Lonelier Planet: Keeping the Natural World and Each Other at Arms-Length, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Jun

UN Signing

Broken vows are like broken mirrors. They leave those who held to them bleeding and staring at fractured images of themselves. Richard Paul Evans

The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.  F. Scott Fitzgerald

Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.  John Steinbeck

Even for me life had its gleams of sunshine. Charlotte Brontë

We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.  Rudyard Kipling

As some of you already know, I have often asked younger folks, including interns here, to find and read a newspaper from the day they were born, to get a clearer (and perhaps more empowering) sense of how much has changed on their still-youthful watches — for better and for worse — opportunities seized and neglected, promises fulfilled and ignored, connections strengthened and severed.

My own family had a habit of holding on to old newspapers, especially those with headlines that seemed to convey more than short-term importance.  As a result, I have in my possession (and have added myself) original papers from some of the key moments of my now-longish life, including the assassination of key political figures from Kennedy to King, the Iranian hostage situation that turned the US presidency over to Ronald Reagan in 1980, the multiple successes of the US space program leading to a first-ever moon landing, the shocking images of oil-stained wildlife that led to the early environmental movement, nations arming and disarming, and much more.

Beyond the headlines, the newspapers – some now over 50 years old — reveal the fabric and narrative of life in those times: a different set of consumer choices and sometimes petty political disagreements, of course, and certainly plenty of long-outdated technology, but also events and movements that shaped more than the generation of which they were a part. These would include a vicious war in Vietnam and marches for racial justice on the streets of US cities; the stubborn persistence of colonial rule, of discrimination against Palestinians and of the apartheid system in South Africa; a Cold War that simmered for years and divided us (including at the UN) beyond geographical boundaries; women (primarily but not exclusively in the west) who were starting to bust out the cultural straightjackets that defined those eras.

I am not a sentimental person by nature, but I do appreciate the glimpses into our human habits and complexities as revealed through these newspapers.  That the papers are discolored and badly frayed now is highly symbolic, for our world is a bit like that now – still harboring human possibility but also crumbling at the edges, badly discolored and threatening to disintegrate altogether.  We’ve largely forgotten where we came from, what has connected and distanced us as nations and peoples, the foolishness of those earlier times that has not had nearly enough impact in mitigating the foolishness of these current times.

Inside the UN, we still struggle with echoes of mistakes past, including the last vestiges of colonial rule focused on challenging and contentious issues around the Malvinas (Falklands), Western Sahara, Gibraltar and Puerto Rico. In this same week, the Security Council renewed/expanded robust mandates for MINUSMA in Mali and MONUSCO in DR Congo as well as a 4 month extension on the drawdown of UNAMID in Darfur, all while three permanent members conspire separately to reduce funding for peacekeeping operations.  The General Assembly hosted a moving discussion on anti-Semitism, but with the backdrop of our collective reluctance to bridge divides and end discrimination in a sustainable manner.  A meeting with the chairs of human rights treaty bodies failed to properly acknowledge the creeping disregard for human rights norms and international law obligations that makes the task of these (volunteer) chairs almost unmanageable.  The deadlock in the Security Council over the Iran Nuclear agreement (JCPOA) threatens to unravel remaining compliance levels while fresh violence in Idlib (Syria) in the name of “countering terrorism” is creating new levels of displacement among many already displaced by previous violence.

And then there is the matter of climate, an “emergency” of epic proportions that has yet to be declared as such by most UN member states that have heard the warnings but have been slow to adjust mindsets and policies.  Indeed, at an event this week on “water and disaster risk reduction,” speakers lamented the growing and largely unaddressed threats from rising sea levels and climate extremes — from severe drought to massive storms.  Such extremes threaten coastlines and, in some cases, entire nations, but also impact access to now-scarce fresh water in ways that, as one speaker noted, “constitute a major and growing threat to states.”  A presenter from Japan put it even more bluntly, suggesting that cooperation levels on water, climate and disaster risk/response will tell us much going forward about “whether or not we have become a global community.”

The testimony on all of this is sobering.  It appears that we may have already transitioned from climate mitigation to adaptation, leaving us with the challenge of adjusting to new global circumstances without making matters for planetary life much worse. As our newspapers and “smart” phones have made plain for some time, we are certainly a clever (if not particularly wise or reflective) species, able to build back from disaster and create new technologies to solve problems “on spec” if not always on time.

But cleverness may not be enough. The current dilemma for us is related both to our current isolationist dispositions and to the fact that our own adaptive pace is not reflected in the rest of the natural order.  Animals don’t have the capacity to adjust quickly to disruptions in their food supply.  Plants can’t magically find the means to self-pollinate or self-hydrate.   If indeed we are at or near an adaptive tipping point, we might well find ourselves increasingly alone as we witness a chain reaction of natural extinctions with prospects for global community and solidarity as remote as ever.

Thankfully, there are competent and inspirational voices inside and outside the building where we work every day who understand the degree to which the fraying of our climate  and our normative structures is pulling us further and further apart, leaving us to stare endlessly at our own “fractured images,” encouraging our retreat behind physical walls and into virtual realities, making us unreflective consumers of both endless reassurance and almost intolerable levels of suspicion – about our leadership, yes, but about most of the people and policies that are not in our obvious self-interest.

In one attempt to revive pragmatic hope, the president of the General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, convened an event on Wednesday for which we have long advocated – a “renewal of vows” by UN member states.  The event was reminiscent of the original charter signing in San Francisco almost 75 years ago; indeed the backdrop for this event was a film depicting the original signing.  And much like that first signing,  the PGA invited states, one-by-one, to ascend to an area in front of the podium and reaffirm through signature their commitment to the UN Charter and the values it espouses.

It was a moving event, but the PGA is no fool. There are no “blank stares” in her repertoire.  She sees up close the fraying of institutions and relationships, the retreat from norms and practices that affirm the “common good” to places where an often self-protective and rights-indifferent version of national interest predominates.  But she was also able to point to “echoes of San Francisco” in the 2030 Development Agenda, the Paris Climate Agreement and other multilateral policy measures.  As threats multiply, she maintained, “we must rekindle the spirit of 1945 and our service to the world’s people.”

A collection of state signatures is not going to save us from the self-inflicted loneliness of a world barren of species save for the survivors of wary, fearful and distracted humans.   But it is important for states and stakeholders to recall why a group of (almost all) men once sat in a California city and declared their intent to save us from the scourge of war.  As the PGA noted on Wednesday, these UN’s founders “were not dreamers but pragmatists, well aware of the unacceptable costs of conflict.”

If anything, the costs and consequences of our conflict and related challenges are higher now.  Our weapons are more destructive and seemingly omnipresent.  Our oceans are struggling to hold the life on which we depend.  Our politics are increasingly “seas of misunderstanding,” and our climate is functioning more like a microwave than a thermostat.  Thus the question remains:  Have we or have we not become a global community?   The well-being of millions of species as well as human generations to come will likely depend on how (and how quickly) we respond.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: