As hours sneak into days, and months give way to years, each man, woman and child on this planet is being drawn into a barely conspicuous dragnet - the contents of which are likely to become a universal, inalienable, gift from our generation to the generations that will follow us. Normally this might be the kind of gift from which many of us would immediately and sensibly recoil. For this is a gift of sorrow and 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, imprudent deeds, crude impulses and competitive hubris, this gift is a pledge to our children, and their children, that the future we are crafting, in which they will be obliged to live, will be a world beleaguered by pollution, scarce resources, floods, droughts, persistent conflict and almost incalculable social and economic loss.
This gift, for which we are unlikely to receive anything but ingratitude and resentment, was not assiduously sought. Nobody planned it should be this way. It is not part of some sinister plot by secret illuminati or the work of an alien intelligence. Nor does it display the marks of an elite group set on some kind of universal supremacy. On the contrary it has evolved haphazardly, buoyed on its exponential trajectory by the relatively recent fecundity of our species, the demands we make daily on the natural environment, and the ingenuity that has propelled us into a position of being the most successful animal species ever to inhabit the planet Earth.
Success is all very well. But, bereft of any wise or informed navigation, our track is now close to being random – propelled purely by a mix of opposing beliefs, a denial of palpable evidence, ignorance, lethargy and, even more significantly, an 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 condition – which I have continually referred to as the civilizational worldview - becomes starkly unambiguous if we examine the interrelated effects of just three of the more significant constraints, or design pillars, supporting the current world-system. Namely money, milieu and mindset:
MONEY: Money is used for all forms of exchange. The global monetary system is tethered to compounding debt. Fiscal responses to debt, together with trade imbalances, sub-optimise the fair and equitable distribution of goods and services within market economies in favour of individuals, nation states and multinational corporations – in other words those that are already spectacularly prosperous. This injustice is a social cancer for which we have still not found adequate treatments.
MILIEU: Our environment is rich in natural resources. Some of these, like oil, are becoming more costly to extract. Others, like coal and tar sands are so toxic they should be left in the ground, which is the real problem. The biosphere is rapidly adapting to the way in which all seven billion of us are using these fossil fuels. By turning up the heat and increasing the frequency of extreme weather events, life on the planet is becoming much more difficult than before. 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. It is the driving force and measure behind our linear notion of 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 for a living, competitive logic infuses human enterprise to such an extent that it is routinely used as an instrument to impose, maintain and promulgate divisions in society.
Modern approaches to competition, however, can be more of a scourge, having gained a certain moral righteousness that is almost impossible to displace. Previously a means for inciting rebellion and social transformation, competition has long since morphed into a device for manufacturing consent within a compliant social order. It is impossible to criticise competitive behaviours without incurring the wrath or incomprehension of the business community. It is tantamount to arguing the irrelevance of profits. In their eyes this is sheer heresy. And yet competition configured in a contemporary manner often curbs cooperation and benefits only a shrinking minority of the world’s inhabitants. Much as we might want to think otherwise the competitive mindset is only sustainable if we care to jettison all notions of egalitarianism in society.
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 from each of these pillars. These are the factors within our worldview that are responsible for producing the resulting world-system.
The world-system, like any other multilayered, dynamically complex system, is impeccably designed to generate what it currently produces. Indeed without modification of some kind it is incapable of producing anything else. Investing more capital or putting more effort into the existing world-system merely reifies prevailing design factors, thereby reinforcing the existing schema. Discrete imperatives, such as investment in various forms of renewable energy, or the setting of national targets to reduce soot particles and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, however well intended, are only mitigation policies. Though they are vitally necessary in the present circumstances they are insufficient in and of themselves to alter the outcome. It is a classic economic reductionist delusion to believe that they can. Only a thorough overhaul of the world-system, including a reconceptualisation of human purpose and intentions, 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 being made by seven billion inhabitants.
It must be said that these life-critical 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 pressing by the day. Much depends on how we design these systems-in-use so as to meet 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. On the contrary we steal from the future without too many qualms.
Other contributing elements, often deemed to be of secondary importance, particularly by orthodox economists, also need to be taken into account. For those of us who live in post-industrial societies many features and material artefacts we take for granted - like fashionable clothes, shopping malls, automobiles, motorways, movies and video streaming, electronic gadgets, state-of-the-art toys, five-star hotels, air-conditioning, snack foods, 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 contaminated, 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 any unintended consequences. This is understandable in situations where citizens are intimidated or denied the most basic of 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 today’s world, that the capitalist paradigm eventually works to everyone’s advantage, that technology will solve all our problems in due course, 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. Typically these are coerced beliefs, fabricated and sustained by a bigoted community comprising leaders in 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 damaging practices.
It is this constituency, for the most part openly and without any sense of contrition, that keeps the populace as a whole trapped in a bipolar condition, poised perilously between the drudgery of work and the promise of play. This faction has no desire to change for they are able to exercise power on a daily basis. The fear of material loss, and perhaps retribution from the downtrodden, outweigh any motive to adopt a different, more equitable path.
Three 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 plausible for those whose prized existence hinges on maintaining injustice and inequality with such? 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 improbable. The younger generation lack the sage experience needed to be able to find alternative pathways by themselves. Meanwhile the authentic voice of the human species remains both muted and fractured – too often warped and twisted by obsolete institutions weighed down by obsolete values with entrenched beliefs in obsolete ideologies.
Unfortunately none of our established institutions - including the press, governments, wealthy business owners, and industry - 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 even fabricating news stories on occasion. Neutrality and objectivity have long-faded under the new ownership. By and large they seem to concentrate on manipulating specific agendas, rather than informing readers in a manner that illuminates issues or adds to their comprehension of what really matters. This narrow focus has recently provoked a horde of alternative online news sites to germinate, either trying to explain the deeper news or commentating at length on matters neglected by mainstream media.
2. Business has always thought to mind its own business - outfoxing officialdom whenever it becomes possible or expedient to do so, and embedding unquestioning obedience within large consulting firms to whom they then turn for gratuitous advice they can readily predict. The frenzied race for higher revenues and profitable growth is the single overriding goal for most corporations, and they will do almost anything to achieve these. In the meantime many influential practitioners in the legal and financial communities have hitched their wagons to big business in ways that are exceedingly difficult to untangle and that verge on graft and 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 that conveniently ignores the many negative consequences thrown up in that regard. This is a dangerous myth. It supports two assumptions (a) that the best way to help the poor is to help the rich and that (b) inequality is a necessary counterpart of economic dynamism. In fact, upon close scrutiny, no concrete evidence has ever been found to support either of these two assertions.
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 a national interest and protecting citizens within their jurisdiction, as well as 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 catastrophic natural disasters have galvanised international effort.
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, steered by a purpose and policies that serve parochial interests, governments are simply not capable of cooperation to the extent we now require. For example, 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 blatant inferences.
The co-existence of all four of these entangled constituencies – 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 totally forgotten 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. Moreover we commonly 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.
And so in the end my fundamental claim 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 by their silence. Ultimately there are several grounds on which a case for our collective culpability could be built. But 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 true. Today with a distributed, 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 for any reason - it is a bizarre fantasy. If that were not crazy enough we then 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 make wise decisions and take resolute action.
The media pastime of cultivating celebrity and playing to personal egos, together with the risk both 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, by apportioning blame when their efforts fall short of our expectations, or by pouring scorn on the occasional, well-intended, attempt to tweak the system in order to seek and accommodate more inclusive alternatives, we all become complicit actors in the farce.
Our apathy 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 boosting 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. In other words the 85 most affluent people in the world have as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. 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 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 giving rise to a kind of madness, and accompanying torpor, that is fast ingraining itself as a key trait in society. Establishment figures 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 large cities where fringe dwellers eke out an existence from the rubbish thrown away by more affluent residents living in the urban centres. The collapse of civilisations like the Roman and Mayan empires and the Han Dynasty were allowed to occur because those in power were seemingly oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory they were on. I contend this to be true of today’s leaders.
4. Another related issue concerns our gullibility in terms of what we are told - and by whom. Three instances will illustrate what I mean:
i. 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 one cannot go to war with an abstract concept and 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 war on terror was simply a slogan used for advertising purposes. It is foolish.
ii. The second has more to do with the averse reaction we often have to massive 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.
iii. The third relates to how issues are routinely framed. Global warming and the need to combat climate change are often framed as ideological matters. This is extraordinarily stupid 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 a deeply-ingrained psychological dread of the unknown and of future uncertainties. It is this that leads to depression, anxiety and eventually paralysis and trauma. 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 hours; anything in fact that will distract us long enough for us not to have to contemplate a dystopian legacy.
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 that should enable us to act, including that which encroaches directly into our field of vision, and which would shatter the precious conventions we have come to hold as universal truths.
Climate change is a case in point. Most scientists agree a rise in temperature by the end of this century between 2.5 - 4.8 degrees celsius is highly likely. If that is the case 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 times 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 intensifies.
Recent studies all conclude that the catalyst 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 on another becomes irresistible. We are currently allowing that to happen. Popular movies such as The Hunger Games, where an elite group preys on an underclass for its entertainment, may turn out to be prescient views of a post-apocalyptic future we have already unconsciously sanctioned.
In spite of appearances and much talk, no single entity, international body 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 sustainable levels and if resources are distributed in a more equitable fashion. Given that kind of rebalancing we could almost certainly resolve any remaining dilemmas facing us. But only if we only accept the truth of the milieu we construct, change from a competitive to a prevalent cooperative mindset, and invest our money wisely in a more viable world-system with constraints mindfully designed to deliver different outcomes to the current unacceptably prejudiced paradigm.
At the moment we find it almost impossible to face up to reality or to acknowledge we can forge a different destiny. We are still programmed by fear, competition, segregation, envy and greed. We still fund our addiction to the mining and burning of substances that poison and pollute the air we breathe, the soil we till, and the water we drink. We still timidly accept the cry to fight battles in distant lands with those who are labelled “foes” for no other reason than they, like us, are keen to preserve their own distinct culture, resources, and way of life. We still insist on the financialisation of almost everything we cherish and allow economics to determine what we do rather than any shared vision of what is liberating, or humanizing. We are still content to sit back and say nothing that might be considered heretical or that could upset those we rely on for our sustenance.
But what is there to fear? What is so potent, so distressing, that it strikes dread so easily in our hearts - other than impure motives some of us may harbour? Becoming a more sustainable society does not mean retreating to what life was like in the Stone Age. Even deep ecologists admit that becoming sustainable does not entail abandoning our cities or closing entertainment venues and airports. Shopping malls will not vanish. We will not be compelled to become vegans or have to forgo life’s simple pleasures. Nor does it mean that we will live in a constant state of scarcity. It simply means agreeing to live within our means, sharing our resources more equitably, redesigning how we use natural capital, and discarding any systems fuelled by greed. It means choosing to live in ways that offer joy and satisfaction without the cost current preferences and practices inflict upon large sectors of the community and on 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. Originally it was enormously beneficial to us - allowing us to innovate and create extraordinary wealth as a species. But it now needs replacing. 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 nature’s forces are responding violently and unpredictably to past human excesses, our overwhelming necessity is to design a global model impelled less by greed and selfishness, and more by community empathy, compassion, equity and justice. This is the alternative gift we could still offer future generations. It will not require us to be loyal to or to take instructions from yet another elite group - recycling old ideas or milking the current system, as fast as possible, until resources run dry. Nor will 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 design paths to take us into the future.
Prudent thought and even wiser action, ingetrally applied, will be vital. The United Nations, Association of South East Asian Nations, other intergovernmental organisations and similar agencies, are more a hindrance than a help given the way they are presently constituted. We will need to invoke a model of viability in global governance that optimises humanity’s true needs. That will probably entail the formation of a new planetary model as a management control mechanism for enhancing the new world-system.
The World Economic Forum and the various Business Councils around the globe may well try and obstruct us. But rather than continuing to do the bidding of those who are already wealthy beyond our dreams we must find better, more ethical, ways to distribute and share the wealth we create. By reimagining business as a profound agent for change we can excise the more damaging aspects of corporate monopolies, living healtheir lives as a result.
Scientists and technological entrepreneurs may still push to pursue their own 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. The synergies created in such large-scale industrial ecologies will allows us to reduce our footprint on the Earth to near zero.
Politicians may continue to insist we should fight "enemies" who think differently to us and who want to protect their own interpretations of freedom and liberty. Excluding the few extreme fanatics who are intent solely on destroying everything others hold dear, we must find ways to convince our leaders that it is we who are the enemy and that consequently the capital currently used to fund conflict or to fight terrorism 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.