Do Better Better #11: Break It Down

Quinn Emmett
December 9, 2020
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In Friday’s newsletter, we talked a bit about employing “first principles” thinking in dissecting a problem.

Our world is endlessly complex. We’ve got seven and a half billion people, eight million-ish species, twelve major religions, one hundred and ninety-two countries, a wide variety of climates and topographies, as well as finite natural resources and seemingly infinite technological innovations that are somehow both unequally distributed and can make or break nations and livelihoods.

So we’re going to have problems. That’s life.

But some of our problems, like the climate crisis, need to be solved ASAP. If we want to build a radically new world, a helpful approach supersedes the most common question: “How do we fix X?”

I prefer starting with: “Why the hell is X this way at all?”

And this is where first principles thinking can be helpful.

Here’s a quick excerpt if you missed Friday’s newsletter (which is here), or if first principles thinking is new to you:

The entire point of utilizing first principles thinking is to clarify problems by taking them apart as far as you can go: to separate any and all underlying facts from any assumptions based on them. You're essentially looking to discover the basest elements, and then rebuild from there.

And then I provided an example we can all relate to:

You're a smart, curious person. You're part of our community. I don't have to explain the following facts to you, but I also shouldn't have to explain them to anyone: food, water, and air are the three human necessities. Even Mitch McConnell cannot deny these things. These are ground-level facts we can agree on, because we have to.

And yet, these items are increasingly difficult to access. Why? It’s complicated. Let’s find out.

It’s important to note: this particular problem -- the inaccessibility of clean food, water, and air, does not have to exist.

Then why the hell does it exist? “Because it’s always been this way.” Why? “Because resources cost money.” Why?” “Because you need labor and infrastructure to process them, and only governments and corporations can afford to do so, and they need to be compensated for their costs, and in the case of business, to profit.” Why? “Because successful businesses require growth”.

We can keep going: why do businesses need to profit from these resources, specifically? They don’t need to, they choose to. Why? Because they are simultaneously scarce, and essential for survival, and thus valuable? Because they are, to a person with little capital, otherwise finite resources? Why? Are we required to charge for them because they are so limited? Why? If a government makes subsidies available to businesses or people for the extraction and processing of such resources as, say, fossil fuels, could they also (or instead) subsidize and guarantee clean air, food, and water?

Here’s my new assumption based on what we know:

Rational humans can go back and forth on taxes, on capital punishment, on speed limits, on agricultural subsidies, on public transportation budgets, on international corporate tax havens, on public money for private sports stadiums, on so much more. But denying fellow humans clean air, water, and food is a human rights crime and should be treated as such, every time. There are myriad ways to profit in a capitalistic society. Choosing to extract profits from these, when they are now in such short supply, is morally corrupt.

We’ve talked about identifying your personal 3 or 4 North Star values and making sure every choice you make with your time and money lines up with those. The same set of standards can be utilized quite simply for elected officials and business leaders.

Does your new policy violate anyone’s access to clean air, water, and food? No? Great. Yes? GTFO. Start again.

If you don’t employ these sorts of standards, if we all don’t, and if we don’t make these standards inviolable, things will continue to be done the way they’ve always been done and a radically better world will remain light years away, because these are the building blocks for the whole goddamn project.

It’s actually nice to have such crystal-clear elements in play. “Oh, the human body cannot survive without these three things? Great. I guess that’s table stakes. Moving on.”

Stand in your child’s tiny shoes for a moment, and ask “Why?” over and over (and over) until you get to the bottom. Clarify your thinking by reducing problems down to the irreducible. Challenge assumptions built on these irreducible problems, especially the assumptions of those in power. Insist on reputable evidence. Highlight the shit out of the consequences of the world we’ve built, and then rearrange the blocks to show in no uncertain terms that we can build something better.

Our world is so fucked that an essential perspective to arm yourself with is “things do not have to be this way”: We don’t have to pay women less; we don’t have to drink milk from cows; we don’t need to eat those cows, either; we don’t need to use cars powered by pulverized stegosaurus bones; we don’t need to continue investing in industries that profit off the backs of historically marginalized citizens; we don’t need gas stoves; Black and Brown people don’t need to breathe dirtier air, drink dirtier water, and live and go to school in the hottest part of every city in America.

I hope this helps. Try it out today. We’ve got more content coming that will help you better understand the basics of why our world is the way it is, so we can tear it down and build anew. Keep going.

— Quinn

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