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Would Human Beings Survive Another Century?

'My experience says poverty is not created by the poor people; but created by the system around us.'

We must redesign our unsustainable economic system and create a new civilization based on empathy, sharing and caring.

Nuclear weapons have been around for many years but this has become an issue of enormous concern because of the kind of political sound bites that the world has been hearing in recent times. Some national leaders have been taunting each other about their nuclear capabilities in a language which sounds like two kids fighting over the quality of their toys. They seem oblivious about the potential death of millions of people if these toys are activated. Dark clouds are gathering around us each day with the reversal in the political direction in important countries, making the world increasingly nervous.

Bad experiences that we had gone through over hundreds of years helped us generate enough sanity to create institutions that help us bring nations together and overcome mutual fears. Organizations such as the European Union were conceptualized and put into practice, overcoming centuries of animosity, violence, and killings. Then a sudden reversal took everybody by surprise when Brexit happened. It was a rude shock to see one nation decide to break away from the journey of all nations getting closer to each other. This tendency is not limited to one area of the world; it is spreading. We see the same isolationism emerging out of other elections. It comes in the form of building physical and legal walls to isolate a country from the rest of the world. This is a very negative political direction in contrast to the earlier collective dream of building a global village.

This has immediate implications on weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons. I am not an expert on nuclear weapons and I don’t wish to know how many thousands of nuclear warheads are waiting to be called into action at the push of a button. No matter how many there are, there are certainly more than enough to destroy this world many, many times over. To me this is an extreme form of insanity. What we are dealing with is not a political issue; we are dealing with human insanity of absurd proportions. Some leaders appear to be racing against each other to demonstrate who is more insane than others in their league.

We can easily see how inconsistent we are in our behavior when we talk about achieving sustainable development goals by 2030 in one breath, then aggressively promote nuclear weapons in the next breath. We express our determination to create a wonderful world and simultaneously confirm that we don’t care whether there will be a world left or not; all that we are obsessed with is achieving only one outcome, being the “winner,” whatever it takes.

We work hard to uphold the Paris agreement on global warming and painstakingly design timelines to achieve it before we reach the point of no return. While the world is desperate to protect the planet, some countries generously allocate money for refurbishing and enlarging their nuclear stockpile to destroy everything in seconds.

Some leaders don’t see any inconsistency between these two things. I cannot explain it in any other way but to see it as an extreme form of insanity. Important question before us is to decide whether we want to continue. We have to convince the whole world that human civilization cannot continue with this insanity.

Instead of slowing down, this insanity is growing from two sides. First, from the political side, which is taking a sharp wrong turn and is showing signs of becoming inward-looking. When you become self-centered, you see the rest of the world as a threat. You tend to deal with it with fire power.

The second side is the economic side. Since I have been working with poor people, particularly poor women, many people ask me what I think are the causes of poverty.

My experience says poverty is not created by the poor people; but created by the system around us. Unless we fix the system, poverty is not going to disappear. So the solution to poverty is in fixing the system. There is nothing wrong with poor people; they are as good as anyone else.

I give the analogy of a bonsai tree — if we pick the seed of the tallest tree in the forest and plant it in a flower-pot we will only get a tiny tree out of it; probably not more than 2-3 feet in height. It’s a cute little tree, exactly like the ones in the forest but a tiny replica. Why doesn’t it grow taller than this? The explanation is very simple. There is nothing wrong with the seed, just that it was never given the base that is required for it to grow. Poor people are bonsai people, there is nothing wrong with their seeds; society simply never gives them the space to grow as tall as others. The economic system that we have built causes poverty. If we fix the system there will be no poverty.

I have tried to demonstrate repeatedly how the system went wrong, and what damage the economic system has done to us. For example, it is designed as a process to create a continuous flow of wealth to concentrate at the top, in fewer and fewer hands.

Now we are told that eight people in the world own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the world’s entire population. Four billion people’s wealth is equal to the wealth of 8 people! We are told that this concentration is getting worse every day. Next year we may hear that two or three persons own more wealth than the bottom 50% of population. Concentrated wealth can be visualized as a huge mushroom which keeps on growing, and owned by fewer and fewer people. The stem that hangs from this growing mushroom is getting thinner and thinner. The stem represents the wealth of remaining 99.9% of the population of the world. Should we accept anything which creates such a phenomenon as an economic system or dismiss it as a mockery of an economic system? In reality, we seem to be going along with it. This is another form of insanity. Since we got used to living in an environment of insanity we seem not to notice it. On the one hand, we appear not to see any harm in the extreme monopoly of economic power in the hands of a few persons in half a dozen countries, and at the same time we don’t seem to mind monopoly of power to destroy the whole world in the hands of half a dozen leaders in a half a dozen countries.

The problem of economic insanity began with the wrong interpretation of human beings in economic theory. The capitalist system assumes that human beings are driven by personal interests, in other words, human beings are selfish beings. I find it hard to accept this interpretation. Real human beings are not exclusively selfish beings, as the theory claims. They have a combination of selfishness and selflessness. By interpreting human beings as exclusively selfish beings the theory succeeded in making people believe in it, and behave accordingly. In real life people behave as if they are fitted with glasses with dollar signs to make them see only one thing — money.

But if we interpret human beings as both selfish and selfless within the theoretical framework, the whole capitalist system becomes completely different. It will then have two kinds of businesses —the existing profit-maximizing businesses on the basis of our selfishness, and the another kind of business built on the basis of selflessness—business to solve people’s problems. This I call social business, something that doesn’t exist in business theory today.

In selfless business, the entrepreneur does not have any intention of making any personal profit. Company will make profit, but profit will stay with the company, to expand after the entrepreneur gets his or her investment money back.

In selfish business, you want to make lots of money, but in selfless business you only think about bringing benefits to other people without paying any attention to your personal gain. If we can introduce social business idea to the world, we can have a better and balanced world for all of us.

Another vital area where the capitalist system went wrong is that it assumes human beings are born to be job-seekers; that they must work for somebody else, as if a job is the sole destiny of human beings.

This too is a wrong interpretation of human beings. Human beings are independent entities; every individual is a go-getter, an entrepreneur – that’s what our history shows. It is in our DNA. We should tell our young people that they are born to be entrepreneurs. The least we can do is to tell all young people as they grow up that they have two options in life – they can choose to be job-seekers or choose to be job-creators. They should prepare themselves for whichever option they choose. Today they are not given any such option.

If we accept this interpretation that every human has the capability of becoming entrepreneurs, our whole economic system would change completely. The wealth concentration that we see will slow down, even reverse itself if enough young people become entrepreneurs. They will no longer be mercenaries making other people richer and richer, providing fuel for wealth concentration. Instead they would become wealth owners themselves. They would become creative participants in the economy. With wealth getting more widely distributed, politics will tend to get cleaner. The core of politics has to change in a way that everybody can participate in it effectively.

There is another emerging issue in this context – artificial intelligence. We are being told that soon factories, businesses and offices, will not need workers to run them. Instead, intelligent machines will run them. What would be left for humans to do? We are told that the masses of unemployed human beings that would be generated could have decent lives with the program of universal basic income. We are told that in the next 25 years artificial intelligence will reach a level of intelligence equal to human intelligence. In the following 25 years it is not unlikely that they would have 1000 times more intelligence than human beings. At that point in time human beings will appear to be as intelligent as rats on the scale of human beings and actual rats today. They will out-smart human beings easily. They will decide whether they need human beings on this planet, and in what role, if at all. Even if they find a role for human beings, it is likely not to be a dignified role. Whatever role we may hope to play in that world would definitely not be the role super-smart machines would have in mind. They may quickly realize that human beings are a dispensable nuisance.

We have another bit of insanity attached to this issue. We are so busy in the race to create super-intelligent machines we forgot to create any universal social watchdog to ensure there are strict guidelines to follow while we develop these technologies, such as, that they will bring no harm to people physically, mentally, socially, and economically, and will do no harm to the planet.

I see one common thread behind all this insanity—the basic flaw in our greed-based economic system. To address this once and for all we must redesign our existing unsustainable economic system putting our human values of empathy, sharing, and caring, at the centre of all our economic, political and social activities and create a new civilization based on those values. If we don’t do that, it is not unlikely that we – all of humankind – would disappear within a century.

Professor Muhammad Yunus established the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh in 1983, fueled by the belief that credit is a fundamental human right. His objective was to help poor people escape from poverty by providing loans on terms suitable to them and by teaching them a few sound financial principles so they could help themselves. From Dr. Yunus’ personal loan of small amounts of money to destitute basketweavers in Bangladesh in the mid-70s, the Grameen Bank has advanced to the forefront of a burgeoning world movement toward eradicating poverty through microlending. Replicas of the Grameen Bank model operate in more than 100 countries worldwide.

Born in 1940 in the seaport city of Chittagong, Professor Yunus studied at Dhaka University in Bangladesh, then received a Fulbright scholarship to study economics at Vanderbilt University. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Vanderbilt in 1969 and the following year became an assistant professor of economics at Middle Tennessee State University. Returning to Bangladesh, Yunus headed the economics department at Chittagong University.

From 1993 to 1995, Professor Yunus was a member of the International Advisory Group for the Fourth World Conference on Women, a post to which he was appointed by the UN secretary general. He has served on the Global Commission of Women’s Health, the Advisory Council for Sustainable Economic Development and the UN Expert Group on Women and Finance.

Professor Yunus is the recipient of numerous international awards for his ideas and endeavors, including the Mohamed Shabdeen Award for Science (1993), Sri Lanka; Humanitarian Award (1993), CARE, USA; World Food Prize (1994), World Food Prize Foundation, USA; lndependence Day Award (1987), Bangladesh’s highest award; King Hussein Humanitarian Leadership Award (2000), King Hussien Foundation, Jordan; Volvo Environment Prize (2003), Volvo Environment Prize Foundation, Sweden; Nikkei Asia Prize for Regional Growth (2004), Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan; Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom Award (2006), Roosevelt Institute of The Netherlands; and the Seoul Peace Prize (2006), Seoul Peace Prize Cultural Foundation, Seoul, Korea. He is a member of the board of the United Nations Foundation.

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