Re-Civilizing the World

The human mind treats a new idea the same way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it. — P. B. Medawar

Summary: The solution to civilization’s problems may be bigger than usually contemplated and also simpler. One form of collective intelligence is relatively easy to develop and has the potential to change the course of how we live on the planet.

Shared questions invite participation and possible answers. The best working answers can build over time. This simple and reliable model of collective intelligence is the operating system for science, technology and capitalism. The same model can produce a civilization that self-optimizes for environmental sustainability and human well-being.

We think of civilization as a vast set of events and forces beyond human influence. There is another possibility. With a new understanding we can treat civilization as a project we develop on purpose according to certain guidelines, not in a top down way but from all directions at once. This new possibility stems from an insight into the pattern that makes science, technology and capitalism the world-shaping systems they are.

These systems display constant improvement if based on learning and skill development, rather than the rise-and-fall trajectory of traditional civilizations. Learning and skills are potentially infinite, in contrast to material resources. Knowing this pattern, we can create a global civilization optimizing for human and environmental well-being. Imagine the potential of a global civilization focused on becoming increasingly skilled at living well within its environmental realities, and with the power to replace nonworking answers and systems with better ones.

Technology, science and capitalism have existed for hundreds of years or much longer and are continually evolving with undiminished vitality, though capitalism has fits and starts due to a flaw in its current operation. Each system is highly creative, globally decentralized, and elicits enthusiastic participation (with detractors, of course). Each has accumulated and continually processes huge amounts of information relevant to its aims, possesses a massive, evolving infrastructure, and produces results that engage and shape the world.

Their underlying pattern is simple and even familiar when pointed out, yet grasping it requires a reversal of ordinary answer-centric thinking. Einstein said “The world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking that we have done so far, has created problems we cannot solve at the level of thinking at which we created them.” The question-centric pattern of these systems applied to making social and political decisions may qualify as Einstein’s new level of thinking. It systematically uproots dysfunctional answers and replaces them with increasingly effective ones.

The underlying pattern

This is the fundamental idea: Technology, science and capitalism are organized around core questions which persist over time.

  • Technology asks “How can we do this thing or do it better?”
  • Science asks “How does nature work?”
  • Capitalism asks “How can I make more money?”

Core questions are shared. Shared questions invite possible answers from those interested in the question. Selecting for the best answers produces constant improvement. The collection of best answers and the infrastructure devoted to creating, testing and using them can evolve indefinitely as progress continues. That evolution has a specific process with five steps:

  1. Ask the core question as it applies to the present situation
  2. Identify or invent possible answers
  3. Test them objectively and choose the best one
  4. Adopt the best answer widely. This is a working answer, to be replaced when a better one is identified
  5. Repeat endlessly, building on what was learned in previous cycles

These systems are “core question systems” and the repeating process is the “core question cycle.” Each cycle adds learning to the store of knowledge: something does or does not work. Answers build on or replace each other and the system endlessly self-corrects and self-optimizes toward answering the core question more completely and effectively. The core question determines the output, so knowing the core question tells us what the result will be. Selecting the core question lets us shape the outcome.

Questions are always in the present tense, so the core question encompasses all available information up to the moment of asking. This is also true for more specific subsidiary or subordinate questions, or “subquestions.” Subquestions address specific situations within each system. This is the level where specific knowledge, techniques, tools, methods, materials, and so on accumulate, which can then be widely used and which shape social and material reality.

This core question approach is a practical form of collective intelligence. The three necessities are a core question that engages people, an information infrastructure to support the flow of communication, and participation. Important core question systems are naturally global and open participation makes them more powerful.

Creating a new model of civilization

The current global decision-making system is powerful, stable and heavily influenced by the core question of capitalism. That is aimed at individual profit distinct from the common good. The ruling arrangement has no incentive to change. If we are to create fundamental change we need a fundamentally different approach.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at Davos in January 2011 is quoted thus:

“We need a revolution. We need revolutionary change, revolutionary action. We need a free market revolution for global sustainability,” he said in an address to the 41st Annual Meeting.

For this to happen, change must come across the board, including to the way people live, the way they organize socially and the way politics are conducted. But most of all, it needs fast and decisive action on climate change to slow global warming, he said.

“The days of consumption without thought are over,” Ban warned. “Climate change is rendering the old model obsolete.” The old economic model now amounts to a “global suicide pact”. (source:

Notably missing is how to create this revolution. I believe a well-directed core question system, uniting and building on existing global resources, can do it, and this article explains how. The foundation is a core question. This is the best version I have been able to identify:

How can all human beings have satisfying lives while at the same time nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?

I call this the Global Core Question. Without human satisfaction we will have environmental destruction and wars without end. Without a natural system moving rapidly toward recovery, nature will continue to move into patterns inhospitable for complex civilization, or worse.

Objective assessment is also essential in the core question cycle. One way to approach making satisfaction objective is used by The Happiness Survey (, working off Bhutan’s project to develop Gross National Happiness over the last few decades. This is one of many such measurement systems under development.

Distinguishing material and nonmaterial needs

Increasing satisfaction for the world’s population starts with meeting material needs (i.e., water, food, shelter, education, health care) for those without enough. However, research shows that beyond a certain level more material wealth does not increase happiness. Moderate incomes countries can rank higher on happiness measures than those with higher consumption.

Increasing human well-being while improving environmental well-being requires distinguishing between material and non-material needs, and supplying each appropriately. Many in the over-consuming parts of the world try to satisfy nonmaterial needs (i.e., inclusion, respect, self-esteem, meaningfulness) with material consumption. This doomed effort can be addictive. That is the basis of consumer culture. On the other hand, community inclusion, respect and the entire spectrum of nonmaterial resources are truly infinite; the more they are developed and distributed the more plentiful they are.  To what extent can nonmaterial resources replace material resources while producing better results?

If we learn to distinguish material from nonmaterial needs and then satisfy each in the most effective ways, we can create a worldwide culture of well-being while reducing consumption and pollution and restoring a healthy natural balance. We may even find satisfaction in living in a way we are proud to pass on to succeeding generations.

A logical alternative

The global core question system is a logical alternative to the status quo in three ways. First, the only alternative to division is unity. Allowing some parts of humanity privilege over others results in deprivation and exploitation, for some will expand their advantage endlessly. Conflict and environmental destruction in reaction to unfair treatment and poverty are completely predictable. The only alternative to division is seeing all of humanity as one. The moral teaching of the ages is the only systems-compatible view.

Environmentally, the logical alternative to seeing the world as an endless pile of resources to be plundered without consequence is to see the world as a complex system with limits and its own behavior, upon which we and all living things depend for our well-being. With that view it is natural and practical to do whatever we can to return it to a healthy state, if only for our own sakes. The only way to do that is permanent reversal of damaging trends toward restoration. Slowing or even stopping the rate of damage is not enough.

Finally there is organizational logic. Capitalism currently has the moral authority to more or less run things. As the exchange process providing the wherewithal for most of humanity to live it is seen as addressing the fundamental question of human well-being.

I wish it worked. As it operates now, capitalism concentrates wealth at the very top, leaves a billion people hungry, its instability destroys lives planet-wide, it gives the wealthiest people the control of political decisions that shape the world, and with that guidance the planet is being eaten up and poisoned. This is entirely predictable as the result of the unbounded quest for unlimited personal wealth lying at the core of the capitalist core question, operating regardless of larger concerns.

You get what you ask for. Fortunately, what we ask for can be changed. From the systems point of view the global core question is more comprehensive and direct in addressing the fundamental question of how to live. Making it primary puts technology, science and capitalism in a globally coherent and meaningful context. The integrated set of questions becomes:

Global Core Question: How can all human beings have satisfying lives while at the same time nature becomes increasingly vibrant and healthy?

First tier subquestions:

  • Technology asks “How can we create this outcome technologically?”
  • Science asks “How does nature work in regard to this question?”
  • Capitalism asks “How can I make more money in ways that generate this outcome?”

Further subquestions to any level of detail address the specifics. For example, any owner can ask “How can I run this business in a way that increasingly helps all human beings have satisfying lives while making nature increasingly vibrant and healthy?” Customers can look for such businesses. In this arrangement the three do not change their fundamental behaviors. They simply adopt more precisely tuned filters on their acceptable options. Similar filters are in use already, proving their functionality.

This arrangement articulates the function of governance as providing for the common good in an objective and global fashion, recognizing interdependence. It lets innovation and desire work together toward that common good, fulfilling the promise of capitalism. It opens the way for rational and transparent choices, public examination of options, decisions and operations, and outcomes measured and monitored independently. This approach replaces ideology and insider manipulation with analytical and moral clarity, divisiveness with inclusivity, disparity and collapse with systematically improving global well-being, exploitation with fairness, and establishes a basis for global cooperation toward a thriving planetary culture on a thriving planet.

Impossible, right?

This transition is not only possible, it has a great deal already working in its favor. Technology, science and capitalism have created and daily increase their enormous resources and capabilities for answering the global core question. Other streams of knowledge from the past and now emerging are crucial as well. A vast if splintered worldwide network is already focused on moving in these directions, and the evidence for its need is becoming undeniable.

The three keys to success in this project are the concept, information infrastructure and participation. You have the concept. The information infrastructure is the most critical missing piece. An open source, internet-based information infrastructure would be the property of humankind. The ultimate goal of this project is essentially an open source civilization operated through collective intelligence for the benefit of all, standing as the alternative to a proprietary civilization owned and operated by centralized elites for their own profit. This is an opportunity for the open source community to literally save the world. I have no doubt its members are up to it.

The third key to success is participation. Paul Hawken of Blessed Unrest calls the movement for social and environmental well-being the largest ever, but invisible due to its scattered and grassroots nature. The number of organizations with these aims may be in the millions. Membership is correspondingly greater and the number who would participate if doing so were more hopeful, practical and visible is greater still.

Sharing a core question, a strand of unifying conceptual DNA, can make the myriad interests and organizations visible as a united whole without diminishing diversity and local autonomy one iota. As parts of a single global social organism, individuals and groups which may have felt isolated and powerless can recognize themselves as parts of an emerging reality operating on an unprecedented scale. Already powerful in fact due to its cumulative efforts and results, a new level of self-awareness, collaboration and visibility can make this movement much more powerful.

Emergent capabilities arise from new levels of connectivity. One is far greater ability to focus global resources on local points of high leverage for breakthrough change. Many important elections and policy decisions hinge on slim majorities. A self-aware, cohesive movement might swing decisions at all levels.  More eyes can solve more problems much faster, and this system brings together many, many sets of eyes with the highly varied resources behind them. A fractal reflection of the whole system is a global structure highlighting problems so all who care to can contribute possible solutions. Best solutions can be adapted to other situations as needed. Such systems exist now in other fields. Collaboration among local groups operating as cousins and allies rather than competitors could lead to new possibilities and types of results.

The increased visibility of a movement sharing a global question would attract many more people. A well-organized information infrastructure with a growing number of entrance points would let people entering anywhere find their ideal niche. The key strategy is this: Unite globally, act appropriately.

This project may first appeal to those already engaged. It would open the door to people in all fields who realize the need for change but do not know where to plug in. Its positive revolutionary potential may attract young people to take it as their cause, with good reason. Internationally, anybody can adopt the global core question and apply it to their concerns. By doing so and finding others with whom to share it, each person joins and extends a self-organizing global movement. Feel free to be the first in your neighborhood.

This project provides an ambitious, comprehensive, logical way forward, distinct from status quo structures yet able to interface with them with integrity. It offers the hope and the possibility of a world restored to its natural glories while fostering the fullest expression of human potential. This project and this civilization possess the potential for endless innovation and improvement, endless growth and development. As a system of collective intelligence, building knowledge, capacity and richness of connection among participants it parallels the functions of a human mind while engaging the collective human mind. It is Tielhard de Chardin’s noosphere, the global field of knowledge, dedicated to universal well-being.

Applying this idea to itself

Let’s apply this whole concept to itself.

  1. Ask the core question as it applies to the present situation
  2. Identify or invent possible answers
  3. Test them objectively and choose the best one
  4. Adopt the best answer widely. This is a working answer, to be replaced when a better one is identified
  5. Repeat endlessly, building on what was learned in previous cycles

Ask: I haven’t addressed this previously, but one can work backward from the answer to identify the question. If I ask myself why I developed this approach over a span of decades, most of that time not realizing what I was working on, and in particular over the last 11 years, since I did realize it, all that was in response to the question “How can we not destroy the planet?” I’ve held that concern since the late 1960s.

A more positive take is “How can we live on this planet in a way that works?” which was another question I held. I assumed there was a way to do that. In that question the term “works” has to be defined. To me it means all human beings have satisfying lives on a healthy planet, in a situation free of the rise-and-fall “civilization syndrome.” All that in a creative, evolving, open-ended cultural and intellectual environment. So that’s the question I was asking.

Identify: The concept as presented above is a proposed answer to that question. It is not fully stated but the core of it is there.

Test: In this system, if this idea seems worth taking further it would be tested objectively, not “does it fit my familiar beliefs?” but does the claimed unifying pattern underlying science, technology and capitalism make sense? Perhaps it needs refinement, but is there some truth to it?

If it does describe the pattern underlying those three phenomena, is it transferable to organizations, social spheres, and to civilization? Which ones, how, with what results?

One test would be to see if this core question model can be applied to existing situations. Can an existing set of problems and groups be described more effectively by taking a question-based approach? Does this approach reveal a coherent view of a field of endeavor? Does it map existing situations and describe them? If so, do the results generate any advantages such as insights, new opportunities, connections or collaborations that would not have been apparent or happened otherwise?

Adopt: If the approach is actually useful, the next stage is finding ways to apply and extend it. This can happen in one interest area

To be continued…

2 Responses to Re-Civilizing the World

  1. Pam says:

    Daimon, I am thrilled to have found this discussion. All I can say is “That’s it!” You have outlined the yellow brick road.

    There are some folks here in Bellingham experimenting with this questioning and conversing model of evolving intelligence. We have been guided by a process described by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs in “The World Café.” Do you know this reference? I’ve included a link to the fledgling website. I hope we will be able to build meaningful connections in order to bring about healthy, engaged lifestyles as a common experience. (May I link your discussion to our site?)
    I am also inspired by Tom Atlee’s “Citizen Deliberation Councils” and the concept of Open Source or Wiki-government, and by Pattern Dynamics–Tim Winton’s symbolic language for talking about fundamental relationship. How can we create some grassroots structure to invite participation?


    • Daimon says:

      Hi Pam,
      Of course you may link to this on your website. I have participated in World Cafe discussions. I was at Tim’s presentation on Pattern Dynamics recently in Bellingham so we were probably in the same room. I find his ideas quite intriguing as well. How can we create some grassroots structure to invite participation? Excellent question. Let’s connect and talk about it.

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