The power we have to renew a world in peril

In an exclusive excperpt from his new book Commanding Hope, Thomas Homer-Dixon highlights four key stresses that inhibit society's collective sense of a promising future for our planet

  • Sep 04, 2020
  • 2,064 words
  • 9 minutes
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In place of the feeling of boundless possibility that animated many societies toward the end of the 20th century, many people around the world now increasingly see their horizons as far nearer and their range of future opportunities as far narrower than before. In this critical moment of our species’ evolution, our world views should instill in us all feelings of promise and possibility that inspire us to pull together to address our unprecedented problems. But much of humanity seems to be heading in the opposite direction — toward truly baleful or depressive attitudes that will just make our problems worse.

Global polling firms have tracked this change. Their data tell an inescapable story. And it’s worth revisiting some of the basics of this story before examining how we got to our current psychological state — bitter about our prospects and often pitted against each other — so we can gain some insight into how we might best respond. In early 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that pessimism about children’s economic future had become “widespread in most economies,” with 56 per cent of people polled in advanced economies, and 53 per cent in emerging economies, saying that today’s children in their countries would be “worse off” financially when they grow up than their parents. The Ipsos polling firm, surveying attitudes in 2016 across 23 countries — including Argentina, Brazil, Germany, India, South Africa and the United States —found that 48 per cent of those polled believed today’s youth would have a “worse life” than their parents’ generation, with only 26 per cent feeling youths’ lives would be better. Ipsos also found that just 28 per cent of people overall, when they looked ahead a year, were optimistic about prospects for the “world in general.” 

There are understandably large differences in attitudes between countries though. Generally, people in emerging economies with robust growth — such as China, India and Indonesia — feel far better about the future for themselves, their children, their country and the world. For instance, while only 18 per cent of those polled in established economies were optimistic about the world in general, 42 per cent were optimistic in emerging economies. But in the West especially, the shift in social mood since the beginning of the millennium has been stark. According to an Ipsos MORI study conducted for the British newspaper The Guardian, between 2003 and 2016 the optimism-pessimism balance in Great Britain almost completely flipped. In 2003, 43 per cent of people polled thought that youth at the time would have a “higher/better” quality of life than their parents, while 12 per cent thought youth quality of life would be “lower/ worse.” But by 2016 — even before the Brexit fiasco had caused political and economic turmoil in the country — only 22 per cent thought youth quality of life would be higher than their parents, while 54 per cent thought it would be lower.

What has caused such a remarkable shift? Many factors are operating, and some are unique to each country in question. But I’m sure people are reacting, at least in part, to the early hints of the enormous social earthquakes our societies will likely undergo in coming decades, as hard-to-see, slow-moving and diffuse tectonic stresses steadily build in force, cross social boundaries and scales, and combine to multiply their effects. Four of those stresses seem to be having an outsized impact on people’s moods, especially in the West.

The first is a combination of widening economic inequality and rising economic insecurity — that is, a fear that one’s basic economic well-being could change abruptly for the worse at any time, for instance from loss of work. Both inequality and insecurity were made worse by the more sluggish pace of global economic growth after the economic flip in 2008-09, and were then dramatically exacerbated by 2020’s pandemic-catalyzed economic downturn. In many countries hard hit by the 2008-09 financial crisis, average incomes had barely returned by 2020 to where they were previously (and in some communities they never fully recovered). Meanwhile, overall economic and social inequality continued to rise relentlessly at the same time that job security declined.

The people hurt most by these trends are those who earn their living mainly through physical work in fields and factories — often outside major urban zones — or in retail service industries. Since the last century, far greater economic benefit has flowed to those who generate or manipulate ideas and information in office buildings in downtown cores. People on the losing side of this divide feel more and more that the economic system is inescapably unfair to them and that well-connected, well-healed elites can bend this system’s rules in their favor.

The second stress affecting our collective mood is the growing movement of people, chiefly economic migrants and refugees, from areas of the world where life is terribly hard and dangerous to areas where it could be better. People rarely leave their homelands or countries en masse unless something is very wrong. Today’s migrants are usually fleeing rural regions where livelihoods are undermined as soils, fresh water and forests are degraded and weather becomes more extreme; cities whose economies are in crisis and where jobs are scarce; and zones, both rural and urban, where gang, terrorist, ethnic or government-sponsored violence is rampant. Societies on the receiving end of the streams of migrants may welcome the newcomers generously at first (as Germany did in 2015), but over time, if the number of people arriving doesn’t fall sharply, the welcome mat is almost always withdrawn, usually when opportunistic politicians exploit people’s fears of outsiders.

The third stress is climate change, which is something of a stealth threat to people’s feelings of security, possibility and hope. To the extent we’re aware of the problem, we might try to help by making some changes in our everyday lives — recycling more or riding a bike to the store instead of taking a car — but as I’ve noted, the sheer size and complexity of the issue leaves many people sensing that any personal lifestyle changes are futile. Most of us also see that with a few notable exceptions, the world’s political leaders hide behind excuses. Only occasionally, as in the United States under the Obama administration, have our leaders proposed policies that really challenged the economic status quo in this regard. Meanwhile, evidence that climate change is getting steadily worse — including evidence that people can now feel and see, like wildfire smoke — continues to pile up.

The fourth and final stress that’s having a major effect on humanity’s collective mood, is called by some scholars “normative threat.” It arises partly from economic inequality and insecurity and perhaps from the arrival in one’s homeland of large numbers of migrants, but also from rapid urbanization and greater information connectivity, both of which allow ideas to propagate quickly, especially new beliefs and values about traditionally contentious issues such as sexuality, religion, and women’s status. Together, these changes can make some people feel as if their society’s essential fabric of culture, moral values, and shared beliefs, myths, and practices — the fundamental “normative order” that constitutes their society’s continuity — is being torn apart. Polls register this feeling, too: around the world, 79 per cent of people agree that “the world today is changing too fast,” according to Ipsos; 58 per cent think that “society is broken”; and 57 per cent believe their own country is “in decline.” And once again, opportunistic politicians, Donald Trump and the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson being prime examples, can capitalize on these sentiments to gain attention and power.

These four slow-process stresses — worsening economic inequality and insecurity, mass migrations, climate change and normative threat — erode our feeling that our situations are safe and fair; such stresses are also seen by many people, even if only subconsciously, as harbingers of devastating social earthquakes to come. An astonishing 82 per cent of people surveyed worldwide by Ipsos think we live in an “increasingly dangerous” world. Yet, our conventional leadership, and bureaucratic and corporate elites, seem wholly incompetent, impotent or indifferent in response; and our institutions seem largely unable to cope.

And it’s these perceived failures that are at the root of humanity’s deep shift in social mood. They encourage people to flip from what The New York Times columnist and public policy author David Brooks calls an “abundance mindset” to a “scarcity mindset.” In a scarcity mindset, “Resources are limited. The world is dangerous. Group conflict is inevitable. It’s us versus them. If they win, we’re ruined, therefore, let’s stick with our tribe. The ends justify the means.”

Techno-optimists find this mood shift utterly perplexing. Why, they ask, are so many people today so glum, when circumstances are patently so much better for most people than they were, say, 50 years ago? The answer is very simple, really: we know that people’s social mood is far less affected by where they’ve been in the past than by where they think they’re going in the future. A sour view is particularly likely when the future doesn’t appear nearly as good as the not-distant past. And that’s what many folks see now when they look forward, especially in the West: a lot of trends heading in a decidedly wrong direction. Yes, some cynical politicians exaggerate the negativity of these trends to further their narrow ends, but these exaggerations usually exploit underlying and dispiriting realities.

Ironically for techno-optimists, their vaunted information revolution has played a key role in propelling this shift. Barely 15 years ago, it was widely believed that societies wired together by the internet and the web would become progressively smarter over time — that a higher collective intelligence could emerge from rapid flows of immense amounts of information and a flattening of knowledge hierarchies as everyone gained direct access to previously inaccessible expertise. Since then, we’ve learned some harsh lessons. Instead of creating a digital environment that draws us together and makes us smarter, the companies at the core of the social media revolution — Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like — have used the vast amounts of data they harvest about our preferences and behaviors to create an emotional environment that tends to pull us apart and make us dumber. These companies get more eyeballs on their sites and clicks on their links — and so generate more revenue — by creating an addictive information environment of constant cognitive and emotional stimulus, and among the emotions that work best are outrage and (social) anxiety. Such emotions make us feel chronically insecure, encourage us to coalesce into groups of the like-minded for psychological protection, and dissolve the trust between diverse peoples that’s essential for a consensus on what’s true and untrue. They also subtly erode our faith in the future.

Already for most people in the West, the ideal of social and technological “progress,” which just 20 years ago we widely accepted without much reflection, seems oddly anachronistic; while the once-bright ideal of Western-style capitalist democracy guided by reason and science, which the scholar Francis Fukuyama boldly declared was the blissful endpoint of human political evolution, is fading fast. These changes signal that many of us are losing confidence in a positive future. If we lose it entirely, our aspirations will drastically narrow; some of us will become embittered, detached from others, resigned and morally immobilized; while others may flee into political or religious zealotry, grab-what-you-can self-interest, or, at the other extreme, live-for-today partying. And if most people lose hope in a positive future, humanity will slide into ever more bitter quarrels among groups holding what I call “Mad Max” world views — quarrels that will undermine any possibility of a shared commitment to the species’ broader commonweal, and with it the possibility of genuinely reducing the dangers we collectively face — of achieving, in other words, something resembling “enough.”


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