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What is the most important resource of the twenty-first century? Depending on whom you ask, the answer may be water, data, rare earth metals, or sand. In truth, each of these resources—and countless others—will play a critical role in shaping twenty-first-century events and society. But there is one resource that we don’t talk about nearly enough that may prove to be more important than all the others—one that will improve the likelihood of effectuating a just and peaceful transition in this disruption-laden third millennium. The resource of which I speak is something—like rare earth metals and freshwater—that is, sadly, increasingly scarce in our current society. But unlike rare earth minerals and sand, this resource is renewable and can be generated quickly and with little effort. The resource to which I am referring is empathy.
Why is empathy so critical in this twenty-first century? Because the world as we know it is changing on a scale and at a rate unprecedented in the past two centuries. We face myriad forces that are fundamentally altering society. For example, technological disruption—in the form of artificial intelligence, automation, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics—is already changing how we work, how we consume, how we interact (both with one another and with the wider world), even how we conceive of life itself.
Likewise, economic disruption is fueling growing inequality and squeezing the middle classes out of existence. Further, geopolitical disruption is fomenting the emergence of a new type of authoritarianism—“illiberal” democracy—that seizes on widespread discontent by advocating populism, nativism, xenophobia, and anti-intellectualism. And last, but hardly least, environmental disruption, including global climate change, threatens to dramatically alter the landscape as we know it and could—without drastic action—have dramatic consequences for society and our species.
Any one of these disruptive threads by itself is significant enough to shake society to its very core. But in the twenty-first century, these multiple disruptive threads are interweaving to create a new reality that raises many challenging questions for humanity. How, for example, do we contend with the impacts of automation via artificial intelligence and robotics, which is expected to result in widespread unemployment? How do we design realistic and equitable adaptive solutions to address potentially devastating inundation of coastal and low-lying cities by mid-century? How do we counter the pernicious spread of disinformation that threatens to swing elections, upset IPOs, and ruin lives?
Regrettably, there are no easy answers to these—and many other—questions arising out of our century of disruption. Nor can any single actor address these challenges alone. Rather, the global nature of these challenges necessitates carefully coordinated action by diverse constituencies. Rather than follow the trend of the most recent United Nations Climate Meeting in Madrid—which ended without agreement after a cadre of developed nations chose to pursue policies that enable them to cling to historic practices—we must advance a future in which the community of nations forges ahead together, recognizing that the blind pursuit of individual self-interest will undoubtedly lead to failure.
Unfortunately, the chaos unleashed by various threads of disruption is reinforcing self-interest and driving us apart at a time when cooperation is more important than ever. Having bid farewell (or good riddance) to the second decade of the third millennium, it is easy to fall into despondency about the future. Indeed, with many people presently feeling as though their lives aren’t improving, it is easy to take a bearish view on the state of the world and convenient to default to our baser instincts—giving up hope and retreating into the relative comfort our various tribes and echo chambers. However, the antidote to disruption cannot and should not be actions that reinforce division, fear, and anxiety. Instead, we should endeavor to make the 2020s a decade of empathy.
Empathy is the only viable way we develop workable, equitable, and innovative solutions to our many challenges—particularly those challenges related to climate change. As University of Texas design professor Kate Canales has said, “seeing something from other points of view is a tool for innovation.” Thus, if we are truly to tackle the myriad challenges facing this planet—global climate change chief among them—we must be willing to empathize with those with whom we might not agree. Rather than demonize, we must humanize.
We should begin with the premise that most people do not want to see the world burn; we should presume that most people want to leave the world a better place for the next generation. From there, we should listen, suspending judgment with the aim of truly understanding the hopes and fears of those with whom we disagree. I believe that only when we’ve reestablished trust and have come to fully understand the range of challenges we’re trying to address can we begin to design a better future in good faith.
It is my hope that the vitriol that has dominated the past decade will soon recede. I believe that it can, provided we are willing to look inward and act with a bit more empathy toward everyone we meet. With that, I most sincerely and empathetically wish you all a happy and healthy 2020.
Scott Nuzum is a Washington, D.C. based father, husband, strategist, and futurist. He previously worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (2009-2012) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (2012-2014).
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