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Turning Point in the Great Transition?
Arthur Lyon Dahl
President, International Environment Forum
The last few decades have seen two parallel processes at work. The dominant materialistic civilisation that has flourished and spread around the world since the end of World War II in 1945 has created unbelievable wealth and raised many out of poverty, but with the accompanying massive growth in the world population, we have hit planetary boundaries, and in recent decades wealth has become more and more concentrated at the top. Simultaneously, advances in science and technology have conquered some diseases, extended human lifespans, spread education around the world, and transformed lifestyles, at least for the better-off half of the world population. Today, we see an acceleration in two contradictory forces. Excessive materialism and self-centredness are eroding human values and precipitating the disintegration of the institutions that have held societies together, with rising hatred, fragmentation, xenophobia, populism and violence. At the same time, forces of integration have been building momentum, with information systems uniting the world as never before and empowering a sense of belonging to one human family. From the founding of the United Nations in 1945, to the end of the Cold War and the Millennium Summit in 2000, leading most recently to the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals as well as the Paris Agreement on climate change, increasing numbers, particularly among the young, are working to overcome the forces that divide us and to lay the foundations for an emerging world civilisation. But while many know what is wrong, they struggle to imagine what should take its place.
Since the turn of the century, the forces of disintegration have been accelerating, beating back some of the progress made and threatening the future of world civilisation. There has been a resurgence of national sovereignty and a retreat from multilateralism, partly because of the injustices caused by its overtly materialistic and economic focus. We have reached a number of tipping points, where our future could go either way. These range from the accelerating death toll of the pandemic destabilising societies, through the imminent climate catastrophe and the collapse of biodiversity, to the financial crisis threatening an economic collapse, and the United Nations teetering between marginalisation and renewal in its 75th year. For long it has seemed that the momentum of the dominant materialistic civilisation powered by fossil fuels and focussing on return on capital for the rich while trapping many in the consumer society and leaving out half of the world population, was unstoppable.
Suddenly, with the coronavirus pandemic, the brakes have been slammed on the economic system and its momentum is broken. The door may now be opening for a significant transformation in human society. A material lifestyle that seemed essential to many now appears superficial and meaningless, as more important human values and social relationships emerge. People that laboured invisibly in the lower reaches of our communities suddenly are appreciated for the critical services they perform. It is too early to predict how this will all play out, with possibly millions of victims as the virus spreads around the world, especially in poorer countries with inadequate health facilities. Then there will be the economic shock as the necessary shutdown of much economic activity to slow the spread of the virus threatens the most vulnerable while vastly increasing the borrowing necessary to fill the gap and meet immediate human needs regardless of the massive rise in debt levels. Even if an economic collapse can be avoided in the short term, a complete reimagining of the whole economic system may be necessary to start over on a more moderate and sustainable basis.
Alongside this crisis, we are in the midst of accelerating climate change representing an existential threat to our future, with parts of the world risking becoming uninhabitable within decades if we do not phase out fossil fuels and reduce environmental destruction in time. This was to have been the critical year to turn the corner on global warming, and governments still must ratchet up their commitments to greenhouse gas reductions by 31 December even if COP26 has now been postponed until next year. The collapse of global biodiversity is another imminent threat to our future, which was also to be addressed this year under the Convention on Biological Diversity, but that also has been put on hold. However the problems are accelerating, even if the action to address them has been delayed. The threats they represent have not gone away, although an economic collapse might buy us some time to address the environmental challenges and find better solutions.
What should be our priority faced with such challenges? Many of us are confined at home to prevent the spread of the virus causing Covid-19. Beyond assuring our immediate health and safety, there is a desperate need for positive ways forward. In part, these must be spiritual in nature, and the Bahá'ís with their core activities for community building, and others of good will, are helping people to rise to their higher human purpose. More generally, many around the world are questioning the basic assumptions underlying our materialistic economy and consumer society, and asking fundamental questions about what is really important in life. They are finding that much of what they considered necessities were not after all. At a time when they are cut off from normal human interactions they are discovering how important human contact and social relationships really are. A door is now opening for rapid and constructive change, the paradigm shift called for in the 2030 Agenda, a fundamental transformation in human society and the economy towards justice and sustainability.
At the same time, powerful forces are organising to hold on to their power and wealth, and to block any change in the status quo. Autocrats are seizing more power. The corrupt are spreading their corruption. Giant corporations are begging for massive government handouts to prevent them from going bankrupt so that they can return rapidly to business as usual. In this unprecedented situation, when the spread of the virus around the world is far from under control and could easily rebound, as the Spanish flu did in 1918, it is hard to predict the immediate future, but still necessary to plan for our emergence from the immediate health crisis. How do we resist the negative forces, and work for more cooperation, justice and a new more sustainable green and circular economy? What can we already do in our virtual interactions with family, friends, neighbours and the wider community to help them to see a higher human purpose, a more united and resilient community, and the more equitable world that lies ahead? How do we question the lifestyles that we took for granted, and determine to make lasting changes as we emerge from the immediate crisis? Can we already work on positive solutions at whatever level we have access to, from the local to the global?
Those who are reading this are probably already at the cutting edge of new thinking about a more sustainable future. We do not have all the answers, but we have through our values a direction of travel and a willingness to learn. If we share openly, listen to each other in all our diversity, explore contributions from whatever source, act on the best ideas and reflect together on the results, we can move forward. In these dark times, we all need to rise to the occasion and to face the future positively and creatively.
Last updated 10 April 2020