It really is astonishing how we allow economic factors to override and dictate most other aspects of life in our intensely materialistic and competitive world. Today money is valued above everything else – cheapening art, altruism, love, intellect and spirituality by default.
It was not always the case. When I was growing up in the southeast of England, business and trade were just two elements in a routine that allowed everyone to lead a fulfilling life. But that also included a raft of other interests. After a day’s work there was still plenty of time to participate in community events, like jumble sales and the village fete, help the neighbours build a fence, read a novel, stroll down the track to Sheffield Park, have a drink at the pub, undertake evening classes at the local college, listen to the news on the radio, play soccer and go to church. Even governments behaved as though they were actually interested in and cared for civic life.
Today’s global economy overwhelms and dominates political affairs, diplomacy, business, entertainment, media, governance, education and, yes, even play. Nothing, it seems, is immune from the overpowering urge to make money. Lots of it. Almost every decision we take in our professional and personal lives is concerned in some way with economics: as context, issue, means, or end. Apart from celebrity cavorting, new gadgets, crime and the unending procession of vacuous soap operas and reality shows on television, it is the economy – share markets, foreign exchange, business deals and mergers – that are now the epicentres of our existence: constantly observed, reported on, and envied. As a result we have become avaricious and narcissistic, debasing our more humanitarian instincts and, little by little, destroying the planet in the process.
At the same time, unsolicited advice from the gurus of the $11 billion self-help industry, people like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins, and Steven Covey, cram the shelves to overflowing in local book shops; young people in droves, lacking inspiration and hope, curtail their brief lives through suicide and drug abuse, or resort to pointless violence; bizarre religious sects grow apace, and activism against authority of all kinds escalates, aided by collaborative technologies and ironically-labelled “social” media.
Such frantic rummaging for meaning persist because most of us are convinced there is more to life than just an endless pursuit for fame, power, influence, money and material assets – a hollow vision of humankind, terrifying to ponder in its banality.
The most significant thing the economy provides is the water we need to drink, the food we need to eat, and the air we need to breathe. But life is for the joy of living, not just the physiology of breathing. If that was it we might just as well live in a dungeon.
Besides, unexpected transitions in society, along with technological innovation, together ensure that conditions are shifting to the extent that we are still able to seek redemption from such a sterile future. It will take a change of mind: about who we are, what we are here for, what is really important – and what is not. That is the difficult bit!
Our destiny, if we are to have one, is not about money. Nor is it about celebrity, influence, power, egocentric politicians, corporate mergers, or capital markets. It is not even about who wins the next election, which mRNA vaccines prove to be most effective in treating the SARS-Cov-2 virus and its many mutant strains, or the sabre-rattling between the US and China. Oh, these headaches will still be of concern, no doubt. But the real game is elsewhere.
The future of our species is located on the periphery between human evolution, societal sufficiency, and the limits imposed by physics – a point at which scientific breakthroughs, design, and our capacity to steward potentially uninhabitable future worlds intersect. In order to reach a viable future, beliefs and values must inevitably shift, triggered by a leap of consciousness. Even “the economy” must change its character in the shift from industrial economism to more benign, less extractive, predatory modes of exchange.
The transit of a global economy underpinned by two world wars and the emergence of corporate power dominated our lives during the 20th century. The 21st century will not be the same, as clearly illustrated by the disorder and emergencies of the first two decades.
Key differences are poised to change everything that we currently take for granted. But to fully appreciate why this is so let us go back to June 2007. That month marked a new trade deal between South Korea and the US. At the time this was the largest bilateral pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement in January 1994. The Korean-US alliance gave American farmers and bankers better access to Korean consumers while helping Korean companies push more electronics, cars and textiles into the US. When it was announced, the news was purely economic. But exploring below the surface of the news a different picture emerged, for these trade deals are never just about the money.
This compact came at a time when the US military presence on the Korean peninsula was waning, anti-US sentiment was on the rise, and China was beginning to play a much more visible, and increasingly significant, leadership role across the region. By observing these patterns closely a somewhat different picture begins to emerge – one that was certainly not understood by mainstream media at the time.
To systems thinkers, the non-economic implications would be apparent even if Yang Sung Chul, a former US ambassador to South Korea, later a Professor at the Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, had not observed that this particular agreement was much more significant strategically than economically. But if the deal was not primarily about money and trade, what then was it about? The answer is simple. It was a cunningly crafted strategic play aimed at thwarting China’s overt military presence and economic aspirations in the region.
Indeed, the same inherent purpose is apparent in most recent trade deals in Asia. And although free trade agreements have always been partly political, cementing relationships even as they bolster exports, the use of these mechanisms in geopolitical jockeying has now reached new heights.
How did all of this start? In 2004 a substantial trade agreement was signed between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China. The strategic priorities in this deal were transparent. By unilaterally opening up new markets for hundreds of different kinds of agricultural products, and offering special incentives to nations like Laos and Cambodia, China helped calm tensions in trouble spots like disputed territories in the South China sea. So successful was the FTA in this regard that it became a model for other bilateral trade deals with China’s regional neighbours, including Pakistan and Thailand.
Since then there has been frenzied activity across the region. Nations like Japan, who have traditionally been wary of establishing bilateral contracts, fell over themselves in the race to find new trade partners. An outbreak of deals between both regional and international players, such as India, Japan, the US, EU, South Korea and Australia, denote new alliances and morphing dynamics in possibly the most strategically uncertain part of the world after the Middle East. Significantly, many of these strategic partnerships openly declare security alliances intended to reign in Chinese ambitions.
This is why the mercantilist strategies underpinning China’s Belt & Road initiative are now so vital. It also explains why China has recently become far more geopolitically assertive under the smokescreen of the COVID-19 pandemic. The robustness of US alliances are being tested vis-a-vis Taiwan and Hong Kong, for example.
None of this wheeling and dealing leads to more resourceful economic activity or efficient trading. On the contrary, the proliferation of bilateral agreements actually hinders broader global efforts to liberalize trade. Bilateral deals often have a surprisingly harmful effect on small to medium-sized enterprises, which represent up to 80 per cent of jobs in parts of Asia. So why the importance of FTAs? It is not about the money, although the press would have us believe that it is. On the contrary, it is about politics and the balance of power between sovereign nations.
But where does all of that lead? If the last century was dominated by the craving for more and more money, coupled to an insatiable desire for more and more technology, what will displace such an idee fixe in the 21st century?
I guess much depends upon what kind of a world we want and, equally, what we do not want. It is far easier to invent a future where universal benefits are made explicit and there is an overall agreement regarding the nature of that future. So the question is not so much about money but of investment: how should we invest our wealth, our time, our creativity and our technology in ways that will optimize our most valued common assets and create a future our children will want to inherit?
In the 20th century the combination of business interests and corporate media blunted our appreciation of what was worthwhile by focusing our attention almost exclusively on money and what money could buy. The lens through which politics, education, health, social development, trade, infrastructure (and even environmental sustainability) were viewed was quintessentially financial.
Capital and “the economy” slowly became the developed world’s most compelling idea. It pervaded individual consumer spending, the generation of corporate profits, extending its tentacles into the economic management of the nation-state, a concept that effectively usurped more holistic notions of government and, indeed, democracy. With it our sense of community gradually faded, and individual greed was legitimized.
For the past couple of centuries money, in one form or another, dominated our collective psyche. Often in the most insidious of ways. A host of agencies and firms were established to think about money, trading in money, distributing money, collecting and investing money. It was really no surprise that economists became the seers to which governments turned for advice.
But as previously suggested, generating greater wealth for its own sake is tantamount to the physiology of breathing. Clinical, dispassionate, indispensable perhaps, but not in the least equivalent to the joy of living life to the full. Not only that, there is a rift between the two motives. In the process of focusing on breathing it is so easy to forget what life is for. Which is why, perhaps, we so often develop temporary amnesia!
Arguably the most pressing vision of humanity in the future is one that allows us to dream anew the collective nature and purpose of our existence prior to defining what is pivotal to that actuality. Doubtless this must include peaceful, secure, equitable, mutually beneficial relationships with each other, as well as the conservation of a healthy natural environment, upon which we depend for our most basic needs, and to sustain all life.
But we must dream before we invent. We have developed the habit of inventing without a framework of intentions to guide us. We see that playing out in the development of AI and machine super intelligence. That is possibly the first imperative we should repeal.
So far the recent choices we have made as a society, albeit mostly by default, highlight respite – the satiated feeling of a full stomach, or the comfort experienced from using a plethora of new gadgets to alleviate the stress caused by our continuing lack of a shared vision for our civilization – one that appears to lack any kind of moral purpose.
In no particular order, games and gambling, various forms of mass entertainment, political shenanigans, and celebrity watching have been used vicariously and, it must be admitted, fairly indiscriminately, to trap us within this sedated state. It is a condition from which we need to awaken.
We can begin by acknowledging that our species is good at imagining, experimenting, innovating and inventing. If such qualities are indeed inherent in the human spirit we must surely be able to practice them collectively. Now that would be a wise investment in terms of deep social impact.
Although this mantra is now heard 24/7 the time is also ripe for people of all persuasions to come together to invest in clean energy. Global warming and climate change are not going to disappear. The science is now undeniable. Our response needs to be immediate.
Massive investments in clean energy offer a way of redefining the source of democratized power – around a capacity to dream better futures – and invent our way out of crises. This is a far more positive and optimistic rendition of power than that traditionally centered on intimidation and domination of those we fear, simply because we covet their resources or because they value different things.
Oil-funded terrorism, global heating, zoonotic diseases, species extinction, and financial insecurity – these are all challenges we can overcome through ingenuity and our capacity to continuously reinvent ourselves. If we have a mind to….
The task is not impossible – but almost so. Even now, some prominent individuals in the energy and environmental industries deny the need for major investments, insisting that new pollution and efficiency regulations are all that is needed. Should they change their mind, then the populace will still need to be convinced. Voters care more about the cost of energy than bush fires, floods, droughts, or the extinction of exotic fauna.
Dealing effectively with the global heating crisis still depends to a great extent on society accepting the transitional costs of a shift away from fossil fuels. That is exactly why massive investments to reduce the cost of energy from solar, wind and hydrogen are now paying dividends.
Most communities are now convinced that the changing climate is indeed an emergency. Yet most states are reluctant to break free from the corporate pack. The governments and the people of China and India, for example, are increasingly concerned about heating and desertification. The only way these governments can reduce greenhouse gas emissions is if the price of clean energy and carbon capture technologies are reduced sufficiently to get within striking distance of fossil fuels prices. But that, too, is happening.
Originally motivated purely by various forms of economic development, attitudes have changed dramatically. There is now an acknowledgement that the battle against global heating can be fought both in terms of ecological limits and economic possibilities. The new administration in the US is also ramping up its commitments in this regard and the flow-on effect is likely to be substantial in laggard countries like Australia.
Taking all of that into account, it is clear the nations of the world need to come together to make massive investments in an entirely new energy infrastructure. That will require the genesis of a new form of global polity – which is also a happy thought.
These are the kinds of investments that will be crucial to human survival. It is not about the money, you see. It is about the lack of volition, the vested interests and corporate lethargy that inhibits the investment of imagination concerning our readiness and capacity to come to terms with the human condition.
Hopefully, internet-empowered activists, high-tech entrepreneurs, young people around the world, and the new creative classes will become the decentralizing force behind this new democratized politics of possibility.