For Trekkies, the question I am raising here is obvious. But for most of us who have watched the various incarnations of Star Trek through the past 50+ years, the premise of the program is something we may not have recognized is crucial to the current state of world affairs. It is well understood that Gene Roddenberry envisioned a civilization of greater social justice, racial tolerance, and collaborative governmental efforts. His stories were intended to be moral tales that could allow viewers to contemplate both the dangers of adventure (“to go where none have gone before”) and ethical dilemmas that resulted; the values of the desired society were tested in the behaviors of the characters facing overwhelming adversity through such stories. In many ways, Star Trek is more mythology than science fiction.
But how did we ever get to a time in the 23rd Century where “The Federation” existed? What series of events transpired to facilitate this vision? Here is an excellent summary from New York Vulture in 2017:
To understand the allure of Star Trek, it’s necessary to understand the ways its creator Gene Roddenberry and later writers conceived of humanity’s future. While Earth is, for all intents and purposes, a utopia during the time of the various Star Trek series, it took a long, bloody road to get there. 21st-century Earth was embroiled in many conflicts, including what would become known as World War III (2024–2053), which was sparked by a litany of issues, including anger over genetic manipulation and the Eugenics Wars. Governments fell. Major cities were destroyed. The loss of life hovered around 600 million. Ten years after the end of the war, First Contact was made with the Vulcans (a rigid, highly logical species that count fan-favorite character Spock as a member), thanks to humanity building the first warp drive that allowed for space travel faster than the speed of light (this event is dramatized in the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact). The discovery of intelligent alien races forced humanity to get its act together. After further chaos and attempts to establish order, eventually the United Earth Government was established in 2150. By the early 22nd century, humanity was able to eliminate most, if not all, of the poverty, disease, hunger, and cruelty that has plagued us since our beginnings. Racism, sexism, and even money was a thing of the past. Humanity’s drive became a philosophy of betterment and exploration.
We currently live at the front edge of this critical time in the history of humanity, the “Star Trek Moment.” It has been ushered into our collective consciousness by the COVID-19 pandemic, as this global threat has exposed the rifts and fissures of our economic, political, and social systems where threats to climate change, the global refugee crisis, previous disease outbreaks, and other vast problems have only scratched the surface. As competition for scarce resources to address this threat intensifies, it exposes deep questions that must now, inevitably, be confronted:
- What future do we now seek? What are we learning today that may help us navigate tomorrow?
- Will we go through a multi-year conflict where much of the Earth is decimated and tens of millions die? Or will the “better angels of our nature” emerge to provide leadership and wisdom that brings forth our greatest instincts as human beings: to care for one another, to be compassionate in the face of fear and loneliness, to collaborate to find treatments, vaccines, and other life-saving remedies that benefit us all?
- And might this be the time when we become capable of recognizing the “tragedy of the horizon” of climate change, and reinvent our economies to be sustainable and protective of this fragile planet?
In his 2006 book, A Brief History of the Future, economist Jacques Attali speculates regarding whether such capacity is already present. After reviewing economic history and the gradual movement of power centers over time, he shifts gears and focuses on the future. He articulates the dystopian expectation that there will be a total economic and political collapse of the US Empire around 2035 (some speculate this is occurring right now), followed by “hyper-empire” in which nation states collapse and chaos dominates. But this is followed by an optimistic period of “hyper-democracy,” led by resources that are already expressing themselves in our present day: NGO’s, collective intelligence, and leadership by “transhumans” who are empathetic, inclusive, leaders that take Earth beyond its abyss into a hopeful future. They establish businesses that are dedicated to the “triple bottom line” of economic, environmental, and social returns on investment.
Attali’s sense that all will fall apart in the second quarter of the 21st Century is similar to Roddenberry’s Star Trek premise, but whereas Star Trek sees the discovery of Vulcan culture as a key catalyst for transformation, Attali recognizes that humanity already possesses many of the required resources and attributes. Indeed, around 10% of world GDP (according to Attali) is already produced by these socially responsible businesses, and they can serve as a critical foundation to understand the present moment of the pandemic.
In What Matters At Work, I briefly wrote about Frederic LaLoux’s important book, Reinventing Organizations (2014). LaLoux outlines characteristics of “next level organizations” and provides practical illustrations of their approaches across industries and scale. These are powerful examples of organizations that represent worldviews and perspectives that may summon forth our greatest capacities in service to the complex challenges now facing us. We are also witnessing, in our own communities, other such examples as companies rise to the occasion of transforming their operations to provide critical supplies and protective gear to essential workers.
“Next level” companies, non-profits, B-Corps, and similar organizations also recognize the intrinsic value of internalizing the externalities of the current economic system. Rather than viewing environmental and social costs as being “external,” in the usual capitalist economic model, they “internalize” these costs as part of the cost of doing business. As such, a carbon footprint is internalized into the replacement cost of producing energy or any given product, social displacement is internalized into the cost of urban renewal and gentrification planning, and the transportation costs of delivering food and supplies from across the globe are internalized into calculations around a given supply chain. These are real costs borne by the planet and by society if we recognize the “Long Game” of complexity and systems thinking, and the post-COVID economy will need to grapple with such realities.
I am skeptical, to be sure. I witness the many ways that the largest actors in the current system — the US, China, Russia, many other self-centered states and mega-corporations — continue to pretend that their self-interests are proscribed by their borders and shareholders. But I am also hopeful that there are many “transhumans” out there who recognize What Matters and can provide leverage influence at critical places and moments as we navigate this challenge.
Perhaps you are one of them.