A New Civilization

One of the articles in Generation NExT (IC#43)
Originally published in Winter 1995/96 on page 6
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

There are good reasons for suggesting that the modern age has ended. Many things indicate that we are going through a transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born. It is as if something were crumbling, decaying, and exhausting itself, while something else, still indistinct, were arising from the rubble.

Vaclav Havel
at Independence Hall, Philadelphia

A crisis in leadership. Impending environmental disaster. The decline of civic culture. A crisis of spirit. Economic dislocation. The signs that, as Vaclav Havel says, "something is on the way out" are global and pervasive. Never before in human history have we confronted such challenges and such complexity at a global scale.

Can our civilization evolve to meet these challenges, or are we too stuck in old patterns of thinking and living? What might "arise from the rubble?"

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev brought together an extraordinary group of world leaders, scientists, musicians, spiritual leaders, environmentalists, economists, youths, and writers to consider these questions. The speakers and participants came from all part of the world and from diverse walks of life. But they had in common a sense of the urgency of consciously considering humanity’s next steps rather than allowing current trends – many of which are remnants of the Cold War days – to dictate our destiny.

The State of the World Forum, which met from September 28 through October 1 in San Francisco, is to be the first of a series of annual gatherings, culminating in the year 2000, which will consider prospects for global civilization as we enter a new millennium. A citizens’ "global brain trust" launched at the forum, will propose solutions and global actions.


Gorbachev opened the gathering by emphasizing the seriousness of our time in human history: "We are facing a sweeping crisis that challenges our entire civilization. It has expended most of its resources, its patterns of life are fading. We are in dire need of redefining the parameters of our society’s economic, social, political, and social development."

In particular, "the conflict between man and the rest of nature carries the risk of truly catastrophic consequences," he said. We are seeing a crisis in public life, in international relations, and in "the loss of fundamental spiritual values, the anchors that are indispensable for normal life worthy of human nature." Finally, we’re experiencing a crisis of ideas. "The prevailing ideologies have proven to be incapable of either clarifying this situation or offering ways of dealing with it."

With that, participants from about 50 countries began five days of meetings aimed at understanding the complex and interconnected shifts that are occurring in human civilization, and exploring how we might rise to meet these challenges.

Not surprisingly, the discussion that ensued had aspects of the old paradigm as well as aspects of the new. At one roundtable, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney met with Mikhail Gorbachev, Maurice Strong (convener of the Earth Summit), South African Executive Vice President Thabo Mbeki, Kurt Biedenkopf, premier of Saxony, Germany, and Noordin Sopiee of Malaysia to discuss democracy and human rights.

Some used the roundtable as an opportunity to proclaim the victory of western-style "democracy" worldwide, often using the term as a code word for globalizing capitalism.

Others pointed out that the developing world is evolving its own approaches to human rights, with an emphasis on rights to livelihood and education. At this roundtable, however, there was virtually no discussion about why there’s been such a decline in meaningful democratic discourse in the industrialized world, nor what could be done about it.

Nonetheless, the gathering was remarkable as a meeting ground for visionaries, creative thinkers, and world leaders.

At one roundtable, authors Sam Keen, Ram Dass, Paul Hawken, and Duane Elgin, theologian Huston Smith and others examined the "colonization of desire" – the ways that the consumerism has become for many a surrogate for the spiritual nourishment that could meet people’s deepest longings.

Elsewhere, scientists Arno Penzias and Rustum Roy talked about the reformation of science and technology with Carl Sagan and Stan Grof.

Others discussed the development of an Earth Charter for the 21st Century, the emergence of civil society to meet the needs left unmet by government and business, mechanisms that would steer economic development towards meeting human needs, the prospects for democratizing science and technology, and the expanding boundaries of "humanness."

The scope of the challenges confronting us are not being faced, much less addressed by national governments. It is not at meetings of nation-states that the most creative global initiatives are being spawned; it is at the NGO (nongovernmental organizations) forums that accompany UN conferences. Likewise, the State of the World Forum gave participants an opportunity to leave behind the positions of national governments, break out of the molds of their disciplines, and leave behind the clichéd responses of the past.

Scientistst could focus on human values; political leaders on spiritual longing; environmentalists on poverty; and spritual leaders on violence and consumerism. And young people from 28 countries, who were holding their own Youth Summit, were invited to participate fully in forum activities, bringing the conscience, freshness, and passion of youth to the proceedings (see Youth Agenda for the 21st Century in this issue).

Creating a Future

While there was not a means by which to register either agreement or disagreement with a position or approach, consensus did emerge among many of those addressing that:

  • Spiritual and human values must inform our work in all areas. We can no longer leave our values at the door when we leave home. We need to examine and acknowledge our deepest beliefs, and find ways of bringing spirituality – in an inclusive way – into public processes and institutions.
  • We are reaching ecological limits at a global scale. While we can argue about when those limits will actually be reached and about how we will know, there is no longer any real arguement that our current trajectory is unsustainable. Moving toward sustainability is a key challenge for the coming years.
  • Technology has been developed in an atmosphere that fails to consider its human and environmental impacts. Science and technology can no longer determine values and human concerns. Instead, values and human concerns must drive the development of technology.
  • A new architecture for global security will need to emerge in the post-Cold War era. There is still massive and destructive arms trade, and nuclear weapons need to be phased out.
  • The globalization of western culture is threatening the cultural diversity of the planet. There were some who felt that the US stands triumphant in the post-Cold War era, and that the spread of US culture along with US-style democracy and capitalism is therefore appropriate. But that was not by any means a consensus view, with many, including those from Third World nations and Mikhail Gorbachev advocating greater diversity.
  • A disintegration of a sense of meaning is causing much of the dysfunction in western culture. Human values have been subsumed by "progress," human needs have become secondary to economic growth.
  • The growing inequality among the haves and the have nots is unsustainable. Disintigration of the social fabric, instability, massive migration, and war all result from the increasing divisions between classes on a global scale.
  • Strengthening civil society and local economies is a crucial means to address some of the needs that are increasingly left unmet. To do so requires the spread of micro-enterprise lending, and finding ways to tap the large capital markets for the needs of local communities.
  • Economic development needs to be based on meeting human needs in a sustainable way, not on increasing Gross Domestic Product. There is a need for new indicators that can measure progress in this arena, and new forms of locally based economic development. (Except for the roundtable on economics, however, there was little substantive discussion of the tremendously powerful engine that is the globalizing business and finance system.)
  • The leadership needed in these times must be grounded in a commitment to serve. We need to foster leadership characterized by a deepening awareness of identity beyond the ego. We will need to encourage a style of leadership that can say, "I have a vision, I am my vision, I am the instrument through which the collective vision is being manifested."

Next Steps

What next? The State of the World Forum will meet again in San Francisco October 2-6, 1996, with Gorbachev and the co-chairs from the 1995 session convening, and many of the same participants, although forum organizers hope to broaden global representation.

There will also be work groups meeting between now and then to consider steps to take in specific areas. Among them:

  • Global security in the post-Cold War era. Forum co-chair President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica has launched an initiative to develop a code governing international arms sales. This code would preclude arms sales to countries that failed to satisfy basic democratic principles or were engaged in conflicts.

Senator Alan Cranston, Jonathan Dean of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Giorgi Shaknazarov of the Gorbachev Foundation in Moscow, and Abid Hussain of the Rajiv Ghandhi Foundation are convening a group to develop a timeline for nuclear disarmament and to bring together Australia, Japan, Germany, and South Africa to press for nuclear disarmament in the wake of the French nuclear testing.

  • Human economic development. Mahbub ul Haq, from the UN Development Program, is working with the State of the World Forum and the Human Development Center to convene a conference, most likely in Islamabad, on human and ecologically-based development policies. The focus will be the shift from policies based on increasing the Gross Domestic Product to more humanistic and ecologically sensitive criteria.
  • Religious ethics. As Desmond Tutu has pointed out, there are now the means for those in business, political, and scientific communities to gather in international meetings with their peers, but there is nothing comparable for the religious sector. At te same time, conflicts based on religious differences are on the rise, and an ethical foundation is sorely lacking.

In conjunction with the International Consultancy of Religion, Education, and Culture, the forum plans to convene a gathering of religious leaders to work towards developing a code of ethics common to the major religions.

This could provide a common ethical foundation from which to address the challenges of the times. It could also facilitate increased cooperation between religious organizations and their members.

  • Youth. Plans are still in the early stages of development, but the success of the Youth Summit may lead to still greater participation by a larger group of youth at next year’s forum, according to Kirk Bergstrom, president of Worldlink.

There may also be interim gatherings of youth in South Africa, Costa Rica, and Japan, and young people may be involved in developing the code of ethics mentioned above.

Times of Change

Periods of change, as one era gives way to the next, are invariably turbulent, James Garrison, president of the Gorbachev Foundation, said in his opening remarks at the forum. "Sometimes, when it seems we are the most completely lost, we are paradoxically the most open to the guidance which allows us to redefine and renew ourselves."

The State of the World Forum has now become an ongoing process leading up to the turn of the millenium. The stakes are especially high now, since for the first time we’ve become a global civilization with the capacity to do tremendous damage to life on Earth.

Gorbachev indicated he is cautiously optimistic about the prospects: "I believe mankind, which was able to bring into being a unique civilization on our planet, will know how to keep that civilization from self-destruction."

Doing so, according to James Garrison, will require a recognization that "Human interdependence, in all its multiplicity, contradiction, and splendor must now become our watchword … interdependence with each other, interdependence with the Earth, interdependence with the Spirit which perennially guides the affairs of humankind."

You can contact the State of the World Forum at the Gorbachev Foundation, PO Box 29434, San Francisco, CA 94129. Tel: 415/771-4567; fax: 415/771-4443; email: info@worldforum.org.

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