FIXING THE FUTURE
Ever so often Umair writes something I feel is very way on target.
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This is How We Fix the Future
2020 Was Apocalyptic. Things are Going to Get Even Worse. We Need to Start Doing the Work of the 21st Century. Umair Haque - September 21.
"There’s a certain fatalism I sense growing today. The future is over, the battle is lost. It’s understandable. This last year has shown us a taste of what the next few decades promise — everything from megafires to pandemics to megafloods to fascists rising amidst the chaos. It’s easy to grow disheartened. But have you really fought for the future? Or given up without a fight?
2020 is what happens when we give up on the future without much of a fight. When we settle for being led by bigots, dummies, fools, and idiots. And settle into the numb complacency of silent majorities. This isn’t the time to give up. It’s the time to heed the lesson what can go wrong when apathy reigns, which is all those worst fears that maybe even you dismissed as alarmism coming true, and then some. And then it’s time to redouble the fight — not give up on it. That is the first great lesson of this dismal year: it’s what happens when there isn’t much of a fight for the future. The world tumbles backwards, into the abyss of hate, stupidity, violence, and catastrophe.
So how do we do the work of fighting for the future? Is it just a noble abstraction, a romantic daydream? Far from it. It is as clear as day and as sharp as a cliff edge. Let me give you four brief areas in which the fight for the future must happen. Or else. Or else what? More of 2020 is the future, only worse by the day, week, month, year. More disaster, more catastrophe, more authoritarians fuelling and riding it, more numbness, despair, ruin, and paralysis. Sound good to you? I didn’t think so. Here, then is how to fight for the future.
I’m going to go from abstract — and don’t worry if you can’t do this, it’s not on you — and come to concrete, which are things that most of us can do.
The first domain in which we need to revolutionize everything — and I mean everything — is democracy and politics. Why is it that you and I have personhood — some of us, like me, after centuries of being regarded as subhumans — while the entire planet doesn’t? Don’t you think there’s something wrong with a world where Amazon, Inc is a “person,” but the Amazon isn’t? Without personhood, the worst amongst our species — the profiteers and predators — is free to treat nature and the animals just like they once treated slaves: maim, abuse, and annihilate them, until they’ve been used up.
Is it any surprise then that the natural world is spinning out of control? We are the ones who are destabilising the earth’s great ecosystems, and it’s precisely because our outmoded form of politics and democracy allows it. It took human beings centuries to have “Speakers of the House” — meaning for the people. But now we need Speakers for the Animals, Oceans, Insects, Reefs, and Ecologies, too.
Without such innovations, our civilisation will die. So how do we get there? How do we get to a world where every life has personhood? It took millennia to give every human life personhood. We don’t have millennia. We have maybe — maybe decades. It will take intense, intense legal battles. To reform the systems of law which rule us. It will employ thousands of lawyers and advocates and barristers and lobbyists. So will creating democratic innovations like Speakers for the Animals and Ecosystems. That is how we begin to fight for the future. We think much, much bigger than we are now — and begin a pitched battle for changing the systems which govern us.
Let me put that another way. This is the work the lawyers of today should and must begin to do. At least those of them that want to do something more interesting, meaningful, and genuine with their lives than, say, protecting another billionaire from a lawsuit. This is the future of law, politics, and democracy.
My second arena where everything needs to change — and I mean everything — is in economics and finance. When I say that we treat nature like a slave, what do I mean? On the one hand, we’re free to abuse it. But on the other, we don’t compensate it. And yet think how crucially we depend on nature. The fish cleanse our rivers. The insects and worms turn our soil. The trees exhale and we have air to breathe. The skies weep and we have water to drink.
Nature provides us the basics of our existence. Food, air, water, soil, medicine. Living our comfortable post-industrial lives, at a remove from that basic truth, shopping in well-lit stores, all that seems to pass us by. We don’t seem to get it.
If nature provides us the basics of our existence, and we treat it like a slave, what’s going to happen? Well, nature will rebel. And then, probably, it will die. That is exactly what’s happening. Pandemics, megafires, megafloods. These things are nature’s revenge. They are nature trying desperately to get rid of us, the ultimate parasitic and predatory species, the consumer with no bound. Nature is a homeostatic system, and it is trying to eliminate the thing that is throwing it our of balance — which is us.
And when it can’t do that, it simply dies off, which is why we’re in the middle of a mass extinction so grave we’re already losing 25% of species on earth. Go ahead and try to watch David Attenborough’s magisterial Extinction without feeling numb with grief — I dare you.
What do we expect, though, when our economic and financial systems are built still on slavery, only this time of the natural world? We need to build ones that compensate nature for the work it does, in tandem with building legal and political systems that protect it with rights and freedoms just like people have.
How much do the fish deserve for cleaning our rivers? The insects, for turning our soil? The trees, for giving us air to breathe? I don’t know, and you don’t know. This is the work that the economists and financiers of the future must do. At least the ones who want to do something more interesting and genuine and meaningful than helping another sociopathic moron get richer. This approach, too, is a positive one: it’s not just about limiting harm, like carbon taxes, for example. It’s about doing what’s right, good, just, acting in a constructive way to build an economy fit for the future of all of us.
We need to calculate those sums, and then pay that money to nature. Invest it in the nourishment and well-being of a dying planet. Or else the future just isn’t. Reality grows more apocalyptic every single week, month, year. There is no way out — either we pay up, what nature is due, or we die, right along with it, by the millions. In case that sounds like an exaggeration, let me remind you that Americans are already dying in the hundreds of thousands of a single pandemic. So imagine a decade from now, when climate change is turning one coast into an inferno, and two more into oceans. We need to get real about revolutionising economics and finance now, or else. Most of it is exactly what you think: a dumb fiction made to justify the obscene riches of a tiny few, most of whom are the most terrible on planet earth. That kind of system is the recipe for the death of a civilization — and a planet.
What about human beings in all this? That brings me to my third domain. We need to build global systems, to provide every single human being on earth things like healthcare, income, shelter, food, water, sanitation, savings, education. You might not know, but about half of humanity lives without all those things. And that impacts us all. Want more pandemics? Cool, let half of humanity go on living without decent food, water, sanitation and healthcare. Want more fascism? Cool, go on underinvesting in education and public goods and income for all. Maybe you see my point.
Now we’re coming to the work that everyone can do. OK, maybe not everyone can do this — but a lot of us can, at least a lot more of us than think we can. When I say global systems, I don’t just mean monolithic entities. I mean partnerships, networks, alliances. Giving water, food, and sanitation to every human being on planet earth is enough of a challenge that it will consume millions of lives for decades. This is the kind of thing that today’s megacorporations and megacharities and megabucks need to begin cooperating on. So all those of you who are middle managers at Megacorp, and feel like your work is pointless — make it have a point. Get involved with this battle. You are a key ally here.
How do we build a world where every human being has the basics? Our institutions need to begin to take that challenge seriously, first of all. It needs to be contemplated in every boardroom, mulled over, debated, though about. That part is up to many of you. Those boring pointless middle management — or even senior management jobs feel that way because they are: they’re living in a fantasy world, where we can go on being ignorant, violent, and greedy. We can’t. Time to grapple with the challenges of the 21st century.
This challenge is an especially bedevilling one. Giving every human life the basics, while also not destroying the planet. How do we do it? Here both technology and management begin to play a role. We have to reduce the ecological footprint of how we produce basics, massively. Not just decarbonise it, but also reduce its “death factor” — how much death it really results in, because nature can’t take much more. That’s a huge, huge challenge. Technology needs to create much, much lower-impact ways to provide human beings the basics, and management needs to come up with ways to actually manage, track, monitor, measure, and reward all that.
Our old management systems do one thing, which is measure and monitor profit. That’s a solved problem. Today’s is about how much of a negative impact we have on nature, balanced against how much of a positive impact we have on every human life. That ratio alone will define the survival of our civilization. But it will also define the institutions — companies, corporations, banks, funds — that survive along with it. The rest will die off with the old world. Want to be one of those? I didn’t think so. It’s in your hands to do the work of making these issues of civilizational collapse and survival and renewal be taken seriously at your workplace. And right about now, guess what? It’s your responsibility, too. The bonus is that you can make a much, much more interesting, beautiful, and rewarding career out of it, than shrugging and accepting apocalypse as the fate of humanity.
That brings me to my fourth domain. Maybe you’re not some corporate bigwig or even some smallwig. Maybe you’re just…a person. Cool, cool. I’ve got a fight for the future for you too, my friend.
The fourth arena in which we need a revolution is cultural and social. Let me give you an example. There are eight beautiful, old trees across the road from me. And these days, when I look at them, I wonder: why don’t they have names? Silly, right? Or is it? Why don’t they have names? They’re every bit as much a part of the neighbourhood as the humans, dogs, and cats. They’ve probably been there longer. So why aren’t they called, say, “Ravi,” “Donna,” and “George”? Maybe that’d give the people in my neighbourhood a reason to get to know them. Their history. To cherish and care for them. Names. They humanise. We’ve dehumanised nature so badly that we don’t even bother naming what’s right in front of us.
Now, that’s a tiny example of a cultural change. There’s a school around the corner, and I’d be delighted if a school project was to give the trees names, and do little placards about their history, that lived on each tree forevermore.
Maybe you’re getting the picture. Cultural change is up to each and every one of us. Let me give you another example. Maybe, like my friend Jake, you own a tiny microbrewery. You’re not an evil capitalist, just a dude with a passion, trying to do something interesting and positive. Now how do you approach the new world? You have to figure out the ratio above: minimum negative impact for maximum positive impact. Jake’s been trying to grapple with it over the last year. It’s been tough. He’s ended up paying people more, sourcing greener supplies, making sure his water comes from carbon-free sources, and using that to differentiate him from the crowd. Not easy — but it’s starting to work. He’s seen as a pioneer in his little field. Good for him. If you own a business, that is the kind of mentality you have to develop now. If you want to survive. The ones who don’t will die off with the old world.
Why? Because the rest of us must get involved with another kind of cultural change, which is going from being the kind of numb, dumb consumers that the economy depended on for so long to being something more like aware, conscious human beings. Hey, were animals exploited and abused to make this thing? Should I eat less meat? How do I use less water and energy? What can I do with my life that really changes the ratio, the big one: minimum negative impact for maximum positive impact?
That part of the fight every last one of us can get involved in. All of us can do this work. Do you really need another pair of perfectly distressed jeans — whose toxic chemicals destroy the rivers and oceans? Isn’t that money better spent on almost anything else?
The foolish quest for symbolic supremacy — I slay you by having more, better things than you, and that way I gain status and power, which feels good — is just that, foolish. Because the rewards aren’t worth the cost — and they’re addictive. The rush of power I get from overwhelming you with more stuff lasts about five minutes — and then I see someone with even more and better stuff than me, and I feel terrible. In the middle of this cycle of folly, the planet, democracy, life on it, and the future are all going up in smoke.
It doesn’t make us happy, fulfilled, good, true, noble, all the stuff we need to live full and meaningful lives. So we need to come back to who we really are. We are social beings, who care deeply for one another, and the living things around us, even the rivers and forests. That is why they take our breath away still. We can deny and repress it, sure, but we only fool ourselves that way.
So we need a cultural revolution, to grow radically more aware of both the folly of the way we have lived — and to mature and develop into our truer selves. To become the laughing, caring, social creature we really are — not the numb, dumb, grasping creatures that too much consumerism has told us to be, and when we are those people, we end up miserable and hating ourselves anyways.
Phew. That’s a lot. Take it slow, take it in.
The battle for the future is here. All the above is what looks like. Each and every one of us has a role to play, from the CEO to the teacher, the economist to the poet, the child to the elder. Every single one of us. This is not the time to give in to fatalism. It is the time to really begin doing the work. Fighting for the future. Fighting the good fight. Getting in good trouble. Creating the kind of world we are proud to hand to our children and grandchildren. That is the challenge before us. Fatalism is a kind of cowardice and weakness. Nihilism, a worse one still. It’s true that nobody is coming to save us, and it’s true that we will not win the fight in some kind of unalloyed way. That is all the more reason to fight, my friend.
Nothing has ever been worthier than this fight. Yes, nothing. No father in the sky, no angels in heaven, no book, no idea, theorem, or belief. Nothing in human history has been worthier than the fight before us now, which is the one for a world that is full of a little more goodness, grace, truth, beauty, wonder. A little more full of life.
That is what this thing called “civilization” really is, and always has been.