Mood Music: Feeling the Pain we Pledge to Alleviate , Dr. Robert Zuber

25 Aug

Caution 2

Every sentence I utter must be understood not as an affirmation but as a question.  Niels Bohr

Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part.  Hermann Broch

Just because someone knocks on the door doesn’t mean you have to open it. Ruta Sepetys

What good is speed without the ability to brake?  Nilesh Rathod

You don’t throw a compass overboard because the ocean is calm.  Matshona Dhliwayo

I dragged my mind away from that line of thought; there was nothing but quicksand and crocodiles down that path.  Melanie Casey

There are few occasions when I rise early on a Sunday to start writing these missives when I find something in the mass media that corresponds neatly to what I will shortly attempt to communicate.   Today’s Washington Post provided such an occasion, an article by Stanford Professor Jamil Zaki seeking to explain what he refers to as our “breathtakingly immoral” response to climate threats.  Zaki expands a line of argument that I have seen in other contexts making the case that our species is under siege from the recklessness of much of our behavior combined with what he calls our “shortsighted instincts,” the grave difficult we seem to have “scaling our emotions” to address the threats which may yet engulf us, threats that evoke less determination and more “compassion collapse” than are suited to our common survival, dismissing the real and metaphorical fires now burning largely out of control within and beyond the Amazon.

There is not much to disagree with here, save for the matter of our current, largely disengaged and discouraged, “mood” which such articles, clever though they may be, help to reinforce.   As science reduces the human condition, more and more, to instincts and algorithms, as we probe the collective limitations of our capacity for empathic response to a growing array of threats to our own and future generations, we are inadvertently creating justifications for turning our energies away from the world, cashing in and localizing what remains of our empathy for the sake of the smaller circle of current activities and events that we still seem able to impact.  Given the complexities of modern life to which we allude often –now to include Brazil indigenous who must find a way to cope with fires and smoke and the inevitable mining and cattle interests that are likely to follow — it is understandable, if dangerous, that so many are dropping out of the race to make our politics more compassionate, our climate policies more effective, our economics more equal, our rights more respected. If our emotional connections have, indeed, reached the limits of their instinctual bandwidth, why fight the feeling?

The “mood” inside the UN at times reflects a different kind of distancing.  On Friday, Security Council member Germany (with Peru and Kuwait) sponsored an Arria Formula event on accountability for the massive crimes perpetrated against the Myanmar Rohingya who now, 2 years on, languish in Cox’s Bazar and other nearby settings across the border in Bangladesh.  This was a most welcome event given the miseries of the displaced, the disingenuous gestures of Myanmar towards those seeking to return to their ancestral homes, and the well-documented mistakes by the UN to prevent the violence before it spiraled out of control and broker a “safe and dignified return” for those who wish for that.

As with so many other discussions of this type, the mood in the room didn’t fit the dire consequences of our failure to prevent.  The job of diplomats is to get along with each other, to keep the “windows open” if you will; even so, the laughter and back slapping before and after the event seemed (as it so often does) borderline scandalously inappropriate.  In between, the good briefings and statements by diplomats were serious but emotionally restrained, a far cry from the images I was receiving simultaneously on twitter from a Rohingya journalist (who shall remain unnamed) who has been documenting for us (and others) the misery, the anger, the insecurity, the frustration from two long years of displacement following an even longer period of discrimination and abuse. When the Arria meeting had concluded it was not clear what steps Council members were prepared to take.  It was time for lunch.   For the Rohingya it was probably time to find a bit of sleep and, perhaps foolishly, dare to dream of a return to homes and fields that might somehow have escaped utter destruction.

Some diplomats and even NGOs like me apparently have our own empathic limitations, brakes on our own ability to actually feel the abuses we seek to address, to practice solidarity while we discern the best paths forward for our own and (hopefully) generations to come.  Such deficits are ably examined by scientists, but I would be happy to argue (in another space) that we nonetheless retain capacities to set a more humane example, to fortify our emotional intelligence in ways that can keep us from having to “explain away” our apparent willingness to subsume urgent threats and needs under a veil constituted by genetics, consumerism, careerism and policy expediency.

In an adjacent UN conference room this past week, a group of scientists and policy wonks were taking up the task of creating forms of governance that can help us address threats to what is by far the largest ungoverned space on our planet, the open oceans and its marine biological diversity beyond national jurisdiction.   Delegates who are well versed regarding our current “wild west” approach to the open seas effectively chronicled the damage we have done from dumping and other forms of abuse, but also the ways in which this “common heritage” of humankind is now less and less able to combat climate change, preserve its still-unexplored biodiversity or supply nutrition to the vast millions living around its perimeters.  Delegates also discussed the support that needs to be shared if the peoples most affected by climate and ocean-related risks are able to hold the line on survival relative to a problem that most did little, in and of themselves, to create.

And the delegations invoked another principle, that of “precaution,” which is to say the idea that we actually give serious consideration to the potential effects and consequences of our policy preferences on people’s rights and well-being before proceeding to “help them”; that we consider how we are going to put out the fires before we light the fuse; that we consider how we are going to preserve primordial assets such as our oceans before we set out to despoil them, even in their deepest and most remote regions.

This principle is not to be equated with “caution” which has both instinctive and cultural references, keeping us out of danger, including the danger of being “judged” or socially rejected, but also preventing us from summoning the courage and determination needed to pull our species collectively back from the precipice we have propped ourselves on.

Some 33 years ago, the band Genesis released “Land of Confusion,” a song imploring my generation to  “set it right” but also noting how little love there seems be “going around” with which to energize that promise, to bond more deeply with what we presume to cherish.  Sadly, we’ve managed to make it “right” only for some while neglecting the discipline (and requisite training) that can make us better able to incarnate the love that can anticipate negative policy consequences; that is willing to ask hard, precautionary questions; that can drag ourselves away from the “quicksand and crocodiles” of our most toxic assumptions and excuses; that knows how to “speed up and brake” when appropriate; and that has the courage and wisdom to reach across the generations with compassion and responsibility.

All the current global confusion and ample scientific references to human limitations notwithstanding, none of these tasks are beyond our collective capacity.   None come easily, to say the least, but compared with the massive damage control now underway in most all global regions, none are without their obvious advantages to the health of our planet, to the trust which some have long forgotten to cultivate, and to our collective “mood” which is now alternately sour and distracted.

We retain options to “lengthen” our instincts, recalibrate our emotional lives, and avoid the “collapse of compassion.”  But we’ve apparently tossed our collective “compass” into what we mistakenly believed to be calm water and, as a consequence, we are running out of time and energy to make those options happen.

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