Principles for a livable future
In 2021, the world is very confusing. Many of us have the overriding feeling that something needs to change fundamentally. There are many ideas, concepts, and theories about what this change should look like. From technology optimism and liberalism to consumer-critical approaches, to the “back-to-nature” reflex, to communism and anarchism, there are many frameworks of thought about what is the right path to a livable world for all.
As valuable as these concepts and theories are, the landscape of ideas is also confusing. In addition, the heterogeneity of these ideas bears the risk of discussing for discussion’s sake: discussing the best approach is no longer done to agree on the best course of action, but as a discipline of its own, to preserve one’s own identity and to somehow “win the argument”.
However, the orientation that these ideas and concepts give to one’s actions is essential. This function, however, can also be fulfilled in another way: through principles.
What are principles?
“Principle” (from Latin principium = origin, beginning) means a fundamental regularity, on which the concrete shaping of a system follows. To make the matter a bit more tangible, I will try to outline in the following the principles on which the world of today with many of its problems is built.
The principles on which today’s world is built
A fundamental characteristic of contemporary social conditions is that we all exist separately. Separated from each other, separated from our environment and nature. Separate means independent. We are not dependent on the people around us or an intact biosphere. After all, we all have our own bodies, how could we possibly be in touch with each other? At the same time, we are alone with our problems, not seeing that many suffer in the same way from the pressures of the job market, exaggerated ideals of beauty, gender roles, and ideas of success shaped by the media and advertising.
The principle of competition assumes that when several parties interact, there are always winners and losers and that the sum of the gain and the loss is always zero. If we accept this principle as true, the consequence is that we are concerned about our own gain before we think about the welfare of others. After all, there is only so much profit to go around. This in turn leads to extremely competitive and manipulative behavior for our own benefit — be it in business, in personal relationships, in everyday work.
The principle of competition is based on the assumption of scarcity. After all, it makes no sense to compete for something of which there is enough for everyone anyway. This principle says: “There is not enough for everyone. Not enough land, water, food, roofs, love, security, care, and carelessness.” Whether this is so, we will see later.
To keep a global society going under the assumption of scarcity and competition, a certain level of coordination is needed. The form of organization that emerges from competition and scarcity is a highly hierarchical one. Finally, under the assumption of scarcity, it makes sense that there is not enough power for everyone, that is, that some people can have power but not everyone. The consequence is an organizational system in which people have less and less power, pyramiding from top to bottom.
Taking on Debt
Be it in the monetary economy or the consideration of our energy budget: our society only functions because we incur debts. The growth of the world economy is based on the fact that states take on debts to themselves by printing more money. In the same way, this growth is represented by an energetic taking on of debt in real production: The energy budget we have available each day is very clearly defined by the amount of energy that arrives on Earth each day through the sun’s rays. At the moment, however, we use only a fraction of this and meet our energy needs mainly from fossil fuels. In these, energy is stored that arrived on earth millions of years ago as solar energy. So we are borrowing energy from the past instead of fully using the energy that comes to us every day.
To live up to the principle of competition and to win constantly, the winners must keep growing to continue winning in the future. They must be faster than their opponents to be better at producing and exploiting. This principle only works under the assumption that we can continue to incur debt indefinitely, both financially and energetically.
This all reads rather constricting and scary so far. At least that’s how I feel. Before we get to the optimistic outlook into the future, I would like to invite you to think about each principle and how it is reflected in your life. Also, I’d like to invite you to write to me if I’ve forgotten anything! (Contact at the end of the article)
Principles for a livable future
Now I would like to propose some alternatives to the current prevailing principles. Consider them, as an offer for an alternative compass to navigate through the world. As a proposal for a benchmark for future-oriented action. This collection of principles is not a formulated blueprint for organizing a sustainable society, but my “best guess” about what we should look for when we engage in change work.
We are all connected. I am most connected to the people who are closest to me. But the homeless person in front of the supermarket is also connected to me. We are connected by the social conditions that have created both of our positions in society: his position with very little material resources and security; mine with enough resources and security to write articles like this. What many people who pass this person every day do not admit to themselves, however, is that they also suffer from these conditions, that they would also be better off if they could free themselves from the package of ideals and ideas of a good life that comes free with the birth certificate. They don’t admit this similarity because then they would suddenly have to take an interest in this person, recognize that his problems are also theirs and that their “having ”is at least partly responsible for his “not having”. By seeing themselves as separate from him, it’s easier to pass by, feel sorry for him briefly, and then go back to minding their own business.
Beyond that, we are all inevitably connected by the ecosystems that make our survival on this planet possible. We breathe the same air, eat food grown on the same soil, and put it all at risk together through the same mechanisms.
When we begin to understand our fundamental interconnectedness, we gain the ability to have compassion for others. We begin to understand that within all of us is the hero of our own story, that we all have dreams and want to make a difference. Compassion — as opposed to pity or empathy — is the ability to meet another person at eye level and see them in their entirety. On the one hand, to see their successes, their “positive” qualities. On the other hand, to see their potential to grow and to let go of old patterns. And never to forget that all the doubts and worries and twisted detours we sometimes take are part of it — but they are not what makes us who we are. They are like thin clouds passing in front of the sun.
If we assume connectedness, rather than separation, as the preceding principle, the logical next question is: How can we support each other in contributing to the greater whole? If we all depend on the same resources, how can we best share them? If I have come to a realization through painful mistakes, how can I make it easier for others?
In contrast to scarcity, I propose to assume that there is fundamentally enough for everyone. Enough energy and therefore food, enough land, water, love, care, and carelessness. And indeed: every day the sun delivers many thousands of times as much energy to the earth’s surface as we would actually need (thanks Wikipedia). Of course, that doesn’t mean we can convert all that energy into electricity, but that’s not the point. Plants, for example, are very good at making carbohydrates and proteins from electromagnetic energy like that found in solar radiation, forms of energy that are useful to humans. We also have fundamentally no overall shortage of fresh water and land (not yet at least). The point is we are dealing with a question of management and distribution of resources. Not with a question of who gets to eat and who doesn’t.
At the moment, under the assumption of scarcity, competition fulfills the function of distributing resources. However, if we assume abundance and we are also willing to cooperate, another possibility emerges out of nowhere: self-organization. It works like this: Solutions emerge under the right conditions (I have already written an article about these conditions here), where they are needed, from the interaction of the actors involved. This principle seems to be a fundamental property of our reality, so it seems very counter-intuitive to me to suddenly rely on a pyramidal organization instead of a network-like one in our human-made world.
I have the feeling that these principles if we consistently reflect them in our actions, could point the way to a future worth living for everyone. How do you see that? Do you disagree, or have I missed something? Feel free to email me or get in touch on social media (see below).
If you liked this article, if you want to discuss it, if you see things differently, or if you want to take the idea further, please contact me. By mail, Linked-In, or Twitter. I look forward to your message!
*This paragraph is strongly inspired by Maria Nemeth and her ontological coaching model.