The Times – Are They a Changin?

A number of our fellows met for their quarterly meeting by Zoom back on September 7 to consider our times. The proceedings of their discussion follows:

On the cusp of a new era, do events in Afghanistan presage a shift in the Geist – the world spirit providing absolute meaning? Is the time of the West, with its faith in a common ground enthused by the human spirit, individualism, rationality and the rule of law, over? Are we one community at scale or an unhappy ferment of smaller collectivities unable to adjudicate a simple, but not simplistic framework to embrace the scale of all of our lives and our futures? What conditional hypotheses about the future should occupy our minds and test the quality of our educational institutions?

The comments took the thought that our time might be one of transition.

A concern was tabled that diplomats need courage and civilizations need co-existence. This presumes there is no widely accepted, authoritative, world order of peace among nations and peoples supported by societies open to economic growth for all and political participation for all. Such a world order was the promise of the 1941 Atlantic Charter and of the United Nations.

One driver of unease was growing awareness of climate change on an existential scale. The need is to do something, but the fear is that we don’t know what to do.

An answer might be local adaptation, with local ownership of the environment to avoid the “tragedy of the commons,” where no one is responsible for the common good.

People seem more at a loss to answer the question: “How can I get control of my life?”

The nature of our system seems increasingly threatening, its nature being to make us victims and inconsolable. Futility seems a reasonable response.

The nature of the current system is a contentless civilization floating on words without content, detached from reality.

Some words have become fetishes – tribal gods, priestly incantations promising security and control. Words without deep principles invoking strong values keep us on the surface of life, as if we are sliding around on thin ice. Reality has become nominal and words permit our personal realities to be invented and other, uncomfortable, realities ignored.

Populist nationalism has its place, where words and perceived realities intersect.

In the U.S., there is mostly instrumental reasoning, a preference for the tactile and the immediate, with an allergy to ideas. But content comes from character. Yet it takes courage to keep content front and center, to hold others to standards.

A lesson from the past is investing in social capital, in community and in shared values.

Yet, our lives are still grounded in relationships, where there should be order, justice, duty, responsibility.

There is decadence, the regime losing internal moral order as the beginning of a transition to a new order.

There are lessons in the past. A critical mass of 20% could make for a tipping point with creative destruction and innovation coming forth.

Prevention is an ethic; foresight provides content and grounds for reasoned action.

Another dynamic most worthy of note and concern is trust – we are not building trust: 1) work in the pandemic is more and more just transactional without community; 2) crypto currencies destabilize expectations; and 3) there is no trust in leaders.