Humans are being put to the test. A test that goes much deeper than how do we cope in a world where access to hand sanitiser and toilet paper is not guaranteed. In this post, we explore the role citizens can play in ensuring our societies pass with flying colours.
Firstly, some scene setting:
The following is an extract from Euractiv, a media network specialising in EU policies:
“Civil unrest has doubled in the past decade as citizens protest against issues ranging from economic hardship and police brutality to political instability, according to this year’s Global Peace Index. The COVID-19 pandemic could make things worse.
The economic downturn caused by the current pandemic is going to impact this even further and we expect to see an increase in demonstrations, especially in Europe,” Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), which annually publishes the index, told EURACTIV.
“While riots around the world increased by 282% in the last decade and general strikes were up by 821%, the index recorded violent protest in 58% of countries over the course of 2019 – a development that according to researchers “reflects a longer-term trend”.
Europe experienced the most protests, riots and strikes – however only 35% of the approximate 1,600 total were recorded as violent; the lowest percentage worldwide.”
All is not well
Covid-19 will undoubtedly increase tensions, but there are other forces at play. The one that I have focused on for the last decade or so is the digital tsunami. Increased automation coupled with unsustainable business models is leading to large scale social disruption. And even if this was addressed to the satisfaction of citizens in the developed world, ie approximately 20% of the global population, there is still the not so tiny matter of the plight of the less well off 80%. Even Occupy Wall Street movement activists in the grand scheme are part of a global elite that might well be referred to as ‘The 20% club’.”
It’s not obvious
The question arises as to what would constitute humanity getting its socioeconomic act together. Would the world be a better place if the GDP per capita of the likes of Syria and Burundi were closer to that of Sweden and Norway? But what if that comes at an even greater ecological cost than the current unsustainable arrangement, where approximately the top two thirds of the economic powerhouse rankings have an unsustainable ecological footprint.
The fact that it is the top two thirds and not the bottom two thirds means that we are on the fastest track possible to complete global destruction.
But maybe GDP is the wrong metric? Perhaps happiness would be better? Happy and rich might be too lofty a goal for the United Nations. ‘Unhappy and rich’ sounds like a brief text message a central African diplomatic might send on arrival at their recently established consulate in any major western city. Thus not very aspirational. Setting the bar to its lowest height, surely happy and poor is better than unhappy and destitute?
In any case, GDP and happiness are not correlated. Only Norway is in the top 10 of both categories. Niger ranks second bottom on GDP per capita, yet ranks seventy places higher on happiness. Confusingly perhaps, the countries with the highest ecological footprint per capita are different to those with the highest GDP per capita. You don’t have to destroy the planet to deliver citizen prosperity. Perhaps the best metric for both humanity and the planet would be an amalgam of all three.
The US Think Tank Fund for Peace has created a Fragile States Index. It is unsettling to realise that 116 countries fall into the ‘Warning’ to ‘Very High Alert’ range. Thus addressing the growing disappointment of middleclass westerners does not feel like it should be a top priority.
However middleclass disillusionment is a strong signal of structural problems. Though the collapse of the developed world might offer some ecological benefits.
However, this would likely stall progress in respect of the plight of over one billion destitute people. Imagine 10,000 of the world’s largest football stadiums packed to capacity with destitute people and you will have a sense of the scale of the problem. And that excludes merely poor people.
Is it the government’s fault?
It would be easy to blame the government or the associated ideology. Capitalism in its current form of the pursuit of profits at all costs seems heartless. As we move into a world where consumerism becomes a branch of neuroscience, the ethics around creating the conditions for consumerism as a form of self-medication needs to be examined. The West’s quest to eradicate world poverty looks like it will be replacing emaciated children drinking contaminated water with designer-clothed obese children drinking carbonated sugar whilst mindlessly scoring dopamine hits off their phone / handheld casino / mobile shopping mall. It’s surely a sign of progress when a country’s youth are addicted to Las Vegas style online trading platforms?
Wouldn’t we be better with communism, socialism or for the fainter of heart social democracy?
Communism seems to suck the purpose out of life – “We pretend to pay you and you pretend to work”.
Socialism has promise in that it looks out for everyone and leaves latitude for bettering oneself. Please note that both the best and worst performing countries in the world have socialist parties, so that is not the solution.
Democracy would appear to be overrated, judging by some of the leaders we have in power today. It is said that citizens generally get the government they deserve, so cultivating an informed citizenship is key to making democracy work.
Perhaps all would be well if each country had a constitution-driven algorithm that acted in the best interests of society, rather than spreading untruths to secure re-election? The Terminator film franchise has not been helpful in respect of cultivating interest in that form of digital government.
It’s not that simple
But blaming the government positions citizens as passive actors or even as victims of their society. That is of course true in totalitarian states, and largely so of authoritarian states. But the rest of us have some degree of control. Voting is a mild form of political activism. Supporting movements such as Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion offer ways to ramp up your engagement to make the world a better place. Civil disobedience takes you into the confrontation zone.
Insurrection and rebellion, particularly involving arms, is much more a lifestyle than a hobby.
But before we hit the dark web in search of gunpowder, it might be worth considering how powerless your government is in the light of super trends such as:
- Natural disasters
- Technology advances – information and biology
- Superpower ‘spats’
- Access to talent
- Global supply chain dependencies.
Governments, particularly prior to election, tend to make promises they cannot guarantee. They need to cultivate an illusion of control, because we are innocent enough to expect nothing less. Learned helplessness has its advantages. Not taking responsibility is one of them.
Again, your country and its government does not exist in isolation. It is part of a global ecosystem. I would encourage governments to be more honest in that respect.
If we are dissatisfied with our plight, we as citizens need to take ownership of the situation.
Again keep in mind that your government cannot control these global forces, but it can provide the conditions for citizens to thrive in what is an increasingly uncertain world.
Citizen agency requires a citizen upgrade. There are three elements to this:
- Citizens need better government services.
- Citizens need to raise their game in respect of becoming better citizens
- Citizens will invariably become augmented as technology evolves.
Looking at each of these in turn:
Citizens need better government services
- Societies, particularly urban societies, are optimised for commerce and not people. Governments need to provide citizen-centric environments.
- Governments need to provide efficient citizen services that are easy to access. Thus freeing up the citizens’ cognitive capacity.
- Governments need to adapt in line with global changes. Industrial era government models are no longer fit for purpose.
- Governments need to become more entrepreneurial.
- Governments need to educate citizens on how the world is changing and how in turn social contracts need to adapt. Most importantly, they need to provide the tools to empower citizens to thrive. Education is an important part of this.
Citizens need to raise their game in respect of being better citizens
- Governments must endeavour to look after the vulnerable, but beyond that citizens need to take ownership of their own destiny.
- This requires citizens to think less like passive salary workers going through the motions until retirement arrives and more like a highly adaptable entrepreneur who is in touch with the market and thus knows what skills to acquire and when it is time to upgrade their skillset.
- Citizens need to take a more active role in the functioning of society. This can range from responding to government crowdsourcing requests through to becoming involved in community projects.
- Citizen upgrading should include the skill of being more discerning and less gullible when it comes to news.
Citizens will invariably become augmented as technology evolves
The fact that we wear clothes and carry smartphones gives us a sense of how augmented we already are. This augmentation is likely to go beyond wearables and portables to embeddables. Neural and musculoskeletal enhancements will become more common. Augmented people require augmented services. The public sector needs to anticipate this.
It also needs to anticipate the associated problems. Such technology upgrades will likely widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. Only the wealthier people will be able to afford such upgrades that might well be considered as conditions of employment in certain fields.
As data becomes a new asset class, the need to have access to raw materials and manufacturing capability diminishes. Subject to Internet access and education, this gives even the poorest people in the planet the opportunity to compete globally. Of course, the available cognitive capacity will only be available for such opportunity realisation if the basic citizen needs are met in respect of shelter, food and safety.
However if we could help ‘upgrade’ the world’s destitute and poor, think of the brain power that could be applied to socioeconomic endeavours. This would be preferable to the current capitalism colonialism whereby the poor are brought out of poverty purely to support the unsustainable need for the world’s largest commercial organisations to maintain share price growth.
Civil unrest is likely to continue if citizens do not upgrade and take on more societal responsibility. Unfettered capitalism coupled with narcissistic individualism is not a recipe for an equitable world.
Your government cannot protect you from the wider world. Governments in turn need to upgrade to a more citizen-centric, trustworthy and citizen-empowering model.
Both government and citizens have work to do. There is no returning to normal. Economic security is a bygone notion, a bit like weekends, retirement and careers. However what we lose in cossetted security, we will gain in freedom. But you can’t have both. And if no action is taken, we will have neither. Most importantly, you cannot fix your country or economic bloc in isolation. This is a global challenge and everybody needs to win, including other species.
This is something I have given a lot of thought to, but I am struggling to get this message out to those who need to hear it. I am keen to hear your thoughts on this and how we can encourage governments to help citizens upgrade for the benefit of humanity and the planet.