“All cultures … are founded on myths. What these myths have given has been inspiration for aspiration … Economics is itself a function of aspiration. It’s what people aspire to that creates the field in which economics works.”
– Joseph Campbell
What will our world look like in 100 years? Before you answer, look back and consider how much it has changed in the past 100 years. Those of us in the developed world live in what our great-grandparents would consider a science fiction utopia – hot clean water from the tap, flushing toilets, central air and heat, a breathtaking array of food choices, the breadth and depth of human knowledge at our fingertips, instant global communication, international travel at breakneck speeds, astounding entertainment choices, and political freedom.
With such amazing powers and opportunities at our disposal, our look forward to the future should be hopeful and optimistic. But environmental degradation, climate change, the spread of nuclear weapons, and population growth pose urgent risks to human survival. Meanwhile, an epidemic of frustration and alienation has given rise to the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements. Protesters from opposite ends of the political spectrum are reacting to the same underlying problem: abuse of power that is increasingly concentrated in the hands of an elite group of politicians, bankers, executives, and wealthy individuals.
Listening to pundits and reading headlines leads to the conclusion that American society is hopelessly divided, that there is an insurmountable chasm separating us. If we choose to believe this narrative, then we doom ourselves to a future of discord and frustration. The media thrives on conflict. It has a vested interest in selling us a story of division. The challenge for those who are not content to let the drive for TV ratings steer our great nation off a cliff, is to tell a different story – one of hope, cooperation, and abundance. Here is a sketch of what such a story might look like …
Once upon a time, long, long ago, (about 3.7 billion years ago to be precise), an organism came into being, striving to survive amid the primordial stew of early Earth. This particular cell, and the DNA that dictated its physical form, was destined for greatness. Darwinian science calls it LUA for “last universal ancestor,” and it formed the basis, and the essence, for every living being on our planet. This microscopic dynamo was certainly not the first life on earth; rather, untold numbers of doomed variations gave it their best shot, and failed. To this very day, LUA reigns supreme in the biological tree of all planetary life.
It is beyond human comprehension whether God created LUA, or whether LUA resulted from a fortunate arrangement of inorganic material animated by natural forces, or both. We do know that through the magic of natural selection, reproduction and mutation, LUA’s pattern has expanded, divided and multiplied into the rich tapestry that is life on Earth. LUA’s most intellectually advanced descendant – Homo sapiens – emerged just a few hundred thousand years ago.
Humanity’s universal ancestors have been identified by science: “Eve” was born about 200,000 years ago on the African savanna. She is the matriarch of every one of us. “Adam” – our common patriarch – is much younger, having come into being about 70,000 years after Eve. Adam, Eve and their offspring struggled mightily to survive; many more lost the struggle than won. Each of us descended from the champions.
Thousands of years ago the progeny of Adam and Eve set out to build a tower to the heavens. On learning of their project, “the LORD said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language … and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.” Most know how this part of the story goes: God thwarted their efforts, scattered them across the globe and fractured their language so they could not challenge his supremacy. There is a lesson here (other than the foolhardiness of challenging the God of Abraham) – the key to achieving transcendent greatness is communication.
Humanity now stands at the edge of another possible triumph of unity and cooperation. This time our common language takes a different form: the ones and zeros of binary code, the language of computers. A world of possibilities is emerging from this evolutionary leap in human communication. Rather than building a tower to heaven, the project before us is the creation of a new earth, one that reflects the harmonious values that make our species unique – compassion, creativity, community, and love of truth and beauty.
We are the reigning champions of the game of life, but success is far from certain. The time has come for us to choose our destiny. The biggest obstacle to creating a world of abundance, meaning, health and vitality is our collective failure to believe that such a world is within our reach.
Communication technology and expanded human consciousness are the means by which we can create a future in which our loftiest values – love, creativity, empathy and justice – are manifested powerfully in the world. We can use technology to broaden and deepen a potent source of power: capitalism – the global economic system typified by free markets, freedom of contract, capital flow, and private property – can evolve to serve humanity in bringing forth a brighter future.
The current version of capitalism suffers serious failings. It is causing us to devour the natural environment, marginalize masses of humanity and erode our own spiritual and psychological health. The strong social quality of human nature is, in large part, responsible for our remarkable ability to survive. We flourish in communities and are fulfilled when we contribute to those around us. Unfortunately, capitalism and related changes have unintentionally undermined community and our ability to shape our world for the better, leaving many alienated and disempowered. These are not fatal flaws; they are signs that it is time to push forward. Capitalism is due for a major upgrade. Thankfully, it has provided us with the means of executing this overhaul – technology.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs proposes that, while material survival and safety (that is, food and shelter) are essential for fulfillment, they are only the beginning. Once a person satisfies these needs, she naturally turns to more ethereal pursuits such as community, creative expression, and spiritual transcendence. Capitalism, with its relentless pursuit of material growth, has served much of humanity exceptionally well in satisfying material needs (an admirable achievement indeed). However, its current form focuses on the material aspects of life, undermining our ability to scale Maslow’s hierarchy. Evidence of capitalism’s myopia is broad and deep: Western civilization is experiencing an epidemic of dissatisfaction; symptoms include loneliness, drug abuse, obesity, depression, escapism (through TV, video games, porn, etc.), anger and frustration.
Why are vast numbers of human beings experiencing deep psychological and spiritual suffering during the most materially affluent time and place in our species’ history? Consumer culture is a prime culprit. From early childhood, we are taught that the secret to happiness is found in material wealth. We spend countless hours watching TV commercials, viewing billboards, and hearing radio advertisements that inform us of our needs and wants. We are trained to work hard to “get ahead,” but never encouraged to ask, “ahead of what?” Social and psychological research proves that the materialism of consumer culture is toxic to true happiness. The actual source of the epidemic of dissatisfaction is a widespread failure to ascend to the higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs – love, belonging, community, creative expression and spiritual transcendence – which are the most rewarding of human experiences.
There is an alternative to the myopic materialism of mainstream consumer culture – a path that leads toward the realization of human potential and authentic happiness. Those who strive to realize their full potential as helpful contributors to their communities, experience joy and increased self-worth. Happiness is not the destination; it is the splendor of the dandelions edging the path, the harmonious whistling of fellow travelers, and the invigorating breeze caressing your sunlit face as you stride ahead. This change in focus can counter the alienation and disempowerment that is draining many of their passion for life. If we are to meet the mounting challenges of global warming, exponential population growth, and nuclear proliferation, to name a few, we must make this cultural shift. Human potential is a natural resource that holds the possibility of transforming this planet for the better; we cannot afford to continue squandering it.
Humankind has developed a system of collaboration, cooperation and competition – capitalism – with a vast ability to develop and apply natural resources. It is unimaginably powerful because it reflects the combined motivation of billions of human beings – it is a force of nature. But capitalism, like any system, is only as good as its chosen goal, and only as intelligent as the quality of information to which it has access. If we are to develop the true potential of human beings and devote it to the task of creating a world of abundance, justice and peace, then we must reconfigure our most powerful tool. Capitalism’s current goal of blind material growth must be replaced with a new and better ambition – realizing human potential.
Despite capitalism’s power, it is often shortsighted. Humanity’s highest ideals – love, truth, beauty and justice – are not well communicated in the nervous system of the economy, that is, by price and money. Thus, it is not surprising that outcomes, by and large, do not reflect our noblest goals. We look to government and nonprofits to bridge the gap between what capitalism provides and the society we’d like to live in. But these are no match for the overwhelming and expanding force of capitalism. If capitalism is to evolve, it must be pushed from within and from the ground up. In true evolutionary fashion, capitalism has provided the foundation for its next incarnation. Communication technology holds the key to upgrading capitalism so we can harness its power and use it to create a future of abundance in harmony with nature and with one another.
In light of the challenges facing humanity (and others that will inevitably arise) humanity, and its most powerful system of collaboration, capitalism must evolve quickly to its next stage of development – time is of the essence. The next phase will include the following specific features:
- Transcendence of the for-profit versus nonprofit duality. New charitable enterprises will arise with the goal of profiting humanity rather than a few owners, and these will do so through activities conventionally considered “commercial.” Buyers will have expanded opportunities to contribute meaningfully to causes that matter to them simply by patronizing these “for profiting humanity” enterprises. These enterprises will apply the transformative force of free market capitalism to creating a better future for all.
- The power of crowdsourcing (proven by the success of Wikipedia) will be used to create a “True Cost Index.” This index will enables users to discover the true cost of products and services – measured in terms of each user’s expressed values (for example, environment, animal welfare, and social justice). With this information, buyers can make informed and intelligent choices that reflect love, truth, beauty and justice, and their choices will steer us toward a future that embodies these values.
- Software applications will connect informed and mindful buyers (using a True Cost Index), enterprises aimed at doing good, and wealthy donors willing to match the charitable contributions of others (important in overcoming the inertia of habit). United, these groups can powerfully direct the flow of energy (money) to people and organizations working to shape the future in alignment with the highest and most humane values. As the financial arteries delivering funds to those bringing more love, truth, beauty and justice into the world expand and multiply, more people will dedicate their buying power to such efforts. As technology continues replacing human labor at an ever-quickening pace, growth in fields that enrich life quality (that is, people climbing Maslow’s pyramid and helping others in their ascent) will provide fulfilling work that computers cannot perform.
Many examples of these changes in the structure of capitalism are already occurring – even from some not so likely market participants: Wal-Mart is developing a program that is, in many ways, a prototype of the True Cost Index.
An example of combining a conventional business enterprise with a related philanthropic cause illustrates the power of these ideas: consider the possibility of a group of wealthy environmentalists buying Orbitz.com. (At of the time of this writing, Orbitz is the smallest of several U.S. facing companies providing online travel reservations.) This new environmentally focused Orbitz contributes 100% of its free cash flow to offsetting the negative climate effects of air travel (that is, investing in projects that counter the harm caused by carbon emissions). This hybrid business-philanthropy model (that is, a “for profiting humanity enterprise”) allows the traveling public to direct profits toward solving one of the most daunting problems facing the planet – global climate change. By enabling people to align their buying choices with their higher values – without financial sacrifice – an environmentally focused Orbitz turns a conventional commercial enterprise into a source of positive change. The result is a more intelligent and conscious form of capitalism.
These simple alterations can significantly improve human lives and the condition of the planet. Complex adaptive systems, such as capitalism, have leverage points – places where small changes powerfully affect the rest of the system. The reconfigurations described above apply pressure to sensitive leverage points and thus have the power to achieve extensive positive change. The world has seen the power of such leverage points to cause cascading failures, such as the 2008 financial crisis and its lingering after-effects. But leverage points can also be used to trigger cascading successes.
Creating a more evolved version of capitalism offers the possibility for people to fulfill their material needs in ways that align with the health of the environment. It may also spark virtuous cycles of empowerment, psychological health and spiritual well-being. By putting contribution at the core of the economic system, people will regularly experience the satisfaction of making a difference. Research has shown that giving people are happier, and happier people are more giving. This reinforcing beneficial cycle can spark a deepening of human consciousness, and a psychological and spiritual transformation – a powerful antidote to the epidemic of alienation and disempowerment affecting much of Western civilization.
This vision of a brighter future may seem to be a pipedream – just another idea fated to end up on the scrap heap of utopian history. But our optimism is based on science: intelligence arises from complex systems (such as civilization), and these systems arise from the coordination enabled by efficient and expansive communication networks. Humanity is undergoing a metamorphosis of astounding implications. Literacy and access to information are spreading, binary code and the technology it enables are connecting people, and these developments are dramatically improving the collective intelligence of humankind. The raw materials now exist – the neurons and synapses of the collective human mind – and are multiplying as you read these words. It is time to put this potential to use: as the God of the Old Testament foretold, once we, the people, are one, nothing will be restrained from us which we imagine to do. What will you imagine to do?