The Gathering is approaching. As part of our series of blogposts this week’s is titled ‘Sketches of a Future Society’ by Rufus Pollock. Previously, Rufus and Liam reflected on the way we live now. This week they look at new possibilities for a future society, with an emphasis on culture as the invisible structure on which economies are built. The following week they will discuss what an economy shaped by this culture would look like.
In the next two weeks we want to paint a vision of the future. Here the ground is less certain and our proposal necessarily incomplete. We invite you to bring a spirit of openness: this is an area where it is easy to critique and hard to create. Take what is presented as indicating direction rather than detailed prescription. At the same time, we still seek be as concrete as possible. The devil is often in the details and it is important to tease out the implications of a particular path. To be useful, fine-sounding pronouncements must yield a concrete course of action.
Man does not live on bread alone
Nor on spirit alone!
We have need of both material and spiritual sustenance.1 Neglect either and we grow sick. Moreover, the two reinforce and support each other.
Note: Throughout I will use the term spiritual in a non-religious sense — as a catch-all phrase to denote our spirit, our being, our psyche etc
On the material level, certainty of our daily bread provides foundation and space from which to act and reflect. Confident of our necessities, we are able to look beyond our immediate needs for food and shelter. Satisfied, we are in a position to enlarge our locus of concern, moving our attention beyond ourselves and our immediate surroundings to others and our environment. Fed and clothed we have space to engage in the deeper development of our being.
Likewise, on the spiritual side. Here a sound base gives us the tools and resources to handle the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. The strength to apply ourselves with diligence and balance, to work productively and harmoniously with ourselves and others. The presence and mindfulness to savour the beauty of being, the contentment of suffiency, the opportunity of leisure.
And just as they mutually reinforce, so the lack of one of these undermines the other. Without a spiritual grounding even the greatest material achievements become empty and hollow. Living in constant fear for the precariousness of what we have we can never truly enjoy it. We run ever after something else. Conversely, only the very strongest spiritual practice can withstand extended material hardship.
For centuries a lack of sufficient material resources has been a constant fear. At any given time, a good portion of humanity has gone hungry or homeless – or both. Today that is changing. In some countries we are already a half-century or more into a world of plenty where no-one need have a daily worry for essentials.
However, in one of those cruel ironies, material wealth has been matched by spiritual poverty. In the west especially, the “death of god” led either to materialist individualistic hedonism or to reaction and a retreat into fundamentalism and righteousness. The great bulk of us fell into a moral and spiritual torpor, our minds numbed by the new opium of endless “entertainment” from TV to online games.
Moreover, in recent times, climate change and other existential challenges such as genetic engineering and artificial intelligence have raised profound questions about the viability of our current system. Prompted by these, we have begun to wonder whether we have sufficient capacity to address collective challenges that require cooperation more than competition? More deeply, how much of our growth has been based on an unsustainable use of natural resources as opposed to genuine gains in productivity?
Two possibilities have been recently emerging that hold great promise.
On the material side, the digital revolution means a move to information as the primary means and result of production. This can be transformative in two ways. First, simple material abundance. Information is costlessly copyable: have one book or app and you have a million. Moreover this is a plenty that need not exhaust the planet: that all of us can read Shakespeare is not the kind of ecological impossibility as all of us driving a Ferrari.
Second, the move to an information-based economy has large implications for culture. Information’s natural state is to be shared, to be copied. Furthermore, its creation is done most naturally by collaboration – collaboration that can even be physically distributed. This is a different kind of culture of making and using than we have in our current system of competitive, individualistic, consumerist capitalism. Put simply, our way of producing shapes our way of being. An economy built on individualistic competition and an obsession with the profit motive yields beings in its image: individualistic, competitive, acquisitive and materialistic. The combination of information’s ethereality, its abundance and shareability offers the possibility of a new, better culture based on collaboration, generosity and creativity.
On the spiritual side, there has also been a revolution. Hard scientific materialism is converging with ancient wisdom. Basic practices such as meditation – common across many traditions for millennia – find increasing support in “hard” scientific evidence. This is driving widespread adoption, especially in the west where these traditions were less developed and less well known.
On the ethical side, there has been a growth in universalism especially since the second world war. By universalism we mean a universal respect for all human beings irrespective of their race, gender or station in life. There is even a trend to extend our concern beyond our own species to animals and all “beings”.
This development would wed ancient spiritual wisdom with modern science. Many traditions such as Buddhism include “love and respect for all living beings”. In science, breakthroughs of the last two centuries have shown not only that all humans are fundamentally similar, but, with Darwinian evolution, that we share a common genetic ancestry with all living things.
Even more recently, research has shown us that features like language and consciousness, once considered human only, may actually be shared by other animals. Modern psychology, neuroscience and computing have highlighted limits of our cognition breeding a new sense of humility. And as we delve into the mystery of consciousness they are finding much in common with old spiritual-philosophical traditions especially Buddhist-influenced phenomenology.1
From Possibility to Breakthrough
These developments are promising. However, as yet, they remain possibilities rather than concrete breakthroughs.
What will it take for us then to see them realized?
The answer is that we need to create a new kind of culture, and a new economy to go with it. A culture and economy that are materially and spiritually sustainable. That trace a middle way between the start-up and the monastery. That seek to be in the world rather than apart from it.
A New Culture
Culture and economy are interdependent. However, we start with culture since it is the base on which an economy builds. Culture is invisible structure. Hard to define and very hard to change. Get culture wrong and it is almost impossible to go back. By contrast, our economies are much easier to alter.
Our new culture should draw on the confluence of ancient wisdom and modern science. It is a culture that is secularly spiritual and pragmatically scientific. Egalitarian and universalist, we value each person equally – and put value not just on humans but on all animals and ultimately all living beings. It is rational, empirical and open-minded. Curiously skeptical and wondrously wide-eyed. Joyful, whole and engaged. It is collaboratively solutionist, long-term in its thinking – putting the future first. Simultaneously, pragmatic and reflective, intentional and joyful.
Reflecting these values will be a set of concrete practices and behaviors. Meditation and mindfulness will be central, accompanied by the highest levels of integrity and ethics. Radical transparency and critical accountability are married with non-judgment and generosity of spirit.
Ostentation of wealth, intelligence or achievement are avoided. Approval and commendation goes instead to other-directed virtues such as wisdom, generosity, learning and humility. Reading and reflection are widespread.
Food is a big deal and its production and preparation play a major role in society. Many people get to play some role in the process and almost everyone gets to eat something they help grow. Eating together as families and communities is common and important.
Empiricism and research are practised in all walks of life from policy-making to education to technology. Means and ends are not separated and both are considered in what we seek to pursue. Wisdom is a term of art, applied regularly everywhere from politics to technology to daily life. It is considered rationally – critically, empirically and open-mindedly – and subject to discussion and refinement.
Research is a central activity in society. It is carried out for the practical purpose of discovering new tools and technologies as well as a deep curiosity and wonder at the world around us. There is a strong focus on education and the upbringing of children – and this interest extends beyond childhood to a true practice of lifelong learning and emotional and spiritual development. No-one says they are too old to change or ever loses their curiosity to discover more.
Holidays are substantial, festivals regular. Art, drama and sport are prominent and accessible to all. Shallow entertainments are ignored and there is a strong awareness of our cognitive and behavioral weaknesses and our need to guard the senses appropriately. Advertising is considered bad taste and highly regulated if not entirely banned. Intoxicants are permitted for experimentation and self-discovery but over-indulgence or inebriation are strongly frowned upon.
The senses are appreciated but not indulged. Whether with food, with sex, with nature. Likewise the intellect: developed, appreciated, enjoyed but not idolized or raised up. Preoccupation with thought alone can be just as much a trap for us as a preoccupation with the senses.
This then is our culture. Imagined as the trunk of a tree, what are the roots, what are the leaves? These are our economy. For a tree to grow and survive it must must grow good roots deep into the ground. It must cast up branches into the sky and fill them with leaves. So our culture must have an economy. A material and spiritual economy with the roots that provide nutrients and leaves that provide energy.
Edited by Brigitte Arndt
- This goes beyond neuroscience to the impact of physics and modern science generally. Quantum physics and other discoveries have heralded a move away from simplistic certainty, requiring us to acknowledge just how much we do not know and how “weird”, and non-deterministic, the world is.