What’s Wrong with the World?

Everywhere we look, things are not right: failing regimes, falling growth rate, stalling democratic processes, worsening social unrest, decreasing physical and mental health, rising unemployment, increasing wealth gap, growing corporate influence, intensifying ecological destruction, shrinking resources, and less and less optimism and time. Geographically, no regions have been left unaffected by this systematic crisis in the global society. And as far as we can see, there’s no light down in the tunnel.

We all know that things are not right. But what exactly is wrong? What’s the root cause of all the sufferings? To answer this question, the Democrats blame the Republicans, and the Republicans blame the Democrats. And the rest of the U.S. blames the blaming-game between the Democrats and Republicans. The 99% blames the 1% for greed and crookedness; the 1% blames the 99% for being unemployable. Socialists blame the capitalists; the capitalists blame the terrorists. In one word, nobody is innocent, and everyone is the victim.

Part of the problem is that there are so many problems in the system that it becomes numbing and dizzying. However, this is exactly the right time for us to keep a cool head and a compassionate heart, and see through the surface to get to the root of the issue.

Like a good doctor treating a desperate patient, we will first look for symptoms of illness in today’s system, and then try to make sense of them. I will arbitrarily put the world’s problems into four categories:

1. Political
  • Domestic politics is messed up. Old Social Contracts have been broken or have expired. There is a big disconnect between the older and younger generations, and between a helpless ruling elite and an awakening civil society.
  • International politics is messed up. Global governance is defunct, as is evident in the several rounds of climate talks. Military spending is on the rise globally, with nations ready for a fight.

2. Economic
  • High unemployment. Technology is eliminating large number of job. There is a mismatch between the education system and the employers’ demand.
  • Lack of growth. The developed world hasn’t seen much growth for a while, and the developing world is slowing down. Old growth model won’t work anymore, but new models are too painful or too far away.
  • Too much debt in the economy. Both households and nations are under huge amount of debt, which reduces their ability to spend and invest.
  • Economic system is hitting the wall of ecosystem. The Earth’s carrying capacity is being reached. Cost will go up.

3. Ecological
  • Population is heading toward 9 billion by mid-century. Per capita consumption is rising. Human society’s ecological footprint is unsustainable.
  • Diminishing resources and a worsening environment are creating a double squeeze on current way of life--- a problem solely of our own making. We are seeing scarcity of energy, water, land, food, precious or rare metals, etc.
  • The waste and toxicity in our ecosystem is a ticking time-bomb. We have over-drafted our children’s resources, and have left them with our poisonous crap.
  • As the ecosystem’s health decline, so does the humans’ health. We are living through the most obese, over-drugged phase of human history. All kinds of new illness are emerging --- no cures in sight.

4. Cultural
  • Today’s culture is enslaved by money. Culture exists to stimulate our desires and glorify consumption. For example, culture creates a stereotype of beauty in order to sell plastic surgeries, cosmetics, etc., but leaves 99% of the girls constantly depressed.
  • In our culture, you are what you own. Fetishism of commodities has gone to such extreme that people live by the motto of “I buy, therefore I am.” Your value is not measured by your character, but your financial net worth. Virtue is not rewarded or respected.
  • Faith in capitalism has replaced all other faiths as the dominant belief system. Making profit is an end in itself. Market is God, and money his angel. The spiritual vacuum has both created personal suffering, and opened the door to religious extremism.
  • Globalization is creating big confusion and conflict between tradition and modernity, and between the West and the rest. There’s not yet a set of universal value that unites all of us while accommodating our differences.

The list above has left out many important issues, but might be good enough for a first diagnosis of our patient. My next question is: what’s the interconnection of these aspects of the problem? What’s the cause and effect? Is there a “root of all evil”?

It is tempting to blame everything on “human nature.” Indeed, greed and selfishness are an undeniable part of our nature. But saying so is not helpful: it both denies potential for good, and creates a sense of pessimism --- “it’s in our blood, we are doomed.”

If not “nature”, then how about “nurture”? It seems like the system has been designed to bring out the worst within us, and throw us into the race to the bottom. For example, capitalists are not evil --- they just don’t have the choice if they want to stay in the game.

However, here is where my analysis had to stop because I need to go study how the system works. It’s all too easy to say that capitalist system is in crisis. But take a look: the rate of profit is at all time high, and businesses are expanding globally. The capitalist sees no crisis at all!

On this note, I will summarize and then go back to studying how the system works. As we’ve seen, the world is facing a fundamental crisis. No superficial solution could stretch the life of the system by much longer. We need a fundamental redesign in many aspects of our life. If human society will still be on earth in 100 years, it will look very, very different. That’s our mission, and our fun.

I remain optimistic about the future because I have no choice --- it’s my future, my only future. But if we fail, then that’s OK. If human society collapses, then all other forms of life will have a much better time on earth. No one will lock them up in the zoo, at least.

Let’s hope that the next intelligent species would look carefully at our fossils and study why we failed. I’m sure it will be a lesson worth learning.

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