As hours sneak into days, and months give way to years, each one of us is being drawn into a universal yet totally unintentional accord - a gift from our generation to the generations that will follow us. Normally this would be the kind of endowment from which the more sensitive among us might recoil. For this is a gift of ignominy - a memento mori of the human condition viewed through the ascendant lens of our era.
Wrapped in intransigence and tied with countless strands of recklessness; fabricated from greed, many imprudent deeds, crude impulses and competitive hubris, this gift is a promise to our children and their children that they will be obliged to inhabit a world beleaguered by pollution, scarce resources, floods, droughts, persistent conflict and almost incalculable social and economic loss.
This gift, for which we will all be held accountable in one way or another, was not assiduously sought. Nobody intended it should be this way. It is not part of some sinister plot by the illuminati or the work of an alien intelligence. Nor does it display the obvious thumbprint of an elite group set on some kind of planned universal supremacy. On the contrary it has evolved haphazardly, boosted on its current trajectory by the recent fecundity of our species, the excessive demands we make daily on the natural environment, and the unique hubris and ingenuity of humankind that has inadvertently propelled us into this situation.
But, bereft of any wise or informed navigation, our track is close to being random – guided purely by a curious mix of opposing beliefs, a denial of palpable evidence, ignorance, lethargy and, even more significantly, our apparent reluctance or inability to redesign our most life-critical systems to better align with circumstances we ourselves have created. The unrestrained feral nature of this paradigm – which I have continually referred to as the civilizational worldview - becomes abundantly clear when we examine the interrelated effects of just three of the more critical constraints, or design factors, within the current world-system. Namely money, milieu and mindset:
MONEY: We use money for all forms of exchange. But the global monetary system is tethered to debt. Fiscal responses to debt, together with trade imbalances, sub-optimise equity and the fair distribution of goods and services within market economies in favour of individuals, nation states and multinational corporations who are already spectacularly prosperous. This injustice is a social cancer for which we have still not found a cure. It remains a wild card in the evolution of humanity.
MILIEU: Our environment is rich in natural resources. But many of these are becoming more costly to mine. Furthermore the biosphere is rapidly adapting to the activities of seven billion humans in ways, in terms of global heating and increasing numbers of extreme weather events, that is making life on the planet increasingly difficult. Yet we still continue to plunder the natural environment indiscriminately for our short-term needs - with little consideration as to the consequences at an Earth-scale level or respect for longer timeframes and the needs of future generations.
MINDSET: Ownership is the soul of (selfish) capitalism - the driving force behind the linear notion of (social) progress. As a result we are hard-wired to compete with each other. Not just to win, as commonly understood, but to own. Reinforced by an ingrained puritanical smugness that compensates only those who toil, the logic of competition infuses human enterprise to such an extent that it is routinely used to impose, maintain and promulgate divisions in society.
Contemporary approaches to competition, however, are not quite the same as before. Previously a means for inciting rebellion and social transformation, competition has morphed into a device for manufacturing a compliant social order. Yet competition configured in this manner curbs cooperation and benefits only a shrinking minority of the world’s inhabitants. Much as we might want to think otherwise, however, the competitive mindset is ultimately only sustainable if we care to jettison all notions of egalitarianism.
Prevalent attitudes to money, milieu and mindset as described above are just three of the paradigmatic design constraints we must change or shape differently if we are seriously troubled by civilizational problems – such as climate change, rampant poverty or financial inequality - and desire profoundly different outcomes. These are the factors within our worldview that are responsible for producing the resulting world-system.
This system, like any other dynamically complex system, is perfectly designed to generate what is currently produced. Indeed without modification of some kind it is incapable of producing anything else. Investing more capital and putting more effort into the existing world-system merely reifies prevailing design factors, thereby reinforcing the existing system. Discrete imperatives, such as capital investment in various forms of renewable energy, or the setting of targets to reduce soot particles and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, however well intended, are only mitigation policies. Although they are vitally necessary they are insufficient in and of themselves to change the outcome. It is a classic economic delusion to believe that they can.
Only a thorough overhaul of the world-system, including a reconceptualisation of human purpose, intentions and aspirations can achieve that. Negative impacts from the interrelationships between money, milieu and mindset have been severely aggravated by an exponential rise in the human population, especially during the latter half of the 20th century. Many key constituents required for human life on this planet, such as food, water, energy and the health of the biosphere, are either under extreme and unprecedented stress, or in various stages of collapse, because of the demands from this population.
It must be said that these systems do not need to be in such a parlous state – nor is their return to a much healthier condition an impossible task – though it is becoming more and more urgent by the day. Much depends on how we design our systems-in-use in order to accomplish both the immediate and the long-term needs of the human family. Unfortunately our myopic tendency for short-term pragmatism means these are not design principles to which we pay much attention. We enthusiastically choose to steal from the future without too many qualms.
Contributing elements often deemed to be of secondary importance, particularly by economists, also need to be taken into consideration. For those of us who live in post-industrial societies many features and material artefacts we take for granted - like fashionable clothes, shopping malls, family sedans, motorways, movies and video streaming, electronic gadgets, state-of-the-art toys, five-star hotels, air-conditioning, snacks, elevators, office blocks, clothes dryers and washing machines, medicines, Coca-Cola dispensers, taxis, airport lounges, loyalty points, detergents, whole food markets, hospitals, play groups and cleaning materials - are often acquired, made, developed, marketed, sold, regulated or offered to us in ways that are toxic to humans, damage the environment, or deprive those who can least afford it of what we take to be essential for our continuing health, satisfaction and general well being.
Because we rarely talk about these issues in terms of interconnected systems or with any fresh insights that reach beyond the trivial or self-evident, it is easy to turn a blind eye and to blame others for their unintended consequences. This is understandable in situations where citizens are intimidated or denied the most basic of human rights the rest of us take for granted. But even in these extreme circumstances such apathy contradicts our obligations as members of the human family. To remain silent or idle is to line-up behind those who deem nothing is wrong with the present world-system, that the capitalist paradigm eventually works to everyone’s advantage, that there is no imminent threat to society from the way we choose to live our lives, and that life should consequently carry on as normal - just as it has for the past few centuries. These are the beliefs of a bigoted community comprising, at its core, the financial sector, the popular press, warmongers, monopolistic corporations, influential technocrats, a few ultra-wealthy individuals, powerful bureaucrats and their legal advisers – in effect those who have consistently benefitted from the current world-system and its more destructive practices. It is this constituency, for the most part openly and without any sense of contrition, that keeps the populace trapped in a bipolar condition poised delicately between the drudgery of work and the promise of play. This faction has no desire to change. Exercising power on a daily basis, the fear of loss as well as possible retribution from the downtrodden, outweighs any motive to adopt a different path.
A few critical questions go to the heart of these matters. Is escape possible for a society of serfs that are oblivious of the situation into which they have been lured? Is salvation conceivable for those whose prized existence hinges on maintaining injustice and inequality? Even more critically, can society be released from its servitude at the same time as the elite are released from their burden?
Nobody knows for sure. The emergence of wiser, more inclusive stewardship from those currently in power is highly unlikely. The younger generation lack the sage experience needed to be able to find alternative paths by themselves. Meanwhile the authentic voice of humanity remains fractured – too often distorted by old institutions weighed down by old values and with a belief in old ideologies.
Unfortunately none of our established institutions have been designed to address globally complex issues in a transparently collaborative manner. Certainly none of them were designed to consciously evolve.
1. The popular press, with few exceptions, has cultivated its own narcissism – becoming a channel for mass entertainment while representing the partisan views of a clutch of media barons and their cohorts. By and large their intentions seem to focus on manipulating specific agendas, rather than informing readers in a manner that illuminates issues or adds to our comprehension of what really matters.
2. Business has always thought to mind its own business - outfoxing officialdom whenever it becomes possible or expedient to do so, and ingraining unquestioning loyalty and obedience within large consulting firms to whom they then turn for incestuous advice. In the meantime many influential individuals in the legal and financial communities have sold their souls to big business in contracts that are exceedingly difficult to untangle and verge on corruption in many instances.
3. Those wealthy individuals who benefit most from the serfdom of others are convinced that society as a whole gains from their generous patronage – a view supported by orthodox economists but which conveniently ignores the many negative consequences evidenced in that regard.
4. Governments of every persuasion seem to be floundering – no longer able to keep the most fundamental promises they try to flog to the voting public at each election. Initially established as an administrative device with the dual aim of serving the national interest and protecting citizens within their jurisdiction, while competing with each other on the international stage, nation states are not set up to collaborate successfully. Most have been enticed into alliances reluctantly or under duress. Required to cooperate across borders they have been found inept or negligent – except when massive catastrophes have galvanised international collaboration.
This is not surprising. Enmity still underpins the game of international protectionism played by empires, both new and old, and is proving impossible to dislodge. Fixated still on tribal allegiances, guided by a purpose and policies that serve parochial interests first, governments are simply not capable of cooperation to the extent we now require. The impacts and consequences of a warming climate are increasingly clear and yet still most governments drag their heels, listening to the mineral and energy companies who know the truth but cannot bring themselves to accept the most obvious implications.
The co-existence of all four of these entangled sectors – in effect social operating units - without adequate governance of the whole, is a lesson in non-viability. Indeed we pay so much attention to the optimisation of the various parts - the individual, individual company or individual nation state – we have neglected to establish the means for governance of the global operating system as a whole. In other words we are failing to assure operational viability of the world-system. Furthermore we use black letter law to enshrine the doctrine of individualism to such an extent that it is has become a deception from which we cannot extricate ourselves.
In the end my basic argument is that we are all culpable. In a world as complex as ours it is impossible to censure any single group without implicating those who simply stand by and condone the activities of others through their silence. Ultimately there are several grounds on which a case for our collective culpability could be built. Primarily:
1. We still permit our lawmakers and elected officials to pretend they represent the interests of every citizen. Before 1945, when the global population was barely 1.8 billion, considerably more compact and far less nomadic, this might have been realistic. Today with a scattered, increasingly peripatetic global population of over 7 billion - and in spite of new information and communications technologies that allow us to connect with almost anyone at any time and for any reason - it is sheer fantasy. If that were not bad enough we exacerbate a resolvable problem by habitually making the fundamental error of assuming officials are sufficiently informed and concerned about the effects on our wealth, health and well being - from issues ranging from despotic regimes and arms dealing to cybercrime, people trafficking and global warming - to be able to take decisive action.
The media pastime of cultivating celebrity and playing to the personal egos of parliamentarians and business leaders, together with the risk publicly elected and appointed officials run in admitting failure, often disguise the fact that many of these issues are way beyond their capability to do anything about. But by turning a blind eye to the procrastination that, in normal circumstances, should instantly invalidate any confidence we have in their capability to lead change, by apportioning blame when their efforts fall short of our expectations, or by pouring scorn on well-intended attempts to tweak the system so as to seek and accommodate more inclusive alternatives, we all become complicit actors in the farce.
Our indifference in this regard, together with the erroneous belief that a degree of economic inequality is necessary to foster growth, has allowed democracies to morph into oligarchies almost overnight, unleashing misery among the already impoverished while further bolstering inequality, destroying the middle class, and contributing to a state of affairs where half the world’s wealth is owned by just 1 per cent of the population. Or, to look at it slightly differently, the 85 richest people in the world have as much wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest.
Such extreme levels of wealth concentration threaten to exclude hundreds of millions of people from realising the benefits of their talents. If that is not obscene I am not sure what would qualify.
2. The sanctity and capital structure of the corporation should be challenged in terms of its ongoing efficacy and relevance in a modern collaborative society. We must ask ourselves what a business is for. Corporations and business schools alike encourage us to laud commercial success and the spirit of entrepreneurship but corporation law fails to require directors and executives, particularly those in the minerals, chemicals, energy, pharmaceuticals, food and financial sectors, to take responsibility for the damage they inflict on society and the environment in the act of bringing their products to market. Instead of insisting that they share the value they create by paying every man, woman and child a dividend in lieu of the resources they use in the process of doing business, for example, we give them unlimited licence to act solely in the interests of a tiny number of shareholders who are permitted to keep any wealth created to themselves. In the early days of the 19th century this philosophy allowed innovation to be undertaken by limited liability companies with less risk of bankruptcy. But today, when innovation is so prevalent, it makes absolutely no sense.
3. Illiteracy concerning the global problematique is now giving rise to a level of mindlessness, and accompanying torpor, that is fast ingraining itself as a key trait in society. Establishment figures particularly seem blissfully unaware of the socio-economic decay now beginning to insinuate itself into the lives of people all over the world. This is most immediately evident in urban spaces where fringe dwellers eke out an existence from the rubbish thrown away by more affluent citizens. In history the collapse of civilisations like the Roman and the Mayan empires and the Han Dynasty in China were allowed to occur by those in power who were seemingly oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory they were on.
4. Another related issue concerns our gullibility in terms of what we are told - and by whom. Three instances will explain what I mean. The first is concerned with our tendency to routinely politicise global issues. For example, the “war on terror” was framed as a conflict between good and evil. The fact that many so-called terrorists eventually become revered for their revolutionary exploits was ignored by the spin doctors who were only concerned to play to our emotional naivity and fears.
The second has more to do with the allergic reaction we often have to whole-system change. For example, almost any attempt to reform capitalism or to make it more palatable is invariably seized upon by right-wing zealots as evidence that some kind of socialist plot, aimed at destroying civilisation as we know it, is underway.
The third relates to how issues are framed. Global warming and combating climate change are often framed as ideological matters. This is extraordinarily moronic given that the question of how we can adequately feed the global population affects us all. It is not an ideological question. First and foremost it is a moral issue - a question of survival of the species.
The underlying driver linking all four of the above factors is, I believe, dread leading to paralysis. Anything potentially disruptive to our current state of existence is denied as being far too complex, a conspiracy by either left-wing or right-wing fanatics (depending upon one’s political views) or simply too frightening even to contemplate.
Appalled at the prospect of losing any part of the lifestyle we have inherited, and in which we have vested so much time and energy, we subsequently deny the more existential issues facing us, constantly and frantically searching for new diversions to occupy our waking moments – anything in fact that will distract us long enough for us not to have to contemplate a dystopian future.
Thus we consent to mainstream media being controlled by a few moguls for financial gain and political interference, preferring the bliss that comes from ignorance and entertainment, while allowing those wielding constitutional power to maintain the illusion of "enemies of freedom" which they achieve by emphasising superficial differences and playing on the most irrational of our fears. As a result we persist in denying evidence of any kind, including that which encroaches directly into our field of vision, which would shatter those precious conventions we have come to hold as universal truths.
Climate change is a case in issue. Most scientists agree a rise in temperature by the end of this century between 2.5 - 4.8 degrees is highly likely. The oceans will creep up by between 26-82 centimetres. The cost of dealing with the impacts globally will spiral with each additional degree of warming - although it is impossible to calculate precisely by how much. Warming of just 2.5 degrees over pre-industrial times could cost up to 2 per cent of global annual income - a figure that would amount to hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Even this is probably a gross miscalculation.
Recent heatwaves and floods are the portents of a future in which once-freakish weather events become all too common. By the end of this century almost three time as many people will be affected by severe river flooding as today. For every one degree rise in temperature, another 7 per cent of the world's population will see renewable water resources decline by a fifth. If no measures are taken soon, or if those steps are inadequate, hundreds of millions of coastal dwellers will be displaced. Small-island states and nations in Southeast Asia will be the biggest land-losers. Average yields of white rice and corn may fall by 2 per cent per decade, while demand for crops is likely to rise by up to 14 per cent by 2050 as the population grows. A large fraction of land and freshwater species may risk extinction, their habitat destroyed by climate change. Poverty, migration, and hunger are invisible drivers of social turbulence and war and all will increase as competition for dwindling resources sharpens.
Recent studies all seem to indicate that the genesis for civilisational collapse becomes inevitable when five factors - agriculture, energy, water, climate and population - converge in a manner that puts undue stress on natural systems at the same time as the gap between the rich and the poor increases and when predation of one species, group or class upon another becomes irresistible. We are currently allowing that to happen.
In spite of appearances and much talk, no single entity or coalition of states are doing anything about it. It doesn’t have to end up like this. Civilisational collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level and if resources are distributed in a more equitable fashion. Given that kind of rebalancing we can almost certainly resolve any remaining problems facing us. But only if we only accept the truth of the milieu we construct, change our prevailing mindsets from competitive to cooperative, and invest our money wisely in a more viable world-system with constraints mindfully designed to deliver different outcomes.
At the moment we are finding it almost impossible to face up to reality or to acknowledge we can forge a different destiny. We are programmed by competition, fear and greed. We still invest in dirty, toxic resources. We are still content to sit back and say nothing that would upset others. Becoming a sustainable society does not mean retreating to what life was like in the Dark Ages. It does not entail abandoning our cities, closing the cinemas or demolishing the shopping malls. It does not mean that we all have to become vegans or that we must go without life’s simple pleasures in life. Nor does it mean that we live in a constant state of scarcity. It simply means agreeing to live within our means, sharing our resources more equitably, discarding any systems fuelled by greed, and choosing ways to live that offer just as much joy and satisfaction without the cost our current preferences inflict upon large sectors of the community and nature.
Buckminster Fuller was fond of saying that human beings always do the most sensible thing, but only after they have tried every stupid alternative and none of them have worked. Now is the time for us to rid ourselves of the civilizational world-system. It has been enormously beneficial to us - allowing us to innovate and create extraordinary wealth as a species. We have tried every stupid alternative in the book to adapt this model to new circumstances. But none of them have worked the way we would like. There can be only one conclusion. The current world-system has outlived its usefulness and is now a burden to our further advancement.
At a time in history when natural forces are responding violently and unpredictably to past human excesses the overwhelming necessity is to design a global model impelled less by greed and individual goals, and more by community empathy, equity and justice. This alternative gift for future generations does not mean taking instructions from yet another elite group of technocrats and scientists, recycling old ideas, maximising all the advantages we can from the current system, as fast as possible, until resources run dry. Nor does it mean sitting back idly and doing nothing. Change is still an imperative. But if we are to avoid spiralling into a dangerous endgame where extravagance benefits a few and misery becomes the norm for the rest of us we must seek alternative paths to take us into the future.
Prudent thought and even wiser action will be required. The United Nations, Association of South East Asian Nations and other similar agencies cannot help us as they are presently constituted. We will need to invoke a model of viability in global governance that unflinchingly optimises humanity’s needs.
The World Economic Forum and the various Business Councils around the world may well try to stop us. But rather than continuing to do the bidding of those who are already wealthy beyond our dreams we must find better ways to distribute and share the wealth we create.
Technologists may still want to pursue their own research interests. We must persuade them instead to create an energy internet and develop a hydrogen-based economy that will generate clean manufacturing processes as well as super-efficient building stocks and transportation systems.
Politicians may continue to insist we should fight "the enemy". We must find ways to convince them that it is us who are the enemy and that consequently the capital currently used to fund conflict will be far better channelled into more humane purposes.
If we can pull this off the gift we have currently packaged and are set on presenting to those who follow us will be of an entirely different nature. It will become a noble gift of purity and wisdom. A gift of gratitude for the abundance the Earth has given to us and for the love which we share as a family.