And if you haven’t read the book, perhaps you’ll be enticed by the Guardian’s George Monbiot, who described it as ‘Brilliant. One of those rare books that forces you to ask what the hell you’re doing with your life.’
After a turbulent 2017 full of Trump’s tantrums and Britain’s shambolic lurch towards Brexit, what might 2018 bring us? In this article written for Wired magazine’s annual publication, The Wired World in 2018, I argue that we may well see the return of the Renaissance city state…
THE RETURN OF THE CITY STATE
The 279 US city mayors who pledged to support the Paris Agreement on climate change in June 2017 are the latest sign of a trend that will crystallise in 2018: the growing prominence and autonomy of cities around the world, on a scale not seen since the age of Renaissance city-states such as Florence or Venice.
An increasing proportion of the world’s population is living in megacities, from the 12-million-population Greater Sao Paulo to the Taiheiyō Belt megalopolis in Japan, which is home to more than 80 million people. The United Nations predicts that by 2030 there will be 41 megacity clusters containing two-thirds of the world’s population.
These cities, which are the economic powerhouses of the countries in which they exist, are becoming political powerhouses too. They’ve been organising into interdependent networks, such as the Global Parliament of Mayors, the C40 global network of cities committed to acting on climate change, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities. These networks have accumulated enough organisational experience and influence to make a significant mark in 2018 in international arenas such as COP24, the UN Climate Change Conference to be held in Poland in December 2018.
We may also see new initiatives of what the international-relations expert Parag Khanna calls “diplomacity”, where cities make independent trade agreements with one another, much like the cities of the Hanseatic League did in northern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The growing autonomy and influence of cities has risen due to several factors. One is the global trend towards devolution. In England and Wales, for instance, there were no directly elected mayors at the start of the millennium. Now there are 23 and their electoral contests are attracting an increasing number of high-profile candidates.
A second trend is that cities are leading tech innovation, such as the smart-bus network to be introduced in the Chinese smart city of Zhuzhou in 2018. They are also at the forefront of energy transitions from fossil fuels to renewables. For example, the Indian government has created a masterplan for establishing 50 solar cities and the state of Chhattisgarh is due to make huge investments in local solar generation in 2018 as part of its Development in Solar Cities Programme.
A final, overarching trend is a growing recognition that nation-states are – compared with cities – unfit for modern challenges. They have failed to deal effectively with issues arising from migration, climate change, wealth inequality and terrorism. This failure partly explains the declining faith in traditional political parties in many countries and in the value of democratic government itself. But it is also behind the rise of cities, which are much more effective at pragmatic problem-solving on issues ranging from flood management to dealing with increasing numbers of refugees.
It’s worth remembering that nation-states are a new historical invention and have only been the dominant form of political organisation for the past two centuries. Cities, in contrast, are the greatest and most enduring social technology ever invented by humankind. That is why cities such as Istanbul have lasted thousands of years, while empires and nations have risen and fallen around them.
It is true that nations will not disappear quickly or completely, but we may remember 2018 as the year of the return of the Renaissance city-state. Get ready for bold initiatives from cities and their mayors in areas such as global warming, while national political parties bicker with each other and intergovernmental conferences remain locked in stalemate. The ancient ideal of the polis is back.
In my new book Carpe Diem Regained, I describe six different ways of thinking about death that can inspire the art of living – ranging from ‘live each day as if it were for the second time’ to ‘live as if you’ve got six months left’.
As a little taster, I’ve just written about them in a new article at YES! Magazine. Embedded in the article (and in this post) you will also find the world’s first Digital Death Dice – featuring each of the six approaches – which you can “roll” online. Think of it as a modern version of Renaissance memento mori, like the skulls people used to keep on their desks as a reminder that death could take them at any moment.
Have a go with the dice, share it with a friend, and get into the habit of taking a daily Death Pause – where you spend a few minutes each day thinking about your mortality.
In other book news:
Forbes Magazine just chose the US edition as one of the “13 Best Books for Summer 2017”. I can’t say that I regularly read this bible of American capitalism, but I was pleased to be on a list with the great sci fi writer China Miéville and his book October, a history of the Russian revolution
Years before embarking on a career writing what might be broadly called ‘popular philosophy’ books, I had another career as a political scientist. I still enjoy flicking through the academic journals in my old field. When doing so recently I came across what ranks as one of the most startling – indeed frightening – graphs I’ve seen in years. It appears in the July 2016 issue of the respected Journal of Democracy.
The graph (see above) shows that around 75% of today’s US citizens who were born in the 1930s believe it is essential to live in a democracy, whereas for those born in the 1980s the figure plummets to around 30%. This generational decline is evident in Europe too, although it’s not quite as steep.
Pretty scary, huh? It looks like democratic values are distinctly out of fashion with millennials.
It fits a trend, of course: the growing disillusion with democracy-as-we-know-it is evident in the rise of anti-system, far-right politicians like Trump and Le Pen, as well as the declining trust in government and traditional political parties.
So what is to be done? How can democracy as a system of government be saved from this impending failure?
One solution can be found – you guessed it – in the ancient philosophy of carpe diem. Most people associate it with an individual philosophy of everyday life. But seizing the day can also happen on a collective scale to bring about social and political change.
I’m delighted to announce the launch today of the US edition of my new book, titled Carpe Diem: Seizing the Day in a Distracted World (a slight change from the UK title, just to confuse you). You can find out all about it and get yourself a copy at Amazon US or an indy alternative like Powell’s.
If you’re not in the US, I’d be hugely grateful if you could share the following link about the book on social media or email it to a couple of friends who live in TrumpLand: http://amzn.to/2h6BYDE
To mark the launch I’ve written an article based on the book at Psychology Today, on what Jean-Paul Sartre and a fire-walking granny can teach us about life.
And if you’ve not quite got the energy to seize the day right here and now, I’ve also launched today a new micro essay derived from the book, 11 Films to Seize Before You Die. Get a dose of carpe diem curled up on the sofa!
If you’ve ever cursed yourself for procrastinating, then you’re in good company. Procrastination is one of the most widespread psychological afflictions of the modern era: it chronically affects 15-20% of adults, 95% of whom wish they could reduce it.
Of course, postponement can sometimes be a wise move – you might defer a decision to buy a house because you’re waiting for the surveyor’s report or to see if house prices might fall in the near future. But this doesn’t count as true procrasination, which can be defined as ‘to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay’. So we might put off doing our tax return, finishing the DIY, or leaving a relationship that isn’t working.
When writing my new book Carpe Diem Regained, on the art of seizing the day, I would regularly delay starting to write in the mornings by having a quick look at my emails and social media feeds – usually losing half an hour or so in the process. I calculated that I spent at least 21,500 minutes not writing the book.
Why delay something if we think it will make us worse off? We may not do our taxes because it’s a time-consuming drag. But when it comes to the big decisions in life, the most common reasons for putting things off are fear of failure and lack of self-confidence.
So here’s the big question:
IS THERE A CURE FOR PROCRASTINATION?
And here’s the answer: No, and maybe Yes.
With respect to No, twin studies show that around 22% of procrastination is genetically determined. So there’s not much you can do about that.
But here’s the good news. When it comes to the other 78%, a cure might be at hand. You can find out what it is – with a little help from Ralph Waldo Emerson – in my new 3 minute ‘click essay’, which is launched today: Procrastination and Its Cures.
‘Life loves the liver of it.’ That was the mantra of the extraordinary Maya Angelou, who died three years ago, aged 86. Although best known as a great poet and writer, few people realise that another of her talents was a capacity for radical living.
She not only pursued a huge range of careers (from tram attendant to brothel manager) – she was also constantly moving to new cities and countries, throwing herself into politics and love affairs, and drinking plenty of whisky along the way.
So what was her secret? How did she overcome the fear of taking risks and lack of self-confidence that hold so many of us back from living with such energy and abandon? And how did her life show that carpe diem living is full of potential dangers and dilemmas too?
‘Life is short. Have an affair.’ This is the carpe diem tagline of Ashley Madison, the world’s most famous website for arranging an extra-marital fling. ‘Thousands of cheating wives and cheating husbands sign up every day looking for an affair,’ the Canadian-based site boasts, claiming that it has over 40 million users in more than fifty countries, who it matches together for ‘discreet encounters’.
In July 2015, however, the company’s promise to guarantee absolute secrecy received the ultimate blow: its data was hacked and posted online. Suddenly anyone could check whether their spouse had signed up and search their personal profile for their wish-list of kinky turn-ons. The fallout has included a flood of divorces, alleged suicides, shaming of public figures and an epidemic of distrust, with suspicious partners starting to covertly check the emails and texts of their significant other for evidence of an Ashley Madison liaison.
Ashley Madison’s membership figures have been shown to be exaggerated, but there is clearly an enormous appetite for having a fling: nearly 60% of men and over 45% of women have an affair at some point during their marriage. Yet the set-up promoted by Ashley Madison and other similar companies is widely seen as immoral, irresponsible and indulgent. It’s hedonism taken to the extreme – pleasure for pleasure’s sake, regardless of the consequences – and contributes to the generally bad reputation of hedonism, whether it’s extra-marital sex, binge drinking, taking drugs or gluttonous overeating. In many people’s minds, hedonism is about sin, selfishness and deceit, anti-social excess, debauchery and addiction. The dominant image is that hedonism harms – sometimes ourselves, and often others.
In the nineteenth century, the historian Thomas Carlyle condemned the philosophical ideal of utilitarian hedonism – maximising pleasure as the chief purpose of life – as a ‘doctrine worthy only of swine’. The self-help industry today takes a similar position. Pick up a typical book on happiness or wellbeing and I can almost guarantee it will not suggest downing a couple of tequila slammers, devouring a large slice of chocolate cake, having an affair or smoking a joint under the stars. Instead you are likely to be offered a healthy diet of positive thinking exercises, advice on breathing techniques to hone your meditation skills, and top tips on time management to destress your life.
This kind of guidance reflects a growing puritanical streak in the modern happiness movement, which focuses on promoting moderation and self-control while leaving hedonism off the agenda. It is usually only discussed in pejorative remarks about what psychologists call the ‘hedonic treadmill’ – the idea that we get caught in cycles of seeking material pleasures, such as buying a fancy sports car or taking a luxury Caribbean cruise, which only give a temporary boost to our wellbeing and leave us hungry for more.
It is time to challenge this new puritanism and recognise that hedonism is a source of unexpected virtues. I’m not in favour of having secret affairs, buying a Lamborghini or becoming a strung-out coke addict. Rather, we need to appreciate that hedonism has long been central to human culture, personal expression and passionate living, and it is essential that we find a place for it in modern life.
How can we develop a more positive attitude towards hedonism? Easy: by getting immersed in one of the great carpe diem poems of the nineteenth century. To find out what it is, seize the moment and have a quick read of my new ‘click essay’, The Hidden Virtues of Hedonism, based on my book Carpe Diem Regained. I hope you enjoy the pleasures of it.
I’ve been a fan of mindfulness for years, and have done a good deal of sitting in Buddhist meditation classes and also tried some of the new secular mindfulness courses too. As with many people, mindfulness has helped me when I’m stressed, been a source of spiritual solace, and acted as a ballast in my life. It’s offered me the gift of present moment awareness, rescuing me from the modern curse of digital distraction.
But when I began looking into it more deeply when researching my new book Carpe Diem Regained: The Vanishing Art of Seizing the Day, I started having creeping doubts about it. One of the most confronting moments was when I asked renowned Buddhist thinker Matthieu Ricard (best known, to his playful annoyance, as the happiest man in the world) what he thought about the modern secular versions of mindfulness, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. His response surprised me. This is what he said:
There are a lot of people speaking about mindfulness, but the risk is that it’s taken too literally – to just ‘be mindful’. Well, you could have a very mindful sniper and a mindful psychopath. It’s true! A sniper needs to be so focused, never distracted, very calm, always bringing back his attention to the present moment. And non-judgemental – just kill people and no judgement. That could happen!
Ricard was only half-joking, because he knows that secular mindfulness courses have become popular in military training and amongst Wall Street bankers, who hope it will keep them calm and give them the edge when the financial stakes are high. He then told me about a study at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig showing that taking a mindfulness course can help you deal with stress but has no discernible impact on pro-social behaviour.
It was shocking to hear, especially from a guy who has spent four decades doing mindfulness meditation in the foothills of the Himalayas. For Ricard, the Buddhist approach to mindfulness – unlike its secular counterpart – doesn’t have this problem of being ‘mindfulness without morals’, as it emphasises concepts such as compassion, caring, empathy and altruism.
So if you happen to be someone who has benefited from mindfulness, and made it part of your life, I think it’s worth challenging yourself and exploring some of its somewhat darker sides.
I do so in detail in my new book, dedicating a whole chapter to mindfulness as a form of ‘seizing the day’ and living in the moment – and subjecting it to scrutiny. To give you a taster, have a look at this free, shareable, ‘click essay’ extract from the book, which you can read in just 3 minutes: Beware the Mindful Sniper.
One of the great tragedies of modern culture is death denial. The advertising industry tells us that we are forever young. Death is a topic as taboo as sex was in the Victorian era.
Yet engaging with death is one of the best ways we know to seize the day: it helps us recognise that life is short and the clock is ticking. If you’ve got 3 minutes up your sleeve, have a read of my new ‘click essay’ Dancing With Death, where I explore the issue.