A Time to Choose
On January 6th 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed the 77th US Congress with what has become known as The Four Freedoms speech. In those perilous days these four freedoms offered a vision for a much-improved world. They are as inspiring now as they were back then:
In the future days which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants – everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear, which means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor – anywhere in the world.
Roosevelt saw the possibility of these freedoms being realized in his time. They were not. The current status of the very concept of freedom offers plenty of evidence for cynicism. Indeed one might argue that these freedoms are scarcer today than they were then – in spite of so much of the world being at war at the time.
Yet the same speech could be made today with similar optimism by almost any head of state. What is more, it is still completely plausible. But only if we are able to put aside hubris, moderate our competitive nature, and jettison the irrational belief that people with power, simply because they have louder voices and control the means to have us listen, should decide what is best for everyone else.
Irrespective of where we live or our personal circumstances and concerns, today’s most desired freedoms have not changed much from those proposed by Roosevelt. Yet rich nations still trample over poorer states in the name of globalisation, rationalising any suspicions of guilt in countless imaginative ways. Wealthy corporations still view their licence to operate as an inalienable right – even though the oceans and the landfills are awash with the disposable debris from our demand for more and new of everything. And as millions of children around the world die each year through a lack of potable water and nourishment, economists and politicians, abetted by a punch-drunk press fighting to retain its independence, continue to preach the mantra that growth is absolutely vital for civilisation’s continuing advancement.
But that is simply not the truth. When will we awake from this deluded state? What will it take to get us to open our eyes to the harsh realities of the human condition? When will we accept evidence of our culpability and take responsibility for our actions? How can we begin to engage wisdom over ignorance, and practise compassion before greed? Are we content to have our children rebuke us in years to come for interring the entire notion of freedom and self-determination? When the poor acquire a voice, as they surely are, will we even hear their accusations?
We need to open our hearts and minds to all of the evidence confronting us, both the good and the bad. We need to listen loudly, intently, with a greater sense of inclusivity. And we need to alter the direction in which we are headed if we are to avoid disaster.
All of that is in our court. It is up to us and we should not be distracted by sideshows, however entertaining. Nor should we be frightened by ISIS, Kim Jong Un, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump, or even Steve Bannon for that matter. In the broader scheme of things they are just reflections of our own ennui, infirmities and desperate dreams.
Commentators do us a disservice by pointing to what they currently see as a global trend towards extreme conservatism and xenophobia. Trends can be so misleading when taken out of context. Yet the context is indeed disturbing for we are witnessing the collapse of the civilisational paradigm and with it the sense of permanence and security this model has provided over the past seven decades or so.
The volatility inherent within this societal breakdown is of our own making. It has been shaped in the ways we chose to socialise our children, despoil the natural environment, disregard others less fortunate than ourselves, and view economic capital as the most important measure of progress. We forged it still further in the flames of a model that holds divine authority to be legitimate but deems indigenous knowledge to be primitive, Eastern mysticism to be exotic, and only Western orthodoxy as enlightened.
On balance the civilisational model has delivered extraordinary wealth to some – but also massive inequality, geopolitical uncertainty, food insecurity, pollution and an increasingly unsafe climate. The threat to civilisation is clear but we are still not ready to deal with it.
Unfortunately these systemic risks were mostly ignored, especially as the quality of life appeared to be improving for more people, conflicts were fewer, or so we were told, and less people were dying of starvation. But eventually the bubble had to burst. And so it is hardly surprising that the likes of Donald Trump, knowing only what they know, are now mounting a last ditch attempt to deal with what they believe to be the cause of systemic distress. So this is the new game. This is what we are actually seeing. The fact that we are intent on pursuing the wrong solutions with such enthusiasm is mostly the result of an obsolete toolkit and a lack of resourcefulness rather than malevolence or incompetence.
In spite of appearances there has been no meta-deviation to our current course. There has been no recalibration following an analysis of the impacts current settings might produce. Consequences have not been fully interrogated. Because of this we can expect the wealthy to continue getting richer. They will also try harder to protect their wealth. The professional and business middle classes will stagnate. Racism and controversy will escalate. We will feel less secure. And all the while the effects of climate change will continue to destabilise life across the entire planet.
Perhaps it needed to come to this. As the extremes of predatory capitalism are allowed to run free, the massive fraud underlying orthodox economics is being exposed as never before. The fossil fuel industry is withering as the investment risks are far too high now. There is nothing much governments can do. Activism will accelerate – but so will denial.
In a recent essay the environmental activist and author Paul Gilding made a pertinent observation: We face the most important choice in human history. Economic decline and the descent into chaos – possibly collapse – or transformation into a very different economy and society.
The time has come to choose.