Can We Reinvent Ourselves?
As the possibility of independence draws nearer, some of us are wondering whether this will be the moment when Scotland re-invents herself. The precedents for this are impressive. There was a time, not so long ago, when Scotland was the most inventive country in the world. And, not so long before that, it was Scotland who, during the Scottish Enlightenment, led the world into the global paradigm that we call “modernity”. At this critical point in her history, will Scotland once again lead the world, by helping to pave the way into the new global paradigm that is already beginning to replace modernity? Whatever else, this would mean distancing herself as far as possible from neoliberalism, state socialism, and the world’s current obsession with economic growth.
Do I think Scotland could do this? Yes, undoubtedly, for history has demonstrated Scotland’s unusual inventiveness and creativity. Do I think it will happen? Yes, but only if enough people are courageous to step outside the ring of conservatism that stretches right across the Scottish political spectrum. Before we explore how this might happen, let us first look at the historical precedents. It is important to do this, because very few people today realise how influential in the world Scotland used to be.
There was a time when Scotland punched well above her weight in inventiveness. Many things that we now take for granted had their origin in Scotland. The list is long – television, refrigerator, microwave ovens, tarred roads, pneumatic tyres, golf, the steam engine, radar, modern banking, antiseptics, antibiotics, quinine, the fax machine, ATM machines, genetic cloning, logarithms, iron bridges, and many other things. Scotland’s inventiveness is relatively well-known. What is not so well known is that much of the basis for the modern world was developed in Scotland, during the Scottish Enlightenment (roughly 1740-90). Of the personalities involved, Adam Smith and David Hume are probably the best known, but there were many others who made important contributions, including notable pioneers in medicine, science, education and civic life. It is difficult for us today to appreciate just how influential Scotland was in those days. Indeed, Scotland’s intellectual leadership was so powerful that Voltaire was moved to write: “…we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.”
Of course, the Enlightenment was by no means confined to Scotland, but I think it is useful to look at Scotland’s contribution because it helps us to see what the Enlightenment gave to the world. Scotland was very active in the development of modern economics, modern medicine, modern science, modern education, modern technology and modern government. To express this another way, the Scottish Enlightenment helped to give us the paradigm of modernity – the set of ideas, beliefs, values, institutions and practices that have shaped the modern world.
Few would deny that, for a long time, modernity made life better and easier for many. It raised the material living standards of millions; it increased life expectancy; it enabled us to address many forms of ill-health that had gone unaddressed before; it brought education to the majority; it vastly increased our knowledge of the physical world (i.e. science); it has given us a lot of very useful technology; and it enabled many people to participate in the big decisions that affect them. All in all, we have much to be thankful for. Any criticism I am about to make must be tempered by my belief that there are many aspects of modernity worth retaining. The bath water must go, but the baby must stay.
Although modernity brought us many good things, something has gone very wrong. We have just come through the most destructive century in human history, with major wars on nearly every continent, in which over 150 million people were systematically slaughtered, and with more damage to the planet and the biosphere than ever before. And the present century has not begun well. As the 21st Century gets under way, wars are raging on three continents (the war in the Congo has been going on for 15 years, and is the most destructive war since 1945), inequality within and between nations is very high and rising, mental and emotional illness are epidemic, the financial system is in permanent crisis, and nature and the planet are more seriously threatened than ever.
There is a growing sense that modernity has outlived its usefulness and that the benefits it brings are now greatly outweighed by the problems it causes. The economics, medicine, science, education and politics ushered in by the Enlightenment served us well for a long time but, in some important respects, they are no longer fit for purpose. What we have long assumed to be the main solution to our problems – modernity – may have become one of their main causes. While it is true that many of us are materially richer, we are in some important respects poorer. We have more money and things than we ever had, yet how many of us are truly happy? We receive more schooling and training than ever, yet greed and superficiality are the hallmarks of modern culture. We have more technology and scientific knowledge than ever before, but we struggle to use them wisely. And although we continue to call ourselves “democracies”, many of us wonder what the point of voting is when the outcome of elections can be determined in a few marginal constituencies, when there is little to distinguish the main parties, when big money determines policy, and when prime ministers ignore the people’s views on major issues, such as war. Since it has been, and still is the dominant global paradigm, modernity must be seriously implicated in all these problems.
The time has come to replace modernity with a set of ideas, beliefs, values, institutions and practices that are appropriate to the very different conditions of the 21st Century. The time has come, in other words, for a Second Enlightenment that will take us beyond modernity to a new paradigm, and provide us with an economics, a medicine, an education, a science and a politics that are better suited to the conditions of today.
Will Scotland choose to re-invent herself by helping to lead the way into this new world? If she does choose to do so, then high on the list of things to do will be the need to get beyond economism and the obsession with economic growth. This needs a little explanation.
Modernity has its roots in the classical worldview of science, sometimes called the “Newtonian worldview”. I believe that the following is a fair summary:
- The universe and everything in it, ourselves included, is physical. All those things that seem to be “non-physical”, such as consciousness, for example, can ultimately be explained in terms of the physical
- The universe and everything in it is essentially a lifeless “machine”…a very sophisticated machine, but a machine nonetheless. We human beings and the universe can therefore usefully be understood as “mechanisms”
- Within this machine, there are little bits of life, which happened by chance. Because life happened by chance on this planet, there may not be much other life in the universe
- Matter is primary and consciousness is secondary. Consciousness is a product of matter, and not the other way round. Consciousness is understood to be an “epiphenomenon” of the brain
- Causality is upwards. This means that “ultimate reality” is at the sub-atomic level and that all other levels, including our everyday experience, are secondary derivatives of this
- The universe has no intrinsic meaning. On the contrary, it is full of “chance” and “chaos” and “randomness”
- Religious and spiritual traditions may be useful as a moral compass, but they are no basis for “real facts”. The only real facts come from science.
Modernity is drawn directly from this set of beliefs. It should therefore come as no surprise that we live in very materialistic times, in which money, property and things rank higher than nearly everything else. For many people, acquiring and consuming must seem like the only meaningful thing left for them to do. Our economics, our politics, our medicine, our education, our science and our culture have become steeped in material values and beliefs and the behaviours that flow from these. It is surely significant that schools and universities have become little more than training grounds in how to participate in the economy, while hospitals in the USA and elsewhere are often referred to as “profit centres”. We are paying a high price for our obsession with material things, as we exploit and damage each other and the planet. Meanwhile, it is short step from materialism to economism, one of the more recent and toxic additions to modernity.
Economism is the tendency to view the world through the lens of economics, to regard a country as an economy rather than as a society, and to believe that economic considerations and values rank higher than other ones. Economism is clearly evident all over the world these days and is a powerful influence in business, political and media circles. It is an extremely narrow way of seeing the world, and it prevents us from seeing whether we are making genuine progress. We assume that if there is more money and economic activity (economic growth), things are getting better. In reality, they might be getting worse and our devotion to economic growth and money is probably one of the main reasons for this. Since the pursuit of economic growth has become such a central feature of modernity, I make no apology for discussing it at length.
There is an almost universal belief that economic growth is highly desirable. China, for example, is thought to be doing “very well” simply because its economy has been growing rapidly in the last two decades. This fact trumps all other considerations, such as human rights, corruption, pollution and breathtaking inequality. Indeed, the belief in economic growth runs so deep that it has a quasi-religious feel to it. Any serious questioning of it is tantamount to blasphemy in government and business circles. The truth is that there is nothing intrinsically desirable about economic growth. It simply means that more money was spent this year on goods and services than was spent last year. It does not tell us anything about the desirability or quality of these additional goods and services. It does not tell us anything about the human, social and environmental costs of providing them. It does not tell us anything about income distribution and social justice. Most important of all, it does not tell whether we are getting happier, wiser, healthier and more fulfilled, which is surely the point of it all.
The principal measure of economic growth – GDP (Gross Domestic Product) – treats the good, the bad and the ugly as if they were all good. So long as money legally changes hands, it counts towards GDP. If there is more crime to be dealt with, more divorces to be processed, more pollution to be cleaned up, more illness to be treated, and more debt being incurred, then all of this counts towards economic growth. In fact, nothing boosts growth more than a war or a natural disaster. GDP gives us the impression that things are going well when they may be going badly. There are several good alternative indicators, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). In essence, this subtracts the costs of economic growth from the benefits, to give us a truer picture of progress. It is significant that while GDP in all western countries has been rising more or less consistently in the last 50 years, GPI has been falling or static since the late Seventies. Adopting a more accurate flagship indicator would be a major step in the right direction. Meanwhile, it is worth examining the main arguments made in favour of economic growth.
The advocates of growth tell us that if GDP is not increasing, we have “stagnation”, and that if it is declining, we have “recession”. These are both emotive terms. Yet, there is surely nothing wrong with a society that is not consuming excessively. And there is surely nothing wrong with a society that actually chooses to spend less money on some types of goods and services. Imagine a world where people walk and cycle more, where there is less divorce and less crime, where people take more care of their health and need less medical treatment, and where there is more self-reliance and cooperation. In such a society, there would be less spending on goods and services. But, in conventional terms we would be in “recession” and considered to be doing badly, such is the Alice in Wonderland world of topsy-turvy values we have created for ourselves.
Then there are those who constantly remind us that less spending leads to unemployment and the closure of businesses. In the short term this is often true. But it is worth pointing out that what we regard as “stable levels of employment” is based not on sustainable production and consumption, but on excessive production and consumption. That excess cannot continue forever. It is causing too many problems, including record levels of personal debt, and record depletion of natural resources. That is unsustainable. It is much better to spend wisely and moderately and work out the consequences of doing so.
Finally, many people believe that economic growth is a kind of universal panacea. They believe that if we have problems – poverty, inequality, unemployment, injustice, disease, crime, whatever – then all we need is more economic growth and the problems will eventually disappear. In fact, the opposite appears to be true. Far from being a universal panacea, economic growth may be a universal problem because, in one way or another, it seems to be at the root of much ill health, crime, social breakdown, inequality, and environmental degradation. As Clive Hamilton points out in his book Growth Fetish: “Growth not only fails to make people contented; it destroys many of the things that do. Growth fosters empty consumerism, degrades the natural environment, weakens social cohesion and corrodes character. Yet we are told, ad nauseam, that there is no alternative.”
Of course there is an alternative. It is sustainable development. But it is not the kind of sustainable development that many people seem to have in mind. Contrary to widespread belief, “sustainable development” does not mean economic growth, while keeping a weather eye on the environment. Growth means “getting bigger”, but development means “getting better.” These are two very different things. Of course, we have to sustain and enhance the natural environment, but we also have to sustain the other systems that sustain us, namely our health and the fabric of society. Just as the natural environment is under serious threat (climate change, loss of species and habitat, and depletion of rainforest and other resources), there can be little doubt that health and society are under just as much threat, yet this is rarely mentioned in the sustainability debate. If we take the view that “development” means “making things better” and that there are several things we have to sustain, then the concept of sustainable development begins to look very different. It can be redefined as:
Sustainable development is the development of people, communities and planet in ways that sustain the three vital systems that sustain all of us – our health, the fabric of society, and the natural environment.
Expressed in this way, it stands in stark contrast to economic growth, which is increasingly identified in public consciousness with exploitation and diminution of people, communities, nature and planet.
To be fair, economic growth itself is not the only problem. It is the set of values and pressures that lie behind it. As a society we seem to value money and things more than we value people and nature. And many of us feel under constant pressure to perform and compete and consume. Such values and pressures wreak havoc on our health, our families, and our communities, not to mention the planet. Whatever else it does, economic growth does not bring health, happiness, wisdom and meaning. And trying to use economic growth to solve problems is like trying to put out a fire by throwing petrol on it. It is true that some things have improved over the years, but there seems to be an increasingly high price to pay for this. For example, we have more speed, but less time for reflection; more choice, but less satisfaction; more competition, but less sense of being at ease; more schools and universities, but less education in the true sense; more doctors and hospitals, but less health; more communications, but less listening; more public services, but less self-reliance; and more police and prisons, but less security.
I have mentioned the new paradigm more than once. But why do I think modernity is dying and something new is emerging to replace it? My reasons fall into three broad categories – death throes; deeper currents; and new institutions.
When something is dying, it sometimes becomes more active than ever, almost as if this extra burst of activity will prolong its life. This seems to be happening to modernity right now. Faced with great uncertainty and a succession of serious crises, many people are becoming more materialistic than ever. For example, governments and transnational institutions are focusing more and more on the economy and finance, and less and less on people and the planet. In a situation where it is abundantly clear that rampant consumerism and the drive for yet more economic growth are putting unsustainable pressures on people and the planet, government and business leaders continue to advocate even more consumerism and even more growth. When set alongside the sudden popularity of atheism (e.g. Hitchens and Dawkins), modernity does seem to have acquired a new lease of life. However, I believe that this is simply its death throes.
It is clear with all those with eyes to see that humanity and the planet are in serious crisis. By any standards, we have unprecedented problems in the world today, in terms of their seriousness and their global reach. The list is uncomfortably long, but it surely includes:
1. All the planet’s life-support systems are in decline – i.e. clean air, clean water, forests, topsoil, aquifers, fisheries, wetlands, biodiversity (World Resources Institute)
2. The climate is changing dangerously
3. Inequality within and between nations is now as high as it was in Victorian times. This is both unsustainable and destabilising
4. Mental and emotional illnesses are at record highs
5. Corruption and dishonesty are epidemic
6. We are running out of energy, in more senses than one
7. Unemployment is epidemic – in a world where so much useful work needs to be done. In several African countries the unemployment rate is over 80%
8. Global and national crises and problems have become the norm, rather than the exception. Of course, we have always had problems and crises, but their seriousness and frequency seem to be increasing.
Although we may feel that our problems are too big and too difficult to solve, one thing is very clear – we are the cause! They are all caused by our behaviour as individuals, as well as by the ways we try to solve problems. It is not as if we do not try to solve them. We do, on an immense scale. In fact, it must be significant that the problem-solving industry is now one of the biggest in the world. Just think how many people are involved these days in problem-solving jobs. These include doctors, nurses, police, social workers, therapists, coaches, counsellors, and lawyers, authors of self-help books, and many local and national government workers. And they include people who work in the thousands of NGOs across the world. The more we think about, the more people appear on this list. A very large number of people in the world today rely for their income and job security on a huge and predictable supply of problems for the foreseeable future. It begs the interesting question of what they would do in a problem-free world.
All these signs suggest to me that modernity is on its last legs.
Just as modernity has its roots in the now outdated classic science worldview, the new emerging paradigm has its roots a new, very different worldview. However, this is not well known. Only a handful of people are familiar with the details and meaning of the new worldview. The great majority of those who, one way or another, are engaged in new paradigm activities are doing so, not because they are trying to put a new worldview into practice, but because they know that things cannot continue as they are, and that fundamental change is needed. That said, there is clearly a fresh energy in the air, and presumably this reflects the more accurate picture of reality that the new worldview presents. I am acutely aware that you may find some, or all, of the ideas outlined below very unlikely or even impossible. The fact is that all of them are supported by solid scientific evidence. In essence, the new world view is:
The universe and everything in it, including us, consists of energy, and nothing but energy. Importantly, energy is not a thing. It is simply the inseparable combination of order and movement. This permits it to manifest in physical forms, as well as non-physical forms. In other words, the universe, and ourselves, are both physical and non-physical at the same time
The universe is an organism, not a mechanism. As with all other organisms, it is alive, it grows and changes, it is able to sense, and it is here for a reason. As an organism, the universe is likely to be conscious and intelligent in ways we have yet to fathom
Because the universe consists entirely of energy (i.e. order-movement), there is no such thing as inherent disorder, chance, randomness or chaos. We continue to believe that there is, only because we do not yet have the information or perspective to see the order and meaning inherent in everything
Everything, whatever its size or nature, is connected to absolutely everything else. This includes us too. Some of this connectedness takes time – e.g. light and other electromagnetic radiation. Other forms, such as gravity and “non-locality”, take no time at all – their connection is instantaneous, regardless of distance. So interconnected is the universe that everything in it owes its very existence to the existence of all other things. Everything influences, and is influenced by, everything else. It is the “butterfly effect” on a cosmic scale
Since there is no inherent chance in the universe, life on this planet can be no accident. It happened for a reason that is somehow connected to the deeper meaning of the universe. The fact that we human beings may not yet know the reason or the meaning is no reason to negate them
Consciousness is primary, and matter is secondary. This means that matter is the result of consciousness, and not the other way round. This is supported by the concept of “implicate order”, first developed by David Bohm. Quantum physics strongly suggests that our familiar, everyday world is an “explicate order” that is underpinned and constantly informed by a deeper, invisible order that is uncannily similar in nature to consciousness
This is, I believe, a reasonable summary of the emerging worldview. However, it is far from established, not least because many scientists do not subscribe to it. They are unwilling or unable to see the implications of the revolutionary insights and discoveries that have taken place in the last 100 years. So, it is only a minority of scientists who subscribe to all, or most, of these beliefs. That said, the trend is undoubtedly in the direction of this new worldview, and that is largely because so many non-scientists are embracing it in one way or another. They do this as part of their spiritual or personal or ecological development.
There is no doubt that modernity has given us a lot, but it has come at a price. There are many who believe that the price is too high. Individuals, communities and organisations all over the world are therefore finding their own ways to go beyond materialism and bring meaning, wisdom, spirituality and ecology into their lives. As they do this, a new kind of economics, a new kind of healthcare, a new kind of education, a new kind of science, and a new kind of politics are being created, from the ground upwards. It is impossible to predict exactly what they will be, but they are already looking something like this…
The new economics will be about enhancing people and planet, rather than exploiting them. At the heart of the new economics will be a new central purpose for humanity, and a radically different understanding of the meaning of “progress” and “wealth”. This will bring with it new kinds of relationships, and new kinds of businesses
The new healthcare will be about self-reliance, common sense and healthy living. It will treat the whole person, rather than the disease. Medical treatment may become the exception rather than the rule, because the main focus will be on staying healthy
The new education will be about bringing out the best and uniqueness in each individual, rather than schooling them to believe certain things and to behave in certain ways, which is what often happens today in our schools, colleges and universities. At the heart of the new education will be the development of wisdom, spirituality, meaning and ecology
The new science will be about two things: using the whole of the human being to explore the world; and, as we go beyond materialism, focusing as much on the non-physical aspects of the world as we now focus on the physical
The new politics will be about the return of power to people and communities, rather than having power concentrated in the hands of politicians and the very wealthy. At the heart of the new politics will be two ideas – the idea that most power stays at the local level, where it belongs, and the idea that everyone has something useful to say and contribute.
The problems caused by modernity, such as climate change, stress-related illnesses, gross inequality, overpopulation, and social disintegration, will probably just get worse so long as modernity remains the prevailing way of understanding and doing things. It is worth adding that the problems caused by modernity are exacerbated by politicians who, with few exceptions, are wedded to modernising, which is modernity in the form of government policies. We will be able to solve the big problems of our time only when we replace modernity with a set of ideas and practices that are kinder to us and to the planet. None of the above will be easy. People will not willingly give up the habits of a lifetime, and many in power will resist tooth and nail. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, engaging in the kinds of changes I have suggested here will be the most difficult thing we ever do. Transformation may seem attractive in theory. In practice, it can be messy and painful! Yet if we wish to survive and thrive in the new paradigm, we will have to equip ourselves to do so.
I am aware that I have covered a lot of ground at some speed. My intention is simply to draw attention to two things: first, the urgent need to go beyond modernity, into a new global paradigm that promises a much better and fairer world; and second, the potential role of Scotland of helping to lead the way into this new paradigm, just as she led the way into modernity.