The 3rd age of humanity

When I look around me, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of optimism for the future. That’s not to say that we have no cause for optimism, it’s just that nobody’s talking about it.

It’s like we know we’ve outgrown the systems we feel trapped in but it’s not clear how to get from where we are now to whatever’s next for humanity.

When I see all the angry comments from everyday people on posts by political figures, I’m reminded of what it’s like to take small children on a long car journey when they have no real sense of time. Before they leave, they’re running around the house, excited and energetic, imagining all the fun things they will do when they get to this place that they’ve never been to before. Just after they leave, they’re settled and excited to be on the way. But after just half an hour on the road, they’re starting to get restless. They try to distract themselves with hunger, toilet visits, and games. But by the time they’re several hours from home, they’re emotional, tearful and unreasonable. They’re not at home where they can resume their normal routines, and they’re not yet at their destination, which their mother tells them they will love. They’re in no-mans-land, tired of doing what they’ve been doing but powerless to do anything else.

In his book The Self Illusion, Bruce Hood, experimental psychologist, philosopher and specialist in developmental cognitive neuroscience says, “If you remove an individual’s perception of control, then they experience uncertain situations as stressful, thereby generating anxiety that impairs both the immune system and the capacity to think clearly.” He goes on to say, “Giving people choices, or at least the perception of control, empowers them to tolerate more adversity.”  

But here’s a curveball. He also says, “The paradox of choice, as the psychologist Barry Schwartz calls it, is that the more choices we are given, the less free we become because we procrastinate in trying to make the best decision.” 

Compared to the choices available to many people living below the poverty line, I’d say this statement applies to many people in developed nations to a greater or lesser degree.

We seem to be three quarters of the way through our journey to somewhere unfamiliar. If we consider the context of how we got to where we are today, the way forward may become more obvious. When I look at what I know about the history of humans in the West, there seem to be three distinct themes. Bear in mind, I’m not a historian, so this is the birds-eye view of a lay person.

Small group harmony and shared faith

The first theme in history relates to the period from the start of recorded history to about 8,000BC when we lived in small groups as hunter-gatherers or as peacefully settled people. We made sense of the world in the best way we could with stories about powerful deities. We used the superhuman qualities of these deities to help us explain what we couldn’t understand about where we came from and where we were going.

We moved around a lot and adapted as best we could to our environments. We had no use for accumulating possessions, and we only took from nature what we needed. We were at the mercy of the elements and were lucky to survive birth and early childhood. Assuming we made it that far, we didn’t live much past our thirties.

But in between, we lived in groups to ensure our survival and procreation and our societies seem to have been reasonably egalitarian, led by different members of the group according to their expertise.

Early societies and the structures of power

The second theme relates to the period from about 8,000BC to about 2000AD. This period saw us settling, initially in small groups which grew larger and larger until we needed more resources to feed everyone.

Larger groups began to define their territories and defending those territories from neighbours became a full-time job. Leaders emerged as a way of formalising the role of higher status individuals in the group. Keen to maintain that status, these leaders used a combination of intimidation and force to hold onto their positions. As time passed and they accumulated more wealth, the distance between the people at the bottom and people at the top grew.

That kind of culture was infectious. It fuelled the growth in the gender gap and women ended up with the rights of children, which is to say, without many rights at all.

Two complementary forces emerged to maintain the structure of society – that is to say, to justify and maintain the space between those at the bottom and those at the top – religion and government.

Initially, Christianity aimed to right some of the social wrongs that were evident in the world at that time – and some of them were pretty horrific by modern standards. But like any system, it wasn’t long until someone came along who saw an opportunity to exploit the system for their own ends.  Science informed change but it was restricted to what was useful to those who had power and money.

By the time we got to the industrial revolution, we needed a workforce. Education then became the way we turned largely uneducated individuals into cogs in an industrial or economic wheel and kept them there, exchanging their effort for money.

Complexity, industry, knowledge – and uncertainty

The third theme relates to the period from about 2000AD onwards. We have fewer, larger societies and highly complex cultural structures. We’re moving into a borderless knowledge economy and what people accepted unquestioningly in the past they’re now rejecting because they’re better educated or know enough to know that they want more from life than their parents and grandparents expected.

Science has the answers to many of the questions that puzzled us in the first two ages and women, who’ve had to work hard to gain ground, are demanding more. Men are unprepared for what’s being asked of them, and the wholesale greed and shortsightedness of the second age is rapidly catching up with us in the way we use and preserve the natural world.

The natural world is balanced. Day and night, male and female. Both parts have different roles to play in maintaining that balance. The almost universally patriarchal structure of almost all governments around the world, and the dominant, uncompromising attitudes of the past, have no place in the future.

The feminine but equally strong traits of compromise and compassion are what hold virtually every family unit in the world together and what could give the world a few more options going forward. Not to replace masculine power but to work alongside it. And not as a token gesture as it has been in the past.

In this age, the meaning that people are so desperately craving in their lives, could be theirs in spades if they realised the altruistic opportunities that await them. All we need are a pioneering few to imagine frameworks where this could be possible and then fling the doors open.

Change starts from the bottom

A lot of people around the world are waiting for things to change – but that’s not how change works.

Change never starts from the top because the people who are there are pretty comfortable where they are and have no reason to want change.

“The tragic reality is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems, or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves.” ― Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual.

Change doesn’t happen by becoming angry. It happens by being calm and working out what mechanisms are maintaining the status quo. Pointing fingers at people and expecting them to tell you that they’re wrong and you’re right isn’t a very clever way of going about it either.

Change doesn’t happen through one majestic action by one benevolent rescuer, it happens in a million different actions by everyday people. It comes when people realise how they are being manoeuvred and manipulated by people or forces that are profiting by their continued submission.

Change is possible in simple ways.

Through science guided by philosophy.

Through circular solutions that anticipate human nature.

Through collaboration between academics and entrepreneurs.

Through attractive circular commercial solutions like altruistic adventure tourism, bringing retired people back into the economy (because retirement is an inefficient, made-made structure that causes more problems than it fixes.

Change happens by involving people in decision-making who know what the real problems are. People like economists who are younger than sixty and know how much a loaf of bread costs. It demands social and fiscal frameworks to reward the right behaviours and an infrastructure that produces creative, altruistic thinkers and teaches us to help ourselves

Time is running out for us to step over from the second age to the third age but we’re not jumping off a cliff into an abyss, we’re stepping over a stream onto fertile ground.

There’s a lot to be excited about and the time for change is now.

What you can do

If you liked this episode, talk to someone else about it. If you loved it, talk to two. Like yawning, positivity is infectious so let’s see what we can do about spreading it around.