THE BLOG
05/31/2016 08:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Historic Moment We're in -- Again

Excerpted from Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna. Copyright © by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.

If Michelangelo were reborn today, amidst all the turmoil that marks the present moment, would he flounder, or flourish again?

Every year, millions of people file into the Sistine Chapel to stare up in wonder at Michelangelo Buonarroti's Creation of Adam. Millions more pay homage to Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Through five centuries, we have carefully preserved such Renaissance masterpieces, and cherished them, as objects of beauty and inspiration.

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But they also challenge us.

The artists who crafted these feats of genius 500 years ago did not inhabit some magical age of universal beauty, but rather a tumultuous moment--marked by historic milestones and discoveries, yes, but also wrenching upheaval. Their world was tangling together in a way it had never done before, thanks to Gutenberg's recent invention of the printing press (1450s), Columbus' discovery of the New World (1492) and Vasco da Gama's discovery of a sea route to Asia's riches (1497). And humanity's fortunes were changing, in some ways radically. The Black Death had tapered off, Europe's population was recovering and public health, wealth and education were all rising.

Genius flourished under these conditions, as evidenced by artistic achievements (especially from the 1490s to the 1520s), by Copernicus' revolutionary theories of a sun-centered cosmos (1510s) and by similar advances in a wide range of fields, from biology to engineering to navigation to medicine. Basic, common-sense 'truths' that had stood unquestioned for centuries, even millennia, were eroding away. The earth did not stand still. The sun did not revolve around it. The 'known' world wasn't even half of the whole. The human heart wasn't the soul; it was a pump. In mere decades, printing boosted the production of books from hundreds to millions per year, and these weird facts and new ideas travelled farther, faster than had ever been possible.

But risk flourished, too. Terrifying new diseases spread like wildfire on both sides of the now-connected Atlantic. The Ottoman Turks--backed by a 'new' weapon, gunpowder--conquered the eastern Mediterranean for Islam in a stunning series of land and naval victories that cast a threatening gloom over all of Europe. Martin Luther (1483-1546) leveraged the new power of print to broadcast blistering condemnations of the Catholic Church, igniting religious violence continent-wide. The church, which had endured every challenge to its authority for over a thousand years to become the most important and pervasive authority in European life, split permanently under the strain.

Such was the age in which, on 8 September 1504, in Florence, Italy, Michelangelo unveiled his statue of David in the city's main square. Standing over 5 meters tall, weighing in at over 6 tons of fine Carrara marble, David was an instant monument to the city's wealth and to the sculptor's skill.

David and Goliath was a familiar Old Testament story, about a brave young warrior who, in true underdog fashion, improbably defeated a giant foe in single combat. But with hammer and chisel, Michelangelo fixed into stone a moment that no one had seen before. It must have caused some confusion for those present at the unveiling. David's face and neck were tensed. His brow was furrowed and his eyes focused determinedly upon some distant point. He stood, not triumphant atop the corpse of his enemy (the standard portrayal), but ready, with the implacable resolve of one who knows his next step but not its outcome. And then they saw the artist's meaning clearly: Michelangelo carved David in that fateful moment between decision and action, between realizing what he must do and summoning the courage to do it.

They knew that moment. They were in it.

The past is prologue

We are in it, too.

The present age is a contest: between the good and bad consequences of global entanglement and human development; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risks. Whether we each flourish or flounder, and whether the twenty-first century goes down in the history books as one of humanity's best or worst, depends on what we all do to promote the possibilities and dampen the dangers that this contest brings.

The stakes could not be higher. We each have the perilous fortune to have been born into a historic moment--a decisive moment--when events and choices in our own lifetime will dictate the circumstances of many, many lifetimes to come.

Yes, it is the conceit of each generation to think so, but this time it's true. The long-term facts speak more loudly than our egos ever could. Humanity's shift into cities, begun some 10,000 years ago by our Neolithic ancestors, crossed the half-way mark in our own lifetimes. We are the first generations of the urban epoch. Carbon pollution has pushed atmospheric green-house gases today to concentrations not seen since those Neolithic days; fourteen of the fifteen hottest years in our climate record have all come in the twenty-first century. For the first time ever, the number of poor people in the world has plummeted (by over one billion people since 1990) and the overall population has swelled (by some two billion) at the same time. Scientists alive today outnumber all scientists who ever lived up to 1980, and--in part thanks to them--average life expectancy has risen more in the past fifty years than in the previous 1,000.

In the short term, too, history is being made. The Internet, effectively non-existent twenty years ago, linked one billion people by 2005, two billion people by 2010 and three billion people by 2015. Now, over half of humanity is online. China has erupted from autarky to become the world's biggest exporter and economy. India is close behind. The Berlin Wall is gone, and the clash of economic ideologies that defined the second half of the twentieth century is gone with it. All this feels like old news when set against the headlines since the turn of the new millennium: 9/11; devastating tsunamis and hurricanes; a global financial crisis that struck dumb the world's highest-paid brains; a nuclear meltdown in hyper-safe Japan; suicide bombings in the heart of Paris, City of Love; riots over inequality--and happier events like the explosion of mobile and social media, cracking the human genome, the advent of 3D printing, the breaking of long-standing taboos such as gay marriage, the detection of gravitational waves and the discovery of earth-like planets orbiting nearby stars.

It seems that every day we wake up to a new shock. And shock itself is the most compelling evidence that this age is very different, because it's data that comes from within. Shock is our own personal proof of historic change--a psychic collision of reality and expectations--and it has been the relentless theme of all our lives. It agitates and animates us. It will continue to do so. Right now we don't talk much about geoengineering, organic energy, super-intelligent machines, bioengineered plagues, nano-factories or artificial human chromosomes, but someday soon--surprise!--it may seem that we talk about little else.

We lack--and need--perspective

We don't know where we're headed, and so we let ourselves get pushed around--bullied even--by immediate crises and the anxieties they evoke. We retreat rather than reach out. In an age when we must act, we hesitate instead. Globally, that's the present mood. US citizens, once the world's chief promoters of free trade, are now increasingly against it. Industry around the world is accumulating or distributing record levels of cash, rather than investing it. By late 2015, it was estimated that global corporations held over $15 trillion in cash and cash equivalents--four times as much as a decade earlier. The S&P 500 companies as a group gave almost all their 2014 profits back to shareholders (via dividends and share buybacks), rather than bet on new projects and ideas. Both the political far right (which seeks to reverse society's opening up to gays, immigrants and global responsibilities) and the far left (which seeks to reverse society's opening up to trade and private enterprise) enjoy surging popularity across much of the developed world. In the 1990s, the word 'globalization' was ubiquitous. For many, it implied a global coming together, and it captured grand hopes of a better world for everyone. Today, the term has fallen out of favor (except among politicians, who invoke it as a convenient scape- goat for the problems they can't solve).

What we lack, and so urgently need, is perspective. With it, we can see the contest that defines our lifetime and better assert our own will upon the wider forces shaping the world. When the shocks hit, we can step back from their immediacy and place them in a broader context, in which we have more leverage over their meaning (and our response). Civic and political leaders need perspective to craft a compelling vision that connects the big drivers of change with our daily lives. Businesspeople need perspective to cut through the chaos of 24/7 news and information to make capable decisions. Youth need perspective to find answers to their big, burning questions and a pathway for their own passions. Perspective is what enables each of us to transform the sum of our days into an epic journey. And it's what improves our chances of together making the twenty-first century humanity's best.

'Perspective is the guide and the gateway, and without it nothing can be done well.' When he wrote these words, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was counselling artists, but he could easily have been counselling his whole generation. A contemporary of Michelangelo (1475-1564), Leonardo lived in the same moment of fateful contest that his peer had captured in marble. To gain perspective on the present age, we need only step back, look to the past, and realize: We've been here before. The forces that converged in Europe 500 years ago to spark genius and upend social order are present again in our lifetime. Only now they are stronger, and global.

That is the main message of this book. It should fill us with a mix of hope and determination. Hope, because the Renaissance left a legacy that we still celebrate, 500 years on, as one of humanity's brightest. If we want to achieve our own golden age, we can. The conditions are ripe. We can seize this moment and realize a new flourishing that in magnitude, geographic scope and positive consequences for human welfare will far surpass the first Renaissance--or, indeed, any other flourishing in history. Determination, because this new golden age will not simply arrive; we have to achieve it.

And the work will not be easy. In 1517, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), one of the chief philosophers of his age and a founding father of modern political science, wrote:

Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who have been, and ever will be, animated by the same passions. The result is that the same problems always exist in every era.

We've been warned. The first Renaissance was a time of tremendous upheaval that strained society to, and often past, the breaking point. Now, we risk fumbling badly again, as individuals, as society and as a species--and we've had some big stumbles already. It's made many of us cynical and fearful for the future. If we want to attain the greatness for which humanity is once again eligible, we must keep faith in its possibility. We must do all we can to realize it. We must broaden and share more widely the benefits of progress. And we must help one another to cope with the shocks that none of us will see coming.

Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna, is available in North America from St Martin's Press and in the rest of the world from Bloomsbury.