for Ways to Cope with Dizzying Change
PARIS - A growing number of people are coming to recognize the enormity of change
overtaking the world.
Some preach resistance, using words like "globalization" and
"dislocation" to identify trends that they want to stop so as to preserve
existing benefits achieved with great struggle. Others, aware that change is upon us
willy-nilly and can only be endured or managed, bemoan the lack of vision and grand
theories to address it.
Even people who aren't in the habit of thinking historically or abstractly are keenly
aware of the growing gap between familiar assumptions and what really happens, between the
same old discourse of politics and what they see every day. The leaders of every
industrialized country face disillusion and distrust from their voters. The old ideas of
what democracy should deliver aren't working.
Every country has its own vocabulary and its own obsessions, but the feeling of
uncertainty, the loss of confidence in the future and, too often,the search for scapegoats
is widespread. The problems are basically in common, stemming, I believe, from the same
I compare the current era to the industrial revolution. Over a few generations,
unevenly but still irresistibly and with great pain, the technological leap from
traditional agricultural society brought profound transformations in every aspect of life,
not only economic and political but social, cultural and moral.
The extent was not foreseen, it was vast and pervasive, and removed from previous
experience. We cannot expect to foresee all the ramifications of the new leap, but the
lack of guidelines, or reassuring principles, to chart the new course is already deeply
Marc Luyckx, who heads a small, special group at the European Union Commission to peer
into the misty future while others deal with the issues of today and tomorrow, speaks of
"disenchantment." It is a loss of faith, of belief that anybody secular or
religious knows the right answers.
Material advance isn't enough; there isn't a strong enough base for ethics. André
Malraux said, "The 21st century will be spiritual, or it will not be," but he
offered no useful prescriptions.
The sense of awe at man's conquest of some of the oldest natural obstacles -
promenading through space, replacing vital organs, conception in a test tube, instant
global communication - has given way to frustration because there is no more sense of
The 19th century, which celebrated materialism, maintained a certain
"enchantment" nonetheless, transferring it from the divine to science. The
Eiffel Tower in Paris is a monument to the "miracles" that could be worked in
the age of iron and steel. Now nobody thinks of the computer as a "miracle,"
just as a fascinating technique, and "progress" is not a hallowed word but a
question, often written off as an illusion in the absence of an answer.
There is an increasing understanding of linkages, that the big problems of population,
environment, poverty, unemployment, crime, security are all connected and no one will be
solved by ignoring the others.
But the simple formula for facing them all at once cannot be found, which provokes
despair, anger or irrationality. Maybe the search is in the wrong direction, trying to
think too big for a new dogma when a massive variety of little answers are at hand that
could add up.
Huge cities have become a stifling burden, but here and there smaller ones have found
innovative but simple ways to deal with concrete troubles, as Vancouver, in Canada, and
Curitiba, in Brazil have with garbage collection. Others have new approaches to mass
Sweden has good results with a modest shift to environmental-based taxes. Small-scale
but remarkably effective antidotes to unemployment have been found with credits to
establish mini-enterprise and new ways of defining and rewarding socially useful work.
These are models. They can be adapted and copied and spread in the information age.
None is a panacea, but they show that big results can be gained from a lot of small steps.
The inspiration must essentially be ecology as ethic, as a spiritual value. It is
neither pagan nor monotheistic, but thought out to fundamentals it does offer a sense of
the unity of man with man and man with nature, or mutual dependence and common purpose in
supporting life and this Earth that sustains it. It can be expressed in religious or
It is a way to surmount the paralyzing void of guidance and to direct energies to doing
what can be done. Many, many, many small moves of many kinds can bring a way to manage
change. The theory can come later.
© Flora Lewis