If we view the coming century solely in terms of economic, technological, and political trends, the picture is bleak. Global elites appear to be preparing for a devilish endgame in which winners will literally take all. The world's middle classes are hypnotized by the lure of cheap consumer goods and kept frantically busy meeting the demands of new market opportunities. The world's impoverished are trapped in a system that institutionalizes inequality. And the biosphere on which we depend is being polluted and depleted.
The media reflection on the last century — what there's been of it — has focused on technological and economic accomplishments, military and geopolitical exploits, and pop culture. When attention turns to the future, it's more of the same: bio-computer implants by 2005! Self-replicating robots by 2050! Few suggest we might eliminate poverty, hunger, or war in the next century or figure out how to live within the life-support capability of the planet. This contrasts with predictions published in 1900 regarding the dawning 20th century. Then, utopian social dreams seemed credible. Somehow the experience of the past 100 years has rendered such dreams quaint and unrealistic.
Or has it?
The realist in me looks to the new century with deep uncertainty, but the idealist sees the possibility for a new set of ethical principles to take hold and transform human society more profoundly than any technological invention in history.
This cautious hope is grounded in achievements of our recent and not-so-recent past that don't get the attention given to the new technologies and geo-political battles — achievements that ultimately may be more central to our hopes for the future. Despite the atrocities of the last century — perhaps even because of them — we may be slowly and painfully gaining in wisdom. Five significant developments have provided insights that are now serving us as we begin a new century.
The first arose long before this century from a man named Deganawidah, “The Peacemaker.” He was born into what is now called the Huron Tribe in the American Northeast some time between the 11th and 16th centuries.
The tribes of the region were then locked in a vicious cycle of war and blood revenge. Deganawidah longed to bring peace to his people. Through meditation and dreams he arrived at three simple but profound realizations:
- Violence makes people crazy. When people are brutalized, they become either fearful and withdrawn, or angry and aggressive.
- Violence breeds more violence. Attempts at revenge only make matters worse.
- True peace comes only with social equity. A peace founded on forcibly maintained dominance eventually breeds more violence. Peace can only be maintained indefinitely if everyone has a share in decision making.
Deganawidah eventually succeeded in persuading surrounding tribes of the truth of these simple propositions. The result was the Iroquois confederacy, whose democratic decision-making procedures and principles of federated governance brought peace to the realm.
Benjamin Franklin, who spent a great deal of time with the Iroquois, and other designers of the government of the United States drew inspiration from the Iroquois. The US experience, in turn, spread Deganawidah's ideals of democracy and social justice around the world.
Another world-changing set of realizations came from Mohandas Gandhi. In the course of his efforts to free India from British rule, Gandhi not only developed the principles of nonviolent resistance, but also came to understand the basic process of pillage by trade, which was the basis of British mercantilism and is still central to the globalized economic order. He realized that centralized, authoritarian technological systems (factories and fossil fuel–fed transport networks) undermine the local self-sufficiency that is essential to the integrity of cultures. Gandhi's spinning wheel signified not only resistance to British suppression of indigenous weaving and the forced import of British textiles, but also the importance of home-based production of basic necessities. Through both words and personal example, Gandhi made clear his view that material wealth inevitably corrodes virtue.
A third source of new wisdom is the science of ecology — the study of how organisms interact with their environments. Terms like carrying capacity, energy (or food) chains, biodiversity, and ecological succession signify our growing realization that humans are part of nature, not above it. This understanding has sparked widespread inquiry into the requirements and practices of a sustainable society.
The civil rights struggles of the 20th century brought a fourth dimension to our progressing cultural wisdom. Dozens of courageous women and men, among them Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, have articulated a vision that transcends the struggles of any single historically oppressed group. The deeper meaning lies in nearly universal acceptance of the principle that all human beings are entitled to dignity and respect.
Finally, feminism, led by such women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Gloria Steinem, has given a voice to the half of humanity that has long been silenced. This is important in itself as a basic human right, but it also has the effect of balancing the female properties of synthesis and cooperation with the male tendencies toward analysis and competition. The solutions to our social and ecological dilemmas will require a better balance between what have been seen as men's strengths and those associated with women.
The fact that four of these five developments occurred in the last century suggests that the pace of humanity's ethical breakthroughs may be increasing. And so, along with new technologies and economic developments, which may enslave people more than liberate them, it would appear that humankind is experiencing another, more hope-inducing kind of progress.
Perhaps we face not one future, but two — a bifurcation that will result, emporarily, in two distinct sets of trends: one, the ultimate power grab; the other, the birthing of a peaceful, just, self-limiting, sustainable society. The two cannot survive together indefinitely. If protests in Seattle and other cities are any indication, people worldwide are coming to see the power grab for what it is. The question, then, is whether, in addition to resisting the elite's agenda, we as a species can build the ethical “muscles” quickly enough to deal with the immense social and ecological challenges before us.
Richard Heinberg, author of Cloning the Buddha: The Moral Impact of Biotechnology and editor of the monthly Museletter, www.museletter.comteaches at the New College in Santa Rosa, California
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