7 min read

Why We Failed at the Future

Why We Failed at the Future

As we think about the smoking wreck that’s currently known as “the future,” the fundamental question is: what went wrong?

We live in a time of more profound crisis than is yet fully understood. There’s the feeling that things are going wrong, but the average person isn’t quite grasping the scale and the stakes of where we are now in the human journey. This is a crucial turning point in human history—the most crucial of all, in 300,000 years of it.

And at this precise moment, everything that can, could have gone wrong, is going wrong. Democracy’s in incredibly sharp decline, a free-fall into oblivion. The economy such as it is has become a mechanism that transfers wealth upwards, endlessly, leaving what used to be stable working and middle classes desperate, driving them into the arms of demagogues. Meanwhile, sociality and relationships are torn apart by everything from “tech” to the endless strife at the end of…

What was this age, anyways? And which one’s coming next?

What went wrong?

The way that I think about this question now is like this: transformation and elevations. Let me explain what I mean by that phrase.

What went wrong, in the final analysis, isn’t that hard to grasp, though there’s the certain kind of person who’ll endlessly want to “debate” it. Our paradigms failed, and the systems built atop them crumbled. Our economic paradigm, capitalism, in which America was to be the world’s consumer, and China it’s factory floor—you can see the terrible crises it’s bred now, from the majority of Americans being literally “cashflow negative” to China’s youth feeling they have no future. Meanwhile, our political paradigm, neoliberalism, the idea that a cheap, threadbare variant of democracy would rise endlessly atop consumerism, didn’t prove durable at all—instead, demagogue after demagogue pillaged it, pointing to its many shortcomings, from inequality to insecurity to a feeling of perpetual instability.

And beneath all these was the deeper paradigm beneath them all. What might we call that one? Supremacy, perhaps, made of patriarchy, the remnants of empire and colonialism, the idea of a certain kind of power. Power over. Foucault called it “biopower,” and in the more contemporary context, we might point to the fact that humanity’s caused a mass extinction—biopower over nature itself. So this paradigm we might call something like dominion.

The idea that all should belong to one, instead of one belonging to all.

Transformations and elevations. What do I mean by this curious turn of phrase?

The world around is seeing dire, pernicious, and severely alarming transformations. I’ve discussed them with you above, but let’s make a succinct list now. Democracy’s sudden death. The economy, out of sources of prosperity for good, thanks to the next one, climate change. Meanwhile, inequality and instability are driving people quite literally mad, their rational minds imploding, and the social mood is bleak and bitter, when it’s not cruel and increasingly deranged.


But not elevations.

Now. That might sound like a trivial point, but it’s not. We have something like a paradigm of change, too. They’ll teach it to you in MBA or public administration courses. ‘Change management” and “transformation” are literal courses you can take. And in these theories, there’s no real moral component. That is change is just…change. Transformation is just…transformation.

But not all transformation and change is created equal. It might seem obvious, but our paradigms are severely broken when it comes to this point.

Let me give you an example. Way back when, at the dawn of neoliberalism, economists and politicians knew that it would transform the world. That it would rip the heart out of local economies, and destroy plenty of careers and jobs, not to mention whole industries. Transformation. It was something to be welcome. And those who were critical, at that juncture, asked the question: well, what are all these people going to do? When their jobs are offshored and outsourced?

The answer came: it’s transformation! And they’ll “adapt.”

They did adapt. But not in the way that was predicted. Instead of magically finding new jobs and stable careers—there weren’t many of those left—they fell into humiliation, poverty, and adapted by…turning to demagoguery, and now we’re living in a repeat of the 1930s.

Adapation? Maladapation.

So. Not all transformations are created equal. Some transformations, it’s true, if we want to use this crude Darwinian logic, which we shouldn’t, but it’s what our paradigms are sadly still built on—some transformations produce adaptation. But some? Some produce maladaptation.

What kinds of transformation are those? In our world, they’re ones which negatively impact people’s well-being. In plainer English, which hurt people. There’s this strange idea in our old paradigms, all of them, and it’s one of the things which unifies them—hurting people is a good thing. Remnants of empire, slavery, colonization. Hurting people builds “character,” “toughens” them, and more than that, it separates the wheat from the chaff, “alpha” from “beta,” the strong from the weak.

Now we understand all our old paradigms, at last. They’re all Darwinian mechanisms, essentially, whether applied to economics, management, society, culture. The central process within them is eerily similar: hurt people, they’ll “adapt,” the weak will fall, the strong rise, and we’ll all be better off that way.

The state of the world today disproves our old paradigms.

People are hurting. We know that from what I call the most important chart of the 21st century—their well-being imploding. We know, it too, from endless economics statistics, from psychological ones, from social ones. People are hurting in the body, soul, and mind.

And nobody’s better off this way.

You see, if the paradigms were true, then we’d see the opposite. Sure, people would be hurting, but things would be…good. Democracy would be roaring, the economy would be “booming,” and weirdly, their attitudes and moods would be good. None of that’s the case, and …how could it be? You see how backwards our old paradigms are when I put them this way, and dig past all the jargon.

Hurting people doesn’t help anything. What does it do? It causes maladaptation at all these scales. At the socioeconomic scale, hurting people only moves them towards the maladaptation of demagoguery. At the social scale, it only corrodes norms of trust and cohesion and gentleness, and replaces them with ones of brutality, spite, and hate. At the economic scale, it doesn’t “toughen” anyone up, it just scars them for life with lower earnings and wealth. At the psychosocial scale, it just leaves broken-spirited people who are incapable of thinking rationally, because they’re consumed by dread, panic, and rage.

All of these are forms of maladaptation.

At the largest scale of all, civilizationally, it produces what scholars have begun to call “polycrisis,” which is the constellation of all those maladaptations.

So. Not all transformations are created equal. People don’t adapt to some. They maladapt. They wither, shrink, and diminish, in the soul, the body, the mind. They break, and as they break, so do the systems and institutions built atop them. As people break, so do political systems, societies, and economies.

Why am I teaching you all this? Because what we need to seek now, in the 21st century, isn’t just transformation anymore. It’s elevation.

What’s elevation? The way that I often put it is that we need now to maximize well-being. Well-being comes in many dimensions, which I’ve discussed a bit above—economic, social, psychological, emotional, relational, and so forth. If we just blindly seek transformation, as we did for the last half century and more, what’s the goal?

You see, in the old paradigm, “transformation” was a means. But the end remained the same. Profit, power, advantage, gain. Power over. Dominion, as I put it before, if you want to use that word.

Elevation’s different. The end is not the same. Now we have to design systems and institutions to elevate. Expand. Lift up. Enlighten. Spark. Ignite. Choose whichever words you like—that’s part of the task and the challenge, too, just describing this new paradigm. The end, though is what counts: such systems and institutions must elevate possibility itself.

What does that mean? Possibility’s in short supply these days. People feel so bleak because they’re running out of hope. That’s real. Hopelessness is a consequence of not being able to see much of a future, and huge majorities around the world are profoundly pessimistic about that. The point is to create a future again, which means elevating possibilities.

Possibilities for what? For everything positive, true, and good. Let’s take a simple example. The possibilities that plenty of species don’t survive…us…is pretty good. Another one. Young people’s possibilities are severely diminished. Here’s another. How is Gen X going to retire? Let’s keep going. What possibilities does our economy have? How are we going to do better than this mess of dead-end jobs and billionaires? One final one. Democracy itself. What are its possibilities, as people lose faith in the future?

Our challenge in this century isn’t just “transformation” in the old sense. It’s elevation. Now, that all sounds abstract, so let me try to drive home the point.

The more that we blindly “transform” things, with no goal but profit, power, advantage, the more that we hurt people, who of course are forced to “adapt.” But they don’t adapt—they maladapt, politically, socially, mentally, emotionally, culturally. We have to break this cycle, before it breaks what’s left of us.

There’s no roadmap to do it. All I can do is guide you. We have to write this book together. Take this step together. I firmly believe it’s the next step of the human journey. You see, 300,000 years have passed since our first ancestor stepped out of a rift in a valley. And since then, we’ve become adept at transforming. This was our very first skill, our magic, our superpower. We alone can transform the environment around us, in such radical ways—and as we began to build tools, then instruments, then societies, then civilizations, we became more and more skilled at this thing called “transformation.”

But along the way, the goal of it all was lost. Elevation. When that goal is forgotten, what do we call it? A dark age. Transformations happen, then, too but they’re not good ones.

We aren’t children anymore. We stand on the edge of adolescence. And just transforming things? You can burn down a house. Take a chainsaw to your own seedlings. You can poison your own harvest, out of spite and rage. That’s transformation, too. But it’s not elevation.

Our challenge now is harder. I don’t know if the clumsy way I’ve tried to describe it to you helped, worked, conveyed my meaning. I hope it did. We’ll talk more about it. For now, I wanted to share with you the way that I think about where we stand, at this great turning point, and how to create the future.

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