Blind Alleys & Alternative Tracks
THE HUMAN CONDITION
What do you suppose uniquely characterises our species over all others? Our intelligence? Wisdom? Compassion? Our capacity to converse, invent, or to bring order where none previously existed? None of these? Looked at another way perhaps it is our intransigence and our determination to triumph over nature? The craving for more stuff that we throw away only to replace with more stuff? The impulse to compete against each other? Or perhaps it is just the conceit of believing we are exceptional and therefore invulnerable to the forces that impact others?
Whatever these distinctive qualities are there are quite a few humans around these days. Our home is getting quite crowded. So whatever we agree best defines us should, one would have thought, be quite noticeable.
Put that way perhaps negative qualities like greed, vanity and envy do define us more than generosity, amity or cooperation. Almost every current affairs and news program on television seems to focus on the latest atrocity perpetrated by one group on another. The entire discipline of economics is founded on the rather dismal notion that individuals will invariably act out of self-interest. Commentators as candid as biologist David Suzuki or naturalist David Attenborough maintain that our species is now a scourge on the planet. These are harsh, uncompromising words. What is it about human behaviour that leads them to such an indictment of how we conduct our relationships with each other and the Earth? How could they come to such an unforgiving conclusion?
And if they are right, is it the sheer numbers of people all striving to achieve the best quality of life they can that is the problem? Or just that the complex infrastructure of systems and support services, upon which we rely and utilise every day, was designed for a less populous era and has consequently outlived its effectiveness?
The number of homo sapiens on planet Earth over the past 40,000 years grew slowly. Before the year 1800 there were possibly fewer than 1 billion people inhabiting Earth. By 1945 there were still well under 2 billion. But a shift in conditions triggered an incredibly rapid increase in numbers. Human fecundity suddenly took a disturbing course. Between 1945 and 2015 the human population grew exponentially. Today it stands at well over 7.4 billion.
There were several reasons for such an explosion. Improved sanitation and nutrition, breakthroughs in medical care, the elimination of diseases like smallpox, and control over others through inoculation programs, all saw birth rates climb and infant mortality rates decline. Vastly increased crop yields from the industrialisation of agriculture provided a platform for this escalation to be sustained.
According to the most recent projections, and assuming consistency in the rates of growth, the human population is likely to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050, and around 11.2 billion by the turn of the next century.
These numbers are already causing many human-designed systems — agriculture, energy production, and political governance, for example — to fail under the pressure, while putting unprecedented stress on the Earth’s natural systems, which we need in order to survive — such as an equitable climate, an unpolluted atmosphere, and ecosystems that support an abundance of life.
Instead of choosing to conserve nature and redesign artificially-constructed systems, reinventing them from first principles so they are better able to accommodate the needs of a burgeoning population, the most common responses have been to (i) deny that additional numbers are creating a crisis; (ii) blame each other; and (ii) divert attention away from the existential nature of the problem through a forlorn mix of showbiz, consumerism, and surveillance.
Although these tactics of denial, censure and distraction unquestionably evolved inadvertently, they have been absurdly effective at preserving values inherent within the established world-system as well as supporting the illusion of linear progress. Today the impact of late-stage capitalism is encroaching on the show. The echo chamber of neoliberal politics and economics is reverberating uncontrollably. As a consequence the public’s faith in established institutions is unravelling, trust is dwindling and with it our tolerance for inequality, unfairness and injustice.
Vast amounts of information are available to almost anyone at the swipe of a screen. But an entire fog of data, misinformation, half-truths, fake news and gossip, confuses and confounds us. We are losing the capacity to distinguish fact from fiction. At the same time individuals and entire communities are waking up to the threats of a civilisational model (worldview) that is depriving them of opportunities, dignity, contentment and hope.
This might not be immediately evident at a societal level. One needs to be sensitive to the failures occurring in some of our most life-critical systems; the collective impacts from a range of perverse behaviours displayed by incumbent leaders, as well as the inertia arising from their dread of putting a foot wrong; the inordinate power exercised by giant multinational corporations; and the influence of a small cadre of ultra-wealthy individuals. But for ordinary men and women going about their daily lives the burden of finding and keeping a job, raising healthy, well-balanced children, and managing the family budget, while feeling betrayed by our leaders at every juncture, and having to put up with the apparent unfairness of it all, is instilling a universal mood of anxiety and despair that could implode on us all if an alternative model and purpose is not forthcoming.
Increasing rates of narcissism, substance abuse, sociopathic crime, psychotic violence generated by fear or envy, suicide, religious fundamentalism, and the radicalisation of youth, all indicate a sense of anguish that is shared by increasing numbers of people who feel worthless, vulnerable and abandoned. Valid or not, these symptoms are beginning to define the contemporary human condition.
PRISONS OF OUR OWN INVENTION
It was not meant to be like this. It does not need to be like this. At our finest we have been amazingly resourceful and cooperative. Over the ages we have accumulated a wealth of knowledge and acquired even greater technical prowess. Our ventures have been heroic. We discovered distant lands, climbed the tallest mountains, explored the deepest oceans, and even put people on the moon. If that were not enough we built miraculous structures, remodelled landscapes, and produced a vibrant tapestry of art, customs, relationships, organisations, theories and philosophies, that chronicle the sheer ingenuity of our civilisation.
But we also allowed competition, greed and envy to divide us. In recent decades we became more and more intolerant of one another’s beliefs, brutally attacking those with whom we disagreed. We defiled nature as though it was our God-given right to pollute and pillage. We engineered systems that served the well-to-do, turning our backs on those we deemed less important. We became serfs to the concept of sovereignty and allowed uncaring corporations to control our food, energy and water. And although our innate curiosity led to the acquisition of vast amounts of knowledge regarding the exterior world, we always deferred examining ourselves too closely. Indeed the brain and human consciousness are relatively uncharted mysteries even today.
As a consequence we arrived in the 21st century divided along cultural fault lines across five theatres of human activity:
1. Economics: Disparities between the rich and the poor have escalated to a point at which an incredibly small percentage of individuals own the majority of our productive capacity and wealth. This is indefensible and unsustainable.
2. Governance: The degree to which elected legislatures have become unable to make speedy and effective decisions, exacerbated by the speed and convoluted volatility of each unfolding crisis, is resulting in a leadership vacuum at nation state and international levels.
3. Intelligence: A tendency to express reality in terms of opposing poles has distorted and caged human imagination. This is to be seen most clearly in the rift opening up between those who espouse scientific laws, and others who happily peddle superstition and ignorance. Played out in social media, such dualism is corroding our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction.
4. Ecosystems: Attempts to accommodate the escalating demands from the populace for critical resources — such as food, water and energy — with the capacity of nature to continue providing these, often exacerbate the situation by creating more problems. An inability to fully consider the consequences of our actions displays a disturbing lack of design thinking.
5. Community: Nationalism and tribal allegiances are impeding an appreciation of what it means to be human and part of the species homo sapiens. Cynicism with respect to our most revered institutions, and age-old routines that no longer work for the majority, has led to a pervasive pessimism that threatens social cohesion.
Schisms along some of these fault lines seem to be expanding at an alarming rate. Others are wedged open through unceasing conflict — sowing mistrust and signalling the potential collapse of society on a massive scale if remedial action, too late in coming, also becomes excessively disruptive.
The most fundamental question facing humanity is whether we are wise enough to survive our own success. The civilisational worldview seems to be in a terminal state of decline. But new models are nowhere on the horizon. We seem disinclined even to consider alternatives. Complacent and gullible, we have been lulled into believing our own myths — of intrepid progress and the ascent of mankind. As a result we have become far too accepting of what ails us.
So we sit idly by as the current model languishes. We watch as rates of obesity and diabetes continue to rise, yet still permit a few large corporations to control the food chain. We continue to feud and to wage war, even though it is clear the criminal classes are the only ones benefitting from conflict. We complain at the dire state of political decision-making, yet persist with governance models that have not changed in over 200 years. We lament the fact that one billion people go hungry every day, but continue to use industrial farming methods in the forlorn hope of improving nutritional value as well as yields. And in several cities around the world we wear masks to prevent the smog from choking us. If these are not symptoms of a sick society, they are at least indicative of a shortsighted one.
Occasionally we might be persuaded to tweak a little here and there. But by and large we refrain from tackling the task of fundamental change — a particularly onerous task given the compartmentalised nature of our world-system, our penchant for short-term planning cycles, and an unfortunate tendency to interpret any deviation from the norm as having potentially negative financial impacts. We seem to have fallen into the habit of valuing instant wealth rather than long-term survival, and vicarious thrills more than the future well-being of our children.
Neither the wealthy nor those in situations of power are aware of how diverse cultural mindsets could be used to inform social foresight in the redesign of a more viable shared worldview. Why else would they be encouraging social homogeneity and cultural monocultures? Nor are they prepared to act on that information if its value was indeed apparent. Few would be conscious of the need for it, nor that a forensic examination of our current circumstances would be a pre-requisite for rectifying conditions that are deteriorating and fast becoming non-viable — at least from the perspective of the human species as a whole.
To make matters worse, reform of the civilisational worldview is not a strategic issue on any agenda. The pursuit of profitability blinds corporations to any moral role. National governments, parochial at the best of times, are only intent on patching up the present. International non-government agencies who are best placed to tackle human-scale problems are blinded by the need to remain active, reliant on obsolete tools, and burdened by self-serving bureaucracy.
In spite of external appearances, securing economic growth through unremitting trade and commerce is the obsession of almost every international forum. Meanwhile, as the world-system folds we seem to have acquired collective amnesia concerning what it really means to be human.
A MINDFUL UPRISING
As one would hope, and expect, not all the news is bad. On the contrary I have painted the story here in the most callous way — as a burning platform — simply because an acceptance of the explicit dangers that are starting to erupt, from a world-system too often taken for granted as benign, is our best chance for reinvention and renewal.
Hundreds of thousands of people at a grassroots level are awakening to a new rallying call: the need to create a world that works for everyone. No single initiative has the perfect solution. There are no magic bullets. But every endeavour in the shift towards a more empathic and sustainable society is a step in the right direction. There are many such endeavours.
A growing number of regional councils, cities and commercial enterprises are transitioning to more viable social economies. Peer production, open source, clean manufacturing, permaculture, alternative currencies, crowdfunding platforms, collaborative lifestyles, redistributive markets and commons-based initiatives are all playing their part in reducing the more destructive and toxic elements of the predatory capitalist machine.
Prominent activists including Polly Higgins, Wangari Maathai, Naomi Klein, Adam Jacoby, Malala Yousafzai, Rosie Batty, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Michel Bauwens, Pia Mancini, and Madhav Subrmanian, to name just a tiny sample, are raising the tenor of their messages through social media in their tireless campaigning for fundamental change in fields ranging from the criminal code to family violence and from online democracy to new forms of education.
Organisations from Unicef and Amnesty International to Global Innovation Fund, Katerva, Global Challenges Foundation, Xprize, Verizon, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Singularity University are showcasing innovative products, sponsoring global competitions, or funding research programs they hope will provide practical answers to wicked problems — such as the need for cleaner industry, the elimination of disease, and tackling issues like poverty and pollution. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, Bill Drayton, Deb Nelson, Danny Almagor, Ma Jun, Safeena Husain, Muhammad Yunus, Jagdeesh Rao, Bunker Roy and Hugo Spowers are pioneering ground-breaking advances in personal mobility, renewable energy, education, financial investment and alternative lifestyles.
With all of these incredible initiatives going on what possible role is there for yet another organisation devoted to pioneering change? What niche and distinctive purpose does Centre for the Future satisfy?
From our perspective the answer to both these questions is self-evident. It is based upon deep study, analysis at a causal level, and the recognition it is no longer feasible to turn a blind eye to corruption, unfairness and injustice. Neither can we continue to pretend that everything will be fine the way it is. We can no longer ignore the need for substantive change in the ways we choose to inhabit the Earth and interact with each other.
But “making the world work for everyone” entails moving beyond old assumptions, blind trust, and motives of self-interest so as to construct a set of common beliefs based upon empathy and wisdom. This includes changing the way we see ourselves, changing the way we treat each other, and changing the way we discern and talk about issues of mutual concern. This goes to the heart of why we intend activating and leading a mindful uprising of those who are advocating for a more altruistic worldview — a world-system based upon compassion, cooperation and a spirit of generosity — in stark contrast to the more toxic and indefensible aspects of the civilisational model we have inherited, and within which we have become both trapped and accidentally segregated.
Centre for the Future is uniquely prepared to fulfil this purpose. In synergy with others around the world we intend intervening to reinvent humanity’s most life-critical systems that are failing us, or that no longer serve the majority. We will also design from scratch, systems that do not yet exist but that will be needed for a future we cannot yet comprehend. In summary, our purpose is to prototype and scale humanitarian solutions that are socially unifying, ethically defensible, economically prudent, culturally distinctive and ecologically responsible.
Give a mission of such audacity it would be absurd to continue using the same dialogical methods, view issues through identical lenses, or scan information with the same indistinguishable biases, as before. They contributed to our present untenable situation after all. Thus, the technologies we use, the insights we derive from our Academy of scholars, the interpretations we harvest from our global network of immersive observatories, and the systemic acupuncture points we identify prior to project incubation, all serve a single purpose: systematic reform of the archaic civilisational worldview.
In similar vein, our tools and methods eschew conventionality in favour of inclusive, whole-system intelligence, design thinking, and a capacity for real-time navigation and adaptation. This stance is even reflected in our appeal to philanthropists — asking that they donate a gift for future generations, rather than the usual prosaic request to invest their money for an immediate financial return.
A GIFT FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS
Developments that were inconceivable barely a decade ago, have resulted in humanity waking up to the necessity for substantial change. As homo sapiens our first obligation must surely be to care for each other and rid the world of factors that get in the way of that. Can there be any other greater goal?
Compared to the thousands of years humans have occupied Earth our awakening has been relatively swift. Recent events across a broad theatre of activities have sounded alarm bells which we ignore at our peril. Harmful effects from extreme heating of the Earth’s atmosphere, projected to occur decades into the future, are arriving much earlier than expected. Growing rates of species extinction, a rise in sea levels as well as ocean acidity and salinity, scorching surface temperatures, melting glaciers and shrinking sea ice, more droughts, shoreline erosion, wilder weather, and the death of coral reefs, all provide indisputable evidence we are sleep walking into a crisis of our own making.
Yet ultra conservative economists, climate sceptics, and those whose financial interests are vested in maintaining the power of the old smokestack industries, still refuse to accept the realities around us.
But of all the elements colliding to generate this emergency, which of these entanglements should we attend to first? Shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy? Curbing greenhouse gas emissions? Replacing industrial agriculture with ecological stewardship? Redistributing wealth more equitably? Finding permanent homes for refugees? Introducing legislation to prevent seizure of the global food chain by corporate interests? Or possibly attending to the political and financial networks that keep all of these elements quarantined from substantive change? And when we solve that puzzle, how can we be sure not to generate other unintended side-effects? And in order to get that far how do we begin to persuade incumbent leaders of the need for immediate, wise, collaborative action in dealing with global and parochial issues simultaneously?
Humans have undertaken incredible structural and engineering projects before — the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids, the post World War II reconstruction scheme known as the Marshall Plan, the Apollo mission — but we have never embarked upon a premeditated cultural self-transformation, an evolution of consciousness, based upon a more in-depth appreciation of what it means to be human; certainly not on a scale envisaged by the Centre for the Future.
In that regard our mindful uprising is unprecedented. It is not a series of grandiose schemes that are easily captured on a Gant chart, nor indeed a socialist plot to scupper wealth creation and take us back to the dark ages. We do not imagine for one moment that conflict, inequality, corruption and poverty can be eradicated simply through the wave of our magic wand. But neither is mindful uprising just an agenda for change, a scenario, a social enterprise, a business for delivering financial returns to a few shareholders, a funds manager, or an evolutionary design incubator. In fact it is all of these and more.
Our mission is almost sacred. Successive generations of people will need to grasp the leadership on this particular journey. For the final destination cannot even be glimpsed on the horizon by founders like myself. Our children and their children will be the ones to inherit any benefits we achieve.
On this journey, recalibrating early on how we relate to each other — by moving away from undue competition and giving cooperation a little more liberty — and examining what we can do to enhance our stewardship of the planet’s natural ecosystems, will be paramount. But who do you know whose job it is to assure the future of the human family and the well-being of subsequent generations?
As far as I am aware no one has set themselves up to examine the human condition through the richly kaleidoscopic cultural lenses of our species. No global body or international institution has shown any inclination to put itself out of business by fulfilling the mission it espouses. Besides, our current band of incumbent power brokers and their puppets do not really comprehend the need for massive change.
While there are many deserving and audacious initiatives out there, including ours, we are uniquely positioning Centre for the Future to tackle these global problems a whole-of-system level. We cannot do this without help. We need your help. Invest in the future of humanity with us. Help make our world one that your children and their successors will be grateful to inherit. And, in so doing, become the person others close to you already believe you to be.
I am grateful to numerous colleagues for helping me refine the points I have been trying to make in my writings over the past few months — particularly Stuart McGregor, Michael McAllum and Marvin Oka. If you would like to help us with our quest at Centre for the Future in any capacity please refer to our website for contact details: www.cftf.co