The 8 hardest problems on the path to sustainability

Technology is insidious in that people find something in it that solves an immediate problem and does not make its entire effects known. Cars were like this: they allowed us to travel farther and do more, but nobody predicted the horrific effect of global warming when people first started using gasoline-powered automobiles in the late 19th century.

Some technologies may be truly benign, or at least benign enough so that even the most enlightened societies might choose to keep them. Other technologies might have a mix of good and bad effects and we might choose to keep these technologies simply because the good outweights the bad.

The ultimate ideal for society would be that we examine each technology thoroughly and decide whether to use it only after an intensely critical look at it. Unfortunately, there are some severe challenges or hindrances that prevent society from being this enlightened.

In this post, I will describe eight of these challenges that revolutionaries and reformists must overcome before we can reach a state resembling sanity.

1. Many people love technology

Some people’s lives are much better with technology, and other people might just really enjoy using technology. In other words, for some people, the world seems pretty good!

People enjoy using technology even when the overall effect of the technology on society is negative, simply because the negative effect does not follow from the individual’s use of said technology, and moreover a single individual hardly effects anything these days.

Technology moreover is addictive. It plays upon our instinct to gather as much information as possible and it panders to our social instincts to connect, even though the resulting connection enabled by technology is often inferior to real connection.

These effects make it hard for people to be critical of technology, and it will make it hard for people to want a society where that technology is not as advanced. Many people simply love using their phones, and would find them hard to give up. When AI is more thoroughly integrated with phones, the addiction will only become worse.

Moreover, the people whose lives are especially comfortable are made so by technology. Those people are in turn the people who will have the least to lose if our society collapses due to environmental degradation, which in turn is caused by technology. And finally, those people are the ones who often have the most power in our society, not only because they are often the people with the most money, but also because they are the most highly educated and are the ones who are at the forefront of technological development.

The biggest problem in societal change will be to force these people to change. Their retirement accounts are often dependent on endless economic growth, which is primarily a function of technology or if you will, a reflection of the growth of the technological organism.

2. Negative effects are hard to fathom because they are long-term

Another challenge with technology is that the negative effects of technology are not immediately visible. Humans just were not programmed to take into account consequences such as the complete ecological collapse of the planet. We evolved at a time where humans could not destroy the global stability of our ecosystem. A global collapse of the ecosystem was never an evolutionary pressure.

Humans, like all creatures, evolved to maximize fitness, which essentially means being able to prolong their lineage. In simpler but cruder terms, humans made decisions so that they can have children who themselves can have children. Therefore, our instincts, which drive our logical reasoning, are powerfully biased to focus on gains only towards this goal.

Of course, we have the capacity for abstract thought and thus we have the ability to see the error in our ways, at least if we’re trying to maximize sustainability, but this realization will always be shadowed by our short-term instincts. Thus, if we are to have any hope of reaching sustainability and harmony with other plants and animals, we need to be much more aware of this feature of ours, which is a shortcoming in the context of our overpopulated and unsustainable resource usage.

In short, the rapid development of new technologies fits our short-term brains perfectly, but is antithetical to our long-term survival.

3. Prisoner’s dilemma

The prisoner’s dilemma is a pervasive phenomenon in modern culture. It describes a situation where two people would be better off if neither of them took any action, but because just one person taking the action benefits themselves IF the other person does not take the action, both have to take the action. It’s the game-theoretic description of the classical arms race, and due to our capitalistic society, the prisoner’s dilemma is everywhere.

In the realm of technology, the prisoner’s dilemma occurs because one person using a new technology will bring benefit to that one single person, and so other people use the technology merely to keep up even if in their hearts they believe that using the technology is not right, and goes against their values, or more prosaically, even if that technology isn’t really crucial for them to make a decent living. I once tried to convince the users of Mathoverflow to reject AI and leave the Stackexchange network. The response I got from Joseph van Name was a classic example of the prisoner’s dilemma:

A stand against AI development will simply allow some groups to progress unimpeded while other groups will be stifled, and this effort will result in inequality and less AI safety. If one wants to slow down AI progress, then one should have worked on AI safety earlier, and one now needs to work harder on AI safety. While we may not be able to stop or slow down the development of AI, we can certainly steer the development of AI into a safer or more friendly direction.

Of course, I reject everything said here and I do not believe anyone can steer AI in a more friendly direction with such an attitude.

The prisoner’s dilemma is one of the prime drivers of all technological development. The grass is greener on the newer side, so everyone flocks to the latest and the greatest. Greatest indeed.

Unfortunately, the strategy that is rational for the one-time prisoner’s dilemma in the game-theoretic sense is completely devastating for humanity in the long term. If we are to have a critical, societal-level look at technology, we will need a way to combat the prisoner’s dilemma, introducing new rewards that disrupt the basic game-theoretic tragedy for people so that the rational strategy is no longer rational in the short term.

4. Tech solves problems created by previous tech

Technology introduces all sorts of side-effects, some of them very dangerous. For example, pollution caused by the technology of fossil fuels increases lung diseases such as asthma and cancer. And sometimes, the only way to solve these problems in the short-term is to use even more technology. In the case of lung diseases, it’s medical technology.

Another example is loneliness. Technology makes people lonely by isolating them, but then provides a salve in the ways of new social networks, new chat apps, which of course are a poor substitute for genuine community and in-person interaction.

There may be better ways to solve this and other problems brought about by technology, but creating new technology is often the path of least resistance, which is very attractive to us in our fast-paced world.

Thus, we need people to understand the problems created by technology and to find even more creative solutions to these problems that do not make use of new technology.

5. Capitalism

In theory, I have nothing wrong with capitalism on a small scale, especially when it is sustainable. Sustainable capitalism means an emphasis on local trade, local production, and involvement throughout a local community. It involves a strong ethic of everyone having enough through trading of their comparitive advantages, without the ruthless and soulless drive for endless efficiency that is characteristic of the advanced technology mediated globalization.

On a large scale, capitalism has essentially failed. This is because capitalism is a vivious environment that selects for short-term solutions in lieu of other control mechanisms. These control mechanisms such as sustainability put capitalism on a leash and are only present in small communities. With the rise of global societies, these mechanisms have vanished.

The result of capitalism is a large machine of endless growth on a finite planet, and a force of humanity powered by unsustainable technologies like fossil fuels.

In the future, one of the key ways of living more sustainable would be a revolution to a new system so that the rapid development of technologies for short-term gain is not longer profitable.

Capitalism works well in a society where the size of the society is dwarfed by the number of resources and the size of the surrounding habitat, and when the society is relatively homogeneous. In the sense of sustainable ecology, capitalism starts to fail in our case because the reverse is true: the size and complexity of our society dwarf natural ecology.

6. Anti-technology Is Differentially Attractive

On the surface, anti-technology movements or other movements that promote caution against technology are much more appealing to those who especially love nature compared to those who have little exposure to nature or who have never had the chance to experience the beauties of nature.

Therefore, the danger is that people who are distrustful of technology will simply go off and form their own echo-chamber, happily espousing anti-technology sentiments while living in the woods. Unfortunately, while this creates an interesting and sustainable microcosm, it will hardly help the non-human animals and plants that are being destroyed by wanton capitalistic violence.

Thus, although anti-technology views are crucial to oppose the technological organism, anti-technology individuals and groups risk being insular and they risk being limited to existing as a place for those who detest the onslaught of advanced technology.

Even if a fairly large group emerges made up of people who want to be more cautious with technology, they risk merely being a secular version of the Amish who live relatively peacefully amongst themselves but who do not effect change. Although this would make members of the anti-technology group happier in some ways, it would not solve the underlying problem: to prevent the mass of humanity from crushing other lifeforms with the aid of advanced technology and resource usage.

Thus, it is imperative for those who wish to change the world not merely to be content with living away from technology, but also to continually strive to stifle the crushing nature of modern humanity on our biosphere.

7. Livelihoods are Dependent on Technology

Most humans now depend on technology for food and shelter. They don’t just depend on it indirectly in the sense that advanced technology is used in farming and house construction, however. They also depend on it directly because a great mass of jobs are in fact are involved with the creation of new technology, in some way.

For example, the role of marketers is to promote new technology—most of which we don’t need. The role of programmers is to make computer hardware more functional for the technological organism. The role of bus drivers it to drive people to their workplaces so they can create new technology…and so forth.

Like it or not, any job you can get will likely strengthen the technological organism in some way, no matter how much of a Luddite you are (and I use Luddite in the positive sense). Although it is possible to be sustainable without a lot of advanced technology, the upbringing of the vast majority of people consisted of being indoctrinated into a fragile, technological society.

8. Inertia

All the previous problems are given great momentum because of inertia. Due to the massive world population, making changes is very hard. Some people cite the world reaction to COVID to prove that we can move fast when necessary. However, the reaction to COVID was within the interests of the technological system. Of course, when the existing system is threatened, it can react quickly.

The same type of reaction can be seen with the Russia-Ukraine war. Pretty soon after the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia, a bunch of the major world economies put an economic strangle on Russia and sent an enormous number of weapons to the Ukraine.

Does this mean that the massive human populace can work together to solve problems? Absolutely not. It proves that when there is a direct threat to technological and economic growth, the system can react quickly to it. But the dangers to humanity caused by the technological system would require an opposition to momentum, which is far more difficult than protecting the system.

Additional Problems

Since the writing of this post, I have come up with some additional problems:

  1. People who love nature may detest technology, but in turn this may make their crusade towards a more enlightened future look more like an outright crusade against technology (which it could be as well). However, people who are aware of technology’s extreme dangers need to work together to find an optimum path towards an enlightened society, which may require subtle thinking with less emotion.
  2. The education of the latest generation in higher educational institutions is overwhelmingly politicized, mostly towards the radical left. Most of them are taught to see the world in very black and white terms. Part of the specific nature of the radical left is to seek comfort in the existing technological system by promoting equity across pre-defined demographic groups in technological development.


In short, the problems facing our technologically strangled society are huge. Solving them requires collaboration, and talent in all areas in order to address these serious problems. In order to be ecologically sustainable, we need to solve all of these problems to move peacefully from our present state into one that does not pose a serious existential threat to every lifeform, including ourselves.

These problems seem insurmountable sometimes, and so that is one reason why we see a variety of rebellious acts against society such as anarchism and revolutionaries. However, simple small-scale revolutions and anarchism aren’t enough to make too much change on their own, or if they are, they might also be chaotic. Of course, various ideas in anarchism or other similar styles may have useful insights.

The most important thing to do if you believe in reform or revolution is to contribute in your capacity to promote skepticism towards technology, growth, and our devastation of the ecosystem for short-term gain.

But in order to solve the problems of our technological society posing a crushing risk to the planet, we need to go beyond single ideologies or strategies. We need to evolve organically with the problem at hand, and carefully instill all these ideas into the mass of our population so that its inertia can move away from endless growth to sustainability.

I welcome any comments!

All my posts are written without AI. Feel free to download and copy this image to support the fight against AI!

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