Humanity is going to have to learn to think bigger if we are to grapple with the great global challenges of the 21st century.
The best thing about thinking big is that it does not tend to leave much out, and since big thinkers keep an eye on everything, they tend to be a bit more immune to making stupid mistakes.
The worst thing about thinking big, though, is the same as the best: Big thinkers do not tend to leave much out, so they become overwhelmed and paralyzed with inaction.
“There is no way to experience all of life,” notes Ernest Becker in his classic, The Denial of Death. “Each person must close off large portions of it…in order to avoid being overwhelmed.”
But globalization makes it ever more difficult to close off pieces of the world—everything is increasingly interlinked. If we want to understand the economic forces shaping our lives, we must turn to the global economy; if we want to plan for the future, it is now the world’s future we must somehow piece together.
In short, if we are to makes sense of our own, personal worlds, we must increasingly comprehend the whole of the world.
Becker suggests this is impossible:
“The biggest, warmest, most secure, courageous spirits can still only bite off pieces of the world. The smallest, meanest, most frightened ones merely bite off the smallest possible pieces.”
Most of us hide from the immensity of the world by limiting the scope of those things we believe to be most meaningful, and in so doing, we make our worlds manageable. This strategy has always come at the price of truth.
In order for this narrowing of attention to work, we have to commit, in the words of the conservative Edmund Burke, to our “own little platoon.”
But these commitments will almost always involve acting as if our little platoon is the whole of the army, that this particular battle is the whole of the war. It is a mistake commonly found among environmental localists, who all too often lose site of the big picture and take on marginal issues.
But if comprehending the world around us means comprehending the world itself, and even the strongest spirits cannot really compass so much, then the world itself may fall to pieces. For we cannot address global challenges, like climate change, food security or the death of the oceans, without the ability to think globally. And we cannot think globally unless we learn to take in more.
This is the central quandary contemplated in my book, Convergence: The Globalization of Mind. If we are to avoid destroying the very systems upon which our survival depends, we must somehow learn to think globally with the same ease and equanimity with which we now take up national matters.
It is remarkable that so few thinkers have given much thought to this challenge, for it may lie at the heart of our inability to come to terms with a multitude of environmental issues, most saliently: climate change.
The philosopher, Ken Wilber, frames the challenge in developmental terms, suggesting the ability to think globally comes with higher psychological development and that this higher development will make grappling with knotty global challenges simply a natural part of our inner psychic milieus.
Few would deny that children develop through certain stages of mental and psychological development, nor would many deny that as we grow older we tend to accumulate knowledge and capabilities, which is just another way of saying we develop.
Though, for many people development means simply the growth of greater integrated complexity, others cannot separate the idea of development from a more normative notion of “becoming better.” To them, more developed is always better. And so if things are always developing, then they are always getting better.
However, for those of us who have been tracking events in Congress, this notion can seem a trifle absurd.
This idea of things “always getter better because they are always developing” ignores the potential for regression.
Highly complex human individuals and social systems alike can be quite unstable—and the bigger they are, the harder they fall. There are also pathological developments in which things become more complex but either dysfunctional or in some way sick, as in the case of the Nazis.
There are developments in which things become so complex that the parts cannot communicate with the whole—a notion that increasingly seems the case in the American social system, where overdevelopment is resulting in a sort of alienated development where larger parts of the society appear alienated from the rest.
And then there is unsustainable development and collapse: precisely what so many of us fear for human civilization. We fear that the developments we have achieved cannot be sustained and that the base upon which our golden civilization rests is positioned on feet of clay. This may very well be the case, but we will never know unless we acquire this capacity to think globally in a balanced and mature manner.
The problem with thinking globally, though, is just the same problem with economic development—it may simply prove to be unsustainable.
Thinking globally may require an increase in knowledge and awareness on an order of magnitude that our hearts and minds simply cannot sustain, and yet, humanity cannot endure this developmental split between increasingly global systems and still national or ethnic consciousness.
Somehow we have to find a way to take in the whole of the world without being blown apart, and this will somehow have to involve making global thinking easier.
Perhaps the most obvious way to do this is through global institutional development. Consciousness tends to follow institutions, not the other way around. For instance, most nations of people did not form until they were brought together through a state.
Hence, a South African friend of mine, Mahomed Hameed, suggests that U.N. Security Council reform will be needed to solve some of the big global challenges that have here been raised. Such reform would involve ending the veto, which allows single countries to hold up all action, and by making the Security Council more representative of humanity as a whole.
This is perhaps the strongest challenge to my own thinking on the matter in that it demonstrates an elegant solution to numerous different global challenges. While thinking globally might help, it is much more important to have the right global institutions.
Even if we find the global institutional resources needed to solve challenges like climate change and nuclear proliferation, we will find ourselves doing a lot more global thinking—it is a developmental leap that simply seems unavoidable. And if we learn to do it well, we will develop far more effective global institutions.
We would do well to start asking ourselves how we might take this crisis and turn it into an opportunity.
We would do well to ask ourselves how the development of a global civilization can make us better.
Author: Theo Horesh
Editor: Emma Ruffin
Photo: Alice Popkorn/Flickr
Facebook is in talks with major corporate media about pulling their content into FB, leaving other sites to wither or pay up if we want to connect with you, our readers. Want to stay connected before the curtain drops? Sign up for our curated, quality newsletters below.