Einstein told us that we cannot solve the significant problems we face at the same level of thinking at which we were when we created the problems. He was right: The problems we face today cannot be solved at the level of thinking that gave rise to them. Yet we are trying to do just that.
We are fighting terrorism, poverty, criminality, cultural conflict, environmental degradation, ill health, even obesity and other “sicknesses of civilization” with the same kind of thinking — the same means and methods — that produced the problems in the first place. Two examples will make this clear.
Old Thinking: War on Terror
Governments fight terrorism by tightening security. They fight not so much terrorism as terrorists. Terrorism, they say, is to be eliminated by preventing terrorists from carrying out their base projects, and the best way to do that is to hunt them down, put them in jail, or kill them — before they kill us.
This strategy is analogous to attempting to cure an organism of cancer by cutting out the cancerous cells. The cure works if the organism is not affected beyond the group of cancerous cells, which is a fortunate case but not a common one. If the organism is affected, other cells turn cancerous and not only replace the ones that are surgically cut out but also spread.
If we are to cure a body that produces cancer cells, we would do better to cure the body itself, rather than just cut out the malfunctioning cells. A proper cure extends to the process that makes the cells reproduce this way in the first place.
Why Do People Become Terrorists?
Why do cells turn cancerous? The question is precisely analogous to: Why do people become terrorists? Heads of government and heads of security dismiss the question; they say that terrorists are simply evil criminals, enemies of society. They use the kind of thinking that the people who turn terrorist do.
Terrorists and those who incite, fund, and train terrorists believe that the leaders of the great powers they threaten are evil criminals, enemies of a just society. Each side feels justified in killing the other. The result is an escalation of hate that produces more terrorism, not less.
Making war, for oil or for Allah, is not the cause of the sickness of the world but its dramatic symptom and tragic consequence. The cause is old thinking — wrong thinking.
Old Thinking: War on Poverty
Another example of old thinking is the so-called war on poverty, which is fought mainly through financial measures. The negative developments of the past decades are said to be due to a lack of adequate development aid. The rich nations have given aid at an average level of about 0.2 percent of their gross national product (GNP), although they had formally agreed to 0.7 percent of GNP.
The current United Nations-endorsed project called the Millennium Development Goals-Based Poverty Reduction Strategy (MDG-based strategy) asks only for 0.5 percent in aid. This would generate $150 billion a year over a period of 20 years. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, special advisor to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the principal author of the strategy, maintains that this could wipe out the extreme poverty now affecting 1.1 billion people by the year 2015.
Sachs presents the strategy as an economic and political “global compact,” but on a closer look it becomes clear that it involves far more than politics and economics. Achieving the goals of the strategy calls for the world to pull together in a unified and coordinated manner, not just to give money, but collectively to fight disease, promote good science and widespread education, provide critical infrastructure, and act in unison in helping the poorest of the poor. Collective action on all these levels, Sachs says, is needed to underpin economic success.
Success in the fight against terrorism, as in the war on poverty, calls not just for better security or more money but for new thinking: change in the very texture of the civilization that governs today’s world.
Old Thinking: Fighting Rather Than Fixing
The situation is much the same when cities and states fight criminality. They attempt to do so through bigger police forces, more jails, and more rigorous sentences, rather than eliminating the conditions that breed criminality: big city slums, joblessness, and the sense of futility and hopelessness that infects the minds of many people, especially young people.
The case is not fundamentally different with regard to fighting environmental degradation either: These problems are produced by profit-hungry, ecologically irresponsible practices, and they are fought by profit-hungry practices that claim to be ecologically responsible — the latter differ from the former only in making a profit from cleaning up the mess rather than creating it.
Winning this particular “fight” also calls for new thinking: recognizing that making a profit and achieving growth are not the sole criteria of success in business; social and environmental responsibility are just as important and are just as much a part of the business of business.
Solving Problems using a New Mindset
The point need not be belabored. Suffice it to say that in almost all aspects of social and economic activity, and in politics as well as in the private sphere, the mainstream of contemporary society disregards Einstein’s warning. It is trying to solve the problems generated by the mindset of industrial civilization with the same materialistic, manipulative, and self-centered rationality that characterizes that mindset.
A change in the thinking that characterizes the fundamental texture of a civilization is not an unprecedented occurrence; it has come about in various epochs in history. In the past, the rhythm of change was relatively slow; a mindset adapted to the changed conditions had several generations to come about. This is no longer the case. The critical period for new thinking is now compressed into a single lifetime.
In the next few years, new thinking and new action will be crucial; without them, our globalized systems could break down in chaos. A breakdown, however, is our destiny only if we fail to seize the opportunity to choose a better path.
©2006, 2010 by Ervin Laszlo
with permission of Hampton Roads Publishing
c/o Red Wheel/Weiser. www.redwheelweiser.com
Chaos Point 2012 and Beyond: Appointment with Destiny
by Ervin Laszlo.
According to Ervin Laszlo, we are at a critical juncture in history, a "decision-window" where we face the danger of global collapse--or the opportunity for global renewal. We have the opportunity right now to head off trends that could lead to a critical tipping point. Laszlo's solution is a global consciousness shift that entails a new universal morality, a new ecological awareness, and a reverence and caring for the earth. Included here are concrete suggestions of what the reader can do to promote this shift in evolutionary consciousness.
About the Author
Ervin Laszlo is a Hungarian philosopher of science, systems theorist, integral theorist, and classical pianist. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he has authored more than 75 books, which have been translated into nineteen languages, and has published in excess of four hundred articles and research papers, including six volumes of piano recordings. He is the recipient of the highest degree in philosophy and human sciences from the Sorbonne, the University of Paris, as well as of the coveted Artist Diploma of the Franz Liszt Academy of Budapest. Additional prizes and awards include four honorary doctorates. Visit his website at http://ervinlaszlo.com.