From the Industrial Revolution onwards, human societies have witnessed dramatic changes to their lifestyles; from the technologies they use to the availability of a wealth of new consumer goods. Millions have benefited. We have seen massive improvements in health, housing, diet, electronic gadgets, communications and so forth.
Despite these major advancements, today we are witness to a number of warning signs about planet Earth. We are in the midst of an immoral and draining poverty crisis where two billion people remain below poverty levels. We have re-invented greed at unimaginable scales in our financial and banking services.
We seem hell bent on destroying the Earth’s natural systems by depleting and degrading our forests, our lands and our water. We plunder our planet with new and seemingly exciting greenhouse-gas laden technologies, inviting climate change. Perhaps our greatest challenge? To provide jobs for the more than one and a half billion kids under fifteen and the entire 300 million unemployed.
The solutions are complex. Most revolve around fixing things up: tighter regulation here, technological improvements there. History teaches us that some of the greatest changes in society are derived from thinking new thoughts and exploring the art of the possible.
The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the coming (and going) of communism and fascism, the 1960s pop-music revolution and hippy movement all changed us for ever. We are now living at the tail end of the last great idea, introduced by Reagan and Thatcher, that unbridled and untouched markets can provide riches for all: a sad lie, unfortunately adopted by many.
Ultimately the solution lies in ideas (based on our values), for ideas can help to create the necessary political environment for the changes that humanity needs to untangle – how to live on an increasingly crowded planet. Ideas can be as transformative as technologies. We need to start a debate about what kind of world we have and what kind of world we want. Form should follow substance.
While regulators fine-tune banking regulation to make it a little more prudent, less risky and more profitable, we need to ask the bigger question: what is a banking system for? What role does it play in society? We have been witness to a sub-prime crisis that never needed to happen. As long as bankers treat houses as an asset class and not as homes, or decide it is more fun to play the casinos of financial speculation than to help build societies and provide jobs, we will live with the dire consequences of an uncaring and unethical system.
Technical advances alone cannot dictate our future. We must decide whether or not we are part of Mother Nature and the natural systems that provide us with life-giving services. Our discussions on climate change should impel us to ask whether we care enough to leave our future relatives with a world worth inheriting.
These are choices; they are not inevitable. Our politicians must engage with the new debate, and not resort to the tired tittle-tattle of cross-party warfare that gets us nowhere. We must assess the world we will get and design the instruments to manage it, or figure out the world we want and design the instruments to deliver it. Once we make these value-based choices, we can be assured that we will have the inventiveness and creativity to deliver. The choice is ours and the time is now: ideas and values matter now as never before.