Sustainability, engagement and the end of empires, part 2

We are nearing the end of the age of empires (see part one of this post). As the old world is crumbling under its own dysfunction, the new shoots of a new civilisation are discernible. This is the context for the shift to sustainability.

Civilisation by engagement and community building

With the old world essentially a spent force, impotent to deal with the complex issues we now face, the required course correction is a radical reorganisation of human communities and patterns of civilisation. In addition to developing the new institutions to support a new world order, we face the far more profound challenge – that of disrupting ancient and ingrained assumptions and patterns of behaviour, and supplanting them with new ones. This is no simple task.

Current sustainability discourse calls for change, but it is frequently posited as incremental change (albeit challenging enough itself). The environmental and social challenges facing us are enormous. We will struggle to reverse, or slow down some of the alarming trends, such as climate change, species extinction and resource depletion. But In some ways, the task of supplanting old patterns of behaviour, anchored and expressed in age-old human behaviours, is even more challenging. But the good news is, when we can achieve this, new patterns of human interaction will make it much easier to build sustainable communities.

The changes we are facing require the displacing of these old patterns of human behaviour with often diametrically opposed new patterns. For example, most human communities have used slavery as an economic resource. The practice persists today in locations where the prevailing cultural norms of subcultures view humans as objects for exploitation. This practice is unsustainable where human dignity is a dominant value and poverty is banished.

At present, we are in a twilight zone, where many are working hard to implement sustainability interventions, but are doing so on the foundations of the old order. Many corporates struggle with schizophrenic personalities – the old “profit maximisation at any cost” personality, and the emergent “sustainability” personality. BP’s gulf oil spill personifies this. I have no doubt, the companies’ leaders are genuinely aspirational, but the hyper-competitive marketplace invokes “profit maximisation” behaviours. We are attempting to build a new world on shaky foundations.

Green shoots – community building

There are encouraging developments. Take community building for example. I am hopeful that we have reached the nadir of dislocated urban and suburban communities and we are beginning to connect more with our neighbours. In this Ted talk, Rachel Botsman talks about the growth of “collaborative consumption” – a phenomena driven partly by new peer-to-peer technologies.

And in my corner of the world, the city of Christchurch recently experienced two devastating earthquakes. Amidst the tragedies, it was heart-warming to see neighbours looking after neighbours. Two “armies” were mobilised – the student army, and the “farmy” army, the former, tertiary students, and the latter, Canterbury farmers. These armies cleared away the tonnes of liquefaction that covered streets and suburbs.

More green shoots – the global community

A hundred years ago most of our exposure was to homogenous others – those that were much like us. It was very easy to be embedded in and “us and them” world, when most other nationalities are strangers. Now we mix a lot more, we are broadening our empathy far beyond the homogenous cliques of the past. We are more likely to respond to the plight we see our fellow humans suffering. And science has taught us to that biologically, we are all much the same.

The attitudinal foundations

In the previous post, I outlined the underlying assumptions that supported the empire building ethos – “growth is good” – “extracting value” and “us and them”. Our new world requires an entirely different assumption: unity of action. Rachel Botsman advocated a shift from competition to collaboration.

We also have to overturn some deep-seated beliefs about human nature. For example, we can live peaceably together, and we can transcend self-interest.

Is it arrogant to think that we are living in the midst of epochal change? Could it be that we are indeed part of a transformation of human consciousness? I believe so, and in my next post, I will assemble some supporting evidence. What do you think?

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