By Marie-Laure Salles
Humankind and its host planet are at crossroads as they have never been before. In our current age of radical uncertainty, inclusion and sustainability could easily be put on the back burner. Now more than ever, they should be a major priority – a tool for the world to come. This, however, will call for courage as the new operational imperative of our times.
This new age of uncertainty is mostly our own doing. It is radical because what is at stake is the very survival of our species. The Anthropocene and its many consequences, our nuclear arsenal, and the transhumanist project to overcome humanity, all carry serious existential threats that humanity has essentially brought upon itself.
This age of radical uncertainty combines with, and is fuelled by, profound paradoxes. As a species, we have produced immense riches, yet they have never been as unequally shared. Furthermore, we realise that to produce those riches, we have destroyed non-renewable and vital natural resources that condition our ability to survive as individuals and as a species. We have created knowledge on an unprecedented scale, yet we have to face increasingly powerful dynamics of mis- and dis-information. Our technological capabilities are unparalleled, yet an invisible virus can instil existential angst and bring us to a halt. As a final paradox, never have we been as widely and deeply connected and never have we felt as lonely.
When extreme inequalities combine with dwindling vital resources, we can only expect profoundly disruptive social and political impacts. When disinformation triumphs, it directly threatens our capacity to live with each other and unravels the social fabric and trust that normally protects us from chaos. When the breakdown of the social is fostered and accelerated by the virtualisation of nearly everything, it turns into systemic anomie, a state that Emile Durkheim described as a condition of instability resulting from the disintegration of the social and a breakdown of common norms. In our current state of anomie, loneliness becomes structural. As is unmistakable today, systemic anomie and structural loneliness have widespread and long-lasting negative psychological consequences, the latter even shaping future generations, if we believe recent findings in epigenetics psychology.
"As we put bandages after bandages on issues, societies, or individual bodies and souls, we may be doing this at the cost of urgently required radical systemic transformations."
So, what can be done? Despair is an option, but not a viable one. Selfishly fending for oneself only is another approach, but a fragile one when common challenges impact all of us with increasing brutality. The only solution then is collective activism. We tend to approach this one challenge at a time, working mostly reactively and incrementally, with a view to compensate for, or mitigate negative externalities one after the other. As a result, we may be addressing partial symptoms but not the systemic problem in its complexity and multi-dimensionality. The accelerating rhythm at which we have to react to challenges in our age of radical uncertainty imposes a form of short-termism. As we put bandages after bandages on issues, societies, or individual bodies and souls, we may be doing this at the cost of urgently required radical systemic transformations. It is through this kind of paradoxical dynamics that we might be putting sustainability and inclusion on the back burner, when they should be at the core of our solutions.
What we have lost sight of over the last few decades is that progress is only legitimate if it means a path towards a better life for humanity – which in parallel implies a profound respect for Humus, the Earth, the planet to which we (humans) “belong”, and on which our welfare and that of other species entirely depend. During this period, we have brought upon ourselves a strange predicament – where we, humans, but also nature and other species, have become resources and variables of adjustment at the service of economic, financial, and technological progress. As we are seeking new solutions for this age of radical uncertainty, it should really be the other way around: humanity and the planet should be at the centre. The good news is that this predicament is our own doing – which implies that we can collectively decide to reorient ourselves in a different direction.
"We need to move from a logic of compensation for, or mitigation of, negative externalities to a logic where regeneration (of nature, humans and societies) is integrated by design at the core of all our systems – economic, social, political, technological and geopolitical."
The solution is both plainly simple in principle and hugely complex in practice because of the many blinders and vested interests that prevent us from living up to the urgency of paradigmatic change. We have to work collectively to inscribe sustainability and inclusion at the core of our systems. We need to move from a logic of compensation for, or mitigation of, negative externalities to a logic where regeneration (of nature, humans and societies) is integrated by design at the core of all our systems – economic, social, political, technological and geopolitical. This would revive the true meaning of a humanist liberal tradition and make it fit for purpose for our current world. Putting humanity, human ability and responsibility at the centre (humanist liberal tradition) impose in our current world a core focus on the survival of our planet and a fully inclusive definition of humanity.
Everything is possible, even the impossible, if it becomes a collective endeavour motivated by the urgency of survival. In recent years, global governance has been weakened by the type of centrifugal, fragmenting, and entropic trends discussed above. How can we mobilise collective action, despite, and while acknowledging that we live in an archipelago of different, if not irreconcilable, value systems? In fact, we can reconnect precisely around common existential threats – the environment, the nuclear perils, or the more diffused threats that ungoverned technology can bring about for our species. We should reconnect by mobilising meta-values that are essential survival mechanisms in periods of radical uncertainty. Collaboration is one, as the resilience of the human species through time would have been impossible without collaboration. Coherence and integrity are also key, particularly when talking about leadership – and in reverse many of the troubles we find ourselves in today could be explained by their absence at the helm of many institutions and organisations. Courage, finally, may be the most important one.
Our age of radical uncertainty makes courage imperative. Courage is not recklessness. As Plato or Aristotle define it, courage is “thoughtful firmness”. Having courage is not ignoring risk, danger or fear but knowing how to live and act in spite of and by mastering them. Courage is, by its very nature, an affair of the heart – it is by accepting our emotions and our human vulnerabilities that we affirm it. But courage is also passion. For Plato, as for Confucius, true courage can only be at the service of integrity, justice and the common good. Courage is turned towards the other more than towards the ego; it is an eminently social and profoundly human and humanist virtue. For philosophers, courage is a virtue that can be worked on, acquired, deployed, and deepened. It is by regularly and repeatedly performing acts of courage that we become courageous. We can and must work on increasing our collective reserves of courage.
What does the operationalisation of courage mean for International Geneva and its leadership in particular when the objective is such a profound change in paradigm? It means being ready for active listening and learning across and beyond all boundaries (organisational, specialisation, disciplinary, thematic, age and generation). It means taking the risk to foster and nurture out-of-the-box ideas and innovative solutions even under burning daily pressure – giving room to exploration even when exploitation pressure is at its highest. It means being ready to face and overcome inevitable resistance as the status quo and vested interest dynamics will likely be strong. It means authenticity and coherence – aligning action and decisions at all organisational levels with the re-centring of sustainability and inclusiveness. It means, finally, a degree of selflessness – courageous leadership is often servant leadership where the objective is not personal power but collective transformation. While it is an ambitious projection, it is commensurate with the challenges of today.
About the Author
Marie-Laure Salles is the Director of the Geneva Graduate Institute.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Geneva Policy Outlook or its partner organisations.