Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A momentous time

A trio of mega-trends fundamentally changing our lives

I’ve never had much faith in futurists. The flaw in futurism is that it simply cannot accommodate the entire context that will influence ultimate outcomes. History scholars also tell us that one can never accurately evaluate current events in the short and medium term. It needs half a century or more to place them in a fuller context and even then, their effects could continue to challenge those assumptions for decades to come.

But one could safely say that the current shifts in human co-existence are so great that even the most insightful minds will be hard-pressed to paint a picture of the final outcome, and then only in the broadest of brush strokes. When you are too close to a tapestry, you cannot see much more than a few threads; giving an impression of disjointed disorder. Stand back a pace and it becomes clearer. A further pace or two and the majesty of the work is revealed.

A very large part of humanity, individual threads in a tapestry, are in excruciating pain. Many are in grief, in struggle and in deep stress about the future – from the child refugee separated from his or her protectors in an unknown and menacing world, to a stock broker wanting to end it all after being devastated by giddy bi-polar markets. The stark difference in circumstance between the two does not reduce the level of anxiety; perhaps the innocence of the former even tempering it.

Many of those who have lived for seven decades or more, would have endured much; finding some consolation in the belief that “this too shall pass”. What is true for the individual, holds true for the species. A trio of trends we are in are disturbing if not deeply painful. There can be little doubt that they will leave humanity completely altered; a state that most likely will overturn many assumptions we have had about our co-existence: what harmonizes and what polarizes.

Millions on the move.

Some 60 million people have been displaced in just a few short years -- most by conflict in North Africa and the Middle East. Not all become migrants or refugees but while much of the world is expediently trying to distinguish between the two, this tsunami of humans moving from one place to another has already been described as the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, symbolised by the body of a 3-year old Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach, and broadening public sensitivity to their plight.

The root cause is largely economic, including the spark that lit the conflicts in the first place. That in turn has been driven in part by a systemic economic flaw that in the name of free markets, unbridled movement of often fickle and opportunistic capital is allowed; free movement of commodities, goods and services to a lesser extent but the free movement of people, or more specifically labour is prevented.

In addition, we have a confusing Colonial legacy of what makes for a sovereign state: people or territory. Colonial powers with arbitrary borders and multi-lateral haggling about territories, divided homogeneous peoples and lumped together many with stark cultural differences. The current movement of people can affect all of these constructs and overturn many assumptions that have been held for centuries about national integrity. At the very least, it further encourages the pursuit of a vaccine against the social viruses of factionalism, racism and xenophobia.

Destroying the means of exchange.

When your means of exchange, money or currency, is increasingly delinked from the goods or services you are exchanging, you are creating financial alchemy. This is what we have done with financial markets, flouting an old wisdom that enterprise and trade lead and finance follows. This has also been based on a very shaky perhaps even false foundation of exploding debt: that thing that allows you to create something out of nothing, until you discover its nothingness.

I have covered this subject many times, explaining my jitters when markets behave the way they have more recently and arguably reflecting the growing uncertainty about where this highly questionable, wealth polarising abnormality will end. This is intensified for those of us where “riding out the storm” is simply no longer feasible.

Optimists believe that we have the mechanisms to cope; that indeed it is simply a question of riding out a storm; that the way things are will not end suddenly, but fade in a long and perhaps even permanent whimper of low growth, deflation and “structural adjustments” at individual country level. Pessimists believe that there will be a hugely disruptive collapse; a financial cleansing unprecedented in history. This implies a return to basics, some say based on gold, others putting their faith in the magic of cyber currencies.


People are becoming increasingly afraid. The number of studies and reports expressing concern about the pace of technology has increased. (See a recent analysis here). In short, technology is no longer seen simply as being our friend and one can no longer scoff at the effect it will have on jobs, the environment and society as a whole. It has given birth to a rapidly growing class called the Precariat: jobless, career-less, and for a large number, even hopeless and dangerous.

Still, it’s an inexorable march that has much promise, and as with previous technology revolutions, we will adjust in time. What is of concern is that it has for some time been disrupting the relationship between capital and labour, or more broadly, owners and doers in the creation of wealth. Together with financial alchemy it has exacerbated exclusivity and inequality causing an enormous strain within humanity. Both are removing an essential conduit of wealth distribution: money in the pockets of ordinary working folk which is the catalyst of demand and inclusive economic growth.

It is clear that technology is rapidly rewriting all of our traditional assumptions about economic constructs including some of the mad metrics we use to drive and assess the economic locomotive. Conventional theories of capitalism, socialism, and any other “ism” are becoming redundant. Yet we will vehemently argue from these perspectives with little thought of the need for a completely new inclusive economic model that can accommodate this change. (See WEF report here).

There are many other trends one could cite that will affect us for decades to come. Many will take issue with me because I have omitted climate change as the most important shift of all facing our species. It is true that humanity’s impact on the environment is rupturing harmony with nature. But I have not dealt with it because no-one can really be sure if humanity alone will cause an environmental apocalypse, or whether some or other major event, even extinction, will not be caused by nature itself or cosmic roll of the dice. In addition, it could be argued that what we are doing to the environment is an effect and not a cause of the other three.

So what prompted the uplifting headline that we are living in a “momentous time”?

On a personal note it is not only because advancing age guarantees one of an endurance sell by date, but also because one can only marvel, and perhaps even be entertained by the individual threads of this splendid tapestry: those that babble about Nkandla, a falling rand, a gyrating ALSI, a raucous parliament, a comic red beret, legacy tantrums and so many more. In the end, and informed by a hindsight of many years, they become little more than that ambient, hypnotic and meditational murmuring you hear on a long distance flight.

A step back and the splendour is revealed: a species at a cross-roads facing a simple choice between its two main instinctive driving forces, that of survival or empathy. I believe that we have for too long assumed that survival trumps empathy; that they are even mutually exclusive. They are the same. They are one moment. The latter is just far nobler. It’s what sets us apart and accounts for our majesty as a species.

That is the lesson of this momentous time.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written Jerry - thank you for the article. These are indeed momentous times and there are huge challenges ahead. As individuals and groups it is becoming increasingly important to be driven by sound values - empathy (as you suggest in your article) and the care and growth of others (concepts you have promoted over the years). Your contribution to creating a better world is appreciated.