I, Too, Have a Dream

In my forthcoming new book, Superorganism: A New Social Contract for Our Endangered Species, I argue that we are facing a collective choice that is unprecedented in our long history (and pre-history) as a species.  The status quo is, quite literally, a dead end, and the traditional practice of muddling through with incremental solutions will not be enough to cope with the furies that we are facing.  Too little, too late.

I believe that we must choose between the likelihood of an ecological Armageddon, accompanied perhaps by a mutually self-destructive new era of “climate wars,” and a bold alternative path -- an ambitious, mountain-top dream of creating a global society and global governance.  We must dream big because anything less is likely to fail.  We must think outside the box because the future lies outside the box. 

All this and more is detailed (and documented) in my book.  The inescapable choice we confront, I believe, is between a zero-sum, “survival of the fittest” conflict of “each against all,” (as Thomas Hobbes expressed it), and a cooperative effort to create a new global social contract dedicated to the “common good” for all humankind – starting with our basic needs.  There must be a universal “basic needs guarantee.”  This is the only sure pathway to a stable global society and a “legitimate”, consensual political order.   It is both a moral and a political imperative.   I use the biologists’ metaphor of a “superorganism” – a socially-integrated “collective survival enterprise” – to characterize (and label) this ambitious goal.

As I explain in the book, a global superorganism in humankind must have global governance, along with many local initiatives and changes in every individual society.  Equally important, we will need new financial resources and new international efforts to deal more effectively with our environmental crisis, as well as investing in a major upgrade to our global infrastructure and responding to the increasing menace of massive, prolonged climate disasters.  Desperate people will do desperate things.  Economic security is an absolute prerequisite for achieving a peaceful global society. 

The practical consequences of this political transformation would entail major changes at all levels, including a “Global Government Initiative” through the United Nations that would involve significant institutional changes (improvements) and the creation of two new super-agencies, a Global Infrastructure Fund and a Global Emergency Management Agency.  However, there must also be positive changes in every country and every community.   The age-old aspiration for a government that serves the “public interest” has now become a survival imperative.

But how do we get from here to there?  We are talking about is a huge shift in the dynamics of global politics and governance.  There must be a change of “hearts and minds” at all levels, both within and between the world’s deeply divided countries, including especially the leaders and influential citizens in our most powerful nations.  They must come to see that it is in their own self-interest, as well as an urgent moral imperative, to lead the way forward to a new global social contract and a collective effort to deal with the challenges we face.   There are growing indications these days of a political sea change from the bottom up.   But it is equally important to persuade the world’s leaders, the ruling classes and power elites in various countries – for this is what they are in the aggregate – to lead the way forward, starting now.  They must become the guardians of the greater good

Historians and social scientists have long debated the question of which plays a more important role in social change.  Is it “bottom up” public pressure from ordinary citizens, or “top down” political leadership?  Recent research suggests that the answer is both.  Some of the most successful examples of major social changes and crisis responses have involved a synergistic combination of both “bottom up” political movements (with broad public support) and effective “top down” leadership.  Each one empowers and informs the other, and neither one would have succeeded alone.  In other words, the dream of a global superorganism will depend on both a bottom up and a top down transformation. 

In his important new book, Upheaval, Jared Diamond provides several case-studies of national crises where a major course change was achieved, and these success stories give us instructive models for the global crisis we face today.  Among other things, there must be a broad public consensus that a crisis exists and that something must be done about it.  There must be a general readiness to make major changes.  There must be initiative and a willingness to take responsibility for responding to the threat.   There must be a clearly defined goal and a practicable solution.  And there must be competent and skilled leadership to inspire and implement the necessary changes. 

Perhaps the most crucial missing piece at this tipping point in our emerging environmental crisis is leadership.  As the crisis intensifies, there will be no lack of doomsday demagogues – political con men who will try to exploit the situation to advance their personal agendas.  Or ruthless nationalists who will pander to our ancient tribal instincts.  This could well be the road to disaster for our species.  What we desperately need is a visionary “statesman”.   The ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in his classic work on good government, the Republic, stressed the central importance to any successful society of a leader who is devoted to acting in the public interest.   A commitment to social justice is essential.  Beyond this, an effective leader must have deep knowledge, wide experience, and the wisdom to use it effectively.  And he/she must always tell the truth to the public.  Anything less is a betrayal.

For the kind of change-agent that we need to lead us to a new global superorganism, I would add to Plato’s job description the ability to inspire, energize, and organize a massive collective effort.  A great leader must also be a great communicator, and a great administrator.  In the 20th century, I can think of the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and, of course, Martin Luther King -- whose dream of equality endures and still inspires.   My candidate for the kind of leader that will be needed for the great transformation to a global superorganism is Barack Obama – in the role of Secretary General of an enhanced and empowered United Nations (along the lines outlined in my book).  President Obama has the necessary job qualifications, the resume, and the person al stature as a respected global leader.  But first he will need to be recruited for the job!

The punch line goes something like this:  If you have a vision of a better world, and if you stand up and fight for it, you may be able to turn pessimism into hope, and hope is the fuel that powers social change.   The alternative may amount to a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy – a tacit suicide pact disguised as “realism”.  I reject that.  I have a dream.



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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