In programming, we have a design principle of loose coupling, opposite of tight coupling where services are highly dependent on one another. Most of the time, tight coupling is bad practice because it reduces flexibility/reusability and increases complexity. We can use the same analogy for society. In the past, we have examples throughout history where things were once tightly coupled and later shifted to a more loosely coupled model like separation of church and state. Presently, in sustainability, I hear that we need to decouple natural resources and environmental degradation from economic growth. First off, there is a word for out-of-control growth. It’s called cancer. There are limits to growth, as Robert Kennedy once said,
“Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
I believe we need to decouple growth from the notion of progress. In the future, I believe we’ll need to decouple many more aspects of society to as we evolve to new levels of collective consciousness:
Decoupling technology from success
Humans have always been fascinated by tools. Sometimes, this leads to overconfidence that human ingenuity and newer technologies can solve the problems of today. In fact, this type of misthinking leads to a dangerous game of “our wits vs their genes” as seen in the rise of antibiotic resistance over the last few decades. Bacteria can replicate itself in under 20 minutes, evolving each time, while human generations span longer than 20 years. What would you rather place a bet on?
A less known phenomenon in economics is called the Jevons paradox. It states that as technology increases, efficiency increases, but then our consumption of the resource increases as well, negating the positive effects of that technology. From Wikipedia, “The Jevons paradox indicates that increased efficiency by itself is unlikely to reduce fuel use, and that sustainable energy policy must rely on other types of government interventions.”
Decoupling work from income
The idea of getting paid to do an unfulfilling and unengaging job seems so Industrial Era factory thinking to me. Our societal systems of neoliberal capitalism and a gridlocked political system that seems more like a plutocracy than a democracy have wrecked havoc on our intrinsic motivations and social human nature. We know what motivates us — purpose, autonomy, and mastery. Why are we living in outdated institutional and societal structures that no longer best serves our needs, and what then can I do? I believe in a world where every human has the basic right to all levels below self-actualization in Maslow’s hierarchy, including, but not limited to (physiological needs) clean air/water, healthy food, clothing/shelter, (safety) personal/financial security, well-being, insurance/safety net, (love and belonging) family/friends/mentors/colleagues, (esteem) respect, autonomy, and mastery. This unprecedented level of equality would give everyone the real opportunity for “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In self-actualization and beyond (self-transcendence, etc) could we truly have enough energy to explore our unique individual and collective purpose, contribution, and gifts. To do so, would require radically changing our economic and political systems, which decoupling work from income for the basic human needs of physiological needs, safety, and love and belonging, would be a good step in that direction.