Today’s society faces a crisis of perception; a whole constellation of ideas and beliefs which had defined Western society since the Reformation five hundred years ago, is now falling apart. We are rapidly rejecting a mechanistic view of the universe, the assumption that the human body behaves like a machine, that life is a competitive struggle for existence, and that collaboration is for wimps.
As rational beings we have, since the days of Isaac Newton, become accustomed to solving complex problems by reducing every issue to its separate and constituent parts. We have called in the specialists. Now we are finding that every issue of importance is intricately networked to other even more complex problems that defy simple solutions. The former rigid categories of reductionist science are dissolving in favour of understanding flux, complexity theory and the forming and dissolving of patterns. Simple explanations are being replaced by multiple possibilities – it’s neither genes alone that determine our life destiny, nor is it the environment – it’s how each person allows the one to work on, or against, the other.
It is as if the finely-structured edifice of knowledge that we once understood so well is finally crumbling, decaying and exhausting itself, while something else, still indeterminate, is arising from the rubble. It’s all too easy to feel lost and terribly uncertain – as a species we long for security but it is ‘at the edge of order and chaos’ (that point where certainty and uncertainty meet), that the new ideas we crave are actually to be found. Whenever our children ask us what life is about we seem unable to say very much which is meaningful.
We may know immensely more about the universe than our ancestors did, and certainly more about our minds and bodies, and yet it increasingly seems that earlier generations knew more about the interconnectivity of life than we do. Vaclav Havel, the dissident and former President of the CzechRepublic, challenges society to see education as the potential “ability to perceive the hidden connections between phenomena”1.
What the world needs is people who can see big patterns, not just the specialised nature of a single part. The cult of specialisation has the ability to blur man’s confidence to see issues in their entirety. We all have to begin thinking about life very differently. Individualism matters, but so also does collaboration, and diversity is critical to survival. It’s time to call in those who think outside the box. Like a caterpillar that has woven itself a cocoon, western civilization is on a cusp of a metamorphosis; adding wings to caterpillars does not make them butterflies – butterflies are created through transformation2. That is where society is at this moment – uncomfortably in a state of transformation.
It seems that as this new century unfolds, there will be two developments which will challenge our ability to think holistically and act deliberately. Both are concerned with networks and both involve radical new technologies. One is the rise of global capitalism, which is concerned with electronic networks of financial and informational flows; the other is the creation of sustainable communities based on ecological networks of energy and material flows. The goal of the global economy is to maximise the wealth and power of its elite; whilst the goal of eco-design is to maximise the sustainability of the web of life3. The challenge that faces this and all subsequent generations will be to change the value systems underlying the global economy so as to make it compatible with the demand of human dignity and ecological sustainability. Such a mammoth challenge that most, if indeed there was a choice, would undoubtedly choose not to take up.
On our ability to understand and to realise these ideas depends upon our ability to change our preconceptions, to fully understand our options, and to shape our futures.
Thesis 16: 24th August 2006