Social change at the end of an era

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Add Kim Jong-Il to the year's already substantial fallen dictator list. Take your news from Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, or from Mayan temple walls. Look at the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement or the demise of Durban and Kyoto. These all point to a similar outlook for the year ahead: we are at the end of an era.

But, hey, whether we like it or not, it's at the end of things that what comes next is birthed. But first the hard labour.

Choosing Bank of Canada language, this is "the end of the 'debt super-cycle.'"

From Carney's comments to the nation via a speech at the Empire Club earlier this month, you can clearly read that global financial stability is now on the endangered species list right beside polar bears. Yes, Canada, happily, is more stable than most countries. But global conditions are melting, and no one knows how fast.

Of course, he didn't put it quite that way. He said, "Current events mark a rupture. Advanced economies have steadily increased leverage [debt] for decades. That era is now decisively over."

On the economic front, his word to watch for in 2012 is "deleveraging." It means dumping debt, which sounds virtuous. But in fact, it's all about the 99 per cent getting structurally adjusted into austerity and joblessness.

In Canada, we're starting to get the feel of the program, with Harper and Ford hard at work pretending that Canada's government debt is our biggest problem even though Europe, the U.S. and Japan would all laugh that thought out of the room.

Our economy's actual Achilles heel, according to Carney, is Canada's high household debt, which has now surpassed that of the U.S.

The risk is that global instability could fuel a negative spiral of rising interest rates that could lower housing prices. In that case, "deleveraging" would see a lot of people lose their homes and security. The other issue he highlights is a notable lack of borrowing and investment on the part of corporate Canada.

It is truly a bad day when the corporate world is a disappointment even to the likes of Mark Carney. The point of his speech was to rouse Canada's business elite to put their money to productive work.

He explains that the borrowing boom was mainly by households, and then governments (stimulus and bailouts), instead of business. "In general, the more that households and governments drive leverage [borrowing], the less the productive capacity of the economy expands, and the less sustainable the overall debt burden ultimately is.

"For the most part, increases in corporate debt [outside of the finance sector] have been modest to negative over the past 30 years," says Carney. And he does not think that's a good thing. Carney has been saying this stuff about investing in productivity for years, but Canada's big businesses haven't listened up yet. Don't hold your breath.

"Decisively ended," "less sustainable." These are strong words from the governor of the Bank of Canada and the head of the G20's Financial Stability Board. There's nothing pretty about the scope of our problems. It is an eerie time.

Mind you, at every time in history -- indeed, at every moment -- somebody's world is falling apart. But the scale and number of systems in breakdown mode lend a sci-fi feel to the news almost each and every day.

As promised more than 1,000 years ago, 2012 will be a wild child. So here's my advice: you want to be on side with the stuff that is busy being born as opposed to what is dying.

That's it -- our fabulous assignment for 2012 and the key to living well in the worst of times. Innovation is the watchword at a time of breakdown like this. It's the key to resilience. We can all give ourselves the creative job, paid or otherwise, of trying to usher in positive change in our own way. That will pave the road to happiness in these strange times.

We do need to ready ourselves for more of the unexpected. Some stuff will be great, like the Occupy movement. Even if we never see another actual tent, it will continue to shine a light all over 2012 because, along with the camping action, it brought a new worldview into focus.

Two new studies from the emerging discipline of network science point to some of the surprising directions this may lead in the coming new year. A taste of the future comes via a study by complex system researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology who wanted to see if capitalism really is a conspiracy. They analyzed ownership connectivity between all the transnational corporations they could find in a gigantic database of companies and investors worldwide.

They found a group of 1,318 companies with interlocking ownership that control most of the world's blue-chip and manufacturing firms and 60 per cent of global revenues. At the centre of these, they were shocked to discover a "super-entity" of 147 tightly connected companies that on their own control 40 per cent of the total wealth of the entire global network. Most were financial institutions.

They're not saying it's a conspiracy exactly. Natural systems also show this connective tendency.

It's just too early to say what this means in terms of conscious cooperation in the competitive business world. But now that the 1 per cent has our deep attention, we and they may be in for some mind-bending revelations. Income inequality and the way wealth is concentrated at the top could turn out to be earth-shaking this upcoming year.

Another truly surprising network science finding confirms the potential good news that could come from our pro-change survival strategy if enough of us really go for it. A U.S. Army-backed study of the spread of ideas from minority to majority has found that the tipping point is reached when just 10 per cent of the population hold a belief.

"When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 per cent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority," said co-author Boleslaw Szymanski. "Once that number grows above 10 per cent, the idea spreads like flame."

That does explain how Tunisia and Egypt toppled their dictators. And it is a powerful message of hope. The potential it points to for non-violent fast-acting social change is enormous. But to do that, we will need to find a way to cohere in our beliefs in some new and improved fashion. Whatever it may be, if we find the right kind of compelling belief, we could make a miracle.

Perhaps it's time to go back to the insights of the great teacher of non-violence, Martin Luther King, to see if his concept of "beloved community" might be just the vehicle we need for the challenge of this new time.

This could be our year to discover that caring for each other and the world around us is the whole reason we are here.

This article was first published in NOW Magazine.

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