We are living in a second age of discovery -- a second Renaissance. That's not a fact; it's a frame. And looking through it, many of today's shocks make a lot more sense. That's because the big, defining circumstances of the first Renaissance parallel ours today: new maps; new media; a leap in health, wealth and education, alongside rising inequality; a flourishing of genius and of globalization's unintended risks. We can look at the surprising ways in which Renaissance Europe transformed under stresses analogous to our own and stretch our own thinking about how events might unfold for us, too.
Seen through this frame, the result of Britain's Brexit referendum was predictable -- and predicted. The climate of declining trust within the EU is akin to the climate which led up to Martin Luther's Reformation. That event split Europe into Protestant and Catholic halves, 500 years ago. The Renaissance also helps us to imagine possible outcomes to the South China Sea dispute (during the first age of discovery, treaties that sought to carve up the world's precious resources rarely outlasted the maps upon which they had been based). It leads us to anticipate the consequences of a possible -- but for many, still unimaginable -- Trump presidency. (Until now, Trump's campaign has mirrored the improbable rise of another political outsider, Girolamo Savonarola, the populist friar who ignited the Bonfire of the Vanities in the 1490s.) And it helps us to make better sense of political extremism more broadly. Social tensions blossomed 500 years ago, in lock-step with the unintended consequences of globalization (such as the death of most Native Americans from European diseases).
But far more important than event-specific insights, this Renaissance frame brings into focus the principles by which we can best weather the broad shocks that are yet to come.
#DontTakeQuo (for an answer)
The political status quo enjoys a certain inertia. It's hard to make big changes to the way things already are, and so big things tend not to change. This belief is widely held, and it leads many of us to discount certain possibilities (in the UK, of Brexit; in the U.S., of a Trump presidency), to the point where we may not even prepare for them at all.
But in a Renaissance moment, a better belief is that this inertia has already been broken. So much that we once took for granted is now in flux that even the basic social bargains holding us all together are disintegrating. When it comes to our political institutions and socio-economic policies, we now face a stark choice: "renew it or lose it". In Florence five hundred years ago, Savonarola discovered that a fire from below, once lit, burns upwards. (The political establishment of his day, the Medici, figured that out only after the friar had torn control of their city from them.) In our own time, that fire has already been ignited -- by Donald Trump, by Bernie Sanders, by Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. You don't need to be a Sanders loyalist to feel its burn. Pick up a spade to direct the blaze, according to your politics. But don't hold onto the status quo; it's already history.
One big difference, surely, between Renaissance society 500 years ago and our world today is that we are far more scientific now, in our thoughts and habits. After the Polish astronomer Copernicus published his theory of a sun-centered universe, it took Renaissance Europe over a century to embrace that revolutionary notion. Today we are far more ready to adapt our beliefs and behaviours to the truths revealed by science.
But we have further to go than we think. Climate change: that's our Copernican revolution. And it asks us to change so profoundly our thinking about the relationship between heaven and earth -- about how happens up there depends on what we do down here -- that despite decades of accumulating evidence, individually and collectively we still have a hard time adapting our habits. We need to welcome deeper into our lives the evidence that science is revealing to us. Ultimately, reality is hard to reject. Healthy societies are those that adapt to, rather than defy it.
#FFTB (Fortune Favors the Bold)
When events shock us repeatedly, one instinct is to start playing it safe. But in a Renaissance moment, amidst chaos and uncertainty, "It is better to be impetuous than cautious" (Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532).
That's because the general upheaval around us quickly renders established habits, assumptions and ways of seeing invalid. Stasis -- in a job at risk of automation, or invested in an asset bubble, for example -- becomes downright dangerous. Impetuous choice-making and action, by us and by those around us, can help shatter these expiring patterns and force us into new ones, to keep pace with a rapidly changing world. If we fail to take bold steps amidst uncertainty, then if and when disaster strikes, Machiavelli schooled, people "should not blame Fortune, but rather their own indolence."
It's important to note that Machiavelli aimed this harsh medicine at the princes of Italy -- the governors of his day. Citizens need public help to take personal risks, because risk-taking requires resources, and our individual lives are full of practical resource constraints -- such as advancing age, or inadequate savings, or heavy debt, or the unaffordability of moving to a booming city. The better the safety net, the higher we can climb.
The present is a second Renaissance. How well we live by the principles this moment demands will determine whether we repeat the glories of the first Renaissance, the agonies, or both.
(This post draws on a new book, Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna. Published in North America by St Martin's Press and in the rest of the world by Bloomsbury.