The outlook seems bleak. An allusion to a “Dark Ages”, that is a period of intellectual deficiency, social upheaval and barbarity, feels particularly resonant right now. Even the setting events have lined up: the Internet’s influence is reminiscent of the impact made by the invention of the Gutenberg printing press; and, with parallels to the Plague, COVID-19 makes our context a little bit too on the nose. The world feels oh-so-precariously stumbling at the edge of a very dangerous precipice… and a lot of people have just headed off to the beach.
We are not in the midst of a single global crisis; we are facing multiple disruptive economic, social, and geopolitical challenges. Even before the coronavirus outbreak our world was reeling: catastrophic global warming; spreading populism; outrageous inequities of wealth and privilege; and, an unfathomable skepticism of scientific data that undermines public support for appropriate action. It’s possible we are about to slip further into a ruinous era. After all the Middle Ages, when wars, plagues and religious dogma reigned in Europe, lasted for 1,000 years.
But, history has accelerated. We don’t have to wait a millennium to witness substantial development. Technological advances happen so quickly now that the way our world operates is constantly transforming. We have become a global economy with transnational production, investment and trade. Accelerated innovation has given us new materials, instantaneous communications, and advanced technologies that have improved our standard of living and revolutionized health care. But the velocity of change also means that seemingly insignificant forces now impact us at a systems level. Human actions affect all aspects of the Earth’s functioning in ways that are cascading, interrelated and unpredictable. So, with enough disruption to the equilibrium, could our prosperous civilization fall into unmanageable decline?
Well sure – the worst could happen. All the major criteria that point to collapse are currently confronting us. Stability has given way to chaos and uncertainty. Our world is overrun with violence, authoritarianism, economic disparity, environmental exploitation and political duplicity. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
But we do have a choice. If after the new coronavirus abates, we continue along our current path, we are sunk. A focus on national recovery in the absence of meaningful international cooperation would be shortsighted to the tragic detriment of humanity. Continued xenophobia and isolationism will cause greater and more widespread immigrant crises. Deep fakes and political treachery will reinforce ignorance and fear and weaken channels for empirical dissemination and progressive policy. Human rights will suffer. The very rich will get very much richer and the rest of us will see biblical poverty, famine, climate shifts, disease and a pretty good chance of nuclear exchange somewhere on the planet. The consequences of this trajectory are terrifying.
But, the acceleration of interconnectivity and the rapid pace of innovation also present a different pathway. A rebirth followed the superstition, destruction and Black Death of the Middle Ages, an awakening of interest in the potential for thought, creativity and enlightenment. I know I’m not alone in my hunger for a new Renaissance and I can feel that spark trying so hard to combust.
We can transform society into a fundamentally different system. I believe this is our moment – this is an opportunity for like-minded individuals to wake up to the influence of our shared interests and capacity for action and come together for radical change. Technology and the immediacy of communication provide us with abundant channels for cooperation and knowledge exchange. If nothing else, COVID-19 has propelled us to become more sophisticated virtual citizens. We have the ability to go beyond traditional boundaries and siloed disciplines and expand the very parameters of art, philosophy and scientific inquiry. As the new coronavirus wanes, we can reject complacency and claim the power of evolution, inspiration and global solidarity.
The artists and scholars of the Renaissance were just people, like you and I. They did not live in an enchanted period of harmony and beauty. It was a time just like this – a time of extraordinary discovery yes, but also of transition and traumatic upheaval. We have consumed beyond our means. The poorest and most vulnerable are in need of resources and policy change. Our planet is sick with species becoming extinct at a rate unmatched in history.
In this pandemic we are witnessing an unprecedented collective moment for reevaluation. Our shared experience is an opportunity for systemic change. As old orthodoxies are challenged, new designs for living can rise up - models that are more sustainable, inclusive and mutually beneficial.
It starts when we open ourselves to the honest truth of our generation - when we see the world with all its flaws and know we are both the problem and the solution. It builds as we construct platforms able to forge radical collaborations and then use those connections to celebrate lifelong learning and promote a new confluence between Science and the Arts. It deepens when we expand opportunities for new philanthropies and grasp the formidable power of inspiration and imagination; of relationship and engagement; of empathy and reciprocity.
In this moment of tangled complexity, we have a choice. We either dive deeper into darkness, stepping ever closer to looming oblivion or we choose transformation - a rebirth of passion for exploration, critical thinking and creative action.
We construct the future every single day - we determine each step along the way.
This is in our time. We are the power. We can change the way we choose to live. We can make the world safer, better designed and more just. A new Renaissance can spring from the collective genius of our humanity.