As I was driving from my village into the city this morning, a trip of around 85 kilometres, I tuned in to a Facebook Live recording featuring my friend Dr. David Martin from M.CAM in Virginia. David is too dapper for words and devilishly astute. A performer. But under the dazzling surface there is an intelligence that should never be taken lightly.
I share many (though not all) of David’s concerns regarding the various experimental socio-economic agendas being rolled out around the world in the wake of the present pandemic. David is very focused on the US situation of course which, as a citizen and resident, is as it should be. We are global in our perceptions and perspectives, however, and the totalitarian undertones of some government policies, to which we have both been alluding in our very different ways, seem to be growing an undeniable momentum.
Although his preferred style can lean towards the instructional, on this occasion I was struck more by the intensity of inquiry David was using into the conditions we have countenanced in dealing with COVID-19. If we continue to allow the politics of fear, the repetition of dogma, and the erosion of liberty to drive isolation and compliance, he argued, we will submit to an authoritarian trait in our society, and be deprived of the individual sovereignty we take for granted today. If we permit beliefs and opinions to substitute for evidence we run the risk of being controlled by the ignorance of others and penalised each time we state the truth.
As each question underscored uncertainties being marketed as reality, and as validated facts tumbled over each other in their struggle to illustrate untold truths, I began to feel distinctly uncomfortable. This, I am sure, was David’s intention.
The case for a pause, in order to reflect on the deeper news, pushed all of my alarm buttons, in addition to letting loose personal convictions going back years. There is something going on in our society that is deeply disturbing and goes far beyond conspiracy. We need to wake up to what is actually happening, without being distracted by ridiculous conspiracy theories that have no basis in fact.
Silent undercurrents point to a disorienting psychology of addiction and self-destruction (at once calculated yet also involuntary) which is at the heart of the human condition. It seems to me we are complicit actors in a tragedy whose end-game could well be extinction. Unless, that is, we come to our senses and rewrite the final act.
Whether you agree with my assertions, or simply regard them as uncritical detours, the main points are sufficiently valid to be given due consideration. Likewise, whether you concur with his contentions or not, one feature always stands out in David’s recital: a compelling finale.
So, as the broadcast was nearing its close, and I was about to switch to some music as a much-needed counterpoint, I waited. I am glad that I did. David made a fairly obvious, yet pertinent point. Irrespective of the path we choose after the dust settles and life returns to a degree of normalcy, we will always refer to 2020 as a pivotal point in our development. Rather like 9/11, this event and date will be imprinted on human consciousness for generations to come. His closing statement was particularly poignant: The future we will have is the future we will make. Let’s make it together.
Issued with such a challenge what would you choose to take with you into the future? What would you leave behind altogether? What would you target for reform? What systems would you identify for reinvention? And what new design criteria would you advocate using? In other words, if it was up to you, how would you go about redesigning the human presence on Earth?
Part of the problem in answering questions like these is that the data to which we habitually turn, particularly those revealed by Google searches, seem to contradict any suggestion that we are living in bad times. Philanthropist Bill Gates, philosopher Stephen Pinker, and Dr. Hans Rosling who co-founded Medecins sans Frontiers, all endorse the idea that life is better today than it was even a decade ago – and far better than we think it is. We are better educated and more literate, they claim. We are also wealthier, healthier, happier, live longer and enjoy greater freedoms. But is that really so?
With a little more diligence and care, avoiding Google as the first port of call, evidence can be surfaced illustrating a narrative distinctly incompatible with the former. Driven by our reliance on chemical-based synthetic technologies, alternative factors assume greater clarity. To feed a burgeoning population we adopt intense industrial farming methods. This destroys soils and pollutes oceans, as well as wiping out insects and other species that happen to be a critical part of the food chain. So more processed food is manufactured. But that leads to obesity and diabetes. In our commercially-minded efforts to control these, and other diseases, we submit to constant medication, which causes other problems including mental health issues. And so on….
Is it possible that the progress we sense is an illusion. Is our technological wizardry actually creating a toxic, degenerative society? Could the combination of untreated sewage, garbage, fertilizers, pesticides, industrial chemicals, plastics and carbon emissions, be generating an uninhabitable world?
Apart from the fact that statistics can always be found to accommodate almost any proposal, however outrageous, three factors concern me when we are exposed to such overly-positive news. First, almost every individual claiming we are better off today was either born or lives in more affluent nations where, by and large, all their needs are met. Second, comparative data being used are snapshots carefully selected on the assumption that human progress traces a linear path. Third, they do not take into account the complexity of evolutionary dynamics and alternative socio-economic and psychological assumptions about human advancement. More critically, none of these factors get to the core issue – the survival of Homo sapiens by design.
We might be more literate, and better educated, but has it led to increased levels of empathy, tolerance, new ways of appreciating and understanding the world, an ability to step into new epistemologies, or to reinvent our world from alternative frameworks? In an age when our key problems are now so complicated that they can only be resolved by applying higher levels of cognitive processing within alternative design ontologies I would suggest our educational systems, however advanced, are still not up to the task.
We might be wealthier too. But if that is the case why are around 22 percent of young people aged 18 and under in the world’s wealthiest nation considered to be living in relative poverty? How can eight white men rationalise the fact that they own as much as the poorest 3.8 billion?
And if we are happier and have more hope than in the past, why is it that so many people are lonely, isolated, anxious and depressed? Why is domestic violence increasing? Suicide rates climbing? Why has narcissism become the most reported psychological condition presenting to psychologists? And why do so many young people resort to hate crimes, cyber bullying and substance abuse?
There is a cancer eating away at the soul of society and nobody wants to venture there. This is possibly due to a combination of factors: the absence of a collective purpose and narrative for humanity within which personal meaning can be shaped; a distinct lack of intrinsic motivation; the erosion of trust in what were previously our most esteemed institutions and professions; increased levels of hatred and blame for our perceived ills; and the feeling of being trapped in an unending cycle of desire and consumption, from which there is no escape.
Is the silent, unseen truth, too frightening to confront? If not why we are trying to ignore it and hope that it goes away? It is far too big and too complicated for any single government, trade bloc or corporation to tackle. It is not an issue the World Economic Forum or its ilk will ponder. When it is mentioned the wealthy turn their eyes away. Advertising executives and economists express their surprise or contempt for any suggestion growth should be tempered. Why, this would only take us back to the dark ages, they protest.
Yet this is not an existential crisis. Simply put… If the economy to which we are wedded needs people to buy things they do not need, or even want, and to do more of that each year than the year before, simply in order to keep the whole structure from collapsing, do we not need a different, more benign, kind of economy?
The toxicity of the current system, though immensely damaging, is not going to usher in the end of the human race tomorrow. It might eventually lead to a society in which a few wealthy individuals lord it over the rest of humanity of course. Right now it is a slight tremor arising from neoliberal theories of production within the context of economic growth. But that tremor has made the entire system harmful. And it is becoming more intense by the day.
Almost all of the strategies designed to accelerate growth while lowering the costs of production – including planned obsolescence, off-shoring, energy from fossil fuels, global supply chains, just-in-time inventories, the pervasive use of synthetic materials like plastics, and industrial farming practices, for example – have joined with rapid urbanisation and over-population to create a highly fragile and vulnerable global ecosystem.
So here is the crunch. Almost every civilisational challenge we see in the world today – ranging from our obsession with innovation and novelty, the need to be employed in order to earn a living, homelessness, the subsequent stress on our most-life-critical systems, the use of politics as an agent of business, and corporate corruption, to the culture of intolerance that so easily results in wars and conflicts, and the maladaptive coping practices we adopt to deal with our own individual psychoses, can be related back to a cycle of desire and consumption driven by a mixture of avarice and over-production.
Sooner or later we will need to address this dual problem. If the developed nations can rein in their desire to manufacture more and more stuff they do not really need, thus slowing the rate of consumption, in addition to recycling and using closed system manufacturing, for example, the tangible benefits will not be hard to sell to those of us pleading for sanity. We have seen a glimpse of what these benefits might look like in the current great pause occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lower and slower rates of production, curbing fertility through the use of education, constraining the desire for goods and services that are trendy yet unnecessary, will result in our lives being filled with an abundance of activities other than work. Nature can be given time to heal. Out of the hubris of our age a new society can take shape.
How wonderful to imagine this was the point at which we drew a line in the sand and pledged a new beginning. How amazing for our children to be able to stand in 2050 and look back at 2020, imprinted as it will be on their consciousness, pointing to the generative and empathic society we chose to create back then and the many benefits that have flowed since…
Fewer conflicts and wars. The dismantling of nuclear weapons. The elimination of poverty. A world of greater equality and justice, where anyone can choose the extent to which they work or play without penalty. A world in which all life is sacred and the dominant desire is to help one another, especially those less fortunate, rather than to horde individual wealth. A slower-paced world in which successive generations can be assured of happiness without the fear it might all collapse like a house of cards.
What will that take? Sentience. We need to wake up. That is all.