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Thoughts on the 2017 general theme: “Conflict and Cooperation”

By Philippe Narval, Managing Director of the European Forum Alpbach

We had made such a cosy home for ourselves in the market society that promised us, over the decades, that each generation would be materially better off than its predecessor. Now we’re starting to feel that this story has come to an end, just as the Holocene era, which lasted for over 12,000 years, is also coming to an end. The end of this geological epoch, which for so long granted our planet the most stable ecological and climatological conditions in its history, has passed without ceremony. Scientists from the International Commission on Stratigraphy1 have decided that there is enough evidence to proclaim a new epoch under the name Anthropocene.

This is the timeframe during which the human species is the defining factor in the ecosystem. All that’s left for the scientists to decide is which markers in the planet’s sedimentary layers best represent the Anthropocene’s beginning. According to the leader of the working group, Prof. Jan Zalasiewicz2, there is no shortage of candidates for the role: they range from the radioactive sediments left by the atomic tests of the 1950s to the massive deposits of chicken bones – the quintessential sign of mass animal husbandry – in our planet’s waste heaps. In any case, the date will lie somewhere in the 1950s and 60s, the decades of the baby boomers, the official start of our planetary omnipotence.

A Planetary Stewardship

What would a society that offers honour and dignity to creation look like? How would it respect our planetary limits? How can we change our culture to one of planetary stewardship, when the conflict against natural forces and scarcity, to which humanity was subject for millennia, seems so deeply anchored in our unconscious? One answer comes from no less than the supreme head of the Catholic Church in his encyclical Laudato si’. It may be ironic that the representative of an institution that for so long fought against the Enlightenment and science is now taking a stand for the environment and climate protection3. But this doesn’t make his questions any less relevant.

All over Europe people, organisations and companies have already shifted from the single-minded quest for profit and are setting themselves more sustainable goals. What would it take to promote these forms without placing the values of an open society at risk? Could Europe maintain its place on the global stage if it decided to restructure its economic system? How can we create an energy transition, not designed on the drawing board but invented by citizens? What other forms of growth would be possible if we left behind the obsession with ever-increasing quantity? What would we have to sacrifice, and what could we gain?

New Battle Lines

Only a few allow themselves such thoughts in times like these, while the battle lines are being drawn: between generations, between nation-states and between people living in successful technology centres and those in the periphery. In times of uncertainty, we like to rely on familiar institutions and patterns of behaviour. This puts a supranational institution like the European Union under pressure. Nonetheless, the EU remains probably the most successful exemplar of cooperation and conflict resolution and prevention. Its great achievement is to have created institutions in which we “act together”.  The currency and fiscal union makes an economic union urgently necessary, but there is no consensus on this. The EU’s security strategy is an impressively verbose document but in reality we present no united face to the outside world. The expansion strategy has been frozen, and we’ve been dithering over terms such as “social union” or “defence union” for years. And no-one can really imagine acting in solidarity beyond the frontiers of their own country.

A minority of pioneers are now calling for a European Republic and the dissolution of nation-states. Whether we have a republic or not, the essential demand is, at long last, to implement the subsidiarity principle consistently. The disillusioned, however, seek only a reduction of the Union’s responsibility to the Single Market and shared external border protection, and are willing to sacrifice freedom of movement within Europe. But who can fall in love with Frontex or the Single Market?

The refugees in Europe have shown us with particular clarity where the fracture lines in this Union run. They also challenge us to ask who we are, anyway, and what values we’re supposed to be defending. What does it mean to be a European, what do we expect from new arrivals, what do we actually stand for? Refugees, along with the rest of us, require answers to these questions.

As European-minded citizens we should, however, also ask ourselves what we’re prepared to argue and stand up for, abilities we’ve lost. How pleasant it is to be passively tolerant! But without conflicts and argument, held in a civilised spirit, we won’t get by. We won’t be capable of negotiating a shared life with our new neighbours and we won’t be able to defend Europe against the domestic enemies in our democracy. The fact that virtual networks, with their algorithmic logic, further encourage our tendency to partition ourselves, is fatal in times like ours. “When the medium changes, society changes too”, said the German philosopher and cultural historian Walter Benjamin. We’re currently experiencing the brutal reality behind this simple claim. And by the way, in 2017 we’re celebrating the 500th anniversary of Luther posting his Theses in Wittenberg, only 65 years after the introduction of printing to Europe by another German in 1542. This innovation initially enabled many to make enormous financial gains.

We know instinctively that the future will be different from anything we can imagine, but we still can’t help wondering about it, because societies are only as strong as their most powerful dreams. But what are Europeans dreaming of in times like this when the fantasy of ever-increasing prosperity has come to an end? Dreaming only seems to come easily to those who want to destroy united Europe, the self-appointed saviours of the West and, perhaps, a few technology zealots. Their dystopias vary between a return to some supposed indigenous isolation, which in fact never existed, and a future in which intelligent machines render mere humans obsolete.

What have we still to offer when the apparent task at hand is to create future visions of a “reductive modernism”? Do digital tools enable us to design new forms of cooperation and new value-creation chains in a decentralised and non-hierarchical way? Or are there no alternatives to the platforms that are currently attaining pre-eminence as “category leads” in all sectors, their data extractionism becoming more powerful and further beyond competition with each passing day? The central thesis of Carl Frey and Michael Osborne is that just under 50% of occupations will disappear when the robots move off the factory floor and into other workplaces in the form of self-learning systems. But is there a profit to balance out the loss? That is, new jobs for those countries that choose now to invest in future technologies? The question is whether in future we’ll have to completely redefine work itself within society.

The Juxtaposition of Conflict and Cooperation

The juxtaposition of conflict and cooperation doesn’t mean that this is a simple opposition – one bad, the other good. Transnational networks such as the mafia or cartels only function in the economy because they’re based on successful cooperation. At the same time, there’s an important strand within organisational studies that argues that we need conflicts to drive change processes and as fertile ground for innovation. A society no longer able to conduct arguments in a civilised and open way atrophies and slides into totalitarianism.  The question remains, nonetheless, of how large, violent conflicts arise and end. What narratives fuel them and what instruments can we use in the 21st century to prevent them? What conflict-resolution tools can we deploy? World peace through global cooperation – still a noble aim? Who still speaks of such things today? Who dares to dream so big?

The evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak has proved that systems based on cooperation are more resilient in the long term. Humanity has always developed in the zone of tension between conflict and cooperation. It reached the first peaks of civilisation through a unique form of cooperation with nature and animal life in the transition to sedentarism and later through collectivity in the foundation of cities. We will only solve the challenges of the future on this planet together and in partnership, that much is sure. But do we even know which structures are suited for this; which post-nation-state models are needed at a global level, which at a local level? How and where can we learn to cooperate in a complex environment? How can we bring back trust between citizens and democratic institutions in this age of scepticism? The idea of democracy as the highest school of cooperation is a worn-out one, but what would happen if we rediscovered it? We convinced democrats must be ready to argue for democracy. If we don’t, who will?

1 For details of the working group, see
2 The Guardian, “The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age”, 29 Aug. 2016
3 See “Enciclica Laudato Si