Curating Content To Support Learning About Humanity's Transition

This content was posted on  27 Mar 20  by   Conscious Evolution  on  Website


Picture a pile of sand, with a steady stream of grains pouring onto it from above. For a long while it will grow, building a largely stable structure, but one which is periodically punctuated by small sand slides rippling down the dune. Eventually, as more sand is added, it will reach a ‘point of criticality’ at which it becomes perilously prone to instability. During this period, continuing to add more grains could create a seismic shockwave which causes much of the structure to collapse. This sand pile provides the perfect visual metaphor for global civilisation today and for how complex systems can rapidly change. Scientists call this transition period – when the system is unstable and prone to collapse – ‘the edge of chaos’ and this is a term which should resonate worldwide, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus.

Almost everyone alive today is too young to remember World War II so is, for the very first time, experiencing an avalanche of such magnitude that it feels like we’ve woken up in a dystopian movie. Yet these tremors aren’t at all new, having ranged in recent times from the 2008 banking crisis and Arab Spring uprisings to the famine in Yemen, widespread flooding and the Australian bushfires. Viral epidemics aren’t new either – this century alone SARS, Swine Flu, Avian Flu, MERS, Ebola and the Zika virus have all emerged, yet were smaller shockwaves than COVID-19 because they remained relatively localised. It is a key feature of complex systems that their ‘perturbations’ are unpredictable. Each new grain of sand may have no effect, might cause a small ripple across the system or it could bring the whole pile crashing down around us. There’s simply no way of knowing. What is certain, however, is that as long as we’re at the ‘edge of chaos’ the shockwaves will increase in frequency and in magnitude.

It is essential to understand that these convulsions are all connected and are ultimately man-made. The metaphorical grains of sand are human actions and their consequences, in particular the impact of our modern lifestyles on the environment. While it’s easy to accept that humans caused the banking crisis, it’s perhaps harder to understand our role in creating viruses. However, it’s estimated that three-quarters of new diseases which affect humans originate in other animals, and that these ‘zoonotic’ pathogens are on the rise. As David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic explains “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants – and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses….We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”

The recent Australian bushfires killed millions of individual animals but, even more damagingly, threw the delicate balance of an entire ecosystem out of kilter by threatening the existence of over 100 separate species. Other human activities such as commercial logging and shale gas extraction are also destroying biodiversity, reducing our ability to trap carbon and polluting essential waterways. When we study complex systems we very quickly come to realise that everything on our planet is connected to everything else. We cannot pursue eternal economic growth without breaching the finite limitations imposed upon us by our planetary ecosystem; an ecosystem which is infinitely more powerful than we are. Living systems thrive in a state of dynamic equilibrium and will always seek to regain their health, by restoring their natural balance, whenever they are thrown off their axis. While human beings cannot live without planet Earth, the Earth can easily continue without one more of the 95% of all species which have come and gone in the last 4.5 billion years.

Homo sapiens only evolved some 200,000 years ago and for the majority of this time we have harmoniously co-existed with our environment. However, since the Industrial Revolution we have seriously damaged our planetary ecosystem, adding grain after grain to our global sand pile bringing us inexorably towards the ‘edge of chaos’. Unfortunately we are now reaping what we and our predecessors have sown. We’ve known about the threats of global warming for decades yet have remained rooted by inertia, with most of us only reading about the emergent outcomes rather than directly feeling their impact on ourselves and our families. From this standpoint the stripping of the Amazon rainforests, a war in Iraq over oil or the outbreak of Ebola in Gabon are simply taking place elsewhere and affecting others. Perhaps it will take COVID-19 to have a devastating effect on Europe and the US for the penny to finally drop; that our economic system cannot sail on unaffected by the waves it has created and which are now rippling back across our path. Within weeks this novel coronavirus has brought our economies to their knees and is exposing those nations least well equipped to safeguard their populations in a public health crisis. The live social experiment playing out before us is an unintended consequence of our own actions, which will yield comparable data on the efficacy of government responses and valuable insight into their priorities in decision-making. We’re already seeing a divergence of policies and outcomes resulting from different political, social and economic models, and between those nations with a cultural tendency to embrace individualistic versus collectivist ideologies.

Thankfully most of us will get through this unprecedented period, during which we’re regularly seeing one of our common cognitive dilemmas – whether to compete or collaborate – manifest in both the worst and best of human behaviour. Once we emerge on the other side, the acid test will be which of these polar options prevails at the international level. The current crisis presents great danger for human beings yet also offers us a great opportunity. It could either be the catalyst which awakens us and inspires us to choose a different path, or we may quickly revert back to ‘normal’. We must become aware that to do so will simply stockpile future shockwaves and will fail to prepare our societies for the next one, which could be even more cataclysmic. As Einstein famously said “we cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. While a return to normality would no doubt be a relief for ordinary people, it will represent an abject failure for governments. Failing to heed the warning from COVID-19 will constitute a catastrophic dereliction of duty. To continue on our current trajectory will only lead to more, larger shockwaves.

We must change our thinking to change our future, so every aspect of our global system requires a radical redesign. We need to transition to a completely new way of running the world we all share. Our meta-goals should be twofold. 1) to stabilise the global system and reduce the shockwaves by recognising the deep interconnectedness of everything we do and 2) to make each nation/region more resilient to the future shockwaves which will still inevitably occur (but with reduced frequency and magnitude). In short, we must de-energise the shockwaves while making each nation/region more shock-absorbent. This will require adherence to design principles which simultaneously increase global co-operation but decrease global trade to reduce carbon emissions, while making each nation/region more economically self-sufficient. This will need bold, innovative solutions which balance the competing needs of nations from within an overarching framework of co-operation and common values. The impact of COVID-19 must also accelerate the realisation that economies exist to serve human beings, not vice versa. Yes, they can co-exist in a way which is mutually beneficial but they are not equal in value. Capitalism is currently structured in a way which is damaging our ecosystem and, as a consequence, is harming human health. Our economic systems must therefore be redesigned to ensure they are subservient to our individual and collective wellbeing. The future of our species may depend on it.

KW Jamieson is a writer and author of A World In Two Minds, why we must change our thinking to change our future.

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