Who is Moloch and what is the Meta Crisis?

For further research, the ideas in this essay were inspired by.

Moloch was a mythical and terrifying pagan god who was worshipped by various ancient civilisations.

According to the biblical records, to achieve fertility, prosperity and protection, people offered sacrifices to Moloch in the form of burning children alive. Very grim stuff.

Over time however, ‘Moloch’ has come to represent more than a biblical character.

Poets, writers and philosophers have used ‘Moloch’ as a symbol to represent the invisible repercussions of the unchecked pursuit of growth.

We’ll unpack this symbolic use of Moloch throughout the essay.

Fast forward from medieveil times to the sixtees, one of the most vibrant and influential figures of the counterculture, Alan Ginsberg, resurfaced the Moloch symbol with his poem Howl.

And more recently, writer Scott Alexander expanded on Ginsberg’s poem, explaining in more detail the traps that society falls into when competition and growth undermine our ability to cooperate and coordinate in his essay Meditations on Moloch.

Most of us prefer to ignore the fact that the human species is currently on crash course with self termination.

Think about this statement for a second.

Ever considered how it’s possible that in the age of self driving cars and neural implants, we still haven’t managed to achieve global peace, remove the threat of nucleur destruction or reduce a growing loneliness epidemic?


This essay explores the current state of the world (the Superorganism and the Meta Crisis), why we’re lacking the ability to course correct (Moloch), and what we need to do next.

Humans are very, very different

A good place to begin is an understanding of just how different modern humans are from every other species on earth.

Orcas have been evolving for tens of millions of years. They are smarter, stronger, faster. They’ve even developed the ability to coordinate and hunt in pods. They are an apex predator.

No other species in their oceanic environment challenges them.

With one exception of course, modern humans.

We can send vast fleets of trawling ships dragging huge nets across the sea floor extracting all marine wildlife including apex predators, and their prey, without even getting wet.

It appears to us as though other species are evolving slowly.

In comparison, orcas, chimpanzees and even termites are doing things in roughly the same way they did things 10,000 years ago. They are evolving through natural selection in a symbiotic relationship with the rest of nature.

We humans on the other hand are evolving at warp speed, without constraint.

Nature implements checks and balances to ensure a single species doesn’t become too destructive or overpowering. For whatever reason, we’ve broken free from the checks and balances of the natural world.

How did we become so different? The Superorganism.

The story of how modern humans separated from the rest of the natural world is complex, but the TLDR is we got really good at modifying our external environment and using tools and technologies to achieve specific or narrow goals.

Narrow goal achievement is simply the ability humans have developed to plan ahead, model, modify our external environment and use tools to achieve very specific outcomes.

Other species have the ability to do this, but humans have become really fucking good at it.

Narrow goal achievement has enabled many incredible things.

Moon landings and the World Wide Web, heart transplants, and penicillin.

But narrow goal achievement is narrow because it fails to consider the negative side-effects.

Narrow goal achievement is a hell of a drug. It destroys any who stand in its path, it feels great on the way up and horrendous on the way down.

Nuclear warfare, genocide, climate change, genetically engineered global pandemics. These are all associated negative effects of the pursuit of narrow goals.

For almost the entire story of the human species, hundreds of thousands of years, we existed in a relatively slow evolution with the rest of the natural world, in small tribes.

In the last fraction of human existence, we’ve commenced evolution warp speed.

We’ve developed a unique capacity to model things, to innovate, to create tools and technologies and figured out how to achieve very narrow goals.

To make this clear, let’s take the invention of the plow as a crude example.

A key development that contributed to the Agricultural Revolution. It facilitated the cultivation of crops on a larger scale enabling more efficient food production and the development of larger, more permanent populations.

But plows required the domestication of animals, castration and whips.

Not so great for the buffalo, and also not so great for those humans who refused to participate.

Many cultures would hunt buffalo and take what they needed, but the thought of whipping, castrating and attaching a plow was unimaginable. By not adopting new technology and pursuing narrow goals, these outlier cultures inevitably end up losing.

In most cases, they were conquered and ‘domesticated’ by those groups who did pursue narrow goals.

With this knowledge, does it seem likely that any modern nation will choose to stop or slow the development of nuclear or AI technologies?

It makes absolute sense for the entire world to agree to abolish nucleur weapons.

But we can’t agree.

Because one nation feels that if they stop, they will relinquish their power to another who won’t. And if history has anything to teach us, it’s that failing to adopt new technology which enables narrow goal achievement does not end well.

This kind of thing has been referred to as a ‘multi-polar trap’ or ‘tragedy of the commons’. Individual entities act in their own self interest against the common good of the collective and ruin things for everyone.

The modern human species has evolved into a globally interconnected super species lacking the ability to cooperate collectively. We’ve created an invisible Superorganism which extracts relentlessly in the pursuit of narrow goals.

We live in a fabricated and fragmented reality, straying further from base reality and the natural world each day.

The Meta Crisis

The result of relentlessly pursuing narrow goals is the ‘Meta Crisis’ we now face.

The Meta Crisis is the totality of risks that we face as a species and planet. It refers to the interconnected and complex problems that are systemic in nature and can no longer be solved by themselves.

Climate change, biodiversity loss, nuclear war, economic collapse, mental health.

These things all in isolation present existential risk. But the more concerning realisation is that fixing one of them without deep consideration could likely lead to the increase of others, and ultimately destruction of the human species.

We can create more efficient systems of food production to increase access to cheap food for a wider population, but as a result destroy the soil and biodiversity of regions.

How does AI fit into the picture?

Not all that long ago, the idea of a computer beating a human at chess was ludicrous.

Then, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated world Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. Deep Blue used machine learning to analyze millions of past games and improve its strategy.

Today, Googles AlphaZero is the most advanced chess player on the planet. It taught itself chess by playing millions of games against itself.

After just four hours of self-play, it surpassed all traditional chess engines. In just four hours it became so much more advanced than humans, that it’s impossible to calculate.

Like many other new technologies, AI sits on a spectrum of possible outcomes. At one end, we cure disease, increase life expectancy, remove the shitty jobs nobody wants to do.

But at the other end, we compound all the risks of the Meta Crisis.

In a tiny fraction of human existence, we’ve pursued narrow goals and evolved into a Superorganism, extracting, conquering and destroying countless cultures, species and biodiversities.

We’ve become so radically different from all other species and base reality, that we now face self-extinction.

Do we think it’s smart to create something we don’t understand, that can become incalculably good at achieving narrow goals in four hours, considering we still haven’t managed to effectively decision make for the collective good?

There’s no reason to think any self interested actor won’t use AI to continue to pursue narrow goals until we accidentally or intentionally nuke (or bio-infect) ourselves.

It’s an arms race.

Moloch is Coordination Failure

Back to our friend Moloch.

We know that humans do fucked up things in pursuit of narrow goals. Not because humans are inherently evil, but because the pursuit of narrow goals is a drug.

Imagine a neighborhood with ten exotic dragon fruit farms. Each farmer makes $100 a month selling dragon fruits at the local market. The lands flourish while everyone is spending $10 a month on organic bug spray.

One farmer, Bob, decides to stop using the spray saving himself $10.

He has now increased profits to $109 while everyone else’s earnings drop to $90 due to increased bugs, required payment for additional spray and loss of produce.

Seeing Bob’s profit, others think, fuck it, and they stop using the spray too.

The bug issue worsens, and all the dragon fruit farmers (including Bob) lose half their dragon fruit produce and profits.

This scenario exists everywhere.

It is the pursuit of profit and growth ultimately resulting in a race to the bottom and self destruction.

How do we slay Moloch and reverse the Meta Crisis?

Human intelligence unbound by wisdom is the cause of the Superorganism and the Meta Crisis.

The human species has become incredibly good at coordinating intelligently to achieve narrow goals, but this has come at the expense of creating the Meta Crisis.

Moloch represents our inability to coordinate against this force – the pursuit of profit and growth.

Slaying Moloch requires intelligence bound by wisdom, not intelligence alone.

Our inability to apply wisdom to intelligence at collective scale to address and reverse the Meta Crisis is Moloch.

We need collective agreements, technologies and projects which incentivise and enforce the setting and achievement of good goals which carefully consider the knock-on effects of pursuing and achieving them.

But what does that actually look like in practice?

Good goals consider the totality of their effects. Good goals ensure the good things outweigh the negatives for the collective over the long run.

Our world, and the Superorganism is powered by goals of narrow growth, profit, GDP and extraction.

The big myth is that improving productivity and becoming more intelligent will fix things.

A prime example of this is the Jevons Paradox.

Humans improve their energy use by about 1.1% each year. Coal plants use less coal, we invent and improve on solar panels and wind farms, our washing machines and appliances get more energy efficient.

You would think this would improve our environmental footprint right?

But it doesn’t. What actually happens is the reduction gets spent elsewhere on more energy consumption.

Since 1990 we have had a 30% increase in energy efficiency but a 60% increase in energy use. So as long as growth is the goal, and GDP for profit, we’re destroying the planet (and ourselves).

We pursue economic prosperity, national security, political stability and environmental sustainability in siloed fashion as narrow goals without considering the more complex repercussions.

We need a dramatic shift in our basic understanding of the universe. From a fragmented singular egocentric view, to a more holistic understanding that we are all in this together.

And we need them quickly.

“If we look at the multipolar traps and the competition dynamics. If we look at who has the resources to build things at scale. If we look at the speed of those curves, it doesn’t look good. To be honest, it doesn’t look good…If we do not get the restraint wisdom to stop the race, then yes, these will be the last chapters of humanity.”

Daniel Schmachtenberger

This is the ultimate potential of new developments in blockchain and cryptography. Decentralised social media, zero knowledge, quadratic funding, intent-based technology.

We need to move beyond financial speculation and make the world vividly aware of the technologies that can slay Moloch and help us address the meta crisis.