I, and many of you, have spent decades ‘fighting the good fight’ against the social and environmental impacts our economic model has produced, only to feel that we’re throwing pebbles in the path of boulders… then suddenly the boulder starts rolling uphill.
Many of us think we’re living into an unknown future and that’s why we’re stressed or worried. This is the common narrative: uncertainty = stress. We especially feel this is true for our children who will be actually living in that future.
I don’t believe it’s the uncertainty, that worries us. I think it’s actually that we think we know what is going to happen and we don’t like it. It’s not the uncertainty, it’s the sense of inevitability, of radical certainty, that is getting us down!
Since the mid-fifteenth century when a handful of men and women concocted the idea of rational and material growth during the Renaissance we have been deliberately constructing the trends and drivers that have brought us to where we are today. This mindset recrafted the world over five centuries and led immutably to The Great Acceleration of everything we’ve experienced in this last half-century (checkout these graphs).
The problem is that we have invested so heavily in creating these drivers over such an extended period that we have come to believe they are immutable; that the social, economic, political structures are ‘locked-in’ because the minds-set we live with is not an imaginary construct, but a reflection of ‘the way the world is’.
In the last few generations sense of certainty led to a great sense of confidence as the world was on a (Permanently) upward trajectory that would lift us all to a material nirvana from which deep satisfaction would be gained. In this last generation, we’ve come to realise that there are not only limits to material growth but also limits to the social and spiritual benefits it provides (being rich does not make you happy!).
Unfortunately, we can’t yet imagine a future that is not based on them. We’re imaginatively bankrupt.
At the moment we desperately need new images of the future we are constrained by our conditioning to keep layering a fifteenth-century mind-set onto the twenty-first century and beyond.
I don’t mean just the faceless men and women of power, but the average-joe; you and I. We look into the future and can only imagine these drivers continuing to provide the parameters of what is possible… and it’s terribly depressing
Where’s the Hope?
I’ve spent the last few months delivering a series of futures seminars for people across the Asia/Pacific, Europe, Australia, and South America. Through these seminars, I’ve realised that many of the fundamental drivers I thought had this future ‘locked-in’ are not.
This is immensely liberating.
I hadn’t realised how certain I thought the future was until I had to grapple with just how many of the fundamental building blocks I was building my image of the future on were just not true!
Suddenly the future opened up. Without those deep drivers, the future suddenly became an unknown place again – a place I actually had scope to create.
The fundamental building blocks of the future that aren’t
One of the biggest determinants of the future is demographics: how many people, where they live, how they live, what ages they are….
I grew up through The Great Acceleration where, since the 1950’s, everything increased! Population was on the same curve as everything else: from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to 7.8 billion today. In my mind, I have been living into a future where that number kept growing to 10 – 12 billion or more.
What’s the point of fighting for social and environmental justice in the face of this tsunami?
However, the story is much more nuanced, and population is decreasing in most of the world. Only sub-Saharan Africa will see substantial growth (which creates its own interesting dynamics - see this fabulous site to interactively play around with population by region, age etc). This is not somewhere out in the future – it’s happening right now.
- Japan sells more diapers for adults than for kids.
- Germany has demolished 330,000 homes because there is no one to live in them.
- In south Korea, regional schools are closing because there are no young people.
By the time I (hope to) die, there will be more people over 80 than under 18 in two thirds of the world and China’s population (the country was most love to fear) will see its population halve and become smaller than that of Nigeria. By around 2050, half the world’s young people will live in Africa – that is, most of the energy, innovation, and enthusiasm for change!
In itself, this is huge because this change will fundamentally alter all the other, higher-order levers/trends.
Equally profound is the growing evidence that the mindset that gave The Great Acceleration itself is starting to shift. In her seminal thinking about systems thinking Donella Meadows showed how there are more and less effective ‘levers’ in any system, and mindset is the most powerful. It is hard to find quantifiable evidence for shifts in mindset, but we can see the corollaries:
- Fossil Fuel businesses have finally hit a wall. For the first time ever, an oil major has posted a strategic plan with NO GROWTH and NO new projects (Financial Times - paywall)
- A series of court cases have held corporations liable the emissions of their consumers and their suppliers and Politicians (in Australia) for the impact of their decisions on the next generation (non-voters!)
- The balance of economic power is undergoing a massive shift away from The West: by 2050 6 of the 7 largest economies in the world are currently developing markets. It is likely there be NO European economies in the top 10 at all!
- The first-ever Global Tax has been announced (not final but virtually inevitable)
- Natural reforestation is accelerating (an area the size of France in only 20 years)
These represent a ground shift in public expectations and consciousness (what my old law lecturer called the grundnorm). The world’s major economies and countries of today, won’t be the world’s major economies of tomorrow. The basic legal and social assumptions that frame decisions today won’t be the legal and social assumptions that shape tomorrows:
The certainties that have defined and limited our sense of what is possible in the future are breaking down. This increases our sense of uncertainty but at the same time, it is increasing our experience of hope!
For several centuries we in The West have lived with a sense of certainty and optimism. When that optimism hit its ‘limits to growth’ moment it left us with only the certainty… and certainty alone is stultifying!
The developments we are seeing in the world today and in the next few years, love them or hate them, ‘unfreezes’ the future – it is once again becoming unknowable. When we don’t know what will happen, we suddenly have some more scope in creating it?
For the first time in a long time, I have realised that I really don’t know what is going to happen in the second half of my life (the first half of my daughter’s), and that’s a really good thing.
As the Chinese proverb says:
“May you live in interesting times!”
 There is a strange dialectical relationship between the impact of these ‘limits’ on people’s thinking and the thinking itself. I’ve previously written that things like Climate Change act like a deadline to cause change, but there is also a lot of evidence that the evolution of consciousness these impacts are catalysing were in evidence before the impacts themselves were felt. Writing in the 1890’s Rudolf Steiner and others wrote how these shifts in consciousness were part of much larger movements in the soul journey of humanity and that it was these shifts that caused material changes, not the other way around. This is a BIG conversation and if it interests you, please contact me directly.
If this interests you, there may be a number of ways I can help: