Mt. St. Helens

Facing the Moment

So much has happened over my lifetime that it almost feels like a work of fiction. The sage wisdom of the ages, uttered by the great minds of humanity, holds much more meaning for me now. Unpredictable moments, disappointments and improbable opportunities forced me to grow in uninvited and unintentional ways, and I am deeply grateful for all of it.

When I first started traveling, cultures were noticeably different. The changes technology has brought have been breathtaking. Widespread use of the English language, credit cards, digital devices and satellites that enable virtual communication are now commonplace. I marvel that I can speak into a tiny mobile computer that functions at the speed of light and can even give me weather reports from Mars. We communicate around the world in seconds, like synapses in a global brain. It’s clear that we are becoming a more homogenous society on its way to becoming a planetary one. It is also true that during my time on this planet, the world’s population has more than doubled. The general condition of life has significantly degenerated. The pollution of land, air, water, noise and light is ubiquitous. Humans have become like metastatic cancer, and that bill is coming due. We do, however, have a window of time where we can change what we’ve created and avert a human-caused extinction. If this change is going to happen, it will likely be in your lifetime. As author, historian and futurist, Yuval Noah Harari so eloquently said, “This may not be the fight we want, but it’s the fight we’re in.”

The Curse and the Opportunity

If we accept Einstein’s observation that problems cannot be solved at the level at which they were created, it’s clear that new structures and institutions are needed to solve the problems we’ve created. As we look out at the challenges on our horizon, it’s disquietingly clear that this is our Zeitgeist moment. Rather than succumb to a tailspin, we are called to steel our resolve, cooperate and get our game on.

It’s of paramount importance to remember that in any process of decline, new ideas and beliefs emerge that motivate and instigate the development of a new order to replace what’s no longer functional. Within society, the increasing failures of our dominant paradigms, particularly those that directly and negatively impact the environment, are causing significant stresses, and increasing numbers of people are becoming motivated to restore equilibrium. Out of this process come the ideas and actions necessary for transformation. The new ideas will, of course, be at odds with other beliefs that seek to impose different ideologies. As Rob Lebow said in The Heroic Environment:

"New ideas stir from every corner. They show up disguised innocently as interruptions, contradictions and embarrassing dilemmas. Beware of total strangers and friends alike who shower you with comfortable sameness, and remain open to those who make you uneasy, for they are the true messengers of the future."

I maintain that this struggle reflects the need to replace the national, or tribal, spirit with the world spirit of emerging times. How we resolve these differences will ultimately define us and our future. We can only do this effectively if we face the facts—not just statistical facts, but real facts about the nature of humans.

Making life-changing policies is difficult for most people who tend to postpone hard choices, blame others or be willing to accept simple answers even if it requires altering their mental reality. An excellent example of this lies in the peril of ignoring the consequences of climate change. Another is regarding certain people as being inferior because of skin color, gender or sexual orientation. The amoral among us exploit these characteristics to selfish advantage and will continue to do so as long as they can. Yet considering these challenges—and perhaps despite them—this is a time of great opportunity, a potentially epic turning point. The medium-term may look bleak, but long-term solutions are at hand. Humanity has faced hard choices before, and we can do so again. My experiences of danger have taught me that projecting yourself through calamity is the key to surviving it. Taking your hands off the wheel in panic or despair is not an effective option.

For the sake of discussion, I’ve categorized seven global problems that I believe cannot be dealt with effectively the way we currently operate at the national and international level. By their nature, they transcend national sovereignty and necessitate solutions through global cooperation. I offer suggestions on what I think needs to happen to bring about this global transformation. My goal here is to open the discussion, to inspire you to think outside the box and engage your creative mind. We can draw our motivation from the idea that a better society will be the outcome. Some reforms will be easy to implement, and others not so much. All will require universal compliance. I believe most of the issues can be resolved with existing technology or reasonable improvements on what currently exists. With a little research, you can find many things already being done as there are many who are enthusiastically creating, experimenting with, and embracing new ideas I’m confident that once there is a universal commitment, newer technologies will develop to help solve these problems, and our social order will shift accordingly.

The current worldwide pandemic has put the status quo on alert as to how fragile, insufficient and intertwined our systems are. What we are experiencing in relation to the physical, financial and socio-economic impact of COVID-19 can be seen as a preview for the turmoil coming with climate change since the same interruption potential is inherent in both. Each arrives uncontrollably; each is savagely erratic and multiplies the risk for system failures on a variety of fronts. To deal with one as a rehearsal for the other is wise because it requires fundamental shifts in how we manage supply chains, healthcare and financial systems, response to universal threats, resiliency and the costs of failure to meet or prevent these inevitable challenges.

Both pandemic and climate change hazards will require global coordination and cooperation. What happens in the United States is critical because of its size and power. It is key to what happens in the rest of the world. The role of government in this is risk-prevention and coordination to ensure resiliency. Although nationalism has led to needless wars, military, political and environmental refugees (all of which have contributed to instability), governments are critical to building a better world. As we move through the pandemic, we all, especially our leaders, should be looking for the lessons it is teaching us regarding climate change, climate action and future climate-based events. We cannot afford helter-skelter reactions, politicization or weaponization of these event responses. Governments should be asking what steps need to be taken at every level of society to safeguard and prioritize the conditions of sustainability, and how to avoid the chaos that results when nations can no longer meet their needs. The unstable nature of chaos erodes civility in ways most of us cannot even imagine. It is the proverbial Pandora’s Box, and efforts to contain it almost always involve brutality. It is far wiser to avoid or manage it than to restrain it once it is underway. Past wars and revolutions show us that just as chaos is born out of disintegrating order, so the seeds of order lie within chaos. It is becoming increasingly evident, for example, that as an unintended consequence of this novel coronavirus, we have been handed the opportunity to assess, evaluate and change. There is a distinct possibility of successfully moving in new directions based on the understanding that we are a living, interdependent network and, that as planetary stewards, global cooperation is imperative. As the only technology-driven species on this planet, we can create structures that allow us to function within an ever-evolving capacity for change. In whatever ways we do it, the fact is that it’s on us to own this and to make it better.