To a large extent, societies and cultures are shaped by economics. If there's just barely enough to go around, the culture may be suspicious and develop superstitions about the "evil eye" (the jealousy of neighbors). This makes sense in a non-innovative, zero-sum context, when one family's good fortune means slightly more poverty for everyone else in the village. On the other hand, in wealthy societies, people can be quite generous and inclusive. Or, alternately, newly-rich leaders can use newfound wealth and power vulgarly or even cruelly.
The Industrial Revolution made people more economically valuable. Working in factories, people could make several times as many goods as they could use. The increased economic value of people may have been reflected in the values of the Enlightenment--may even have supported the Enlightenment.
Today, people in industrialized nations are becoming less valuable again. A combination of automation and globalization have reduced the need for factory workers, and made many people turn to "service" jobs that only redistribute wealth rather than producing it. Will Enlightenment values fade? It may depend not only on economics, but on culture.
People from different cultures respond differently to the same incentives. The Aug. 13 Op-Ed section of the New York Times (p. 11) has an essay by David Brooks titled, "The Culture of Nations." Brooks points out that, although no diplomat pays for parking tickets, diplomats from some countries--Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Japan, Israel, and Canada--never get them. Meanwhile, Kuwaiti diplomats picked up an average of 246 tickets apiece between 1997 and 2002. Egypt, Sudan, Mozambique, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Syria were also mentioned as major scofflaws.
The lesson here seems to be that culture matters. It would be nice to design solutions to molecular manufacturing's challenges based only on fundamental economic analysis. The lesson of the parking tickets is that this won't work. Some cultures may deal well with abundance, finding ways to enrich most of their members while continuing to be good global citizens. Others may react badly to the exact same stimuli.
In the second half of the column, Brooks describes the observations of a veteran foreign aid worker, Lawrence E. Harrison. It seems that "cultural change is measured in centuries, not decades."
We don't have centuries; we may not even have decades.