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Reflections on the 2001 State of the Future Report

--Sherryl R. Stalinski, M.A.
(c) August 2001 Aurora Now Foundation

It's almost September. Most of us have long since forgotten that we are still heralding in the first year of the third millennium. Instead, we are busying ourselves preparing our children for a new school year and "settling in" for the routine of life until next summer's vacations. Thinking about addressing global challenges and creating a better future for humanity in a new millennium are topics left for the lofty aspirations of world leaders.

Or are they?

According to the 2001 State of the Future Report just published by the United Nations University's Millennium Project, global issues are becoming infused in local consciousness more than ever. "[M]aking the world work for everyone was deemed a hopelessly romantic notion just a few decades ago, and now it has become a driving force for a new generation [...] in many occupations around the world." And there is reason to believe these local efforts are making a difference. While the State of the Future report indicates mixed findings about our human condition, the outlook is improving. The State of the Future Index (SOFI) indicates improvements in literacy, access to safe water, life expectancy, education and access to health care. Most exciting is that more of us are living in democracies than dictatorship countries for the first time in history.

Overall, the report is exceptionally hopeful and inspiring, outlining reasonable, do-able, practical strategies which can help address humanity's remaining challenges and issues. The positive outlook should be cause for all of us to reflect on what part we are playing in the creation of our world's future. In her renowned work, On Death and Dying, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross states, "When people look back upon their lives, they ask three questions that determine their sense of whether it was meaningful: Did I give and receive love? Did I become all I can be? Did I leave the planet a little better?" Psychologist Victor Frankl calls the failure to find meaning in one's life the "existential vacuum." While most people seem to have some sense of social responsibility, they often feel helpless to make a real difference given the overwhelming complexity of issues still facing humanity. American media, notes the report, tends to trivialize complex issues. I think many would agree that the media not only trivializes global issues, it often opts instead to focus on trivia itself, distracting us from striving for a more aware, conscious and meaningful life. We're told so often that the meaning of life is all about successful survival that we forget the real objective is fulfilled survival.

A few weeks ago, I was running a thesaurus search to find an appropriate alternative to "brilliant, talented." While choosing the word I wanted to use ("gifted") I couldn't help but note the listed antonym of my word search. The opposite of "gifted, brilliant, talented" would likely surprise most people. It is not what one might guess: "ungifted," "incapable," "incompetent," or "unsuccessful." The antonym listed was "mediocre." If we think about our American culture's focus on trivia, we can see how the media promotes mediocrity-not incompetence or inability-and we so often find ourselves hypnotized into complacency within our own lives. Meaning, not mediocrity, is part of our innate human drive, and the word is out: We are capable of making the world a better place, we aren't helpless and the issues aren't hopeless. It's time to break away from the distractions of media's 'information overload' promoting mediocrity and trivia.

The State of the Future report summarizes the effect of information overload by saying, "There are many answers to the many problems, but there is so much extraneous information that it is difficult to concentrate on what is truly relevant."

Fifteen "Global Challenges" were identified by the Millennium Project, and each challenge reflected regional perspectives. The report can help us focus on what is relevant-and meaningful. Highlights of the findings include complexity and culture among relevant issues and solutions:

"The most important challenges are transnational in nature and transinstitutional in solution. They cannot be addressed by any government or organization acting alone; they require collaborative action among governments, international organizations, corporations, universities and NGOs. Interinstitutional mechanisms to focus these global actors is missing."

In North America, a change in thinking, attention to culture and an emphasis on education and appropriate training for leadership were all identified. "North Americans need to move from cause-effect, single issue problem analysis to integrated, holistic visions and problem solving, using futures research, systems thinking, and technology assessment. [...] More courses in future-oriented studies should be established that stress relationships to decision-making [...]" The report identified a "remarkable lack of training" among American politicians, but also cited the need for leadership at a global level, including the leaders of corporations, NGOs and other arenas to be provided appropriate training, especially in the area of decision making in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world. This training and education is needed to address complexity which is "growing beyond our abilities to analyze and make decisions."

"Although many criticize globalization's potential cultural impacts, it is increasingly clear that cultural change is necessary to address global challenges. The development of genuine democracy requires cultural change; preventing AIDS requires cultural change; sustainable development requires cultural change; ending violence against women requires cultural change; ending ethnic violence requires cultural change. The tools of globalization, such as the Internet and global trade, should be used to help cultures change to improve the human condition."

Culture is often considered a "fuzzy subject" that is about as easy for our contemporary human sciences to nail down as jell-o to a tree. Work of researchers within the systems science community, most notably the International Systems Institute, however support this emphasis on culture. ISI founder and president, noted social systems scholar Bela H. Banathy states that cultural evolution, unlike biological evolution, can be guided. Humanity is not limited to responding and reacting to change, we can-and should-catalyze positive change. Cultures, according to futurist and evolutionary theorist Ervin Laszlo, "are, in the final analysis, value-guided systems. Values define cultural man's need for rationality, meaningfulness in emotional experience, richness of imagination and depth of faith. All cultures respond to such suprabiological values. But in what form they do so depends on the specific kind of values people happen to have."

The State of the Future reports a global, widespread call for the identification of common global ethical norms, and notes that "the Institute for Global Ethics already lists five values identified around the world: respect, honesty, compassion, fairness and responsibility." These values reflect humanity's shared vision for the future, and provide a place from which our global cultures can find common ground that still honors and celebrates the diverse ways in which we can seek to live these values. "Strategies for world peace and security are emerging, and global efforts are growing that encourage respect for diversity and shared ethical values."

A peaceful, sustainable and viable future is more within our grasp than ever before. And if we still doubt how little it can take to make a significant difference, consider that according to the Millennium Project report, "UNICEF estimates that it would cost $7 billion per year over 10 years to educate the world, about the same as Americans spend on cosmetics or Europeans on ice cream." All it really takes is a little effort on each of our parts to consciously choose meaning over mediocrity-to find and give love, to become all we can be, and to strive to leave the planet a little better.

Tarja Kaarina Halonen, President of Finland summarizes our ability to create this future powerfully and succinctly. In her response to the State of The Future, she states, "We know the facts. We know what we want. We know how to get it. All we need is the will to do it."


Sherryl Stalinski is Vice President of Communications & Technology for ARC Worldwide, Executive Director of the Aurora Now Foundation and a research fellow of the International Systems Institute. She was one of approximately 1000 individuals from 50 countries around the world representing leadership in government, corporations, universities and non-governmental agencies to participate in the surveys which make up the 2001 State of the Future Report, produced by The Millennium Project of the American Council for the United Nations University.

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