April 7, 2015

Feeling into the Future.


There is an old joke that when you make plans God laughs.

The only problem is that when you refuse to make plans, he seems to laugh harder, for that is when things really go wrong. And yet, when all of humanity fails to plan for its collective future, God must surely want to weep.

It has been said that climate change is the largest collective action problem ever in human history. Somehow all of humanity must get together and make changes to virtually every facet of human life. But most of us struggle to find a place to eat with friends. Humanity has simply never confronted such a tremendous challenge as this before. It is little wonder we are failing so miserably to act.

But climate change is really only one of several global challenges that require collective planning. We must plan for rainforest protection, demographic changes, food security, epidemics, state failure and more. And these problems are interlinked, so if we want to get a grasp on global food security we cannot simply wall ourselves away with the agricultural economists. For the climate scientists, development economists and demographers will also elbow their way into the debate.

The human capacity to think globally is now in its adolescence. We are like the young man who has not yet taken charge of his life. Young adults commonly lack the ability to step outside of themselves and evaluate who they are and where they are going. So, they often feel engulfed by the world, slaves to vast forces beyond their control. It is much the same with our burgeoning global civilization. We struggle to act globally because we do not yet have a sense of who we are and where we are going.

My own book, Convergence: The Globalization of Mind, focuses on how we might develop this maturity. The process of maturation involves not only getting to know ourselves better but also learning to plan for our futures. It is not easy to project some idea of ourselves into the future, explore how it may fair under a range of contingencies, and then go back and change our lives accordingly.

Thinking about the future requires a degree of detachment from present circumstances. We need to free ourselves from fixed notions of self, widen our time horizons, let go of cognitive biases, and think probabilistically. Since we do not know what the future will bring, we need to imagine contingencies and prepare ourselves for a range of possible outcomes.

Thinking about the collective future of humanity requires all of these capacities. But it also involves grappling with a complexity several orders of magnitude greater than that in our own lives. There is just vastly more information to master when dealing with systems so great in scale. And so thinking about the global future can be overwhelming. But it can also be sublime.

The world will change immensely in our lifetimes. The centenarian of today has seen two world wars, the end of colonialism, the rise and fall of Soviet civilization, and the emergence of the United Nations. They have seen the appearance of television, cell phones, the Internet, social media and several threats to human civilization. If you want to prepare for the future, prepare for the unexpected.

Humans have an extraordinary capacity to adapt to new situations. We are often confronted by life changes, like the death of a loved one or the devastation of war, that we could never imagine ourselves surviving. And yet, people quite commonly discover the necessary capacities and meet the challenge. The coming century will require much the same resilience.

As we project our minds into the far future, it is like reaching into a hazy mist. Since everything eventually changes, changes build upon changes, a sort of spiral staircase made of clouds. The further we stretch our minds into the future the more imaginative we must become. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tries to ground their thinking about the future in terms of probabilities. But climate models cannot predict human social responses, nor can they incorporate innovation. Economists and technological futurists, project models of growth and track the rates of innovation in different domains, but they struggle to incorporate environmental effects.

We are quite simply walking our way blindly into the future. But it is significant that we are doing it together, each of us fumbling our way through a multitude of global challenges that will affect us all. As we struggle to think about the future of the world, we are a bit like the young woman dreaming of her own future, improving our ability to think globally as we go. Global civilization is a lot like a newly formed nation-state. Thinking about its future may be the best thing we can do to ensure that things go well in the present. For when we think about a collective future, we define ourselves as bound together in a common destiny. It is just such unity that we need in order to solve the great challenges of the day. And when we start to do that God might finally relax and take the weekend off.

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Relephant Reads:

When We Kill One Life, We Kill the World.


Author: Theo Horesh

Editor: Travis May

Images: Wikimedia


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