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Survive and Advance: Ode to a New Year of Living Dangerously, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Dec


Every year in the United States, we witness a March sports ritual that many refer to as “madness” — a College basketball tournament to determine a “national champion.”

The tournament itself is relentless – many close games that push athletes (and their fans) to the brink of anxiety and exhaustion.  Teams don’t worry about margins of victory; merely about guaranteeing the circumstances that allow them to play again and hopefully play better.  “Survive and advance.”

As we enter 2017, this basketball mantra seems apt for a world that has endured many shocks –more than a few self-inflicted – and in which we should mostly be grateful for any opportunity to “advance” and improve.

It’s not as though 2016 was without its value:  At a personal level, couples fell in love or welcomed babies into the world; others were given a new chance for life by skilled surgeons or by compassionate citizens welcoming persons fleeing conflict.  Still others inched closer to their educational or professional dreams which, we can only hope, have positive implications for societies beyond the limits of self-interest.

At the levels of national and UN multi-lateral policy, 2016 had its own hopeful moments, including broad international attention on the dimensions of oceans governance; regulations to better protect the rights and safety millions of displaced persons; renewed commitments to solve data and funding obstacles to fulfillment of the 2030 development goals; good-faith efforts to address the security and health needs of persons victimized by ISIL and other insurgencies in places like Fallujah; agreements and elections that hold out the promise of lasting peace in places like Somalia, Lebanon and especially Colombia; shifts in the framework for humanitarian assistance that nuance responses to need with commitments to building more resilient communities.

But in other ways, we seem hell-bent to confirm the predictions of the famed physicist Stephen Hawking who has been making ever-more worrisome predictions about our planetary fate and our current, expanding universe of risk factors akin to dark, gathering clouds of an impending mega-storm.

We know the horrific settings that keep some of us up at night – Sana’a and Aleppo, Mosul and Juba.  We witness the populist movements that lash out at unresponsive elites.  We note with concern threats by states to modernize nuclear arsenals and cancel their reservations to serious multilateral discussions on climate health.  We can barely get some adversaries to sit and talk, let alone talk about pathways to peace.

For some time now, Hawking has urged some out-of-the-norm planning to address the long-term survival of our species but also shorter-term existential threats tied to what he often refers to as unresolved “human aggression.” Such a stubborn and deep-seated trait may have been indispensable in our earliest human iterations but has clearly outlived its survival value and now, in many and various forms, has inspired and manufactured new and multiple challenges to our very existence.

Unfortunately, modern iterations of human predation have taken more insidious forms, from the use of rape as a tactic in war to economic policies that deliberately ignore gross and growing inequalities in power and access. Hawking cites these and other threats, warning that “the frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future.” “We shall need great care and judgment to negotiate them all successfully,” he notes.

Care and judgment are not words that readily come to mind when describing our current political and economic circumstances.   If we are to do more than hide out from the worst “madness” of impending storms, more than merely hoping to survive the current shocks, we will need to care more and judge better to ensure we can “advance” together.

Collectively and individually, this means resisting the temptation to revert to our more predatory legacies.  It means being more vigilant about warnings of impending conflicts that at some future point we will lose the ability to halt.  It means committing to stay at the table of all discussions with implications for the global interest, even if they do not seem immediately germane to the national interest.  It means promoting accountabilities for values and not only for profits. And it means finding more effective ways and means to demilitarize – recognizing that the volume, sophistication and costs associated with weapons developed, manufactured, modernized, shipped abroad, and eventually leaked into unstable political environments constitutes a grave and un-affordable stain on our global prospects.

There is, for me and for many others, a melancholy that sets in as our western calendar flips: another year of life now fully “in the books;” a year we can never recapture and in which we cannot honestly say that we did enough to improve our collective condition, to seize our respective opportunities.

Some of us are simply running out of years.

Regardless of our mortality status, there are so many contributions in this New Year that we can all make in our various contexts, contributions that can help us collectively advance towards a future that is defined more by sustainable well-being and less by the species-implicated threats that so often consume our remaining reserves of compassion and kindness.  We all have opportunities to promote healthier, more connected living as a contribution to the world within and beyond local boundaries.

There may be no time better than this New Year’s weekend to embrace our piece of a collective resolve to locate and seize those opportunities.