The future of humanity on this planet is being shaped continuously by the manner in which we resolve the fundamental tension of our times. Shall we be a civilization that thrives by living within the disciplines of Renewal? Or shall we have ourselves a civilization on Overload? A civilization whose appetites dangerously erode its capacity to govern itself wisely, whose appetites further cause accelerating damage to its climate, its soils, its agricultural productivity, and its capacity to feed itself?
Overload? Or Renewal?
Today’s default answer is the dark one. We are plunderers, burning through our inheritance, operating on Overload.
In writing this, I have drawn on Jeremy Grantham’s extraordinary essay, The Race of Our Lives Revisited. I have also drawn on Craig Unger’s House of Trump, House of Putin, for its wide-ranging review of gangsterism both in America and post-Soviet Russia. And on an extraordinary book by Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail. When oligarchs are overthrown, the societies they have led have virtually no talent for evolving toward democracy. Oligarchs who have been overthrown are almost always succeeded by a new round of oligarchs. Democracies have a very difficult time taking root in societies previously run by oligarchs.
And I am drawing also on an extraordinary database compiled by Cal-Berkeley Professor Emmanuel Saez. It reveals an unrecognized story, of America shifting abruptly away from an honorable and remarkable era Prosperity Capitalism – a capitalism of integrity – and locking in a new, dark era of Enrichment Capitalism – a capitalism of corruption at the highest levels.
Tomorrow’s better answers are within reach, but only if we allow ourselves to be awakened by the grim analyses of Grantham and others, and concede that we have become enmeshed by an era of Overload. The world’s danger indicators have never been so alarming.
And that is why I recommend that we launch the secular equivalent of a “Come To Jesus” revival - a series of Overload Conferences, held across the country. Let’s make it possible for concerned Americans of all backgrounds to wrap their hearts and minds around the awful truth that we are on a terrifying path. Alcoholics cannot change till they admit their alcoholism; societies gripped by Overload cannot reverse their momentum till they realize just how addictive and dangerous the world’s Overload Era really is.
An Overload Conference will be put together as a Risk Assessment Event. But there’s far more to the challenge ahead than careful review of risks, no matter how vast the risks. Just as addicted individuals may require emotional interventions, just as ailing individuals may require surgical interventions, unhealthy nations can require both – urgent emotional interventions and urgent surgical repair.
Our Renewal Future cannot take hold of our souls until the appalling reality of our Overload Future has truly sunk in and shaken us to our roots.
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What sort of stark challenges will a series of Overload Conferences have to address? There are many.
There’s the Character Challenge. Are we to be a people of Integrity? Or a people of Corruption?
There’s the Capitalism Challenge. Are we to live by the honorable standards of Prosperity Capitalism? Or by the corrupted standards of Enrichment Capitalism?
There’s the Energy Challenge. Are we to defend an energy infrastructure that pushes our planet toward a series of climate catastrophes? Or revise our energy infrastructure in order to avert the catastrophes that lie ahead?
There’s the Food Supply Challenge. Are we to have an agriculture of permanent Renewal? And a world free of hunger? Or an agriculture of depleting soils and deteriorating climates?
There’s the Population Challenge. While most of the countries of the world have slowed their birth rates quite successfully, the peoples of Africa have not. Africa’s birth rates are on pace to vastly outrun the world’s food supplies.
There’s the Fleeing Immigrant Challenge. A world of disorder and poverty and war inevitably becomes a world of starvation, fleeing immigrants, violence, and war.
There’s the Political Corruption Challenge. A society that forces its politicians to cut deals with the rich in order to win re-election is a society that has already lost the battle against Political Corruption.
There’s the Gangsterism Challenge. Are we to have a world in which gangsterism flourishes? In which criminal oligarchies become so strong that even the best governments lose control?
There’s the Fascism Challenge. Are the world’s billionaire elites out to destroy the core values of western democracy and sink the world back into a dark era of fascism?
There’s the Despotism Challenge. Gangsterism is criminality outside the law, while Despotism dispenses with the law and the judiciary entirely so that it may rule by absolute force.
There’s the Arms Trade Challenge. Gangsterism and arms sales are a toxic mix, and we live today in a world that feeds the buyers of weapons, the makers of weapons, and the gangsters who trade in the sale of weapons.
There’s the Middle East Challenge. Just as Christianity was once debased by tribalism and war, Islam in the Middle East today is committed to dueling cultures of debasement, tribalism, and war. Zionism has been drawn in, Christianity and its allies of Zionism have been drawn in. The illusion of final victory brings us to…
…The Thermonuclear War Challenge. A Final Solution showdown between sectarian despots might well trigger a devastating nuclear war. The more despotic the world becomes, the more calamitous the wars it will unleash.
There’s the Information Challenge. The free press knows how to report the daily news, but not how to track and explain major trends. The world of expertise – in universities and governments and think tanks – operates with blinders on. The world of political parties is dominated by tacticians and election cycles. Information systems in today’s America have zero capacity for helping the public at large assess the world’s systemic challenges and helping America frame its systemic responses.
There’s the Wisdom Challenge. When there is no mechanism for comprehending our wider challenges, a vacuum arises that will always be filled by special interests and propagandists.
There’s the Grass Roots Challenge. Ours is a country of book clubs – which could become a far stronger resource than it is just now. While it’s fine to keep up with the latest novels, there’s a wider opportunity that has yet to be pursued. Grass roots citizen groups could be given the task of developing systemic wisdom.
Mishandle even a few of these challenges and we will have forfeited our quest for Renewal. We will have unleashed the centrifugal forces of Overload.
We are ill-equipped for challenges such as these. But that doesn't excuse us. If anything, it lends even greater urgency to the refocusing efforts by which we awaken ourselves and get on board with the words of an ancient hymn. "New occasions teach new duties." The runaway dynamics of Overload can be peeled away. There are New Occasions to be acknowledged. There are New Duties to be embraced.
Steven Howard Johnson