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Revolution or Renaissance

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D. Paul Schafer

Prologue

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Ours is possibly one of the most critical periods in human experience. Poised in the transition between one kind of world and another, we are literally on the hinge of a great transformation in the whole human condition.—John McHale (1969), p. 15

1There is mounting evidence to confirm that humanity has arrived at a crucial turning point in history. One piece of evidence is the environmental crisis and, with it, climate change and growing shortages of strategic resources such as wood, water, coal, electricity, oil, fish, rice, corn, and, especially, arable land. Another piece of evidence is the persistent gap between rich and poor countries, and between rich and poor people. Still other pieces of evidence are alarming levels of pollution, poverty, famine, and unemployment; the spread of infectious diseases; increased violence and terrorism; the threat of biological, chemical, and nuclear warfare; and the failure to achieve “development with a human face.” It does not take a great leap of the imagination to visualize the kind of world that could result if solutions to these problems are not found.

2Standing behind these problems is an even more dangerous and potentially life-threatening problem. With the world's population at six billion and growing rapidly, and with the carrying capacity of the Earth severely limited, the entire global ecosystem could collapse if ways are not discovered to prevent it.

3It is for reasons such as these that more and more people throughout the world are coming to the conclusion that a major transformation is needed in the human condition to set things right. Can this transformation be achieved in peaceful ways? Or will it be necessary to resort to a great deal of violence?

4In the past, transformations in the human condition have come about in both peaceful and violent ways (see, for example, the works by Boulding, de Waal, Eibl-Eibesfelt, Keeley, Margalis and Sagan, Sahtouris, and Watson cited in the Bibliography). There have been times when transformations in the human condition have been achieved by peaceful means, largely through general evolution or a renaissance. In the twentieth century, for example, substantial improvements were made in living standards and people's lives, primarily in the western world, through evolution. This occurred as a result of phenomenal advances in commerce, business, industry, science, technology, communications, and agriculture. Moreover, a renaissance occurred in Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and fanned out to encompass the whole of Europe and other parts of the world in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, sweeping away one established order and introducing another through peaceful means. It was predicated on major advances in the arts and sciences, incredible bursts of creativity and imagination, and new ways of looking at the world, acting in the world, and valuing things in the world.

5In contrast, the revolutions that occurred in France in the eighteenth century, and in Russia and China in the twentieth century, were not achieved without a great deal of violence. They were also predicated on sweeping away one established order and introducing another. They stand as vivid testimony to what can happen when political and military leaders, governments, and countries conclude that transformations in the human condition can be achieved only through bloodshed, brutality, and oppression.

6What makes the encounter with developments such as these so pertinent to the present situation is the fact that once again we have arrived at a crucial turning point in history. Can the changes that are needed in the human condition be achieved through a renaissance or general evolution? Or will it be necessary to resort to a great deal of violence and revolution?

7What is bringing this situation to a head is the conflict that is raging throughout the world at present over glaring inequalities in income and wealth, globalization, free trade, capitalism, the profit motive, the division of the world into two unequal parts, and fundamental differences between religions, cultures, and civilizations. As the terrorist attacks in the United States, Britain, Egypt, and Spain, hostilities in Iraq, elsewhere in the Middle East, and Afghanistan, and the reactions to globalization and free trade in Seattle, Quebec City, Gothenberg, Genoa, Cancun, and elsewhere in the world have demonstrated, and demonstrated convincingly, the world is divided into opposing camps. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the transformation that is needed in the human condition can come about through peaceful means, largely through acquiescing to the present world system, and allowing the forces of globalization, free trade, capitalism, democracy, corporatism, and technological development to run their course. On the other hand, there are those who believe that the transformation that is needed in the human condition can be achieved only through conflict, confrontation, and revolution. The evidence seems to be mounting on the side of the latter group. The protests are getting more frequent, the barricades are getting higher, the security measures are getting tighter, violence and terrorism are more commonplace, and the rhetoric is more high-pitched.

8It is impossible to understand the reasons for the present situation without examining the economic age that underlies the current world system and has given rise to it. Violence, terrorism, globalization, free trade, capitalism, corporatism, profit maximization, inequalities in income and wealth, and the division of the world into two unequal parts are deeply embedded in the economic age in which we live. It is an age that has made economics and economies in general, and products, profits, technology, specialization, consumption, competition, economic growth, the marketplace, capitalism, and materialism in particular, the centrepiece of society, and the principal preoccupation of municipal, regional, national and international development.

9Many may question the contention that the present age is an economic age, preferring to call it an information age, a technological age, a scientific age, a communications age, a capitalistic age, or a materialistic age. However, while information, technology, science, communications, capitalism and materialism have played powerful roles in shaping the age we are living in, it is economics, more than any other factor or set of factors, that plays the dominant role in the world, as it has for more than two hundred years. It is the magnetic force around which all other forces have galvanized and coalesced, thereby shaping the entire way the world is visualized, understood, and dealt with today. There is a logical reason for this. Economics and economies in general, and economic growth and development in particular, are seen as the principal means for increasing material and monetary wealth, and making improvements in society. This has produced an economic age that draws heavily on information, science, technology, communications, capitalism, and materialism, but incorporates these and other factors within its gargantuan grasp.

10How did the economic age originate? How has it evolved over the past two hundred years and more? What worldview underlies it? What model of development drives it? What forces dominate it? How does it function throughout the world? These are the tough questions that must be asked, and answered, if justice is to be done to the economic age. In order to answer these questions it is necessary to delve deeply into the domain of economics. This makes it possible to examine the theories, ideas, policies and practices that have been and are most instrumental in shaping the economic age, and giving it its form, content, and character. These theories, ideas, practices, and policies have been developed by countless individuals, institutions, countries, and governments throughout the world, especially the western world, as well as by such well-known economists as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Robert Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, Alfred Marshall, John Maynard Keynes, John Kenneth Galbraith, Milton Friedman, and others. However, while the origins, evolution, and functioning of the economic age make for fascinating reading in their own right, that is not the real reason for delving deeply into the domain of economics. The real reason has to do with determining whether the economic age is capable of producing the changes that are needed in the human condition and world system to address the difficult, demanding and debilitating problems that have loomed up on the global horizon in recent years.

11In order to ascertain this, it is necessary to subject the economic age to vigorous evaluation. On the one hand, this means examining the numerous strengths of the economic age, strengths that many people and countries in the world enjoy today. On the other hand, it means analyzing the many shortcomings of the economic age, shortcomings that many people and countries are compelled to endure every day. If, as John McHale contended (1969, p. 3), people survive, uniquely, by their capacity to “act in the present on the basis of past experience considered in terms of future consequences,” then it makes sense to assess the economic age in order to determine whether it is capable of delivering the changes that are needed in the human condition and the world system to set things right.

12When this process is completed and the balance sheet is composed on the economic age, the overriding conclusion that emerges is that the economic age is not capable of delivering the changes that are needed. In fact, the longer the economic age is perpetuated, the more dangerous the consequences will be, particularly in terms of further degeneration of the natural environment, consumption of the world’s scarce renewable and non-renewable resources at an alarming rate, multiplication of consumer demands and expectations that are impossible to fulfil, substantial inequalities in income and wealth between rich and poor countries, and between rich and poor people, failure to achieve “development with a human face,” and the potential collapse of the entire global ecosystem. This makes it imperative to ask what type of age would be capable of addressing these problems and producing the changes that are needed to deal with them.

13Needless to say, there are many different views and opinions on what type of age this should be. For some, it should be a totally different kind of economic age, based on knowledge, information, ideas, services, and “the global economy” rather than machines, industry, products, and municipal, regional and national economies. For others, it should be an environmental age, capable of conserving resources, controlling pollution, reducing global warming, protecting the biosphere, and radically changing people’s attitudes towards nature, the natural environment, and other species. For still others, it should be a technological or communications age, capable of capitalizing on the computer revolution, the shift from verbal to visual literacy, global networking, the internet, electronic highways, cyberspace, and mind-boggling changes in communications. For still others again, it should be a political, social, scientific, artistic or spiritual age, based on preventing terrorism, providing safety and security, promoting democracy, reducing the production of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, conquering outer space, capitalizing on major advances in science, biotechnology and genetics, creating new social and legal structures, fashioning new moral and ethical codes, and evolving new aesthetic and religious values.

14While all these views and opinions have a legitimate claim to the type of age that is most needed in the future, many signs point in the direction of a “cultural age.” Most prominent among these signs are the holistic transformation that is taking place in the world today, the environmental movement, the encounter with human needs, the struggle for equality, the necessity of identity, the quest for quality of life, the focus on creativity, and the rise of culture as a crucial force in the world.

15What makes a cultural age so compelling is the fact that it possesses the potential to bring about a transformation in the human condition and the world system in peaceful rather than violent ways, through a renaissance rather than a revolution. Its potential to achieve this is based on taking a comprehensive and egalitarian approach to the world system, rather than a partial and partisan approach, instituting the safeguards and precautions that are essential to ensure that culture, cultures, and civilizations are dealt with in positive rather than negative ways, and focusing on “ends” as well as “means.” This makes it possible to place the priority on the whole (rather than a part of the whole, as is the case with the economic age), as well as to achieve balanced, harmonious and equitable relationships between the parts and the whole, economics and all other activities in society. Not only would this help to reduce the demands human beings are making in the natural environment, but also it would place humanity in a stronger position to make sensible and sustainable decisions about future directions in planetary civilization.

16Whereas Part I of the book is largely descriptive, factual and explanatory in nature, primarily because we are living in an economic age at present, Part II is much more exploratory, analytical, and prospective. Its purpose is to sketch out a general portrait of a cultural age and put enough flesh on it so that it can stand alongside other portraits of the future age, and act as a guide to human development and decision-making in the years and decades ahead.

17In order to sketch out this portrait, it is necessary to delve deeply into the realm of culture. On the one hand, this means examining the theories, ideas, insights, and works of many cultural scholars and practitioners, since it is on these that the foundations for a cultural age would be established. On the other hand, it means building up an understanding of the way a cultural age would function in fact, especially as it relates to the mechanics, priorities, and flourishing of such an age.

18What stands out most clearly when this portrait is completed is how different a cultural age might be from an economic age. Not only would it be based on different theoretical, practical, historical and philosophical foundations, but also it would flow from different principles, priorities, policies, and practices. This is essential if humanity is to come to grips with the life-threatening problems of the present and cross over the threshold to a more exhilarating future.

© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 2008

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