I was asked this question at an interview with Adnan Nawaz of TRT World on Monday 4th of May 2020 (you can find the YouTube link of the full 12-minute interview at the end of this article). It’s a big question that’s on all our minds and as a futurologist and change specialist I was honored to be given the opportunity to shed some light on the matter.
Predicting the future
First of all, and to be clear and unambiguous: it is not possible to predict the actual future in the long run with any degree of accuracy. There are too many variables and you have to take chaos theory into consideration as well. What we futurologists do is take a helicopter view, study history, science and the human condition, take the current situation and speculate about possible outcomes in the long run.
We hope to influence the mindset of individuals within social groups so that we might escape our preprogrammed behavior as hunter/gatherers. Because that is exactly the task that is ahead of us: changing the kind of behavior that might harm us more or even undo us in the future. It’s about time to acknowledge, at least to some degree, who we really are, where we stand and where we’re going.
Smile or frown
At the beginning of the interview I was asked how I think about the future: with a smile or with a frown? I answered that I am looking at the situation with a ‘worried smile’. I said: ‘[As a futurologist I have to] look a little bit further ahead than one or two years, so allow me to be blunt here, from the Netherlands, as we are used to here’. And that’s what I did. So I dropped my coin into the bucket with a bit of a bang:
‘Nothing is going to change in the long run in terms of our behavior as a human species’.
There you have it. And that bold statement needs some explanation. The entire interview takes about 12 minutes and a lot of information is floating by, both in audio and simultaneous video. Cognitively speaking that’s always hard to combine. That’s why I wrote this article. Not to provide a script of the entire interview but to provide context to the various talking points therein.
Please note: I have written a book on the subject (In Dutch: ‘De mens als grens’ – Hoop voor de toekomst van mensaap en moederplaneet’) that has been translated into a Ted(x)-talk in English (‘Futurology for fanatics’ – Hope for the future of man ape and mother planet’) that provides you with a management summary of 18 minutes of the book. You can find both links at the end of this article.
The Old Normal
What do you mean, ‘nothing will change?’ Well, of course things will change in the immediate future. Heck, the whole world has changed already. We are forced to adjust our lives right now until we have good treatment medicines and eventually an effective vaccine for Covid-19. But after that it’s highly likely that everything will go back to the ‘Old Normal’. There’s a perfectly good explanation for that: the Corona-virus is merely an inconvenient distraction.
‘So, I’m still smiling but I’m slightly worried’, I said.
Billionaires will be billionaires
At some point during the interview my host Adnan Nawaz provided me with an interesting insight into human nature. Robert Reich, former US Secretary of Labor, who served under three presidents and is currently professor at Berkley University, was reporting recently that ‘in the USA, [over a period of] 23 days during the current restrictions in place across the [country], America’s billionaires increased their collective wealth by 282 billion dollars, that’s about 12 billion dollars a day’. Will this change people’s minds towards, for example, a tax raise for the rich?’ he subsequently asked.
No, I said. It will not.
This fact merely underlines my statement that nothing will change in the long run. Our lust for greed apparently has no limits. Even when we are in the midst of a global crisis, suffering great losses ánd longing to go back to the Old Normal, billionaires just want to make more billions. How do you explain that? Well, as a futurologist I not only have to look further ahead than one or two years, but I have to also look at us, homo sapiens, the human condition. It’s important that we understand who and what we are in nature.
Social group mammals and Small Groups
From a biological point of view we are still social group mammals living in Small Groups: these groups are our household, our family, our friends, colleagues and team mates. We are all members of these multiple, overlapping Small Groups. All of our sentiments are being cultivated and amplified there. These groups consist of five to fifteen people. For companies there’s even a ‘magic number’ of 150, after which it becomes exponentially more difficult to still ‘know’ everyone and exert some kind of control. That number of 150 is called Dunbar’s Number and it’s well founded in science (you can Google it if you want).
Our Small Groups are the same size groups as when we were hunter/gatherers. Although the collaboration between large amounts of Small Groups enables us to accomplish bigger things (to communicate and cooperate on a global scale and, for instance, enable us to escape the gravity of this planet and visit other planetary bodies) any ‘large group’ of people still consists of Small Groups flocking together. It’s like a big foam bubble filled with overlapping smaller bubbles. Within those small bubbles we still act a hunter/gatherers: self-contained, shortsighted and selfish.
The Ultimate Question
So where do I find the audacity to state that nothing will change in the long run? Well, you can check that out for yourself, in your own Small Groups. Next time you’re together – minding social distancing rules of course – just ask your partner, or a family member, a friend, a colleague or a team member, the Ultimate Question:
‘Are you – and with that I mean you as an individual – willing to permanently cut back your life, your career, your income, your house, your possessions and your growth potential by, let’s say, 30%, to reduce our footprint on this world for the greater good of mankind and to ensure our survival as a species on this planet?’
If the answer is NO
If the answer is ‘NO or ‘not until others do it first’, I will, although reluctantly, have proven my point. We will therefore most likely all go back to the Old Normal: overpopulation, spillage, waste, pollution, global warming, greed, intolerance and superstition. But if you find a way to say sustain your current way of life, your material wealth, your potential and your economic growth ambitions, without waste, spillage and pollution, you may carry on and spread the word. The Ultimate Question is a test. It’s a question of conscience, a discussion starter.
Our focus and orientation as human beings is super-local, both from the standpoint of geography and in terms of time. Geographically we usually don’t extend our view much further than our house, our street, our community, our village or town, our country or maybe the adjacent countries. In terms of time we rarely look further ahead than, let’s say that party next week or maybe the Summer Holiday next year.
We are not only just operating in Small Groups but our orientation is super-local as well. That setting has served us well when we were hunter/gatherers but it doesn’t serve us well in our current environment. However, we, the entire group of human beings, we are fundamentally divided (about how to run, repair and maintain a one-species-society that spans an entire globe) and we need to reach global unification before it is too late. But even knowing that, we have a hard time looking at that big picture. Our super-locality continuously draws us back to our daily problems which we consider vastly more important.
Old habits die hard
We are creatures of habit, hiding in our Small Groups where we feel safe and comfortable. We are self-contained, shortsighted and selfish, we have a hard time embracing change and if we are threatened from the outside we close ranks and start a defense. We do that on every imaginable scale: from household to family, from enterprise to corporation, from poor to rich, from secretary to CEO, from citizen to president.
Even at the highest level, the dynamics of Small Groups rule everything. The highest leader will most likely seek group members that are of the same attitude, same nature, same culture and same motivation. The only difference is that isolated Small Groups at the lowest level can’t do much harm, relatively speaking; at the highest level the damage of one single Small Group is potentially catastrophic. The current administration in the USA is a perfect example of such a dangerous Small Group. But the actual behavior of human beings within these Small Groups is fundamentally the same.
There is a risk with high probability and high impact that, after we have developed an effective vaccine and we feel relatively safe and comfortable again, we’ll go back. We’ll go back to our offices, to our communities, to our old lives, to our old habits. Old habits die hard. We human beings are not meant to Skype, to stare at screens all the time, to live in virtual environments. We are made to communicate face-to-face. We want to feel and touch and reach and interact and hug and laugh and love (viruses love that). But as a species we are also prone to greed, intolerance and superstition.
I saw a picture floating by on the social media, a kind of cultural meme, I don’t know the source. It depicts a human being under water, just one stroke away from breaking the surface. Just below him is a huge white shark, its jaws wide open, ready to engulf the tiny creature. That shark is called ‘Covid-19’. But just below that shark there’s an even bigger one with open jaws ready to swallow the whole scene above. That one is called ‘Global Warming’. It’s a great picture and it speaks volumes. Now, I would like to add an even bigger shark below the second one, ready to wipe out everything. Let’s call that one ‘Overpopulation’.
Let me hurry to say: the global population, currently about 7,8 billion people, is not growing exponentially any more. It will stabilize at about 10 billion people this century. Overpopulation it itself is a solvable problem; we already have enough resources to cloth, feed and facilitate 10 billion or even more. But the world’s population still grows at about 200.000 individuals per day. We have to stop the waste, spillage and pollution first. That requires a fundamental change in our individual behavior on all fronts, including all newcomers, not just with regards to our short term consumption but our long term behavior as well.
The Common Enemy Principle
What we are currently facing is strongly related to the Common Enemy Principle. We almost forgot the common enemy that was called Global Warming. It has no boundaries and therefore affects us all. Nobody can hide from it, nowhere on this planet. But it is a silent killer, it is of high impact but slow progress. And, oh irony, because of a bat dropping its poop on a crowded exotic animal flesh market in China we are now facing a new common enemy to distracts us: Covid-19.
This one does hit us smack in the face. Acute and immediate. Within a few months all of our lives have been affected, everywhere around the globe. Its unprecedented. It’s a combined health care and economy crisis. It holds the signature of a final warning. We have successfully ignored global warming the past four decades and everything went on as usual, as normal. But this new common enemy is far more nasty and we are running out of time.
But we know all this. We know what we have to do; we’ve written a million books about it already. After the distraction that is Covod-19, global warming will hit us full force. It will hit our children hard and our children’s children even harder. They will live through tougher times than we right now. In fact, our children might be the first generation that will not be better off than the previous one.
For the first time, being an incorrigible optimist, I’m pessimistic about us going back to the Old Normal. We are in this mess specifically because of what we do to the environment. Forget about all the conspiracy theories of this virus being concocted in some lab in China. Scientist and virologists have looked at its DNA signature and there’s nothing genetically engineered about it. Again: it’s just a bat that pooped on an overcrowded uncontrolled exotic animal market somewhere in China and that happened before. We just find it difficult to believe such coincidences; we’d rather think of some dark elaborate conspiracy that involves ‘bad people’.
The Ultimate Solution: chaining Small Groups
Finally, I’d like to provide a shimmer of hope amidst all these worries. Because you can help. Start asking the Ultimate Question within your Small Groups. Start today, start the discussion. Ask open questions: Why? Why not? Who? When? Where? But even if you find an individual that says YES, one that is willing and able to comply to a drastic change in individual behavior, it will not be enough, not by far. Only a chain of Small Groups with the same attitude (which is equal to a community) will get it started. Only a chain of communities will have the muscle to stimulate governments to change their policies. Only joint governments can muster enough power to change the global political landscape to ultimately change the system.
Because we are dealing with a global systemic problem — political, sociological, psychological, geographical, cultural — that is much bigger than the Corona-crisis. It can only be dealt with by a global systemic solution, a global systemic change. And that solution, that change has to start within our own Small Groups, at home, in the streets, at work. The Corona pandemic is our final warning. If we don’t get it by now we might eventually go the way of 99,99% of all species that ever roamed the Planet Earth in its 4,5 billion year history: we’ll go extinct. Global warming will lead us in, uncontrolled overpopulation, waste, spillage and pollution will do the rest. And we are well underway.
And yes, that is a tad more pessimistic than you’d expect from an incorrigible optimist. So be it. Let’s be realistic at this point. We’ve had our chance many times and now we’re losing grip. Yes, we are creatures of habit and that very habit will be our undoing if we fail to execute the transition from fundamental division to global unification. We must start to look further ahead than we ever dared before. And that all starts with you and your Small Groups. Let’s link them together, shall we? Thanks. And good luck.
Remember: Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stick to the rules.