Humanity faces a choice between collapsing into chaos and evolving into a sustainable, ethical global community. There’s never been a more powerful moment in all history to make a difference in the world.
Ervin Laszlo | September 2006 issue
A Chinese proverb warns, “If we do not change direction, we are likely to end up exactly where we are headed.” Applied to humanity today, this would be disastrous.
Without a change in direction, we are on the way to a world of increasing political conflict and war; accelerating climate change and pollution; food, water and energy shortages. We also run the risk of mega-disasters caused by nuclear accidents and global warming.
Albert Einstein told us we cannot solve the major problems we face at the same level of thinking that created them. He was right. Yet we continue trying to fight terrorism, poverty, environmental degradation, even obesity and other “sicknesses of civilization” with exactly the means and methods that produced the problems in the first place.
A look at history, however, shows that fundamental shifts in societies have happened at key points throughout our past. Look at the unprecedented appearance of major civilizations in the Andes, Mexico, Egypt, China, India and the Euphrates valley. Consider the rise of democracy in ancient Athens and the emergence and spread of the Renaissance in medieval Europe. But there is one difference today. In the past, there was time for new thinking to evolve over generations or even centuries. This is no longer the case. The critical period for a fundamental social shift in is now compressed into a single lifetime.
Without significant and widespread changes, our global system could collapse into chaos. But a wave of new thinking and the action it inspires offer us hope for a global breakthrough that would create a better world for ourselves and our children.
Let me offer one example of how such a breakthrough might look: Faced with growing problems and shared threats, citizens across the planet pull together to form associations and networks to pursue their dreams of peace and environmental sustainability.
Business leaders and entrepreneurs recognize the importance of these aspirations and respond with new goods and services that help make them a reality. Soon, global news and entertainment media commit themselves to chronicling emerging social and cultural innovations. On the Internet and through other grassroots communication networks, people everywhere begin exploring new visions of the natural world, the global community and human existence itself.
Out of all this comes a new culture of solidarity and social responsibility across the planet. Public support mounts for government policies that institute social and ecological repairs. Money is diverted from the military and defence industries to the needs of people. New measures are implemented to develop sustainable energy, transportation, industrial, technological and agricultural systems. Huge numbers of people around the world get better access to food, jobs, and education.
As a result of these developments, international mistrust, ethnic conflict, racial oppression, economic inequity, and gender inequality give way to new traditions of mutual respect. Rather than breaking down in conflict and war, humanity breaks through to a sustainable world of self-reliant but co-operating communities, enterprises, countries and regions.
At this point in our history, human beings have accumulated unprecedented power—hence responsibility—to decide our destiny. Although the prospect of global breakdown stares us in the face, it is by no means inevitable.
We also have the unprecedented option of choosing a brighter tomorrow. Nothing prevents us from shifting our evolutionary path toward a peaceful and sustainable civilization—nothing except our own patterns of thinking and action. The leaders now in power and the mainstream society they represent have not yet glimpsed a different future for our civilization. Yet many other people are inspired by visions of a global breakthrough that are already emerging at the creative frontiers of our society. Societies are seldom culturally monolithic in their thinking. This is especially true in eras of innovation and ferment. Those periods spawn a large number of subcultures, or alternative cultures, that spring up alongside the prevailing power structure.
This is what we see happening today, with some of these alternative cultures devoting themselves to imaginatively rethinking the priorities, values, and behaviours of society, giving particular attention to how we can improve environmental sustainability and human ethics. This sort of fundamental reassessment of how we live, even if overlooked or ignored by those in power, can spark rapid and revolutionary change. While barely visible in the major media, a number of grassroots movements, from global justice to holistic health to spiritual exploration, are already blazing the trail away from the usual assumptions of mainstream culture.
Even the people involved with these movements underestimate their own numbers, in part because most of them go about their business without trying to convert others and because they lack social and political cohesion. Yet the more serious and sincere of these alternative cultures show promise as catalysts of a social breakthrough. Unlike many subcultures and sects, these people do not relish taking antisocial stances or want to hide away from everyone else. Rather, they are quietly but profoundly engaged in the world, as they challenge accepted beliefs and pursue new avenues of personal and social commitment.
The people drawn to these sometimes-diffuse movements are united by the aspiration to live a more simple, healthy, whole and ethical life. They are appalled by what they see as the heartless impersonality and mindless destructiveness of contemporary society.
The Institute of Noetic Sciences, founded in California by Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell to explore the potential for expanding human consciousness, has documented the following changes in values and behaviour among some of these subcultures now emerging in the United States:
* A shift from competition to partnership
* A shift from greed to caring
* A shift from feelings of scarcity to feelings of sufficiency
* A shift from reliance on outer sources of “authority” to inner sources of “knowing”
* A shift from viewing the world as mechanistic system to viewing it as a living system
* And, perhaps most significant of all, a shift from separation to wholeness—a fresh recognition of the interconnectedness of all aspects of life and reality.
Such a significant redirection of values among a growing number of people merits serious consideration. Yet mainstream society and media often dismiss these developments as “New Age,” not bothering to differentiate between the sincere, positive people in alternative cultures and others more inclined to the narcissism, naïveté or hucksterism. To dismiss everyone in these alternative cultures as cult members or “flakes” is to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
No new chapter in human civilization will ever emerge if we just sit around with our hands in our laps waiting for a holistic convergence that will foster a new way of thinking. A critical mass of people in society must stand up to make it happen. That means you and me, and many others around the planet. And now is the time to get started.
Following are some decisive things you and I can do right now, on a personal and a social basis, to promote the shift toward peaceful and sustainable civilization.
1. Let go of old beliefs that no longer make sense
Here are good places to start:
* Nature is inexhaustible.
* The world operates like a giant mechanism.
* Life is a struggle and only the fittest survive.
* The market is the only means of distributing wealth and benefits.
* The more you earn and consume the more successful and happy you are.
2. Think globally, act morally
In a healthy, high-functioning society, everyone shares a common morality. But what is moral in one culture may be unacceptable in another. This is a cause of much international tension and conflict today. As countries grow more interdependent, economically and socially, the urgent need surfaces for a morality that can be accepted by all humans, wherever they live.
What would such a morality look like? Traditionally, setting the norms of morality was the task of the religions. Today the dominance of science and economics has reduced the power of religious doctrines in many nations to regulate human behaviour. The attempts of Marx, Lenin, and Mao to replace religion with their own moral precepts have failed. That leaves liberalism (in the classic sense of free-market economics and elections) as the most widely espoused morality in the world today. The essence of “liberal” morality is “live and let live”: people are not to be prevented from pursuing self-interest as long as they observe the rules of civilized society.
But with the growing problems the world faces today, there are serious risks involved in classical liberalism’s insistence that everyone may do as they please so long as they don’t break any laws. The rich and the powerful consume a disproportionate share of the resources to which the poor, too, have a legitimate claim. Rich and poor alike inflict irreversible damage on the environment that all people must share.
Rather than “live and let live,” we need a universal morality better adapted to the conditions in which humanity finds itself. One inspiration might be Gandhi’s message, “Live more simply, so others can simply live.”
That advice is even more urgent today than it was in Gandhi’s day. It is also easier for us to do. Today it’s widely recognized that living simply is not a form of punishment or sacrifice. On the contrary, simple living is a sensible choice that offers us greater personal well-being and a deeper sense of meaning in life. The survival of humanity is intimately tied to nurturing a sense of solidarity and co-operation in the global community, as well as a respect for the integrity of nature.
3. Dream—and take your dreams seriously
In 1968, when Senator Robert Kennedy ran for president of the U.S., he said, “Some men see things as they are and say, why? I dream things that never were and say, why not?” To imagine what you want for the world is not foolish nor a waste of time. Today, as we face the choice between a global breakdown or breakthrough, dreams are more important than ever before.
4. Evolve your consciousness
Expanding your own sense of consciousness can be a powerful tool in bringing critical changes to the world. How? In a heightened “decision window” time such as ours, even small shifts can influence the course of civilization. As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
One way to do it that may surprise you is by entering a so-called altered state of consciousness that is typical of deep meditation and intense prayer. This allows you to experience a profound oneness with the natural world and other people. whether they are next door, in distant parts of the world, or part of generations yet to come—and realize that the fate of nature and people is not separate from your own fate.
Not everybody, of course, is drawn to deep prayer or meditation. Fortunately, other paths lead to the same place. Another route is to get in touch with our bodies. We use our bodies as we use our cars or computers, giving them commands to take us where we want to go and do what we want to have done. We live in our heads. We can break free of that cerebral imprisonment with yoga, tai chi, qi gong, Ayurvedic exercises, as well as simple breathing techniques or deep relaxation. Even a daily walk can help.
The stresses and strains of existence also have an impact on our emotional lives. Negative feelings such as anger, hate, fear, anxiety, suspicion, jealousy, contempt and indifference dominate the tenor of modern existence. Negative experiences generate negative attitudes that create further negative experiences. This cycle must be broken.
Take stock of your feelings and make a conscious effort to transform negative emotions. It is not easy to replace hate with love, suspicion with trust, contempt with respect, jealousy with appreciation and anxiety with self-assurance, yet it can be done. All the religions and spiritual traditions of the world offer ways to do it. Or try secular techniques, such as therapy or support groups, that allow you to share your fears and hopes. Positive emotions can be generated by opening ourselves to experiences of nature, beholding the beauty of a sunset or making time to relax and play with our friends and family.
Addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress in February of 1990, Václav Havel, then the president of Czechoslovakia, said, “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better … and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed—the ecological, social, demographic or general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable.”
Havel did not mean to discourage us with pessimism, but challenge us to re-examine our thinking and evolve our consciousness. If we do so, the brave but small movement seeking a more holistic, peaceful and sustainable civilization could turn into a powerful force that washes away the old mindset that’s ruled the world for too long. We can change the world and leave our children with a better place to live.
Adapted with kind permission from Ervin Laszlo’s new book, The Chaos Point: The World at the Crossroads (Hampton Roads, 2006, ISBN 1571744851)