This crisis has been lurching on — and on — for half a decade now. No wonder that, as a good friend remarked to me the other day, everyone we know (young, dumb, and hopelessly awesome) seems foot-draggingly tired, existentially fatigued — literally world-weary.
So much human potential squandered for such a significant chunk of time in a life; so much time spent grinding one's wheels can, it's true, exhaust one's fuel for living; can come to leave one feeling stuck in the existential desert. So what happens now? More of the same — a perma-crisis whose human toll on you and I seems to be a kind of crisis-malaise, a habituation to human heartache, the dulling of the once-razor-sharp edge of what could have been? Is that it — all there is, for us, this "lost" generation?
Not a chance. What happens now is this. We create the future.
We're on the cusp of what I call The Human Age: an age in history rich with Big Ideas about, and Great Transformations towards, eudaimonia — life lived meaningfully well.
Let me explain. The other day, I remarked on Twitter: American politics' biggest Achilles Heel is that it seems closed to fundamentally new Big Ideas. Alex Howard asked me, in response, don't things like Big Data, nanotech, genomics, and drones count as new ideas? It's a very sharp question.
So here's my answer. Yes — and no. Let me be clear. I'm 100% for science and technology, and especially for basic research. I think it's crucial, vital, irreplaceable. But... here's the but, via a hypothetical.
Imagine that I pioneer a wondrous nanomaterials startup that offers everyone a blindingly awesome new technology. What's likely to happen, without institutional innovation — without better building blocks for markets, corporations, and economies, in this case?
Well, the first thing that's likely to happen is...nothing. Wall St and Sand Hill Rd probably won't bat an eyelid at my startup, choosing, instead, to do what they've been doing for the last decade or so: allocating capital to Groupon, Zynga, Facebook, and their ilk. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that by some miracle of virtue, that they do invest in my amazing nanomaterials startup. What happens next? Well, without political innovation, I'll get rich, and my backers will get rich — but the middle class is likely to continue its long, slow slide into oblivion. The benefits of technological innovation, in other words, without institutional innovation, are likely to remain hyperconcentrated at the top — with all the attendant problems that stem therefrom: regulatory capture, political gridlock, mega-lobbying, middle class implosion, planetary destruction, and finally, more of the same: real economic stagnation. Think I'm kidding? See this chart, from Amir Sufi, professor at the University of Chicago's Booth School.
We've never needed Big New Ideas — fundamentally transformative ideas about how to organize the economy, society, and polity — more.
Like what? Like reinventing the rusting iron core of the economic solar system, GDP — to include the costs of planetary catastrophe. Like reimagining national accounts — to count not just money and machines, but stuff that matters, like creativity. Like redesigning democracy — so much so that ordinary folks like you and I can rewrite constitutions. Like reinventing corporations — to create more than just shareholder value. Like redefining "reporting" — to include the real human impact institutions have, not just the "profit" they mindlessly generate. Like revolutionizing our conception of what prosperity is and why it matters — to encompass the quiet wholeness and furious incandescence of a life well lived.
You might think the above is either the outline of my new science fiction screenplay, or the utopian output of a brainstorming session I had with the world's coolest kindergarten class.
Think again. Every single item in the agenda above isn't maybe, just maybe, barely possible — it's already happening. The agenda above isn't a to-do list: it's a we're-already-doing-it list, composed of institutional innovations from countries like India, Brazil, Sweden, France, Denmark — and even, to a lesser extent us, right here in America. It's the agenda at the heart of my new project, How to Fix the World, and you can see the map — and the building blocks of the map — at its website.
I know. It's difficult to understand: what happens now? What should you and I do next? What do our lives add up to — if they don't add up to megabucks and gadgets, trinkets and toys, power and position? Where do we go from here?
What do we do with the paradigms that irreparably damage the better selves we don't just hope to be, but, if meaning is our destination, that we need to become? Do we — if that's all that's left to us — sell out for pennies? Do we buy in at the price of our souls? Of course we're left exhausted by dilemma, weary before our times with regret for what never was. In this dry human desert, we feel nothing, rough grains of sand slipping through our fingers, but an arid meaninglessness; that our lives haven't mattered, and won't; that all we have left, tomorrow and tomorrow, is to furiously, fruitlessly pursue mirage after mirage. There can be no fate more wearying than that.
We're wrong. Perhaps the existential malaise you and I feel is a kind of disillusionment. And perhaps, though cruel, the fading of the mirage is how the rough road out of the desert and to the sea is found. And perhaps our challenge is pioneering that rough road.
Want to fix your soul? Fix the world. Here's what, given this Great Splintering, this savage age of institutional breakdown, you probably won't get: the gleaming opportunity to spend your life polishing up PowerPoint decks to sell disposable plastic junk so you can buy stuff you don't really need with money you don't really have to live a life you don't really want.
That's what we used to call "a life". But the mirage is fading.
So — if you're weary pursuing the mirage — here's a secret: stop chasing it already. The unasked gift of crisis, perhaps, is this: not to squander one's life hunched over in the dark, sweating to mine yesterday's fools' gold, but to navigate our ways, at last, towards humanity.
I don't want a revolution. I want a million tiny revolutions. Awakenings to the heart-stopping commandment life gives to the living: to believe in life. Weary and directionless in the desert we may be — yet, the future, a sunlit ocean, never ceases singing. Sometimes, all we have to do is listen.
Each and every one of us is a leader. Some of just don't know it yet.