What is the Question?
Had he lived today, Hamlet would say with more conviction than ever: to be or not to be, that is the question. But it is not the skull of an individual that Hamlet would ponder, but the living Earth. Can we continue to “be” on this planet, or will we become extinct like the dinosaurs?
We are approaching a major watershed; a global tipping point. Our very survival is in question.
We are destroying the planet. The production of essential biological and physical resources has already peaked. Forests, species of fish, and coral reefs are damaged and disappearing, soils are impoverished by overcropping and by chemicals; diversity is reduced by genetic manipulation. The reserves of fresh water are diminishing; more than half the world’s population faces water shortages. And climate change threatens to make much of the planet unsuited for food production and habitation.
We are destroying the fabric of society. There is growing insecurity in countries both rich and poor and greater propensity to resort to terrorism and war. Islamic fundamentalism is spreading throughout the Middle East, religious fanaticism is growing in America, neo-Nazi and other extremist movements are surfacing in Europe.
The gap is widening between the wealthy and powerful and the poor and marginalized. Eighty percent of the world’s domestic product belongs to one billion people, and the remaining twenty percent is shared by five-and-a-half billion. One in three urban dwellers live in slums, shantytowns and urban ghettoes; more than 900 million are classified as slum-dwellers.
If we continue in this way, changing weather patterns will create drought and hurricanes, harvest failures, and rising sea levels. Famine and frustration will fuel terrorism and trigger wars. The delicate balance of our global interdependence will be torn apart. In the ensuing global collapse no country, no population will be spared.
To be or not to be is the question. If we are to “be” on this planet, we must change. Will we change—and will we change in time?
WHY We Must Change
If we are to change in time we must recognize the nature of our present condition; the roots of its unsustainability. The term “unsustainability” became current only in the last fifteen years, but the idea is not new. Already at the end of the 18th century Thomas Malthus published his famous treatise on food and population. He claimed first, that food is necessary to the existence of man, and second, that people will continue to reproduce as they always have.
“The power of population” wrote Malthus, “is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Inevitably, the time will come when population-growth outruns food-production. There will be more people than the planet can produce food for.
The “Malthusian catastrophe” is a simplified version of the tipping point we are now approaching. In question today is not only the production of food, but the whole basis of life on the planet. And the critical trend is not merely the growth of population—how many people walk the Earth—but first and foremost how much each person consumes, and what he and she does to the environment.
We have consumed more of the planet’s physical and biological resources in the six decades since World War II than in all of history before then. And we produce more waste than nature can absorb, and extract more resources than nature can regenerate.
This is not sustainable. In regard to food, for example, we know how much is sustainable: it is the produce of 4.2 acres of land for each person. But the average “ecological foot print” is seven acres today (and would be far more if the poorest countries would not have an untenably small footprint). Food of course is but one of the basic resources we need to live and to develop, and we are overusing and depleting most of them.
What will happen when we reach the limits of the available resources? When in the laboratory bacteria outrun the substances on which they feed, they die off. When mice approach the limit of their food-supply they become infertile; lemmings commit mass suicide.
But when a species with a high level of consciousness such as the human reaches the limits of its resources it doesn’t need to die off, commit suicide, or turn infertile. It can change its consciousness. With a changed consciousness it would look at the world differently and have different values and priorities. It could learn to live sustainably.
HOW We Could Change
Gandhi said, be the change you want to see in the world. In today’s world this means change your consciousness so others would change theirs. How can you do that? First of all, get rid of the old consciousness, and the values and beliefs that support it.
Ask yourself: do you believe that —
* Everyone is separate and rightfully pursues just his or her own interest.
* Life is a struggle for existence; only the fittest (meaning the wealthiest or most powerful) survives.
* In the ruthless competition for fitness the ends justify the means.
* The more money you have, the better you are (and very likely also the happier).
* People owe allegiance only to one nation and one company—the rest are strangers and competitors.
* If we want peace, we must prepare for war.
* Technology and efficiency are the answer, no matter what the question.
* For all intents and purposes the Earth is an inexhaustible source of resources and an infinite sink of wastes.
* The environment can be engineered like a settlement or a highway to fit our needs and demands.
If you hold such beliefs, you are part of the problem. But how can you become part of the solution? Here you must take a further step: adopt new thinking. As Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem with the same kind of thinking that produced the problem.
New thinking is not utopian or unprecedented; it is already emerging at the creative edge of society. In a number of “alternative cultures” people think and act in a more positive way. They share two fundamental beliefs. One is that the ancient saying “we are all one” is not just fiction but has roots in reality. William James was right: we are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.
The second belief regards the sphere of human responsibility. If we are one with each other and with nature, our responsibilities do not end with ourselves, our family, our country and our company; they encompass the human community and the biosphere. Living up to them is not charity. If we are part of humanity, and humanity is part of life on the planet, what we do to others and to nature we do also to ourselves.
When we shed obsolete beliefs and adopt new thinking, we change our consciousness and change ourselves. In these critical and unstable times that change can be the “butterfly” that triggers a storm. It could spread far and wide, and in the end it could change the world.
WHEN We Should Change
When you exclaim, “that’s the last straw!” you express a fundamental yet generally unknown principle. This is “nonlinearity.” If you load the back of a camel, you can add load after load and the camel will adjust and cope—until the load reaches the limit of the camel’s carrying capacity. Then, as the expression has it, just one more straw will break its back. A stepwise process that proceeded smoothly, “linearly” becomes suddenly abrupt, “nonlinear.”
This is what happens throughout nature. A living species can cope with changes in its environment—up to a point. When those changes accumulate, the stress reaches a critical point and the species dies out. Unless, of course, it mutates. In relatively simple systems critical points lead to breakdown. In more complex systems these critical points are tipping points: they can go one way or another. They do not lead inevitably to breakdown, they can also lead to breakthrough.
In 1989 a group of East German refugees received permission to cross the iron curtain to Austria. This was the small but critical shock to the system that broke its back—it was “the last straw.” In a matter of weeks the Communist-dominated East European states seceded from the Soviet Union, and less than a year later the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
The Soviet Communist Party, the most powerful political party in the world, not just lost power, it was actually outlawed. The States that comprised the Soviet Union did not disappear: after a period of chaos and near-breakdown, they managed to transform into more open societies.
In the last ten thousand years many societies, entire civilizations, reached critical tipping points. Once flowering cultures vanished, the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Mayans, the Easter Islanders are examples. But others met the challenge: they transformed and survived. History testifies that the transformations were often profound.
Stone Age tribes lived in a mythological world: they communed with the trees, the animals, and the spirits of ancestors. People saw themselves as part of a mysterious but meaningful living cosmos. Ten thousand years ago this world transformed into the theocratic cultures of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, China, and India.
Here the unchanging laws of Sky-Gods governed human existence. As Hermes Trismegistos declared, “as above, so below.” Then, two and a half thousand years ago on the northern shores of the Mediterranean another culture arose, one that began to govern itself by human reason instead of inherited belief. This was the culture of classical Greece.
At the dawn of the modern age Western civilization brought yet another cultural mutation. The new culture combined elements from its predecessors, but was shaped above all by the belief in the power of reason pioneered by the Greeks.
Supported by the theories and observations of Galileo, Newton, and Copernicus, it developed a materialistic and mechanistic view of the world. This allowed Newton’s “classical physics” to join hands with traditional handicrafts. It produced a whole string of revolutionary technologies.
Today, however, in our age of global information, communication, interdependence and environmental degradation, the mechanistic-materialistic worldview has become obsolete and counterproductive. Its view of the world has been transcended in the sciences, but the technologies it generates and the behaviors it inspires are with us still. Many of them overexploit the environment and overmanipulate people. They produce more heat than light—more side-effects than benefits.
The civilization that dominates the contemporary world is no longer sustainable: if it is not to break down, it must transform. The quest for a quantum leap in human affairs is the quest to create a civilization that enables six-and-a-half billion people to live with dignity, in harmony with each other and with nature. Such a Worldshift is possible.
We have the insights, the technologies, and the necessary human and financial resources. What we lack is the will and the vision. To muster them we must change our consciousness. With a more up-to-date consciousness we could change our values and priorities—change ourselves and ultimately change the world.
A Worldshift is needed, and the time is short. The trends and processes that drive the contemporary world toward a critical tipping point are accelerating. The atmosphere is heating up, diversity is disappearing, the rich-poor gap is widerning, violence and unrest are growing, and the production of many of the resources needed for life and development have already peaked. Forecasts of basic tipping point have shortened from the rest of this century, to mid-century, to the next decade.
It may well be that the global tipping point will come already at the end of 2012, the much prophesied watershed in humanity’s tenure on the planet. It will certainly come within the lifetime of most of us. Whenever it comes, we must begin to act now, to ensure that it is not a prelude to breakdown, but a breakthrough to a more peaceful and sustainable world.
Ervin Laszlo, founder of The Club of Budapest and Chancellor-Designate of GlobalShift University (www.globalshiftu.org), author of more than 400 papers and articles and over eighty books of which the most recent are “Science and the Akashic Field” (2007) and “Quantum Shift in the Global Brain“ (2008), and co-founder and president of the board of trustees of the WorldShift Foundation.