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?

Sustainability, engagement and the end of empires – the big picture

Here is a first in a series of blogs offering a interpretation of human history positioning the times we are in now as the end of a long historical saga of empire building, and the dawn of a new global civilisation. In later posts I will explore the parallel shift from economies of exploitation and extraction to sustainable economies. And the agency of civilisation becomes communication, rather than conquest.

Rift valley refugees

We are all descendants of Rift Valley refugees  – our ancestors left Africa thousands of years ago and dispersed across the planet. Thus began the long migration, with humans constantly expanding into new territory. My country, New Zealand, was the end of the line, first colonised only about a thousand years ago by my wife’s Mäori ancestors, and further colonised by my European ancestors in the last 200 years.

This grand human saga has been civilisation by conquest. One group of humans would establish a foothold in a locality, but never for too long before being displaced by another, usually violently. Alternately, a sub-group, motivated by aversion to the status quo and/or the lure of new horizons would move on to establish a new colony. For years, the planet had abundant resources to fuel humanity’s relentless expansion. There were brief periods of peace and stability, but few lives were untouched by conflict.

This became the default human experience and patterned behaviours such as displays of dominance, disputes over resources, and ingrained insecurity predominated. Edgar Schein’s model of culture can be applied to this pervasive human culture. At the top level of Schein’s model are artefacts – the artefacts of the age of conquest changed over time, along with the characters in the war stories, but the essence of the stories was the same. As our ancestors replayed the stories over time they ingrained underlying assumptions of what life is all about and reinforced enduring drivers of human behaviour – “growth is good”, “extracting value” and “us and them”. Occasionally, enlightened individuals and movements would emerge but they would typically be usurped by those possibly influenced by the new, but reverting to the old patterns of behaviour.

Schein’s model and the age of empires

Schein’s classic definition of culture indicates how these patterns of behaviour are reinforced as the right way.

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. (Schein, 2010 page 18)

Course correction and the end of empires

This pattern of behaviour caused great injustices, but our species thrived. As we learned to further develop our intelligence we arrived at a point in our development, 250 years ago, to use machines to further accelerate our expansion and extraction of the world’s resources. But in the last few decades the combination of this new technology and the old patterns of thinking have manifested a set of problems dwarfing any that humanity has faced before. Its time for a course correction.

We also appear to be at the end of the age of empires. The social evolution of humanity has seen us aggregate into larger and larger groups and embracing wider loyalties. What we loosely call “Western civilisation” is the last of the empires, or perhaps more correctly, a cluster of empires. The centre of power has shifted from Europe to the United States and colonisation has been more by commerce than by occupation, but it can be seen as an extension of the processes begun by Europeans for over a millennia.

Economist Jeffrey Sachs, in his book Commonwealth, describes the process of convergence, whereby the United States position of a superpower is waning, and major economies head towards a state of convergence, where no single economy can dominate.

A new kind of global politics must take shape, built not on U.S. or Chinese preeminence, but on global cooperation across regions. Despite the reveries and fantasies of some, the age of empire is over, and certainly the age of a U.S. empire. We are now in the age of convergence.

Any thoughts so far. Part 2 of this series of posts looks at Civilisation by Engagement and Community Building. This blog is also published at Steps to Sustainability