We are living in puzzling times, times of profound insecurity. As citizens, we find it more and more difficult to make out what is actually going on in the world today and what the future holds. Consider two recent developments.

The first is an emerging sense among many thinkers that one era is ending and a new one is about to begin. The new era, however, is scarcely known and not yet visible. It is striking, for example, how many recent books have the word end in their titles. Francis Fukuyama wrote his End of History and The Last Man, followed by Bill McKibben with The End of Nature and John Horgan’s The End of Science. In the millennium year, Daniel Bell published The End of Ideology, and 2005 saw the appearance of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith, along with Jeffrey Sachs’s more optimistic book entitled The End of Poverty.1 There may be an element of hype here, but perhaps more is at play. In our view, so many references to possible endings suggests, first of all, that many of our usual expectations about how events will unfold have become unreliable. Even more deeply, however, these book titles seem to suggest that human history itself has arrived at a kind of watershed moment in time; it is approaching a possible point of rupture or break with the past. But the future lies beyond that dividing line. As a consequence, almost by definition, the future has become uncertain, vague, and unknown.

The second development leading to heightened insecurity around the world is that a high number of largely unexpected world crises—notice the plural here—have emerged, and the way in which public authorities have been handling them is clearly inadequate. A serious economic crisis is not new; we have had such crises before. But what has made the recent economic crisis different is that it has come in the context of a package of other crises that are very different in nature. These crises are respectively the food crisis, the energy crisis, the poverty crisis, the environmental crisis, and the safety (or security) crisis. Remarkably, all of these crises are more or less interdependent. They are interconnected, which implies that they mutually reinforce and further entrench each other. And that reality has created a new kind of political and economic insecurity.

Perhaps some illustrations will be useful. Consider the global problem of accelerated climate change, which was discussed recently at the international meeting in Copenhagen (see Figure 1). Every delegate there realized that climate change, because of its direct link to rising greenhouse gas emissions, is impacted both by worldwide population growth and by increases in levels of production and consumption per capita. For China, India, and Brazil (as for Western countries), rising levels of production and consumption form a primary objective. But of course there is more at stake: the climate crisis also aggravates the food crisis. The food crisis is caused partly by smaller crop yields in many countries, especially in Northern Africa, shortages that climate change aggravates. The food supply is diminishing even as the global demand for food is rising because of the world’s expanding population and consumption levels. The resulting soaring price increases exclude many poor people from access to food, which worsens global poverty.

Meanwhile, the food crisis is further aggravated by decreasing energy supply. The energy problem enters the food picture because the production of alternative energy sources, like bio-energy, requires fertile soil and so that production competes with food production. Together, therefore, the food crisis, the environmental crisis, and the energy crisis further establish deeper levels of global poverty.

But there is even more to the story. Javier Solana, former Foreign Policy Coordinator of the European Union, stated recently that Europe must increase its armament levels because of the problem of climate change (Figure 2). In the near future, he declared, climate change will increase economic migration from the south to unacceptably high levels. These population movements will cause increasing rivalry between the economic regions of the world. Because each of these regions will seek to preserve or expand its current standard of living, each will feel compelled to guarantee, by military force if necessary, future access to food, water, and fossil fuels. In Solana’s view, the climate problem, the security problem, and the migrant problem are therefore interconnected. Surely he is not the only one to believe this. The prevalence of this belief partly explains why the Copenhagen conference did not arrive at global resolutions. The conference was able to reach only a soft regional pact between the United States and China and its affiliates.

A final brief illustration of these interconnections can be seen in the financial-economic crisis (Figure 3). Increasingly, commentators identify an excessive lust for money and the drive toward ever-higher levels of personal consumption as a primary cause of the crisis. This drive partly explains why the poorest countries in the world have been hurt the most by the current crisis. In the face of this drive, these countries have lost their export markets and suffered from the denial of credit by Western banks and governments.

Of course, these three illustrations represent only a rough selection from the large number of problematic interconnections occurring in today’s global arena.2 But in our view, they are sufficient to state not only that the interdependence between global problems is intensifying, but also that their interdependence creates extraordinarily high degrees of uncertainty about what the best solutions might be. Most decision-makers therefore simply fall back upon their usual kit of standard solutions. This means that they largely deal with each of these problems as more or less separate, independent problems. It also means that most of the meager measures they implement are limited to the input of more money and the use of cleaner technologies. Surely these are not enough!

All the signs of our time therefore suggest that the era of standard solutions is coming to an end. The usual measures are becoming less and less effective, even as today’s global problems balloon to sky-high levels, further eluding our grasp.

What then is missing from the usual approaches? Do we need a new John Maynard Keynes, as some have suggested? Or do the problems run deeper? The urgency of these questions is beyond any doubt. Each of these different and interlocking crises is devastating, threatening the future of the earth and its children.

To address these questions we need to develop a clearer understanding of our rapidly changing times before we can expect effective, enduring solutions. The deeper roots of our present predicament need to be laid bare.

This is not an easy path. It may require challenging even our basic assumptions, views, and convictions. But we believe that this is not a path without hope. Descending to deeper layers underneath today’s grave predicament may even reveal almost forgotten, long-neglected spiritual resources.

The lives of palm trees in Northern Africa provide a surprising metaphor for the fruitfulness of digging down to the deepest levels (see Figure 4). For centuries, palm trees have been planted in the middle of deserts, a feat that seems impossible. But it becomes truly unbelievable when one sees the actual process. The tree planters dig a hole in the sand, fifteen feet or more, and they push the young tree down into the hole. They then cover the tree entirely with sand, and they finish by carefully securing a large flat rock on top of the young tree. By all appearances, the planters have systematically eliminated every possibility of growth for the young tree!

But the opposite is true. A young tree wants to grow by every means possible. If it cannot grow in an upward direction then it grows in a downward direction instead, until finally, it somehow reaches the groundwater far beneath the surface. If the tree reaches that level, it drinks and absorbs so much energy that it is able to grow upward and even push the stone aside. “Palma sub ponder crescit,” says an old Latin proverb: “a palm grows under pressure.”

As a society, we too can benefit from reaching down into the depths and probing for living waters. In times of enormous pressure and massive global concerns, when the future seems in the balance, we may have no other choice but to return to the deepest origins of faith, life, and meaning.

But how can this be done? One cannot buy expensive tickets or organize easy bus tours to the sources of living water. No other option exists except to dig down collectively into our own barren and distorted reality. Only by means of this difficult path may we find possible flaws in the commonly accepted ways of approaching today’s realities. Let us seriously try to reveal the elements of shortsightedness and blindness that may have crept into the hearts and minds of modern people, ourselves included. We too may have become entrapped in an enclosed, restricted way of understanding today’s reality—a reality that is also coming to an end.

Permit us to use a famous painting (“Las Memimas” by Velázquez) as an illustration (Figure 5).

Something is strange about this painting. At first glance everyone in this painting—including the painter himself, we see him at the left side of the painting—seems to be looking at us, the observers of this scene. But in his book The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault points out a small mirror on the wall that clearly shows the entrance of the Spanish royal couple.3 The various gazes in the painting, including that of the Spanish crown-princess, the infanta, in the middle, are thus not directed at us as observers but at the king and the queen. As observers, you and I have become entirely irrelevant in the painting.

Foucault uses this painting to illustrate the removal of the subject in Western history. But he also uses it to propose that sometimes we may get caught in a narrow or one-sided understanding of our own situation or predicament. We then need the courage to correct how we observe reality and to become open to new and different views. Foucault calls this “the view from the outside” (la pensée du dehors) that transcends the “self-evident” way of observing. The view from the outside does not remain fixed on observing what is seen as normal but looks explicitly to the abnormal. In our time and situation, this suggests that we should train our eyes on features and developments that are typically left unexplained because they are paradoxical or enigmatic, because they defy explanation using the standard instruments.

Do seemingly inexplicable paradoxes exist today? And can they help us to find flaws in the usual ways of seeing our contemporary world, thereby opening up a path toward deeper levels of understanding?

Indeed, a whole series of concrete paradoxes plague our society today. They emerge even at the very heart of our global village, and they surround the crises we described earlier. Take, for example, the paradox of poverty increasing in the midst of even the wealthiest societies. Reports from the United States suggest that one in eight children there experiences hunger. This strange increase of poverty in the midst of rising wealth has occurred almost unabated during the last three decades regardless of whether the Democrats or Republicans have been in power. As Juliet Schor has demonstrated, this trend has occurred at the same time that tendencies toward over-consumption have intensified.4 Or take the steady erosion of the public care sector in even the wealthiest of states. This too is paradoxical, because the standard economic textbooks declare that opportunities for expanding the delivery of care increase as average per capita income increases. Yet organizations providing care for the elderly, the handicapped, children, and others struggle under increasing financial burdens, even as their waiting lists become longer.

In a different field lies the environmental paradox. As a society, we contend with unabated deterioration in our global environmental even as each decade we develop more advanced technologies to redress that deterioration. Is the environmental crisis therefore only a matter of a lack of money or technology? That seems most doubtful.

Another paradox is the increasing scarcity of time. Almost all economic textbooks claim that more prosperity brings with it both more free time and an ability to work less intensely. In actuality, however, the opposite appears to be true. Not only do people work longer on average today, but now more and more workplaces must confront the effects of stress and burnout among employees because of increased time pressure on them. The “overworked American,” indeed.5

This represents only a small selection of a broad series of contemporary paradoxes. We could include the health paradox of Ivan Illich—declining health even as more medicine and medical technology become available—or the scarcity paradox of Hans Achterhuis, whereby the awareness of scarcity increases as a wealthy society becomes richer and richer.

Where do these paradoxes come from? How they are caused? All of these paradoxes have at least two things in common. First, each is rooted in an increasing tension between the most dynamic elements or sections of modern society and those parts that are more static. Most poverty in the world is linked to the phenomenon of people falling behind; they lack the personal capacities or education to cope with the demands of a rapidly growing economy. Something similar is true of the care sector. That sector is economically characterized by an annual increase in labor productivity which is continually lower than the increase in productivity in the more advanced sectors of the economy. As a result, the care sector struggles with proportionately higher deficits with each round of wage increases. Even more striking are the time and the environmental paradoxes. We can produce and consume goods in enormous quantities. But time and nature cannot be produced in a similar way. They belong to the domain of the given. This means that in a powerfully dynamic, growth-oriented economy, time and nature show up on another side of society: the side of increasing limitations and barriers.

And this is the second common characteristic of today’s paradoxes: we tend to view slowly moving or static elements as hindering us somehow, even as irritating barriers that interfere with further progress. They therefore ought to adapt to “normal” dynamic patterns. If that is not possible, we believe they should be overcome by appropriate economic or technical measures. But those expectations are unrealistic. In fact, often now those problems become worse when dynamic solutions are imposed upon them.

Here we encounter the first indication that today’s conventional approach requires a broader view. Perhaps, in fact, we need a view from the outside rather than the inside. For the first time in history it appears that our progress-oriented Western civilization is confronted by a combined set of limits and restrictions that cannot be overcome by means of its own further progress. When we nevertheless try to do so, the unexpected, seemingly inexplicable outcome is the emergence of a series of painful, deteriorating paradoxes at the heart of our societies. Indeed, we seem entrapped in a perception of reality that is too limited or narrow, a perception whose roots lie in a dynamic or dynamist view from the inside. Meanwhile, however, limitations and paradoxes like these remind us of our modest place in God’s created universe.

Let us test whether this vision holds in day-to-day reality. Consider the causes and remedies of the financial-economic crisis. For a number of years, false dynamist expectations reigned particularly in the financial markets, leading banks to go extraordinarily far in their willingness to give credit to and open new accounts for everyone. It is estimated that for almost a decade the growth of money was four times higher than the growth of the real economy and of the liquidities it needed. In this manner, a sky-high financial balloon was blown up that had almost no contact with the real economic world. Indeed, it pushed the world into a dynamist crisis of its own making.

A recent book by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, Animal Spirits, makes this very clear. The authors see so-called animal spirits as the cause of the financial crisis of our time. The term animal spirits comes from Lord Keynes. It refers to irrational factors or non-economic motives that heavily influence people in their decision-making. The authors mention as examples an unlimited confidence in what markets can do, money illusion, and several forms of bad faith. Instincts like these, they argue, caused people to seriously believe that house prices, for example, would only go up, heightening their faith that they would get richer and richer. Akerlof and Shiller conclude that their theory of animal spirits answers the conundrum of “why most of us utterly failed to foresee the economic crisis.”6

Akerlof and Shiller’s analysis is interesting because it provides a hint as to the kinds of shortsightedness, even blindness, that can easily creep into the public mind. But is the sole root of the entire crisis really some kind of irrationality, such as the fact that people are driven by instincts? Surely these attitudes also display forms of distorted belief or even magic. In 1994 the German philosopher Hans Binswanger wrote an analysis entitled Money and Magic: A Critique of the Modern Economy in the Light of Goethe’s Faust.7

Goethe was once a finance minister in the Weimar Republic. In his book Faust, the devil, Mephistopheles, suggests to Faust that he can conquer the world by means of the magic power of printed money, because then everything can be bought and sold without limitation. Faust chooses this path, but in the process, he loses his soul, and at the end of the book, he is barely saved by angels. Modern society indeed has some Faustian characteristics, an insight which may be much closer to the truth than an explanation based on animal instincts.

Taken together, it appears that the roots of the various crises in our time run in one direction: the direction of a one-sided cultural choice in Western society to give continual priority to self-made dynamic patterns, both financial and non-financial, that have no limit or restraint. Most Western people experience themselves primarily as an intrinsic part of a dynamic or dynamist world. They accept powerfully dynamist patterns in our societies as completely normal, as a fact, as a given for everyone. Wonder not about progress, only about blockages or shocks to progress! As a society we are therefore inclined to lean toward continually farther-reaching innovative technological approaches or dynamic (market) solutions. We tend to consider what is not moving as rapidly as us as lagging behind and therefore, to some extent, as abnormal. How easily, for example, do we perceive poor countries with cultures older than ours as under (or less) developed! The common dynamist point of view also tends to view poor people in the midst of wealthy societies as under-performing. In relation to nature, the dominant view does not bother much with the inherent vulnerability of our environment. Instead, nature and the environment ought to adapt to our wishes and desires. If nature or the environment pose limits on what we want to achieve, then we become irritated.

So it is that the almost forgotten dimension behind the crises and insecurities of our time seems to be that we like to live and to act like gods instead of earthbound creatures.
Remnants of classical Enlightenment belief therefore lurk underneath today’s dominant progress-oriented view from the inside. Only this seems to explain the deep reluctance of so many people to even consider taking an occasional step back instead of insisting on always speeding ahead. And let us not exclude ourselves. As contemporary people, almost all of us have been brought up and educated in a rational universe of self-created, largely progress-oriented institutions. We therefore have a natural tendency to prefer the modern view from the inside, even to the extent that we are in danger of identifying our own dynamist world with the real world. And this can easily lead us to put our faith primarily in the dynamic operation of well-functioning mechanisms, such as the market and what are called democratic mechanisms, and to choose them as the ultimate orientation point in our fast-moving universe.

If this dynamist view from the inside constitutes the deepest levels of today’s insecurity and incapacity to handle present crises, what then as citizens and societies should we do? What can be done? At minimum, let us at least be open to possible corrections by listening to one or more views from the outside.

The churches of Southwest Asia during the Asia crisis may have something to say, for example. These churches were confronted by the bitter consequences of a dynamist pattern of globalization. In a 1999 declaration from Bangkok, they addressed the churches and the societies of the North:

Is there not in the Western view of human beings and society a delusion, which always looks to the future and wants to improve it, even when it implies an increase of suffering in your own societies and in the South? Have you not forgotten the richness which is related to sufficiency? If, according to Ephesians 1, God is preparing in human history to bring everyone and everything under the lordship of Jesus Christ, his shepherd-king—God’s own globalization!—shouldn’t caring for and sharing with each other be the main characteristic of our lifestyle, instead of giving fully in to the secular trend of a growing consumerism?8

How naturally a real faith perspective now enters into the picture! This is an outside perspective written from the Christian heart. Reading this letter carefully, we cannot see it as a rejection of every kind of dynamic change. The letter exhibits an awareness of some good fruits of globalization, for example. But it starts from a keen awareness of the vulnerability of poor people and of the cultures and the environments in which they live. There is a deep conviction in their words, namely that rapid economic dynamism is capable of enslaving both themselves and the West, and that a sense of sufficiency might lead to a deeper level of shalom than a continual longing for more. Instead of absolutizing the value of self-made economic progress, they relativize it. In their view from the outside, the dynamist train of self-chosen progress can indeed travel too fast. And in their view, the train’s speed should be judged not just by its own criteria but also by what life, culture, humanity, and the earth can endure.

Let us consider whether this view from the outside can actually help us. In our opinion it does. The contemporary high-speed train—the train of unrestrained economic and technological dynamism—is now encountering obstacles or shocks on the track and has come to a partial stop. Perhaps, then, this time of various crises could lead to a general concern about our modern, secularized Western attitudes.

But there is more. Though it may sound strange, today’s crises may also bring with them an element of hope, a sense of relief.

Observe how the letter from the churches of the South uses the word sufficiency in relation to their concern about our ever-rising consumption levels. It is remarkable to see that in their view “sufficiency,” or “enough,” is related not to pain and misery but rather to richness, to the “joy of saturation.”

We believe that the pieces of the puzzle come together here. We started by describing the various crises that plague today’s world, including our own society. But when exploring the deeper causes of these different crises, we could not set aside the impression that somehow the causes are related to prevailing attitudes, attitudes that enabled faith in a materialist course to become a primary characteristic of Western society. Yet somehow these attitudes and the faith behind them are now themselves in crisis. To a great extent, we can therefore say that our society has lost its future and is at the point of losing its soul.

This brings to mind a comparison made some fifty years ago by Dr. Willem Visser ’t Hooft, the first secretary general of the World Council of Churches, between Europe and Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Visser ’t Hooft noted that the son, not unlike the West, asked for complete control of his part of the inheritance. The son chose an economically wasteful life and ended his self-chosen destiny in the neighborhood of pigs, the most unclean of animals for a Jewish boy. But then, the parable says, the son came to himself, came to his senses, and chose to return to his father’s house. Rembrandt made a painting of that return, and Henri Nouwen was the first to notice that one of the hands of the father is a female, caring hand (Figure 6).9 The invitation to the West to also return to the father’s house is still open, wrote Visser ’t Hooft.10

How might such a return start concretely? How can a modern society find living waters that would nourish growth toward a more wholesome, less crisis-riddled society? In our view, that first requires striving to foster awareness in our society that we can no longer achieve happiness in life via the tyrannical rules of self-chosen goals like more money and endlessly expanding consumption. Happiness and peace can be built only on a deep and lasting respect for God’s ways in creation, which are in fact the same ways as the father’s house: love, justice, and stewardship.

Christians do not enjoy a position of privilege in emphasizing the importance of these laws or ways. Think of a word like shalom in the Jewish or salaam in the Islamic traditions. A broad, general awareness of the norms and values of shalom is needed now more than ever before, not just spiritually but also economically. The earth and its climate simply cannot bear the burden of an unlimited rise of production and consumption levels, especially not in the rich countries. It is time to return to the Father’s house.

Not only are the challenges in today’s world enormous, but they cannot be dealt with in a purely instrumental manner, such as through the input of more money, more technology, and more freely operating markets. Nor can they be dealt with independently of each other, because today’s crises are the result, as we saw, of a multiplicity of interlocking problems.

But then the question is: why are today’s crises so intensely interlocked, even to the point of aggravating and deepening each other? The answer should not surprise us: they too, to a significant extent, have a common denominator. With Pope John Paul II, we may call this common denominator the Western “tendency towards overdevelopment.”11 Rapid climate change, the decline of forests and species, energy crises, deficits of food and water—each of these display an aspect of overuse. The overuse stems at least partly from the enormous, ever-increasing demands of today’s citizens on the environment and on the resources still available in the world. This then also implies that potential solutions to the various crises are possible based on at least some minimum forms of self-restraint by the people of the West. And that enhances hope, not disaster.

To put it somewhat differently: if it is true that today’s crises are increasingly interdependent and even reinforce each other, driving us together toward the brink of the abyss, then the reverse is also true, namely, that their solutions can also reinforce and strengthen each other, especially if we are willing to enhance their potential for positive interconnectedness. The best way to heal the environment is to link it with the fight against global poverty, which was not done in Copenhagen. And the best way to prevent the food crisis is to lower our own over-consumption and global ecological footprint.

The way to more human happiness is not far from us. But it does require a loving acceptance of self-restraint and the will to share the earth with all other fellow creatures. That can open up a hopeful perspective on regaining life, even in the middle of a desert.

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1. Francis Fukoyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Canada, 1993); Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000); Sam Harris, The End of Faith (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005); Bill McKibben, The End of Nature (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1997); John Horgan, The End of Science (Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Canada, 1998).

2. For an excellent, more detailed exposition of the interlocking nature of today’s global crises, see Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009).

3. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (New York, NY: Irvington Press, 1972).

4. Juliet B. Schor, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, And The New Consumer (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1998).

5. See Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1991).

6. George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller, Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 167.

7. Hans C. Binswanger, Money and Magic: A Critique of the Modern Economy in the Light of Goethe’s Faust (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

8. The letter, entitled “Message to the Churches of the North,” is available for download at www.kairoseuropa.de/english/bangkok-letter.doc.

9. Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1994), 99.

10. In W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, Rembrandt and the Gospel, trans. K. Gregor Smith (London, UK: SCM Press, 1957).

11. See, for example, Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical “Redemptoris Missio (On the Permanent Validity of the Church’s Missionary Mandate)” (7 December 1990), paragraph 59, where the Pope writes:

The contribution of the Church and of evangelization to the development of peoples concerns not only the struggle against material poverty and underdevelopment in the South of the world, but also concerns the North, which is prone to a moral and spiritual poverty caused by “overdevelopment.”[112] A certain way of thinking, uninfluenced by a religious outlook and widespread in some parts of today’s world, is based on the idea that increasing wealth and the promotion of economic and technical growth is enough for people to develop on the human level. But a soulless development cannot suffice for human beings, and an excess of affluence is as harmful as excessive poverty. This is a “development model” which the North has constructed and is now spreading to the South, where a sense of religion as well as human values are in danger of being overwhelmed by a wave of consumerism.

(Available for download at www.ewtn.com/library/encyc/jp2missi.htm.)

By Bob Goudzwaard and Mark Vander Vennen