OUR NEW RENAISSANCE
What does our “age” of humanity represent and what might the future hold? Political scientist Christopher Kutarna ponders the big stuff this New Year.
What does our age of humanity represent and what might the future hold?
If we are lucky, amid the New Year’s holiday we find a rare and precious moment of quiet calm. On our sofa, or under the stars, we retreat from our relentless pace of doing. We stop. We take a deep breath. We reflect upon the year that has been and the year that might be. It is a sacred annual ritual, and it renews us. But it also limits us. History – the summation of the human journey – is written in chapters far longer than a single year. By confining our reflection backward and our vision forward to the last year or the next, we impoverish our appreciation of our own place in that glorious story.
More pragmatically, an annual lens on life also makes us more vulnerable to shock. Shock is the psychic collision of our expectations with reality, and it is personal proof that the forces shaping events lie beyond our present field of view. The year gone by has been full of shocks: Brexit, Donald Trump and happier surprises like the discovery of a second moon orbiting Earth. So we know, viscerally, that if we want to make better sense of this startling time we’re in, we need to take a step back and gain a much wider perspective. We need to stretch our expectations about what should be, until they encompass the reality that is. Do that, and the coming year’s shocks may be less jarring. Do that, and we may spend less time reeling from their
impact, and more time shaping their consequences for ourselves, our families and our communities.
THE AGE WE’RE IN
So let’s resolve to take that step back and reflect, not just on the year that has been and the year that might be, but on the age we’re in.
I say we are living through another Age of Discovery – a second Renaissance. And it is, like the first, a time of flourishing genius and risk. Some 500 years ago, voyages of discovery by Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan opened the world, generating trade riches for some while spreading conflict, economic collapse and pandemics to others. Johannes Gutenberg invented a printing press, and this new medium flipped the creation and exchange of ideas from conditions of scarcity to radical abundance in a single lifetime. It also put most scribes out of business and empowered a single friar (Martin Luther) to ignite a Protestant Reformation that tore asunder Europe’s supreme symbol of the status quo, the Catholic Church.
We know these forces – and these consequences – intimately. In our own time, it is not Magellan but market economics that has circumnavigated the globe. The Berlin Wall fell. The Cold War ended. The World Trade Organization was founded, and China (along with a wave of newly democratised countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa) joined it. The global
“Perspective is the guide and the gateway.” – Leonardo da Vinci
economy has more than doubled in size since 1990, and now the economic policies of trading partners across Asia can do more to affect our job security than the politicians we elect back home.
Our new medium is not printed, but digital. Gutenberg has become Zuckerberg. The technology is different, but the transformations are alike: information abundance, cheap distribution, radical variety and wide participation. A single good idea can be worth a billion dollars, and create just a few dozen jobs while destroying thousands. A boy in his bedroom can become a global songwriting superstar; a terrorist organisation can inspire violence far beyond the territory it occupies.
Through this Renaissance lens, the two chief, contesting truths of our lifetime come into sharp focus: this is the best moment in history to be alive, and it is the most fragile.
Those were the truths that vied for supremacy 500 years ago in Europe. “We have seen more progress in this century … than our ancestors did over the past 14,” proclaimed Peter Ramus in 1569. For many, like him, health, wealth and education leapt upwards. (Ramus started life as the son of impoverished charcoal makers and ended it as Regius Professor of Rhetoric in Paris.) Creative genius catapulted. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Buonarroti revolutionised European art. Nicolaus Copernicus revolutionised European notions of heaven and Earth.
Today, a similar uplifting of the human condition is underway, only ours is faster, higher and more widespread. Take life expectancy. The impacts upon our wellbeing of economics, medical science, nutrition, disease, drugs, disaster, war and lifestyle habits can all be summarised in a single question: “How long can I expect to live?” Globally, the answer has risen by almost two full decades since the 1960s. It took previous generations 1,000 years to achieve the previous 20-year lift in life expectancy; we’ve done it in 50. (In Australia, most children under five today will see the dawn of the 22nd century.)
Or take incomes. Global income per capita (world GDP/ population) stands almost 40 per cent higher now than it was in 1990. Forty per cent higher per person, despite the fact that we have added two billion more people to the equation in the meantime. In recent years, we’ve fixated on the outsized rewards being paid to the world’s richest, but the poorest among us are also making historic gains. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, two-fifths of humanity still lived in extreme poverty. Today that fraction has fallen to less than one-eighth.
Or how about education? In just over a generation, illiteracy has plummeted from nearly half to just one-sixth of humanity. And there are probably more people alive right now with a higher education degree than all degrees awarded in history prior to 1980.
Our genius is flourishing, too. Medical science today is not merely treating us with better drugs and advice; it has begun exploring how to transform our nature, to give us abundant life span, fertility and intelligence beyond ranges that we now consider normal. Autonomous machines have already begun to supply abundant labour; one day, artificial intelligence may supply abundant cognition. Synthetic biology or nanotechnology may yield abundant clean energy. The whole of science stands at the base of a very steep discovery curve.
But in the same breath that we step back and recognise this age as humanity’s best, we must also perceive another, equal truth: that now is our most fragile moment. The same transformations that raise us to new heights of health, wealth, education and creativity also expose us to unprecedented risks. And they strain the bonds that hold society together – maybe to their breaking point.
Our extreme fragility lies, first, in the awesome technologies towards which our science is so eagerly reaching. Five hundred years ago, gunpowder taught Europe that a breakthrough technology could both defend and disrupt life. It remains true now. Ought we give ourselves the power to genetically modify the human organism – to design a more advanced species of us? How deep might our social inequalities become, once they take on a genetic dimension? Will robots and automation displace half of the human workforce (as multiple studies now predict)? Will artificial intelligence displace our free will, by proving so much better than us at making the daily choices we now take for granted? Our science is advancing far more rapidly than our public preparedness to answer these questions.
Our fragility is also a function of the political, economic and digital openness that we have laboured for three decades to achieve. Renaissance Europe very quickly discovered that its intrepid voyages had not merely connected the world, but tangled it together. They learnt that they could not disentangle themselves when bads, like syphilis and credit crises, began to flow as easily through society as New World goods. They learnt that economic integration didn’t smoothly yield benefits for everyone; instead, it created knots of winners and losers – within society, and between societies. Within England, for example, one historian described “a golden age for the Shearers … [that] left the Shorn with just enough on their backs to keep alive, and not always that.” Meanwhile, across Europe whole economies rose or fell, through no fault of their own, as city-states fell behind nation-states and Mediterranean trade gave way to Atlantic empire-building.
And Europe learnt that people and their governments struggle to adapt to rapid and massive shifts in their reality. Populations resist being torn from comforting truths: that Earth is the centre of creation; or that humanity’s three branches – European, African and Asian – descended from Noah’s three sons after the flood (how, then, to explain “Americans”?). Charismatic populists, their voices hugely amplified by the new power of print, arose to validate Renaissance Europe’s insecurities. They blamed weak and corrupt leaders for failing to steer people through a rapidly changing world with their values and traditions intact. In Florence, Europe’s most liberal and literate city-state, a demagogue named Savonarola whipped an excluded minority into a frenzy, swept away a Medici establishment that had ruled for half a century, and incited a mass campaign against liberal values that ended in his historic Bonfire of the Vanities. Later, in Wittenberg, an obscure friar named Martin Luther launched a blistering critique against the Catholic Church in Rome. Its leaders, he argued, were more consumed with milking their hierarchy of privilege than with nourishing the people’s spiritual
CONTESTING TRUTHS OF OUR LIFETIME COME INTO SHARP FOCUS: THIS IS THE BEST MOMENT IN HISTORY TO BE ALIVE, AND IT IS THE MOST FRAGILE
wellbeing. Rather than fall on deaf ears, as similar critiques had often done in the past, Luther’s reached a discouraged audience that was ready, in its anxiety, to rise out of the pews. The resulting Protestant Reformation split in half the most pervasive authority in European life, sparked a century of religious wars and led to the largest refugee crisis since the fall of the Roman Empire.
By coincidence or fate, 2017 is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s revolution. A full half-millennium divides then and now, yet the parallels of this and other Renaissance upheavals to the present day are clear and immediate. The fragility of this age confronts us daily in our newspapers and our news feeds. And it is far more urgent, more real to us than that other, equal truth … what was it again? Oh, yeah: every other generation that has ever lived wishes that it could be alive in ours.
When, in the early 1500s, Michelangelo carved his statue of David, from the Bible story of David and Goliath, he didn’t capture David’s moment of victory, as so many artists before had done. Instead, he carved the moment when David raised his eyes, recognised the fateful contest unfolding before him and decided to join it. Michelangelo wanted his city, Florence, to understand: that was the moment they were in.
We are in it, too. And we, too, are called to action by the historic stakes of the time we live in. To welcome, not suppress, genius. To make new maps to help us better navigate changing world. To stoke virtues, like dignity and civility that history has shown can help society get through its toughest moments together.
One reason that we reflect at New Year’s is to bring fresh meaning into our lives. Fortunately, the times we live in gift it freely. If we raise our eyes, we cannot help but see: this is an extraordinary moment in the human story. And it is extraordinarily fragile.
What we do in this moment is up to each of us to decide.
Goliath is waiting.
Chris Kutarna is co-author with Professor Ian Goldin of the book Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance (St Martin’s Press and Bloomsbury). He is a fellow at the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford.