the conditions faced by any single member -and the coordinating body can easily be replaced if necessary.

Collaboration in a nodal model is more secure and more resilient than any centralized architecture. When applied to science, research, and knowledge-sharing communities, this nodal approach is especially effective at policing accuracy and authenticity.

Small groups of experts, collaborating across decentralized networks, are more effective and less vulnerable to disruption (and corruption), especially when operating in a local context.

Decentralized solutions like open source software and defi currency are great examples of the former, but less exemplary of the latter. Bitcoin is Bitcoin everywhere by design -but the real opportunity is in pairing decentralization and localization to produce small, customized solutions that are the perfect fit for a particular group (or region).

Examples of decentralized and localized solutions most often take the form of movements or schools of thought, such as permaculture and regenerative agriculture. There are a few places to get certifications for permaculture but certainly no governing body or even a common platform used by practitioners. Instead there’s just the Permaculture Handbook and a wealth of wisdom owned by the collective community of permaculturists. Much of the same can be said of regenerative agriculture, which hosts an impressive array of independent experts, but no central authority. Both are still small enough to be effective.

And I believe that is the key -their size.

Image: Farmers at dawn by frank gallager

It is easier for smaller entities to be agile, to experiment, and evolve. Larger ones become less nimble, less flexible, and more prone to corruption. A few people collaborating on a project can accomplish much more than a large committee. The same pattern applies to collaborative problem-solving efforts. Clusters of small groups working towards the same ends while sharing their data and experiences as a collective can outpace larger efforts ruled by restrictive central authorities.

That’s the premise. Small clusters of independent collaborators with “skin in the game” working to solve big problems in their immediate local area and sharing data will yield better solutions, faster, than empowering corporate cartels to sell us highly profitable one-size-fits-all solutions that they control completely.

Big centralized thinking got us into many of the messes we’re desperately trying to solve our way out of today. Continuing to rush haphazard, universal solutions to market to solve our problems is unsustainable and, frankly, the very definition of insanity.

It only makes sense to change our approach and try smaller, decentralized, and localized problem-solving strategies like I’ve discussed in this post. Most importantly, this approach puts control back in our hands as individual contributors. One of the most discouraging parts of modern life is the overwhelming feeling of impotence that comes with facing all these intractable global problems. As an independent player in a global game you can both directly impact your local area and indirectly contribute to the success of your peers around the world.

The concept of small (decentralized) solutions provides a lot of interesting territory to explore, so I’ve decided to produce an on-going series, called “Small Solutions”, which will examine specific scenarios where small, local solutions are demonstrating great potential in solving big, global problems.

As always, the point of my writings is to inspire you with practical, achievable, strategies for improving your life. Small, decentralized solutions offer you the chance to contribute to making the world a better place while making your local area -and your life- better in the process.

Never feel discouraged by the immensity of the world’s problems; just do what you can in the place where you live and trust that you’re not the only one trying to make a difference.

Featured Image: Giant vs Witch by Du1l

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