The challenge of change

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The only really universal truth about our small blue globe spinning in space is that we all have to manage change. Some changes are inevitable — somehow the creator of life gave us a limited lifespan and we all grow older and eventually die of one thing or another. We know from science that even our planet is growing older and slowing down, imperceptibly, but with ultimate consequence.

Then there is change wrought by human initiative and inventiveness and somehow, our generation, among all the generations that have gone before us, has made change possible on a scale previously unimaginable. Some change has been good and has improved our quality of life in a way that our forefathers would have thought was impossible. One advantage of being 80 is that you have some knowledge of where we have all come from.

In our rush for ”progress” we have paid little attention to sustainability, thinking that the vast resources of earth and our thin skin of atmosphere can somehow meet all our needs for ever. That is clearly not the case anymore and this generation is now faced with the greatest challenge ever — how to carve out an existence that has real meaning, satisfaction and hope in an environment with limitations.

If we carefully examine the graphs depicting global economic and human activity, they all reflect an exponential curve. However, the first signs that this process may have peaked out are there — the “mature capitalist economies” are all showing slower growth. Their populations are shrinking and getting older as life expectancies grow longer due to better health and life-long support. We now know for sure that the resources that gave previous generations a rapidly improving life and longevity are nearing exhaustion or causing so much damage that they must now be abandoned in the soil before they further destroy the very earth that is our only home.

Can we manage these changes and still offer the future generations hope and meaning? It will be our greatest challenge and no longer will science and technology be the main driver.
The cellphone and the internet have made the world so small that we seem to know what is happening all over the world and in every detail. We are now in almost constant communication with others, but in the process becoming disconnected from ourselves.

The world is more crowded than ever before and yet loneliness is a common scourge in all modern societies. I was fascinated by a documentary from Brazil and another from Botswana where tribal groups regarded by modern cultures and governments as primitive, were deliberately turning their backs on change and holding onto their way of life. They have close family ties that last all their lives and have to work together to survive in a hard and often harsh environment that they have learned to co-exist.

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In our so-called “modern societies” where average incomes range from US$12 000 per annum to over US$60 000 per annum and people have lifetime security delivered by a powerful State and the children expect both education and employment, the competition for advancement in all forms is so intense that those who fail become victims and the millions who sleep on our streets every night bear testimony to this.

What we fail to recognise is that many of these “failures” are, in fact, making the choice to opt out and find more meaning in the gutter than in our palatial homes.

In this materialistic world where power and control dominate almost all spheres of life, the next generation is desperately searching for meaning and significance. That is why the children of wealthy families in Europe travel to the Middle East to join extremist movements and even fight for something that seems right. That is why, in a world where the gap in incomes just seems to grow ever larger and the billions left behind in the race for plenty of everything, search for ways to express their anger and frustration.

The yellow jacket movement in France is just one example — no leaders, no ideology, no agenda except frustration and rejection. Totally destructive.

Does the solution lie in more scientific advancement? Does it lie in new technologies or does it lie in how we actually choose to live? Francis Schaeffer titled one of his most important books How then shall we live. It is the question for the next generation, nothing less.

The problem is no one is answering the question! In so far as humanity is concerned it is clear we have to go back to a simple lifestyle that can be sustained across the globe and bring dignity and hope to the billions who now only see hope in a passport and a ticket to a developed country.

This means that the people who, because they were born into a society that has been able to exploit the resources of the world and give themselves a high standard of living, must begin to think about how they can help us raise the standard of living for the billions of the less fortunate.

There was a time when the best in the West sacrificed their lives and their money to bring the Gospel to the poor of the world. In so doing they brought education and health to three quarters of the world’s population and raised living standards wherever they went. In my own country, Zimbabwe, 90% of all education services before independence were provided by faith-based organisations and the majority of the country depended on mission hospitals where often you would find gifted men and women providing services and following a simple, low-cost lifestyle.

That culture has gone and now the West looks to places like Zimbabwe for our best and encourages them to go and find a new life and ensure that the prosperity of those countries persist.

Every year British and American universities scour our top schools for the very best and give them opportunity and scholarships — when they graduate they are enticed to stay. I once taught a semester at MIT in the USA, the students in that class were the brightest I have ever met and they all seemed to be rich in my eyes — but they were totally disinterested in the needs of the developing world. It was money and power, the gods of the new world order. Then we have to start thinking about living with our environment rather than by exploiting our environment. And the lifestyles are very different. Use our technological capacity to solve the problems we have created in the past two centuries.

Finally, we must make the effort to discover who we are, why are we here and what is the purpose of life? We seem to have lost the plot completely. We talk as if we will be able to settle on another planet when we know fully well that is an impossibility.

We think artificial intelligence will replace or supplement human intelligence and work. That will simply make matters worse if we fail to discover our humanity anew.

In our pluralistic and secular world, we seem to have lost our spiritual foundations and in the process become lost ourselves. Increasingly young people are questioning the institution of marriage and in doing so they are abandoning the one institution in life that can give their lives meaning and purpose.

A friend from Eritrea gave me a proverb the other day which said; “We plant trees in our children, but grandchildren are the fruit.” Every grandparent will testify to the truth of that saying.

Sound change management requires that you do so from a platform that is built on faith, family and a lifetime commitment to love God and one another. Nothing else can pull us back from the chasm that lies in front of us today.

Eddie Cross is an economist. He writes in his personal capacity.

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