Techno-Progressives and the Post 2015 Millennium Development Goals

What the current crisis in and over Syria makes painfully clear is the extent to which the international system, the way in which global affairs have been organized since at least the 19th century when it became possible to view the various human communities scattered across the landscape of the earth as part of one-world is failing. The system is failing whatever the outcome of current debates in the UN and US over military strikes against Syria.

It is failing in light of the already 100,000 dead in the Syrian civil war. It is failing from the perspective of the almost 2 million refugees who have fled the country on account of the war. It is failing as the violence of the crisis spills out into neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Iraq. It is failing as geopolitical rivalry- between the US, Israel and Western powers along with the Arab states on the one hand and Russia, China, Iran and the Shia powers on the other stand in the way of stopping what was a humanitarian disaster long before chemical weapons were used to callously murder civilians in their sleep.

It is a sad coincidence that the failure of Syria is likely to overshadow an event that underlies how the international system in general and the UN in particular is actually working in its mission of providing the tools of global governance (something quite distinct from the what would surely be the nightmare of global government).

On September 25th 2013,Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations is scheduled to  present a global vision for the future in the form of the Post 2015 Millenium Development goals these are goals that are meant to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) established in 2000.

You may be only vaguely aware of what the original MDGs are, so here is a very superficial rundown. The MDGs were established in what might be described as a pre- 9/11 spirit of international optimism regarding the new century. With the adoption of the United Nations Millenium Declaration, one of the few agreements on which all UN member states subscribed, a set of 9 development goals were established, which signatories agreed to work towards.

What was novel about the MDGs was their use of targets (applicable for 8 of MDGs) by which the success or failure in reaching a developmental goal such as #4 “Reducing Child Mortality Rates” could be measured. There are arguments surrounding the extent to which the goals have been reached, or even where they have been reached, whether the MDGs themselves had any major role in such progress.

Where the MDGs clearly succeeded is in bringing public attention to the issues of development after a long period of inattention following the end of the Cold War. The MDGs also succeed in focusing the attention of developing countries, First World donors, and NGOs on objectives in a way that had never been seen before.

The MDGs expire in 2015 to be replaced by a new set of global goals with the process to replace them having begun in 2012. What was unprecedented in the creation of the post 2015 goals was the degree to which the process opened itself up to the input of civil society the work of Jamie Drummond and his organization One begin only perhaps the most well known of these effort.

Yet, if the process of coming up with the post- 2015 goals has so far succeeded in anything it is in bringing together utopian projects that have been largely separate and often rivals since at least the 1970’s. The post-2015 dialogue brought under one roof organizations focused on development, human rights, and the environment.

On September, 25 2013 the UN will unveil the post-2015 goals at a special session. This will not be the end of the process but its movement into high gear as states and organizations jockey to define what the goals mean, and what their obligations under international law to meeting these goals are. The adoption or failure to adopt the post-2015 goals is also likely to cross-hatch with the international deadline to reach a new and comprehensive agreement to tackle climate change which is also slated for 2015.

So what are the post-2015 goals? They fall into five categories embracing development, human rights and environmental sustainability.

1) Leave no-one behindmoving from reducing poverty to ending it, with no person, regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, or disability, being denied basic economic opportunities and fundamental human rights.

2) Sustainable development at the corea shift away from destructive patterns of economic development towards sustainable patterns of production and consumption.

3) Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth – ensuring growth benefits the societies and people who need it most, while ending the jobs crisis and harnessing the energy of youth.

4) Build peace and effective, open, and accountable institutions for allrecognizing that peace and good governance are essential to human well-being and sustainable development.

5) Forge a new global partnershipbuild a broad partnership able to deliver the post-2015 agenda and harness the finance needed to invest in change.

 The question I want to address in the rest of this article is how might the techno-progressive community aid in reaching these goals? These are merely my ideas, I am sure others could come up with better ones, but what follows might at least serve as the beginning of a discussion.

Leave no-one behind

In some ways techno-progressives are way out in front of this issue by taking seriously discussions of a guaranteed basic income. There are, I think, other ways techno-progressives can help here as well.

The IEET is already engaged in trying to extend the reach of technology into Africa through its African Futures Project including its work in Madagascar. All great and laudable efforts. There are many ways we might build upon the work of these projects that reflect the unique political philosophy and priorities of techno-progressives.

What is often missed in techno-progressive/transhumanist discussions around maximizing the healthy human lifespan is that global demographics have reached the point where this is now a development issue. The number of people over age 60 is expected to reach 2 billion by 2050. The often unrecognized fact is that the vast majority- 1.5 billion- of these people over the age of 60 will be in the developing rather than the developed world. Places that more often than not lack adequate health care services to start with.

Ensuring that the elderly are able to lead healthy, productive laws for as long as possible is more than just a matter of medical technology, but techno-progressives committed to equality need to promote and push for the extension of age related breakthroughs into the developing world as soon as possible once they are proven safe and effective. For example, should very recent research in halting age related memory loss result in a safe and effective intervention, techno-progressives need to be primed to make sure such a drug makes its way to the developing world as quickly as possible.

Related to but also distinct from the issue of human aging, one of the most humane projects techno-progressives could begin to pursue in earnest through research, advocacy, and partnerships with other organizations would be to address another often unacknowledged crisis, that of global disabilities. Again, according to United Nations an astounding 650 million human beings suffer from disabilities.

In the developed world we already have an extensive kit to deal with many disabilities. In the developing world, however, far too few of these responses to disability- whether the result of accidents, birth-defects, or age are available for those below the highest economic strata. Mental health is a huge area where progress in the developing world is sorely needed, but I will focus on purely physical disabilities for the sake of brevity.

One of the ways techno-progressives might be able to help in this regard is through partnerships with and fundraising for some of the NGOs dedicated to extending the reach of advanced prosthetics into the developing world. Organizations such as the Prosthetics Outreach Foundation.

A very specific and transformative technology in this regard are cochlear implants which literally bring a subset of humanity into the full range of human senses. The issue with deploying cochlear implants in the developing world on a larger scale appears to be less a question of expense than the specialized expertise needed for tuning the device. Work on remotely tuning these devices is currently being done by the Sydney Cochlear Implant Center and as soon as it proves workable techno-progressives could push to maximize its implementation through partnerships, fundraising, and lobbying of rich countries for financial support.

These are just some areas where techno-progressive attention might be focused and in which the community could help in reaching the first of the post-2015 Millennium Development goals of “Leaving no-one Behind” there are certainly many others.

Sustainable development at the core

As was mentioned, one of the major ways the post-2015 MDGs and the MDGs are different is that the former combines elements of the utopian projects of the development, human rights and environmental communities. The IEET might offer intellectual support here by adopting as part of its research agenda exploring the recent debate within the environmental community between ecological modernism and traditional environmentalism. Ecological modernists propose that humanity sever its dependence on nature through technology for the sake of nature, and more attention needs to be paid to the benefits and pitfalls of such an approach within the techno-progressive community. More attention should also be paid to the movement towards “smart” and sustainable cities as well. A movement having an effect from Rio to Delhi.

Unlike other progressive communities, techno-progressives not only do not instinctively recoil from technology, but openly embrace it as long as it serves as a vehicle for progressive ends. Such as the case with GMOs or synthetic meat, techno-progressives need to support scientific literacy wherever technologies that have great potential for improving human and animal good are met with polemical attacks, public hysteria and irrational disgust.

Techno-progressives should also throw their support around reaching a comprehensive climate change agreement by 2015.

Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth

Techno-progressives have been among the first to recognize the challenges of technological unemployment as computers and increasingly robotics continue to make their steady advances. This is a problem for the First World where the middle class is shrinking and returns to capital vs labor are on the march. It is also a problem for the developing world where economies had been following the universal track of modernization present since the industrial revolution began of starting with cheap labor to build increasingly complex and sophisticated economies. The problem for the developing world is that the automation revolution is occurring before those countries have established a significant middle class.

The techno-progressive idea of a universal basic income might be part of the solution to this problem, at least in the rich world, but the developing world posses much bigger numbers and even larger challenges. Part of the way to address this challenge will likely be income redistribution from capital to labor. Techno-progressives need to put themselves at the forefront not only in establishing the degree to which the problem of technological unemployment is true ,and if the condition is likely to last, but also in imagining innovative solutions to the challenges posed by automation.

Build peace and effective, open, and accountable institutions for all

There are many areas where techno-progressives might help in these questions of governance, but I want to focus on just one.As Duncan Green pointed out in a recent Royal Society Policy Lab panel discussion on science and the post-2015 Millenium Development Goals, science and technology are rarely neutral when it comes to the questions of power and wealth. As techno-progressives it is incumbent upon us to make sure that technologies are used in ways that do not weigh heaviest on the weakest and poorest among us.

Green’s example of the likely prospect for some sort of geoengineering response to climate are telling here. Given current inequalities, a process with potential risk, such as iron fertilization will likely be implemented near coasts where poor people live rather than off the coast of a rich world country. Techno-progressives can play a unique role in bringing these inequality questions to the the public’s attention while avoiding the knee-jerk rejection of technological intervention whole cloth.

This intersection of technology, wealth and power also plays a key role even in areas where technology is ostensibly being applied for progressive ends. For example in the 2000’s pharmaceutical companies who had come under pressure for denying generic drug production in less developed states, began making their drugs more widely available in the developing world. Yet, there is now justified criticism that pharmaceutical companies are aggressively marketing their drugs in the developing world in a way that distorts rather than aids in the promotion of human health in non-developed societies.

Pharmaceutical companies have also engaged  in the dubious practice of “evergreening” where minor changes to a drug that have little to do with its effectiveness are used to lock in patents thereby closing off the route to cheaper generic versions.

None of this compares to the frankly Fulleresque recent revelations that Western pharmaceutical companies have been testing their drug designs on people in the developing world.  Here, I think, techno-progressives directly confront a number of the assumptions that underlie some, though not all, of transhumanism more generally.

The use of the world’s poorest as guinea-pigs for medical research is a chilling example of Zoltan Istvan’s so- called First Law of Trans-humanism “A transhumanist must safeguard his own existence above all else” a position fraught with dangers and morally abhorrent. Any techno-progessiveism worth its salt needs to push back against such assumptions where they collide with the desire for the most widely shared human improvement and needs to start drawing some clear ethical redlines that should not be crossed even if crossing those lines would accelerate progress in achieving some otherwise laudable transhumanist ends.

Forge a new global partnership

Techno-progressive need to reach out to and collaborate with others engaged in the various and until now largely separate utopian projects that are aiming to make the world a better place. How can techno-progressives partner with groups pursuing human rights, environmental sustainability or development? Where can our unique skill sets and interest best be used to support and accelerate positive change in the global situation of humanity? What might we learn from engagement with these other utopian discourses, and how might the goals of techno-progressives be understood and re-framed in the light of these other ways of looking at the world?

How will we be remembered?

When historians look back on the month of September 2013 what will they think most important? Will it be the crisis in Syria and it consequences or the opening round of the post- Millenium development goals? The answer to that question might tell us as much about the shape of the world in 2050 as any technological breakthrough. Techno-progressives need to enter the discussion and throw their weight behind the success of the lasting success and impact of the latter.


Mockingjay is the last of the novels in the dystopian Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins. For my money, it is the best of the bunch because, much more than the two previous novels in the series, it manages to explore the moral ambiguities that inevitably arise in the struggle against dystopia and in doing so arms the reader against certain elements and political realities of dystopias specifically. and tyranny more generally in a way that allows the novel to serve as a survivors and rebels guide through both.

The dystopian areas where the Mockingjay has something particularly relevant to say are: the cult of fear that surrounds tyranny, the meaning and psychological nature of torture as a political weapon, the nature of revenge and desire for collective punishment, the moral dangers of insurgency, and the unpredictable, uncontrollable nature of political action and the relationship of such action to responsibility.

Pretty good for a children’s book.

One aspect that the Mockingjay brings to the fore is the cult of fear that surrounds tyranny. The foundation of Panem has been the Hunger Games that instill a sense of paralysis upon the Districts. Once the spell of this fear has been broken, as it was by the open defiance of Petta and Katniss in the Game, the regime does all it can to restore the balance of terror, engaging in a genocidal campaign against the rebellious Districts, burning District 12, which both Peeta and Katniss call home, to the ground leaving only those who can escape by their own wits alive.

We learn in the novel about the sphere of murder that surrounds President Snow. It is not merely the horrors of the Hunger Games and the civil war against the Districts that constitute this sphere, but a wave of secret murders and tortures which have brought and kept him at the pinnacle of power.

As Plato in his Republic told us: There are crimes from which there is no turning back.  Once a tyrant has crossed a certain level of political violence, only further violence can insure his safety, as the deep desire for justice and revenge grows in those who have felt the lash of the whip. Such violence on the part of a tyrant results thus in more and more violence. The moral vortex only silenced with the tyrant’s end.

Collins did not foresee this, but this is precisely the situation we had in Libya before the end of Gaddafi, or in Syria right now as I speak, or, God forbid, in Egypt should the current machinations of the military open a floodgate of resistance.

A second issue the Mockingjay deals with is the nature of torture. In the novel Peeta has his very soul transformed by torture. The person he loves most in the world and has sacrificed everything for, Katniss, has been transformed in the form of re-engineered memories to appear to him as monstrous. Here, we should take away something very important about the role of torture in dystopian and tyrannical regimes, and for our own foreign policy. The role of torture, as any knowledge of the Inquisition or familiarity with Orwell’s 1984 or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange tells us is not the infliction of pain, but the possession by the state of the soul. With torture, the state aims not merely to break  but to shatter and make unreconstructable the heart of the individual. The purpose of President Snow’s torture of Peeta is not merely to assert ownership over the soul of this rebel, but to shatter forever the heart of the girl, Katniss Evergreen.

The only emotional response possible by the individual under these circumstances is the desire for revenge. One can forgive perhaps almost any crime committed against oneself, but how can one forgive the murder or torture of those one loves. Revenge becomes the only emotional anchor and monomaniacal purpose for persons who have suffered thus, as the desire for personal revenge against President Snow becomes the overriding purpose of Katniss after she learns the fate of Peeta. This desire for revenge, could it remain within bounds, might otherwise go by the name of justice were it not for the very real danger that it will become transformed into something else.

The problem is that the person at whom this desire for revenge is justly targeted often remains unreachable. The real criminals are hidden safely behind the fortress of power, so the danger for the person seeking justice becomes one of targeting those who can be reached. Far too often those reachable are total innocents connected to the tyrant by weak associations such as shared ethnicity or religion. This extension of hate to the collective, when combined with the implicit weakness of insurgencies relative to those in power, results in the horrors of terrorism. This danger is represented in the Mockingjay by the character Gale who turns his trapping skills not just on the armed forces of the Capital, but its innocent citizens as well.  It is also seen in the willingness of even Katniss to bring down punishment on the children of the political criminals of Panem, as a form of collective “justice”.

A last thing that the Mockingjay teaches us well is the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of our actions and what it means for our sense of moral responsibility. Everything Katniss does seems to unleash a chain of events that result in more and more suffering, and she is tortured by this suffering. Even her very freedom seems to be used as a tool of the leader of the rebel forces, District 13 for its own political purposes. Is she just a pawn in yet another game? If Katniss has caused so much suffering what is to separate her moral status for that of a tyrant such as President Snow? Surely it is not that she has “reasons” for her actions. President Snow has his reasons as well, namely to prevent the chaos and bloodshed of another rebellion.

What distinguishes Katniss from President Snow are two things: 1) she nowhere directly tries to cause suffering- such suffering results from the responses of others to the actions she takes, and her avoidance of action because of such an eventuality would result in moral paralysis if she heeded it and not the desire to overcome the systematic suffering that characterizes Panem. And more importantly:  2) Katniss feels responsible for her actions. There is no rationalization, as is the case with President Snow, there is none of the infamous “you need to break eggs in order to make an omelette” which has served as justification of all sorts of horrors in the name of revolution and counter-revolution alike. There is no blind faith that the violence she engages in will bring forth a better world or preserve a world better than the alternative.  Katniss is, thus,  the very opposite of a tyrant, and her story gives us insight how to not become tyrants, or much more likely,  the servants or enablers of tyrants, ourselves.