Who doesn’t like success? It is a wonderful thing. Especially the stories of those who, against all odds, somehow prevail. Success is worthy of celebration and, as the saying goes, “success breeds success,” even though our road to success is often paved by failures. Perhaps that is why it feels so damn good once we arrive.
The twentieth century, often described as the “American Century,” ended with a largely overlooked but profoundly important development—one that explains a great deal about our current challenges. In the late 1990s, America and much of the world made an historical transition from the prevailing condition of scarcity, that had been with us throughout human history, to the prevailing condition of abundance.
For the first time ever, humans had access to everything they needed to sustain their well-being without fear of running out of either necessities or comforts. An enormous success by any calculation. And while it is true that such abundance was, and remains, unequally and perhaps inequitably distributed, the fact is that—in aggregate—humans have succeeded in achieving something that eluded them for centuries. This is what strategists call a paradigm shift.
As it is with life lived in real time we did not, however, realize our success. There were no fireworks or new holidays taken or proclaimed. We simply indulged ourselves in the comfort of abundance. The prescriptions and proscriptions of life lived in prior generations like straightening and reusing every nail, and abstaining from public preening, were suspended in favor of casual indifference to the constraints of scarcity. When prudence and humility lose favor, decline is a certainty. This is when things started to go off the rails.
Now, nearly twenty-five years later, the tragedy of abundance is revealing itself in all manner of emerging malignancies that have driven our collective character into the dumpster of hubris, narcissism, greed, and sloth. It is no wonder we have entered an era of chaos and destruction that risks our well-being even while we remain awash in the fruits of abundance. Perhaps we should call it the paradox of plenty. However, while we would have benefited from maintaining historical American values, a shift in strategy was, in hindsight, urgently required.
In my last post, “Our Time Has Come,” https://ameritecture.com/our-time-has-come/, I argued that a subscription to a zero-sum perspective manifested as a win-loss mentality was one of the reasons we were unable to successfully address the Covid-19 crisis. That it was a remnant-disposition of people like me—old white men—who were the product of a different era. That era was the era of scarcity, when zero-sum/win-loss was indeed an appropriate modality. In reality, the only viable way to compete in a world of scarcity.
Once the dynamics of abundance finally arrived, a shift in strategy should have also occurred. Yet, we stubbornly held close to the strategy that had served us well during the age of scarcity since, well, it had worked! Nothing could have been more natural or, as time now reveals, more foolish. As the then solo superpower in the world, America made the same mistake the victors made after World War I: we treated the conquered as losers who owed the winners due compensation and acknowledgment of their greatness, which (as we know from the post-World War I era) nearly assured World War II.
What we should have done in the late 1990s, was shift form the win/lose contemplation of power as a lever of coercion to a win/win contemplation of power as an opportunity to empower others to achieve their objectives as well as those we all share. In an age of abundance, empowering others does not diminish your own power, it actually enhances and sustains it. Call it the principle of enlightened altruism. And this shift would not, as it would have been criticized in the era of scarcity, been an expression of reckless idealism. Rather, it would have properly found residence in the school of realism. That is what paradigm shifts both allow and require.
Unfortunately, this missed strategic opportunity was not just realized in America’s international relations, it permeated all aspects of our society creating the fear, anger, and violence we see now at home every day. Those who stood to gain the most from the age of abundance sought more for themselves without regard for others. Those who were natural beneficiaries—especially the white privileged class—remained in a coercive win/lose posture and became vulnerable to those promoting the fear of inclusion rather than the plus-sum benefits of enlightened altruism.
In the last twenty-five years, had we viewed the world and our own country through the lens of empowerment rather than coercion, I have no doubt we would have responded much differently and more successfully to the attacks of 9/11, the Great Recession, Covid-19, and climate change. Moreover, we would have rejected the fear-based appeals of politicians like Donald Trump and the many condemnations that continue unabated from the woke-left. We would be unified in the spirit of abundance rather than perpetuating inequities that have broken our spirit of unity, liberty, and justice for all.
We could have erased the poverty of dignity that cause people to embrace the life of a terrorist. We could have kept families in their homes during the Great Recession rather than kicking them to the curb. We could have spent the $50 billion it cost to vaccinate the entire world and be its hero rather than seen as a selfish nation of charlatans. And, we would be well on our way to the innovations and policies required to affect saving ourselves and the world from the effects of climate change.
But, most of our leaders still believe that for every winner there must be a loser. (Visualize McConnell, Pelosi, et al, here.) When and until we encourage and support enlightened leadership who understand this paradigm shift afforded by abundance, and its implications for the power dynamics of humankind, we will continue on our current path of destruction. The now multi-power international system will continue to flirt with conflict that could, at any moment, produce World War III. Covid-19 will be the first, not last, of twenty-first century pandemics. Inequities will continue to make us vulnerable to fascists and perpetuate suffering at home. And, temperatures will continue to rise.
Most often, I feel as if I am screaming into a deep dark void. But, hey, at least you read this. Maybe others will too. If you know someone in a position of leadership—at any level of our society—please pass this on to them. Hopefully, the tenet “it’s never too late to do the right thing” will hold.