With Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development and Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, Author of The Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance
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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…”, so begins A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens novel set in London and Paris in the context of life before and during the French Revolution. Some might apply these lines to the sentiments of many in today’s world of rapid change and global discontent. Ian Goldin offers a different view, an optimistic view, in his new book, The Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance.
As Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, past Vice-President of the World Bank from 2003 to 2006, and advisor to President Nelson Mandela, among other distinguished positions, Ian Goldin speaks with historical perspective and international acumen when he states that, on the contrary, these are the best of times. We’re living longer, healthier lives than ever before; our average incomes are higher; our access to many choices and freedoms is higher; and yet, he acknowledges, there’s a general mood of pessimism in many places.
Goldin refers to the present as a New Renaissance and to explain the general discontent taking place in spite of such optimistic and exciting elements in our society, he highlights several factors.
The world has been fundamentally transformed in the last 26 years, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rate of acceleration has upset our equilibrium. “When change happens more rapidly,” he says, “people get left behind more rapidly because if you aren’t able to change, if you aren’t able to change jobs… or go to where the jobs are, or you don’t like the changes, you get left out of change more rapidly. Inequality is growing in many countries between people that are able to benefit and those that aren’t able, and the sources of uncertainty and complexity are growing, as well.” A recent example is the reaction of a block of disenfranchised people voting for Brexit, Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
Goldin points out a distinct parallel between the present time and the European Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries, which was most certainly a period of tremendous disruption. The world rose up out of the Dark Ages with an explosion of great artistic, humanistic, and scientific achievements. Great men doing great things filled with imagination: Michelangelo and da Vinci, Copernicus, Galileo, Gutenberg, Columbus, Magellan, and so many more. Not only did people have exposure to great works of art, but the printing press allowed the dissemination of information and knowledge, and the world, which had been a rather small place, suddenly expanded geographically.
But then what followed was a backlash, a pushback from extremists and reactionaries: Savonarola and the Bonfire of the Vanities, Luther attacking the corruption of the Catholic Church, The Catholic Church instituting the Inquisition, heretics, homosexuals, Jews, Muslims were hounded, and no one felt safe. Ultimately, Europe was pulled back to the mental dark ages.
The lesson from those events, says Goldin, “is how these periods of tumultuous change can lead very, very quickly and very surprisingly to these rapid reversals. In such times, there are always those whose lives actually don’t improve, who feel left behind and discontented and resentful. In a capitalist society, inequality will always exist, but when the degree of inequality is so extreme that it becomes unacceptable, it tears apart the concept of “unity as a society”. Goldin argues that we have a social responsibility “to ensure that these people don’t stop the changes because they’re made to feel worse off by them. Inequality, I think, is acceptable, but it’s a question of fairness.”
“It’s important to remember,” he goes on, “that with extraordinary opportunities come extraordinary new risks, so managing interdependency, what does that mean? It means managing the threat posed by terrorism or the threat posed by cyber attacks or climate change…” The internet and social media are perfect examples of the benefits and dangers inherent within any sweeping cultural change.
In The Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, Goldin writes with the voice of optimism and calls our present time the New Renaissance, the best of times, and the most exciting moment in history to be alive.
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Steve Pomeranz: Ian Goldin is a professor and the Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. He was Vice-President of the World Bank from 2003 to 2006 and formally he was Chief Executive and Director of the Development Bank of Southern Africa and served as an advisor to President Nelson Mandela. His book, The Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, catalogs the unprecedented rate of change we’re all feeling and looks back to other times in the world’s history for understanding and guidance. Hello, Ian. It’s a pleasure. Welcome to our show.
Ian Goldin: It’s a pleasure to be on your show.
Steve Pomeranz: Ian, we live in a time packed with new possibilities. We’ve never been better equipped to seize them, as well. The problem is that many of us just don’t feel it. There’s so much negativity in the world today and yet you say this is the best time to be alive. Well, it certainly hasn’t been the easiest. Why is it the best?
Ian Goldin: That’s right. It is the best in so many ways, and yet we don’t feel that. It’s the best because all of our chances of living longer, healthier lives are greater than our parents’ and our grandparents’. Our average incomes are higher, our access to many choices and freedoms is higher, and that’s not only true if we live in the USA or in Europe. This is true in many, many countries around the world. The world has transformed just really fundamentally in the last 26 years or so since the Berlin Wall fell. Markets have spread around the world and opportunities have spread. People are leading longer and healthier lives and are better off in more places in a more rapid way than ever has happened in history. Yet we don’t feel this.
Steve Pomeranz: Is it something about the rate of acceleration of these changes in our lives that are upsetting or creating this upsetting feeling within the population?
Ian Goldin: I think it is. The number of things happening. One is when change happens more rapidly, people get left behind more rapidly because if you aren’t able to change, if you aren’t able to change jobs or move home, go to where the jobs are, or you don’t like the changes, you get left out of change more rapidly. Inequality is growing in many countries between people that are able to benefit and those that aren’t able, and the sources of uncertainty and complexity are growing, as well. Our national governments no longer are able to shape and protect our future in the way they used to because the world has become so interdependent.
What’s going to shape the lives of Americans in the future, or British people in the future where I live, are things that are happening on the other side of the planet. Both the opportunities are much greater but the sources of risk have risen with that and the complexity. It’s really very difficult to understand a world of seven billion actors and now five billion are connected to smartphones, five billion literate people with new powers and new possibilities compared to the world we lived in only 40 years ago, when only about half a billion people were connected, and they were mainly in the rich countries.
Steve Pomeranz: Let’s go back to another time in history when there was a period of tremendous change. You write about the Renaissance, and we all know of the great art and ideology that came from that time that has lasted to today, but we forget that that was also a period of tremendous disruption. Can you enlighten us, no pun intended to the Renaissance, can you enlighten us as to what conditions were back then, what the changes were, and then what the opposing forces were, as well?
Ian Goldin: Well, the reason I wrote this book, Age of Discovery, with my co-author Chris Kutama, was because we felt that we now live in a second renaissance, and that the period that’s going to help us gain perspective on these tumultuous times we live in is the period of about 500 years ago. That was a most extraordinary time. It took Europe from being one of the most backward places in the world in the 1450s to being the most advanced place by far within 100 years. Driven by information technology, then the Gutenberg press, which essentially made books and pamphlets, advertisements very cheap and in people’s own languages for the first time. There’s this hunger to learn, to be literate, and ideas traveled very rapidly. You have this explosion of science. Suddenly, scientists discovering that we went around the sun, not the sun around us, Copernicus, and others. You had these extraordinary breakthroughs in arts and perspective, the Michaelangelos, da Vincis, Botticellis and many others that we celebrate 500 years on, and, of course, the voyages of discovery.
From a 1450 belief that Europe was the center of the world that basically fell off to nowhere, very close by, to a round world, Mercator’s projection of the world, only Australia left out by 1550, and, of course, the discovery of the Americas. It was a most extraordinary time, the most rapid time of change—yet, it ended in tears. It ended in the bonfire of the vanities. Extremists taking over and deposing the Medicis in Florence. Well, jihadists we would call them today, in their beliefs. Luther pinning the treatises on his church door, attacking the corruption of the Catholic church, the indulgences that allowed people to buy their way to heaven, and finding these ideas went viral, and he started a new religion. You then had religious wars; you had the inquisition; you had the push back. This period of tumultuous change ended in intolerance and extremism in the hounding out of foreigners, of Muslims, of Jews, of the killing of homosexuals, and all of these different groups who had been coming together and were, indeed, the reason why the Renaissance happened was because of this coming together of people in the Renaissance cities. The discoveries were destroyed and, of course, Europe was set back.
What we can learn from that period is many things about how these periods of tumultuous change can lead very, very quickly and very surprisingly to these rapid reversals. And we feel in the UK, with the Brexit happening last week and UK referendum—very surprisingly for most commentators—British people deciding to pull back, to be more nationalist, to become more protectionist and withdraw from integration. A very similar sort of trend that happened 500 years ago in the Renaissance. People scared of change, people wanting to go backwards in many respects, and we feel, as well, that similar things are happening in the US. Extremism growing on the right and the left of politics, ideas of protectionism, anti-integration, and so we live in this very paradoxical world where we are more interdependent, and our future opportunities and jobs being more connected, as well as in managing the risks of terrorism, climate change, pandemics, cyber attacks, and, yet, we want to be more insular and, of course, want to put the clock back.
Steve Pomeranz: Let’s slow down a bit and get some more context here. I definitely hear your ideas with regard to the parallels between the Renaissance, and yet those powers of change continued despite the setbacks and the extremism, and you say that it came to, but yet European culture, Western culture, marched on. We’re in a period today where I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to stop the rate of scientific discovery, the rate of social interaction through social media like Facebook and others. Yet, we are seeing this push back. What can we do differently now from what we’ve learned from the Renaissance in order to avoid some of this ending in tears?
Ian Goldin: Steve, I think your question’s absolutely the right one. I think one of the things we can learn is to understand why people don’t all embrace change and why some people are so angry and why the social fabric of our society is being torn apart, and why are people rushing to extremist ideas. There are a number of lessons we can learn about that. One is this point about when change happens, a lot of people’s lives actually don’t improve. Many people in the Midwest today are not going to escape poverty or get a job any quicker than their parents because they’re being left behind in this process of rapid change. It’s very important, I think, to focus on things like housing mobility, job mobility, transport, infrastructure, working out how are people going to get to where the new jobs are that are happening much more rapidly than in the past. How are we going to protect people that are being left behind? How are we going to give them education systems to enable them to be more flexible? How are we going to create more flexible economies? You have to be more flexible when change happens more rapidly.
I think we also need to understand that these extraordinary opportunities come with extraordinary new risks, so managing interdependency, what does that mean? It means managing the threat posed by terrorism or the threat posed by cyber attacks or climate change or pandemics becomes a much bigger priority for governments because these things are now more dangerous. The third thing I think we can learn from the Renaissance is the power of individuals—polemicists, people who are able to amplify their voices using new technologies. Then, it was pamphlets, it was the new print form. Now, of course, it’s social media and others. They can put the clock back. We could see a growth in protectionism; we could see legislation against some technological changes; we could see a much more divided and fragmented world, even a new Cold War is being seen as a prospect. I think there are real dangers here, and these dangers emerge when people who are benefiting don’t work hard enough, I think, at bringing everyone along with them and allowing these extremist voices to pick up on the resentment and the anger and talk about the world, which is very different to an integrated world.
Steve Pomeranz: Let’s talk about that for a moment. There is a social contract to a degree when you have levels of society and, in a free society with people able to achieve whatever level they can, there’s going to be certain amounts of inequality. Let’s just speak about income, for example, that’s part of the capitalist system. When the degree of inequality gets to be so extreme, then, in essence, you write there is a social contract that is broken and, in a way, it tears apart this idea of unity as a country, unity as a society. Help us understand that.
Ian Goldin: I think that’s absolutely the case. Inequality, I think, is acceptable, but it’s a question of fairness. When bankers pay themselves big bonuses after leading to a financial collapse which affects our jobs or when CEOs of companies who have no profitability pay themselves big bonuses, or when they park their incomes in offshore tax havens and don’t pay tax or their companies do that, we, I think rightly, feel this is unfair, that they are evading their social responsibilities. We don’t mind if an iconic musician or sports star earns a higher salary because we feel it’s fair. I think accepting that we have understandings of what people can and cannot do and what’s acceptable is very important in this. Then accepting that we all have social responsibility.
We are doing incredibly well because we are able to capture the benefits of a new technology as the people in Silicon Valley are able to do. Or we are able to benefit in other ways from this extraordinarily rapid pace of change. We need to accept that there are some people that are unable to do that. Not because of their own faults, but because they just happened to be born in their wrong town, or they have the wrong skill, or they’re too old, or they’re looking after an elderly parent, or young kid, and they can’t move to towns where the job is. That I think is all about social responsibility, to ensure that these people don’t stop the changes because they’re made to feel worse off by them.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest is Ian Goldin. He’s a professor and Director at the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford. The book is entitled The Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance and it speaks to the unprecedented rate of change we’re all feeling and looks back to other times in the world’s history for understanding and guidance.
You say that in this world, with this distribution of learning and information through social media, that genius is also flourishing, and if genius is widely distributed around the world, as people come into the world through technology, we will benefit from more geniuses having more access to change the world.
Ian Goldin: That’s absolutely the case. One of the reasons why this is such a wonderful time to be in, the best time in human history, and the new Renaissance is because there’s just so much more brain power unleashed in the world. Three billion literate people in the world over the last 30 years. More scientists alive today than all the scientists that ever lived in history; more literate people alive today than all the literate people that lived in history. We get to see this extraordinary explosion of talent and acceleration of innovation. Today is the slowest day your listeners will have for the rest of their lives. The pace of change is accelerating, and it’s going to come from very different places because of where the new brain power is being released. It’s going to come from China and India and many other emerging markets, as well as the US and Europe. We should expect more change; many of these changes will be wonderful. They will improve our health; they will improve our opportunities; they will create all sorts of new things—many of which we have no idea of what they are yet.
With that, as well, of course, comes risk because there’s also bad genius. There’s bad creativity, and what we’re seeing is this growth of the power of individuals to create mayhem, and that’s again one of the tumultuous changes of our time. The ability of individuals that can really create terror and other things. Managing this change and ensuring that individuals feel that they should contribute to society, understanding where the risks are is going to be a bigger responsibility if we’re going to harvest these incredible opportunities of this Renaissance.
Steve Pomeranz: We just have a few seconds left. Pessimism is in vogue. Anger and despair can be infectious, but courage is infectious, too. Tell us how we need to understand how to change our thinking in order to improve upon this situation and not just feel powerless and in despair.
Ian Goldin: Well, I hope that the concept of the new Renaissance is one that will make people feel optimistic because we know the Renaissance was this amazing time that led to leaps forward for many dimensions of humanity. This is the best time to be alive. We should feel incredibly excited about the possibilities, which include eliminating many of the terrible diseases which inflict us today—eliminating poverty in the world and addressing many of the big problems that have challenged humanity for time immemorial. It is the best time and this certainly can be the best century ever. It’s also the time where there’s a contest of ideas like never before. There’s a contest against the risks which are going to threaten these opportunities, so I think the choice is ours, and we need to be more active, more engaged to understand more, and I hope the book helps your listeners in thinking about these choices and themselves taking the actions they need to make this our best century ever.
Steve Pomeranz: The book is the The Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance. My guest, Ian Goldin, Professor and Director of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford and has served as an advisor to President Nelson Mandela. Ian, thank you for spending your time with us today.
Ian Goldin: Steve, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you. All the best to you and your listeners.
Steve Pomeranz: Thank you.