Global data tells a clear story: The world is getting much, much better. Child Mortality is down, hunger is falling, extreme poverty has dropped, literacy is up — just google “the world is getting better” and you’ll find thousands of these positive stories. While data tells a clear story, we tell ourselves a different one: Only 6% of Americans, 4% of Germans and 3% in France believe the world is getting better.
When we ask people, what is possible in the future, we get a shrug from the rich countries. Thankfully, poor countries still show optimism, but the vast majority of the world feels stuck. They believe we are stagnating and/or in decline. And they also believe this stagnation and decline will be their future.
When you believe the future will be terrible, you will try to hold on to the past. Because anything in the future will be worse. That’s how you get 2+ years of Brexit drama. 2+ years of the Trump show. 4+ years of refugee discussions in Germany. Pessimists don’t want to move forward, they want to go back to a place in the past that never really existed as they claim to remember it. Optimists, on the other hand, expect things to change to get the improvements they are expecting.
Knowledge turns us into optimists
Above graph indicates the correlation between our knowledge about global development and optimism. The most pessimistic are the ones with the least idea what’s really happening in the world. And the ones with the most knowledge were the most optimistic. It’s easy to be a cynic: Just go to the news site of your choice and look at the scandals, corruption, AI eating everything, including your brain, another prediction that we are doomed. But being a cynic also means being uninformed, not seeing the big picture, getting stuck on the news of the day. The optimists are the ones that are well-informed. They see the bigger picture. They know we can change the world for the better because we have done so in the last 30 years.
Still, even optimists know the last few decades were about low-hanging fruits. Growth was the cure-all for everything. Growth reduced poverty, increased literacy, reduced hunger, etc. But growth came with unintended consequences: Climate change, conflicts based on climate and economic changes, increasing inequality, refugee crisis, exploitation of natural resources — just to name a few. And, because of technological advances, we have new challenges and risks to deal with: Positively shaping the development of AI, reducing the risk of natural pandemics and new scientifically engineered pathogens, return of nuclear proliferation, transforming three generations from the analog age to the digital age.
And, to add to that, what’s more concerning is the risks we haven’t thought of yet. My grandfather would not have known about AI, Nuclear Wars and climate change in 1919. And we might be in the same situation in 2019. Future technologies might be riskier than anything we ever imagined. Or they might be overall good. Time will tell.
Business as usual is over
Or as they say in German “The fat years are over.” The years of constant expansion, exploiting poor countries, nature and people, modern serfdom at Uber and Amazon — those years are coming to an end. It might look like our future but there’s too much energy in the air, too many refugees ready to move, too many left behind people and not enough planet, climate and human spirit to endure this much longer.
If you’d asked me the question: “Will my daughter have it better or worse than me?”, I would answer: “Define better.” If you define better as more stuff, bigger things, more money, it looks like she might have it worse than me. Because we’ve reached the end of the “More Era”. But if you define better as mindful, compassionate and collaborative, I believe she will have it much better than me.
This requires a lot of creativity and imagination
There was never less future in modern times, an era that was founded on an empathetic definition of the future. Everything feels redundant, there’s a lack of imagination and anesthesia through consumption garbage of any kind. Shows to binge, social feeds to check, news to get mad at.
First, we need to define where we want to go and define what’s missing. And we need to develop a better moral fantasy, decreasing the distance between what we cause and how we feel about it. There’s a disconnect between what we know, how we feel about it and what we do.
We need a new realism, accepting we can’t continue the fossil economy and the growth mentality to make it through the 21st century and beyond.
We need social intelligence that replies to the pipe-dream promises of the digital economy with three questions: Is this true? What are the unintended consequences? Do we want this?
And in politics we need less the perspective of people who have left their future behind, we need the perspective of people whose whole future is ahead of them, the ones that have to deal with the creaking system and create ways to fix it.
The digital prophets tell us the future will be like today, just more convenient. Automated. Ecologically more destructive. Anonymous. Externally controlled. The digital prophets gave us some unicorns, but they left us a lot of horse shit. Grab a shovel.
No one is coming to save us. No Brexit. No, no-Brexit. No Trump. No Anti-Trump. The leadership has to come from within. Are you a fearful drone, part of the problem, a signature on the suicide note of humanity?
Or are you part of humanity’s wake-up call? History is pretty clear: those who followed orders and played by the rules, they are either forgotten or despised. The rebels and rule-breakers of yesterday are today’s heroes.
We can’t afford to play by the rules anymore. We need to write new rules.
Fortunately, these rebels and rule-breakers are everywhere:
They are driven by a hugely diverse community of thinkers, innovators, and practitioners. There are organizations like the P2P (Peer to Peer) Foundation, Evonomics, The Next System Project, and the Institute for New Economic Thinking reimagining the global economy. The proposed models are even more varied: from complexity, to post-growth, de-growth, land-based, regenerative, circular, and even the appetizingly named donut economics.
Then, there are the many communities of practice, from the Zapatistas in Mexicoto the barter economies of Detroit, from the global Transition Network, to Bhutan, with its Gross National Happiness index. There are even serious economists and writers, from Jeremy Rifkin to David Fleming to Paul Mason, making a spirited case that the evolution beyond capitalism is well underway and unstoppable, thanks to already active ecological feedback loops and/or the arrival of the near zero-marginal cost products and services. This list is just a small part of innovative concepts and approaches that are out there. If you find additional ones, please share!
Changing the rules might seem impossible now. The political, media and thought leadership mainstream wants us to believe that. But they are voices from the past. An even better future will be created by curious people with open eyes and hearts, challenging everything they learned in school, from their parents, the mainstream and the corporate world. And do what we are supposed to do: Innovate to create an even better world.