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Are We Experiencing A 21st Century Renaissance?

Seven Signs That Our Values Are Evolving—Rapidly—Toward A Closer Fit With Reality

by Staff

If you’re wringing your hands over all the bad news you keep hearing, you can stop now. Things really aren’t going to hell in a hand basket! In fact, says author Jim Kenney, our world is in a period of accelerated cultural evolution—and he offers some compelling evidence to prove it.

Are we living in an age of moral growth or moral decay? Is American culture evolving or devolving? Most of us would prefer to believe the former in both cases. But frankly, the turmoil of life in the early 21st century—the Gulf oil spill and other ecological disasters, global violence, political division, economic turbulence—makes it hard to be hopeful.

Take heart, says author Jim Kenney. When you understand the big picture, you’ll see that we’re actually living through a time of dramatic cultural evolution—a sea change. The old values of patriarchy, racism, war mongering, and exploitation of nature are giving way to new values of gender equality, human rights, nonviolence, and ecological awareness.

To put it another way, we’re connecting with reality. We’re getting real. And it’s happening at a dizzying rate.

“We’re not changing biologically, but our culture, our ‘social skin,’ is changing to fit the complex and potentially wonderful times in which we live,” says Kenney, author of Thriving in the Crosscurrent: Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change (Quest Books, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-8356087-6-3, $16.95, www.seachanges.net). “We’re in the middle of a 21st century Renaissance—and yet we are often so preoccupied with simply ‘coping’ that we can’t see the dramatic, positive changes that are unfolding all around us.”

Admittedly, there’s no shortage of bad—even terrible—news. But according to Kenney, much of it is just an expression of the turbulence created by the clash between the declining wave of “older values” and the ascending wave of “new values.”

“We’re at a period of crossing right now, and by necessity it’s a time of great chaos,” he explains. “That’s what happens when identities are questioned and existing power structures are threatened. From the turbulence, disruptive ‘eddies’ of resistance will emerge...but no eddy ever reversed the flow of a new stream.”

Many people focus on the seemingly intractable problems that seem to confront us at every turn and reject this optimistic viewpoint out of hand. Kenney calls them “naysayers.” On the other hand, there are also plenty of “yeasayers”: activists, spiritual seekers, and change agents who embrace the notion that we’re living in a time of major cultural advance.

“All around us there are signs that we’re living in an age of accelerated cultural growth,” says Kenney. “To become a yeasayer, you just need to look with eyes of clarity and hope.”

Here, he identifies a few of the major signposts:

1. We’re experiencing unprece-dented levels of public outrage and grief over the oil spill.

Have you noticed how angry everyone is over the callousness, incompetence, and lack of oversight that led to the Gulf catastrophe? Further, have you noticed the collective dismay and concern people are expressing for the ecological destruction and the social and economic dispossession that the spill has caused? Yes, these are normal, healthy responses to a tragedy—but according to Kenney, had the spill happened 50 years ago, it’s likely that the public would have been far more apathetic.

“We’ve come a long way,” says Kenney. “Despite plenty of evidence of our failing stewardship on the part of governments and corporations, we are reconnecting with the Earth. In fact, 70 percent of Americans think of themselves as environmentalists. Now whether that description really fits most people is debatable, but that’s beside the point. What matters is that we’re thinking about it. And in many cases, our kids are our teachers and our conscience in this arena.

“If you really want to see evidence of the cultural revolution, envision taking up the environmental conversation with your grandparents,” he adds. “Now, imagine striking up the same conversation with your great-grandchildren. You’ll have to agree there’s a night and day difference in the tone and content of these hypothetical conversations.”

2. Our global ambassador is a woman—one who came very close to being elected president of the United States.

When you consider the fact that 100 years ago women didn’t yet have the right to vote, you can appreciate the massive change that Hillary Clinton represents. Clearly, while patriarchy (the “men are superior in every way” attitude) is not gone, it has lost its legitimacy worldwide.

“Name a region of the world where women are not organizing and moving into positions of influence,” challenges Kenney. “You can’t? Well, do you know anyone who’d like to invest in ‘sexism’ futures? My guess is no.”

3. An African-American man sits in the Oval Office.

No, racism is not yet dead, but it’s clearly on its way out. Barack Obama could never have been elected, otherwise. And a glance at any group of young people tells the real story: while people in the older generations have had to struggle to overcome their own racial prejudices, the youth coming of age today never had those prejudices to begin with.

“By the way, social scientists have largely abandoned the term ‘race’ as meaningless, given the extraordinary genetic mixing of the Earth’s peoples,” notes Kenney. “Increasingly, race just isn’t an issue.”

4. Social and economic justice and human rights have become the most significant themes in the modern global conversation.

Whether we focus on ecological disasters, earthquakes, famines, or social violence, the global response is far more powerful than it was just a decade or two ago. In other words, when bad things happen anywhere in the world, we care—and many of us back that caring up with action.

“In 1900, the world’s great thinkers did not acknowledge the existence of ‘universal human rights,’” says Kenney. “Today, the whole world knows that certain things must be done for every human being, while certain other things must never be done to any human being. Again, a mere hundred years later, our values have undergone a massive shift.”

5. War is no longer “inevitable.” Consider the fact that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was preceded by gigantic protests in many of the world’s capitals. The demonstrations dwarfed global reaction to the Vietnam War. Former UN Assistant Secretary General Robert Muller referred to the millions taking to the streets as “a new superpower.” He added, “Never before in the history of the world has there been a global, visible, public, viable, open dialogue and conversation about the very legitimacy of war.”

“Those who ask, ‘Why didn’t the protests succeed?’ just don’t understand the nature of a real social movement,” says Kenney. “They might as well ask, ‘Why didn’t the March on Selma work?’”

“Around the world, diplomats, scholars, and peace activists are sounding the some note: ‘Modern war is obsolete,’” he adds. “It certainly hasn’t disappeared, but it’s losing its legitimacy. The long-cherished notion of the ‘just war’—waged only as a very last resort and not threatening the lives or property of non-combatants—has vanished in the face of extreme modern military killing power. Ironically, the more powerful the war machine becomes, the harder it is to use with precision.”

As Joseph Nye, former dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, puts it: “War remains possible, but it is much less acceptable now than it was a century or even a half century ago.” Nye and others argue that “soft power”—diplomatic, exemplary, persuasive influence—not “hard power” is the key to global peace. U.S. policy in Afghanistan increasingly reflects this shift.

6. Yes, there’s a rise in religious fundamentalism...but it’s a classic “eddy” that hides the huge progress we’re making in the other direction.

In other words, there’s a far more meaningful rise of interreligious dialogue, understanding, and cooperation. Jim Kenney has been involved in that movement for the past 25 years.

“My experiences inform my persuasive argument that the great faith traditions are converging, not in belief but in cooperative common action to fight poverty, hunger, social injustice, violence, and environmental abuse,” he says. “Over the last two decades, a global interreligious movement has taken shape, bringing together groups, communities, activists, leaders, and the faithful to work on building a more just, sustainable, and peaceful world.”

Since 1993, the Parliament of the World’s Religions (which Kenney headed for many years) has convened huge working gatherings—in Chicago, Cape Town, Barcelona, Monterey, and Melbourne—where thousands of people from every imaginable religion come together to design and implement new cooperative projects and initiatives to nurture non-violent conflict resolution, defend human rights, and protect the Earth. Religions for Peace is another global interreligious group that works closely with the United Nations and peacemakers around the world to bring the influence of the great religious traditions to bear in peace-building.

“There are countless others,” adds Kenney. “Hundreds of religious and interreligious activist groups are listed as UN-affiliated non-governmental organizations (NGOs). And the movement grows stronger every day.”

7. We’re globalizing from the bottom up.

Most people are familiar with “top-down” globalization, with its destructive effects on local economies and cultural homogenization. Yet we’re also beginning to witness globalization from the bottom up, notes Kenney. This movement brings activists, experts, and local communities together with intergovernmental agencies (UN, WTO, and so forth) to craft real alternatives to balance the “McDonald’s-ization” of the world.

“All over the developing world, nongovernmental groups, individual activists, and intergovernmental agencies are working to create new options for the poor and a wide range of alternatives to Northern economic and cultural domination,” Kenney writes. “Empowered by Internet-based communications, the new globalization shares resources and problem-solving techniques and creates new partnerships between individuals and groups that can work closely together without frequent and costly face-to-face meetings.”

Clearly, all of this is good news, and there’s more. Much more. And what’s equally clear is that by focusing on this and other good news—by joining the yeasayer camp—you’ll be much happier living in the 21st century Renaissance. Kenney says that’s why he wrote Thriving in the Crosscurrent in the first place—to provide a welcome sense of perspective.

“I wanted to give readers a startling new way of looking at the swirl of everyday happenings and global events,” he says. “People have an innate need to seek the meaning in what seems to be meaningless and the reason behind what is so chaotic and confusing. This book is meant to offer a hopeful explanation for much that seems inexplicable and hopeless.”

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