Interview between David Sloan Wilson, John Bunzl and Nick Duffell
A while back I received a book in the mail titled “The SIMPOL Solution: A New Way to Think About Solving the World’s Biggest Problems” by John Bunzl and Nick Duffell, who were unknown to me. I get sent a lot of books with grandiose titles and don’t get around to reading most of them. But something about this one intrigued me, along with an endorsement by Noam Chomsky, who wrote “It’s ambitious and provocative: Can it work? Certainly worth a serious try”.
So I read it in a single sitting on a transatlantic flight and was triply impressed. Not only did the authors have a clear understanding of Destructive Global Competition (DGC) between nations and the need for worldwide cooperation, but they actually had a plan called Simultaneous Policy (SIMPOL) for how to achieve it in an incremental fashion. As if that weren’t enough, they’ve started to implement SIMPOL in the UK and elsewhere.
Get Evonomics in your inbox
Soon I was trading emails with John and Nick and learned that an American edition was in the works. I’m pleased to publish this conversation about their new book an an excerpts from the book, which is now available to an American audience.
DSW: Greetings and congratulations on the American publication of your book!
JB & ND: Thanks, David! We’re delighted you read it and glad you liked it.
DSW: Please introduce yourselves. What are your backgrounds and how did SIMPOL occur to you?
JB: I’m a businessman and part-owner of a company trading in textile raw materials. Back in 1998, I was having a Sunday lunch with my family and we were discussing climate change because the kids were covering it at school. Afterwards, my Mum unexpectedly confronted me with a question: what would you do about it? Her disarming directness had a strange effect because, almost from nowhere, I responded that “it would have to happen simultaneously”. All, or nearly all, nations would have to act simultaneously. Perhaps because of my business background, I realized that no nation could decisively reduce its carbon emissions unless virtually all other nations did so too because any nation trying to go it alone would only land its economy with increased costs and a competitive disadvantage. I also realized that simultaneity could be a great way to solve so many other issues from wealth inequality to nuclear disarmament, because the all-important pre-condition of “simultaneous implementation” makes supporting such reforms risk-free. Governments could support decisive action without risking their competitiveness. And so the SIMPOL campaign was born.
ND: My wife first brought SIMPOL to my attention, after which I invited John to take part in a men’s event I was co-convening. John then read an early draft of my 2014 book Wounded Leaders, about the psychology of the UK political scene, whereupon he invited me to co-author The SIMPOL Solution. My main task was to set out the psychological resistance to the idea, which involved going quite deeply into identity issues and the psychology of denial. It was especially important to show how environmentalists failed to pick up the idea because of their entrenched identity position of being the ‘good guys’ against the ‘bad guys’.
DSW: It was a pleasure to discover that you’re so well informed about evolution. When did the modern evolutionary literature come to your attention and what role did it play in developing SIMPOL?
JB: It first came to my attention around 2000. I was contacted by Australian evolutionary biologist John Stewart, author of Evolution’s Arrow, who suggested SIMPOL had many common features with how evolution had resolved key competition bottle-necks in the past, such as the evolution of eukaryote cells from earlier proto-cells. At first, I didn’t understand, but, after reading his book and some others, I began to see how SIMPOL could be part of our on-going evolutionary story.
In particular, I saw how the vicious circle of Destructive Global Competition (DGC) – every nation’s inability to move first to solve global problems – is really just part-and-parcel of the evolutionary dance of cycles, first of competition and then of cooperation, that have taken us from hunter-gather tribes to larger agrarian Middle-Age small-states, to still-larger industrial nation-states. Each new and larger cooperative social unit pushed competition to new higher level and, today, globalization means that competition is now global, requiring the urgent evolution of global cooperation between nation-states. And there, I realized, SIMPOL had a potentially crucial role to play.
Since then, I also came across your work, in particular Does Altruism Exist? and others such as Peter Turchin and Martin Nowak, which all helped to demonstrate how Simpol fits very well with your and E.O. Wilson’s theory of Multi-level Selection.
But that only describes external evolution. The other aspect is internal; the evolution of people’s ways of thinking so brilliantly described by Clare Graves and more recently by Beck and Cowan in ‘Spiral Dynamics’, or by Ken Wilber with his ‘All Quadrants All Levels’ model. Understanding how people’s thinking evolves is crucial. Our problem today, at least in the West, is that most people including our politicians still operate with a nation-centric worldview whereas solving global problems depends on a critical number of us adopting a world-centric worldview. Little wonder we’re failing to understand our globalized world and failing, likewise, to solve global problems!
Realizing SIMPOL’s success would depend on helping to change people’s thinking, I understood that the problem was primarily one of psychology. That’s why I got together with a psychotherapist and psycho-historian.
ND: I’ve been involved with consciousness movements all my life and trained in systems theory and Psychosynthesis. Consciousness is clearly evolving, but it needs our cooperation. And at times of stress consciousness also regresses. This is what’s happening today with the anxiety-driven movements towards protectionism and keeping foreigners out. It’s quite natural that humans backpedal when they’re on the brink of a big change. Our challenge today, then, is to really see ourselves in the same boat but that will mean letting go of our familiar ideas of national sovereignty. We have to grieve and then embrace the change.
Where SIMPOL chimes with me is that my work has been about helping people and groups to develop the skills to self-regulate. Self-regulation is what defines maturity in organisms, and in groups; it’s already the major operating principle in the human body – and, of course, in the psyche. For humans, despite our wonderful but immaturely used technology, maturing means to intentionally self-regulate, and this means introducing it into politics.
DSW: Your analysis of Destructive Global Competition (DGC) dovetails with what I call the Iron Law of Multilevel Selection: Adaptation at any level of a multitier hierarchy requires a process of selection at that level and tends to be undermined by selection at lower levels. This is profoundly different than ‘the invisible hand’, which pretends that the pursuit of lower-level self-interest benefits the common good. It reveals the unregulated competition among nations and corporations as the problem and the formulation of policies with the welfare of the whole earth in mind as the only solution. The excerpts from your book that accompany this conversation show how you lay this out in your own words. The most original part of your book, for me, is your plan for building global cooperation in an incremental fashion. Please describe how this works.
JB: Ok, but first some background. Not only does DGC prevent nations from acting meaningfully on social or environmental issues, it also means that whichever party we elect has no choice but to adopt very narrow business-friendly, neoliberal policies; that is, policies that keep the nation ‘internationally competitive’. That’s why, once in office, one party behaves much like another and voters become increasingly disillusioned: an effect we call ‘pseudo-democracy’. Our votes, apparently, have become substantially meaningless.
With this situation in mind, SIMPOL invites us to have a little fun by using our votes in a completely new, creative way that turns the tables on our pseudo-democratic political systems while liberating politicians from the tyranny of DGC.
The Simultaneous Policy (SIMPOL) will consist of a series of multi-issue global problem-solving policy packages, each of which is to be implemented by all or sufficient nations simultaneously, on the same date, so that no nation loses out. Citizens who join the campaign can contribute to the design of those policies and to getting them implemented. But how?
By joining the campaign, citizens agree to ‘give strong voting preference in all future national elections to politicians or parties that have signed a pledge to implement Simpol simultaneously alongside other governments, to the probable exclusion of those who choose not to sign’. This pledge (the ‘Pledge’) commits a politician, party or government to implement SIMPOL’s policies alongside other governments, if and when sufficient other governments have also signed on.
In this simple way, politicians who sign enhance their electoral chances, while those who refuse risk losing our votes to politicians who signed instead. Thus, in tightly contested electoral areas, failing to sign could cost a politician their seat.
To further enhance the pressure on politicians, SIMPOL never divulges how many supporters we have in any electoral area, so politicians are left to wonder – and worry. Conversely, politicians who do sign don’t risk anything because SIMPOL only gets implemented if and when all or sufficient nations have similarly signed up. So, signing is a win-win for them while failing to sign could spell disaster, especially as the number of supporting citizens grows.The paradox of SIMPOL, then, is that it turbo-charges party-political competition to produce global cooperation. It puts citizens firmly in the political driving seat, giving us a powerful vote in global affairs in a way that politicians can’t ignore.
For citizens, you could say that joining SIMPOL is a bit like getting two votes: one that’s global, the other national. Joining the campaign and telling politicians you’ll be ‘giving strong preference at national elections to those that sign the SIMPOL Pledge to the probable exclusion of those who don’t’ represents your global vote. Then, on election day, you get your national vote just like everyone else. Just when you thought your vote had become substantially meaningless, SIMPOL transforms it into the most powerful driver for global cooperation.
That said, experience shows that politicians often need little persuasion to sign the Pledge. Even those in safe seats sometimes happily sign it simply because they see its common sense.
As the campaign develops, our hope is that, as UN efforts to solve global problems continue to fall short, SIMPOL might gradually emerge as the only alternative. If so, and as non-democratic governments see Western democratic governments gradually starting to support Simpol, they will not want to be left out and will voluntarily sign the Pledge too. In fact, as global problems worsen, all nations will need a way out of the stranglehold that DGC has us in. Corporations, too, may ultimately realize that it’s in their interests to have a global level playing field of simultaneously implemented regulations which keep the global economy fair and sustainable for all companies.
Get Evonomics in your inbox
There are, of course, many other aspects to the project, not least the method for developing SIMPOL‘s policy content and how citizens can participate, how multiple global issues can allow nations that might lose on one issue to gain on another, how global agreements would be negotiated, and how potentially harmful policies would be screened out. But more on all that can be found on our website.
DSW: Not only have you devised this solution, you’ve already put it into action, to a degree. Please tell us more.
JB: We’ve put the process into action in a number of countries in a small but significant way. In the UK where SIMPOL is most developed, at the last national election in 2017 we got over 650 candidates from all the main political parties to sign the Pledge. Of those, 65 are now Members of Parliament (MPs), which is about 10% of all UK MPs.
Demonstrating SIMPOL’s enormous leverage, we also found that in closely contested electoral areas, a kind of ‘domino effect’ occurred. As one candidate signed the Pledge, his competitors, one after another, felt obliged to follow, resulting in nearly all the competing candidates signing up as election day approached. This meant that whichever candidate won the seat, SIMPOL was sure to gain another MP committed to implementing its global policy agenda. This, then, is how SIMPOL works across parties and across the political spectrum pushing politicians towards global cooperation. For those who are fed up with the meaningless ‘ding-dong’ between the political parties, Simpol offers a way to cut through that, driving all politicians towards implementing what really matters: a sustainable and just world.
Right now this process is slow. But as citizen-support becomes significant, we expect that just as individual politicians have signed the Pledge, whole political parties will feel pressured to do so too. In that way, the turbo-charging of competition won’t only work at the level of individual politicians but between whole parties. There, too, we can expect the ‘domino effect’ to come into play.
SIMPOL is likely to work most powerfully in ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral systems, such as in the UK. But at the last national elections in Germany and Ireland, both countries with proportional representation systems, we got over 50 candidates in each of those countries to sign the Pledge. Of those, we now have 14 pledged MPs in the Irish Parliament and 11 in the German Bundestag. So, it seems the process works regardless of the electoral system concerned.
Beyond those countries, we have a handful of MPs in the EU parliament, in Australia, Argentina and Luxembourg. What we most need, however, is for citizens to get involved in every democratic country.
ND: What impresses me most about SIMPOL is that it’s ‘good to go’. It uses existing structures in a smart way so we don’t need to wait for a world parliament or a reformed UN. And that’s good, because we have to act now if we are to tackle the climate issue, tax havens, corporation tax loopholes, and so on. Also important is that in most countries there is now extreme polarization as well as political apathy amongst the young. Yet events like Trump and Brexit show that voting does matter. By engaging our votes, SIMPOL shows citizens that we already have the power and how to wield it effectively.
DSW: What are your hopes for implementing SIMPOL in the USA?
JB: We do have supporters in the USA but no proper campaign there yet. We’re hoping this interview might change that soon. Like elsewhere, there’s widespread dissatisfaction in the U.S. with both mainstream parties. Meanwhile, some people hope that more extreme options – such as Trump or Sanders – might offer a solution. But we’re hoping that, as U.S. citizens come to understand DGC and Pseudo-democracy, they’ll increasingly realize that none of them can offer real solutions because, until we solve the problem at the global level through something like SIMPOL, DGC will inevitably stay in control, forcing whoever is in the Oval Office to implement the same old narrow neoliberal agenda. Even Trump, who promised an ‘America First’, protectionist agenda has largely used tariffs tactically to obtain more preferential free-trade arrangements. Why? Because Donald Trump is not really in control; DGC is.
So we’re hoping to build a vibrant SIMPOL campaign in the U.S. soon. We already have a website but we need citizens to sign on and get involved.
SIMPOL is certainly ambitious. But we can be sure that evolution is on our side. Evolution and multi-level selection tend towards ever-larger scales of cooperation. As competition between nations – what we’ve called DGC – becomes increasingly acute and damaging, and as people increasingly become aware of it, the only solution is global cooperation. SIMPOL, I like to think, is the political embodiment of that. It’s conscious evolution in action. It’s just waiting for people to take it up and run with it.
DSW: Let’s hope so, and I’m glad to give it a boost with this interview!
Excerpts from The SIMPOL Solution: Solving Global Problems Could Be Easier Than We Think.
2018, July 3