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The unsustainable condition of the human and the humanly impaired natural world constitutes a global emergency, and it calls for global-level cooperation to avert a global-level breakdown. Global-level cooperation is a new requirement in the history of humanity, and it’s not surprising that we are not prepared for it. Our institutions and organizations were designed to protect their own interests in competition with others; the need for them to join together in the shared interest has been limited to territorial aspirations and defense, and to economic gain in selected domains. Preparedness for globally cooperative action that subordinates immediate self-interests to the vital interests of the community is lacking, both in contemporary nation-states and in business enterprises.
Globally coordinated emergency action could produce positive results. The world lacks neither the financial nor the human resources for effective emergency action. Abject forms of poverty could be eliminated, energy- and resource-efficient technologies could be made widely available, water could be recycled and seawater desalinized, and sustainable forms of agriculture could be adopted. We could muster the energies to implement such action, and we have the technologies. Even a modest increment in the effective use of the solar radiation reaching the planet could supply the necessary energies, and the reassignment of but a fraction of the funds currently devoted to destructive purposes could finance the principal projects. The reason for the lack of globally coordinated effective action doesn’t lie in the condition of humanity relative to the condition of the planet, but in the lack of will and preparedness of the people and institutions of the human world to ensure their survival on the planet.
A number of persistent beliefs and assumptions prevent the bulk of humanity from perceiving the current condition of global emergency and acting on it. For example:
It’s still widely held (although now less and less often voiced) that the planetary environment is practically infinite. It’s an inexhaustible source of resources and an inexhaustible sink of wastes. This tacit belief obstructs the recognition that we are vastly overusing the planet’s resources and overloading nature’s regenerative capacities.
Another dominant belief is that matter is passive and inert, and can be engineered to suit our wishes. The belief that with our sophisticated technologies we can manipulate the world around us to respond to our personal, national and economic objectives produces a plethora of unforeseen side effects, such as the destruction of ecological balances and the massive extinction of living species.
It’s also widely held that life is a struggle where only the fittest survive. This arbitrary application to human society of Darwin’s theory of natural selection justifies no-holds-barred competition and creates a growing gap between an ever-shrinking group of economic and political power-elites and the marginalized mainstream of the people.
The still-dominant economic wisdom is that competition is good, for the free market, governed by what Adam Smith called the “invisible hand,” distributes wealth. When one does do well for oneself, one also does well for one’s fellows in the community. Yet the penury of nearly half of the world’s population offers clear testimony that this tenet doesn’t hold in today’s world, where the skewed distribution of power and wealth distorts the operations of the market.
Numerous personal values and beliefs hamper the will to engage in globally cooperative emergency action. The ethos that characterizes the modern world puts the individual on a pedestal, holding him or her to be unique and above nature. In the words of Francis Bacon, the superior status of modern man justifies “wrenching nature’s secrets from her bosom” for his own benefit.
Last but not least, there is a persistent belief that the selfishness and egocentricity that characterizes modern people are unalterable expressions of human nature; they cannot, and therefore will not, change. People have always pursued their own interests and always will, mitigated at the most by the interests of their immediate family, enterprise or ethnic or national community.
Given the persistence of such beliefs, the failure of both nation-states and business enterprises to join together in global projects is by no means surprising.
The silver lining on these ominous clouds is the growing openness of young and sensitive people toward adopting new and more responsible ways of thinking and acting. The “alternative cultures” are growing rapidly, but they have yet to produce the globally coordinated action needed to cope with the global emergency. Bringing them together to form a critical mass that has sufficient economic and political weight to implement the “worldshift” that would transform the structures and operations of society and re-stabilize the cycles and balances of nature is conceivably the most urgent and important project of our time.
To contribute to this epochal task we need to mobilize the will and the vision of people everywhere, especially young people. And by “young,” I mean not only those who were born in the last two decades, but those who conserve a fresh and innovative spirit—the spirit of adventure combined with a sense of responsibility. There are many such people today, and I am addressing the following message to them in their and all our best interest.
You, the young people of the world, are the movers and shakers, the music makers—the most privileged people who ever walked the Earth. For the first time in history, one generation—your generation—holds the key to the greatest challenge our species has faced since it proudly named itself homo sapiens. This is the challenge of change—of profound, timely and conscious change.
Privilege entails responsibility. You have the privilege to meet the challenge of timely and conscious change, but you also have the responsibility that goes with the privilege: the responsibility of taking an active part in promoting this change.
To live up to this responsibility you need to understand the nature of the problem and its possible solution. Why do we, the human family, face the challenge of change? And what can you, your generation, do about meeting the challenge? There is a straightforward answer to both these questions.
We face the challenge of profound and timely change because the world your fathers and forefathers have created is not sustainable. “Unsustainable” means that if the world doesn’t change, it will break down. It cannot keep going as it is.
Take a look around you. Summers are getting hotter, winters milder, storms more violent, the extremes more pronounced, the variations more unpredictable. A little less cold could be a good thing in many climes, except that global warming also means that less rain is falling on productive lands; that forests are dying; that water tables are dropping, and that, because ice is constantly melting into the Arctic and Antarctic oceans, sea levels are rising the world over.
How long before thousands of millions will be pressed below the level of bare subsistence? Before hundreds of millions will be driven from their homelands by hurricanes and floods? Before whole cities and entire islands will be submerged?
The answer to this question is straightforward, as well. You need to take to heart two wise sayings, by two of the wisest people who ever lived on this planet. Albert Einstein said, You can’t solve a problem with the kind of consciousness that gave rise to the problem. And Mahatma Gandhi said, Be the change you want to see in the world.
Take Einstein’s insight first. You need to develop a new consciousness, adopt new thinking. This means not just acquiring more data or more information—mere additions to the current kinds of knowledge. It means new knowledge, a new way of thinking. Some call it a new paradigm.