11 min read

The Mountain of Transformation Ahead of Us in the 21st Century

The Mountain of Transformation Ahead of Us in the 21st Century

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the biggest issues—the ones that matter most. If you like what you read, please consider sharing the Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

New here? Get the Issue in your inbox daily.

Today's Read: 11 Minutes.

Transformation. The 21st Century. We dive deep into it, using a model of different levels—economic, social, mental. We feel stuck as people because we are stuck at the biggest scale. What's before us is a mountain, not an obstacle that can be pushed aside.

1. Can you tell which script was written by AI? (Try it, the AI scripts are laughable—Umair.) (LAT)
2. These are the places that could become ‘unlivable’ as the Earth warms (WaPo)
3. IMF says global economy 'limping along.' (Reuters)
4. The week Twitter went evil. (TNR)

Today's Issue. Economics. Society. Civilization. Transformation.

A troubled world. A future in doubt. A tidal wave of pessimism sweeping the globe. Economies stagnant, democracy declining, societies fracturing, conflict erupting. Where do we go from here?

One of the ways I've been thinking about it these days is through a lens: what I've come to think as the Mountain of Civilizational Transformation ahead of us. I think it's a powerful model with which to begin understanding where we really are. The "narrowing window" in which to climb that mountain. What it means, even, really to climb it, as organizations, whether civilizations, companies, cities, countries, or just as people.

Let me take a few moments to share it with you. We'll take it step by step.

At the base of the Mountain of Transformation in the 21st Century lies the material. Dimension, domain, field, world—whatever you choose to call it. Our first challenge is to reinvent the material basis of...everything. We need to learn how to make our basics in a carbon-free way. And that's far from just energy—it includes everything from aviation and shipping to manufacturing right down to raw materials like steel, cement, and glass. Not to mention the question of food and water.

You can see what an immense, profound challenge we're already talking about—and we're just at Level One, the Base of the Mountain. Here, the larger challenge can be broken down into several smaller ones. Clean energy—we're doing sort of alright on that score, I guess, if you accept a certain paucity of ambition. Then there's circularizing our material flows—we're doing badly on that score, which is one of the themes of my first book. We're probably at less than 5% a circular economy—that's pretty abysmal, because, remember, we don't have much time, given the "narrowing window." After we circularize materiality, there's yet another challenge, which is to make sure extraction intensity hits zero, as in, we're not just eating the planet alive anymore—and we're nowhere remotely close to that goal.

So where are we, on our climb? Shudder, or laugh nervously if you like, because though we've just begun examining the issue, but it's already clear: we're barely even taking our first steps towards climbing the Mountain of Transformation yet. We're about ten feet up, and adjusting our climbing gear, staring up at this...

Wait. Are we even staring up yet? The point of this model is to Show You the Mountain—but I'll come back to that. So let me keep doing that.

The next level of transformation is about economics. Our economies are going to have to be radically transformed over the next decade, unless you want every summer from now until the end of the human journey to be catastrophically worse than the last. We're already hitting the limits of habitability in places around the globe—go ahead and wonder how that mega trend plays out.

As we climb the mountain, we confront the issue of economic transformation. Right about now, we have a bit of a dalliance with that, a flirtation, perhaps. It's become en vogue for corporations to write ESG reports, sustainability reports, and...that's about it. That's a good thing, don't get me wrong, but it's barely a step up the mountain. To really climb this stage or level? We're going to have create externality-free economies. That means: no carbon, no waste, no toxicity, or at least, far, far less than now.

And in turn, that means serious institutional transformation. Replacing Industrial Age GDP with a measure of output that's far more accurate. It means connecting profits to that measure, both of which subtract all these costs laying waste to our world. It means building, too, measures of well-being, or flourishing, or thriving, whatever you want to call it—whether or not life is reaching its possibilities, and not just ours, but life on the planet. How are we going to build institutions like that? What do they look like? Right down to the micro level. Is everything a market? What's a "job"? What's an organization, it's point and purpose?

Let me make that a little bit more concrete. See how prices have skyrocketed? A larger and larger component of that's about climate change and extinction. So what's the plan here, exactly? You see, our old economic model is out of steam. It's not going to work anymore. I mean that literally: it's now producing less and less "growth," meaning stagnation, at ever higher prices, from carbon, to social fracture as inequality ravages societies, to political destabilization, to widespread pessimism that that's all there is. Less and less prosperity, higher costs and prices—the old model's out of juice.

We're going to have to invent a new one, and so far, while things like ESG reports and sustainability scorecards are nice, and necessary, they're not even really a first step: they're more like a map about the journey, but not the journey itself. That journey isn't just about supply chains or saying that you have green credentials—it's about the raw stuff of economies, prices, markets, costs, benefits, actually reflecting our new reality. And organizations built on that new calculus. So far, we're not there.

To get there? In turn, we're going to have to climb to the next level, which is sociopolitical transformation. What are the social contracts of the 21st century, anyways? Do people have rights to...clean air? Or do we just breathe in megafire fumes every summer? Do we have rights to water, and if so, where's it going to come from? How about expression and association—do we have the right not to exist in this miasma of disinformation and hate currently poisoning our societies?

So far, we're nowhere close to 21st century social contracts, almost anywhere. What the world is currently doing is something depressing and dangerous. As growth slows and stalls out, we're beginning to bicker over the remaining morsels of a dying paradigm and model of prosperity. I'm the one of pure blood and true faith, and all of this belongs to people like and my tribe—not to those animals and subhumans. Stagnation produces fascism, and fascism is surging across our world again precisely because our global economy is now out of steam.

So instead of pioneering social contracts fit for the 21st century, we're squabbling over the last remaining bits of what can be eked out of an old, dying model. You can see that all over the world now—from Trumpism to China—and the conflicts over these dwindling levels of resources and living standards are only going to worsen, because of course, the underlying problem of a dead paradigm's hardly going to fix itself.

On this level? We're almost completely stuck. As in, nowhere close, really to it at all. There are a few smatterings here and there—brave kids that win court cases to this or that, and that's noble and brave and even a model and way forward. But what it isn't is a world, making progress. To see this level clearly, you must observe the interplay between a global economy now in decline, and fascism and authoritarianism surging, as a way to grab what can be grabbed of what little's left. After all, nobody much expects life to get better.

That brings me to top of the mountain, the apex. What lies at its summit? Let's call this level psychosocial transformation. You see, it's not just that our economic paradigms are out of steam, or our social paradigms aren't working anymore, as in, what a society is. There's an even deeper and bigger problem. Our paradigms of who we are don't work anymore.

You know this one already, because by now, you can't fail to have thought about it. What is a person, now, anyways? In the old paradigm, we were basically consumers and producers. We spent the day at things called "jobs," which paid us "salaries," and the point of all that was to earn enough money to climb a ladder of status and power. I have more stuff than you, stuff you don't have, because I have more of these chits than you, which determine how valuable a person is—I symbolically slay you in this way.

Our old model of being in this way was about conflict. Rivalry, aggression, conquest. Barely masked or veiled. Only the outright physical violence was gone. but underneath it lingered the odor of violence, anyways. My goal in life is to conquer you. I can't do it with swords and guns anymore, maybe, but I can still do it with stuff and money. The means changed, but the ends didn't—this way of being was still about power.

I didn't use the word "consumerism" in that sentence because I really want you to understand the psychoanalytics at work here. That word reduces it and flattens it, such a a deep thing as being. It makes us avoid the truth that this old way of being was still about power and violence and domination.

Hence, or if you don't quite buy that, or don't get it, think about it's values. What are we rewarded—literally, showered with money, or plaudits—for being? Since the time we're little kids? Especially in America, which of course is the textbook exemplar? For aggression, competitiveness, hardness, toughness, emotionlessness, the ability to play the game and win it, to treat anything else as ancillary and fruitless, to throw people away like liabilities when they no longer serve the purpose of conquest. And as we ascend through the ranks of power, these values harden into the more noxious ones: exploitation proper, as in the endless cases before us today, from a Sam Bankman-Fried to a Russell Brand and on and on into oblivion.

The old way of being was about power and violence and domination. To it, that's the purpose and point of life. Not just human life, but all life. Human beings, who are capable of calculating all that, are superior to all other lives, who are merely "animals," and don't even deserve room, resources, or rights. And not all people are human beings, either, if you ask the surging fascist politics consuming the globe. You can see where this road leads. Nowhere. Older civilizations and cultures warned us, indigenous ones, of all kinds: where can the road of dominance end but self-destruction? Because in the end, conflict consumes all possibility.

The real task of human beings in this century is...that big. It's learning to be in a very, very different way now. Again, we have some tiny, tiny glimmers of that. Young people reject materialism, they aren't interested much in "brands," and they'll roll their eyes at capitalism's depredations. That's a start, but it's only that. When it comes to this level of the mountain? We're nowhere close to the apex.

Reaching this apex is about transformation in the deepest way. Who are we? Predators? Violent things, who are only put here to dominate? Extract? Take? Abuse and hurt? And not give a shit? That life on planet earth is dying? To be indifferent to that, because, hey, only women and subhumans have emotions? Is our only real purpose to symbolically slay each other with money and stuff, obey the next guy up in the hierarchy, who's of course more abusive and ruthless than the one below him...and that's it? Where else can that end but right here, in a numb, dumb sleepwalk of self-destruction, which is, if we're honest, what a whole lot of our societies, social groups, leaders, places are doing?

But if we're not just that, Apex Predators, then...who are we? One answer goes back countless millennia in time, and it says something much more like: we're here to be cousins and caretakers and stewards of this vast and beautiful and noble family of life, because in the hands of creation, which turns us all to dust, we're all one. That answer's truer, isn't it? Isn't history pointing us in that direction? And isn't humanity maturing past its adolescence just this? Learning this kind of humility and grace, which brings with it deep wisdom, and a sense of rootedness and purpose?

What do we learn as we mature? We're not invulnerable, as exhilarating as that feeling can be. We're not just here to be the center of the universe. We hurt, deeply, because we can be hurt, just we can hurt, in turn. All life is joined by this pain, from the smallest creature, to the greatest. We all kneel before creation, in torment, in agony, in despair. And the stars beat in each and every one of our hearts, too. We learn all that as we grow. And that is precisely where humanity is now, too, on the cusp of this next stage of development, in its soul. Cradled in the arms of creation like a child, now we're being asked to mature, too, into adulthood.

That's what climbing the apex of the Mountain of Transformation's really about. I don't think we're anywhere near that level—certainly that's a long, long way away from enlightened CEOs writing ESG reports or even respected leaders raising the alarm about climate change. That level goes all the way. Down to who we really are. And if we're honest, we're terrified of having that discussion, which is why, for example, Manfluencers are out there preaching the old paradigm of domination and violence, and it doesn't just sell by the millions, systems build walls of silence to protect them. It's why figures like Sam Bankman-Fried can sell laughably childish get-rich-quick schemes...and be taken seriously...only to be revealed as possibly history's most absurd fraud, Buy My Currency, It's Worth More Than Gold. It's why we're not just drowning in bullshit, or suffocated in Insta-banality, but why there's that feeling that This is the End, and Nothing Matters Anyways, Hey, Is that A Kardashian on Netflix?

Not...even. Close.

So there's my little model. We'll talk more about if you want. It contains...a lot. It's a lot to take in. Have a good old think. And it's not just about organizations, countries, corporations, the big stuff—it's also about you.

You see, we're all going to have to climb this mountain, too. To make it over to the other side. Right now—and it's OK, you can admit, because I already know, because all of us, more or less do—people feel stuck. That's because they don't really know what they're pushing against, why it's not moving, the damned thing, no matter how hard they grunt and groan and strain.

The first job is to Look at the Mountain.

You're stuck for a reason. We're stuck for a reason, as a civilization. It's not a boulder. It's not an obstacle. It's a mountain. We can't push it anywhere, not one single inch, just get it out of our way, and just go along our business the old way. We are going to have to climb it to Get to The Other Side.

❤️ Don't forget...

📣 Share The Issue on your Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn.

💵 If you like our newsletter, drop some love in our tip jar.

📫 Forward this to a friend and tell them all all about it.

👂 Anything else? Send us feedback or say hello!