In May 2017 I was interviewed by Alan Kohler, one of Australia’s most experienced and appreciated business commentators. Topic is the importance of investing in resilience and faith in the future when times are uncertain.
As a Dutchman, visiting Australia and other Western countries regularly, it strikes me how we are all taken by the same fear and discontent. Only a few decades ago, after the fall of communism, we celebrated our First World victory with uncut triumphalism. Today, it easily feels as if we are on the losing end of history and living in a world that isn’t ‘ours’ anymore.
Not a misplaced sentiment, as until recently the world was ‘ours’ indeed. For centuries we did not hesitate to exercise our military and economic power to acquire the best deals and most lucrative businesses. The result was an unprecedented wealth and a job security we happily got used to. But things are changing. New powers are reshuffling the cards dramatically, national affairs are being overruled by global affairs, old certainties are becoming uncertain, and even democracy, this flagship of the West, is facing growing competition from authoritarian regimes.
We live in stormy times, no doubt. And this is the inevitable question in a storm: will our body or our spirit take over? Do we allow ourselves to slip into the survival mode of an animal? Or do we have the resilience to stick to the ways of a reasonable and compassionate human being?
If the latter: who will lead? And if less and less people listen to pastors, priests and politicians: who will fill the gap? You and me, perhaps?
Allow me to describe three features of the storm that is hitting us, and a few ways to take an inspiring stand in it.
Three features of the storm
For the first time in 5000 years, the whole world needs to work together to get the whole planet in order. Issues like climate change, cyber threats, terrorism, trafficking, slavery, pandemics or nuclear threats can only be solved if countries closely cooperate. This contains also some good news: reality demands that we overcome our differences. The current trend, however, is in the opposite direction towards nationalism, protectionism and xenophobia. And the only leaders who can actually fix the planet are the ones elected to defend the self-interest of their country. A group of legitimate egoists is supposed to seek the greater good. No reason (yet) to prepare for the apocalypse, but no reason for blind optimism either.
For the first time in 500 years, the West needs to share its power and wealth with the rest. Precisely when the world is reorganising itself on an unprecedented scale, the West is losing its grip on it. A most inconvenient coincidence. Western citizens call upon their leaders to restore the securities of the past. But the politicians are in an impossible position: on the one hand they are held accountable for the well-being of their nation, on the other hand this well-being is more and more dependent on issues they do not control (like climate change or the world economy). Some flex their rhetorical muscles: just close the curtains and pretend the rest of the world doesn’t count. But the issues turn out to be more obstinate than any country put first.
For the first time in 50 years, Westerners need a Grand Narrative to be resilient again. For decades we could afford abandoning all the religious and ideological perspectives that used to give us hope and consolation. For decades, the old Narratives could not offer us something better than we already had. But now, as our grip on things is loosening, we realise that we have very little to gain and so much to lose. Feelings of insecurity kick in, requiring a new resilience. And resilience is precisely what we lack in the West. Even though we are still quite able to be happy when things go well, we are the first to get anxious and depressed when things go wrong.
In the past, many would take comfort and courage from the hope for a communist revolution, others would focus on heavenly happiness in the afterlife, and still others would await the Messianic age on earth. Whatever Narrative people embraced, it gave them a joint strength to bite the bullet. In our time only one gospel dominates: “If it’s going to be, it’s up to me.” A great pep talk to get us out of bed. But it leaves us empty-handed when we cannot control our life any more. The current storm confronts us precisely with the latter. Many issues have grown too big to be solved by a single human or even a single nation. If we don’t invest in some resilience, our mental and emotional empty-handedness may turn out to be very costly (if not dangerous) for Western societies and beyond.
Seven inspiring stands
What inspires in stormy times? Not a lot of talking, but people living what they believe in. What makes their lives inspiring? Seven stands, I would say.
- Stay calm. Inspiring people have the strength to control their fear and discontent. They don’t panic or give up in a storm, but keep looking for creative and lasting solutions.
- Stay compassionate. Inspiring people are stronger than their biological self-defence mechanisms. Rather than spending all their energy on saving themselves, they have the strength to look around in a storm and care for the ones who are hit the most.
- Stay hopeful. In whatever secular or religious form, inspiring people don’t lose the ability to have faith in the future. They keep communicating in their words and actions that this world is worth investing in.
- Stay visionary. Inspiring people withstand short-sighted answers to fear and discontent. They seek the well-being of the entire planet and all nations, rather than pursuing a protection and expansion plan for their tribe only.
- Stay stubborn. Inspiring people withstand social pressure and stick to what they believe in and who they believe in. Consistency and loyalty turns them into beacons of hope and direction for others.
- Stay human. Inspiring people bridge the social gaps in society by being human among humans, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or gender.
- Stay joyful. Inspiring people keep celebrating the good things in life. They don’t deny what is wrong, but hold on to a sense of gratitude for anyone or anything that points them to the gift of life. Fear and discontent are contagious, but inspiring people know: so is joy. Whatever the moods and whims of a nervous society, inspiring people continue to build a spirited counter-movement of hope- and compassion carriers that can take us through the storm. Who is in?
No urban achievements without agricultural achievements. On 14 December 2012 we saw how this was true for the Egyptians and Maya. Now let’s take a look at the Greek, the Romans, the Asians and the Northern Europeans.
Greece has never been blessed with a lot of fertile soil. In Ancient times, less than 20% of the land could be used for farming. So, as soon as the Greek had figured out how to follow the Phoenicians in building reliable ships (around 800 BC), they started sailing the Black and Mediterranean Sea, establishing some 500 colonies in fertile areas. This marked the beginning of a flourishing civilization with city states building a powerful culture on food that was shipped from other places.
Like the ancient cities of Greece, there would not have a been a big and powerful Rome without a steady stream of food supplies from other parts of Europe. According to the Roman-Jewish historian Josephus, North Africa supplied Rome eight months of the year, Egypt the other four.
So, feel free to build your metropole anywhere you like, just make sure you have some friends that are able and willing to feed you on a daily basis.
In Asia we see a pretty clear pattern: cultivate rice and empires arise. Behind the power and cultural achievements of the Gupta dynasty in India (320-535), the Tang dynasty in China (618-907) and the Silla dynasty in Korea (668-935) lies a massive investment in new rice fields. The same can be said about the powerful states of Java and Sumatra in the same period.
It wasn’t much fun being a farmer in Northern Europe before the heavy plough arrived in the Middle Ages. Until then, ploughs couldn’t plough deep enough to turn over the heavy clay soil. But the heavy plough made it possible, and around 1000 AD the land between the Loire and the Elbe had become a patchwork of grain fields. And as clay soil was more fertile than the lighter soil types of Southern Europe, this caused a major power shift from the south to the north. Professor Thomas Barnebeck Andersen of the University of Southern Denmark:
The heavy plough turned European agriculture and economy on its head. Suddenly the fields with the heavy, fatty and moist clay soils became those that gave the greatest yields.
The economy in these places improved and this sparked the growth of big cities with more people and more trade. The heavy plough started an upward spiral in new areas.
My point may be clear: no urban achievements without agricultural achievements.