This chapter/essay seems to be the moment of departure to a new realm, but not unmentioned, linked to prior chapters and essays. Let me refresh the title of my blog/quasi-autobiographical accountings: This Moment In Timeless Change: From There To Now To Timeless Tomorrow. It seems that I’m ready to focus on “timeless tomorrow”.
Talking and writing about the future is, admittedly, a speculative journey. It’s filled with assumptions, closely held beliefs and values, operating norms and rules at this moment in time, societal structures, fears, doubts, hopes, and wishes. The only certainty is that it is thinking about and discussing uncertainty. The only constant in this journey is “change” which takes me back to my opening sentence in Chapter 1. “The only constant is change”.
There are moments when I feel and believe I can see the future. But what I see are shifts in color, perspective, scope and intensity. I’d like to say “I have seen the future and it IS black and white!” I think you are like me and more of us who see it in shades of grey or perhaps a cacophony of color and sound and fragrances layered by the feelings that we bring to our individual paintings and representations. Much like the fiddler in the play, “Fiddler on the Roof”: on the one hand there are moments I see the future for our species ending. While on the other hand, I see that we can extend our future as long as the sun’s light and heat nurture our planet.
Depending on where I am standing in any moment with one of those “on the other hand” feelings, I am torn by thoughts that each scenario is plausible but one is not preferable if the choice were mine. I think the psychologists call my quandary “cognitive dissonance”.
So I am faced with confronting at least two realities and a whole lot more sub-plots and unknown realities which we haven’t yet agreed upon as a species. The words, concepts, and languages we have currently may not be sufficient and we’ll be inventing more as we go along. All of that may help to guide us to the continued survival of our species and, more importantly, to the womb we depend on to eternal re-birth along our journey.
The future starts again from this moment in time with an assertion: from the beginning of our species, survival is our central motivation and purpose. It was and is today. It will be tomorrow and forever. Unfortunately, we have come to take our survival for granted. We must all come to agree with that or the consequences are dire if we do not. Our survival, and that of the planet possibly, depends on us intentionally creating a collective consciousness that places protecting and rejuvenating all biological systems of our biosphere. If that does not become our collective will, manifested by our collective behavior, the current odds of our survival are strongly against us. That sounds like a doomsday ultimatum. It is not. That scenario is not inevitable. It is just a warning.
Nothing can prove a prediction, a hypothesis, a speculation until time and evidence becomes “proof” or refutation. So all I am dealing with is “evidence”. Connecting the dots based on the science and research, not beliefs or values or philosophies, supporting the prediction of the possibility that the assertion comes true is what our species can do at this moment in time.
As I have gotten older, as have my friends and family peers, we often comment on our ailments or the threats we feel with age as we see life slipping away but yet unpredictable as to when. The trend is clear. The evidence of assured death touches us all, young or old. Friends with cancer or onset dementia or heart disease say, when I ask “how are you today?” often reply “not so good but it is better than the alternative.”
Aging, and living for that matter, tells us that we are not in control of our future. We may think we have a plan for continued living. We may think that we are indestructible in our early days. We move quickly beyond the death, sudden or expected, of friends or family members. We chose to live on, as we should. Why dwell on death and dying? We begin to realize as we mature that it can come at any moment for any cause: an accident, a fatal disease, the heart stops forever. Some unintended consequence of our actions or that of others brings our breath to a halt. We are robbed and killed because we had the bad luck being where we were. We die of a contaminant in our water system because the water authority ignored the safety of our municipal water.
But our special gift, our special ability as a species – that of choosing intentionally – is fraught with shortcomings.
Let me list some of the “evidence” then move on to how we avoid demonstrating, with finality, the “boiling frog syndrome”. I’ll give you a clue built around a simple word: choice. With the list below, it is clear that our choices guided our actions and behaviors and brought “progress” but also destruction along the way. So while we were individually and collectively “intentional” in those choices, there are long term implications we either couldn’t have anticipated or chose to ignore.
- Acidification and chemical pollution of the oceans and fresh water bodies
- destruction of our coral reefs
- air pollution that harms our lungs, pollutes our waterways, and acid rain that kills plants and trees
- our water resources diminishing rapidly and not regenerating because of human pressure
- rapidly increasing extinction of plant and animal species globally
- the death of marshes and wetlands, both fresh water and tidal
- fresh water and ocean fisheries taking more for human and animal consumption than nature can restore
- fracking that harms forests and their inhabitants, water supplies, and increases methane escape
- rising ocean temperatures
- rapidly melting glaciers and ice caps
- the alarming release of methane from arctic tundra
- unprecedented pace of extinction of animal and insect species
- the organic and microbial richness of our soils is deteriorating widely
- spiking CO2 to unprecedented historical levels
- the damage to our ozone layers from airborne chemical pollutants
(edit the length of many above items add better ones)
So that is a glimpse at the bad news. Now comes the difficult part. It’s illustrated by the age old story of the boiling frog. How do we avoid ending up like the frog in water that hasn’t yet boiled? So if you don’t know that story, imagine that you find a willing frog, or dozens, or hundreds and they allow you to place them in a tub of pleasant water. What they don’t know is that you have a fire underneath that tub. The temperature starts at say 68 degrees. They swim around. Eat. Chase each other. Take space they protect. Mate if it is in their cycle. They seem like “happy” frogs. The temperature rises slowly, very slowly even. They seem content to stay in the tub. It is their temporary home. Their behavior, individually and collectively, stays pretty much the same. Maybe a little more competition and fighting. But generally harmonious for a community of like-creatures. And it is getting hotter and hotter. They have no way to escape but show no signs of distress, panic, although some try to escape. Contented they are. At some point the water becomes so hot that it kills all of them. You say, “but they are frogs, how is that relevant to humans. They don’t think!” But they feel. And they felt no threat or pain that caused a “flight” response. They got used to the heat. It became their “new normal”. Even if they could think, unless they’re feeling the heat caused a connection to their brains, they wouldn’t be prompted to think, to reason.
How does the evidence, and our denial of it and our inability and unwillingness to pay attention, differ from the “boiling frog” story? But, you are right, we are different, as we know and have seen in the essay on “Snowflakes and Fingerprints”. At the core of being different from other living things is that we are aware that we do and can change. We see, feel, smell and hear the change. We know we are experiencing life. We remember and anticipate change. We affect it intentionally and unintentionally. The feedback loop from outside us, to inside us, to back outside is endless, constant. But it isn’t enough to sense change. We must be aware of it. It needs to be processed “thoughtfully” in our brains whether in our conscious portion (the executive function) or our unconscious portion (our emotions or culturally acquired memes, automatic responses).
Back to the frog pond. The troubling thing is that many of us aren’t paying attention to our own water as it has moved toward boiling. Surely, there are voices and groups and some governments who have called out to the rest of us in the pond but are we listening? And, if we’re listening are we concerned enough to act. If you said “yes”, good for you. But I’m sorry to say, “that is not enough”.
We have to do more. And it starts with each of us. We have to make a choice and then a lot of choices. We have to take personal responsibility for turning down the metaphorical heat around us at all levels of our human-impacted biosphere. Individual actions are not enough until they align with collective awareness and action. And, while the “collective consciousness” of this challenge is growing, it needs to grow faster and bigger as do the collective actions aligned to effect change that reverses these alarming trends.
Reflect back on the journey I’ve been through and that, I assume, resonated with you. As a species we’ve been at this change game for about 10,000 years in the modern sense. We were tribally wandering for eons before but our cultural evolution was primitive comparatively and not unlike still occupying the womb. Today we have acquired widely shared knowledge, skills, fewer languages easily shared through translation (English, Chinese, Spanish), science, technology, similar pan-national and cultural governing and decision-making processes so that we are poised to pool awareness and collective action in concert with a bio-ethic to preserve and restore our global habitat.
If our global collective goal becomes “to restore and protect our global habitat”, we will need a widely shared set of principles and guidelines to allow us to create a roadmap fitting to that end and flexible enough to allow smaller collectives to experiment and devise more local but globally connected pathways and solutions.
Many of those principles and guidelines are there but not shared and known widely. Let me outline those that strike me as essential but while limited they are part of the human experience that has made us a successful species – UNTIL NOW. I used that phrase in the first 9 essays occasionally. I will also draw, in summary form, from those chapters and add a few as I go along.
One of the characteristics of the human species is that it has the capacity to hope and wish (essay #1). Other creatures don’t display that uniqueness. By being so enabled, we can chose to dream, envision, expect, want, desire, imagine and act on those. It seems easier to do those actions on an individual level. At the same time, we do not control the outcomes. We depend on others to share those hopes and wishes. And so we look for support and join those to help them and them to help us. We reciprocate. In so wishing and hoping we begin to realize that there are others who will oppose our wishes, will want something different, may feel threatened by such contrary desires, and act accordingly. On the one hand we have discovered that cooperation works to further our advancement. On the other ledger, that opposition can, in its gentlest form, be healthy competition. Both behaviors – cooperation and competition – when exercised collectively, have contributed to our survival, progress, and social success.
Hoping and wishing is a thought process of an intentional sort often. It is setting a goal. When it is followed by actions like cooperation and competition, the result is generally positive at the individual and collective levels. The process is largely an intentional one but not always. You don’t always know where acting on a goal will lead or what will happen. Some of your steps will result as planned and others will have unintended consequences. More on intentionality and unintended consequences a bit later.
(describe a few “unintended consequences” of our decisions – both good and negative; this may be a good place to insert fossil fuels and capitalism as examples of “intended/unintended”)
When did hoping and wishing begin to occur in our brains? We’ll probably never know the answer. Good chance is it can be time bound before the 10,000 year modern-era period. That leaves millennia before open to speculating on the answer. I’d speculate about how it happened but not when with any time certainty. As I wrote in the essay on “Monkey See, Monkey Do”, (go to beliefs and words then to MSMD or vice versa), we evolved as we have in part because we could learn from our experience, adapt and survive. And we learned a lot because we could copy behaviors, skills and methods or practices that appeared to provide individual improvement and success that, unthoughtfully, furthered survival and collective well-being. That success and learning organically evolved into more complex awareness and thinking. And progress accelerated always anchored in our purpose “survival”. That purpose for eons was absorbed but not conscious as we think of consciousness. For many, it still is not a conscious purpose beyond our family, loved ones, tribe and now, larger collective. Only recently, since the Cold War, in the 1950s, and Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) by atomic warfare, has global survival become important to a large segment of humanity. It is planted firmly in our awareness. In large part, the firm planting happened because the world saw the incredible damage and death in Japan from two atomic bombs being dropped. Since then, much has been done to mitigate and prevent it happening again. At least, up until now. Behavior and action followed what we learned. However, we have not connected that “learning” dot to survival of our species and the planet from the threats of environmental degradation. In spite of the evidence. Nor on a large enough scale to change collective behavior and adapt as necessary. Do we need a violent tragedy like Hiroshima to connect the dots and shock us into action?
Yes, change is constant but how have we done as a species in creating change intentionally? Measured by our progress and success as a species so far, we have done pretty well. Many argue that the creative process that helps us learn, adapt, and survive is akin to the old adage of “muddling through”. It is a wonder we have gotten this far but we have. Others argue that we have been lucky to connect changes here and changes there so that they add up to more than 2+2. Today we can reasonably make a case for a lot of our muddling through as evidence that our human evolution has been “three steps forward and two steps back” as an old adage states it. Others would counter with: “we may be in a prolonged period of the opposite: two forward and three back.”
As we individually and collectively change, what is it that guides our choices to change anyway? My life and yours are microcosms of the perplexing nature and pace of change. And lessons we can learn from our personal awareness of change, and resistance to change, are reflective of the larger human experience and collective. Before attempting to explain this perplexity, I assert that the historic pace of change, while it has accelerated unimaginably in the last 300 years, may be on a course where “bad” change is racing ahead of “good” change. The potential cataclysmic results of “bad” winning, referred to above, raise all kinds of questions about the choices we make in the next few decades.
Back to the personal. Using myself as an example, let me see if some recounting of my experience “to change” is similar to your efforts. For many years, from age 20 to 35 or so, I was pretty sedentary. I developed habits of liking good food, alcohol at lunch and dinner, sweets, unhealthy snacks, sitting at a desk and in meetings, relaxing in front of the TV in the evenings and on weekends watching sports, etc.. Pretty typical of a single male (until 30) perhaps.
Around age 31 my professional work had me engaged with international nutrition planning and nutritional experts and planners. So I was reading and learning about human nutrition and related health issues. In that mix, I became interested in non-traditional diagnoses of health and nutrition. I also have a family history of male cardiac problems and heart attacks. Someone mentioned an internist who was specializing in holistic health so I decided to go have a physical check-up that included a hair analysis. To make a long story short, I started to pay attention to my diet (not dieting), exercise, and vitamin and mineral supplements. After marriage, and influenced by my wife, small changes in diet and exercise changes occurred. This pattern continued, and accelerated slowly (3 forward, 2 back) up to this day. Even after learning and changing, I found a period of relapse so it became 2 forward and 3 back. My professional “context” again had an influence but a negative one. I was in a senior executive role in a large corporation with long hours, work pressures, a great and social staff and colleagues, Belgian chocolates in the snack room along with other goodies, business lunches with a glass of wine or a beer, and less exercise and sleep found my weight going from about 180 to 205 in 5 years. After returning to running my private consulting business and taking control of my routines and reducing the “environmental” group/team pressures, was I able to get my weight back to 172 where it has remained for a number of years as well as more physical activity and daily exercise.
To generalize about personal change, we all know the stories about “New Years Resolutions”. And we know how hard it is to realize those promises. Many don’t get sustained execution. And the really hard ones even less: stopping smoking, weight that is lost and stays lost, getting more sleep, regular exercise, etc. Add yours.
So why is “change” so hard? Some of the reasons making personal change difficult, explain why collective change is also very hard and slow.
Let me blend the personal and collective to shorten the narrative. At an individual level our growth and development puts us on a path where most of us get comfortable with a set of beliefs, values, opinions, circle of friends (our own tribe beyond family), routines and habits. Popularly this is called our “comfort zone”. Others add to that notion the concept of “autopilot”. Research in neuroscience adds layers to that idiom: behavioral rules of thumb or “heuristics” (as mentioned in an earlier essay). As research looks closely at those layers and behaviors, we are increasingly informed that much of our behavior doesn’t happen as a result of reasoning and thought as commonly understood. In our daily lives we’re bombarded by stimuli that are taken over by those memes, the autopilot, rules of thumb that respond and cause the behavior. Some argue that these are deeply embedded from millennia of cultural evolution and supported or modified by this moment in time of that ongoing evolution. So “choice”, mentioned in earlier essays, may often be involuntary and still serve us well much of the time. And at other times it doesn’t serve us well. When it is “choice” arrived at by internal deliberation and reasoning in the Executive Function of our brain, we may be more successful at change but still the change may be slow because of natural resistance created by our chosen “comfort zone” and “autopilot.”
How does this relate to the larger collectives and the cultures around us? We, as individuals, are a reflection of the groups, communities, families, state, and nation surrounding us. They impact our beliefs and behaviors. They create the norms and rules we live by. And “I”, being a part of that collective, agree to live within those boundaries but can influence that milieu for better or worse. Of course, some collectives being more democratically inclined can have more reciprocal impact than those less or not so inclined. (Make reference to biological evolution linked to cultural evolution. A form of “hard wiring” as research shows.)
If it is true, and I assert it is, that most people become anchored in their comfort zone and act largely on auto pilot what is the implication of that on change? Simple. If I like my life the way it is mostly, and usually that holds for a majority of people at all times until it doesn’t, change will be resisted. A couple of examples will help. Unions and collective bargaining were originally a good thing for many nations over a period of time. They improved working conditions, more job safety, job security, higher wages, and retirement funds to name a few. In the private and public sectors this has been a boon to the individual, their families and communities and the nations also. Without analyzing what went afoul and who’s to blame, in recent time the effect of the carrying costs of union obligations has resulted in organizations taking away or scaling back the benefits that were seen as contractual entitlements. So people resisted changes, often uncompromisingly when in the long term it may not have been in their best interests or that of the larger collective.
The same can be said for the good intentions of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. Those payments, underfunded for years while costs increased and the working labor force decreased, have put tremendous burdens on governments to sustain the level of costs associated with well-intended and largely successful programs. Among the many solutions and corrections proposed is to cut back the benefits and payments of those programs. As we know, the resistance to change is tremendous even when most thoughtful people and experts believe the entitlements will have to be cut or reformed in some ways that will leave the beneficiaries with less money or services than they had become accustomed to. Object lesson: when you come to like something or depend on it, you’ll resist efforts to take that dependency away from you.
The last two paragraphs will likely spur disagreements at the core and margins of those assertions from some readers. At the core, I may have trampled on strong beliefs you hold: workers are exploited; they deserve better wages given disparities in salaries and earnings; the more they earn, the more they have to spend on products and services to keep economic growth healthy. Or, you hold a value – a moral imperative – that we take care of the elderly and infirm as a social obligation for social security and medicare/medicaid. Curiously, these are or have come to be seen as entitlements NOT to be taken away. So, in a sense they have become embedded in many of us as “rights” in our culture but, more importantly, as valued constructions in our collective consciousness that are thus even harder to change. So your reasonable and “reasoned” arguments are evidence of resistance to change. Even though evidence grows that unless we create something to mitigate their growing costs to the larger collective, the unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies and programs may do great harm to our ability to sustain them and create rippling negative outcomes. These kinds of cultural habits are as hard to change as individual habits and comfort zones. I once had a mentor, a psychologist, who shed some light on this conundrum and she said: “you can’t just stop a habit, you have to replace it with something of like or substitute value.”
An important tangential assertion to provoke reflection: many economists, mathematicians, and “social engineers” emerged before those programs as “outliers” to the political and social wisdom supporting the underlying policies of the programs. They used “assumptions” different from the policy-makers and arrived at warning signs of the unintended consequences that went unheeded for decades. We may be forced to accept the programs’ unsustainability in their present form and make difficult decisions and reforms with anticipated and unpredictable social, economic, and political costs associated with those major changes.
These examples prompt a brief reference to (complexity later) intentionality and unintended consequences. Let’s assume, as argued above, that it is mostly true over our species’ history that most “intentionality” has had good consequences: we’ve learned, we’ve supported each other, we’ve adapted, and survived – UP UNTIL NOW. Let’s also assume that as a species we have difficulty anticipating or seeing where our decisions (thought-filled and reasoned) will lead until we have evidence or proof that the outcome was what we imagined, or nearly so. The good news is that those decisions are generally copies of past and successful decisions, creative modifications and improvements, or discoveries and luck. With many decisions, we see the result fairly quickly. With others, it may take years or decades to know what our decisions will produce. Let’s call these “feedback loops”.
I’ll assert another assumption or two. Decisions and actions don’t live in isolation or vacuums separate from other decisions or the human activity around them. If you believe the “meme” that “everything is connected to everything”, then the probability of one affecting another and causing changes in the original intended direction or outcome could be significant. As other actions bump into those, the altered paths and the residue of their contact can make a difference from those intended. In addition, our species is woefully inept, but getting better, at seeing or thinking very far into the future. The reality is that we will never be able to avoid the future surprises of our decisions and actions – unintended consequences.
However, current trends in science, big data, communication technology, rapid world travel, and information sharing, to name a few, have shortened our learning curve. (hold this thought and expand upon elsewhere: Although the complexity of life on earth for our species may prove to lengthen the learning curve in terms of survival.) Part of learning, whether individual or collective, is that actions and behavior have “feedback loops” attached to them. Until the last 200 years, those feedback loops were slow to “loop back” to the source of the action or decision. So, knowing the outcomes of our actions and behavior lagged because of the slow loops. Thus intended outcomes may have taken longer to validate and unintended consequences may have taken even longer to witness, if seen at all. For the latter, years, decades and centuries may have passed before they appeared to our conscious awareness.
At this part of the narrative created in this essay and others, are you becoming a bit weary of absorbing and sorting all of this? If so, I suggest that what we now know about human behavior and our cultural evolution is overwhelmingly complex. If you believe that “everything is connected to everything” and many people don’t, you have just stepped into the modern and post-modern world of complexity. Believing that meme unleashes tremendous strain on our current psychological and brain capacity to grapple with what that really means. I love the expression “so what?” Which when you answer that, you have to answer “now what?” Enlightenment, or an individual “ah-ha!, is of little practical and evolutionary value unless it contributes to shared awareness, learning, and action: shorthand “change”.
I think we can agree that over time the process of change has gotten more complex. It was very slow early in our 10,000 years, gradually accelerated, and in the last 200 years seems to have accelerated almost to the point that many people can’t keep up, get disoriented, discouraged, and slow their adaptation. My lifetime and yours further validates the rapid pace of change. We feel it, see it and experience it. How it is experienced, of course, depends on where you stand in what time as it unfolds. There are exceptions, to be sure. You may have read elsewhere that countries and cultures that have lagged far behind developed nations, learn and adapt quickly to new technology when given a fair chance, the knowledge and skills, witness the good results, and access. A few examples: (put in the printing press…etc.)
I recall my parents back in the 40’s and 50’s marveling over the days when in-home toilets weren’t everywhere. So too with electricity. Having to walk long distances to school in the dead of winter with snow piled high. Phones were more common but we had a “party line” – shared by many neighbors – which my Mom would occasionally sneak onto so she could hear the latest gossip. Radios had been around a long time and certainly helped the nation hold together during WWII. I suspect that form of mass communication helped us cope with the Great Depression of the 1920’s. Then in the 50s, television made its debut and visual mass communication was off to the races.
When I was a young adult in college and then in the Peace Corps in the 60’s, I became aware of the impact and potential of television. It allowed us to share our culture more widely; to keep connected in good times and bad; to follow the latest in technologies of the future. Events like the modern witch hunt for communists throughout society and the injustice and lies associated with that. The assassination of JFK. Sputnik and the USSR’s lead in rocket science and space exploration. Our rapid ascent, literally and figuratively, to catch up and surpass them. The Cold War and unjust, tragic wars built around the fear of Communism. Mass entertainment but cultural learning also.
While in the Peace Corps, I witnessed the use of television to expand education to rural and urban areas where communities and families couldn’t afford wide access, if any, to the promise of television. The volunteers and Colombian government had a program to use TV for educational purposes in many of those places. I too saw how TV increased the expectations and aspirations of people for a better life. At the same time, I saw how TV allowed demagogues and authoritarians to spread their lies to win support and votes in a fledgling democracy. (Perhaps here a rant about Trumpism would be appropriate.)
Technology, science, telecommunications, mass transit and rapid transit (by rail, road and sky), made the transition to a unified, geographically wide dispersion of a large and growing population to change with a plausible chance for success. So far, so good in my lifetime. But can this level of complexity and mammoth size continue its collective success and contribute to the successful evolution of our species? While I have focused much of my narrative on my culture-centric, American experience I suggest that our American experience is, UP UNTIL NOW, the driving model for the world in many respects. I’ll explore the answer to my question ahead in my writing.
Complexity has brought with it a dizzying array of choices to be made by each of us individually and, more importantly, collectively. How do we experience complexity today in our daily lives versus 75 years ago? Examples from my own life and era may suffice to illustrate daily complexity. I was born and raised in a city of 50,000 in rural western Wisconsin on the Mississippi. The city stayed that size over many years because the jurisdiction was never redrawn. Now the population has spread on the outskirts to perhaps another 50,000. Smallish town feel in the 50’s. Lots of bars. That’s not changed much. But joining the folks to the larger community now are more restaurants, sprawl shopping areas, small businesses and light manufacturing, two nationally prominent hospital systems, increased tourism and conferencing events, a bigger state college now wedded to the University of Wisconsin system with a large student body and PhD programs, and year-round entertainment options galore. It used to be simple to get around and in little time. Not as much anymore. What to do at night and weekends offered little choice. Now the social opportunities out of the home are numerous. Cable TV with hundreds of channels versus the few major networks set our heads spinning to make a channel or program selection. Laptops seem glued to the laps of this modern couch potato with folks fooling themselves about multi-tasking. The town/city was pretty homogeneous back then – white, of European descent, one or two black families, and small numbers of forgotten Indians. Today it is more diverse ethnically and religiously but still white/European mostly.
Seems manageable and not overwhelming. However, it isn’t hard to extract from those recent changes – just 75 years – that the options for use of time, energy, conversation, reflection, learning and “choice” of “what to do”, are far greater than one might have imagined when the recent “change train” left the station.
The choices I make on how to spend my time is not a trivial matter. Most of us know that but we don’t give much thought reflection on the implications of those choices. To illustrate this and then discuss it further here is a disclosure by a 12 year old to her classmates during “community time”.
“OK, so imagine there is a bank account that credits your account with 86,400. It carries over no balance from day-to-day, which means is won’t be there anymore tomorrow. Every evening the bank deletes whatever part of the balance/money you have failed to use during the day. What would you do? Of course, you’d draw out every remaining cent if you were going to lose it. Each of us has a bank like that. Its name is time. Every morning it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off as lost whatever of this you have failed to invest in a good purpose or opportunity. It carries over no balance. It allows no overdraft each day meaning you can’t add to that remaining amount. Each day it opens a new account for you. If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours. There is no drawing against “tomorrow”. You must live in the present on today’s deposits. Invest it and use it to get the most in health, happiness, and success. The clock is running. Make the most of today. I’ve got to do better with the account given to me while in school, with my friends and classmates and with my family.”
Granted, we in the West view time differently than many cultures and peoples. Some criticize that we are obsessed by it. But time does not stand alone as we make our way through the moment and weeks, months, years ahead. Time is joined by other limited “resources” and meaningful opportunities we happen upon, create or chose. Energy has long struck me as a key physical, mental, and emotional resource.
Over the years, in my work with groups and individual learners, I became aware of and struck by how we can be differentiated as individuals by the “energy” we bring to our life encounters. I am a relatively “high energy” person at work and play. I have a lot going on and options to choose from. (elaborate?) However, I have friends and colleagues whose “energy” operates at a higher level in terms of the enthusiasm, focus, and time they devote to many tasks and challenges – even to those that seem mundane or uninspiring to me. Then there are those who move and act and interact with lower apparent “energy”. They seem to focus on fewer things, perhaps take more time and deliberateness to each task, and put less affect and emotion – visible at least – into them. None of this characterization is meant to be judgmental. Those I speak of are competent, healthy, successful, and happy people generally. While daily “time” has a measured limit, energy is measured in all kinds of ways but usually it is not a limitless resource. Money, as a resource, merits a brief mention as it is weaved within and around time and energy. For most of us, money is limited and that limitation creates constraining boundaries on our choices.
(do I need to rearrange and cut paragraphs from the foregoing and preceeding..? Repetitive?)
To keep this simple, I’ll work with those three as givens (time, energy, money) as we do a daily, monthly and yearly sort on how to use those resources in a world more complex than ever just using the gauges of stuff acquisition, entertainment, work, family, friends and community activities/service.
Contrast a shopping experience for me back in the 60s with shopping today. Then we had a couple of “department” stores, a “downtown” retail outlet area, some specialty stores elsewhere, an IGA, A&P, Safeway, and few places to shop but not nearly to be called “malls”. Buying selections were limited by comparison with the enormous selection of world-wide goods in the Walmart or the Home Depot or the 3 or 4 big Super Markets. As you know, “back in the day” most “stuff” on the shelves was made or grown in the USA. We had 3 or 4 major car manufacturers and a few import brands. So now, on cars and a lot of other “stuff” we spend considerable time “researching” the lowest prices and the best deals. Time lost to do other things. Expand the list of things we research on line – not even really big purchases – and you begin to learn how much time “in the pursuit of material happiness” we use in our day for rather trivial outcomes.
Soon many of these retail outlets, rather than expanding in real space as then, will disappear and surrender to Amazon and other e-commerce sites. Not a surprise as we look at the trends and comprehend the power and potential of the internet, data storage in clouds, search engines, and profiling algorithms. So the array of choices available to us will increase and, thus, make life more complex.
(perhaps I link to IT and computers/iPhone being the “opiate of the masses” as Marx described religion that moved to the media, movies, TV and now global IT. Describe the addicted user. Our first experience of mobile phones in Hong Kong back in the 90s.))
Granted, some of the technology innovations will make life simpler in some ways. But how we use that time and energy will have competition as we decide how best to use the limited reserve of energy, time and money available to us each day. There are “drivers” infringing on what we focus on as we spend those resources. And the implications of those “drivers” are connected to wider societal, global and environmental issues we face. This also loops back to what we expect from life on a daily basis and our wants and needs in the moment as well as the future. Lurking in the shadows of that sentence is our sense of “entitlement” to the reality of the past 200 years and the dreams we are creating daily about the future. Big among them is the “American Dream”. In the next few paragraphs, we’ll explore that dream and a couple of the “drivers” that go hand-in-hand with the dream.
I recall sitting recently at a political dinner with a British woman, now US citizen, and the phrase “the American Dream” was mentioned by someone. She is about 8 years my senior, very well educated, steeped in the arts, and a world traveler, and married to a well-known American lawyer. I hold her in high regard. She, in uncharacteristic style for a Brit of her class, blurted out “What is the American Dream anyway? I’ve never understood what that means to you.” At first I thought “that’s kind of a strange question. We all know what the American Dream is.” As I pondered my response briefly, I wondered how my forming answer would resonate with many other Americans. As I got into my response, it dawned on me that mine was one of many variations on that theme. It has become a cultural “meme” which, in its broad-brush stroke, has a uniting energy for most Americans and many, many aspirants to citizenship. We have come to take its meaning for granted and see it as a core “entitlement” of pledging allegiance to the constitution and the flag.
At its base, I think it represents the best that we’ve created so far in our effort to survive in a huge collective that largely holds the same hopes for each other as well as our families, friends, religious communities, etc.. The following expectations in the “dream” are essential to our survival as a tribe of 330 million:
- Freedom of expression
- Freedom of assembly
- Religious freedom and no persecution for our beliefs
- The right to vote
- Unencumbered mobility
- Access to good education
- Job opportunities
- Basic human needs achievable: housing, food, health care
- The rule of law and a fair justice system
- Community safety and fair law enforcement officials
- A strong national defense (edit and add others)
(note: come back to Warren as a leader who people followed because we attached/projected our dreams and hopes onto the business mission and purpose that he initially shaped)
Many of those listed go hand-in-hand with the words and concepts embedded in our Constitution, Bill of Rights and Amendments. In addition, much of the American Dream is wrapped up in the economic development model most citizens embrace: Capitalism and free enterprise. What does that mean to what “I”/you expect from the Dream?:
- To join the middle class or better
- To have access to “easy” money – credit
- A nice home, well furnished
- An automobile or two
- Vacation time
- Money to travel
- TVs and internet, mobile phones
- Live in the suburbs, city, or near your job
- Leave the drudgery of farming or rural life
- Wide choice and access to “things” to buy and possess
That’s a relatively short list and may not incorporate things you see embraced by the American Dream. You can add or modify as you imagine what that dream has come to mean to you. While many of us feel passionately about some more than others, I bet I have hit upon many that apply to all of us.
I also bet that when you answer the question posed by my British friend, your articulation of an answer relates more to those items in the second list rather than the first. How can I be so sure? Because, up to now, capitalism has delivered the opportunity for all of us to access the tangible acquisitions of relative economic prosperity reflected in that list.
So, if I’m right, what are the implications of our dependency on achieving the dream as illustrated by the second list? And where did that “drive” come from? By drive I mean a near-burning, unrelenting motivation to achieve those symbols of success. Its origin is really quite simple when you look at the sweep of modern human history. Answer this key question: who historically had within their grasp the equivalent symbols of the second list? A clue: it’s class-based. Too easy! Answer: the upper class. And before them, the rulers, monarch’s, high priests. The middle class didn’t really become significant as a class until the expansion of world trade (merchants, traders, lenders) and then the industrial revolution about 200 years ago.
Many years ago it dawned on me that the lawn, flora, and adornments we aspired to in our suburban home – as well as the home itself – were reflective of those with more money and status. This reveals the influence of Great Britain on our culture since most cultures don’t promote lawns and gardens. I think we and most Americans once-upon-a-time aspired to those symbols. If not relevant to you as you read, look around you and ponder how your possessions and aspirations are a reflection of mirroring the classes above you. That is probably not even intentional. I think you’ll see that we still practice “Monkey see, monkey do”. Or if “keeping up with the Jones’s” is easier to accept, it is much the same thing. Generally, that behavior, often unconsciously expressed, has preceded us through time immemorial. Largely it has contributed to our success as a species. But not surprisingly, this success brings with it unintended consequences.
First, I think it’s important that we acknowledge a human drive to acquire things for the sake of acquiring them – human acquisitiveness. I spoke of the distinction between “needs” and “wants” in an earlier essay. Without recounting that, ask yourself the question as you look at your possessions, do you really “need” them? My view is that we have achieved superabundance most of which we don’t “need”. As I survey the “stuff” surrounding us in our home, I think we may need to have an estate sale before we die because our children are “anti-stuff” and have plenty of good memories of our family to carry forward with them. Much of our stuff has wonderful memories associated with it but they fit our reality and history, not theirs.
So, we’ve acquired all this stuff. What are the implications of that on us today and going forward? More importantly, how did this drive and urge to possess come about? Adding to the “monkey see, monkey do” notion, I would say that somewhere along the line of our evolution, the need to acquire things became heavily imprinted in our biological DNA. So much that it operates out of conscious, thoughtful awareness. Oh sure, we can say that a purchase was done for this or that reason and we’ll make a rational, reasoned case for it. We needed it! A close friend, on hearing my long, reasoned explanation for the purchase of a special car (to me), said “So you really WANT it but you don’t really NEED it.” He was right.
There are other patterns of behavior and decision-making that support our impulses to acquire things. And mind you, this and other impulses have largely contributed to our success (survival) as a species “up till now”. I mentioned in an earlier essay the concept of “curiosity”. Other mammals are curious creatures. Monkeys, apes, all primates. Porpoise. Crows and ravens. Observe children and one of their behaviors that we praise and delight to observe is their natural curiosity. I recall how much fun it was to take toys apart and try to put them back together. Now how does that work? Or building model airplanes. (In my case, I frequently ignored the directions and only returned to the directions if I couldn’t figure it out on my own.) And then, after my youth, along came Legos to name one of many toys that challenged our children’s curiosity. Couple those thoughts with our seeming innate creativity noted in an earlier essay as being special to our species. Those drivers feed our acquired need to possess and gather things, stuff.
I’ve long thought that there must be a modern supporting motivator to this almost addictive set of urges. Something powerful that loops into the process that for so many millennia had generally supported our survival imperative. I don’t know how or when it dawned on me what that might be. Certainly, as I was maturing and aging clues started to enter my awareness as I pondered the uniqueness of our species’ behavior, starting with my own. So what else feeds our “wanting” impulse?
My conclusion, tentative at first, that solidified as I began to pay attention to nutrition, personal health, and prevention was advertising. Advertising is a conditioner. It conditions us to pay attention to some things and messages as opposed to others. It fights effectively with our limited energy of attending to life’s stimuli around us. It focuses us on the more trivial in life mostly. And, remember, one of my “mantras”: what you focus on expands.
A couple of personal experiences that were mini light bulbs flashing that I recall. We watched TV programs as young adults – probably too much. But, to save face a bit, I usually would multi-task during some types of programming such as sports or blah-blah and local news programs. I’d have a book, magazine, or newspaper in my lap (now it’s become my laptop) which when an ad came on allowed an off-ramp from the busy audio-visual highway. I began to note that I became increasingly annoyed with the volume level of the TV at those moments. Ah ha! I was beginning my ad rebellion. The media psychologists had figured out that if you increase the volume they might keep your focus on the products and services they were selling which, of course, paid for the other 48 minutes you are glued to a program. So, theoretically, that left 12 minutes or so each hour I could do something else. I once commented to my wife that I wish I had the training to invent an automatic shut off mechanism that would stop that intrusion and free my focus to efficiently attend to something else albeit for 2 minute segments. How wealthy we would have become. I am sure it was invented many times but media, advertisers, and the commercial sectors bought up those patents.
Another reinforcing example that advertising is a conditioner of our attention, demonstrates an even more deleterious result from ad hype, whether those be their unsubstantiated claims or – at a more primal level – the visual presentation and display such as color, music, movement and composition. Start with a box of cereal. The colors, pictures (remember Tony the Tiger or the famous athlete of the month), and printed claims. Claims such as “fiber rich”, “full of daily vitamins” and more were easy to see and scan. Lower in sugar. Or fat. Or bad fad. Lower sodium. These were added later as it became clear that there was ??? little truth in advertising and diet, nutrition, diabetes, etc., became more important to the buying public.
In summary, if I’m right that copying (Monkey see, monkey do), curiosity, creativity, and an acquisitive need were a genetically hard-wired part of our species from birth, we have culturally, through inventions like advertising, solidified and altered how they impact us and our environment. These behaviors are part of a loop that reinforces much of our success but has contributed to negative consequences also.
How so? I’ll bundle the above summary into one word: consumerism. Over most of our 10,000 years most of us had few choices and options to possess and acquire “stuff”. That was reserved for the privileged few. As we began to invent more stuff in the last 500 years or so, we found more resources to do so and spend on increasingly for commercially available items. As our population has grown to 7 billion, the resources to make things have increased almost exponentially. It took more workers to produce goods and services to meet the demand and supply. And with productivity innovations (examples?, machinery, automation, cheap energy through use of fossil fuels), workers could produce more and less cost so that prices were lowered. Relatively, our resources (income) to act on our impulses to buy, increased also.
Acquisitiveness may have two competing sides as a culturally hard-wired human characteristic. Its negative face is consumerism. Let me explain. We errantly too often lump the notion of consumerism under the labels of Western-inspired capitalism and globalism. Those are the engines and processes that feed our legitimate needs to acquire and consume life-sustaining products and services like food, housing and health care. Those same engines feed acquired and induced “wants” we perceive as “needs”. These become insatiable “wants”; some would say addictions – bigger homes, stuff to fill them, rich and large food portions, sweet and salt enhanced diets, over-the-counter drugs/medicines, etc… The West is often blamed or honored for introducing capitalism to our entire species. Whether or not you agree with that, it is a deeply embedded part of our culture and, now, maybe our species – for better or worse. At least until it changes and we create a new model.
That model, let’s call it that, of production and consumption to both create and meet human “needs” has largely been adopted by the vast majority of our species. I often comment when I hear pundits, ideologues, and critics bemoan the growing prosperity of the Chinese and the imbalance of trade, for example, that “they learned from us”. Their so-called “Marxist/Leninist” system has adapted that ideology to incorporate much of what you see in Western capitalism and global trade. Remember MSMD. If something useful “seems” to be useful and works to advance our “success”, others will eventually adopt the practice. Adopting and spreading a practice that enhances our “success” at survival is qualitatively and quantitatively different from “acquisitive success” driving consumerism. Virtuous versus reprehensible.
So when you hear the growing mantra these days that “the American Dream is disappearing”, or some variation, what does that mean? For some in the world, the aspiration and rising expectation (Walt Rostow) modeled by the West – and not just America – seems within their grasp. At least on the economic side but not necessarily on the American-style democracy side. Keep in mind the Chinese political system is an expanding and visibly successful alternative model. Less understood in the disappearing act is “why” that may be so.
My view of the disappearing has its roots elsewhere. Underpinning our geo-centric culture, is our – and the world’s – dependency on raw materials as resources to drive economic and social development as our recent historic model. Some of those resources are diminishing at a rapid rate, especially precious minerals. Recapture and recycling may help slow the decline but at current production and consumption rates the day may come that some goods may no longer be produced. Those are the esoteric raw materials most of which the average person has never heard of. (list a few.. see Tom’s book).
Equally alarming to me is a notion that I first heard of when talking with cattle ranchers and farmers. I recall visiting a friend’s 20,000 acre ranch in south eastern Montana. I expected to see vast numbers of cattle and sheep across the fields and up to the buttes. I was in for a revealing surprise that applies to us as well as cattle. My good friend when I asked “why so few cattle?” responded that it takes, in that part of the country, about 10 or more acres to feed each head of cattle. Wow! I later found that in Virginia where we live it may be 1 or 2 acres per head. My friend called it “carrying capacity”, I believe.
Well a similar notion – carrying capacity of humans – may apply to our planet regarding the number of our species. This is revisiting Malthus who went out of vogue after his prediction about mass world starvation back in the 18th century. It is returning for other reasons today.
Granted the “green revolution” and large scale, industrial farming became possible so our dependent masses of people in urban areas could be fed. Today about 60% of our 7 billion live in “cities” near oceans, lakes and rivers and the percentage increases rapidly. Farmland as we knew it has been abandoned for better opportunities elsewhere. Small farms could no longer keep up; and with that demographic in mind will probably never come back.
The green revolution was made possible by inputs like fertilizers, herbicides, hybrid seeds, pesticides, mechanized farm equipment, improved storage, processing and transportations systems. When I worked as an Associate Director of the Peace Corps in Costa Rica I had first hand experience working with the agriculture extension and research station service. This program, and its allied technologies, were an import and adaptation of the US agriculture extension service developed decades before. They too had created a ministry of agriculture akin to our Department of Agriculture. What seemed to work quite well in the US, was copied in part by that country and many countries around the world. I also learned later in my career working with nutrition planners that adequate supply to feed the world was then and is not today the problem. Constraints and blockages such as poor transportation and distribution, high food prices, corruption and food as a political weapon were some the contributors to malnutrition and starvation.
All those inputs, along with increased demand and commercialization reaching more farmers, increased production significantly. This success took a relatively short time and especially considering that, for good reason, farmers are conservative in the adoption of new practices, inputs and technology. Risk in changing carries a heavy price if there is a bad growing season, a crop fails, markets get saturated, etc..
Finally, discouragement that the American dream is disappearing has strong roots in modern globalism. I use the word “modern” because globalism has been with us for centuries. Animal drawn carts, row and sail boats, ocean going vessels, motorized vehicles and trains brought us over hundreds of years to the airplane of the last century. Trade was happening along that line of mobility and has only grown by big proportions and leaps in the last 100 years or so. Now we have the internet which is reshaping international trade and finance. All this means jobs increased in trading countries; even in those exploited by trade. As employment and jobs increased, incomes for more than the basic needs grew and became disposable for “wants” induced consumption. Industrialization and product specialization created goods that needed markets/buyers. Henry Ford set the example for business and industry: if you wanted workers to buy cars, you had to pay them a wage which made that “want” achievable. All of this built what we call the “middle class” which meant bringing workers to that socio-economic platform.
You might ask, what has this to do with acquisitiveness? First, it is the accumulation of consequences accelerating over the last 500 years that makes the notion of the earth’s “carrying capacity” magnitudes greater than how many cattle can you feed on 20 acres or 2 acres. With nearly 7 billion people on the planet today compared to just millions 5 centuries ago, the consequences of our “success”, while seeming to be stellar today, could be fatal to tens of millions of our species in the following centuries.
This brings me back to the unintended consequences of our success as a species. I’ll elaborate more with more examples here to magnify the importance of the concept and bring its importance to, hopefully, a continuing central concept underlining where we’ve come from, where we are at this moment in time, and where we may be going in the future.
Let me re-start with a list of evidence and facts that point to the downside of our curiosity, creativity, acquisitiveness and consumerism. First, a question to be answered after you read and ponder the list: do you believe that the Earth – as we currently occupy it – can survive so that we survive – can sustain more than 7 billion people as we currently expect our life-styles to continue? Here are the environmental facts and supporting evidence:
- Seas and oceans are rising at a rate unseen in human history’s last 2,000 years;
- Temperatures are climbing at unprecedented rates – the earth is warming dangerously;
- CO2 and other warming gases are accumulating in our atmosphere at a rate not seen or found in scientific measures from prior millennia;
- Glaciers, which feed the rivers, lakes, and stream, and provide water for millions of people downstream in villages and cities are disappearing;
- There is little to no evidence that rainfall is increasing upstream in those glacier-dependent areas;
- Aquifers, both slowly replenish and unrenewable, are vastly stressed;
- This and other evidence points to a planet facing severe draughts and wild fires that will diminish our capacity to fight fires or prevent their more frequent eruption;
- Smaller civilizations have collapsed because of severe, recurring water problems causing a series of catastrophes (large population decrease, food shortages, starvation, migration, increased violence and warfare);
- Pollutants from the chemicals and products derived from oil and natural gas are contaminating our oceans, lakes, rivers, streams, drinking and irrigation waters;
- Airborne pollutants from burning of fossil fuels and trash contaminate our air which come back to our water and land through rainfall, further contaminating our soil, fresh and salt water;
- Oceans are becoming acidified which harms and kills saltwater organisms causing the seas’ forests – coral reefs – to die thus destroying the breeding areas of millions of aquatic creatures that we depend on directly and indirectly;
- Trees that we depend on for absorbing carbon and providing oxygen die from acid rains;
- Our soils micro nutrients likewise are harmed by the acidic rains;
- Add that to the decay in soil health because of inorganic treatments (fertilizer, insecticide, herbicides) to increase production and support industrial agriculture, and long term food supplies are likely to diminish significantly;
- Precipitation patterns and volumes are shifting rapidly across geographic areas and changing the plant-life and habitat thus altering food production potentials;
- More frequent and extreme flooding is causing more erosion which accelerates loss of topsoil already negatively impacted by industrial agriculture;
- Both increased and wide-spread droughts reduce the amount of arable land for food production;
- Increased dependence on irrigation from aquifers exacerbates the rapid reduction on limited aquifer supply;
- We, humans, are the primary cause of non-human species’ extinction throughout archeologic history and the diversity of plant and animal life has decreased in alarming numbers. This historic trend has increased greatly in the last 500 years;
- Because reduced inability of rural living to sustain families and livelihoods, more than 60% of humans live near water and many of those cities are threatened to disappear or be reduced in size due to rising seas and oceans triggering vast and, in some cases, relatively sudden migrations of millions of people;
While some of the forgoing list may seem repetitive, it further illustrates the interconnectedness of our actions’ impact on each other and rippling out to other components of our bio-sphere, our personal and collective lives. Again, the looping process and overlapping of those loops to create the soup and stew of life as we have known it and now are more able observe its changes and the probable causes for the change – good and bad.
For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume that the dominant cultural paradigm we have created is largely a product of Western thought and experience over the last 2,000 years. So, looking at where we are as a species there are many measures of our success. This is not to overlook the influences of our species up to then but to suggest a trend that prevails and dominates today. In a few words, that paradigm is “the American Dream”. Look around you and you’ll see the evidence everywhere: in your house, parked outside, the highways, jet travel, cities, vacation spots, and the aspirations that drove you and your neighbors to achieve the symbols of affluence – of having made it. Expand that view to what you see to be the aspirations of millions and billions of people around the world. The communists may not like this lumping together but their growth and ascending consumerism is rivaling the story cultivated by Western capitalism which has thrived under competing and conflicting political and economic philosophies for centuries. As many point out, these shared aspirations come at a price – unintended consequences as a reminder. We have learned to adapt to achieve. Our invented tools served us well. We learned how to use our habitat and environment to create, provide, and build yet more to fulfill our basic human needs and created “wants”. In large measure, we discovered how to exploit the conversion of “resources” to satisfy our basic needs and build an inventory of goods, services and products to meet our often “invented wants”. This adaptive ability required discovery of how to use resources to satisfy our wants and needs. A key resource, dominant most would say, was the discovery of oil and natural gas. Well before that, we found more industrial uses for, and sources of, coal to fuel this economic Renaissance. What you see and possess around you is largely dependent on their use, conversion, and the science behind their and our adaptation.
What will happen if that key resource, fossil fuels, can no longer feed our desires for affluence or, in short, the American Dream? At the risk of being called a xenophobe, I chose to use that theme and metaphor to summarize your thinking about its benefits and costs. If anyone reading this doubts that the Dream is built on that currently preeminent resource and that it is inevitably going to disappear or diminish significantly, you might as well stop reading. It will no longer be the “fuel” that drives this bus across the deserts it, and we, are creating with the human induced changes in our environment. (Note: imagine “deserts” as another encapsulating metaphor.)
Let me describe a picture painted every day by traditional economists, business people, political leaders and most institutions all of whom see today as if it will go on unimpeded into the future. Their mental and strategic models all see the potential of a world where poverty decreases and more and more boats are lifted by the economic progress made possible, up until now, by the engines of commerce, trade, and consumption of goods and services. That progress creates jobs so that incomes allow more and more to participate in the American Dream, or at least hang out on its fringes looking up the ladder of success. It’s become conventional thinking and the models for the future are conventionally mirroring the past to predict the future. A friend of mine said years ago: “Imagine a billion Chinese and Indians driving a car.” He wasn’t expressing hope. To him it was incredulous. Years later he added, “Our next wars will be over scarce resources already dwindling because of the demand for them to drive the engines of progress is outstripping their availability.” He was talking about water. Yes water! Now you can add key minerals such as _________,________,_______.
Many of us in the West, and many citizens of the World, would like there to be more social and economic justice for a greater share of our human brothers and sisters. This wish is part of the human heritage that has gotten us to the success we see around us as we compare today with the past. It is driven by our basic humanism, values rooted in the religions of the world, and the philosophies of enlightenment so instrumental in our ability to “love thy neighbor” and to care for one another even though we are mostly strangers among 7 billion other faces. That interdependence was, and is, romanticized by the sense of “community”. Then it morphed from small, rural areas with a “town or village” hub, to teaming cities of increasing anonymity, but yet “communities” carved out among the mass sprawl of “neighborhoods” inside and suburban. Thus a sense of “identity” and familiarity was and is preserved for many.
Since World War II, there has emerged a growing sense of and need for a world community and order. Many national agencies and international bodies and organizations were formed to bring this new “sense of community” together. Classic symbols of this move to what would become known as “globalism” were embodied by entities like the United Nations and it specialized sub-sets. Also institutions like the World Bank, IMF, World Court, and Regional bodies, emerged to further create more interdependence among nations and bring them within a growing world order cemented by the rule of law, treaties, trade agreements, etc.. Businesses, financial institutions and international trade both joined, led, and reinforced this chosen trend. In part, for this revolution to work, it required that each subscriber to new rules and norms give up some of its claim to sovereignty and free-lancing to receive the broader benefits of cooperation and collaboration. This seemed to have worked in an ebb and flow, sometimes contentious, that achieved those benefits. But where do we stand today?
Just as with the trends demonstrating severe environmental decay and increasing, accelerating degradation surrounding us, a similar rot and withering seems to have been growing over the last 20 years and is poised to capture us as we scratch our heads about the future direction of human affairs driven by our creativity, curiosity, and adaptability.
The rot and withering is within the very principals and norms that governed philosophic and intellectual thinking, and considerable action, for the last few centuries. Aside from terrible world and regional wars over the last century (1915 – 2018), Western thought had created what is referred to as liberal democracies in many countries. The principals and norms within that construct reflected the intention of the majorities and their leaders to create societies striving to live “our better angels.” We would cooperate broadly within the nation state and across boarders more and more. That would contribute to a widely shared peace and prosperity. Competition would be less violent and lead to new discoveries and their shared results. A statement seeming at odds with the wars, it can be said that the two World Wars helped, for all their terror and destruction and death, ensure that liberal democracy could survive and grow.
So what may be dramatically changing to reverse this course for a large portion of humanity? Simply, it is the relatively rapid growth and spread of a new dogmatism of a nature defined by authoritarianism and autocracy. Fearfully, for a host of reasons, leaders who are capturing that flag received tremendous support by smaller and then larger groups of activists so inclined out of fear, anger, alienation and mistrust of the very institutions and values that had brought them liberal democracy. They are seeing their interests promoted and protected by autocrats at the expense of “them”. This newly powerful “us”, intends to exclude or mute those seen as “them” often defined by skin color, differing religious embrace, language, and cultural traditions. Rather than an expansive and inclusive humankind defined by liberal democracy, they see tight-fisted rule along narrow and regressive reasoning to solidify and perpetuate rule by fiat. A new and more dangerous fanaticism has grown from the rot festering over those 20 years at least.
The causes of this trend are many and complex and hard to grasp for the majority. And there is a deep irony in this. Hard to explain is why the oppressed are often buying this new form of leadership and governance described by autocracy and authoritarianism? Their actions seem radically contrary to their interests.
Two main reasons seem to dominate. And there are many others associated with each. The first reason is that a growing number of people, certainly in the US, have lost faith in, and trust of, their core institutions: government, the courts and rule of law, schools, religion, communities, many corporations, and leaders in the public and private sectors alike. The second reason is that the poor or near poor are often most resistant to change, especially when it is happening at dizzying speed and the fruits of that change are not available to them because of cost or class. For many of those positioned to adapt more quickly due to educational level, income, zip code and life experience, they too are feeling overwhelmed with rapid change. And that feeling leads to stress, fear of the unknown future, and alienation from themselves and once tolerated people of difference. The social fabric which once held us together starts fraying and consuming its hopeful and positive core surrendering to the dark corridors of our fear.
More specifically and mystifying is why the growing anger and rage among the underclass or the otherwise marginalized and downtrodden, exploited populace, does not burst forth in response with a more forceful shift to promoters of their interests. The evidence for this shift to happen should be clear in one set of indicators: economic injustice. For a few decades, the gap in income and wealth between those who have a large share and those who don’t is growing. Some measures suggest that historically we are in a new “Gilded Age” only seen before over a hundred years ago.
Social injustice experienced by minorities, women, the LGBT community, and non-Christians is indisputable and well documented. These groups have a stronger and stronger voice and are acting for their interests and, at the core, for liberal democratic values and principles. They also strongly support reversing the disparities and injustice embodied by the wealthy and uber-wealthy class. Their fear, anger and rage is directed at reforming the institutions and leadership that perpetuate the anti-liberal status quo. But this liberation of creativity and energy is adds to the fears through an imagined threat it poses to the economic underclass and many in the middle class. The resurgent outcasts seem to have values and beliefs that are contradictory and threatening to the potential allies of the less educated and less affluent in the quest for social and economic justice.
This societal breakdown is more easily exploited by authoritarians as they acquire more recognition and power. Their advantage is that the existing fear allows them to simplify the language defining problems, reducing their complexity and nuance, manipulating the vulnerability of their followers and advocating anti-liberal solutions. Lies become believable and acceptable with their frequent and immediate publication. They confirm simple and oftimes conspiratorial but erroneous biases. Such rhetoric plays on those who need and want strong leadership without the complications of democracy as we know it. Those followers generally, to start with, are opinionated, see life as black and white, are rigid and less flexible, and are more tribal in their social groupings and affiliations. They start their adult lives leaning to that extreme which has its champions in the extremes of liberal and conservative parties in the US and many other countries. There is often a longing to return to the past, the “good old days”, where life was simpler and understandable. Living with ambiguity and uncertainty is not their comfort zone. They, when confronted with the new “them” dressed in such a great variety and diversity of symbols, feel increasingly threatened and seek harbor among their growing “us” affiliations. A primitive but still usual reaction of the “them” affiliates is to get defensive and construct its own set of barriers and see those “thems” as an enemy. This action and counteraction begins to be a perpetuating cycle that only causes the cultural gaps to grow. Extremes will always exist philosophically, politically and culturally. Characteristic of extreme belief and behavior is that the room for cooperation and compromise diminishes and can become a life-threatening hardening of the societal arteries. In spite of the fact that our representative democracy is designed to optimize a governance that seeks common ground and cooperation, it is struggling mightily to regain its balance and center.
There is likely a Western myth surrounding this apparent Westernizing of the global community signified by the American Dream. While the mantra of liberal democracy and capitalism is that they will enhance the reach and sharing of rewards to more and more of the masses, there is growing evidence that, even as liberal democracy and capitalism are preached and practiced, this is not happening. In fact, the gaps between rhetoric and practice are growing.
In the US, home to over 300 million people we have been in a new “Gilded Age”, as noted above, where more and more of the wealth and income growth has move to the top 5% of its population. That chasm has not been witnessed since the early 20th century. China and India’s combined populations of over 2 billion people have large numbers living in poverty. While they modernize, the gap grows between those at the top and bottom. Some progress in expanding the middle class has happened there as it has in Latin America, other Asian Countries, and parts of Africa. But the extremes are still significant. The Arab countries seem to be the most abandoned by their leaders in ability or willingness to join the modern world economy except for a few resources like oil.
A striking political and governance structure in the majority of those countries is the adoption and adaptation of liberal democracy and a mixture of capitalism and welfare-state principles. However, their constitutions and democratic processes are constantly manipulated by ruling parties and the ruling class to perpetuate or protect their dominance. That need to control negates the cooperative and competitive free-play needed to have more culturally and economically vibrant societies. Add to that the rampant corruption and diminished allegiance to the “rule of law” mean the presumed benefits of liberal democracy and capitalism shared by a majority of citizens is not being achieved. So that leaves billions of our fellow beings marginalized at the low rung of the social and economic hierarchy. And the likelihood of that improving much over the ensuing decades is doubtful because of the powerful force of entropy/inertia benefiting the “haves” versus the “have-nots”. Here’s some evidence to substantiate that claim. Many experts have researched the rolling benefits accruing through life to those citizens being born and raised in certain “zip codes”. Being surrounded by learning in and associated with the affluent and privileged in your neighborhood confers life-long advantages and opportunities to them. That is largely the opposite effect for those from the “wrong zip codes”. Historically, that metaphor was once said to label a person as being one of
“them” for the “wrong side of the tracks”.
What are some other advantages available to the affluent but less to others? No need to expand on this list but just to note some is sufficient: better medical care, better schools, broader life experience, technology that’s affordable and renewed frequently, more discretionary income, a network of people who link you to more networks and opportunities because, unconsciously often, “you’re one of us”.
As this social and economic fabric seems to be unraveling and rotting as is the material, living world around us might, the latter’s imminent collapse also may be about to happen separate from or in parallel with the other? If collapse is on its way, how broad will it be in both domains of our human habitat? The natural and the human constructed. If it is total, in spite of what we do to prevent and reverse it, then we will have acted in vain. If otherwise, what can we do to mitigate the negative descent toward collapse of some kind? Of course we won’t know until we get there – wherever “there” is. Our drive for survival pushes us to do whatever is necessary under any foregoing circumstances as we witness threat. We’ll only know the answer to “too late or too little?” as the evidence presents itself.
How? First, the causes of this decay and rot are multiple, in varying degrees of effect, interrelated, nuanced and dizzingly complex. To add to this headache, solving one problem or cause may create, here’s that phrase again: unintended consequences. An easily understood example: when many thought the world’s population would shrink because of mass starvation, science and industry created fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides to protect and increase crop production. Today we see the unintended effects of those poisons to our habitat and to our bodies.
But it could be argued that the very science and technology that fed business, industry and consumers offered a whole new way of life that, for many, lifted their material well-being and life opportunities. As mentioned above, this evolution, from the past 500 years, came wrapped in economic and political garb mostly dominated by supposed enlightened and democratic capitalism. And as we each pass through its “temporal” images and touches, it seems the best and only way to go for are progeny while we ignore and avoid the damage caused down-stream in time’s flow away from our temporality. I don’t experience it therefore it didn’t happen. Our imagination and foresight is time bound and limited to short term for most people. This short term horizon greatly inhibits our ability and willingness to alter course, to reform our institutions and organizations, to modify our belief systems, and to change behavior on a collective scale large enough to radically alter our behavioral and decision-making course.
The promises of the American Dream, as metaphor, are too attractive to cause discouragement and course reversal, presently. But yet, more and more evidence shows those may be the root causes of our plunge to collapse of some sort and degree. Until we abandon our contrived needs from unlimited desire to acquire and possess material goods at the expense of their contribution to our deteriorating world-wide ecosystem, the trends written about above will continue, intensify and accelerate. That is a conclusion supported by more and more experts across many disciplines and an increasing number of leaders in politics, government, associations, foundations, and the private sector. And on a growing scale they are acting in spite of so many governments unable to move beyond rhetorical support for the cause to save our planet and our species.
The clearest road to survival is to extremely limit our huge habits to CONSUME and acquire. What and how much we consume, almost as an addiction, triggers the exploitation of our environment, including people, to maintain our habits. This addiction then unleashes negative and unintended consequences that are far greater, perhaps exponentially greater, than we could imagine or imagined. Imagine this: we will have to reinvent society at all levels to rebalance the impending decline and chaos. What would that look like? How would you spend your day? Where would challenges to your creativity come from? How would your curiosity be satisfied? What would religion and organized society look like? What behavior would be substituted for the purging of our needs to acquire?
Let’s start with the concept of “work”. Over time it has come to mean what many people do to survive, put food on the table, care for children and provide resources to live a comfortable life including housing, education, and health care. In a mostly rural society years ago it meant families and small communities lived on and off the land. As urban areas increased, they provided the food and materials for building, fire wood, clothing production, etc.. And the changes flowed from there to get us to a current picture almost opposite of that history. But work still is a central activity to define who we are and our purpose. You worked for the income or barter to provide for yourself and loved ones. If progress as we know it today (internet, technology, robotics, artificial intelligence) redefines the concept of work, what will it become, will it be as central to our lives, and how does our self-image and interrelationships in “community” change?
What follows is based on a number of assumptions. First, that the current fall toward environmental cataclysm will be halted and reversed gradually (50-100 years). Second, that this major disruption will be the eventual ending of the capitalist, consumption driven, natural resource depleting exploitation of our biosphere. Third, it likely means that an international recognition of, and actions to create, new forms of governance, cooperation, and economic and social models to regenerate and sustain humanity, and life itself, that will lead to the creation of those processes and structures. Just uttering those words engenders a deep recognition and worry about the climb ahead.
To set us on the road to envisioning the future we may want to create, I’ll start with “work”.
Today work is largely an exchange of individual efforts for income to be exchanged for a comfortable life for ourselves and family or those we are responsible for. Much evidence exists to suggest that those incomes may continue to shrink and be harder to achieve thus leaving more and more people under or unemployed with work as we defined it. These two changes alone will require radical shifts in our thinking, our family relationships, our communities and our collective approach to cooperation and governance.
So what might we envision to be an outcome, however temporary, of this major transition? The word work itself may have to be abandoned or reframed. We may have to think and conceive of how we live a life-style where work is secondary. Our life styles may have to include more time with family and friends; to be more egalitarian in responsibilities surrounding our spousal/partnership relationships; to engage in intellectual, artistic or recreational pursuits; to spend more time and activity in the natural world; to attend to our mental and physical health and wellness; to take more time in community affairs; to return to barter exchange of our talents with others’ talents – there will still be lots to do that AI and robotics can’t do in the micro tasks of daily maintenance.
My hopefulness about the future implied from that paragraph is embedded in what we know about the evolution of our species up to this moment in time. It seems, as science has revealed and philosophers have argued, we are – at our core – driven by the need to be social creatures like so many animals. Corollaries to our social needs are both cooperation and competition. They fuel the change process If these have not been with us as a primal biological stamp, they certainly have become glued to our cells through cultural evolution over hundreds of thousands of years. So, unless that stamping is stamped out of us in the millennia ahead, we will always gravitate to recreate what has driven us to adapt and survive as a species. What the “re-creation” will look like is unknown but not unimaginable. Once we begin to “imagine” it, in bits and pieces or big slices, we will change personally and collectively over time. Our ability to be intentional about the purpose and new behavior, and to continue to learn and improve on what we are learning, and to spread that to our family, our tribes and to a larger community is what defined civilization today and will do so going forward.
But back to the basics of the immediate social world we have become and which shapes us every day as we eventually shape it. Today “work” is a central driver of us individually and collectively. It generates “income” in a metaphorical modern sense represented by currency whether physical or electronic. Whereas, it was trading physical goods or crops or labor for shelter centuries ago. So where does the “income” come from to support us and our families in the future? First, if work is redefined and life-style becomes more important, (minimalism vs endless abundance)……..