Dark Clouds and the Human Condition: Youth to the Rescue!
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 30 Sep 2019
25 Sep 2019 – My remarks at the opening session of the Maker Majlis Conference, College of Islamic Studies, Hamed Bin Khalif University (HBKU) on 22 Sept 2019. The theme of the three-day conference was on the role of youth in furthering the UN process associated with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs (as further clarified by 169 targets), ambitiously set to be achieved by 2030. The massive Global Climate Strike on 20 September seemed to have similar intentions to conference, that is, how to explain and overcome the absence of political will on the part of the governments of the world, none more lacking in this respect than the U.S. Government, with respect to the ecological agenda of the world, with particular consideration of climate change threats and harms. This civil society challenge from below, transnationally and inspired and organized by youth, offers us all glimmers of hope. As seemed appropriate, I stressed the amazing role of GretaThunberg. The day after I spoke, Greta Thunberg summarized her assault on the criminal passivity of status quo forces of the adult world with a confrontational challenge delivered to assembled dignitaries at the United Nations Headquarters in New York:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and you can do is talk about money and fairy tales of eternal growth. How dare you.”
I feel privileged to participate in this desperately timely event, and at the same time somewhat intimidated by the challenge it presents. My quandary arises because so much has been said about these topics, and yet so little has been done. Words of concern without commensurate action are producing despair and cynicism, and a healthy dose of anger. This Maker Majlis event seems imaginatively conceived and designed to counter such negative feelings, especially among youth. In summary, these is a spreading mood of acute anxiety among youth everywhere that the world is at once burning up and melting away, and that their future is being destroyed while the adult world looks on passively or even looks away. The level of official response is treated by many young activists as a degrading dismissal of their most urgent concerns. It is as if the challenges seen by them as catastrophic threats are being mostly ignored by the older generations, often treated as unwarranted expressions of hysteria and alarmism. It seems that many members of the political class fear that being responsible about carbon emissions would cut into corporate profits and reduce military budgets. Such leaders dismiss urgent calls for global policy reform as politically unacceptable and ecologically unnecessary. They seem to be saying to themselves and to us ‘When and if the time of true urgency arrives, technology will solve whatever problems arise. In the meantime, there is no need to worry about the world your grandchildren will inherit.’
I commend the convenors for their brilliant sense of timing, focusing on the role of youth in relation to the attainment of the 17 UN SDGs just a couple of days after the greatest youth global show of transnational activism in all of human history—the Global Climate Strike on Friday: over 4 million participants, 143 countries, and demonstrations in hundreds of cities. It was a memorable occasion of peaceful and dedicated protest by the young and old alike. Almost unbelievably, it had been almost single handedly stimulated by the remarkable charismatic commitment of a 16 year old girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg. Only a year ago Greta started to stay away from school on Fridays, and instead stood before the Swedish Parliament in Stockholm, vowing to continue this vigil until the legislators heeded her demand and took bold action to reduce the carbon imprint of Sweden. These developments remind us that the future belongs to the young, but to their regret and our despair, the present still belongs to the supposed grownups. It is we who are being challenged as never before to become responsible in our lives and work. We must be persuaded to give up the pursuit of short-term advantages in markets and government, a deadly form of short-termism that involve a refusal to accept some responsibility for the sake of the future. In this regard, I do not share the spirit of resignation expressed by the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, when he responded to Greta Thunberg’s appeal for decisive action by acknowledging that his generation was “not winning the battle against climate change” and hence, “it is up to youth to rescue the planet.” I oppose such an attitude. In my view, it is up to all of us. It is late, but not too late. Despite its dramatic show of concern by way of the Global Climate Strike the youth of the world cannot hope to achieve transformative change on it own. They need us almost as much as we need them. What the young people around the world are doing so impressively will hopefully have many beneficial repercussions. I fervently hope that their impact will be catalytic, awakening the rest of us so that in the future we might walk together in defiant unison until our leaders join this march of renewal to a healthy and sustainable future, and act accordingly so that we can believe their words because we witness their acts.
The fact that this week in New York City there will be the first ever Climate Action Summit under UN auspices is one overdue sign of an awakening. In fairness to Mr. Guterres, I take note of his more helpful response a few days ago, calling on all of us, from the striking young to the world leaders gathering in the city to take part in the Climate Action Summit to recognize that we are being tested by an ecological emergency. We do not know where this encouraging burst of belated activism and concern will lead. It is reasonable to fear that drowsiness, sleep, scapegoating, and escapism will soon again be descriptive of what the media report and what the public mood manifests. There exists this great danger that complacency will renew its grip on our moral and political imagination. We must all do our best to resist such a manipulations and temptations. We should remind ourselves that a consensus among climate change scientists sends us this truly alarming message: the peoples of the earth have at most a twelve year window after which there is no assured road back to ecological sustainability. I am stressing climate change because it is the mega-challenge whose worsening undermines attempts to make progress with respect to every one of the seventeen SDRs.
There is no doubt that the constructive preoccupations of this moment will be very, very difficult for a civil society protest surge to maintain. It can only hope to do so only by building a transnational movement that lasts and grows. A cautionary lesson is the sorry spectacle of attempts to achieve sensible gun control in the United States. Only a couple of years ago there existed hope that the struggle led by young people to overcome the insanity of making assault weapons of war available in the U.S. virtually to anyone with the nerve to seek their possession. Tragic killings in American schools, mosques, places of worship, elsewhere have periodically in recent years aroused a strong immediate mass reaction of shock and anger that is reinforced by a generally supportive media, but this sense of societal outrage evaporates almost before the sun rises the next morning. And while reformist energies disappear, the pernicious gun lobbies display their adeptness at playing ‘the long game.’ These special interests that profit from gun manufacture and sales have the money and organization, and most importantly (and disgracefully) they have most politicians at their disposal. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that nothing tangible happens with regard to regulation. Once again, mourning the victims and condemning the killers’ acts as a substitute for taking appropriate action to prevent repetition of these horrifying incidents. Assault weapons and military scale ammunition clips not only remain available over the counter or at gun shows, but are being sold in record numbers, while the social concern fades away, only to reemerge for another brief interval in response to the next mass shooting incident.
We Americans should be ashamed for allowing this to happen with respect to gun control, and we must be resolute in our commitment not let this happen in our pursuit of a better, more sustainable, future for all of humanity. There will be no second chances, ‘no Planet B.’ The cost of such shortsighted failure is far too high, whether the issue is one of soul with respect to gun control or one of survival in relation to global warming. Our civilization is at risk of collapse, and the species faces extinction dangers for the first time in human history.
The focus of Maker Majlis on the SDGs is a logical beginning. It is a road to somewhere. The 17 goals are concrete and well-chosen. Their attainment would bring relief to many and a needed sense of accomplishment to the world at large. Merely by their formulation and adoption, these SDGs exhibit an impressive level of consensus that enjoys at least the nominal support of the governments of the world. Yet we all know that such a consensus is not nearly enough to get the job done. A rhetoric of agreement will not do much to alter behavior unless accompanied by the energy, passions, and anger of Greta Thunberg, and the millions of young (and older) people throughout the world who are inspired enough by her activist struggle of all out effort to reduce the carbon footprint of modern industrial society and its consumerist life style. The SDR agenda is broader and deeper than mobilizing a response to global warming, yet as of now it lacks the animating passion and motivating fear that is needed if the scale and scope of change is to correspond to the magnitude of the challenges confronting our world. Thunberg made this point tellingly when she recently addressed an organ of the EU, insisting that an 80% reduction of carbon emissions was a necessity to keep us safe and healthy in the future even though the Paris Agreement rightly celebrated at the time as a diplomatic breakthrough, aimed only at 40% reductions. In a similar spirit of talking truthfully to those who should know and do better, she reminded a Congressional hearing in Washington that the U.S. Government should be humiliated to know that it is the only country in the entire world to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, thereby renouncing its pledges to reduce carbon emissions.
In putting forward such assessments, Greta Thunberg made a couple of crucial points that bears on the whole issue of global reform as put forward by the SDGs. She reminds us that reformist efforts are worth supporting as steps in the right direction, yet are from enough to overcome the underlying challenges. To address climate change challenges prudently more than reforms are definitely needed. It is thus crucial to understand that the SDG agenda offer neither complete solutions nor should these goals be dismissed as nothing more than pious wishes. The pursuit of the SDGs should be strongly encouraged, supported, and strengthened in every available venue where opinions are formed and policies generated. Such a responsible resolve will help stimulate the political energy from popular forces that is needed if our objective is to achieve ambitious positive results, thus raising confidence that it will be possible to do even more.
At the same time, the SDGs should be understood as a reformist project that falls short of the kind of transformative steps that must be taken if the prevailing ethos of capitalism and nationalism are to become vehicles, rather than obstacles, to the sort of safe and benign future we should be seeking for all of humanity.
Although climate change and global warming are the tip of the apocalyptic iceberg there are a host of other global issues that pose high risks of planetary disaster. These deserve our attention and also depend on the activism of popular movements if their claims and grievances are to find a place on the global policy agenda. Governments including those in world leadership roles have had the opportunity over the last seventy years to find solutions on their own to many of these dangerous problems. They have failed to do so and mostly have not even tried. These fundamental world order unmet concerns include war, nuclearism, global migration, famine, extreme poverty, ultra-nationalism, and others. Never has humanity as a whole, as distinct from particular societies, nations, even civilizations been subject to converging crises of this magnitude. These crises are recently beginning to confront us with dire scenarios of the extinction of the human species, along with an acceleration of the ongoing mass extinction of a great variety of non-human species, imperiling biodiversity so vital for ecological stability. This extinction threat reflects the multiple impacts of global warming on the natural habitats of animals and plants, causing disharmonies also between the way we live and our natural surroundings.
We live at a time when respected scholars produce gloomy books exhibiting their personal anxieties about the future, offering readers book with such scary titles as The Uninhabitable Earth [David Wallace-Wells], Falter: How the Human Game is About to Play Out [Bill McKibben], or The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink [Jeffrey St. Clair & Joshua Frank]. Youth may be the canaries of our time, warning us of imminent disaster, but we are all, not just the young, subject to the risks of succumbing to this dark destiny. Among Greta Thunberg’s many electrifying insights is the observation that unless we feel panic we are not in touch with the reality of our world.
In my own language, humanity is faced with a bio-ethical-ecological-spiritual crisis of unprecedented gravity and complexity. This brings me to another motif of our Majlis gathering here in Qatar—the importance of religion and faith. For most of you, the principal expression of these sentiments is conveyed by the spiritual traditions, beliefs, and practices of Islam. In this regard, the emphasis on Islam has been rightly foregrounded in our program. For those of us who live mainly in other civilizational and religious spaces, the underlying message is the same although we must each adapt it creatively in relation to our own faith and spiritual traditions, as well as to our distinctive national and civilizational circumstances. Depending on sensibility and belief this may happen within the frame of an organized religion or quite independently. The concept paper for Maker-Majlis correctly criticizes the SDG approach in these words: “It is precisely this part [that is, the religious part] which is missing from the SDGs.” There is conveyed in many UN documents this false sense that the SDGs and global awakening can occur without the motivating energies supplied by religion and faith. This is one of the most dangerous delusions of secular modernity.
In some sense, even Greta Thunberg at first glance seems to be a victim of this mentality, calling herself but ‘a messenger’ for science and scientists. Her words: “I don’t want you to listen to me; I want you to listen to the scientists. I want you to unite behind science and I want you to take real action.” She elaborated on another occasion, “…if the politicians listen to the scientists I could return to my classes…” Of course, taking ‘real action’ is an engagement in political change prompted by values affirming the right to life and a hope that not only is the planet worth saving but it can be saved. While late, it is not yet too late, although a tipping point of no return may be closer than we would like or realize, or can reliably know. I regard these sentiments of deference to science as deriving from her deeply held inner beliefs in the sacredness of life, as expressive of what is more accurately interpreted as a religious sensibility. The action that results from Thunberg’s intense inner convictions, especially if they go against the grain of social convention, is inherently faith-based. Whether this is acknowledged as ‘religion’ is of no special importance. I regard Greta Thunberg as having the character and commitment of a religiously grounded public personality, what we might romanticize by calling her, maybe prematurely, the Joan of Arc of the Ecological Age. The apparent fact that she does not grasp her engagement as ‘religious’ merely means that her understanding of religion and faith are overly identified with institutionalized religion.
Thunberg along with many others of all ages and faiths fully comprehend that transformative change is needed and will not occur without a mighty push from below, that is, by people that will no longer give their consent to business as usual. This means that to wait patiently for the leaders of society, whether they are situated in the public or private sector, to do what is right and what is urgently needed is to wait too long, and is becoming a fool’s errand. Being patient and passive has been relied upon for decades and found fatally wanting. Despite the evidence and warnings, relying on a top down approach for solutions to these deep world order problems seems more than ever before a bridge to futility, and eventually to disaster.
Greta Thunberg’s words are again luminous in conveying her understanding of what needs to be done: “…we can’t change the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.” A more sophisticated rendering of this perspective has been formulated by Jeremy Lent, a specialist in problem-solving theory, in an article whose title conveys its message-“As society unravels, the future is up for grabs” [Open Democracy, 17 Sept 2019] Lent’s opening sentence makes his insistence on radical, as opposed to incremental approaches to problem-solving very evident: “Now is the time for radically new ideas to transform society before it is too late.” He elaborates this central thought as follows: “One thing is clear: the visionary ideas that will determine the shape of our future will not be based on incremental thinking within the confines of our current system.” To make the changes that are needed for sustainability as well as for the sake of achieving an ecologically satisfying and spiritually enhanced quality of life for the peoples of the world, we must look above all to the aroused human passions being shaped by ethical values and the inner truths of religion and spirituality. We cannot afford to wait around any longer with the vain expectation that the elites of the world will suddenly do the right thing and put the global house in order. As Lent puts it, maybe too dogmatically, “The simple lesson is that our global leaders have no intention to make even the feeblest steps toward changing the underlying drivers of society.” By ‘drivers of society’ Lent means obsessive profit-seeking as tied to compulsive consumerism. If this is the case, as it seems to be, it may be the most disturbing sign that our species has lost its way. The hubris of Donald Trump, the leader of my country, is one example among many of this failure of leadership at the top. Trump perversely seizes every opportunity to demean internationalism and environmentalism. He has actually gone so far as to dismiss global warming concerns as a species of ‘fake news’ or even ‘a hoax.’
I promise all of you that this will be the last time I quote or even refer to Greta Thunberg, but she made an irresistibly relevant interpretation of the civil rights successes of Martin Luther King and the extraordinary American achievement of landing Neil Armstrong safely on the moon back in 1960. She recalled that setting such seemingly out-of-reach goals remain inspiring for people everywhere. Invoking the insight of John F. Kennedy she said, these goals were inspirational “…not because they were easy but because they are hard.” Such a reflection fits with Lent’s rejection of incrementalism that I referred to earlier. Transformation is always hard.
My own effort along these lines is to suggest that we as members of societies and of the human species can no longer meet the challenges of the day by conceiving of politics in the standard way as ‘the art of the possible.’ Instead, to have any hope for a brighter future we have to affirm what I call ‘a politics of impossibility.’ To avoid discouragement we need also to be aware that the impossible has happened frequently in the recent past, and is not just another dream-laden pathway to frustration and defeat. In my lifetime, the collapse of European colonialism underscored by Gandhi’s incredible nonviolent challenge to the British Empire in India, the peaceful dismantling of the South African apartheid regime, the fall of the Soviet internal empire, and even the Arab uprisings of a decade ago were examples of the impossible becoming historical occurrences before our eyes. When the impossible happens, experts who were initially caught by surprise, regain their composure and even dare write scholarly explanations after the fact on why what happened was inevitable.
At the same time, as earlier suggested, it is a disastrous mistake to sit around waiting for the impossible to save us from a tragic future. We need to struggle with all our strength for what we believe is right and necessary to give the impossible a fair chance of happening. Beyond this, such struggles are self-vindicating, and do not depend for their value on reaching results. As Gandhi tried to teach the world, the means used to gain desired ends should be their own fulfillment, and remain indistinguishable from the desired end being sought. That is where youth as a catalyst and religion as a source of commitment come to the fore in this historically charged moment.
How, then finally, does this outlook shape our attitude toward the program and vision of the SDRs. For me, the SDR effort frames a globally positive and comprehensive agenda. It also should be understood as a transnational process for taking action that seeks the implementation of positive policies. It is encouraging that this process seems more receptive to civil society participation and citizen engagement than has been characteristic of so many past UN undertakings.
Even so, the SDR approach needs to be viewed in relation to its shortcomings as well as its promise. We must ask ourselves and each other whether it is possible to achieve these suitably ambitious goals without changing the nature of neoliberal globalization to accord with human rights and a sustainable future. Further, are the SDGs reachable and realistic unless coupled with a challenge of the waste of valuable resources that result from excessive investment in weapons of death nurtured by outmoded militarist views of security, further inflated by the lucrative arms sales market, and artificially inflamed relations among and within states. The current form of economic globalization and militarism are embedded in the top down approach. Only by way of a bottom up approach powered by the mass mobilization of people and the reliance on faith driven action can we have any credible belief in prospects for arresting the current drift toward a catastrophic future.
And finally, advocating such a posture of resistance involves a correspondingly radical understanding of citizenship and political participation. From my perspective, ‘world citizens,’ although escaping from the traps of regressive nationalism imply that it is possible to act effectively by assuming that humanity is presently an existing unity, and as if the UN has generated and provided an institutional foundation for an existential global community. I have advocated an alternative way of thinking of citizenship by adopting a terminology centered on the idea of ‘citizen pilgrim,’ that is, of a person with a trusting faith in the unseen yet desired end of human endeavors. Such a person engages in struggle and conceives of his or her life as a spiritual journey or pilgrimage toward a better future. St. Paul points in this direction in his ‘Letter to the Hebrews,’ with a reference to seeking a ‘heavenly’ future as the goal of life. It is only such citizen pilgrims that will have the heart and soul for the struggle needed to create the kind of ‘community of belief’ that can support a UN, which is more than an aggregate of national interests. The UN will serve humanity as a whole only when it is able to establish a venue that is genuinely dedicated to the pursuit of human and global interests. It is this blend of politics and religion that can give us hope that the dark clouds hanging menacingly over us at present can be lifted. When this happens the pursuit of SDGs would become embedded as high priorities for political leaders and will inform and raise the expectations of people throughout the world. Only at that point can a mobilized youth in good conscience consider returning to the classroom with feeling that their future is being protected!
I would end by mentioning one way in which Islam offers the world some valuable guidance in doing this indispensable work of citizen pilgrims. The Islamic idea of umma prefigures a post-Westphalian, non-European notion of non-territorial community that joins peoples of various ethnicities in a single community of faith. Such a non-territorial sense of global community, despite the universalizing language of the UN Charter, does not currently inform the important undertakings of the UN, which continue to be dominated by the fragmented interest of individual Member states. Until it does overcome the hegemony of national interests, I fear that the UN will talk grandly, but at its best only act incrementally, that is, without a unity of vision and purpose so urgently needed to make the future safe and sustainable. Islam has done more to explore the benefits of non-territorial community of belief than any of the active political actors currently dominating the world stage, or for that matter, the other great world religions. Without a global community the UN will not be able to serve humanity in an historically resonant manner. It will continue to be unable to transcend the confrontations of nationalist and geopolitical agendas and buffer itself against the clash of rival ideologies. A sense of global community is the keystone for a new world order that serves humanity by its dedication to the realization of human and global interests. Such a UN does not now exist. If the young and old act together this kind of UN can be nurtured. In the meantime, we should resist the temptation to pretend that this UN of the peoples already exists, but we should never forget that we have it within our potential collective power to make it happen, and by doing, to make the sort of difference that youth are rightfully demanding.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, Distinguished Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies, UCSB, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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