The New values

“Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”  ~  Kenneth Boulding, Economist

Speed and aggression

Within the two decades spanning from the end of World War II in Europe to the end of the Vietnam War, two things dramatically changed the mentality of business.

One was that many war veterans, people who had been trained in the military started their own companies or consultancies and brought new values and more aggressive practices.

Two was that psychology had matured into a full fledged discipline and started to be widely used to influence people’s behaviour and consumption habits. It led to a number of practices such as soft drinks corporations using subliminal images in advertising clips, fast food companies focusing their marketing strategies on toddlers to create in them tastes and habits that would make them life long consumers and the media industries creating a world of ‘needs’ and ‘musts’ promoted by fashion.

In the new consumerist life styles, things are designed to be consumed and thrown or replaced – fast. China has partly built its growth on this strategy, inundating markets worldwide with cheap, low quality, products of very short life span.

But many global corporations do the same: they launch products which they already know will soon need to be replaced with newer technologies or smarter designs. Many of the new technologies we now see emerging were known years before they were mass produced but were only launched when older technologies had saturated markets. Millions of electronic devices become obsolete and are uselessly discarded every year on this principle.

Today, the speed of design, production and distribution is enormous. In 2004, Sony launched three products every hour; Disney, one every five minutes. In 1990, it used to take 6 years before a new car could be developed, Now it takes 18 months. In most developed countries, you can have your own tailored made car in less than a week through the internet. You get your credit approved instantly, click boxes on the screen and the moment you click send, the car starts being built for you.

The age of individualism and the new definition of a family

“In the coming world, people will not be willing to let their future be decided for them nor to see their individual identity, their aspirations and competence be undervalued. They will become increasingly free to choose for their life.”  ~  World Summit for Social Development, Copenhagen, 1995

With the new values and life styles goes a redefinition of the traditional ideas of what a family is. A Harvard University Report describes that, “Today all families are dysfunctional. The only difference is only a matter of how dysfunctional they are.”

There are many causes for this but a determining one lies with the rise of individualism fed again by consumerist mentalities. Today, everywhere in the world people want to be free to do what they want to do.

In every society participating in the global economy, divorce skyrocket.  In 2008 in the US, it was estimated that 45% of all marriages had an average life span of 8 years and ended in divorce. Although this trend doesn’t apply to all countries participating in the global economy – India for example has a 1% divorce rate – it is definitely a marked trend.

People, especially women, are now increasingly empowered through access to information and wealth to make their own choices. Their talents are more rewarded than in the past and they are not willing anymore to let their future be decided for them or to see their individual identity, their aspirations and competence undervalued.

For some it is a well earned and deserved access to freedom, for others yet another challenge adding to an already heavy weight; for others again, a mere extension of the same consumerist attitudes, consuming and throwing relationships like one does for things.

The last three decades of the twentieth century witnessed a dramatic increase in single-parent families in most developed societies; their number has tripled in the UK in the last 30 years. In most European countries, 25% of young people do not have the experience of a stable family life because their parents divorce by the time they are 16. In the United States more than 35% live in single parent families mostly headed by women.

The end of ideologies

 “Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Seek what they sought” ~ Matsuo Basho

After the great outburst of political theories, social revolutions and intellectual utopia that characterised the first two thirds of the 20th century culminated in the Communism revolution and its bitter fight with Capitalism causing an estimated 170 to 200 millions victims, most ‘intelligent’ individuals today have adopted a more cautious, sometimes cynical, approach toward ideologies. In 1999, according to a survey conducted by UNDP, 3% only of the Chinese people still identified with the communist revolution whilst for 66%, the primary ambition was to get rich.

Today’s global values are motivated by the philosophy of ‘more’ and claim their universality on the basis of their scientific, rational, and ‘objective’ character. In this, a group of individuals in Munich is supposed to have a similar ‘objective’ world view as well as work practices and life styles than another group of individuals in New Delhi, Beijing, Tel Aviv or Chicago.

But although we talk at length today about the new global culture emerging worldwide, it seems that this process apparently reflects Western life styles and values – ‘West’ including Europe and North America.

Yet, there has been for the past 50 years a silent and steady of Eastern thought on the Western mind and it is a paradox today that most ancient traditionally spiritual cultures turn toward materialism whilst the champion of materialism increasingly integrate fine spiritual concepts to their personal, professional or organisational life.

In the field of religion, with the stability of Hinduism, the recession of Christianity, the spread of Islam, Buddhism and atheism, we witness a movement of polarization with, on one side a hardening of extremism and on the other a noticeable recession of organized religion at the benefit of a more personal, thoughtful and practical spirituality rooted in indigenous or Eastern traditional cultures.

Today, most people have become increasingly defiant toward organized religions which are broadly perceived as a cause of division and conflict more than a means for personal upliftment. Many favor a personal spirituality which is more integrated in their daily life and supports their personal and social development.

The age of ‘buy now, pay later’ entertainment

With the crumbling of traditional values, the growth of middle classes and the advent of the consumerist society, shopping has shifted from a need to a pass time, a fashionable mode of entertainment reflecting one’s social status and fed by marketing industries and the medias.

As an increasing number of people got access to ‘buying power’, entertainment became a main stream industry sparking an extraordinary burst of artistic and technological creativity. When technological breakthroughs allowed mass production and cost reduction, it spread to all layers of society.

Despite the global economic crisis looming, the global entertainment and media industry is experiencing sustained growth and will reach $2 trillion in 2011 according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, with home computers, wireless handsets and televisions making more than half of it.

Today, individuals have access an almost unlimited range of resource they can select from home to make their own TV programs, CD’s or films. Electronic devices and internet forums have now widely replaced libraries, cinemas, theaters and other public cultural arenas.

It has allowed, on one side, a very healthy and dynamic democratization of forms of arts and expression which were reserved to the elite but because pleasure and the quest for experimentation follows the law of ‘more’ and can be very addictive, it has also led to the wide spread of forms of entertainment which harm the human spirit.

America alone spends $10 billion on pornography every year – double the amount it would take to provide basic education to all the children of the world and the equivalent of the cost of providing water and sanitation for everyone in the world.

With the advent of digital pornography, Japan overtook Thailand to grab the title of world’s champion for child pornography, with Parliament recently refusing to pass a law banning the production of child pornography for “business reasons.”

In another area, the world’s trade in illegal drugs is estimated to be worth around $400 billion – about the same as the world’s legal pharmaceutical industry and some 200 million around the world abuse drugs.

But entertainment costs. When you combine, on the economical side, the need to maintain consumptions levels which can guarantee economical growth and  employment and, on the individual side, the need to achieve and maintain socially acceptable levels of consumption, high cost of living and an increasingly thin frontier existing between real needs and fashionable social trends, you end up with spending patterns that most people simply can neither afford nor abandon.

Credit appears to many as a simple solution. The ‘buy now and pay later’ mentality has been one of the most potent incentive for economical growth in developed societies. It has allowed people with limited income to access reasonable levels of comfort but it has also created harmful vicious cycles by privileging instant satisfaction of desires and procrastination of responsibility.

Because of its apparent simplicity, credit empowers the centres in our brain seeking instant reward and dis-empowers those allowing us to postpone it on consideration of future consequences or gains. This ability we learn when we are children is vital to intelligence and self mastery.

Credit card debt has become a very serious problem that hundreds of thousands of people are now struggling with. So many people have become so over burdened with debt that it leaves them with no extra cash to pay for the cost of living. They end up working ‘to pay the bills’ and often carry on using credit cards to cover daily expenses, digging themselves deeper into a financial trap that ultimately steals them of the freedom credit was supposed to offer them in the first place.

The age of the superfluous

How many times did you find yourself having bought something just to realise, after the initial thrill had gone, that you did not need it and maybe that you didn’t even really like it? How many things are there in our cupboards and store rooms and computers that we bought for no reason and never – and will never – use?

Most societies who have taken the path of development follow a similar pattern. First, they enjoy a period of apparent grace and easy success where business and industry grow by meeting the basic needs of populations giving rise to a great movement of production and prosperity; then, when the citizens of a country have their basic needs met comes a period of refinement and widening of comforts with a greater number of people now accessing ‘luxury’. Throughout those two first phases, all seems to be well in the best of the world. The problems arise in the third phase when markets are saturated, when people have what they need and more and when production and profit drop. At this stage, the industrial and economic apparatus is well developed and need to be fed by a steady demand which now looses its vitality now. It would be possible at that stage to seek a balanced, reduce working times and promote life styles based on human values rather than consumerism: shifting the aim of life from consumption and accumulation to learning, personal growth and well being. But with the constraint of economic growth and greed, this is not the option chosen.

The third stage of economic development is the bad news: in order to maintain high production and consumption levels, business and industry start generating artificial needs and encourage people to buy what they do not need and what is often harmful to them – processed foods, sugars, addictive substances, forms of entertainment arousing the lower instincts in man, degenerative pass times, etc. This phase is usually paralleled with a corresponding growth of the health sectors – pharmacists, doctors, counsellors – as consumption patterns now loose their meaning and become detrimental to people’s physical, mental and emotional health.

A lot of what we buy today has no real value – or at least a much lesser value than the price we pay. Its main value is in the fleeting pleasure it provides or it is in the image it vehicles, the social group it is associated with or simply in the fact that everyone has one.

The global food packaging industry alone is now worth $100bn-a-year, growing 10-15% each year. Anything from 10% to 50% of the price of food we buy today can be down to its packaging. Packaging for health and beauty products for example can cost three times as much as the contents. Shower gel were singled out as an example of wasteful practices that contribute to the six million tons of boxes, bottles, tissue and other wrapping sent to landfill every year in the UK alone.

A study found that the contents of each bottle of gel only cost $0.15 to manufacture whereas the bottle cost $0.45 and the retail price is around $3. These bottles cost consumers their money and, once used, take 400 years to decay.

As the amount of rubbish we produce increases, financial and environmental costs to our world also increase. According to WasteOnline, UK households produce the equivalent weight of around 245 jumbo jets per week in packaging waste alone. Three of the 26 million tons of household waste produced annually comes from packaging whilst another 150 million tons packaging waste comes from industry and commerce.

Every hour, Americans discard 2.5 million plastic bottles – enough bottles to make a pathway to the moon every three weeks and it is now said that there are two man made structures that can be seen from outer-space: the Great Wall of China, and the Fresh Kills landfill near New York. In the US, one landfill closes everyday and oceans have already widely used to dump waste. Experts say that the country has 18 years of landfill capacity left.

The age of insecurity

“My security depends on your insecurity”  ~  Chinese general, People Liberation Army

Global military expenditure stands at over $1.5 trillion in annual expenditure – which means that $170 million is spent on defense every hour. This represents a 50% increase since 2000 and approximately $220 for each person in the world. To the average citizen of the developed nations, this appears a small price to pay for protection and security but to one of the two billion people who survive on less than one dollar a day this is more than half a year worth of labor.

 The USA with its massive spending budget is the principal determinant of the current world trend. Its military expenditure now accounts for almost half of the world total, at 46.5% of the world total; followed by China (6.6%), France (4.2%), UK (3.8%), and Russia (3.5%).

Weaponry is now so sophisticated and precise that it requires military personal with higher skills and education. During the Viet Nam war for example, 15% US soldiers only had a college degree. 25 years later during operation Desert Storm, the 1990 liberation of Kuwait from Iraq, 99% of US military personal had university degrees.

Yet, as the power of modern weapons to strike increases beyond measure, marginalised communities resort to suicide bombers, civilian terror or guerrilla warfare to fight their wars. Highly equipped armies find themselves inadequately equipped and struggle to cope with enemies infinitely weaker then them.

According to Robert S. McNamara, U.S. secretary of defense under President Kennedy and past president of the World Bank, “the United States has approximately 8,000 active or operational warheads. Of those, 4,500 are ‘strategic, offensive’, 2,000 of them on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched on 15 minutes’ warning. Russia has roughly 3,800. The strategic forces of Britain, France, and China are considerably smaller, with 200–400 nuclear weapons in each state’s arsenal. The new nuclear states of Pakistan and India have fewer than 100 weapons each. North Korea now claims to have developed nuclear weapons, and U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that Pyongyang has enough fissile material for 2–8 bombs.

Today, the average U.S. warhead has a destructive power 20 times that of the Hiroshima bomb which wiped out an entire city caused the immediate death of 80,000 people followed by another 200,000 soon after. Such a power of destruction is not only capable to inflict unbearable damage to any nation in the world, but to the planet itself as any nuclear strike would most probably flare into a global disaster within hours.”

McNamara’s describes how “the current nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous. The risk of an accidental or inadvertent nuclear launch is unacceptably high … I have worked on issues relating to U.S. and NATO nuclear strategy and war plans for more than 40 years. During that time, I have never seen a piece of paper that outlined a plan … to initiate the use of nuclear weapons with any benefit for the United States or NATO. I have made this statement in front of audiences, including NATO defense ministers and senior military leaders, many times. No one has ever refuted it. To launch weapons against a nuclear-equipped opponent would be suicidal.”

The 20th century world culture 

“A lifestyle that excludes one-third of the world’s population, however dominant it may appear at the moment, should not be regarded as the supreme achievement of 20th-century civilization”  ~  UNDP

There are now more than 1.7 billion members of “the consumer class”—nearly half of them in the developing world. A lifestyle and culture that became common in Europe, North America, Japan, and a few other pockets of the world in the twentieth century is now going global in the twenty-first. The model which gave rise to the creation of unprecedented wealth in a few countries has become the dream of the world preached by television over the world.

But, this dream is not a viable option anymore. Many countries like India and China are boosting consumption levels on the model of the developed world but despite the tremendous energy they deploy to climb the tree of progress, this undermine its very roots. With the earth’s resource already exhausted by the consumption patterns of a small portion of the world’s population, how can our planet support the large and growing populations of China and India consuming at Western levels?

The new world culture cannot – and must not – be a global replica of the American dream because the concept of steady economic growth is an chimera as Economist Kenneth Boulding puts it when he says that “anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist” (also see Albert Bartlett in “Perhaps the most boring video you’ll ever see, and definitely the most important” in the Awareness Raising section at the bottom of the page).

Our current paradigm is leading to an increasingly imminent environmental catastrophe and doesn’t make us happy as a World Watch Institute report comments, “the failure of additional wealth and consumption to help people have satisfying lives may be the most eloquent argument for reevaluating our current approach to consumption.”

UNEP suggests that, “Alongside the consumer culture, the world has other value systems and lifestyles which may be less visible and invasive but which represent the rich diversity of human experience and fulfillment. Many of these are more respectful of the environment, and provide options worth considering in the move towards more sustainable forms of society… A lifestyle that excludes one-third of the world’s population, however dominant it may appear at the moment, should not be regarded as the supreme achievement of 20th-century civilization”.

Ancient cultures like those of India for example which was a light for the world for centuries for its spiritual vision, its cultural richness, its social organisation as well as its extraordinary material wealth, cannot carry on impoverishing themselves or be satisfied reproducing borrowing flawed economic policies from the West.

Representing the voices of the entrepreneurs and visionaries of a new and more realistic economic model, W. N Bissel comments, “We – India – cannot be a superpower with 60% of the population living in miserable conditions and we cannot be a superpower unless we create our own development path, stopping the national trend of adopting economic policies just as they are reaching their sell-by date. First was the Nehruvian period of Fabian socialism of gradual reforms which was already twenty years out of date when initiated, quickly followed by nationalisation, a few years before the idea of state controlled business was thoroughly discredited. Today, we have jumped aboard the consumption-driven development bandwagon just as the headlines are proclaiming it will lead to a global environmental catastrophe.”

What is needed today is neither a blind race toward a doomed future nor a return to the past but a radically new, creative approach integrating the best of what indigenous traditional societies have to offer to the knowledge and technological capacity we have acquired today.

But in this, the greatest obstacle resides not in a lack of resource or solutions – they are plenty – but in the extraordinary resistance of the human mind to get out of the routes traced by the past and free itself from the greed and selfishness which are not necessarily innate to human nature but may very well be a product of our education based a flawed perception and paradigm of living breeding insecurity, competition and violence.

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