People tend to favour stories over facts, asserts the Israeli historian Noah Yuval Harari. In his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari writes that in the 20th century three universal stories — myths, or paradigms — vied for domination. Fascism was, broadly, a story of power; communism was one of ultimate equality, and liberalism one of freedom. By the 1990s, liberalism was the only one left standing. In the form of liberal or social democracy, liberalism had learnt from its rivals — adopting, for instance, parts of the communist story about equality and justice to its older narrative of the sovereign, free individual.
But now, writes Harari, the liberal story is in doubt, and in many eyes discredited. Increasing numbers of people feel the social and economic system is rigged to favour the very wealthy. Combined with the prospect of technological change that, perhaps, threatens to make many people redundant, concerns about mass migration and ecological crisis, the result is widespread fear and anger. The spectres of authoritarian politics and ‘digital dictatorship’ haunt the world.
Where might renewal and hope come from? What deep story of ‘how humans and the universe are really are’ might they call on? For the entrepreneur Daniel Schmachtenberger, the principle of emergence offers a “new best story of the universe.” With the evolution of consciousness in humans, he says, we have “a universe moving not only towards more elegance but also greater depths and breadths of consciousness itself.”
For Schmachtenberger, humans are part of a process that characterises the universe as a whole. “As soon as we identify with the inexorability of evolution….we stop needing pain to push us because…being and becoming are matched…When you are in the experience of creating beauty… you feel a kind of aliveness that is not matched by anything else.”
At the level of social systems, he suggests, we can move beyond an economics of differential advantage defined by private ownership, and where valuation is based on scarcity, to a system that ensures that the wellbeing of every agent is perfectly aligned. “It’s not communism, socialism or capitalism, it’s something not envisaged before, but it is how your body works, where none of the cells are advantaging themselves.”
Schmachtenberger calls this a new story, and it is the case that the phenomenon or set of phenomena to which many scientists give the label emergence is a lively field of study. (An exploration of emergence informs and shapes my book A New Map of Wonders.) But the roots of the story are old. A maturity in human consciousness that seeks to extend our identity beyond ourselves has long been a recognised as a good. “To a wise man,” wrote Democritus, “the whole earth is open because the true country of the soul is the entire universe.” The Stoic idea of cosmopolitanism, visualised as expanding circles of concern, held that we should treat people in outer circles the way we treat ourselves and those closest to us. In the Christian tradition, thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have articulated a view of the cosmos as “fundamentally and primarily living.”
One of the candidates for a ‘new’ universal story, then, is some form of environmentalism. Drawing deeply on science (as, at its best it does), and in particular on ecology (for instance, on Aldo Leopold’s dictum that “the land on which we live is not merely soil. It is a foundation of energy flowing through a circuit of everything”), environmentalism (for some, simply ‘life-ism’) is also characterised by passionate feeling. This is apparent in movements such as Extinction Rebellion, which seek to mobilise both fear of ecological catastrophe and hope for a more resilient form of human — and non-human —flourishing.
Who knows what the future will bring? In an essay titled ‘Cosmic Evolution and the Meaning of Life,’ the philosopher John Messerly writes
When we look to the past we see that evolution has produced meaning, but it has also produced pain, fear, genocide, extinction, war, loneliness, anguish, envy, slavery, despair, futility, torture, guilt, depression, alienation, ignorance, torture, inequality, superstition, poverty, heartache, death, and meaninglessness…Turning to the future, our optimism must be similarly restrained. Fantasies about where evolution is headed should be tempered, if for no other reason than that our increased powers can be used for evil as well as for our improvement.
For Harari, humankind has morphed from thousands of years as an ecological serial killer to become an ecological mass murderer. But he recommends bewilderment rather than panic on the grounds that panic suggests, falsely, that we know what the outcome will be. The writer Anne Lamott counsels humility: “It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.”
Image: Earthrise: NASA/Bill Anders, 1968. Public Domain