Everyone should be allowed a bit of philosophy, even if nowadays you are supposed to have a corresponding degree. But we are all intimate philosophers. A question of survival. At a certain age, you cannot avoid questioning yourself: what is this all about? Where are we all running to? Win Wenders had this moment of lucidity:

Humanity is craving for meaning.

We have all been sold the idea that we should run. Get ahead of the others. This is the general purpose. But ahead of the others towards what? Crossing a hurried professor in the corridor in my university, I could not refrain from questioning him: “where are we running to?” He smiled, and shrugged, “who the hell knows?” We just run. Run, Man, Run. A film I watched in 1962, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, is still present in me after more than fifty years. The hero of the film decides that getting ahead of everyone is just not his business.

Well, if you run faster, you will leave others behind; if you are ahead, you are a success. You will have a crown of laurels, a mausoleum, or they will build a huge obelisk in your honor on the Place de la Concorde, or in any place you can build a huge monument sticking out, higher than others. In Rio de Janeiro we also have an obelisk in the central part of the city. Who ever remembers in the honor of whom? The important thing is that it sticks out.

A few decades ago, with HIV everywhere, we were battling for an authorization to recommend contraception, over the shocked protests of religious do-gooders. The environment secretary, Carlos Minc, had this wonderful idea: he had the carnival men make a huge condom, and in broad daylight had a rented helicopter place it on the monument, slowly enveloping the glorious erection. No TV could resist it, and the mood changed in Brazil, nobody thought discussing contraception was off limits anymore. How quickly can social mood change!

Frans de Waal, in his keen studies in Our Inner ape, comments on a short notice in an American newspaper, that a woman was arrested for breast-feeding a baby in a supermarket. How can Americans be so shocked at the sight of a breast, asks de Waal, when you can see them in pairs on any beach in Europe? Well, Americans consider owning lethal weapons natural, but the sight of a breast would be a social disruption. It is all about norms, often ridiculous or amusing, but we should rather be concerned with human rights.

Norms can change, social moods can change, even if they seem so rigid and even eternal in our short life span. Slavery was still seen as natural just a few generations ago, as well as colonialism in my father’s times — even in my youth apartheid in South Africa was only yesterday — and in Palestine it is ongoing. We did manage to move ahead on these issues, but we should consider the new challenges, which involve another deep cultural change, a civilized and solidary approach to how we organize our society.

We know all about our global deadly trends, they fit in a paragraph. We are destroying life on this planet, even though we have all the necessary technology to reverse the trend. We are maintaining more than half the world population in poverty and humiliating conditions, even though what we produce worldwide — the equivalent to $3,600 US dollars in goods and services per month, per four-member family — could ensure a dignified life for everyone, with a very moderate reduction of inequality.

The financial resources needed to fix both for the environment and the inequality dramas are running free in speculative investments, even though we know quite well what productive investment should be. We have the money, we have the technology, we have detailed statistics on every drama in every corner of the earth, we even have step-by-step instructions in the 17 sustainable development goals for 2030. Yet we just look and shake our heads. Our problems are not economic, they are a question of social and political organization. It is a question of cultural change. We feel institutionally helpless.

Peter Drucker had a deep understanding of the challenge when he wrote that “there will be no healthy business in a sick society.” We can draw this insight into our daily lives: there will be no thriving life on a sick planet. How long will the homo sapiens we have within us repeat in awe that ‘The Business of Business is Business,’ because it seems so deeply simple? Its author earned Milton Friedman a Nobel in Economics, a Nobel which by the way is not a Nobel Fund prize, but a prize of the Bank of Sweden. The success of the author was essentially due to the fact that he brought academic luster to what the corporations wanted: grabbing anything at whatever cost became legitimate. We have all seen those adult human beings happily jumping up and down and chanting Greed is Good at the closing of the day in Wall Street. We have to build a new normal.

We have been feeding ourselves, and certainly been fed, a cultural simplification: you have to rush ahead like mad to have success. And success is measured in how much money you earn. The money you have is individual wealth, not a wealthy community you could contribute to, or a healthy planet you could restore. I have on my desk the Brazilian edition of Forbes magazine, presenting 206 billionaires we have in the country. The ones chosen for the cover photo are smiling: it is such a success for a billionaire to be on the cover of Forbes.

Having success through wealth accumulation usually meant you earned it. The connotation of ‘earned’ is that you deserved it. In an inspiring book Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly called the modern accumulation of wealth Unjust Deserts. They show that what progress we had had resulted basically from technological progress which itself is a result of social constructions, from electricity to electronics to DNA, modern biology and the internet. Mazzucato brought more muscle to this understanding, in her book The Entrepreneurial State.

Joseph Stiglitz shows that presently this wealth is essentially built on rent generated by speculative activities, debt and monopolistic organization, rather than profit resulting from productive contributions to society. Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard call it ‘extractive capitalism,’ conclusively showing that the extracted wealth is way ahead of the productive progress, generating a net extraction result. Thomas Piketty buried what remained of the appearance of capitalism legitimacy, in his style, under heaps of pages, but also very solid reasoning: productive contribution to society and wealth accumulation have become separate wheels. And separate wheels in the economic vehicle do not work. It is not only illegitimate, it simply is not working. World GDP grows at an average pace of 2% to 2.5% per year, yet financial speculation yields around 7% to 9% in the last decades. Money has obviously been going to where it pays more.

A key to the new trends lies in the understanding of the main transformation of how economic and social progress works. The main productive input, or factor of production as we used to call it, is knowledge and technology incorporated into the production process. Agriculture and land control were the main factor of production centuries ago, then the machine and factory ownership took over, while nowadays the immaterial input, knowledge, has become the driving engine. The great difference is that if a person has an innovative idea, it can be spread around the world with no additional costs.

If you produce a bicycle, producing it for more people involves additional costs. Not the idea. Once you cover the costs of generating it, it is much more productive for society to let it flow, than to multiply patents and generate artificial scarcity. In times of the pandemic, millions die while Big Pharma sits on its prehistorical 20-year patents. Innovation should certainly be rewarded, but in due proportion of inputs, and in respect for the fact that knowledge freely accessible has an enormous multiplying effect. Hoarding access to ideas results in fortunes for the few, while collaboration generates overall progress. Tim Berners-Lee did not patent the World Wide Web, he did not make a fortune individually, but allowed for billions to improve their productivity. We need social and environmental intelligence, not just the capacity to outsmart others.

We can look at it another way. We have a great number of research and studies on human happiness. You might think having money is a good measure: it is not. Or rather, if you are very poor, having a few hundred bucks more adds a lot to your own feeling of happiness. But after you reach a very modest threshold, typically of less than $20 thousand dollars a year, the money factor continues as an illusion, but the feeling of happiness stagnates: social and cultural enrichment, family relationship, a variety of aims and accomplishments tend to take over. Put a million more dollars into the hands of a millionaire — it may raise his obelisk, but not make him happier. Yet the few bucks placed at the bottom of the pyramid generate not only much more happiness, but drastically reduce suffering. The same resources we already have, but better distributed, raises their social productivity. Making a less unequal planet is not only a question of justice, it is also a question of social and economic intelligence.

So, what is this all about? Making a few more and higher obelisks, or generating overall sustainability and well-being? Fighting rivals, breaking competitors down, could eventually make some sense when you compete to produce more and better goods and services for society. In the age of the digital revolution, when collaboration is much more productive than competition, what remains is the obsession with individual success, showing more money, sending yourself to space. “S’envoyer en l’air” the French would call it, with a wiser aim and better results.

The basic lesson is simple: whatever your individual success, if it does not go hand in hand with the success or welfare of society as a whole, as well as with the process of restoring the planet, you are just an opportunist. A successful one, quite possibly, but still an opportunist. The important thing is not to run faster, but to understand where we are going. Not just being smart in terms of the means you use, but intelligent in terms of the systemic outcome.

Obelisks? Well, I do have some creative ideas.