The pandemic has shown us that the future of humanity is more-than-human community.
by Tim Leberecht
This week, my new book, Against the Tyranny of Winners: How We Can Lose Without Being Losers, was published in Germany (the English edition should be released next year). It’s my second book (after The Business Romantic in 2015) and the most personal and political text I’ve ever written. Unlike The Business Romantic, I wrote the new book in my first language, German.
The topic is very heavy and arguably very German, too, and an American friend of mine called Against the Tyranny of Winners “the most-Un-American book ever written.” I know what she means, but I’m not sure it’s entirely true. America is known as a winner-takes-all culture, but it is not only in the US that the concept of winning has come under recent scrutiny.
This strange year has made losing a universal experience: climate chaos, growing social inequality and polarization, mental health, and the COVID-19 pandemic all serve as stark reminders of our existential fragility. I hope the book will spark a conversation about the need to redefine success in the face of all the economic “externalities” — which of course is a shameless euphemism for “grave losses” — we’ve been suffering.
I consider losing an act of liberation: from the tyranny of winners, from the tyranny of winning. Paradoxically, to win the future, we must become better at losing.
I’m not the only one talking about losing. Philosopher Michael J. Sandel argues in his new book, The Tyranny of Merit, that “in order to overcome the crises that are upending our world, we must rethink the attitudes toward success and failure that have accompanied globalization and rising inequality.”
The most severe challenge we’re facing is of course the climate crisis. On Being’s Krista Tippett called the pandemic a “species moment,” but what if it’s instead a planetary moment? To prevent the ultimate loss, the loss of our natural habitat, we must lose proactively: not just our fixation on extractive business models, our obsession with consumerism, and our sense of entitlement, but also an entire ideology: humanism.
Humanism, which has its roots in the Enlightenment and its hallmark scientific rationality, has aimed to differentiate humans from nature. This differentiation, it turns out, has been an aberration. It has alienated us from our natural environment and reduced us to largely disembodied minds that exploit nature to express and elevate themselves.
The end of the Anthropocene will be a central theme at this year’s House of Beautiful Business online and in person gathering, The Great Wave (October 16–19), and several of our speakers have reflected on what might emerge in its place.
Sea captain and climate activist Carola Rackete, who became a public figure when she refused to surrender refugees on board her ship to the Sicilian authorities, told us in a conversation we pre-recorded this week that we must learn from indigenous communities to cultivate a new humility toward nature.
Speculative designer Anab Jain, who will join us live at The Great Wave, calls for “more-than-human politics.” She thinks “Modernism’s methodologies of mapping, designing, planning, for controlling and changing deeply complex systems may not be the answer to the challenges we face. Maybe we need to go underground — working in networked, symbiotic companionships, like mycelial arrangements, to generate infinite micro-revolutions.”
For German philosopher and Great Wave speaker Tobias Rees, who is the founding director of the Berggruen Institute’s Transformations of the Human Program, the COVID-19 pandemic is the “Great Un-Differentiator.” In a seminal essay, he describes a shift from the Anthropocene to the Microbiocene. “There is no human independent from the bacteria and fungi and viruses that live in and on the human body,” he explains: “Every single organ system of the human body is contingent on bacterial metabolites — and our wellbeing is entirely contingent and relies on viruses who regulate these bacterial populations.”
Rees dismisses the mutual exclusivity of political and natural state that has dominated our politics ever since the Enlightenment and Thomas Hobbes. He believes the implications of this “Great Un-Differentiation” are profound — and reason for hope: “If nature ceases being the place of origin ‘out there,’ the concept of the primitive as distinct from the modern dissolves — and so, too, the logic of colonialism.”
For him, the action plan is clear: “We — the inter-species connections we are — have to invent a new vocabulary for articulating what it is to be human in nature; to learn to articulate and practice a whole-Earth politics; to find ways of moving from industrializing nature (extraction of resources) to biologizing industry; to create possibilities for replacing technologies-as-artificial with technologies-as-biologies.”
Accordingly, in the world of technology, design, and innovation, we must transcend the convention of “human-centered,” which was often just a shorthand for convenient (for us humans), and move towards a new concept that puts the planet at the center, or delegates rights back to nature that we have taken away from her.
One idea in this context is the Nature 2.0 movement, which is based on the approach of transforming entire ecosystems such as forests into ownerless, autonomous, self-managing organizations using digital technologies like Blockchain or AI. Forests that manage themselves, based on biodata, smart algorithms, and so-called smart contracts. Back to nature as digitalized nature, as a bio-cybernetic utopia, so to speak.
Another major trend is the rise of synthetic biology, which goes beyond bio-mimicry and allows for actual co-creation with nature, in symbiotic fashion. Kit McDonnell of Ginkgo Bioworks, one of the leading firms in this sector, will take us into the heart of Ginkgo’s lab at The Great Wave, and BCG’s Massimo Portincaso and Hello Tomorrow’s Arnaud de la Tour will give us an overview of the burgeoning ecosystem of Deep Tech (science + biology + tech) that, according to them, “will change everything.”
Finally, on a more personal level, Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker that horticulture has experienced a massive boom during the pandemic. I personally know several people who have discovered the “therapeutic power of gardening” during these past few months. Apparently, “In bleak times, a garden’s cyclical replenishment promises some kind of future,” as Mead writes. Deborah Choi, the founder and CEO of Horticure, a plant-care platform, and Ed Gillespie, author of Only Planet, among several other speakers, will talk about how we can nurture our relationship to nature and acknowledge that we are “ponds among ponds,” to use Tobias Rees’ poignant metaphor. And a whole session, hosted by Indeed CEO Karel Golta, will be devoted to more-than-human innovation.
Taking deep pleasure in radical otherness
“Climate change is the simple consequence of forgetting the holiness of this mysterium in which we’re bodily immersed,” the cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram contends in an interview with Emergence Magazine about “the ecology of perception.”
He says: “I’ve heard many people speaking of the unity that this pandemic brings, the way that we begin to notice we share a common body, a common flesh, all of us humans, as if there’s a vast human species body that we’re all a part of. But I wonder about that. It seems to me more that our real collective flesh is that of the Earth itself, this immense spherical metabolism in which we’re all embedded and embodied.”
Like Carola Rackete, he refers to the need for an animist world view, a belief that “everything is alive, that everything is awake” — and that everything speaks, if only we were to listen rather than spell out the magic of nature with writings that leave no room for poetry.
In Japan’s animist Shinto culture, for example, it is assumed that both living and inanimate things have a spirit within them: every flower, every animal, every dust particle, every machine. Indigenous communities often hold animist beliefs as well, assuming a kinship with all beings and rejecting the notion that humankind is the summit or the center of creation. They demand that we finally understand quality of life as the well-being of all animate and inanimate things, including, by the way, AI (as I pointed out in this previous essay on “beautiful AI”). Animist innovation and design is a new brand of design that occurs in partnership with nature, and there are already animist investment firms such as Ground Effect.
Whether you view it as a shift from the Anthropocene to the Microbiocene, the Great Un-Differentiation, a new (old) animism, or the beginning of the (tech-enhanced) biological age — at the heart of this next great transformation is the realization that the systems we are embedded in, both the ones we inherited and the ones we have built, are not systems, they are ecosystems; they are not machines — they are waves. The one quality we need for all of us beings on this planet to thrive is fluidity: of identities, ideologies, intelligences, senses, and emotions. For businesses specifically, this means they need to design for diversity as a flow rather than a state.
With the words of David Abram:
“It seems to me that falling in love outward with the more-than-human earth is the deepest medicine for this, because if there’s anything that the local earth wherever you live teaches, it’s the need for diversity, the need for the whole, weird multiplicity of shapes of life and styles of sentience — all of them shaped so differently from you and from one another — to be interacting with one another in order for the land to be strong, to be healthy, to be resilient. And so as we open our hearts and open our senses to the wider sensuous earth, I think we imbibe this deep teaching of diversity, of the need for an irreducible pluralism, and for celebrating otherness and radical alterity, radical otherness in our world, not looking to just shelter ourselves among those who think just like us or speak just like us or look just like us, but taking deep, new pleasure in otherness and strangeness. That’s the deep magic that I think is leaking back into human society today and into the more-than-human community as we humans fall in love outward.”
A beautiful business falls in love outward.
This article first appeared in the Journal of Beautiful Business.
The Journal of Beautiful Business is the online magazine by the House of Beautiful Business, a global think tank and community for making humans more human and business more beautiful.
This year, the House of Beautiful Business will run The Great Wave from Friday through Monday, October 16–19, 2020, the-first-of-its-kind hybrid, virtual and in-person festival to reinvent business, your organization, and yourself. Join The Great Wave!
The Great Wave is a creation of the House of Beautiful Business, in partnership with Porsche, BCG Henderson Institute, Grupo Ageas, SAP, IEEE, and INDEED Innovation. For more information, please contact us at email@example.com.