Is a flourishing world possible?
Clearly, the world we see today is not flourishing. But why?
The most common answers to this question:
- A flourishing world simply isn’t possible.
- It might be possible but we don’t know how to do it.
- We know how to do it but there are powerful forces preventing us from doing it.
What do you think?
We at Earthville (and many others) have been investigating this question for decades, and our answer to that question is “none of the above.” Our experience in the field proves that a flourishing world is possible, but we don’t believe there is a dark conspiracy to stop food from going into the mouths of the hungry. We see it as something else.
Let’s look at this for a moment.
Nobody in their right mind actually wants the world to have so much intense suffering and injustice, and nobody in the right mind actually wants the global ecosystem to break down. But how many of us inquire deeply into the causes of these overwhelming social and environmental challenges? And how many of us are aware that workable solutions for many of them have already been found by someone, somewhere?
The answer, of course, is “not many.” Most of us just try to get by, and we don’t spend much time thinking about these things. And that’s understandable, because it’s depressing to stare in the face of such intense problems if one doesn’t have any sense of possibility that things could be better. What would be the point? So most people don’t give all that much thought to what a flourishing world might look like, let alone how we might make such a world a reality.
But among those who do seriously consider this question, there are essentially two camps: Those who believe a flourishing world is simply impossible (and therefore one should focus on looking out for oneself) and those who believe that a flourishing world is possible and we’d all be better served by working diligently to make it a reality. And the gap between these two worldviews is where the problem begins.
Paradigm Wars: Competition vs. Cooperation
People who have a considered opinion that a flourishing world is impossible generally argue that, in this world, there are winners and losers, and for one person to win, others have to lose. In this kind of world, it’s “every man for himself” because that’s the only way one has any hope of not ending up the loser. This way of looking at the world is what is called a “zero-sum game,” a situation in which there is a limited pile of resources and so for me to get what I need (or want), I have to take it from you, which means you don’t have it anymore. This is the competitive worldview — the underlying assumption driving a lot of the heavyweight forces operating in our global economy (and, by extension, in politics, media, and public discourse).
In such a world, they argue, a choice must be made: Either we have prosperity and progress, with comfortable modern lifestyles, medical breakthroughs, and our favorite gadgets, or we give all of that up and take care of the poor and the planet. That’s a depressing choice. (Even environmentalists use smartphones and don’t want to lose them, and nobody with a beating heart feels entirely comfortable idly ignoring the suffering of those who live in poverty.) But that’s the way the choice is often framed in public conversation today — in part because the people framing most of the public conversation are (consciously or unconsciously) operating within the constraints of the competitive, zero-sum paradigm.
Fortunately, this progress-or-planet, progress-or-people argument is simply incorrect, misguided, uninformed. It isn’t an either/or choice. The world isn’t by nature a zero-sum game, in which someone necessarily must lose for someone else to win.
The reality is that, with creative collaboration, everyone can win — all people, all species, and the planet that supports us all.
How do we know this? We’re in the win-win business. It’s what we do, and we’ve been doing it for a long time. We have learned from experience that there’s always a win-win to be found, and we’ve learned that often it isn’t really all that difficult to find, once one starts looking in earnest and applying a bit of human creativity and intelligence.
Of course there are pockets of heartless greed in the world, and that does create serious problems. But most people are decent, so the much more common problem is that, in the normal course of business as usual, people don’t even try to find a win-win because it’s not in the playbook of the zero-sum game (which is currently the de facto worldview of contemporary capitalism). Sometimes it would be as simple as asking a conference room full of smart people, “In this project, how could we leverage creative collaboration with our stakeholders and communities to maximize benefit for the public and the planet without significantly compromising our profits?” But in the competitive paradigm, it’s pretty rare for anyone to ask that question. In most companies, it usually doesn’t even occur to them.
And that’s a tragedy. All those smart and decent people have the opportunity to help make the world a better place and make good money doing it, but they don’t even realize it. And it’s important to note the irony that it isn’t just the poor and the planet who are missing out, it’s the businesses too, because with some creativity they could also profit from public-private sector partnerships to get the job done. It would be in the business’s own interest to do this.
Creative collaborations between the public and private sectors can introduce synergies, efficiencies, and cross-pollinations that can benefit everyone involved in potent ways, so that everyone participating in the collaboration comes out much better off than they were before. So it isn’t charity we’re talking about here, it’s good business sense. In many industries, there would be more money to be made through cooperation than through competition.
So, viewed from the inside, the problem clearly is not a grand conspiracy of greed so much as a narrow awareness of what is possible. And this is actually very good news, because a grand conspiracy of greed would be extremely difficult to overcome, but a simple matter of unawareness can be remedied with education. And we see that as part of our responsibility.
We know there are win-win solutions for shared prosperity through creative collaboration that work — thousands of them, all over the world. The media doesn’t give them much airtime, but we know about them because that’s our job and our passion.
What does it take for everyone to win? Just four things: awareness, caring, creativity, and sustainable perseverance. (See this page for elaboration on this point.)
Win-Win Solutions & the End of War
Throughout recorded history, people have fought over resources. And, as long as there are still a lot of people deprived of their basic resource requirements, there’s no reason to think war would ever stop.
As a species, across cultures and throughout history, we humans tend to pick up the sword when we feel someone is violating our most basic and universal wish to live a life of dignity and provide good opportunities for our children. We revolt when we are impoverished and disenfranchised. It’s only natural: Who would want to sit still and silent while being cruelly deprived of the even the most basic level of existence — a reasonable chance to ensure the survival of one’s family?
But what if poverty went away forever, and was replaced by thriving? History tells us that people who are thriving usually would rather not be in a war. We would rather live well and enjoy the peace dividends.
History also shows that people who live comfortably are much less likely to resent those who live even more comfortably. It is natural and understandable that a person living in squalor would resent those living in luxury, and might eventually rise up against such a harsh inequity. But if that same person had a reasonably comfortable home, a decent job, and some hope of a better life for his or her children, that takes most of the edge off of inequality, and it would make no sense to jeopardize that situation by committing acts of violence against society.
Some of the Socialist and Communist movements of the 20th century attempted (at least ostensibly) to rectify the injustices of extreme inequality by bulldozing the playing field. But their methods never met with sustainable success, in part because they disenfranchised the rich and the educated, so it was not a win-win, and in part because in most cases the people with the most power failed to resist the temptation to abuse it, enriching themselves while destroying the lives of countless others. Obviously, not a win-win by a long shot.
History teaches us that any proposed economic or political model that fails the test of benefiting everyone genuinely will be rejected by the disenfranchised, sooner or later, and often with a lot of blood spilled.
A solution that enriches everyone stands the best chances of extinguishing the flame of war. And it may not even be necessary for everyone to be equally wealthy; history suggests it would usually be enough if the poorest people are nourished and comfortable, treated with respect, and afforded genuinely meaningful opportunities to work their way up if they choose to do so.
Again, we’re not talking about toppling the rich here; just making sure everyone has at least the basics and a chance to climb from there. And, doing the math, we see that our world already has more than enough to go around, so it’s a question of management, distribution, and most importantly the will to get the job done.
Making It Happen
First things first: There is no real-world reason preventing us, as a species, from completely eradicating abject poverty, starvation, and preventable diseases. Those who know the most about this field are very clear: We could do it. We do know how. The surplus food is there (and being wasted, thrown away). The surplus medicine is there. The logistical know-how is there. We’re simply waiting for society to make it a high enough priority and give the green light to the people who’ve spent decades preparing to do this.
And once we take that step of eliminating gross poverty, from there, it’s much easier to reach the next step, into a reasonably comfortable existence with a decent education and real opportunities for advancement. The reality on the ground is that it’s a lot easier to think about keeping your daughter in school when you’re not starving, and your daughter isn’t sick. For the people who work in this field, it would not be all that hard to create hundreds of thousands of jobs for the world’s poorest people, and to find ways for businesses to assist in the effort and profit in the process. Everyone could win, so everyone should win. That’s the path to sustainable thriving.
There are already so many great ideas, many promising proposals awaiting funding, and we can generate a lot more as they are needed.
In our view, it’s a primarily a crisis of creativity and will. One we apply our creative minds to these challenges and start looking for clever ways to help people, protect the planet, and make money doing it, we start seeing endless opportunities for sustainable shared prosperity. As a species, we need to make it our highest priority to invest our considerable intelligence and creative power into the search for win-win solutions for a flourishing planet. It’s necessarily the field of the future, and the sooner we master it, the better for all of us.
For our part, as a nonprofit with limited resources, we can’t fix the whole world, but we make it our business to take on the biggest challenges we’re confident that we can rise to meet. We identify achievable pieces we can address, on the scale that our resources will allow. And we share our small successes with the world so that others might be inspired to do something similar in their own communities.
Even if there were never any large-scale coordination of this effort, the goal of a flourishing world could be achieved by thousands of small groups like us and caring people like you, doing what we can.
Even if this were a 100-year project, shouldn’t we be starting now?
What Do You Think?
Share your thoughts, experiences, or questions in the comments section below.
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