Global Citizenship

The Deeper News: Patterns, Dynamics and Mindsets Shaping the Longer View

It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion.
~ Carl Sagan

Scanning Deeply

The Asian Foresight Institute [AFI] has been tracking evolutionary leitmotifs for the better part of two decades. While pop futurists focus on short-term trends, especially those that play to our boundless fascination for new gadgets and our narcissistic concerns, we try to adopt an outlook that is more connected and coherent in terms of the long-term view.

By refusing to be distracted by today’s headlines, we can identify dynamics that are less obvious yet legitimate. Examining these source patterns and their entanglements through diverse lenses and cultural archetypes allows us to uncover new meanings. We then use these insights to comprehend what is going on under the surface of the prevalent worldview that could shape the future of humanity—sometimes profoundly so.

Like single stars in the night sky, isolated events seldom point to future certainties, though they can never be entirely discounted. But finding correlations between the discarded relics of old belief systems and more novel elements, appearing as if out of nowhere, edging into our consciousness and accelerating to a point where it becomes impossible to ignore them, almost invariably allude to deeper change or subtle course corrections in our world-system that have yet to manifest.

Fate Versus Desire

Tensions inherent between where we appear to be headed and where we might actually end up must also be factored into any credible expression of tomorrow’s world. In this regard, we include humanity’s astonishing instinct for survival as well as the desire many of us share to create a reality different from what appears inevitable by avoiding choices that could generate unwanted consequences.

This is a tricky call. It is all too easy to equate genuine evidence of an emerging present—we call it fate—with those images we dream up in our mind’s eye that represent what we most desire. Unfortunately, stories of the future too often appear in only one category. Some futurists fall into the trap of imagining desirable worlds, but then leave the strategic design of their preferred scenario to chance. Others prefer linear extrapolations of the past, yet ignore the many unforeseeable twists and turns that could take us by surprise.

Neither stance is satisfactory, particularly if we are set on improving the human condition. Yet both views probably contain partial truths. So our debt-based global economy creates competition through scarcity, whereas an economy based upon sufficiency, which requires a shift in credo from scarcity to abundance, might be what we desire. But to view the conscious capitalism movement or integral economics as the only, even the most important, elements in the realization of that vision is unsound. If the ethos of conscious capitalism were to be leveraged at scale through the practice of integral economics, however, initiating a massive realignment in the values of investors and consumers, then we would be assured of better outcomes.

This collision between fate and desire is one of the reasons I react so cautiously to scientific positivists who forecast with such dogged conviction that a ‘great transition’ is underway. Their claims are based less on evidence than on what they hope will eventuate. While this is appealing to some, especially Western industrialized nations struggling for fresh insights to age-old problems, the lack of a shared framework in which a meaningful purpose can be embraced globally and expressed through diverse cultural mindsets without any loss of validity runs the risk of recycling empirical idealism and, possibly far worse, perpetuating prevailing Occidental orthodoxies on an even grander scale. Besides, I can use similar arguments with alternate evidence to propose a contradictory view: that what we are witnessing is not a renewal of society but a civilizational collapse played out against the possible extinction of our species. The former view is recklessly self-centered. The latter is tragically pessimistic. The truth is more likely somewhere between these extremes.

How then can we overcome the traps littering our path in ways that convey a convincing landscape of intersecting futures: possible futures given motivation and resourcing; preferred futures given collaborative design, and probable futures if a change of direction is not forthcoming and corporate interests continue to hold sway? Moreover, what strategies can we devise to entice humanity away from a future of diminishing returns to one where the dream of sustainable abundance for a majority of the world’s population becomes our preferred outcome?

Again, the AFI has a distinctive approach to these challenges—drawn as much from Eastern mysticism as empirical Western methods—seasoned by a lexicon ranging from the humanist impulse of Ubuntu all the way to Confucian ethics. By pulling dynamically complex patterns, or at least those sufficiently accessible for excavation from the past and the probable into an expanded now, a space where time remains poised, residues from a range of beliefs and events from across a kaleidoscope of cultural mindsets reveal hidden possibilities and novel opportunities.

This procedure reminds me of the computed tomography [CT] scans used for medical imaging. In the process, proof of connective tissue, far more substantive than the fanciful world of alternative scenarios or the callous indifference of data will permit, opens up a rich and latent panorama of possibilities to explore.

Polarities and Cycles

Rally against surveillance, Washington D.C., October 2013

photography | CC susan melkisethian

We are experiencing the best of times and the worst of times. Statements evoking such an impression litter the chronicles of humanity. We presume that escalating conflict in South Sudan, unrelenting apartheid in Palestine, armed rebellions in Syria, and political protests in Thailand are all temporary phenomena. They are offset by the peace enjoyed concurrently by citizens in other parts of the world. Eventually, peace will return where now there is conflict. Skirmishes will be fought elsewhere and for different reasons.

These polarities and cycles, where peace erupts into conflict and then migrates almost as quickly, is the undeniable record of our civilization. Because we have no opposing evidence, it is everything we expect and accept. Moreover, the veracity of this logic can and is used to discredit other, more romantic, propositions—such as those of permanent peace, an economy able to thrive without material growth, an environment safeguarded rather than ravaged by industry, or a species forever destined to remain earthbound.

The issue of poverty provides a perfect example of our unthinking acceptance of this canon: a rule intimating that not everything we can imagine is feasible, nor inevitably in the majority interest—but confusing this with the potential for humanitarian advances, such as greater equality and the elimination of injustice, and resisting such progress simply on the basis that we cannot guarantee future consequences as rigorously as we can confirm past results.

Claims that there can be no enduring solution to the problem of poverty, however much we might lament that fact, rest on the premise that affluence is a ‘relative’ condition and will remain so. There will always be people who are worse off than others, we reason, but we can reduce absolute penury by distributing welfare and aid to the underprivileged. This also allows us to feel good about ourselves.

This rationale that poverty is an inevitable state, rather than a conscious choice, is one of the founding pillars of competitive capitalism. It prolongs poverty as surely as it sustains the business of charity. It also drives the view that globalization is beneficial for those living in pre-industrial societies—but by and large it is not. Today, an awakening in society to various forms of injustice, inequity and even state-sanctioned repression, enabled by the capacity of digital social media to connect people and ideas instantly and in unprecedented numbers, has opened up fissures in that reasoning. Obdurate fate is giving way at last to a desire for more moral outcomes.

This is confronting for us. Physics shows us that all competing influences in natural systems achieve a state of balance over time. Correspondingly, the Chinese notion of yin and yang assumes extremes cannot exist independently. Both suppose wealth cannot occur without poverty, nor poverty without wealth. Peace is impossible to achieve without conflict. Healthy economies cannot persist without growth. Life could not have transpired without God. Stories, symphonies, poetry and architecture constructed around this logic hoodwink us into supposing there must always be a counterpoint in order to maintain balance. This aesthetic symmetry is a basic proposition of human nature. It helps explain our cognitive preferences. But it is a proposition that hampers the genesis of any startlingly new worldview.

What we are observing within the AFI is clear evidence that embedded dualistic thinking and practices have betrayed us into fabricating a world that benefits fewer and fewer people—in relative terms at least. Furthermore, that genuine transcendence of divisions once thought to be unyielding might not just be possible but also infinitely appealing and worth striving for. If we dare utter the obvious, what we are beginning to glimpse is an entirely new social meme: the fusing of fate and desire into a moral code that can be embraced by the entire human family. The notion of balance in human affairs has been thoroughly discredited. The only void seems to be a relevant and compelling narrative—with the only ambiguity being just how soon and by what means that new narrative might be achieved.

Dilemmas Aplenty

In spite of intermittent lesions and a cultural pathology still overly reliant on competition, life is rapidly improving for many people. The outlook from Asia and across the Global South is one where the best of times are increasingly catching up to those in the West. There is not a single country across the region where child mortality has not declined dramatically over the past five decades. The same is true of famine and pestilence. And although civil wars still rage, deaths from hostilities between nations and rates of victimization from most forms of violent crime are all in decline everywhere.

UNAMID Joint Special Representative Ibrahim Gambari visits Kutum (North Darfur)
A woman living in a camp for displaced persons in North Sudan expresses concern for rape victims in the camp
photography | united nations photo

Perhaps our appetite for conflict is on the wane. More likely, we are learning from experience—or possibly using our ingenuity more effectively. The banning of lead in gasoline, for example, following compelling evidence that high lead levels in the blood were consistent with violent behaviour, illustrates just one strategy among many that are at last allowing us to deal more effectively with the causes and consequences of aggressive human behaviours.

The fact that there are fewer people in abject poverty than at any other time in history, while the middle classes are enjoying their highest standard of living ever, doesn’t detract from poverty and vagrancy remaining terrible problems. It is difficult to see how the situation might improve, however, without a wide-ranging reframing of the global problematique and its positive feedback loops.

For example, the overall decline in poverty has been powered by unbridled economic growth. While this has been beneficial in some respects, we must also keep in mind that unfettered growth puts intolerable pressure on nature. Excessive harvesting of the world’s rich reserves of flora and fauna in order to feed seven billion people has already resulted in a massive loss of biodiversity and now threatens the resilience of the food chain. So we now comprehend that prosperity without growth is not some naive fantasy but a financial and ecological necessity.

Meanwhile, our addiction to fossil fuels is tipping the climate into territory that is perilous and unprecedented. A major concern from the world’s leading climate scientists is that the non-linear impacts from human-induced global heating could precipitate conditions in some parts of the world that would be totally unfit for human habitation.

Pollution, soil erosion and water shortages are already life-threatening issues in many parts of the world—yet we are doing little to stop the ecocide. Actually, we seem intent on disregarding the problem by pushing our delusional ambitions to the limit. The possibility of mass migrations of people caused by global heating could drive our most fragile systems into a catastrophic meltdown. Wealthier nations would then come under siege as billions of less fortunate people scramble to escape the devastation caused by escalating droughts, famines, storms, wildfires, desertification and rising ocean levels.

Over the centuries, we have made astonishing progress in quelling our hatred for and ill-treatment of each other on the basis of difference alone. Indeed, it is very likely that we live in the least discriminatory, most tolerant era in the history of modern civilization. Yet in spite of the world’s population being wealthier and healthier than at any other time in history, we still face intolerable inequities in absolute terms. It is quite bizarre, for example, how in a country as wealthy as the US, where a CEO can earn up to 490 times that of the average worker, approximately 16.7 million children live in ‘food insecure’ households, almost 46.5 million people live in poverty, and incarceration rates are the highest in the world.

Clearly, we cannot relax. Indications that fewer people are dying from war and disease do not lessen the moral imperative to do something about those that are. The fact that people are getting richer and more secure in their homes in some parts of the world cannot be an excuse for doing less to address poverty and crime in regions where these problems are still endemic and ingrained.

The Inner Core

But our attention also needs to turn to other issues—especially those signifying that civilisation is atrophying from the inside out. These include deteriorating spiritual well-being; intensifying political and religious fundamentalism; escalating rates of suicide and malignant narcissism signifying alienation and low self-esteem among young people; flagging public morals; long-term effects from a disproportionately intrusive, relentless, digital presence; undue regulatory intrusion into the lives of individual citizens; ingrained prejudice and propaganda from the corporate media; over-the-top surveillance in urban centres—often arising from widespread paranoia within state bureaucracies concerning the threat of domestic terrorism; deceit and corruption within public officialdom and much of the media; and the untold damage we are still inflicting on the natural environment, are all incipient concerns.

Without exception, all these factors are becoming more grave and emotionally enervating. This seems to indicate either something intrinsically flawed with the design of the world-system, our disparate attempts to interpret that world-system, or the conscious—albeit unconscionable—preservation of those factors within the system that favour individuals who already benefit the most in terms of personal well-being, affluence and influence.
These are not isolated phenomena by any means. But they are particularly evident within a cluster of old Western empires, the current epicentre of which is the US, where any sense of a higher purpose has soured—usually subverted by the lure of money, power or fame. For the most part, the possible impacts on society are dormant and obscured from the community mind because of four seminal factors:

1. An overwhelming sense of self-righteousness and superiority perpetuated within some cultures—entrenched further by discriminatory education and employment systems;
2. Propaganda trumpeting the good life generated by the mechanisms of capitalism, liberal democracy and technology—where smartphones and other mobile devices have by default become our advisers and companions of choice;
3. A ubiquitous facade that diverts public gaze away from any consideration of more serious issues by feeding our insatiable appetite for material possessions and trivial escapist entertainment—the new opiate of the masses;
4. The tenacity of state governments in maintaining the false impression that they grasp contemporary circumstances sufficiently to remain in charge of world affairs.

A conjunction of these themes is already threatening to fracture society still further, ruining any possibility for an orderly transition from an obsolete paradigm to one where society fosters a more mature, empathic and benign consciousness towards each other and the planet.
The seemingly inexorable economic and moral shift away from US and European hegemony to Asia and the Global South is less cause for concern—except that the shift has already (in most cases subconsciously) curbed the confidence and capacity of elected leaders, those content to exercise orthodoxies enshrined in old social contracts between governments and society, to remain effective and strong in the face of rapid and massive societal upheaval.

Transitional Tensions

Taking all of these dynamics into account, we see the coming decade being shaped by a narrowing set of concerns—the early spores and trajectories of which are already settling into a distinct schema. Between 2014 and 2020, some tectonic shifts, accompanied by a few wrong turns and compromises, will become evident. It is impossible to predict how quickly any of these might morph, escalate or change course—whether by accident or by design.

Overall, though, the more prominent trends suggest that we are already immersed in a transition from a world-system ruptured by divergent values and discrimination, one dominated for the past two centuries by the meme of economic growth, to a more enlightened era in which a majority of humanity will unite, responding locally as best they can to issues that threaten us all.

Transitions are invariably messy. Yet all too often, the best, most commonplace, aspects of our lives are taken for granted or downgraded while the worst features are assumed to be tragically inevitable. The likelihood of a radical victory over suffering, pain and injustice, for example, is too often dismissed as a utopian fantasy, while the prospects of us migrating from a carbon economy to one based upon renewable energy is doomed from the very beginning by powerful corporate interests that will refuse to buckle under duress.

We cannot agree with this thesis. The overwhelming evidence shows undue negativity to be false. For the most part, the reason humanity is better off today than it was a century ago is because we decided to make the world a better place and used our innate inventiveness to assure that happened. It is that instinct we are starting to harness again today. But now there is a very different dynamic compelling change—one that emanates from ordinary men and women. One that defies unjust constraints put in place by the old ruling classes to assure consent.

As old-fashioned institutions stuck on centralised authority slouch towards inconsequence, the impulse for massive change is coming from unlikely sources: previously unheeded and disorganised movements of social entrepreneurs and enterprises, linked through a resilient mesh of peer-connected networks using mobile devices and instigating grassroots change. Here leadership in any traditional sense is eschewed—for these are the self-organising imaginal cells of our destiny.

As their influence grows and their mandate becomes clearer, so the muse will spread more rapidly. Some may even see in these associations an alternative co-operative governance framework for the new paradigm. Change will not proceed smoothly, however. In fact, life as we know it may become immensely unsettling. Relatively easy gains are being achieved now. But wiping out older, more venerable institutions, all within a highly emergent, organic, meshworked schema, will take time and will cause much angst among the establishment that stand to lose so much of what they hold dear.

Disorder on such a scale is counterintuitive to what most of us expect—especially given our programming that emphasises extrapolation and linear cause and effect. It might even disguise the effective nature of much socio-political transformation—but only for a short time. For as fresh models come from the fringes of society and coalesce into an ecological paradigm of greater resilience, and as new ways of being, thinking and doing resolve what were previously held to be hopelessly impenetrable global problems, the old worldview will collapse in on itself.

Most people have not seen this power struggle looming because we conventionally view all forms of authority in linear terms. Even those that see this as a distinct possibility do not yet fully grasp the likelihood of a complete fracturing and redrafting of the world map in terms of cultural groupings, belief systems and other boundaries. Furthermore, these latent dynamics still have the potential to develop into a catastrophic bifurcation in society should powerful interests within nations ramp up their surveillance and suppression mechanisms still further in order to push back against what they are most likely to interpret as sedition.

The Agonising Endgame

Consequently, at least for the time being, long-established nations and economies, especially old-style democracies, together with a splattering of aligned recalcitrants, will continue to hold sway. Increasingly, we can expect them to become out of kilter with a majority of the populace. Most probably, this will lead to their further marginalisation and ineffectiveness. But as administrators realise the futility of their situation, they may well invoke emergency measures—from the subtle to the more draconian—in a bid to cling to power and enforce compliance with societal mores that initially brought them authority.

The worst of times will not simply vanish in answer to our entreaties. Over the coming years, venerable institutions will continue to unravel in ways that incumbent officials, unnerved by impending collapse, will do their utmost to prevent. One of the greatest and most immediate threats facing societal cohesion is governments turning on their citizens. This is as much of a danger in Europe and the US as it is in countries like the Middle East or Africa. But there are other signs of change we ignore at our peril.

Already, global cybercrime syndicates are using highly sophisticated viruses and worms to remain ahead of policing and surveillance mechanisms. By 2020, we will have realised that the rise of Islam was less of a threat to humanity than our reluctance to collectively address the challenge of global heating. In January 2013, Beijing experienced its worst air pollution on record. In October, air pollution almost shut down the entire city of Harbin. More recently, extreme air pollution forced children and the elderly in Shanghai to stay in their homes for seven days. In Australia, 2013 was the hottest year in the past 100 years. Yet still our politicians dither as the planet burns.

The year 2013 also offered sobering reminders that human beings are not the only species impacted by climate change. Between 40 and 70% of species could go extinct if the planet warms by more than 3° Celsius, and many species are having to evolve thousands of times faster to merely keep up with expected changes in the climate. Meanwhile, the next mass extinction may have already begun. Multiple species of marine plankton, which make up the base of the ocean ecosystem, are at their lowest levels. The decline of a hub species like this could throw the entire marine food chain off balance.

More optimistically, it is clear that breakthroughs in robotics and life sciences will transform entire industries, including health care, manufacturing, telecommunications, automotive, energy and banking, to name only those in the front line of change. It is highly probable that a decoupling of material wealth from happiness and well-being will see increasing numbers of people redefining prosperity in ways that transcend purely material concerns. Disruptive business models and communications tools will give us greater control over our lives while putting constraints on the monopolistic power of many large corporations—but only if we can find ways to end the more harmful of alliances between governments, the industrial military complex and multinational enterprises.

Cause for Hope

In spite of our focus on the deeper news, it is vital to remain open and alert to any surface signals indicating the direction social change is taking us and to acknowledge the importance of hindsight in pointing towards more optimal pathways into the future. Amongst all the bad news, we can still forage for scraps of intelligence that confirm that we are living in the best of times—an important element in maintaining hope for any kind of beneficial future. The period between 2014-2020 is a critical time in that regard, and there is much we can continue to learn from the past looking forward and from the future looking back to now.