Age of Discovery shines light into the gloom

Published in Financial Mail 23 March 2017

International business and academic leaders have praised Age of Discovery for its readability and vision, its challenge and inspiration. It’s an award winner, no doubt, that will engage readers from cover to cover. By highlighting the unprecedented opportunities that exist if humanity finds a way to weather today’s crises, authors Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna imagine what could very well be the New Renaissance with the intention to inspire hope and determination.

“If we want to achieve our own golden age, we can … The last Renaissance was a time of tremendous upheaval that strained society to, and often past, the breaking point,” says Goldin. “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 realise 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.”

One of the book’s themes is preparedness. By being able to understand structural shifts, you will be less surprised by events that might be seen to be disharmonious. This book was written before Brexit and Donald Trump, both of which Goldin predicted and opposed.

Born and educated in SA, Goldin is professor of globalisation and development at Oxford University. He is now enjoying a sabbatical year and is promoting the SA launch of his 20th book. He was founding director of the Oxford Martin School, vice-president of the World Bank and chief executive of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, among others. He served as an adviser to Nelson Mandela and was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite by the French government. He was also nominated Global Leader of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum.

“The best way not to be surprised is to fight. To be active. To anticipate. To shape the future. Then you get a future that you want,” says Goldin, referencing the centuries-old story of David and Goliath that opens and closes the book. “If you think about and develop a strategy that’s strong enough, you can defeat any foe. Age of Discovery is a book of thought and action.”

What we need to recognise in protest action, whether it is #FeesMustFall or whether it is about Trump, is that there is a deep-seated anger at how the world is evolving.

“The protests are signs of a democratic society, and though they’re ill-formed and need leadership, and there’s no plan, just protest, I’d much rather people were protesting than that the system stumbles on. That is dangerous. It’s not sustainable,” he says.

“The question is: do we hear the challenge and respond to it or do we dismiss it? If we hear the challenge and respond and reform and do things more urgently … create a different society in SA, gain more access, or in the US allow people who have been left behind to feel that globalisation is for them as well, then it would have been worthwhile,” says Goldin. “If it leads to mutual acrimony, and increasingly ill-gotten protests and defensiveness on the part of the leadership or the elite in SA or the US or elsewhere, it’s a wasted opportunity.”

Age-of-DiscoveryAnother key message of the book is that you’ve got to pay your tax, because governments are going to have to spend more money on making sure we have more inclusive societies, housing, education, health, infrastructure, transport.

“That money’s got to come from tax. And that means those who are benefiting, not least the big companies, cannot locate in the Cayman Islands or Liechtenstein or Luxembourg or Monaco. They have got to locate on shore,” says Goldin.

“The moral responsibility of wealthy individuals and big companies is absolutely central to this story, of how you deal with the future. Also, governments need to support the arts.”

There are two reasons that art features in Age of Discovery, he explains. One is that it was central to the Renaissance — how it symbolised the change in the way people understood the world and each other — but also in a more fundamental sense because we’ve become too obsessed with markets and prices and have lost value and ethics and perspective on what it is to be human.

“What all creative arts symbolise is that which cannot be priced … our sense of wellbeing is given perspective by art of all forms because there’s something that touches us in it.

“That was fundamental to the Renaissance and I believe that’s fundamental now. Unless we are able to understand that humanity is not just about buy and sell and what we can value in monetary terms, that there’s something else about what it is to be human and to interact with other people and their creativity, our societies are not going to have the perspectives required to be sustainable.

“The signalling by government that people have multiple dimensions and that we have to nurture all of them is important, but that cannot happen unless society believes in it and is prepared to contribute.

“It’s a business as well as a government perspective.”