Some say it’s time to make America great again. Others say it’s time to manifest the promise of democracy this country holds. Still others (or maybe some of those people also) say it’s high time to take seriously the threat of global warming and the planet’s ability to sustain life. For the sake of brevity, I stop this list here.
There is a general sense that the time is now, but what time is it?
To a great degree, the dominant culture of today, and the world we live in that it has so greatly informed, was shaped by the Enlightenment Era and the French and American revolutions. I say that we live at a time no less significant. (It is perhaps even more significant in the sense of how tenuous life on planet Earth seems to have become since then.) The changes in the air and in every aspect of people’s lives – jobs to be had, homes being lost, access to quality formal education, police violence, domestic terrorism, environmental damage, policies coming out of the new administration – are not about perfecting something that’s working or even finding better ways of doing something: they involve some kind of awareness that “the way things are” is unacceptable, not the only way or that it doesn’t actually have to be this way.
It’s not only people’s actions that are changing, or even the thinking and feeling behind those actions: people’s beliefs about the way things are is changing. For example, there has been a surge in political engagement since the 2016 election process and outcomes. While this participation is being driven by assessments of what the problems are and how people feel about that, it’s also changing popular beliefs about what democracy is and how it operates. It’s not just that people are less complacent or have less faith that their government representatives are acting with their best interests in mind; the meaning of democracy is transforming to also be more participatory, dynamic and localized.
I call this kind of qualitative change a change of the third order. It is the stuff of which paradigm shifts are made. A paradigm shift occurs when a paradigm no longer explains the facts.
Since the Enlightenment Era, more or less, we have lived in a “progressive” paradigm. It has been a time, so we thought, of economic and social progress. Of progressive politics. This linear understanding of time, history and possibility goes with the pursuit of development. The developing nation, human development and even sustainable development are all part of this current era, yet the concept of “progress” no longer seems to explain the facts.
Some people conclude that if pushing forward no longer makes sense or seems possible, then they want to go back to what they thought worked in the past – or was supposed to work – and do that again. But neither the economy nor history work like that. If options for going forward, going back, or continuing the way we are now all see untenable, what is it time to do instead?
I argue that the answer is so difficult to imagine, see or understand because it is so different. We are standing on the edge of a waning paradigm and on the brink of a new one that has not yet fully formed. It’s not quite here because we haven’t quite gotten there. We haven’t lived it yet; it’s entirely new.
If it is a time of profound, paradigmatic change, it is also a time of disorientation, of asking questions. Of not having answers or one Right Answer. It is a time of often not even knowing where to look for answers or if the answers we’re finding are useful. During the Enlightenment Era, popular conceptions of what it was possible to know and control, of law and what is valued, of the individual’s relationship to society transformed entirely while the political economy leapfrogged toward the representative democracies of capitalist/socialist national economies. It is time again to understand the limitations in knowing from which our very worldview emerges. It is time to try to understand the limitations of modern thought that shape our own contemporary, collective experience.
However, one of the fundamental differences this time is that even the ability to fully know, to have an answer, to feel control over our environment, has been disproven. There are no formulas or easy answers. That means it’s time to decipher what it is we are learning how to do together and who we can collectively become. What must this change look like if we, or our descendants, are to live in a world able to support our individual and collective well-being? For that we will need to instill democratic practices made of the varied narratives that help us understand where we are collectively coming from and from which we can construct visions of a shared future.
It is time to develop, in words and deeds, ways for working effectively across differences, structural inequity and systems of exclusion – not maintaining or reviving these divisions. Myriad contemporary social struggles are leading the way, helping map this unknown terrain and shaping the way it is viewed. An awareness of this emergent, complex, dynamic worldview, and the transformative process we are in as a species, will allow us to engage with and participate in these changes as consciously and effectively as possible. It’s been a long, long time coming, and if it’s going to happen, the time is now.