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Macroshift

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We live in the midst of one of the greatest technological revolutions in history, an era of deep-seated transformation-a macroshift in civilization, says preeminent scholar and futurist Ervin Laszlo. Its signs and manifestations are all around us, from the deadly HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping Africa and the dangerous fire-trap sweatshops routinely killing workers in Bangladesh, to the environmental havoc created by genetic engineering, power plant pollution and mechanized agriculture. The application of new technologies has turned into a double-edged sword.
The world is growing together in some respects, but is coming apart in others. Worldwide economic globalization, another sign of the macroshift, all too often benefits the few rather than the many. Hundreds of millions live at a higher material standard of living, but thousands of millions are pressed into abject poverty. The richest 20% earn ninety times the income of the poorest 20%, consume eleven times as much energy, and eat eleven times as much meat.
There have been other macroshifts in human history, but they spanned centuries, allowing cultural values, beliefs, and change to occur gradually. Today, technology has reduced our time to adapt; the entire critical period of change is compressed into the lifetime of a generation.
Today's macroshift, explains Laszlo, harbors great promise, as well as grave danger. He outlines two possible scenarios: "The Breakdown," where we choose to drift without a change in our current direction toward chaos, anarchy, and destruction, or "The Breakthrough," where we collectively transform our thinking and behavior to produce creative, sustainable solutions to dangerous global problems. And he shows what each of us can do-politically, professionally, and privately-to bring about the Breakthrough and shape a humane and sustainable global future.
While technology is what drives the unprecedented speed of this macroshift, it is our vision, values, and actions now that will ultimately determine the outcome. The choice is up to us-the power is in our hands.

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1. What is a Macroshift?

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OUR FUTURE—THE FUTURE OF HUMANKIND—will be decided by the outcome of today’s macroshift. But what is a macroshift? If our future depends on its outcome, and especially if we can do something about influencing this outcome, understanding today’s macroshift is important. Indeed, it is uniquely and decisively important.

Let us begin at the beginning. The most basic question we can ask about our future is whether we can know it. Very different answers can be given to this simple question. We may shrug and say, “I don’t know and don’t really care—I just take one thing at a time and the future will take care of itself.” Or we may say that there are no answers to this question, or at least none that we could give with any measure of confidence. Prediction, after all, is a difficult business—especially, as the saying goes, when it is about the future. But we can also say that there are reasonable and credible ways to answer questions about our future by looking at the present. Just as the present has emerged out of the past, the future is likely to follow from conditions in the present. After all, where we are going has much to do with where we have been.

 

2. Macroshifts Past and Present

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WINSTON CHURCHILL ONCE REMARKED, “the further backward you look, the further forward you can see.” Since we want to see far enough forward to know what happens—or rather, what can happen—when today’s macroshift enters the critical phase, we begin by looking backward: at macroshifts in history. We do not expect to see the events of history repeat themselves, but the dynamic that drives history could well repeat. That will have much to teach us. Because George Santayana’s oft-quoted saying is not entirely mistaken: “those who ignore the past are obliged to repeat it.” Repeating, if not the macroshifts of the past, then the way people related to those macroshifts, could be dangerous. Indeed, it could spell the very end of human civilization.

Historian of civilization Alastair Taylor pointed out (first in Burbank and Taylor, Civilizations Past and Present and again in his latest work, Time-Space Technics) that ever since our forefathers evolved some form of culture and some form of social order, periodic shifts in their relations to each other and to nature were accompanied by corresponding shifts in their beliefs and worldviews. Together, these “objective” and “subjective” shifts produced integral civilizational shifts.

 

3. Decisive Factors in Today’s Macroshift

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AS WE ENTER THE THIRD MILLENNIUM the kinds of relations that have evolved between people, and between people and nature, create increased tensions, conflicts, and crises. Both sets of relations—the ecological as well as the social—are now unsustainable. To bring today’s macroshift to a safe conclusion and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to a more balanced post-Logos civilization, we must understand and reckon with these “unsustainabilities.”

Unsustainable relations have evolved on this planet between human societies and nature as a consequence of the unfolding of two basic trends:

If these trends continue, the curves described by their unfolding will cross, and humanity’s demand will exceed the planet’s capacity for satisfying it. This will be an unprecedented situation.

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For most of our five-million-year history, humanity’s demand in relation to the available resources has been insignificant. With our primitive technologies and smaller numbers, planetary resources seemed limitless. Even when the technologies employed exhausted a local environment and depleted local resources, there were always other resources and environments to exploit. But by the middle of the nineteenth century the human population reached 1 billion, and it is more than 6 billion today. Our population is expected to be around 7.2 billion in 2015 and may grow to 8 billion or 10 billion by the middle of this century. Approximately 95 percent of this growth will occur in the presently poor countries and regions, but massive migrations will diffuse human populations to all the economically inhabitable areas of the globe.

 

4. The Choice

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THE TRANSFORMATION WROUGHT BY A MACROSHIFT has always challenged the creativity of people, but today’s challenge is unprecedented. In the past, a more adapted civilization evolved over several generations; the rhythm of change was relatively slow. This is no longer the case. The critical period for change today is compressed within the lifetime of a single generation. Repeated trial and error may have sufficed in the past, but it is not adequate today. The overexploitation of resources and impairment of nature, coupled with the unequal distribution of wealth and the destruction of the fabric of societies, has launched us on an irreversible transformation. In a macroshift many things are possible, but remaining with the status quo is not among them. We can neither go backward nor stay put; we can only go forward. But the direction of change is not predetermined; we have a choice.

But just what is this choice—and who will make it? A Chinese proverb warns, “If we do not change direction, we are likely to end up exactly where we are headed.” Applied to contemporary humanity, this would be disastrous. Without a change in direction we are on the way to a world of increasing population pressure and spreading poverty; growing social and political conflict potential; accelerating climate change and food and energy shortages; worsening industrial, urban, and agricultural pollution of air, water, and soil; further destruction of the ozone layer; accelerating reduction of biodiversity; and continued loss of atmospheric oxygen. We also run the risk of megadisasters caused by nuclear accidents and leaking nuclear waste, devastating floods and tornadoes due to climate change, and widespread health problems due to toxic additives in food and drink and the accumulation of toxins in soil, air, and water.

 

5. Forget Obsolete Beliefs

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PERHAPS THE FIRST OF THE NEW IMPERATIVES of our time is to forget obsolete beliefs. To make room for the new, we must do away with the old. Of course, forgetting is not an easy task; in some ways it is even more difficult than learning. But if what we have in our mind conflicts with what we should get into it, selective forgetting becomes necessary. This is the case in regard to a number of present-day values and beliefs.

We begin with five “malign myths” that we should promptly forget. Though obsolete and now even dangerous, they still command attention and determine behavior.

The belief that, for all practical intents and purposes, the environment around us is an infinite source of resources and an infinite sink of wastes is a persistent myth. Its origins go back to the archaic empires. It would hardly have occurred to the inhabitants of ancient Babylonia, Sumer, Egypt, India, or China that the environment around them could ever be exhausted of the basic necessities of life—edible plants, domestic animals, clean water, and breathable air—or fouled by dumping wastes and garbage. Nature must have appeared far too vast to be tainted, polluted, or defiled by what humans did in their tiny settlements, and on the lands that surrounded them.

 

6. Learn to Live with Diversity

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FORGETTING THE MYTHS that no longer serve us is essential, but in itself it is not enough. We must also adopt values and beliefs that are better in tune with our world. It is to these that we now turn.

The cultural diversity of the contemporary world is frequently underestimated. People in the United States and Europe tend to think that everybody wants to live and be like them—the rest is but sophistry and pretense. It is true that the level of consumption, material aspirations and technology, and the values of the industrialized world are dominant, but a great deal of diversity remains in people’s views of themselves, of society, of nature, and of freedom and justice. Disregarding, or just underestimating, the world’s cultural diversity produced blood-baths in Ireland, the Middle East, the Arab world, sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia.

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The disregard of entrenched cultural differences also led to the Yugoslav cataclysm that erupted in 1999. In the Balkans two different cultures have coexisted since Constantine divided the Roman Empire: the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox. When the Ottomans entered Bosnia in the fifteenth century, these two cultures were joined by a third: Islam. They clashed time and time again. Tito’s fight, first against the Nazi invaders and then against the imperialistic Soviet superpower, unified the clashing factions, but when Tito died and the external enemy vanished, ethnic animosities erupted again. A recognition of these cultural factors could have led to a better policy in regard to the Serb leadership than armed intervention by foreign powers.

 

7. Embrace a Planetary Ethic

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VALUES AND BELIEFS determine the way we perceive the world and suggest the ways we prioritize the responses to our perceptions. They affect almost all areas of our judgment and behavior. However, in the wider context of society individual values and beliefs are unlikely to conform to a common standard. If mutually consistent values and beliefs are not to be imposed “from above,” a further factor needs to be present. This is a shared ethic: the acceptance of a common morality. In an interdependent world, this ethic must be shared by the entire human family; it must be a planetary ethic.

A planetary ethic is a major imperative of our time. We all have our private morality: our personal ethic. This varies with the personality, the ambitions, and the circumstances of each of us. It reflects our unique background, heritage, and family and community situation. We also have a public morality, the ethic shared in our community, ethnic group, state or nation. This is the ethic the group in which we live requires of us in order for it to function. It reflects its culture, social structure, economic development, and environmental conditions. But there is also a universal morality—a planetary ethic. This is the ethic the human family as a whole requires so that all its members can live and develop.

 

8. Meet Your Responsibilities

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OBSERVING THE PRINCIPLE “live in a way that enables all others to live as well” means respecting the intrinsic right to life and well-being of all the people and all the things that inhabit the planet. But rights without responsibilities are empty claims. Rights are meaningful only when people meet the responsibilities entailed by those rights.

There are specific responsibilities attached to human rights in all spheres of life and action: the personal sphere, the business sphere, and the civic or political sphere. Observing them constitutes the last, but by no means the least, of the new imperatives of our time.

The responsibilities that face us in the personal sphere of our life are no longer our private business. They are crucial for the outcome of today’s macroshift, and hence they are everybody’s business.

Our common future will depend in large measure on the lifestyle and consumption choices we make today. Fortunately, these choices are not difficult to make; a simple rule of thumb applies again. It is a refinement of the much-cited adage, “think globally, act locally.” Global thinking remains a key element, but the nature of the local action needs to be specified. What one individual does influences others and can spread to the far corners of the world. Therefore, it is not just action, but moral action that is required.

 

9. Evolution from Logos to Holos

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BUSINESS ENTERPRISES, political regimes, local communities, and entire societies envisage the future by looking at the past. The governing assumption is that things will continue in much the same way as before, even if new technologies make some things better, shift the distribution of wealth, and create some areas of conflict. This is today’s dominant philosophy about the future: the philosophy of trend extrapolation. It is like driving down a highway by looking at the rearview mirror. As long as the road ahead is reasonably straight, we can steer by the rearview mirror: we just have to make sure that we don’t pull too much at the steering wheel. If the road curves, and the curve continues before us, we can still steer by this method. We can even steer by the rearview mirror if the road is getting progressively rocky: we can still hold onto the wheel while making provision for traversing increasingly uneven terrain. But the one condition under which steering by the rearview mirror breaks down is when the road ahead bifurcates. In that case, steering by the road that took us to where we are would lead to a rapid encounter with a ditch.

 

10. The Quiet Dawn of Holos Consciousness

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THE OLD TESTAMENT TOLD US, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Today we need the vision to move from economic globalization to a new and sustainable civilization, shifting from the world of modern-age Logos to the postmodern civilization of Holos. For such a shift to occur a new vision and consciousness are essential. In a democracy we cannot change the direction of our collective evolution by political or religious dictates; the insight and the will must come from below, from the people themselves.

Fortunately, a new consciousness is already surfacing at society’s creative edge. A quiet but significant groundswell is building today, made up of people who are changing their preferences, priorities, values, and beliefs. The shift is from consumption based on quantity toward selectivity in view of quality defined by environmental friendliness, sustainability, and the ethics of production and use. Lifestyles hallmarked by matter- and energy-wasteful ostentation are changing to modes of living marked by voluntary simplicity and the search for a new morality and harmony with nature.

 

11. You Can Change the World

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MARGARET MEAD TOLD US “never to doubt the power of a small group of people to change the world. Nothing else ever has.” Mahatma Gandhi was even more insistent: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” They were right. When you change yourself, you change the world around you—and ultimately you change the world.

In a macroshift, this insight is crucial. It bears repeating that if the critical chaos phase of this shift is to be brought to a humane and sustainable conclusion, our values, worldviews, ethics, and ambitions must change in line with our changing conditions. We must forget obsolete beliefs, learn to live with and make productive use of the world’s persistent diversity, embrace a planetary ethic capable of guiding behavior that can enable all people to live on this Earth, and meet the responsibilities that fall to every one of us in the personal, business, and political spheres of our lives. Understanding these imperatives is essential, but if it remains on the level of the intellect, it is insufficient. A global survey of young people has shown that intellectual understanding produces better ideas, but not necessarily better behaviors.

 

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