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Revolution or Renaissance

D. Paul Schafer


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When we think of the world’s future, we always mean the destination it will reach if it keeps going in the direction we can see it going in now; it does not occur to us that its path is not a straight line but a curve, constantly changing direction.—Ludwig Wittgenstein (1980), p. 3e.

1Due to developments over the last few centuries, and particularly over the last fifty years, the entire world is now living in an economic age. It is an age that has achieved many remarkable things and produced countless benefits, especially for people and countries fortunate enough to enjoy them. Foremost among the benefits are substantial improvements in living standards and the quality of life for more and more people throughout the world, phenomenal increases in the production of goods and services and the realm of consumer choice, and major advances in science, technology, industry, agriculture, education, and health care.

2Despite this, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the economic age is the cause of some of the world’s most difficult and demanding problems. This is particularly true with respect to the environmental crisis, climate change, depletion of the world’s natural resources at a disturbing rate, the persistent gap between rich and poor countries and rich and poor people, and tensions between the “developed” and “developing” parts of the world. These problems are bound to become more severe and life-threatening as population increases, the globe’s scarce resources are used up, and the carrying capacity of the planet is approached.

3This is why it is so essential to pass out of the present economic age and into a future cultural age. What a cultural age provides is a way of addressing these problems—and others that have loomed up on the global horizon—in a holistic, humane, and egalitarian manner rather than a specialized, impersonal, and partisan manner. This makes it possible to situate economics and economies properly in context, recognize the crucial importance of the natural environment and history in global development and human affairs, and reduce the demands human beings are making on the world’s scarce resources by achieving a better balance between activities that are high in material input and output and activities that are low in material input and output.

4In a cultural age, strategic roles would be reserved for governments and international organizations, educational institutions, the cultural community, and people and civil society. Governments and international organizations could perform their role most effectively by utilizing a cultural model of development in government and the decision-making process, as well as by accelerating their efforts to reduce the gap between rich and poor countries and rich and poor people.

5Educational institutions could execute their role most effectively by making a full commitment to cultural education, as well as by broadening and deepening understanding of cultural differences and facilitating as many exchanges as possible between the diverse peoples, cultures, and civilizations of the world.

6The cultural community would also have a key role to play in a cultural age. It is required to spearhead the renaissance that is so badly needed in the future. In order to perform this role, the community will have to be much more consolidated and cohesive than it is today. It will also have to be much more vocal. As Melina Mercouri put it when she was Culture Minister for Greece (p. 6): “It is time for our voice to be heard as loud as that of the technocrats. Culture, art, and creativity are not less important than technology, commerce, and the economy.”

7But the most important role would be reserved for people and civil society. The world system will not change until people and civil society become much more fully and actively involved in the quest to change it, largely by taking a cultural approach to life. For culture is much more than a career, a profession, or a vocation. It is a way of life—a way of life that spans the gamut of possibilities, from how people visualize the world and organize themselves to how they conduct their affairs, elevate and embellish life, and position themselves in the world.

8With developments like these and others in place, it is possible to see the pale outlines of a cultural age. Based on developing all the various cultures of the world and instituting the necessary safeguards and precautions, it is an age predicated on ensuring that culture's highest, wisest, and most enduring values and ideals receive the attention and priority they deserve in the world system of the future. In such an age, artistic creation, scientific discovery, respect for the natural environment and each other, life-long learning, spirituality, friendship, family life, and human love would be the most essential things in life, the things that bring peace and fulfilment as well as harmony and happiness. As the Indonesian philosopher Takdir Alisjahbana put it (1983, pp. 12-13):

In the great movement of time which we call human history, we must ask ourselves the question, “Where are we, and where is our road leading to?” in the hope that through an understanding of the growths and declines, of the successes and the failures of cultures, we will acquire some clues that will lead us to the right decisions in our time.

9Let us hope that we discover the clues that are necessary to make “the right decisions in our time.” What is at stake here is the quality of life, environmental sustainability, and human well-being. This is why making the transition from an economic age to a cultural age is so essential: The future of humanity and the world depend on it.

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

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