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Commanding Hope

Commanding Hope

The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril
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Maybe you feel it too: a creeping sense that the world is going haywire. A darkness spreading across the horizon of our aspirations for our families, our communities, our world. An emerging dismay that possibilities for a good future, for ourselves and our kids, are ebbing away.
 
If so, your feelings are not without base; they do reflect a real shift in the state of our world. Accumulating scientific evidence and data show that key trendlines gauging humanity’s well-being—economic, social, political, and environmental—have indeed turned sharply downwards.
 
Just twenty years ago a feeling of exuberance still animated many societies. After the Soviet Union collapsed and before the war on terror, political, business, and intellectual leaders in the West declared that a fusion of capitalism, liberal democracy, and modern science would create a future of near-boundless possibility for all humanity. Now, humanity is at a perilous juncture. Problems like climate change, economic and social inequality, and the risk of nuclear war have become critical. In 2020, COVID-19 stopped the world at large in its tracks. International scientific agencies are issuing report after report declaring that a global environmental catastrophe is imminent, now probably far earlier than 2045, and maybe even as soon as a decade from now. Meanwhile, reason and scientific fact often seem impotent before entrenched vested interests, worsening social polarization, and rising political authoritarianism.
 
As our prospects seem to diminish by the day, some of us retreat inwards to focus on things close to us in time and space, such as our friends and family, in person and on social media. Others try denial, maybe by claiming that the evidence for problems such as climate change and even pandemics is invented by people who benefit from scaring us. Or, we become fatalistic, declaring we can’t do anything about the problems because we’ve gotten used to a way of living or because the problems are the fault of the rich, or the poor, or immigrants, minorities, or “them over there”—anybody but us. Some of us rally to authoritarian leaders who tell a simple story about what’s wrong and declare they can make things better with bold, harsh action.
 
Anxiety about the future, detachment, self-deception, and feelings of resentment and helplessness—this is a perilous psychological state—the starting line of a fast track to the end of hope. It also makes the future we fear far more likely to happen, because the best way to ensure we’ll fail to solve our problems is to believe we can’t.
 
We all know—whether explicitly or unconsciously—that to escape this trap we need to come up with promising ideas to address the critical problems humanity faces. But to do so, we need to understand what’s causing the problems in the first place. As any medical doctor would say, good prescription depends on good diagnosis. To that end, over the last forty years I’ve studied humankind’s global challenges closely, particularly worsening economic insecurity, climate change, pandemics, scarcities of critical resources like fresh water and clean energy, weak and incompetent governance, and the factors that keep our societies from innovating effectively to address such problems. I’ve also studied how these challenges can combine to multiply their total impact, with cascading consequences that sometimes lead to mass violence, including terrorism, genocide, and war.
 
As a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s, I helped found a research group of young natural scientists, lawyers, and social scientists at MIT, Harvard, and other nearby universities interested in the implications of Earth’s environmental crisis. Our work together was exhilarating—we were all hopeful that science, international goodwill, and basic common sense would prevent humanity from tumbling into an environmental disaster. Today, we’re dispersed all over the world; and with a planetary environmental disaster now unfolding in real time, we remain connected with each other to share information, ideas, and research findings.
 
Alas, the underlying causes of humanity’s problems aren’t easy to diagnose, and some of the world’s best minds have struggled for decades to figure out what’s going on. Ever since those university years, I’ve followed their research and expert debates with fascination, and my books The Ingenuity Gap (2000) and The Upside of Down (2006) drew on that work to provide a framework for my own research and diagnoses.2 I didn’t pull any punches in my assessment of the dangers, so I was often labeled a “doom-meister.” But as the years have passed, my analysis in those books has (unfortunately) turned out to be close to the mark, and the profound gravity of humanity’s predicament is now hard to miss and broadly acknowledged.
 
I’ve always intended this third book to move beyond diagnosis to explore what we can do to get through the gloom and reach a new light. I start from the assumption that this is a time for honesty about the challenges we face and about our need for immediate, courageous responses. It’s now vividly apparent to me and my scientific colleagues, to many members of the world’s Indigenous cultures, to socially progressive groups everywhere, to the clear-eyed youth who in 2019 protested for climate action in the streets of more than a hundred countries, and to the countless families and communities worldwide devastated by the psychological and economic trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic the following year, that humanity is marching down a path towards calamity. To find a route to a far better outcome, we must marshal our amazing ability to overcome new challenges—an ability we’ve honed since the first hominid climbed down from the trees and set out across the savannah.
 
In the following chapters, I draw on insights from history, psychology, physics, philosophy, economics, politics, and art to identify such an alternative route that’s informed by honest realism—one that leads us towards a future of broadly shared opportunity, security, justice, and identity. I also provide some practical scientific tools that we can use to take our first steps together along this radically new path.
 
I argue that at this crucial moment in humanity’s history, three changes are essential to keep us from descending into intractable, savage violence.
 
First, we need individually to better understand how and why we see the world the way we do and what makes other people’s views sometimes so different from ours. Second, instead of passively accepting a dystopian image of what will come tomorrow, we need to actively create together from our diverse perspectives a shared story of a positive future—including a shared identity as “we”—that will help us address our common problems and thrive. And, finally, we need to fully mobilize our extraordinary human agency to produce that future.
 
Each of these changes requires that we have hope. To believe in the possible and to make the possible real, we must recognize that the right kind of hope can be a tool of change, and we must give our hope the muscle it requires in our present crisis.
 
Unfortunately, though, hope has seen better days. Barely more than a decade ago, Barack Obama could speak unabashedly of the “audacity of hope” in his presidential campaign, and his idea was a powerfully motivating psychological and social force in the world. And over the last fifteen years, eminent thinkers and social scientists have called for “radical hope,” “active hope,” and “intrinsic hope.” But despite these vital efforts to rejuvenate the idea, many of us have come to regard hope with disdain—as a state of mind that’s naïve and irresolute at best, delusional at worst.
 
Yet if we’re to survive, let alone see our children prosper in this century and beyond, we need a potently motivating principle that’s honest about the gravity of the dangers we face and about the personal responsibility each and every one of us has to face those dangers; that’s astute about the strategies we can use to overcome those dangers, given the viewpoints, values, and goals of people around us; and that’s powerful because it galvanizes our agency, our capacity to discern our most promising paths forward and choose among them. We need, in other words, the kind of hope that has motivated millions of young climate activists to sit outside parliament houses and block business-as-usual traffic in capital cities worldwide and that has galvanized communities and nations around Earth to slow the coronavirus pandemic.
 
In Dante’s fourteenth-century epic poem The Divine Comedy, the entrance to Hell famously carries the inscription: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” The phrase has become watered down over time, almost trite. But facing a future that promises to be hell for countless people, our task in the twenty-first century is to rediscover the power of the uniquely human ability to hope—an ability to envision and strive towards a positive future that’s an alternative to whatever challenging or even unbearable present we’re living in.
 
I propose in the pages that follow a way of mobilizing hope’s immense psychological power, as people have done in times of great stress before and can do again. What I call commanding hope is grounded in historical and scientific knowledge of how hope works at every level—in our lives as individual human beings and in our societies too. Today, confronting challenges so large that all too often we feel unable to move, we need it more than ever.
 
There are no guarantees of success. The perils are real, and the chances we’ll prevail may be small. But we face a choice between denying reality, running from the crisis, or facing that crisis head on to fight for a far better future. I’ve written this book for all of us—community activists, parents and grandparents, students and teachers, business and religious leaders, farmers and builders, scientists and engineers, nurses and doctors, restaurant and shop owners and artists, politicians and voters—all of us who choose to fight.
 
And it’s dedicated to my children, Ben and Kate, and through them to all the children who remind us every day how to use our imaginations to tell our own story, and to see and seek the world we want.

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Empty Planet

Empty Planet

The Shock of Global Population Decline
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It was a girl.

On Sunday, October 30, 2011, just before midnight, Danica May Camacho entered the world in a crowded Manila hospital, bringing the human population of our planet to seven billion. Actually, the scales could have tipped a few hours later, in a village in Uttar Pradesh, India, with the arrival of Nargis Kumar. Or it might have been a boy, Pyotr Nikolayeva, born in Kaliningrad, Russia.

Of course, it was none of them. The birth that took us to seven billion people was attended by no cameras and ceremonial speeches because we can never know where or when the event occurred. We can only know that, according to the United Nations’ best estimates, we reached seven billion sometime around October 31 of that year. Different countries designated certain births to symbolize this landmark in history, and Danica, Nargis, and Pyotr were among those chosen.

For many, there was no reason to celebrate. Indian health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad declared that a global population of seven billion was “not a matter of great joy, but a great worry. . . . For us a matter of joy will be when the population stabilizes.” Many share Azad’s gloom. They warn of a global population crisis. Homo sapiens is reproducing unchecked, straining our ability to feed, house, and clothe the 130 million or more new babies that UNICEF estimates arrive each year. As humans crowd the planet, forests disappear, species become extinct, the atmosphere warms.

Unless humankind defuses this population bomb, these prophets proclaim, we face a future of increasing poverty, food shortages, conflict, and environmental degradation. As one modern Malthus put it, “Barring a dramatic decline in population growth, a rapid decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, or a global outbreak of vegetarianism—all of which are trending in the opposite direction at the moment—we’re facing nothing less than the end of plenty for the majority of the earth’s people.”

All of this is completely, utterly wrong.

The great defining event of the twenty-first century—one of the great defining events in human history—will occur in three decades, give or take, when the global population starts to decline. Once that decline begins, it will never end. We do not face the challenge of a population bomb but of a population bust—a relentless, generation-after-generation culling of the human herd. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

If you find this news shocking, that’s not surprising. The United Nations forecasts that our population will grow from seven billion to eleven billion in this century before leveling off after 2100. But an increasing number of demographers around the world believe the UN estimates are far too high. More likely, they say, the planet’s population will peak at around nine billion sometime between 2040 and 2060, and then start to decline, perhaps prompting the UN to designate a symbolic death to mark the occasion. By the end of this century, we could be back to where we are right now, and steadily growing fewer.

Populations are already declining in about two dozen states around the world; by 2050 the number will have climbed to three dozen. Some of the richest places on earth are shedding people every year: Japan, Korea, Spain, Italy, much of Eastern Europe. “We are a dying country,” Italy’s health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, lamented in 2015.

But this isn’t the big news. The big news is that the largest developing nations are also about to grow smaller, as their own fertility rates come down. China will begin losing people in a few years. By the middle of this century, Brazil and Indonesia will follow suit. Even India, soon to become the most populous nation on earth, will see its numbers stabilize in about a generation and then start to decline. Fertility rates remain sky-high in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East. Even here, though, things are changing as young women obtain access to education and birth control. Africa is likely to end its unchecked baby boom much sooner than the UN’s demographers think.

Some of the indications of an accelerating decline in fertility can be found in scholarly research and government reports; others can only be found by talking to people on the street. And so we did. To gather research for this book, we traveled to cities on six continents: to Brussels and Seoul, Nairobi and São Paulo, Mumbai and Beijing, Palm Springs and Canberra and Vienna. There were other stops as well. We talked to academics and public officials, but more important, we talked to young people: on university campuses and at research institutes and in favelas and slums. We wanted to know what they were thinking about the most important decision they will ever make: whether and when to have a baby.

Population decline isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a big thing. A child born today will reach middle age in a world in which conditions and expectations are very different from our own. She will find the planet more urban, with less crime, environmentally healthier but with many more old people. She won’t have trouble finding a job, but she may struggle to make ends meet, as taxes to pay for healthcare and pensions for all those seniors eat into her salary. There won’t be as many schools, because there won’t be as many children.

But we won’t have to wait thirty or forty years to feel the impact of population decline. We’re feeling it today, in developed nations from Japan to Bulgaria that struggle to grow their economies even as the cohort of young workers and consumers diminishes, making it harder to provide social services or sell refrigerators. We see it in urbanizing Latin America and even Africa, where women are increasingly taking charge of their own destinies. We see it in every household where the children take longer to move out because they’re in no rush to settle down and haven’t the slightest intention of having a baby before they’re thirty. And we’re seeing it, tragically, in roiling Mediterranean seas, where refugees from wretched places press against the borders of a Europe that is already starting to empty out.

We may see it, very soon, influencing the global contest for power. Population decline will shape the nature of war and peace in the decades ahead, as some nations grapple with the fallout of their shrinking, aging societies while others remain able to sustain themselves. The defining geopolitical challenge in the coming decades could involve accommodating and containing an angry, frightened China as it confronts the consequences of its disastrous one-child policy.

Some of those who fear the fallout of a diminishing population advocate government policies to increase the number of children couples have. But the evidence suggests this is futile. The “low-fertility trap” ensures that, once having one of two children becomes the norm, it stays the norm. Couples no longer see having children as a duty they must perform to satisfy their obligation to their families or their god. Rather, they choose to raise a child as an act of personal fulfillment. And they are quickly fulfilled.

One solution to the challenge of a declining population is to import replacements. That’s why two Canadians wrote this book. For decades now, Canada has brought in more people, on a per capita basis, than any other major developed nation, with little of the ethnic tensions, ghettos, and fierce debate that other countries face. That’s because the country views immigration as an economic policy—under the merit-based points system, immigrants to Canada are typically better educated, on average, than the native-born—and because it embraces multiculturalism: the shared right to celebrate your native culture within the Canadian mosaic, which has produced a peaceful, prosperous, polyglot society, among the most fortunate on earth.

Not every country is able to accept waves of newcomers with Canada’s aplomb. Many Koreans, Swedes, and Chileans have a very strong sense of what it means to be Korean, Swedish, or Chilean. France insists its immigrants embrace the idea of being French, even as many of the old stock deny such a thing is possible, leaving immigrant communities isolated in their banlieues, separate and not equal. The population of the United Kingdom is projected to continue growing, to about 82 million at the end of the century, from 66 million today, but only if the British continue to welcome robust levels of immigration. As the Brexit referendum revealed, many Brits want to turn the English Channel into a moat. To combat depopulation, nations must embrace both immigration and multiculturalism. The first is hard. The second, for some, may prove impossible.

Among great powers, the coming population decline uniquely advantages the United States. For centuries, America has welcomed new arrivals, first from across the Atlantic, then the Pacific as well, and today from across the Rio Grande. Millions have happily plunged into the melting pot—America’s version of multiculturalism—enriching both its economy and culture. Immigration made the twentieth century the American century, and continued immigration will define the twenty-first as American as well.

Unless. The suspicious, nativist, America First groundswell of recent years threatens to choke off the immigration tap that made America great by walling up the border between the United States and everywhere else. Under President Donald Trump, the federal government not only cracked down on illegal immigrants, it reduced legal admissions for skilled workers, a suicidal policy for the U.S. economy. If this change is permanent, if Americans out of senseless fear reject their immigrant tradition, turning their backs on the world, then the United States too will decline, in numbers and power and influence and wealth. This is the choice that every American must make: to support an open, inclusive, welcoming society, or to shut the door and wither in isolation.

The human herd has been culled in the past by famine or plague. This time, we are culling ourselves; we are choosing to become fewer. Will our choice be permanent? The answer is: probably yes. Though governments have sometimes been able to increase the number of children couples are willing to have through generous child care payments and other supports, they have never managed to bring fertility back up to the replacement level of, on average, 2.1 children per woman needed to sustain a population. Besides, such programs are extremely expensive and tend to be cut back during economic downturns. And it is arguably unethical for a government to try to convince a couple to have a child that they would otherwise not have had.

As we settle into a world growing smaller, will we celebrate or mourn our diminishing numbers? Will we struggle to preserve growth, or accept with grace a world in which people both thrive and strive less? We don’t know. But it may be a poet who observes that, for the first time in the history of our race, humanity feels old.

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Shaping the Future on Haida Gwaii

Shaping the Future on Haida Gwaii

Life beyond Settler Colonialism
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The Nature of the Future

The Nature of the Future

Dispatches from the Socialstructured World
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also available: Audiobook (CD)
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