Wednesday, July 27, 2005

First Thoughts

27 July 2005

Human history is characterized by rhythms, with periods of moderation or balance and periods of extremism or imbalance.

I believe that understanding the larger patterns is an important element of grasping what is occurring in the world outside ourselves.

In my view, we are presently emerging from a period of relative historic balance, and entering into another era of historic imbalance.

It is difficult to resist or to move against these broad patterns, as they are driven by forces that are much greater than we as individuals can control. However, it is advantageous to recognize and to respond to these patterns in an anticipatory way. I would like to suggest some of the following as indicators of our present historic move towards imbalance….

1. We are moving from a U.S. and European-centric world to a world of much more evenly distributed global power. This bears great potential for good, but it is disruptive and unsettling to many individuals, accounting for a rise in global instability and in efforts to resist this trend emerging from many quarters.

2. We are moving from an era of conservative management of human and financial resources to a period of extravagant and reactive use of these resources. This is most evident in a historically unprecedented increase in the global money supply, which is achieved through the lowering of interest rates far below that which would prevail in an “unmanaged” economy, through making capital available to individuals and corporations who would not in normal times qualify to receive such allocations, and through governments forgoing revenues which will surely be required in future for the provision of consensual government services. Therefore, unprecedented levels of individual and public debt are being accumulated in the western nations as personal savings plummet and as the broad economy remains relatively stagnant. Further, individuals and institutions are making increasingly risky choices which jeopardize the foundations of our economic system. History teaches that the outcome of such “inflationary” periods is universally painful, and that resources will ultimately (and disruptively) be redistributed in a manner that is disadvantageous to most citizens.

3. We are moving from an era of relatively slow and reflective decision-making to an era of rapid but impulsive decision-making, but this is occurring in the western nations only. The slow and measured approach to change in the Asian countries stands in stark contrast to this pattern. Decisions with massive consequences are being undertaken increasingly lightly, and with minimal forethought. The likelihood that citizens will be unprepared for the disruptive changes that await them is therefore substantially increased.

4. Our orientation to “growth” at any price is becoming increasingly costly. Even a measured pace of growth must prove unsustainable in a closed system. In this case, I am referring to the carrying capacity of our planet itself. Through enhanced productivity and efficiency, real progress can be achieved. However, we must now be finding ways to achieve increased productivity and efficiency while using far less of our finite or non-renewable resources. However, we are using more, and this cannot work. That is, we must learn how to live full and happy lives while consuming less in the way of energy, raw materials and other finite resources. Additionally, factors which we have never intentionally controlled must now be re-examined, including our increasing human numbers and our dwindling undisturbed ecological habitats. If we do not find a way to make these choices, then events will choose for us, in ways that are certain to be difficult and costly.

5. Marshall McLuhan described our world as “retribalizing,” dramatically reversing a dynamic of the past 5-20,000 years. National boundaries appear to be melting as people now have the freedom to define themselves in terms of chosen affiliations and identities, and these have a distinctly “tribal” character. We therefore require radically new ways of conceptualizing what it means to engage in cooperation, learning, and “progress.” I am personally concerned that intellectual values seem presently to receive short shrift (as they often have during other historic eras). My specific concern is that our specialists know more now than ever before, but our citizenry is less able to comprehend this knowledge in ways that can possibly facilitate its application, with the result that what we know, we do not do, and we do “what we do not know.”

6. Particularly in the western nations, we are, in my view, forging an increasingly vulnerable generation of “baby boomers” who are storing their accumulated wealth in risky and unsound assets, specifically, in speculative real estate ventures (particularly in the U.S.) and in an exhausting business system that is characterized increasingly by the inability to distribute dividends to shareholders. Retirements may have to be postponed or managed with inadequate personal resources as a result of “capital misallocation” and the exhaustion of savings.

7. Also in the western nations, there is a growth in the proportion of individuals who do not possess skills to function productively in a rapidly changing world. Here, I am referring not only to the scientific and technical skills that our technical age demands, but also to the human and interpersonal skills which encompass self-knowledge, cooperation and conflict resolution. New ways of thinking about education, in particular, are strongly needed.

I do not here intend either to exhaust my listing of the world-shaping trends which characterize our era, or to generate specific solutions, but rather to establish a climate for dialogue and exploration of ideas.

In future posts, I will address more specifically some of the issues I have begun to sketch out above, as well as further topics which may in future seem relevant.

Thank you for your patience in considering my early posts.

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