What future do we want to build?
Thoughts on the evolution of a conscientious world.
Written by Ben Harack
Edited by: Steven Kuski, Robert Bailey, James Mills, Jacenta Murch and Kyle Laskowski
Our society, as it exists today, is a product of our collective intent. Our governments have been shaped by cumulative centuries of efforts on the part of their constituent citizens. The process is one of continuous refinement however, because it is not in the nature of culture to stay stable from one generation to the next. Inevitably, sections of society will be discontent with the status quo, and feel that change in a specific area will bring about progress.
Discontent can lead to suffering, but it can also be a powerful propellant for progress. The choice is before all of us: Sit idly and let our discontent cause us pain, or use that discontent as inspiration for positive change. The thoughts collected here are written with the intent of helping us broaden our perspectives and turn our thoughts toward building a truly desirable future.
Why should we be discontent?
The western society in which I have lived my entire life is one that is usually very capable of satisfying the basic needs of a person. As far as satisfaction of basic requirements for living, I should have nothing to be discontent about. This western society often refers to itself as being a member of a relatively elite group of nations collectively referred to as the ‘developed’ world.
In my society, the majority of production competes on the scale of simple monetary cost. The fact that most of the materials we work with are in some ways harmful to either ourselves, or to the rest of the natural world, is not usually taken into consideration. We are surrounding ourselves and filling our landfills with materials that give off harmful toxins during their lifespan, and thus contaminate both us and the natural world that supports us. The very objects that represent the material success of the developed world are at the same time poisoning future generations.
We use select destructive chemicals to keep the natural world at bay in our homes, yards and crops. The bottom line of production of the day is more important than the possible cumulative damage we are causing. We do not utilize a strategy of developing in harmony with the natural world, rather, we have adopted a mindset of developing in spite of it.
We know all of these things as a society, and yet few steps have been made to remedy the situation. We should be discontent because the prevailing constructs that guide development in our society do not make sustainability a priority. We should be discontent that our society is consuming the resources of our planet at an alarming rate. We should be discontent because this age of plenty will not necessarily last even another generation. At that point, the cumulative damage might be endangering the entire natural world.
What is a desirable future for you?
There are countless ways to approach this question. Usually an individual will focus in upon the problems they come across most often, or state an ideological wish. Answers focusing on one or many of a multitude of different issues are possible. Social, political, financial, and ideological factors for instance will differ among nations and among individuals. Everyday life demands our attention as individuals, so naturally our answers will reflect our daily experiences.
The desirable future should be something that you would willfully make efforts towards creating. In some ways, this is the question that we answer every day through our hopes. We all desire a future of some sort, so our everyday choices reflect how we each answer this question. The relative alignment of our wishes and our actions is an indication of how strongly we desire this future. If we strongly desire this future, we find ways to work towards it and thus forge our own answer through how we live our lives.
This is a difficult question to answer when considering the global scale, but the answer is still much easier to create than the physical reality of the desirable future. An individual cannot hope to substantially change the world without any help from others. Cooperation is crucial so that we can assure that our goals are in harmony and that our efforts are not in opposition. It is the responsibility of every community to consider the views of its members. It is thus also the responsibility of every community member to hear out the opinion of other members. Unless a despot manages to take over the world, we will be cooperating with our peers at every level. Nations must cooperate on world issues just as citizens of countries must cooperate on national issues.
While harmonizing our intentions is critical, the true form of the future is too complex for us to design all at once, even if we had such a unified goal and plan already. What is important to us at this stage is not necessarily the precise form of every law or building, but the concepts that will form the foundation of their design. If we try to design every detail of the future world before we actually take action toward creating it, it is possible that we will never reach agreement or end up building something undesirable as a stop-gap measure.
We need to define the general concepts that define the world we want to live in. These concepts can apply to many aspects of our envisioned future such as sustainability, economics, and government. The umbrella idea of government includes many facets, including social support, laws, education and health care. This list is by no means exhaustive of even the most general ideas that define a society.
What concepts do you believe should be fundamental to the design of the future?
Any general answer to this question is complicated by the fact that we must work hand in hand with our neighbours in the actual construction of this future. If we are too extreme in our demands, it is possible that our ideas will be dismissed outright. If we are dismissed, and communication breaks down, we end up back where we started. With no communication or agreement on major concepts, it is likely that we will end up working against each other, or performing redundant work. Efforts to maintain communication with our peers are absolutely critical to our progress toward a better world.
Our goal should be to design a set of concepts that are agreeable with our peers and internally consistent with each other. The interaction between even such general concepts as economics and sustainability for instance can be extremely complex.
If we can design a cohesive set of concepts that define our mutual wish for a better world, we might have overcome the largest obstacle in the path towards making it a reality. We are an extremely diverse species with many different ideologies, forms of government, and systems of laws. Finding mutual agreement on even the most general of concepts might take considerable effort and accommodation. The actual implementation of our plan will require inventive design and a willingness to repeatedly reach accommodations with our local and global peers.
How do we actually build our future?
Planning a course of action in this case involves top-down thinking. We have a set of general concepts which we want to adhere to in the design of our future. We must attempt to find ways to apply these concepts to the specifics of our situation. The concept and the situation at hand must be analyzed by experts in the field and by the general populace with the aim of considering all options. Great care must be taken at this step since a poorly thought-out implementation of a good general concept might cause other problems or lead to an undesirable result. Consideration of all options is important because the larger the knowledge base we draw upon the greater our chances of building something truly desirable for all parties involved.
Barring the unlikely situation of unanimity among members of a population, it is likely that application of these concepts will meet with resistance. It is likely that people will think that the current system holds merit because it has been performing well and that any changes would bring about disruption of society in some manner. This is a valid position of course since there is a lot to be said about the importance of stability during change in any aspect of society. Slow, steady change is advisable to minimize the upheavals of people’s lives. In the interests of progress however, the largest manageable steps possible should be taken so that we can move towards our goals. If the population believes that the steps being taken are good for them, the upheaval is looked upon as progress rather than unwanted change.
A note of caution to those individuals actively involved in building the futures of their communities: Demanding fast changes to a system that is already in place can, and often will, be met with strong resistance. It is said that extremes beget their opposites. Efforts involving moderation and cooperation seem to be making more headway than sudden upheavals in the world so far, at least in terms of building what most of us would call a better future. We also have to consider the question: Is it our goal to change the system in place into something that is in line with our ideas, or to build a new system to replace the old?
Is our time, effort and money better spent trying to change what exists or trying to create something new? This question should be easier to answer when we consider the specifics of what we are trying to do. For example, slowly modifying a system of laws is much more likely than a sudden rewriting of them all. However, building sustainable industry might be more feasible than trying to convert what currently exists into sustainable industry. In general it might seem more effective to work with what systems already exist, perhaps to capitalize on their current effectiveness or borrow credibility. This is a valid path to take, but be careful to not underestimate the symbolism of, or the inspiration sparked by, a firm step in a completely new direction.
What can you do, with what you have, in the place you live?
The generalities of our ideas now collide head on with reality. Perhaps this is an easy question to answer, given that the above thought process has taken place. Maybe where you live, there exists a social system in which progressive community change is the norm, and fresh ideas can be considered on their own merit. For most of the world, it seems likely that this step is not easily defined.
We must let our imaginations loose within the constraints of who we are, what we have, and where we live. We must discuss options with interested peers and with the people who currently uphold the system as it is. Even if we do not pursue a path of changing the current system, the experience and knowledge of the people who are involved with that system is invaluable to us in designing a new one.
Rebuilding the world in a new light will take enormous dedication and considerable time. It is likely that we ourselves will never see the full fruits of our labours. However, the responsibility falls to each of us to take the steps that we are capable of taking.
A realistic take on world-building will inevitably include stop-gap measures. Stop-gap measures are steps that are taken that do not achieve the goals of our ultimate design, but are either a step in the right direction, or will help facilitate the journey to our goal. The existing system is a scaffold which we must use to construct our future system. That future will also be the scaffold upon which we can build an even more desirable world. For instance, in the case of sustainable industry, infinitely recyclable material science will have to go through a few iterations before it will be widespread, efficient, and generally accepted. Finally, and most likely, the stop-gap measure is the accommodation reached between progressive minds and the current system. In this case the goal of the stop-gap should be to represent a meaningful step in the right direction.
The problem is that stop-gaps measures are not the final solution, and if all we ever make is accommodations, we will never reach our goals. We wish for a perfect solution, but such a solution might be difficult to find, if it exists at all. The creation of the desirable world will be an ongoing process for every generation. We should do the best we can with what we have and what we know.
Is this all an idealization?
When considering all of what I have said, it seems like a whole lot has to happen before anything can be done. Before we should act, I proposed that we go through a lengthy and involved process of considering options and integrative design. The problem is of course that all of this is an idealization.
The world is not ideal, and all of us realize this in our lives every day. We cannot assume that mutually beneficial accommodations can be reached in large communities. It remains however a goal that we must strive towards. Acting exclusively in self-interest is a common behavioural pattern in almost every level of community in our world. It is common for such people to disconnect themselves mentally from their species and their planet. After all, if we might never see the fruits of our efforts in our lifetimes, or if we feel that nothing we do will improve our lives, why try at all?
The answer to this is that disconnection is an illusion. Though we all might feel at some point that we are alone, insignificant, or simply an observer of the world moving on, we are none of these things. We are all part of the only living system known. For the foreseeable future, the earth and its biosphere are inseparable from us. We are connected to our past, our future, and the entire living world around us, by the most profound legacy possible. We share the gift of life with all the living earth.
As humans we have unique powers that aid our survival. It is our responsibility to employ them conscientiously to ensure that the living earth as a whole is not jeopardized by our actions. Even simply in the interest of self-preservation, we should make the greatest efforts to ensure the health of the biosphere because we depend entirely upon it for our own survival.
It is the responsibility of each of us to attempt to be conscientious with our decisions. The thoughts I put forth above are not actually about how the world will be built, they were about how I believe we should try to think when designing the world. We should strive for plurality in our ideas, and cooperation with our neighbors. We should attempt to come to agreements with our peers about conceptual frameworks, and apply these ideas to what we create. It is my fervent hope that our morality and intelligence can eventually lead us down a path of peace and cooperation.
It is the responsibility of each of us to do what we believe is right and good. Not only for ourselves and our loved ones, but also for this blue-green planet that sustains us. As a species we have garnered a great deal of power with our technology. This power has made us a great danger to ourselves and our planet, and yet it has also made us capable of accomplishments undreamed of in previous generations. To build our conscientious future, I believe we cannot continue to act blind to the suffering due to our actions. What we inflict on each other and the natural world is unconscionable. Not only do we need to do what we believe is right and good, we need to educate ourselves about the implications of our beliefs and actions.
The world should be designed with the highest ideals in mind, but it will be built by our individual efforts. The top-down design approach I advocate above gives way to a bottom-up approach to the actual construction of a better world. The power to step towards our conscientious future resides within us all. Each of us will be the primary impetus towards the building of our own future, if we so choose.