It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion ~ Carl Sagan
The Asian Foresight Institute [AFI] has been tracking evolutionary leitmotifs in human society for the better part of two decades. While pop futurists focus on short-term trends, especially those that play to our boundless fascination for new gadgets and our intensifying narcissistic concerns, we try to adopt polyocular viewpoints and practices that are more connected and coherent in terms of longer views.
The monitoring of discrete events allows us only to ask simple questions: What happened? How do these events relate to each other? More thoughtful questions - What are the forces in play? What might have happened had we done nothing or had chosen to apply different strategies? What is it about our thinking that allows such events to endure? What is the source code that compels us to see and explain reality in this manner? - are rarely considered. Yet these are the strategic questions that need to be asked in order to discover fresh insights, design different systems, and transcend constraints within the current worldview.
Refusing to be distracted by today's headlines allows us to identify patterns and dynamics that are far less palpable yet still legitimate. Examining these patterns, their entanglements and dynamic forces, through diverse lenses and cultural archetypes, allows us to uncover new and additional insights. We can then use all of this knowledge to comprehend what is going on under the surface of our society that could shape the future - perhaps profoundly so.
Like single stars in the night sky, isolated events seldom point to future certainties, though they can never be entirely discounted. But finding correlations between the discarded relics of old belief systems and more novel elements, appearing as if out of nowhere, edging into our consciousness and accelerating to a point where it becomes impossible to ignore them, almost invariably allude to deeper change or subtle course corrections in our world-system that have yet to manifest.
Tensions inherent between where we appear to be headed and where we might actually end up if current beliefs and trajectories persist must also be factored in to any credible expression of tomorrow's world. In this regard we must take into account our astonishing instinct for survival as well as the desire many of us share to create a reality different from that which appears inevitable, by avoiding choices that could generate unwanted consequences or by replicating failed policies from the recent past.
This is a tricky call. For a start there is a view in some circles we may already have reached the pinnacle of human progress and deveopment - the so-called "end of history" hypothesis - though it is probably more accurate to perceive any such condition as a plateau rather than an end state. Then again it is far too simplistic to confuse evidence of an emerging present over which we have little or no control - let us call it fate - with images we dream up in our mind's eye and that represent everything we most desire. Sadly, stories of the future too often surface in exclusively one of these categories with little or only contrived and relatively facile cross-fertilisation. Some futurists fall into the trap of imagining desirable worlds but then leave the strategic design of their preferred scenario to chance. Others prefer linear extrapolations of the past yet ignore the many unforseeable twists and turns that can and will take us by surprise. The future is hardly ever as portrayed in simple, linear stories of progress.
Neither stance is totally satisfactory of course, particularly if we are set on improving the human condition. Yet each approach can produce scenarios containing fragments of truth. Take the global economy. Our debt-based monetary system together with our state-based fiscal policies create competition through the illusion of scarcity. But the effects of competition can be both beneficial and detrimental. Riches and insolvency are two sides of the same coin - inevitable outputs from the way the present system has been designed to function. An economy based upon sufficiency, on the other hand, might be what we most desire. That would necessitate fundamental shifts in perspective in order to redefine economic interest and value. We would also need to address cultural biases inherent within how we currently perceive and define such matters. To view the conscious capitalism movement or integral economics as the only, even the most potentially valuable, elements in the realization of that shift is erroneous. On the other hand, if we can construct links between these two concepts, unforseen options might begin to emerge. For example, if the ethos of conscious capitalism could be leveraged at scale through the practice of integral economics, initiating a massive realignment in the values of investors and consumers, we would be assured of more positive outcomes.
This collision between fate and desire is one of the reasons I react so cautiously to scientific positivists - especially those who forecast with such sanguine conviction that a "great transition" is underway and that a new generation of AI-enabled technologies will sweep all previous misfortunes away. Their claims are based less on evidence than on what they hope will eventuate. While no doubt this faith in technology is appealing to some, especially Western industrialized nations struggling to find fresh insights to age-old problems, the lack of a shared framework in which a meaningful purpose can be embraced universally, expressed through diverse cultural mindsets without any loss of integrity, runs the risk of recycling empirical idealism and, possibly far worse, perpetuating prevailing Occidental orthodoxies on an even grander scale. Besides I can use similar logic with alternate evidence to propose a contradictory view: that what we are witnessing is not a renewal of society but a civilizational meltdown played out against the possible extinction of our species. The former view is recklessly self-centered. The latter is tragically pessimistic. The truth is more likely to originate somewhere between these extremes.
How then can we overcome the traps littering the path of foresight practitioners in ways that convey a convincing landscape of intersecting future truths: possible given ample motivation and resourcing; preferred given opportunities for collaborative design and endorsement, and probable if a change of direction is not forthcoming and corporate interests continue to hold society to ransom? Moreover what strategies can we devise to entice humanity away from a future of diminishing returns to one where the dream of sustainable abundance for a majority of the world's population becomes our preferred outcome?
Again the AFI has a distinctive approach to these challenges - drawn as much from Eastern mysticism as empirical Western method - seasoned by a lexicon ranging from the humanist impulse of Ubuntu all the way to Confucian ethics. By pulling dynamically complex patterns, or at least those sufficiently accessible for excavation, from the past and the probable into an expanded now, a space where time is held in abeyance, the residues from an array of values, beliefs and events, and from across a kaleidoscope of cultural spectra, reveal hitherto hidden possibilities and novel opportunities.
This procedure reminds me of the computed tomography [CT] scanning used for medical imaging rather than any conventional morphological analysis. In our process of synthesis, evidence of a connective tissue, far more substantive than the fanciful world of alternative scenarios or the callous indifference of data will allow, invariably opens up a richly latent panorama of possibilities for further exploration and play.
Our most recent scans suggest we have entered a Dickensian era - an era where we are experiencing the best of times and the worst of times; an age of wisdom and an age of foolishness; an epoch of belief and an epoch of incredulity; the season of Light and the season of Darkness; the spring of hope and the winter of despair. Actually statements evoking such an impression litter the chronicles of our civilization - but we usually interpret these in a purely linear fashion or perhaps as a sequence of evolutionary cycles. So, for example, we presume escalating conflict in South Sudan, unrelenting apartheid in Palestine, armed rebellions in Syria, and political protests in Thailand are all temporary phenomena. After all they are offset by the harmony enjoyed concurrently by citizens in other parts of the world. Eventually peace will return where now there is conflict. Skirmishes will be fought elsewhere and for different reasons.
These polarities and waves, where peace erupts into conflict and then migrates almost as quickly, is the undeniable record of the human species on this planet. Because we have no opposing evidence it is everything we expect and accept. Moreover the veracity of this logic can and is used to discredit other, more romantic, propositions - such as that of permanent peace, an economy able to thrive without material growth, an environment safeguarded rather than ravaged by industry, or a species forever destined to remain earthbound rather than as planetary explorers.
The issue of poverty provides a perfect example of our unthinking acceptance of this canon: a rule intimating that not everything we can imagine is feasible, nor inevitably in the majority interest - but confusing this with the potential for humanitarian advances, such as greater equality and the elimination of injustice, and resisting such progress simply on the basis that we cannot guarantee future consequences as rigorously as we can affirm past results.
Claims there can be no enduring solution to the problem of poverty, however much we might lament that fact, rest on the premise that affluence is a "relative" condition and will remain so. There will always be people who are worse off than others, or so we reason. And although there is nothing we can do to refute what many regard as a "law of nature" we can choose to reduce absolute penury by dishing out welfare and aid to the underprivileged. We rationalise this good deed as part of our responsibility to others in a civilized society. This also allows us to feel good, extremely good, about our generosity.
The rationale that poverty is an inevitable state, rather than a conscious choice, is one of the founding pillars of competitive capitalism. Yet it prolongs poverty as surely as it sustains the business of charity. It also drives the view, coincidentally, that globalization is beneficial for those living in pre-industrial societies. By and large that is simply a convenient lie. But now an awakening in society to various forms of injustice, inequity, and even state-sanctioned repression, enabled by the capacity of digital social media to connect people and ideas instantly, and in unprecedented numbers, has opened up fissures in that reasoning. Obdurate fate is giving way at last to a desire for more moral outcomes.
This is confronting for many of us. Physics shows us that all competing influences in natural systems achieve a state of balance over time. Correspondingly, the Chinese notion of yin and yang assumes it is impossible for extremes to exist independently of each other. Both suppose wealth cannot occur without poverty, nor poverty without wealth. Peace is impossible to achieve without conflict. Healthy economies cannot persist without growth. Life could not have transpired without a higher intelligence. Stories, paintings, symphonies, poems and architectures composed around this logic hoodwink us into supposing there must always be a counterpoint in order to maintain balance. Aesthetic symmetry is a basic proposition of human nature, particularly in the West. It helps explain our cognitive preferences. But it is a proposition that hampers the genesis of any startlingly new worldview.
What we are observing within AFI circles is clear evidence that embedded dualistic thinking and practices have betrayed us into fabricating a world that benefits fewer and fewer people in relative terms. We appear to be in a state of civilizational meltdown. Furthermore, that genuine transcendence of divisions and polarities once thought to be unyielding might not just be possible but, on the contrary, infinitely appealing and worth striving for. If we dare utter the obvious, what we are beginning to glimpse is an entirely new social meme: the fusion of fate and desire into a moral code that the entire human family might eventually embrace. The notion that a universal balance is desirable across the gamut of human affairs has been thoroughly discredited. The only void seems to be a relevant and compelling alternative narrative, and the only uncertainty just how soon and by what means that new narrative might be achieved.
In spite of intermittent lesions, and a cultural pathology still overly reliant on competition, life is rapidly improving for many people. The outlook from Asia and across the Global South is one where the best of times are increasingly catching up to those in the West. There is not a single country across the region where child mortality has not declined dramatically over the past five decades. The same is true of famine and pestilence. And although civil wars still rage, deaths from hostilities between nations, along with victims from most forms of violent crime, are all in decline everywhere we look.
Perhaps our appetite for conflict is on the wane. More likely we are learning from experience. Or using our inherent inventiveness more effectively perhaps. The banning of lead in gasoline, for example, following compelling evidence that high lead levels in the blood were consistent with violent behaviour, illustrates just one strategy among many that are at last allowing us to deal more effectively with the causes and consequences of aggressive human behaviour.
The fact there are fewer people in abject poverty than at any other time in history while the middle classes are enjoying their highest standard of living ever doesn't detract from poverty remaining a terrible problem. But it is difficult to see how this can be remedied without a wide-ranging reframing of the global problematique and the installation of mechanisms that will enable the system to consciously evolve.
For example, the overall decline in poverty has been powered principally through unbridled economic growth. While this has been beneficial in some respects, unfettered growth puts intolerable pressure on the natural environment. Excessive harvesting of the world's rich reserves of flora and fauna in order to feed seven billion people has already resulted in a massive loss of biodiversity and now threatens the resilience of the food chain. Additionally we put ourselves into situations where we must decide whether to grow corn for food or for fuel and whether we should build yet another highway or provide better and cleaner public transport system. Faced by these absurd conundrums we are at least coming to terms with the principle that prosperity without growth is not some naive fantasy but a financial and ecological necessity.
Meanwhile our addiction to fossil fuels is tipping the climate into territory that is perilous and unprecedented. A major concern from the world's leading climate scientists is that the non-linear impacts from human-induced global heating could precipitate conditions in many parts of the world that would be totally unfit for human habitation.
Pollution, soil erosion, deforestation and water shortages are already life-threatening issues in many parts of the world - yet we are doing little to stop the ecocide. Actually we seem intent on disregarding the problem by pushing our delusional ambitions of immortality to the very limit. The possibility of mass migrations of people caused by global heating could drive our most fragile systems into a catastrophic meltdown. Wealthier nations would then come under siege as billions of less fortunate people scrambled to escape the devastation caused by escalating droughts, famines, storms, wildfires, desertification and rising ocean levels.
Over the centuries we have made astonishing progress in quelling our hatred for, and ill-treatment of each other, on the basis of difference alone. Indeed, it is very likely that we live in the least discriminatory, most tolerant era, in the history of modern civilization. Yet in spite of the world's population being wealthier and healthier than at any other time in history, we still face intolerable inequities in absolute terms. It is quite bizarre, for example, how in a country as wealthy as the US, where a CEO can earn up to 490 times that of the average worker, approximately 16.7 million children live in "food insecure" households, almost 46.5 million people live in poverty, and incarceration rates are the highest in the world.
Clearly we cannot relax. Indications that fewer people are dying from war and disease does not lessen the moral imperative to do something about those that are. The fact that people are getting richer and more secure in their homes in some parts of the world cannot be an excuse for doing less to address poverty and crime in regions where these problems are still endemic and ingrained.
But our attention also needs to turn to other issues - especially those signifying civilization is atrophying from the inside. These include deteriorating spiritual well-being; intensifying political and religious fundamentalism; escalating rates of suicide and malignant narcissism signifying alienation and low self-esteem among young people; flagging public morals; long-term effects from a disproportionately intrusive, relentless, digital presence; undue regulatory intrusion into the lives of ordinary citizens; ingrained prejudice and propaganda from the corporate media; excessive surveillance in urban centres - often arising from widespread paranoia within state bureaucracies concerning the threat of domestic terrorism; deceit and corruption within public officialdom and much of the media; and the untold damage we are still inflicting on the natural environment, are all incipient concerns.
Without exception all these factors are becoming more grave and emotionally enervating. This seems to indicate either something intrinsically flawed with the design of the world-system, our disparate attempts to interpret this world-system in our favour, or the conscious - albeit unconscionable - preservation of factors within the system that give preference to individuals who already benefit the most in terms of personal well-being, affluence and influence.
These are not isolated phenomena. But they are particularly evident within a cluster of old Western empires, the current epicentre of which is the US, and where any sense of a higher purpose has soured - usually subverted by the lure of money, power or fame. For the most part the possible impacts on society are dormant, obscured from the community mind, because of four undercurrents:
1. An overwhelming sense of self-righteousness and superiority perpetuated within some cultures - entrenched further by discriminatory education and employment systems
2. Propaganda trumpeting the good life generated by the mechanisms of capitalism and liberal democracy and where smartphones and other mobile devices have by default become our advisers and companions of choice
3. A ubiquitous facade that diverts public gaze away from any consideration of more serious issues by feeding our insatiable appetite for material possessions and trivial escapist entertainment - the new opiate of the masses
4. The tenacity of state governments in maintaining the false impression that they grasp contemporary circumstances sufficiently to remain in charge of world affairs.
A conjunction of these themes is already threatening to fracture society still further, ruining any possibility for an orderly transition from an obsolete paradigm to one where society fosters a more mature, empathic and benign consciousness towards each other and the planet.
The seemingly inexorable economic and moral shift away from US and European hegemony to Asia and the Global South is less cause for concern. Except that it has already, in most cases unconsciously, curbed the confidence and capacity of elected leaders, those content to exercise orthodoxies enshrined in old social contracts between governments and society, to remain effective and strong in the face of rapid and massive societal upheaval.
Taking all of these dynamics into account we see the coming decade shaped by a narrowing set of concerns - the early spores and trajectories of which are already settling into a distinct schema.
Between 2014 and 2020 more tectonic shifts, accompanied by a few wrong turns and compromises, will become evident. It is impossible to predict how quickly any of these might morph, collapse, escalate, or change course - whether by accident or design. Overall, though, the more prominent trends suggest we are already immersed in a transition from a world-system ruptured by divergent values and discrimination - one dominated for the past two centuries by the meme of economic growth - to a more enlightened era in which a majority of humanity will unite around a common purpose and respond locally as best they can to issues that threaten us all.
Transitions are invariably messy. Yet all too often the best, most commonplace, aspects of our daily lives are taken for granted or downgraded, while the worst features are assumed to be tragically inevitable. The likelihood of a radical victory over suffering, pain and injustice, for example, is too often dismissed as a utopian fantasy, while the prospects of us migrating from a carbon economy to one based upon renewable energy is doomed from the very beginning by powerful corporate interests that will refuse to buckle under duress.
We cannot totally agree with this thesis simply because the overwhelming evidence shows undue negativity to be misleading. For the most part the reason humanity is better off today than it was a century ago is because we chose to make the world a better place and used our innate ingenuity to ensure that happened. It is that instinct we are starting to harness today. But now there is a very different dynamic compelling change - one that emanates from the demands of common people. One that defies unjust constraints put in place by the old ruling classes to secure the consent of a passive society.
While old-fashioned institutions mired in centralised authority and bureaucratic sloth slouch towards inconsequence the impulse for massive change is coming from unlikely sources: previously unheeded and disorganised movements of social entrepreneurs and enterprises, linked through a resilient mesh of peer-connected networks, many using mobile devices, are instigating grassroots change. Here leadership in the traditional sense is eschewed - for these are the self-organising imaginal cells of human destiny. And just as the butterfly cannot return to the chrysalis, so this evolutionary unfolding refuses to be rewound to its former state.
As the influence of these new social movements expands, and their mandate becomes clearer, so their muse will spread more rapidly. Some may even see in these associations an alternative co-operative governance framework for the new paradigm.
Change will not proceed smoothly however. Indeed life as we have come to know it may become immensely unsettling if we are unable to change fast enough. Relatively easy gains are being achieved now. But wiping out older, more venerable institutions, all within a highly emergent, organic, meshworked schema, will take time and cause much angst among the establishment who stand to lose so much of what they hold dear.
One of the keys to a more orderly transition has to be persuading those who cling to an autocratic industrial past that they have more to gain by embracing a collaborative ecological future. But not if it means putting up a protracted fight. We revolutionaries do not have the luxury of time - especially when cascading failures within the old models are already evident. Buckminster Fuller's wise advice springs to mind in that regard: You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
Disorder on the scale we are imagining is counterintuitive to what most of us might expect, especially given our early programming that emphasises extrapolation and linear causation. It could even disguise the effective nature of much socio-political transformation - but only momentarily. For as fresh prototypes emerge from the fringes of society and coalesce into an ecological paradigm of greater resilience, and as new ways of being, thinking and doing resolve what were previously held to be hopelessly impenetrable global problems, the old worldview will collapse in on itself.
Most people have not seen this power struggle between the old and the new looming simply because we conventionally view all forms of authority in hierarchical terms and evolution as a linear trajectory. Even those of us that do see revolution as a distinct possibility cannot yet fully grasp the gravity of a complete fracturing and redrafting of the world map - in terms of cultural groupings, belief systems and other boundaries. This is still in the realms of the unthinkable. Furthermore latent dynamics from recent events still have the potential to develop into a catastrophic bifurcation in world society should powerful interests within individual nation states ramp up their surveillance and suppression mechanisms still further in order to push back against what they are most likely to interpret as sedition. We are certainly living on the cusp of history in that respect.
However, at least for the time being, long-established nations and economies, especially old-style democracies together with a splattering of aligned recalcitrants, will continue to hold sway. Increasingly we can expect them to become out of kilter with a majority of the populace. Most probably this will lead to their further marginalisation and ineffectiveness. But as administrators realise the futility of their situation they may well invoke emergency measures - from the subtle to the more draconian - in a bid to cling to power and enforce compliance with societal mores that brought them authority initially.
The worst of times will not simply vanish in answer to our entreaties. Over the coming years venerable institutions will continue to unravel in ways that incumbent officials, unnerved by impending collapse, will do their utmost to prevent. Governments turning on their citizens is one of the greatest and most immediate threats to societal cohesion. This is as much of a danger in Europe and the US as it is in countries like the Middle East or Africa. But there are other signs of change we ignore at our peril.
Already global cybercrime and terrorism syndicates are using highly sophisticated viruses and worms to remain ahead of policing and surveillance mechanisms. By 2020 we will have realised that the rise of Islam is much less of a threat to humanity than our reluctance to deal with the climate emergency. In January 2013, Beijing experienced its worst air pollution on record. In October, air pollution almost shut down the entire city of Harbin. More recently extreme air pollution forced children and the elderly in Shanghai to stay in their homes for around seven days. In Australia, the hottest continent on the planet, 2013 was the hottest year since records were kept. Yet still our politicians dither as the planet burns.
The year 2013 also offered sobering reminders that human beings are not the only species impacted by climate change. Between 40 and 70 per cent of species could go extinct if the planet warms by more than 3° Celsius and many species are having to evolve thousands of times faster merely in order to keep up with expected changes in the climate. Meanwhile the next mass extinction may have already begun. Multiple species of marine plankton, which make up the base of the ocean ecosystem, are at their lowest levels. The decline of a hub species like this could throw the entire marine food chain off balance.
More optimistically it is clear that breakthroughs in robotics and life sciences will transform entire industries - including health care, manufacturing, telecommunications, automotive, energy and banking, to name only those in the front line. It is highly probable that a palpable decoupling of material wealth from happiness and well-being, too, will see increasing numbers of people redefining prosperity in ways that transcend purely material concerns. Disruptive business models and communications tools will also give us greater control over our lives while putting limits on the monopolistic power of many large corporations - but only if we can find ways to defuse the more harmful of alliances between governments, the industrial military complex, and multinational enterprises.
In spite of our focus on the deeper news, it is vital that we remain open and alert to any surface signals indicating the direction social change is taking us and to acknowledge the importance of hindsight in pointing towards more optimal pathways into the future. Amongst all the bad news we can still forage for scraps of intelligence that confirm we are living in the best of times - an important element in maintaining hope for any kind of beneficial future. But how much of an illusion is this?
The period between 2014-2020 is a critical time. So many factors are beginning to form patterns that are etching deeply into the culture. In that regard there is much we can continue to learn from the past looking forward and from the future glancing back to the here and now.
Most importantly we must begin to find ways of connecting and liberating myriad individual forces for good that are rising up in protest against past inequities and harmful practices. Ultimately the transitional journey we are on is likely to materialise in one of only four ways. It is quite possible that coercive forces will successfully nail down an aggressive continuation of current conditions. Then again the model of industrial economism could, in part at least, be tempered with the veneer of an ecological conscience. This is highly fanciful as key elements and design principles within this theoretical schema are so blatantly incompatible. Far more likely is a third scenario - the exponential escalation of the marriage between disaster capitalism and industrial-military hegemony. This would be accompanied by the inevitable destruction of those ecosystems upon which we depend for subsistence. This is the Armageddon theory of combined environmental and civilizational collapse. It is the one we most fear and yet it is the one staring us squarely in the face today.
But there is a fourth possibility - at this stage equally conceivable and, I believe, far more compelling as an endgame. For most of history various forms of compulsory relationships have dominated the structural underpinnings of society. Over the centuries, beyond mere ideologies, wars and revolutionary events, a world-system predicated on the exploitation of the many by the few was willfully constructed and maintained. In spite of all efforts to keep it hidden, this feudal system of serfdom still prevails today, held together, as it has been throughout recent history, by the arrogance and cravings of a ruling elite and its association with monopolistic corporations, the media and, quite often, the military.
The society we are now beginning to glimpse as a possibility transcends such structures. For this is a model predicated on humanitarian and familial relationships rather than on enforced contracts. It is a model that impels a shift from individual ego to a more collective, even planetary, consciousness. It is a model where society is intentionally unified by design principles of abundance, equality and shared wealth. It is a model embracing distributed, equitable, resilient, benign arrangements that can be far more easily accommodated by the Earth's biosphere. It is a model that could lead to the sustained health and well-being of all life on this planet for generations to come.
In principle this is a proposition the AFI believes humanity should embrace and find ways to bring about. It protects Earth's most fragile environments from further mindless destruction - thus ensuring the conservation of vital resources future generations will need in order to survive. It serves to unshackle human beings from the kind of contractual and enforced relationships, with each other and the planet, that defined and dominated most previous societies - including today's toxic system of industrial economism. And it liberates the collective spirit and mind of humanity to explore, create, live and share a higher moral purpose.
We cannot know for certain which direction we are inching towards this year, or next.... It is impossible to say which of these four possible states will triumph in the long term - although just at the moment our preferred scenario is way behind in the race for line honours. Most likely other alternatives will emerge and displace these four scenarios, probably from the most unlikely sources. At least AFI Fellows know which model we favour, which is why we are purposefully investing all of our energy into giving it life.
If we are hurtling headlong into a civilizational meltdown then so be it. But we must surely do our utmost to avoid such recklessness and the terrifying consequences that would then prevail. Personally I find the notion of clinging onto the detritus of a failed worldview an obscenity. But then each of us has our own shortcomings.
I am indebted to Tricia Lustig of LASA Consulting and Michael McAllum of the Global Foresight Network - both Fellows of the Asian Foresight Institute - for their insights and suggested additions to this piece.