We have just had the X Human and Technology Conference of the Humanities Institute. Like in previous years, it was an opportunity to listen to interesting speeches and meet fascinating personalities. What distinguishes this conference is its interdisciplinarity, the possibility of taking a broad look at the functioning of human-leaders in the world. This text is, on the one hand, a continuation of the previous post (“When paradigms change, the world changes“), but at the same time, it broadens the perspective of looking at the challenges ahead of us. It was inspired to a significant extent by the speeches and discussions from the conference. It also collects my previous thoughts in a kind of completeness, hence numerous references to other posts.
It is a rather long text, and moreover, not very optimistic. There is no point in pretending that everything is okay. At the same time, it does not mean that the situation is hopeless. Therefore, I will soon write about how, in my opinion, we can restore hope.
The Key Triad
To understand where we are today as a civilization, it is worth starting from a simple schema presented on the slide below. What is happening on Earth is a derivative of the interaction of three key elements:
- the functioning of the environment (all chemical and biological processes that occur in our ecosystem without human involvement),
- human activity,
- the development and functioning of technology.
The latter point should, in principle, be treated as part of human activity, but I deliberately separate it as a separate one; on the one hand, due to its importance, on the other hand, because we are probably close to a point – perhaps we are already crossing it – where technological development (at least in some areas) will not require human involvement, progress will be a derivative of the self-development of technology.
I will not develop the above issues as I have written about them many times before. What is important in the context of this text is the fact that the interaction of these three elements shapes a certain balance (or imbalance) in the world. What is worth emphasizing is this balance/imbalance from our, human perspective. Being focused on our own “interests,” we generally pay little attention to how the world looks from the perspective of the other elements, especially from the perspective of the other inhabitants of our planet. Of course, there are those who pay attention to them (e.g., scientists, ecologists), but their voice is very weakly heard.
The paradigms that became widespread in the early 1990s allowed for a temporary “stabilization” of the world, increasing its predictability, again emphasizing it from our human perspective. This was reflected in the limited number of crisis phenomena. Some even believed that nothing better – in terms of socio-economic solutions – could be created, hence the term “end of history.”
The dynamics of complex systems – which is what we have to deal with – indicate that nothing is permanent. The viability of each set of paradigms has its “expiration date”. Why does this happen? It’s a simple fact: complex systems have a dynamic nature, and as a result of the processes that occur as a result of using specific paradigms, the system (reality) changes, so over time the world is no longer the same as it was “at the entrance”. When the accumulation of changes in reality reaches a critical point, tensions begin to appear, which are visible in the form of crises. With time, it becomes increasingly clear that paradigms – and the solutions based on them – that worked in the “old world” do not fit into the new reality. The longer we realize this, the more painful this process is – crises become more common and deeper.
Today, the world is completely different from the beginning of the 1990s, so it is not surprising that the paradigms that worked then are no longer working now. In this situation, attempts to “return to the past” cannot work.
In my opinion, there are at least several major areas of tension that simultaneously indicate where a correction in our way of thinking is needed. Two of them are fundamental, while the others are kind of pre-causes leading to these first ones. These fundamental ones are:
- the rapid growth of imbalance between the materialistic-oriented model of human functioning on Earth and the possibilities of the biosphere, existing ecosystems on Earth. According to experts, many indications suggest that future disturbances of individual elements of the Earth’s ecosystem will be sudden and will intensify each other. The fastest unfavorable changes will occur within tropical oceans, which will trigger a domino effect – unfavorable processes will significantly accelerate, affecting all spheres of life on Earth one by one. All of this is likely to happen in this century, possibly in its first half.
- the emergence of the threat of losing control over the process of technological progress, and thus the materialization of the scenario that it will not be technology that serves people, but people serving technology (and actually a narrow group of data and technology owners).
These two fundamental imbalances have led to initial disruptions – a derivative of the paradigms we use – which include:
- imbalance between the material and non-material sphere of human functioning on Earth,
- huge and growing imbalance in the distribution of material goods (income, wealth), one of the reasons being the imbalance of power between labor and capital. And of course, this is not about everyone having “equal shares.” It’s about the distorted concentration of wealth by a few – data shows that at the beginning of the 1990s, the top 1% of the wealthiest had accumulated 30% of wealth, but now it is around 45%. Furthermore, if we take into account the latest data from Oxfam International on the growth of wealth in recent years, more than 60% of this growth went to that 1%!
- an imbalance in the real sphere (production) compared to the financial sphere of the economy. At the beginning of the 1990s, financial institutions’ assets were less than three times global GDP, today it is five times. During this time, a whole large market of various derivative instruments was created, the scale of complexity of financial institutions themselves and their operations also increased significantly. This is accompanied by a decline in the transparency of financial operations, hence increasingly new problems that are surprising to regulators and supervisors.
- imbalance of “I” in relation to “We”, which stems from the – in my opinion, erroneous – belief that the well-being of us as a community is a simple sum of the well-being of individuals constit
- temporal imbalance – a concentration on the present (what the current generation wants and will benefit from) at the expense of the future (what will remain for future generations).
In addition, there are geostrategic disturbances resulting from the end of the global equilibrium model based on the dominance of the United States of America.
It’s better not to see, better not to know
Two main attitudes accompany increasingly glaring signs that something is not working, that we need change. The first, still perhaps the most common, is “it’s better not to see, better not to know.” It characterizes not only individual people, but also most businesses and many governments. The second is “let’s do something about it.” However, in most cases, the initiatives taken under the banner of change are generally actions marked and simulated, greenwashing, bluewashing, etc. They are not able to reverse the course of reality, and the reason is that they do not address the previously described imbalances in a radical enough way. They are like sticking band-aids on external wounds, which are symptoms of internal problems.
There are many reasons for this situation. It is not always accompanied by malice. Often, the source of the problem is a narrow, limited perspective. We are not taught how to look broader. As a result, we rarely “step out” from the center of what is happening and evaluate the situation based on a comprehensive picture, as it were from above. To use a specific analogy, today we look and make decisions about what is happening from the perspective of a bed in a cabin with a brass plaque on the door that says “Poland,” “France,” “Russia,” etc. The swaying we all experience causes frustration, which in turn makes us start banging our heads (between cabins, and not infrequently inside the cabins). We do not even notice that we are all passengers on the ship “Earth,” which, without wise and prudent captains and helmsmen, drifts straight towards the rocks.
It is precisely this lack of a broad view that is causing us to move at an ever-faster pace towards a world of competition and confrontation, while saving our civilization from disaster requires something completely opposite, deepened cooperation. In a world of competition, perhaps one nation or another will seem to have succeeded for a short time and declare itself the winner, but in any case, it will be humanity that loses. Competition and confrontation mean that the protection of our earthly ecosystem will take a back seat, and it will be difficult to set any ethical limits on technological progress. As a result, two fundamental imbalances will reach a critical state, threatening the existence of humanity on Earth.
Intuitively, many people today sense that this scenario could materialize. For example, teenagers who see no point in living in a “world without a future.” Also, many adults, for some, this is an argument not to have children.
Fortunately, what I have described above is only one of several possible scenarios. The future is not predetermined. How it will ultimately look still depends on us, on the choices we make. We must believe that we are the “owners” of the future. And that is what the text “Restore the Future” will be about.