The Value of We 

Verkuyl lecture 2010 by Herman Wijffels, Utrecht

I would like to take you through a few panoramas. I can't help doing that; I have always had a tendency to do this and that has, so to speak, not really improved during my time at the World Bank. So I beg your forgiveness in advance, but it is the way I see the world today.

Impairment of natural capital

I would like to begin by discussing the situation in 2010, in which we are confronted with a large number of problems that are truly global in nature, and can really only be solved if we work on them at a global level. The first problem that always comes to mind immediately is the continuing growth of the population and increasing overpopulation in many parts of the world.

Another issue here is the continuously growing contrast between grinding poverty on the one hand and great wealth on the other. In this phase in the development of the world, both those facts, those developments, lead to considerable overburdening of the carrying capacity, as we call it, of our planet. That overrun, that overburdening, which is also referred to as an “overshoot” in English, currently amounts to approximately 30 to 40 percent of what the earth can deliver in a sustainable fashion. So in a way, as a result of these two issues, we are essentially living off our natural capital. We are gradually using up our natural capital. I will get back to this at a later stage.

All this leads to ever-increasing pollution of our natural resources, due in part to the fact that those natural resources are not properly managed. We can see the erosion and desertification of agricultural land, and we can see the overuse of our fresh water sources, but actually, all our fresh water sources, whether it is surface water or groundwater, or the fresh water stored in glaciers, all those sources are diminishing. You can say the same about forests.

Deforestation of the world has progressed to such an extent that, as a result, water retention – the actual management and retention of water– is insufficient. In addition to that, deforestation has contributed to the earth being less able to regulate its temperature. A similar story can be told about the world's fish supply. At present, we are in essence catching the reproductive supply, and have actually been doing so for a very long time. That is what we are doing, and it also shows in the field of biodiversity.

This year, 2010, was supposed to be the year in which we were going to put a stop to the loss of biodiversity, but what we are doing couldn't be further from that. And though we may have good intentions, in practice the fact remains that we are a species that systematically causes other species to become extinct. That is the actual situation that we are faced with. In addition to that, after essentially living off fossils for 200 years, we have come to a point where, in the industrial era, many raw material supplies are also on the brink of becoming exhausted.

While this might not happen tomorrow, it will definitely happen in the next few decades. In the next few decades, almost all fossil fuel supplies will be on the verge of being so scarce that we should not only be talking about “peak oil” – which is a hot topic at the moment – but in my opinion, based on the studies that I have seen, should be talking about “peak everything”. There will be a shortage of everything if we continue to live the way we do now.

Compartmentalised, egocentric society

Another problem is that our economic system is essentially based on what I like to refer to as a compartmentalised, egocentric rationality. That may be a somewhat complicated term, but please listen carefully. Our way of thinking serves to promote our own interests within very small compartments. That is the basis of our economic system, and as a result, very little notice is taken of the consequences of that compartmentalised, egocentric behaviour for the world as a whole, the so-called “global commons”. This is partly due to the fact that the world is missing a system of “global governance”, of world management and institutions that are part of that. We must acknowledge that the current “global governance” institutions, which almost all date from the period just after the Second World War and reflect the balance of power of that era, no longer suit the circumstances of the 21st century.

Taking all this into consideration, we are faced with quite a few problems. And the common denominator in all of them is that human kind continues to live as if the earth is an unlimited source, as if there are no bounds to the possibilities that this earth has to offer. We take what we think we need without thinking, and do not take the measures, or rather, do not take sufficient measures, to take effective action against this. This, in a nutshell, is what I think is the situation we find ourselves in.

My view on the current crisis is that the problems that I have just described – while not the only issues, but definitely a few essential ones – are the source of what has developed into the multi-faceted crisis that our society and our world are currently faced with, both from a financial/economic point of view and from a ecological, a social and an institutional point of view. And beneath that, in my view, is a crisis of the principles, the values on which our current way of life is based. So the crisis has a very deep basis.

The situation I have described poses a number of serious challenges for humanity as a whole. I think we have to look at it at that level. This challenge can essentially be summarised as follows: in the years to come, we have to develop a way of living together on our planet in which the possibilities that our planet has to offer, the natural resources of the planet, are divided more fairly and managed more efficiently, so all people can lead a dignified life. For that is what these resources should be used for, to ensure that all people are given the opportunity to develop to the full extent of their capabilities and can, in turn, contribute to society. That is the first aspect.

A second aspect of this way of living together is that the manner in which we meet our needs, the economy, which is all about satisfying our needs, is organised in such a way that its functioning is in balance with the sustainable carrying capacity of the earth. This means that we have to put an end to the “overshoot” I mentioned earlier, and that we have to develop a society in which we systematically aim to reduce our ecological footprint, at every level.

This requires a third aspect: an adequate “global governance” system. This is nothing more than collaboration at a global level, predominantly between states, but also in the private sector. A system that ensures that the so-called “global commons”, or the “global public goods", such as peace and safety, monetary stability, fair trade and the natural resources I was just talking about, are managed properly. This, summarised in a few points, is the great challenge that I think we will be faced with in the next few years.

Global awareness

In order to achieve that, to make that possible, I think we have to ask ourselves how we can achieve what I would call global awareness. We have to become aware of the fact that we, in a manner of speaking, have to live together, have to work together to keep this world in a good condition, at a global level. In turn, this global awareness as I see it, has to lead to an understanding of the fact that the world is a single connected and interdependent system of life. Those are the consequences of that. In other words, we should not remain stuck in this Newtonian view of the world, as unfriendly as it might be to that gentleman to refer to it that way. This view is that the world consists of loose particles that are essentially in a constant battle for the strongest to survive. And I would like to include social Darwinism in this.

We have to see that, in the world as it is now, we are so dependant upon each other that this has to be the basic principle. That is the “we” that we have to talk about in this day and age. This means, based on that, developing the “we” principle at a global level and the empathic capacity that goes with it, including at a personal level. And that, in turn, means that we essentially have to work on our personal views, opinions and the way in which we live our lives. Some of you probably know that, in that respect, I believe in the movement that is known in English as the “cultural creatives”, people who base their actions on a pattern of values that is connected to the notion of sustainability, and have this perspective determine their choices at an individual level, on the level at which they work, or as a citizen. “What do my actions mean?” “What does this decision mean to others, and for the other life forms?”

However, looking at it that way, you are actually talking about extended relational ethics. That is the value basis, the ethical basis which we have to work with in the next few years, in which decisions are weighed against the social and ecological consequences. We have to let this guide us in everything we do, and ask ourselves within this broader context: if I do this, what are the consequences? Are they positive or negative? In short: we have to give our life shape with that broader circle of connections in mind. This is exactly what the movement I was referring to earlier, the “cultural creatives”, is trying to do. In short, we have to form a world view that suits the reality of the early 21st century. Going by this assumption, we have to ask ourselves whether there are sources from which we can derive the information, the insights and the motivation required to live this way.

Common sources

Well, I think there are several sources that can help us with that. First of all, I would like to refer you to the various wisdom and spirituality traditions there are. In that respect, I like to draw my inspiration from Karen Armstrong, who has written a wonderful book about the great transformation. This is a book on the play time, which was approximately between 1200 and 300 B.C., in which she tries to identify common denominators and, if I remember correctly, eight of those traditions, both religious and non-religious. In the process, she found one very important rule that was created in that era, the so-called “golden rule”.

This golden rule simply states: do unto others as you would they should do unto you. We have our own Christian version thereof. This is exactly what this book is about. Going back to the source, searching for the most basic roots of our ethics is one of the routes we must take. Basically, this golden rule means that, when it comes to the way in which we want to organise our society, we have to step away from social Darwinism, which has become so dominant in our economic system in particular. This raises the question of competition versus society.

That is just one source but there are, as far as I'm concerned, many very recent sources as well. In that respect, I'm thinking of modern physics in particular. I'm gamma oriented, but whenever I try to understand what conclusions quantum physics produces and attempts to teach us, my conclusion is that it is exactly as I said before: the actual reality of the world we live in is that everything is linked, that everything is connected and that, when we do something, it has consequences for other people and in other areas. And that at this time, based on physics, which you might call the successor of the Newtonian physics, we are offered an insight that completely supports the necessity to think and operate on the basis of connections, and not on the basis of dividedness.

A third source I would like to mention – the phrasing of which and my view on which may be slightly unorthodox – is the potential, or the field of possibilities that was created at the time of the Big Bang, which I think may be the most important source. You could refer to it as the creation act. The way I see it, a potential was created at that time which was gradually turned into a reality and turned into solid matter. Everything we have today, the church we are in, and we ourselves were created from that potential.

And if you look back on history, new parts of that potential are continuously turned into reality, turned into solid matter, based on people's ideas. The way I see it, we are faced with that now as well. That is actually the question we are faced with. This is the field of possibilities that we have to, as it were, “scan” on the basis of the question of what we need to give shape to the next phase.

Following on from that, simply put, the fourth source is common sense. In this context, I would like to refer to enlightened self-interest. Operating in such a way that by serving the interests of others, we serve our own interests as well. This should be inextricably linked and is therefore a question of common sense in today's world. So these are the sources.

The next step

To sum all this up, I would say: in these ever-changing circumstances, today's world calls on us to make a new set of possibilities a reality, to turn them into solid matter. We, the people, are destined to do this in such a way that we can pass on life in all its manifestations to the next generations in the best possible way. As far as I'm concerned, that is not only the essence, but also the meaning of life, and also the spiritual dimension of our existence. That is what it is all about: we are instruments in the ongoing development process, the ongoing creative process. And in doing so, we pass that potential on to others and develop our own, because those two things are inextricably linked.

The last round in that process, as I see it, the development of the industrial society based on the ideas of the Enlightenment, gets stuck in this phase of history. It gets stuck on those changing conditions I mentioned earlier on the one side, and the corruption of the basic principles that came into being upon the inception of industrial society on the other.

Think, for example, about what happened during the financial crisis. It is the collective effect of that compartmentalised, egocentric rationality, which leads to a lack of sustainability. We are, in essence, undermining the basis of our existence. And because this is the case, this phase of industrial society is coming towards the end of its cycle. That, in fact, is the crisis of this time, and as far as I'm concerned it is also the essence we should be focussing on in the next few years. It is a shame that there is so little attention for that in all those debates.

The way I see it, we, the people, are being called upon to simply give shape to the next round in this ongoing development process. Looking at it in practical terms – and it is a good idea to do that, because it gives you an idea of what you should be thinking about here – you have to come to the conclusion that you are faced with considerable consequences.

The first of those is – I'm an economist after all – a drastic transformation of our economy that, as I said before, is based on the consumption and processing of fossils. We do this in what I consider to be linear processes: we take fossils from the ground, and burn them or process them in a linear process. And what we can't use, we just throw back into nature. And that is exactly what, due to the “peak everything” I mentioned earlier and the pollution that is the result of that, has led to the problems we are faced with today. Therefore, the question is not whether we can go on doing this. We might be able to do so for a little while, but not in the long term.

This means that we will have to find other ways, and the way to go is actually relatively clear-cut. What we have to do, is move from linear processes based on fossils to cyclical processes in which we, in effect, “harvest” from permanently available streams. We have to move towards an economy that is based on streams and not on supplies, because those supplies are running out. We have to start living in such a way that we harvest from those streams responsibly and, at the same time, keep the sources from which these streams stem intact. That is the big mutation that we, in the twenty first century, are faced with. This means, for example, decentralised generation of energy from sustainable sources.

There are plenty of streams – the sun, water, the wind and biomass – and we can harvest from them. That is the large mutation that we have to effect there. This means that we have to switch from centralised generation of energy that is distributed through networks to creating an energy network that is much like the Internet: a network that we can all take energy from and deliver energy to, via networks that will have to be intelligent enough to facilitate that.

Another consequence of all this is the so-called "cradle-to-cradle", which means that, insofar as we continue to use fossil fuels, we have to incorporate them into products in such a way that, at the end of the life cycle of the products, these can be used as a raw material for the following production cycle. That is another way of giving shape to the cycles, the cyclical economy. A consequence of this type of economy will be that we will see – and I definitely expect to see that – a relocalisation or regularisation of certain economic processes. This will be evident when it comes to energy, but you can expect similar developments in the field of food production.

In the world of tomorrow, we drag foodstuffs all over the world that, like us, are approximately 70 – 80% water, which you might say will not be very profitable. Those are the kind of consequences we will be facing. The recycling economy will in many ways be much more regional and local as well. One of the ways of bringing such an economy closer is including the social costs of some of those methods, those linear industrial processes, in the micro-cost prices of products through levies and taxes.

In that way – and it will also have to be given shapeat an international level – we break through the so-called prisoners' dilemmas, in which many countries argue that if they do a certain thing, and other countries do not, their competitive position will deteriorate. Universal laws and legislation will have to ensure that it is safe for countries to make such a move.

Realistic and sustainable economy

I would now like to touch upon a completely different subject that has received relatively little attention in the public discourse, which is that we have to go back to a monetary system that is anchored in a realistic economy. Looking at the financial crisis, you can say that this has come about because private financial institutions were much too liberal in making use of their licence to print money. They have used their money-creating position to create much more money than the amount that corresponds with the developments in the realistic economy, and this has created the bubbles that have significantly inflated the assets.

Therefore, we have to look for an anchor for the monetary field in the realistic economy. In my opinion, the most realistic component of the realistic field is the carrying capacity of the earth. If we were able to link themonetary system to that, we would all be grounded again, we would all be grounded again indeed. And that is of great importance.

Another aspect of our economic order, as I briefly mentioned before, is competition and collaboration. If we want to produce and consume in a sustainable fashion, we will have to create sustainable production chains. This means, in essence, that the competition policy will have to make room for such forms of collaboration.

We must also ask ourselves questions about intellectual property: "In today's world, is it wise to monopolise knowledge that is crucial in, for example, keeping people healthy, for private purposes?" That really is a question that, in my opinion, needs to be answered.

Another aspect is that, in addition to that, we will also have to look at effective management of the “global commons” by creating a so-called “governance” layer at a global level. And, more generally speaking, by going from what I like to call “single peak governance”, “single peak” management or one-dimensional management, to “triple peak governance”, to multidimensional management at companies and at the level of countries as well. This will make us more balanced, and more able to develop from a social, ecological and economic point of view. This is a management task to be reckoned with.

The issue that I have just discussed – and there is undoubtedly more to be said on the subject – also means that we have to question the nature and orientation of our foreign policy. We have to question the way we, as a nation, wish to operate in this world, and how we want to position ourselves in the world. It is my firm conviction that, when it comes to the way of life that I have just described, it should primarily be about the contribution that we, the Netherlands, wish to make to the world, to the global “we”. And if we do it right, we ourselves will gain from it as well.

However, in the world of tomorrow, it can't be the other way around: trying to find out what we can gain first and subsequently, so to speak, compromising on other things for the benefit of our gain.

The common interest of development cooperation Against the backdrop of the latter issue, I would like to add a few remarks about development cooperation as well. There's no avoiding that in this context. If you look at it in the manner that I have just tried to explain, development cooperation is not purely a matter of – if you will forgive me for putting it bluntly – guilt, charity and solidarity. The latter two sentiments, or all three, are fine, but in essence, it is about working together for the good of a common interest, and that includes our own interest. But it has to be in that order. This is, as far as I'm concerned, how the world of tomorrow will have to look.

In a way, this also means that developing countries will have to be emancipated. The developing countries will have to evolve in such a way that we no longer look at them as people who require our help, but as partners in keeping the world in order. A partner in creating a society at a level that, shall we say, can best serve human dignity.

A second point I would like to make is that the essence of development cooperation is to help people, and support them in developing themselves. As you may know, I am of the Raiffeisen school, and this was his adagio when he set up the cooperative movement: “Hilfe zur Selbsthilfe”. In my opinion, this should be the dominant view for good, effective development cooperation in the next few years. We have to abandon the notion that we here know what should be done over there. Their development path today is not the same as ours. They do not have to go through that entire era of argumentation and technology that were the basis of the industrial times for us. They can, in many cases, skip this generation of methods and immediately move on to the new generation of small-scale technology that is currently becoming available.

A great example in the field of connections is telephony. In many developing countries, there are no landlines, but wireless telephony is developing rapidly. Other examples include energy provision: do they need centralised energy generation of the scale that we have? I do not think they do, but if they do, they can easily generate it. All those developing countries are in the tropics, so they have a large amount of power to, so to speak, “harvest” from. So in that field, there are some interesting new perspectives on how those countries can be developed as well, and that means that we have to exercise restraint, as it where, in trying to teach them how we did it. That is, after all, the previous generation and we have to help support the new generation, and work with them.

Another issue concerning development cooperation as I see it, is that community structure from the basis should be the basic principle. This means that we should not try to work top-down – even if a number of things, such as infrastructure etcetera, do require some attention – but should, in the end, work on the society structure from the bottom, particularly from the small-scale point of view that I just mentioned, which is derived from the current technology on the new generation of technology. And I would like to add something that I have learned during my time at World Bank: in my experience, the most important source and allies in this are women. Money that is spent and means that are put to use through women are often more effective than is the case with men. This is just a fact.

And in that connection, I would like to add one other thing.I have learned, from various reports, that the most effective way to limit the number of children per family is to invest in education for women. Once they have received an education, the number of children immediately decreases. So that is a very important route to take: the feminization, so to speak, of development cooperation. I feel tempted to say something about the golden section here, but that is about the balance between male and female, and you might say male energy and female energy.

Actually, it may be a subject that deserves some clarification after all. Male and female energies determine what happens in all aspects of life, not just at the kitchen table, but in life in general. And studies, including studies into subjects like plant growth, show that in order for the balance between these two – male expansive energy and female bundling, containing energy, you might say – that in order for this balance to be ideal, it should be 1 to 1.6818. This means that, in a way, the feminine has to be dominant. This is a very important cultural issue, and there are a lot of reasons to say that the reason our society has run off course is that this balance has been disturbed, as a result of which we are not on this golden section. This is something that we should keep in mind, not just when it comes to development cooperation, but more generally as well.

Finally, something about who should do what. I think that, if we are going for the approach in which society structure from the bottom is the most important, private organisations, and that includes the business world, are better positioned than governments are. And so I would like for the emphasis to shift there for the development cooperation policy in all its different shapes. With regard to inter-State development cooperation, I would like to argue in favour of a better mutual balance and coordination, or for the experts: the Paris agenda. I would also like to argue in favour of orientation in the field of those “global public goods”, the “global commons”. And please, less geopolitical dominance. I have seen many examples of that, in which, to the detriment of the interests of the developing countries, development cooperation is an instrument in the foreign policy.

In accordance with the advice of the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid – WRR), I would like to focus the Dutch development policy on what we, as a nation, are particularly specialised in. In other words: going on the assumption that it is all about making a contribution, you should contribute the best that you have to offer. We will be able to offer the most added value in that field. I do, however, think that this recommendation does not mesh with concentrating our efforts on only 10 countries.

Why would we not offer it to all countries that need our help in that field and need our assistance there? In addition, I also think it is important that we look at development cooperation in terms of the effort that we, as a nation, make. To that end, the policy has to be aimed at mobilising all the national powers that can and wish to contribute to the policy of international collaboration, and deploy them in a coordinated fashion. This might even be a way to help us, in a manner of speaking, “quieten down” the ongoing debate on whether we should give less or more through the government, and to bring that back to a more realistic basis than the debate that is currently being conducted.

Empathy for the world

Ladies and gentlemen, I have to wrap this up, but I would like to make a few final conclusions.

The first is that, in my view, we are currently living in a time in which we are faced with big problems at a global scale, and that the manner in which we deal with them is crucial, if not decisive for the future of, in any case, the quality of life on earth, if not for life on earth itself. I look at it in such, shall we say, sharp terms.

We, the people, have been called upon to take a position on those issues in every one of our capacities. As citizens, who will shortly have to make their way to the voting booth again, as consumers, and as producers. And in that respect, it does not matter whether you are an entrepreneur or an employee. Even in those capacities, you will have to take a position on those issues, in all connections and at every level at which we work. In my opinion, the basis of that, of that choice of position, will have to be relational ethics and empathy that are broader than they are now, and that are aimed at the quality of relationships, and bringing the connection to others and to other life forms to a higher level, bringing the quality of relationships in that global perspective to a higher quality level.

My view, partly based on personal experience, is that the capacity to do that, to make that connection and to bring it to a higher level, is a function of the relationship that we have with our higher selves, our higher selves. Effectively, it is about the question, or actually the answer to the question of why we are on earth. That is our perception of the spiritual, the vertical dimension of our existence. If we look at ourselves from that perspective, we do not look at it the same way as we do when we scrupulously try to serve our own little interests.

Today's world calls on us to give shape to a new phase of the ongoing civilisation process, you might say a new culture, based on all our personal and collective development, and unwrapping the potential that I was referring to earlier. That is what it is about.

Finally, I would like to add that though there is a lot of inertia in this field, and opposition based on existing interests, I can truly, honestly say that I am hopeful when it comes to this subject. I really am hopeful. We know what has to be done, we basically have all those insights, all that knowledge, all the technology required at our disposal. It is all available to us. This being the case, it is all down to us what happens next. And if there are enough people who are willing to make an effort – and I am happy to see that there are a growing number of people who are willing – it will happen in practice. It is up to us, and if we do it together it will happen. Thank you.


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