At its root, change is painful. That’s because in order for something new to take hold — even in the modest form of incremental change — it means that we must give something up in the process, engage in risk, and have a level of faith that what is as-yet foreign will be for the better.
Change is the chief currency of optimism.
That also means that change is as much a form of destruction — of what is — as it is of construction — of what could be.
And yet, everything we have ever done, as individuals or as a species, to improve our lives, our communities, and our relationships, has by necessity taken on the risk and faith that allowed change to flourish.
Today, we are on the precipice of profound global change. I’ve written at length about our ‘broken systems’ — that every category of civilized living is in disrepair, or near its breaking point. Our politics, economics, education, public safety, media, social exchange and healthcare systems have been stressed to the point where nearly none is responsive to our current needs. I invite you to read what I wrote about How Everything Is Broken, in which I dive into each system, individually.
What has changed overnight isn’t the systems themselves. They have been imperfect from conception, and in some cases, steadily degrading over the years. We have carried on without much regard for just how broken our societal institutions were, apart from the usual, well-rehearsed hand-wringing and drum-beating by — or on behalf of — those most deeply affected. What has changed is the eyes with which we see things. The reason our eyes have suddenly opened is that we have found ourselves suddenly living with the exact kind of seismic disruption it takes for us to realize — to finally open our eyes to — what we’ve known all along. COVID-19 has stopped us in our tracks, long enough for us to get a good, clean look at the bed we’ve made, and in which we’ve been slumbering. It has shown us how unprepared we were for what happened next, and how inflexible and unresponsive our institutions have been to meet the challenge, and come to our aid. Not our police. Not our schools. Not our hospitals. Not our infrastructure. Not our media. Not our leaders. Not even the way in which we engage one another, in the spirit of mutual survival, and thriving.
We have failed miserably to rise to the occasion. And as a result, we are dying in droves.
The good news — and it is good news — is that we are full of ingenuity, and entrepreneurialism. The chief challenge before us is to find within ourselves — somewhere — our inner bravery; our inner optimism. That’s because to emerge whole, or better, we must take on the risk and have the faith that we will get there together, as we refashion our institutions to meet today’s needs, better than they did when we concocted them. How we interact, how we govern, how we teach and learn, how we heal, how we protect, and how we feed, clothe and supply one another with tools to inspire and fuel our individual and collective strengths, and reach — will determine what happens next with Project Human.
2020 can be the year that the experiment failed. It may yet be, if we don’t get our act together. But I am an optimist, to my core. Because of this, I believe — I must believe — that we will overcome, and that 2020 will be known, years from now, as the year that catalyzed the next leap in human civilization. It’s a long road ahead, but there has been no occupant on Planet Earth more qualified to adapt and innovate, in the ways that we need.
There are central truths about human beings. We are the undisputed champions of adaptation. We have occupied every square inch of the planet in the process, and reformed much of it to suit our own needs. We are also creatures given to crippling inertia. Once we have created something and gotten used to it, it is very difficult for us to trade it in or give it up. We more frequently give in to change upon forcible removal, than with volitional eagerness. And yet, once we get an idea in our heads, we are doggedly creative about bringing it to life.
Peter Turchin, a Russian-American scientist, specializes in cultural evolution and cliodynamics — the scientific quantification of historical societies. In a recent issue of Time Magazine, he emerged from the shadows because of his eerily prescient prediction, back in 2010, that “In 2020, civil unrest will sweep through the U.S.” Well guess what’s happening? Turchin says that historically, these periods of unrest last five to fifteen years, and don’t go away unless “the root causes of unrest are properly addressed.” One of those root causes is our abject unhappiness, which is apparently at a 50-year low, according to new data from the General Social Survey, which has collected data on American attitudes since 1972.
Mass unhappiness (50% of us self-identify this way, with just 14% describing themselves as ‘very happy’ — the lowest on record) is fueling the winter of our discontent. Moreover, the dreaded disruption that is normally avoided at all costs cannot be, right now, because COVID-19 has disrupted every single one of the broken systems that I mentioned earlier.
And so with record levels of unhappiness, and the uprooting of our normal behaviors, we are being given a golden, once-in-a-century, if not more, opportunity to fix things. IF our energies are aligned and focused in response — to capitalize on the gift of seismic disruption — we can make great strides together as a species in incubating new ways of being, together.
We can come up with alternatives to our so-called Game A existences, defined as they are by win-lose, zero sum interactions and finite, competitive values. We can incubate a Game B, or C, or D, in pursuit of new models of human community, governed by principles steeped in ethics and virtue that one cannot abuse, such as empathy, compassion, cooperation, creativity, tolerance, trust, fairness, honesty, inclusion, etc. etc. In 2017, professors at the University of Aukland conducted a study they titled The Infinite Game: A Symbol and Workshop for Living Well Together. These, and other words, emerged in an exercise that pitted infinite values — that is, values that engender positive, mutually beneficial behaviors, without losers — against finite values whose end game is one in which someone wins and someone loses. Finite values inform pretty much everything about how we live today, driven by actions whose chief aim is to secure access to resources that ensure the exclusive wellbeing of our intimates: resources such as education, healthcare, safety, legal advice and protections, commercial goods and services, and information.
Turchin says that the current level of unrest may yet trigger the escalation from our current malaise to a full-blown civil war. “Unfortunately,” he tells Time Magazine, “things are not as bad as they can be.”
If anyone has proven himself an authority on the subject, it is Turchin.
In the past, when things seemed bleakest, and at great cost to human lives and disruption, cataclysms like the American Civil War and The Great Depression led to leaps in the development and improvement of societal institutions. Following the Civil War, Slavery was abolished. Central governance was greatly strengthened. And the foundations were laid that allowed the United States to emerge as a global, 20th century power. On the heels of the Great Depression, the ‘great safety net’ of the New Deal was established, with the creation of social security, minimum wage, maximum hours, collective bargaining, insurance against bank failures, and an enormous investment in infrastructure.
In each case, countless people suffered; but in the end, the nation emerged stronger as a whole. Broken systems were fixed, or at the very least, improved.
While these are American stories, the ills that dog that nation mostly apply to all of us. There isn’t a nation on Earth that does not chase the almighty dollar, or yen, or yuan. We work to live, and every system has been designed — everywhere — to revolve around the pursuit of economic security, or gain.
There is no end date to progress. I am not referring to economic profitability. The entire human race is driven by what Christopher Ryan called ‘the Narrative of Perpetual Progress — or NPP’, in his brilliant book, Civilized to Death. By progress I mean incremental improvements in societal constructs — constructs that have the ability to lift people to a position of wellbeing, without needing to pit person against person, or group against group, in a race for limited resources. As I wrote in a July 7 piece called The True Cost of Politicizing Life and Death, “If something that we do can conceivably generate a winner and a loser, then it is a broken system.” I added that “If we treated everyone, and every system, as though the only person/people who would experience it were our own children, our world would look very different,” and went into detail about what that might be.
And so once again, here we are, with a rare opportunity to capitalize on seismic disruption and discontent, to fix what’s broken. Doing so requires extreme growing pains. But the truth is that most of our pain is already being felt. Our children’s education is already failing in a lackluster digital platform, with teachers paid pittance, and with such a high bar of financial entry, for college. Our collective health is suffering at the hands of an uncoordinated medical system and disempowered federal protections. Our media are running amok, like Chicken Little, screaming at us about whatever will get us to pay attention, whether or not it’s important, or helpful. Our politicians — well, they’ve disappeared, and are looting the store on their way out. We are all very familiar with what the police are doing. Our global economic system has shown us the fallacy of sovereign nation-states, and has left a giant swath of humanity in the poor house, utterly destitute, as job losses approach all-time highs, and the disparity of wealth distribution has become an unbreachable chasm. And finally, we have stopped speaking to one another, opting instead to engage virtually, in an unending series of one-way diatribes — rants — as algorithms deepen our entrenched biases by feeding us more of what stirs us up, and as the shortcomings of digital interaction and the inability to in-person connections is driving us farther apart.
So the incremental cost of incubating Games B, C and D, based on infinite values, seems pretty small, to me, against what has already transpired.
And the upside of these growing pains, if properly handled, could be the wholesale rewriting of how humans cooperate and prosper, together — without losers.
Change has come to our doorstep. All we need to do, really, is be brave enough to open the door, and invite it in.