I wrote this article around two weeks ago in an Indian meditation ashram. Corona was just starting to spread to the west and nobody could imagine how massive the global impact of this virus would be. I for sure couldn´t. In the light of the current events, I am hoping that this article will fall on sympathetic ears. In case you feel more comfortable reading it in your mother tongue, try www.deepl.com. They provide great translations (better than google translate). Just copy paste.
The other day I read an article, in which it said that Germans are highly satisfied about their current life situation, the highest rate since the reunification 30 years ago. At the same time it stated that less than 23% of Germans are optimistic about the economic future. Only the French (19%) and the Japanese (15%) are even more pessimistic. The Indians (77%) and the Chinese (69%) on the other hand are highly optimistic about the future. This startled me and left me thinking. What are the implications of these statistics? What are the insinuations if the large majority of the people of one of the richest countries in the world, the 4th largest economy in the world, thinks: “My life is overall pretty good. But I don´t think the future looks very bright.”? In my opinion this statement points to the fact that we are on the verge of the biggest paradigm change in human history, that we all are standing at the crossroads and it´s in our hands which way we want to go.
Ok, before I´m being accused of exaggeration lets back up for a minute. We are living in a capitalistic system. Today there is not one corner of this world that is excluded from it. We are all connected and dependent on each other in one form or another. Money makes the world go round. Today many people have quite negative connotations with the word capitalism, especially in Europe, but increasingly also in the United States, the prototype capitalistic country, as the popularity of the Democratic socialist Bernie Sanders shows.
Arguably the route cause for this change in sentiment can be found in the largely deregulated and unleashed financial markets and culminated in the financial crisis of 2007/08. But contrary to the public perception, capitalism is not something that human kind has invented just recently in the past century. The only thing that developed recently – in the past 150 years or so – is its bad reputation of exploiting the majority of the working class and the environment with its natural resources in favor of the increasing wealth of a few. Capitalism has become a dirty word, maybe unjustified but also with due reason. In the last four decades, partly criminal speculation has lead to an unprecedented misbalance between financial and productive capital, fostered through the non-intervention of the government, which leads to the situation that 0,1% of the world´s population are in possession of around 80% of the global financial wealth.
However, truth is thanks to capitalism we achieved the living standard we have today, with all its inequalities we may still have. A question worth asking might also be if equality in itself is even a goal that is worth striving for. But how did capitalism come into existence? Well there´s a great book written by Yuval Noah Harari called Sapiens, which explains in detail the history of us humans and therefore also of capitalism. But in short, in the 1stto the 2nd millennia BC money (in the definition as we understand it today) was invented and slowly but surely replaced trade as the main means for commerce. With the invention of money, the mindset of investing increasingly developed and with it first banking structures started to emerge. Until then there was no room for entrepreneurship as you wouldn´t get any credit. Also without the mindset of investing, the pie was only so big, meaning that if you expanded your business, you would take some business away from somebody else. So it was not being considered as a noble act.
With the increasing popularity of investing money, two fundamental new principles manifested themselves: First people realized that through investing money, the pie would steadily increase and everybody would get a bigger slice. Second, for the first time in history, people actually believed that the future could be better than the present. Why else would you invest or lend money to someone if you didn´t believe in a return on your investment in the near future? And why else would you take the risk of indebting yourself if you didn´t believe that your hard work would pay off in a few years?
So this brings us back to the question asked above. What are the implications for our economic system, our political system, our world, if the large majority of one of the richest countries in the world doesn’t believe in a better future anymore? Doesn´t that mean that we hit a peak? Doesn´t that mean that the old promise of a better tomorrow loses its credibility and strength when an economy reached a certain level of riches and wealth? Doesn´t it mean that the old principles and values that enabled us to achieve this exceptional economic development, especially in the past 200 years, have to be revised? Doesn´t it indicate the limitations of material abundance and that this abundance is not making us any happier, if not more miserable? Doesn´t it suggest that our definition of growth needs to be redefined? Doesn´t it show that the capitalistic system as we see it today is outdated and needs to be revised? When this topic is being discussed in newspapers or talk shows, most people seem to be stuck in old ways of thinking. If you are criticizing capitalism you must be a socialist or better yet, a communist. And the line of argumentation usually goes something like: “We have seen that 100 years of Socialism only brought poverty and death. Capitalism on the other hand brought riches and an unmatched standard of living.” Yes, that´s right. Nobody can argue with that. Indeed, criticizers of capitalism always seem to emphasize on wealth distribution, what is often being disregarded, however, is wealth creation. So what now? We can hardly accumulate more riches without sawing off the branch we are sitting on. Isn´t it time to think outside the box? Isn´t it time to ask ourselves fundamental questions instead of giving the same answers to the same old questions over and over again? There seem to be two topics that are untouchable in western society and cannot be put into question in public. And that is democracy and capitalism. Why don´t we ask questions such as: Why do we want to keep growing? What do we want to grow into? Can and should we redefine growth? Does more make us more happy? Is the average German today happier than lets say a German peasant in the Middle Ages during peaceful times? And if not, then why do we keep doing what we´re doing? What are the collective values of our society? What is the vision of our society? And to be more precise: Why do we keep working jobs, which we don´t like, just to buy stuff we don´t actually need to impress people we don´t like and which in the end leaves us feeling empty and unhappy? Why don´t we break out of this vicious cycle? I mean why? Do you have a satisfying answer? These are uncomfortable questions. These questions take us out of our comfort zones. These questions threaten our current status quo, our standard of living that we have gotten so used to. Because deep inside we know that we are leading an excessive lifestyle and that we externalize the price that is to be paid for the same. History shows that fundamental changes in society always need a certain amount of collective pain to feed on. Does it really need to hurt before we start rethinking?
Capitalists always tend to paint a very pretty picture of this world. However, they seem to have a blind eye when it comes to its flaws. The upsides of capitalism are very obvious. Just look at your own life. While I´m typing these lines in my Macbook Air, I´m sitting in an Indian meditation center – thanks to capitalism. We had the choice and the financial means to just quit our jobs and travel for an undefined period of time – thanks to capitalism. So without a doubt, from an individual perspective or even from a national perspective and maybe even from a western perspective, capitalism has triumphed. But isn´t that just a little bit shortsighted? I mean, have you ever asked yourself why we call most western countries ‘developed’ and most other countries ‘developing’ countries? What are the implications when the collective subconsciousness of the west is being told for decades: ‘You are developed.’ Well, there are two important implications. First, imagine if a caterpillar were told that it´s developed, would it even try to go out of its comfort zone, through the pain of transformation, without knowing that it will eventually evolve into a butterfly? Doesn´t the labeling of being ‘developed’ foster the resistance for change we are seeing in the west? Second, countries, which are being labeled as ‘developing’, naturally strive towards the countries labeled as ‘developed’. And they have every right to do so. So the western countries are their role models. But taking a macro perspective, what does that mean for our planet? What we westerners tend to ignore is the price that´s being paid for our high living standard. The stupendous economic growth and wealth that we have accumulated over the past decades could only be achieved because the rest of the world was poor. I´m not going into the exploitation through more than 200 years of colonization. Now that other countries are catching up, above all China, the flaws of our economic system become obvious. The pie that is continually expanding in correlation to economic growth is a capitalistic pipe dream. We only have one planet and with a certain amount of resources that have to be shared between nearly 8 billion people. As long as Elon Musk has not found a solution to colonize another planet, there is no planet B. In order to restore the ecological resources that humanity is currently consuming, like water, land, wood and clean air, we would need 1,75 earths. Last year, Germany used up its resources on July 29th already, meaning that all the resources that were being consumed for the remaining rest of the year, could not be restored. To put this into context: If everyone would have the privilege to have our lifestyle, we would need three earths! Now, there is the fair argument of capitalists that technology will fix those problems like it has often done in the past. So lets assume that´s true. What would it mean for humanity if, thanks to incredible technological breakthroughs, large parts of the world could achieve the standard of living we see in the west today? What price do we have to pay for that, if lets say even only one third of the world’s population would achieve our living standard? Wouldn´t we create new problems? Wouldn´t we distance ourselves even further from nature and its natural workings and by that from ourselves? And coming back to the survey at the beginning of this article: Wouldn´t the entire world at some point stop believing in a better future? And what reason to live would there be left then?
This brings me to the, in my opinion, biggest flaw of the capitalist mindset. A mindset that has largely been triggered by monotheistic religious ideologies. There is one God, the creator, and He created man in his own likeness equipped with inalienable rights (according to the American constitution). This presumptuous arrogance let to the perception and eventually to the unquestionable conviction that we, Homo Sapiens, are special and of more worth than any other creature on this planet. Hence, there is God on top, then there is us, the wise men, and at the bottom all other creatures. Through this thinking a deeply routed perception of separation has been implanted in the collective human mind over the past 2000 years, which suggests that we take some sort of special place in this world instead of simply acknowledging that we are just one small part of Mother Nature. And no matter if we are religious or not, we all act according to that perception. For thousands of years we lived in awe of nature. We respected nature and its creatures. Maybe because we had to in order to survive. Yes we killed other animals and yes we burnt down forests. But that was also for the sake of our survival because for the longest part of our existence we were not the top of the evolution pyramid. That we are trying to control nature and exploit Mother Earth is a new phenomenon of the last two millennia and hit its peak in the last 100 years.
We hunt down wild animals and take away their natural habitat until they become extinct. On the other hand we have nearly 1 billion cows, 2 billion pigs and almost 24 billion chickens! If these numbers are not shocking enough, we can also put them into context by analyzing what constitutes the total biomass of all vertebrates. Turns out that only 3% of the total biomass amounts to wild animals. This includes all animals from whales and elephants to frogs and mice. The other 97%? Well that is us humans and all the farm animals that we bred. In German we have a different word for farm animal. We call them Nutztiere, which can be translated as ’animals for production’. That´s a quite straightforward and maybe more accurate term. As we all know, but are so good at ignoring is, that most of these animals have a miserable life and we justify it by stating that we kill them in a “humane” way, whatever that means. We burn and cut down forests. And even though global deforestation has slightly been going down, the fact that every minute an area the size of a football pitch is cleared from the Amazon rainforest is not really comforting. We pollute the oceans with 8 million metric tons per year, which is the equivalent of 57,000 blue whales. It is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish!
At this point you might be rightfully asking: Why the heck do we do that? Well, I don´t know about you, but I have a hard time believing in the inherent good of human beings when being confronted with such facts – but I still do! The most obvious answer is that human beings are simply egoistic and evil creatures. But are you evil? Are your friends evil? Your colleagues? How many evil persons do you know? When you travel the world you don´t see much evil either. What you see everywhere though is ignorance. “Ignorance is bliss” goes a common saying and if you read our last article “A different kind of beach run…” it will clearly substantiate the meaning of it. So where does this ignorance come from? I believe that it stems from our separatist thinking, which was indoctrinated on all of us. We are so incredibly ignorant because we do not acknowledge that we are all one, every tree, every bird, every mammal, every fish, every ant. We are all miraculous products originated from the same source of energy and we humans just happen to be equipped with an above average-sized brain with a consciousness, reasoning and language abilities that give us the capability of apprehending the miracle of life. If you are looking for a wonder, just look in the mirror! This is what evolution has accomplished after millions of years. But have you ever watched an ant colony at work? Aren´t they absolutely fascinating? Their enormous strength, their teamwork, their persistence, their sense of orientation, their food detection radar? Is an ant any less miraculous than you? (google ‘amazing ants’ if you´re interested and you will be blown away by some really cool facts.) However, ants are not conscious of what they are doing, at least not like us. The privilege of being equipped with such a big brain brings with it a very high responsibility though. And until now we have not assumed our responsibility, to the contrary, we have taken advantage of the finest feature that nature equipped us with, our big brain, and by that abused our position of power. In 1979, the German philosopher Hans Jonas wrote the book “The Imperative of Responsibility” (in German: “Das Prinzip Verantwortung”), where he warns of the exploitation of the planet, where he emphasizes the responsibility of us humans, for and foremost of the rich western countries and where he propagates a new way of thinking routed in humbleness and frugality. Above all he warns of blindly believing in technological progress and hoping that science will just fix it. That was 40 years ago! Back then there were around 4,5 billion people on this planet. In 2023 we will hit the 8 billion mark! Now, the attitude towards technological progress is a very heated and controversial topic. Having started to acknowledge China´s massive leap forward in terms of future technologies like AI, not few propagate and demand that Germany may lower their moral an ethical standards if it wanted to stay competitive. People who argue with morality and bring forth ethical concerns are quickly being put in the corner of the holdouts of human progress, backwards-thinkers, pessimists and hopeless romantics who are risking the economic wealth with their old-fashioned attitudes. Now, I´m far from being a denier of technological progress. After all I co-founded and co-managed a consulting company with topics such as AI, Machine Learning and Data Science as its core and dived deep into the working and potential of future technologies. It is amazing, fascinating and worrisome at the same time what we are already capable of doing and what we most probably will be capable of doing in the near future. But the questions that drive me are: What for do we keep on investing in new technologies? What is the promise of technological progress today? What is our north star? If it´s in our human nature to grow and progress, what do we want to grow into and progress towards? For centuries the promise of technological advancement was to make life easier. And undeniably many aspects of our lives have profited from it. But at the same time many other aspects of our lives fell by the wayside. Did technological progress bring more happiness and contentment? We are more rushed, more driven, more anxious and more insecure than ever. Our ancestors who lived a hundred years ago couldn´t image in their wildest dreams the riches, wealth and luxury that my generation was born into. Yet, the more we have, the more we are afraid of losing it. That urges the hypothesis that maybe, just maybe, a good and happy life is not a life that´s easy and comfortable. Now, in regards to our future, I see that we have two choices: Either we bow down to the pressures of technological progress and economic growth because sooner or later ethical and moral barriers will break anyway. Or we buckle up, detach ourselves from our rigid trains of thought, get up from our comfortable cushions and start asking questions, the answers of which might bring us closer to a common vision for the future of our planet and our place in it – our north star. And then we could use the finest technology to realize our vision.
So where do we start? Well, I can think of three things we can do. First of all, it might be helpful to not demonize capitalism. But lets not consider it as the Holy Grail either. Instead we could free ourselves from our emotions and talk about constructive ideas on how we can transform the current form of capitalism that is strictly laid out at maximizing profit to a form of capitalism that promotes sustainability and gives incentives towards creating social and environmental benefits? Or in other words: Isn´t it in our hands how we let the mechanism of capitalism work? If we redefined our interests, couldn´t we determine new moral guidelines that aid in realizing those interests? And before we draw the easy card of more government regulation right away, is there maybe a way of creating incentives for companies to align their business in a way that benefits the entire eco-system of this planet, which we are just one small part of? And what role can technology, in particular AI, play in this process? How can we create change without condemning and overthrowing the very system that rendered our extraordinary high living standard in the first place?
Second, we could reflect upon and recollect ourselves again. I believe that the political upheavals we see in all western countries, the current restlessness and unease of people and their worries about the future are nothing but a reflection of a collective disorientation and the longing for a greater `WHY`, a north star. Religion and the believe in an almighty God has for as long as anyone can remember served that purpose. We externalized our fate and submitted ourselves to the divine will. Most Europeans nowadays are convinced that their fate lies in their own hands, but it seems like there is an increasing awareness that ever increasing riches in materialistic form does not make us any happier. So what we see is that more and more people are turning inside and start looking for answers within themselves, true to the maxim ‘The only way out is in.’ Spiritual practices and eastern teachings and philosophies have reached a popularity peak. Meditation and yoga has never been trendier. Books about following the voice of your heart are almost published weekly. There is an endless supply of podcasts that revolve around the topic of spirituality. And even companies are sending their employees to mindfulness seminars. This is the right approach, but there is a hitch to it. Since we are so used to being provided with answers from external sources, we fall back to the same habits that made us turn to these sources in the first place. We binch-read books (the newest invention are vbooks, videobooks, which promise to transfer the content of books to your brain in light speed). We consume spiritual podcast like we consume the newest season of Game of Thrones (I for sure did). We practice yoga like it was some kind of physical challenge. We go to a mindfulness seminar and on the way home we get angry at the guy who takes our right of way. In short, we can´t get out of our habit of consumption, competition and self-optimization. We don´t walk the talk. And that´s because it is damn hard. I at least find it often extremely difficult and it sometimes takes me a lot of effort to show acceptance and be self-compassionate with myself whenever I catch myself acting or behaving in a way that is not in line with the way I would like to act and behave.
So how do we find our north star? We could start by really trying to grasp the meaning of the content we are consuming and try to internalize it, instead of just jumping to the next source of inspiration. We could ask ourselves questions the answers of which we don´t know and be curious about the answers that might come out of ourselves. We could revive the original meaning of words like mindfulness, consciousness or awareness by trying to integrate them more consciously in our daily lives. And by doing that, we might just on the way establish new values and see more clearly what really matters for us in life.
But I said I can think of three things we could do. So here´s the third idea: Instead of being pessimistic about the unknown, we could start telling stories about the future again. A future where we live in harmony with nature. A future in which we work with nature and not against it and where all creatures are respected and valued. A future where cities are not filled with cars and parking lots, but with bicycles, scooters, skateboards and green areas. A future where people don’t count the days till the weekend anymore, but don´t even know what day it is because they are doing what they love and they are valued for what they are doing. A future where people that invest their time in jobs that benefit society, especially caretakers and teachers, are valued for the indispensable and important job they are doing. A future where people have the time and space to live out their creativity. A future where profit is not the supreme goal of a company anymore but the value it creates for society and the environment. A future where teachers receive the respect and esteem they deserve, because being a good teacher is one of the most difficult and most important jobs for any society. A future with a school system that gives children the opportunity to experience who they are and what they are good at, that fosters creativity, lateral thinking and social skills and that unleashes their potential instead of indoctrinating them with the same knowledge and teaching methods that were established during the times of Otto von Bismarck and has ever since hardly seen any groundbreaking reform. A future that holds a new definition of what quality of life means. A future that is built on values like sustainability, frugality, humbleness and co-creation. Lets start convincing ourselves first that such a future is possible and remember that whenever we feel threatened by change or are afraid that we will lose our freedom whenever someone puts our habits into question. A feeling of empowerment might just overcome us and replace the feeling of powerlessness that we are so often engrossed by. Instead of leaving the floor to the people who are spreading dystopias, lets share and shout out beautiful utopias about the future!
We have the power to change and enrich the political discourse that tends to constantly revolve around economic growth, financial security, global competitiveness, political and economic power, personal freedom and so forth, presuming that the underlying connotations of these terms are fixed till eternity. Please don´t get me wrong. These topics are all important. But if we are taking the paradigm change we are in the middle of right now serious and if we want to take an active part in determining the future course of this planet, then we need to spice things up a bit and put things into question that so far nobody dared to do.
So, are we brave enough to ask uncomfortable questions even though the answer of which might have implications on my personal behaviors and habits? Are we able and willing to zoom out of our own small little world and see the big picture? Our parents wanted us to have a more comfortable, a more secure life than the lives they had. How does the future look like we want our children to grow up in? What story of the future are we telling our children? Are we willing to leave the treaded path and think in a new direction? Are we determined to create a new collective vision for the future with a foundation that is crafted in union instead of separation? Are we able to stand behind our values and go against the headwind, which change will inevitably bring? What would happen if we took of the label of being a ‘developed’ country and changed it to ‘re-developing’? What is the new collective promise that will make people believe in a better future again? Europe, above all Germany, can, if not must be the leader for a new vision for the future. In a world where everyone seems to be looking for orientation and guidance, lets assume responsibility and be the North Star. However, change always starts on an individual level, bottom-up. So what is the promise that you give to yourself today?