Crises and Opportunities: A Manifesto for Change

7. The Big Question
Incremental tinkering with the present system in one or all major dimensions may or may not generate some temporary relief and buy a little time, but definitely will not make our problems disappear. If they recede for a time, they will return with greater intensity until we consent to address them at their roots. Business as usual is not an option. Adding a few “bells and whistles” will not work.

At the same time, we should not underestimate humanity’s inexhaustible capacity for creative ingenuity, resourcefulness and adaptive change. But, before we can bring about effective change, we must know where it is we want to go and what kind of world we want to create for ourselves. Thus, the inquiry must begin with formulation of the values on which our future should be based.

This should be followed by asking a fundamental question which is usually overlooked in our haste for quick fixes and piecemeal remedies: Is there any possible way for us to reformulate and reconstruct global society in a manner that is more conducive to the security, welfare and well-being of all human beings and fully compatible with the natural systems on which we depend? Intuitively, we must answer this question with an emphatic affirmation. There is, there must be, a better way than what we have today. It is inconceivable that a species which has emerged from the jungle, built cities, sailed the seas and the skies should have reached the end of its evolutionary potentials.

We live in a world of paradoxes: unprecedented abundance lives side by side with unmitigated poverty. Billions of people remain at subsistence levels, while global financial assets have multiplied from $12 trillion to $216 trillion in three decades, and are now equivalent to nearly four times the global GDP. The world possesses the surplus capacity to produce every variety of goods, yet billions lack the resources to procure them. Hundreds of millions of able-bodied willing workers are without employment opportunities, more than a billion are underemployed, while urgent needs remain unfulfilled for more and better food, clothing, housing, education, health care, communications, transportation, and other essentials of life. The most advanced technologies co-exist alongside the most primitive living conditions. There is something grossly inadequate and perverse about a system with so much power and such visible incapacity to meet human needs. These grossly apparent failures are sufficient confirmation that a better system must be possible and that the world is ripe for new thinking.

8. Is Radical Change Possible?
The doubling of world population between 1650 and 1800 prompted Thomas Malthus to predict that humanity would be forever caught in a vicious cycle of unbridled population growth, poverty and famine. Malthus’ analysis was correct, but his prediction did not come true, because he could not anticipate the multidimensional social revolution which radically altered circumstances in the following decades. The technological developments that ushered in the Industrial Revolution only partly explain what happened. Equally important was the opening up of new lands in North America, the dynamism unleashed by the spread of democracy following the French Revolution, and the mechanization of farm production and higher levels of productivity, which reduced dependence on child labor and large families. In addition, declining death rates, the spread of general education and rise of the Middle Class shifted emphasis from the number of children to the quality of their upbringing. These and other factors made possible a seven-fold increase in population between 1800 and 2000, while at the same time real per capita income multiplied twelve-fold.

Forty years ago, The Limits to Growth generated awareness of another pending crisis threatening humanity. The report was not a prediction of dire calamity or even of an end to growth, but it clearly signaled the coming end of the old model of natural resource-intensive, industrial development. Since then, the landscape has been altered by the emergence of the knowledge-based service economy, the birth and growth of the Internet, technological advances in energy and miniaturization, globalization of trade, rising levels of education and rising social expectations among the aspiring masses in developing countries. Some of these factors mitigate while others aggravate the challenges posed by growth. But, they all point to the fact that society is evolving so rapidly that it is worthwhile envisioning a new framework which reconciles social aspirations with economic and ecological limits.

It is important not to underestimate the power of vested interests and agents of the status quo. The world is the way it is today because many people benefit from the current system and distribution of power and would like it to remain just as it is. The current values, theories, institutions and power structures have ardent advocates. At the same time, it is important not to underestimate the capacity for radical change. Monarchy did not disappear because monarchs decided they preferred democracy, but because the masses of ordinary people no longer consented to be governed by and for the benefit of a small elite. After spreading to encompass more than half of humanity, the European colonial empires disappeared within a single decade when the aspiration of 45 oppressed nations awakened to the call of freedom and demanded self-determination.

It is true that humanity clings to the past in spite of repeated failures. It is also true that failure and crisis have proven to be a marvelous instrument for education and a powerful motivation for change. Ideally and hopefully, we can change without the need for crises and challenges to spur us to change our way of life. But either way, we need first to be prepared with a set of alternative ideas to be adopted when the time is ripe. Our conviction is that if we fully prepare ourselves intellectually, we can make that time come now.

9. From Revolution to Evolution
When Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the US presidency in 1932, he faced a multidimensional crisis that had defied resolution by existing dogma or incremental policy changes. Faced with a banking crisis that had already destroyed 6000 American banks and an economic crisis that had displaced 25% of the workforce and reduced GDP by 50%, he was compelled to embrace new ideas, adopt new values, establish new institutions and alter radically the role and responsibility of government for promoting human welfare. Growing fear of the compelling attraction of communism for the masses compelled capitalism to adopt a human face. In a country founded on principles of free market capitalism which regarded all forms of socialism with anathema, the New Deal was nothing short of radical social revolution. The dire suffering imposed by an economic collapse during the Great Depression compelled liberal ideologues to embrace policies contrary to the very core of their beliefs and established the foundation for a half century of unprecedented prosperity.

Those who doubt the capacity of humanity to make the necessary changes fail to realize the real magnitude of the multidimensional crisis that is emerging and cling to the belief in our collective capacity to muddle through. This is a grave error. A social revolution is already afoot. If government does not solve the problem, people will. Long before climate change floods our coast lines, armies of unemployed youth, excluded poor and alienated elderly will, like a tsunami, storm the bastille of our most sacred assumptions and entrenched privileges. The Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements that have sprouted up in over 1000 cities in 82 countries around the world are only sparks of a coming social conflagration that reflect the deep erosion of faith in our institutions and way of life. In this modern communications age, the gap between rising social expectations and growing inequalities is straining the fabric of global society. The storm of protest and unrest will relentlessly persist until either we change the rules to accommodate these frustrated aspirations or it tears the present structure of selfish greed and utter folly into shreds. When it does, it is not going to honor anyone’s theoretical premises or self-satisfied convictions.

As each of these pressure points gathers steam, the force compelling change will only grow greater in both urgency and intensity. Each of the separate strands of crisis has its own in-built multiplier effect. In combination, they will generate a momentum that may build gradually, but once it crosses the tipping point, it will rise exponentially. Once an event crosses a crucial transition point, the effort required to reverse the direction also multiplies. The 2008 financial crisis is proof of the fact that once public confidence is eroded beyond a certain point, the spill-over effects are extremely difficult to contain and reverse. Confidence nurtured over decades can vanish in a moment.

This is not a prediction of doom, but a call for immediate and concerted action to embrace the values, formulate the new ideas and put in place the next layer of governance structures required to cope with the challenges posed by humanity’s remarkable achievements during the 20th century. We have the capacity by the strength of our ideas to convert the approaching revolution into rapid social evolution. Our call is revolutionary in spirit, evolutionary in implementation. The challenge we face is to seize the opportunity for change, to seize the century that lies waiting for us.

Pages: 1 2 3