A renaissance is a time of collapse and renewal—though when we’re living through one day-to-day, the collapses might be easier to perceive.
The years 2000-2001 saw some particularly powerful images: the turning of the century clock, the fall of the World Trade Center, the slow-motion crash of the stock market as the dot-com bubble burst. And there have been other collapses since, including an escalating series of environmental disasters and the debt-driven meltdown of the Great Recession.
But the flickers of renewal are just as real, and the world we are re-making together is in some ways more energizing and promising than any we’ve ever seen.
Watching the world wake up
It’s been roughly half a millenium since the last Renaissance, which we commonly associate with a rapid evolution in science, the arts, and social organization. During this time, a set of ideas and institutions emerged in Europe that most historians agree were novel and discontinuous. In his masterwork From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, Jacques Barzun describes some of these new governing principles as individualism, self-consciousness, separatism, reductivism, and secularism. As the second half of Barzun’s title implies, these ideas are now all in decline.
As the forward motion of the Renaissance dissipates, over the last century a new set of ideas has been gathering strength. Commenting on several merging trends, David Rock and Linda J. Page write:
“Physics has added its weight to the two related trends of postmodernism and globalization in bringing about a greater acceptance of systemic principles in the human sciences… Globalization has introduced Eastern philosophy to Westerners steeped in individualism. Systems theory stresses how people are connected to one another and how their interactions relate to change. And quantum mechanics provides a scientific basis for the importance of human choice and activity.” (Coaching with the Brain in Mind: Foundations for Practice)
The 21st century is, to an extent, when the the earned learning of the 20th century will blossom and pay off.
The co-evolving environment
Our predicament with regards to ecological systems is perhaps the biggest idea that we individually and globally have yet to metabolize. That’s why I particularly appreciate The Transition Timeline by Shaun Chamberlin.The book lays out in a concise, relatable way the conservative consensus of the global scientific community about climate change, and tells four stories of how we collectively might respond. Three of these scenarios are doomsday, and only one is hopeful, but the major themes are consistent across all four: inter-dependence, re-localization, de-industrialization, and imagination. We know where the puck is heading—our context for taking personal action is the same no matter what heads of government or business do.
Technology of course is also an integral part of our environment. Despite its ills, Kevin Kelly is compellingly optimistic about technology’s ability to expand opportunity. Like our natural systems, technology will continue to co-evolve with us—it may have its own “wants” and energies, but it is part of who we will be.
There is more than one way to look at any time period. Douglas Ruskhkoff in Life Inc. criticizes the original Renaissance, despite its signature accomplishments, as being a major step back in community happiness and well-being. Rushkoff’s evidence is interesting, and he’s not alone in his assessment—a reminder that what constitutes a collapse versus a renewal depends largely on one’s point of view.
But a positive vision can be helpful, as is a fresh start. I find it promising that the decay of old systems, the energy of human understanding and ingenuity, and the constraints of our ecological and technological systems are all leading us to the same place at the same time: a subtler, more connected world, where individual actions matter.
At a recent Next Us event, Chris Carlsson called history “a collaborative act in the present.”
The future will be created by all of us.