Archive | September, 2019

Island Get-Away: Heeding the Call of the Climate-Vulnerable, Dr. Robert Zuber

29 Sep

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Delays and laziness are the two great gulfs in which multitudes of souls are drowned and perish. John Fox

You cannot prove your worth by bylines and busyness.  Katelyn S. Irons

Nathan thought people needed to wash dishes by hand sometimes. Prepare their own meals more often. And take walks.  Eileen Wilks

We cannot put off living until we are ready….Life is fired at us point-blank. Jose Ortega Y Gasset

If you want to save some money at Christmas, you can say Santa Claus died in a wildfire. Chuck Nice

This year’s high-level week at the UN has come and gone.  Barriers designed to separate those invited and not-invited to this grand political party are coming down as I write and most of the dignitaries (and their entourages) have had their say and boarded planes for home. The time will soon come for the diplomats and other stakeholders who walk the UN’s halls daily to translate some of the promises made into concrete policies, as well as to attempt to soften some of the bravado of heads of state who came to the UN to air their grievances and/or to use their platform to, in some instances, defend the indefensible (as with Brazil) or attempt to undermine the value of multilateralism from multilateralism’s most cherished podium (as with the US).

It was a frenetic scene from early Monday’s opening of the Climate Summit through Friday’s high-level event focused on some of the growing, existential threats posed to small-island states from climate change.  Indeed, some of the most significant take-away messages from this UN week were from those very same events.  The widely-reported, emotional statement uttered to dignitaries by Greta Thunberg (“how dare you”) at the Climate Summit underscored the absurdity of middle-age diplomats of privilege putting “hope” in a teenager who should be home and in school, a teenager who is asking only that leaders listen and respond to the science of climate change and not their own polling numbers.  For her part, Greta might well have been one of the only persons in that Summit (not living within walking distance of the UN) whose mode of transport did not contribute to the problem that the dignitaries had ostensibly gathered to address.  Indeed, the vast environmental “footprint” associated with this event (a fact not lost on some skeptics) should have led less to “hope” in the singular determination of a teenager and more to shame regarding the behavior of political leadership who, in too many instances, still lacks the fortitude to practice what they preach.

Friday’s event focused on the growing climate urgency felt by small-island states couched within a mid-term review of the SAMOA Pathway.  This review highlighted the plight of states staring “point blank” at rising sea levels and ever-angrier storms, and gave rise to frustrations with the limited ability of UN leadership to evoke practical climate commitments from the heads of several large-emissions states. But the event also underscored the degree to which the UN remains highly valuable as a platform to appeal for and garner support for island states which have contributed little to the climate problem but which, in too many instances, suffer from its most severe impacts.  In some ways, this event represented the best (as Sweden’s Foreign Minister referred to the UN) of this “global public good” – passionate, honest, helpful and thoughtful –offering hope to small islanders that big-power interests would not be allowed to deflect responses to the now-existential fears that the economies and cultures of their small-island homes could soon be added to our rapidly-growing list of global extinctions.

There were many important messages emanating from this event that highlighted the urgency of the times and the “lazy delays” that have often characterized our common commitments.  Ireland’s President Michael Higgins spoke well of the dangers of “recurrence” of our collective challenges which he believes can only be prevented through a new ecological-social “compact.”  A native speaker from Hawaii was more graphic, noting that there are more plastic objects in the ocean “than stars in the Milky Way” and highlighting the greed that makes us the only species that “forces disharmony” with the natural order.  Climate problems for one, he noted, soon become “problems for all,” underscoring the hope of UN SG Gutterres that if we can find the courage to solve climate change at its most difficult point, we can solve it at other points more readily.

And in a remarkable SAMOA event statement, Barbados’ Prime Minster wondered aloud how long her taxpayers would continue to authorize trips to New York to continue to say and hear the same things over and over, statements with political value perhaps but also with limited practical impact, statements which merely provide cover for the “arrogance” of too-many leaders and other stakeholders who apparently believe that we are already doing enough to stave off our own extinction when we clearly are not.

Back in the General Assembly, Palestinian President Abbas might well have put the matter before us most succinctly:  “Be careful. Be careful,” he warned, “you must not deprive the people of hope.” The following day, also in the GA, the Prime Minister of Lesotho highlighted the role of the UN in saving people from the “follies” of their leaders, surely including the folly of those who tout “patriotism” and “nationalism” as some “magic-bullet” antidote to the limitations of the multilateral order, an “order” that can clearly still attract a crowd but which its own leadership acknowledges has not yet lived up to its lofty billing. We should be so very grateful for the confidence that people continue to place in these hallways despite evidence that the UN’s signature, high-level segments still care too much about themselves and not enough about the yearnings of global constituents.

In a Lower Manhattan park this week, removed from the traffic jams and crowds of people with credentials trying to push their way into UN conference rooms, a small group of people led by Green Map’s director toured a small and now-threatened area once dominated by drug culture but now an oasis of hopeful possibilities – sculptures and a turtle pond, chickens, recreation areas and gardens full of native plants. The tour highlighted the sustainable development goals and was accompanied by park rangers who know just how far this strip of land has come, how much love and attention it has received from current and former neighbors, how much would be lost if the city’s plans to denude the park ostensibly to make it more “climate resilient” would take effect.

It is an emotional and intellectual challenge, for us and others, to balance the “bylines and busyness” so very much valued in the crowded halls of the UN with the millions of local actions (and actors) struggling to overcome impediments imposed by some of the very same global leaders who should be opening pathways to well-being instead.  These actors, the ones perhaps more likely perhaps to “wash their own dishes and prepare their own meals,” the ones who must find walking destinations to restore and refresh in local contexts, are also the ones who need the promises made by leaders during this high-level week to translate — somehow, someway — into fresh motivation and inspiration for local, climate-related progress.

Greta and her youthful colleagues have laid out before us a science-informed path where practical hope in a healthier and more sustainable future is still feasible.   With all the power and influence at their disposal, global leaders can do better than defending their political and “national” interests and (in some instances) casting dispersions on young actors who have taken into their hands responsibilities for climate changes which too many leaders have neglected for too long and which now threaten virtually every island and coastal community on this fragile planet.

Simply put, we need to see more urgent leading from leaders well in advance of the next UN high-level party in 12 months time.

Youth Group: Passing the Torch on Climate Health, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Sep


You’re learning that you do not inhabit a solid, reliable social structure – that the older people around you are worried, moody, goofy human beings who themselves were little kids only a few days ago.  Kurt Vonnegut

One cannot, without absurdity, indefinitely sacrifice each generation to the following one; human history would then be only an endless succession of negations which would never return to the positive.  Simone de Beauvoir

The last generation’s worst fears become the next one’s B-grade entertainment. Barbara Kingsolver

Respect the young and chastise your elders. It’s about time the world was set aright.  Vera Nazarian

A mistake, committed for a few generations, becomes a tradition.  Nitya Prakash

This past week, the UN Security Council endured a dismal and discouraging session punctuated by an sobering briefing by ASG Ursula Mueller followed by a veritable cat fight among Council members ostensibly committed to easing suffering and reducing levels of threat enduring by the people of Idlib, Syria.  This erstwhile “deconfliction zone” has been the subject of all-too-routine bombing raids by Syria and its allies despite a provisional cease fire, bombing conducted ostensibly to root out terrorist elements and their foreign fighter allies (what Syria referred to as “monsters”) who allegedly have been holed up in schools, hospitals and other civilian infrastructure.

This principled (though not always practiced) concern for protecting civilians and upholding international law by (most) Council members has often run afoul of the concerns of a few to fully prosecute the terror war until all terrorist elements, including foreign military and intelligence capabilities, have been defeated.   In this instance, the disagreements spilled over in a spectacle of competing resolutions on Idlib, one submitted by the “humanitarian penholders” Belgium, Germany and Kuwait, and the other seemingly cobbled together at the last minute by China and Russia and focused more on the necessity of continued, robust counter-terror operations.

Needless to say, neither resolution passed.  Another opportunity to forge a consensus that would spare the people of Idlib from yet another round of violence and displacement was lost.

My own response to this policy carnage was to urge Council members to “burn the tape” of this meeting lest the people of Idlib see for themselves how their urgent interests have been set aside by a body that at times makes more trouble than it resolves – both inside and outside the UN.  Conflicts fester, sometimes for generations, and some of the core lenses that contribute to conflict in our time – especially threats from climate change – have yet to achieve supportive consensus in that body. There is now a “tradition of inaction,” that belies the dignity that still applies within the Council chamber, including the failures to fulfill its own resolutions, hold permanent members to account for acting above the law, and reassure the rest of the international community that Council members are prepared to pull their weight in resolving crises that have sometimes gone on too long and which directly affect prospects for future generations.

Those specific representatives of future generations who have sat with me over the years in the Council chamber have taken note of the political culture which the Council perpetuates and they are by no means reassured.  The clock is ticking while more and more pundits are proclaiming that it might now be “too late” to save ourselves from ourselves. For these young people it is not too late.  It cannot be.

Thankfully reassuring to them has been the recent explosion of climate-related protests, many thousands of people worldwide taking to the streets to “strike” for action and justice, action based on an increasingly firm scientific consensus and justice based on the reality that many who will suffer the most from climate impacts had the least to do with creating the problem in the first place.  Indeed we are now witnessing the scenario of the wealthy trying to buy their way out of the path of severe climate impacts while millions struggle to eke out a living on the margins of rising oceans and expanding deserts.

Inspired by Greta Thunberg and others, there is action on a large (not yet large enough) scale to mitigate climate impacts and redress related imbalances. We do have global policy frameworks to limit emissions and care for climate refugees, though these frameworks are voluntary in nature and thus easily put aside when they allegedly “compromise” the national interest.   We also have a bevy of technologies that have come (and are coming) on line that can promise some relief from excess emissions and other manifestations of our still-excessive environmental footprints. We see every day more corporate and financial interests recognizing that sustainable business requires sometimes dramatic changes in how they “take care of their business.”

And we have seemingly come to grips with the fact that climate mitigation and adaptation can and must be localized, that the challenges people face must be fashioned to context in the form of concrete actions grounded in what we are now missing in too many of these contexts — an abiding commitment to the surroundings that house our ambitions.  In too many instances, we have lost connection with the places we call home, the rhythms of life that we too often take for granted or neglect altogether, the places that demand our immediate and specific attention and get it less and less.   We are a culture full of people who know more about the abstracted feeds on our phones than the habitats and watersheds that surround us daily, the farms and gardens that sustain our bodies and souls in ways that Instagram could never do, the threats to biodiversity (including to essential pollinators) that have sometimes-severe local impacts and that caring and attentive people have the means to address locally.

In pointing this out, I recognize that it is relatively easy for me to examine personal choices and help mitigate climate impacts.   I am not raising children and thus am not bombarded by the desires of children stoked by endless commercial interventions.   I do not need to own a car, or even ride in one, whereas the lives of many others are almost entirely dependent on such vehicles. Indeed, I can walk to markets of all kinds, including places that will gratefully take my copious collection of weekly compost. I can bus or train to work, or even walk if the frustrations of mass transit become too much.

And I can indulge my own amnesia, including with regard to the economic predation characteristic of the most “successful” parts of the city I live in.  I can deceive myself that there is some virtue in growing and producing nothing on my own.  There are few in my life now to remind me of the skepticism and frustration of my earlier years, the energy wasted on investments and behaviors that were sketchy at best and certainly not sustainable in any sense that we now understand that term.

As amnesia is overcome, it becomes a bit easier to accept the skepticism and self-protectiveness of the younger people who allow us to get close to them.  It is easier to forgive the occasional over-indulgence in “first-world problems” and entitlements, the frustration that comes from a life spent in school that, in some ways, produces outcomes just as disappointing as anything the Security Council can muster.  It was interesting that, at Friday’s climate rally in Battery Park, while I was one of the older people present and wearing my “UN costume” of jacket and tie, I was not scolded once, not from the audience and not from the podium.   It was a testiment to the kindness and focus of those strikers that I was able to “escape” so easily.

Indeed, the energy in that park was hopeful, even electric, and the voices of Greta and others were strong, clear and resolute.  Ready or not, it is their turn now, their turn on the playing field, their turn to see if they can overcome their own habituated responses and generational prejudices to effect rescue in a world that is good for them, but also good for those many whom will follow; thereby helping to ensure that their fears and skepticism can be repurposed into actions that will offer more than “B list entertainment” to subsequent generations.

In the shadow of New York’s financial district, Greta reiterated a warning to those who have been made uncomfortable by what they might well interpret as the “bad news” associated with the recent surge in climate activism.  “This is just the beginning.” If we are to preserve our own lives and the “chains of being” on which our lives depend; if we are to eliminate this major contributor to the violence, food insecurity and displacement that now characterize too many global settings; if we are to boldly and urgently mitigate where we can and adapt where we must; then our responsibility is laid out before us, including doing more to ensure that the mistakes of generations past don’t become the “traditions” tying the now-eager and determined hands of the young.

The many voices worldwide insisting on a healthier planet “fit for children” believe, as do we, that this is simply not too much to ask.

Choir Practice:  Making Melodies for Multilateralism, Dr. Robert Zuber

15 Sep

I would like to see anyone, prophet, king or God, convince a thousand cats to do the same thing at the same timeNeil Gaiman

Don’t let a loud few determine the nature of the sound. It makes for poor harmony and diminishes the song. Vera Nazarian

Humor is a universal language that topples walls, connects hearts, and opens the door to communication and cooperationL.R. Knost

Cooperation is very often furthered by segregating those who do not fit in. That creates some superclusters of cooperation among the quality cooperators and a fair amount of chaos and dysfunctionality elsewhereTyler Cowen

Because in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarismNaomi Klein

This week marks the end of what we believe to have been the remarkable General Assembly tenure of Ecuador’s María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, a too-rare female president who brought to her tasks abundant energy, thoughtfulness and honesty about our common responsibilities and the impediments to growth and change that we so often place in our own way.  She has been, in our humble view, just what this organization needed and, indeed, what it would have been good to hold on to for just a bit longer.

If this week was to be her swan song, the PGA did her best to ensure it was one to remember, doubling down on key concerns that have defined her leadership:  promoting a culture of peace based on fulfillment of our sustainable development promises; integrating the skills and aspirations of women and youth in social, political and economic life; and especially upholding the value of multilateral engagement at a time when a toxic nationalism has swept through our political fabric, pulling in the reigns of diplomatic cooperation and substituting “rooting interests” for a broader sense of civic participation and human solidarity.

The events sponsored by the PGA were not the only signs of multilateral energy this week:  A Swiss-moderated , Working Group discussion on threats to cyber security and a Peacebuilding Commission session on promoting “south-south cooperation” both underscored the futility of attempting to solve problems that are global in nature with solutions that are tailored to the now-competitive and distrustful national frameworks in which more and more of us seem a bit too comfortable.   Clearly, as noted in these and related sessions, there is no cure for the ills of unaddressed food insecurity, cyber crime, ocean pollution, climate-related disasters or forced displacement that is strictly (or even primarily) national in nature.   We simply will not fulfill our promises to future generations unless we can free up now-clogged pathways of communication and mutual support. We have dug too deep a hole to think it can be filled with only one brand of shovel.

But this PGA (and some of those whom she has inspired and been inspired by) also understands that much of the current “push-back” on multilateralism represents a self-inflicted wound.  The push to metaphorically abandon the choir for a solo career has its roots in an international system that has at times been too smug, too complacent, too removed from the needs and aspirations of constituents.  We have allowed criticism to take root of a UN “too much about talk and not enough about action;” we have passed resolutions without a sincere commitment to implement their provisions; we have played with peoples’ expectations, making promises (especially but not only on peace and security) about which we then continue to “hedge” our bets; we have only begun, as the director of the UN Office for South-South Cooperation noted this week, to “break the taboo of looking sideways,” only timidly acknowledging that all states and other stakeholders have much more to both share and receive.  Such patterns have contributed to what the Ugandan Ambassador called his “nightmare,” the fear that 75 years from now we will still be fussing over language at the UN while yet another generation of opportunities to promote lasting peace, development, climate health and global solidarity goes by the boards.

And perhaps of greatest concern from the standpoint of rescuing multilateralism from its increasingly vocal and dismissive critics, we have sanctioned reforms of this system without a commensurate commitment to change ourselves, to recover and then display some of the passion, curiosity and discernment that led us to choose this path of service in the first place.   We have heard often in this policy space, especially with regard to persons with disabilities and indigenous persons, that there must be “nothing about us without us.”  We need to apply a version of this to our current, urgent struggles to re-establish the credibility of multilateral engagement.   No restoration of multilateralism without a commitment to amend the ways we do our own business.  No restoration without, as the Secretary General stated well during the dialogue on multilateralism, the reform of how we communicate with each other, the degree to which we can be convincing in this difficult moment that others also have a voice in this space, that others also matter in this space, that others also have the ability to influence what happens in this space.

As the director of the Interparliamentary Union noted this week during a “culture of peace” panel, “the world is changing every day, tolerance is eroding every day, loud voices are calling for national solutions to global problems every day.  We must thus make the decision to change ourselves every day.”  The truth of the matter which she recognizes, which the outgoing PGA certainly recognizes as well, is that no sustainable reform of this institution, no “comeback” for multilateralism, will likely occur without the willingness to reform ourselves and, more specifically, the nature and content of our “contract” with both constituents and each other.  As the Russian Ambassador plainly reminded on Wednesday, this is collectively our UN. If we don’t like what we see “we need to look in the mirror.”  This goes for all of us who give less than we are able and dismiss more than we imagine.

And “we must get beyond acronyms,” the PGA chimed in, reassuring the global public that we in this still-august policy space are conversant with and have the will and the skills to tangibly and positively impact real human needs. To get there, as the SG noted, we must demonstrate the willingness to move beyond our current, unhealthy preoccupation with “coalitions of the willing,” eliminating the segregation associated with our modernist “super-clusters of cooperation.” And, we would add from out vantage point, we need to convince constituents that we are willing to take them more seriously — and ourselves less so.

Indeed, this “choir” of ours won’t be ready for its next moment in the spotlight until and unless all of us –states and stakeholders alike — agree to practice harder at blending our voices and thus bring to a close the “poor harmony” which is needlessly draining the patience and enthusiasm of our global audience.

Baby Face:  Ensuring the Well-being of those who Are (and Bear) Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Sep

Babies II

Remind me that the most fertile lands were built by the fires of volcanoes. Andrea Gibson

Having a baby’s sweet face so close to your own, for so long a time as it takes to nurse them, is a great tonic for a sad soul.  Erica Eisdorfer

A baby’s cry is precisely as serious as it sounds.  Jean Liedloff

For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.  Dag Hammarskjöld

Babies are such a nice way to start people.  Don Herold

A good bit of our collective energy in this part of the world was focused last week on the many miseries inflicted by Hurricane Dorian which stalled over the Bahamas before lurching towards and then away from the US (and now Canadian) East Coasts.

The potential violence and threatened frequency of such storms was not lost on a group of young people (including Greta Thunberg) who sat outside the UN in Hammarskjöld Park at mid-day Friday holding up signs and enthusiastically chanting as part of an effort to stave off the potential extinction which the rest of us are still not taking seriously enough.  The youth sat huddled as the windy arms of Dorian swept over the park, bringing both intermittent rain and modest attentiveness from the UN community and other passersby.

Before joining the youth in the park I and many colleagues had just left what was billed as a “pledging event” for candidates for election to the Human Rights Council.   All candidates (save for Venezuela) were in the Trusteeship Council Chamber to explain to their colleagues why they should be elected to this important if controversial body.   Most focused less on their current human rights performance (especially Brazil) than on their fidelity to the mechanisms through which the Council conducts its oversight and assessment, including and especially the Universal Periodic Review.   But some candidates such as Armenia and the Netherlands, but also current Security Council members Germany, Indonesia and Poland, stressed the importance of human rights to peace and security progress, merely one dimension of the “cross cutting” manner in which UN agencies and member states increasingly seek to do their business.

We couldn’t agree more with such cross-cutting interests.  As Germany noted during the session, our human rights commitments should flow from a deeper commitment to the values and responsibilities of multilateralism (more on this next week); that they should not be seen as the “hobby horse” of western societies but as an essential means of ensuring health and well-being, safety and justice for more and more of the world’s peoples.  Whether on an existential threat like climate change (stressed in this session by the Marshall Islands and Poland) or on ensuring safety and access to reproductive health for mothers and girls, the UN’s human rights agenda must continue to evolve as a web of connected concerns that binds us in mindful, practical compassion as much as in policy.

Earlier in the week the director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr. Natalia Kanem, made presentations on her agency’s work as part of a “joint executive board” session with the UN’s Development Program (UNDP) and Program Services (UNOPS).  Dr. Kanem has ably steered UNFPA through some difficult waters, having taken over in 2017 upon the sudden death of her predecessor, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.  One highlight of her formal presentation was when she conveyed a message by young girls to their political leaders:  “We want to stay in school, marry only when we are ready to do so, and seek and receive help from others to fulfill our dreams.”

More than other UN agencies, UNFPA remains sensitive to the “unfulfilled promises” of reproductive rights and health made 25 years ago at an international conference in Cairo:  delivering a world (as UNFPA’s mantra goes) where “every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.” But as UNFPA prepares for another major event this November in Nairobi, there is no escaping some unpleasant facts about our current world: too many exploited child brides having children they are not ready for; too many mothers without access to adequate pre-natal care before birth or adequate child care afterwards; too many babies born in less-than-sanitary conditions or conceived as the result of conflict-related sexual abuse; too many women suffering life-threatening complications from childbirth in societies that don’t prioritize their wellbeing; too many babies entering this life under discouraging conditions that could well color their educational and material prospects throughout their entire life spans.

And, as the UK noted during a UNFPA side event co-sponsored by Albania, there are too many states now in retreat regarding their commitment to reproductive health and rights, a phenomenon that is perhaps less about wishing ill health on babies and more about seeking to maintain some vestige of control over mothers and their reproductive choices, control over their educational and economic options, control over the autonomy and independence that our world badly needs to expand.

As Dr. Kanem would surely agree, we need to get over it.  We need to stop denying the links between babies being born under conditions of armed violence and other severe stresses, girls and boys whose dreams remain continually under threat, and mothers struggling to make ends meet while seeking to direct their children on a safer, healthier and more economically stable path.  As many of our societies seek to cope with an ageing demographic, and as we all seek to find a path forward towards sustainable development and climate health, we need to honor better those with the resolve to bear children in this messy world, in part by helping ensure that children are wanted, that the conditions of child birth are much less perilous, and that the entire reproductive cycle is both as empowering as possible for its participants and adequately resourced.

One of the very few positive stories emerging from Dorian was the births of several babies in Jacksonville, Florida hospitals as the storm passed by that region.   Whether or not the plunging barometric pressure associated with a massive arriving storm caused these women to go into labor, the benefits of childbirth in a modern hospital – with attending nurses, ample medicines and in the worst case scenario, a hospital built to code complete with backup generators – virtually ensured that even babies born in the midst of a hurricane were safe and (we assume) wanted.

But in too many conflict and crisis zones, in too many places of material and social deprivation, babies and their mothers have no such assurances, nor do the girls who survived their own early childhood challenges.  We desperately need healthy and hopeful children who can take their places alongside the youth now striking for climate healing and a more peaceful planet.  And we desperately need more empowered mothers who can show us – and their progeny – the way forward on political empowerment, peacebuilding and sustainable development.

We have yet to fully embrace these obligations, let alone satisfy them.  As Dr. Kanem rightly said during the UNFPA side event, “enough is enough.”   This should be the message that adorns every doorway when diplomats meet in Nairobi later this year.

Union Station:  A Labor Day Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

1 Sep

If suddenly the whole workers of the whole world disappear then the whole world will stop!  Mehmet Murat ildan

And there are so much easier ways to destroy a woman. You don’t have to rape her or kill her; you don’t even have to beat her. You can just marry her. You don’t even have to do that. You can just let her work in your office for thirty-five dollars a week.  Marilyn French

What our generation failed to learn was the nobility of work. An honest day’s labor. The worthiness of the man in the white socks who would pull out a picture of his grandkids from his wallet. For us, the factory would never do. And turning away from our birthright – our grandfather in the white socks – is the thing that ruined us.  Charlie LeDuff

Butter was plastered on to the roll with no regard for the hard labor of the cowKate Atkinson

I was in a large international airport recently with a bit of time on my hands to watch a British Airways flight park at the gate and then be literally surrounded by service workers helping people off the plane, refueling and re-servicing the aircraft, downloading luggage and then cargo, wandering around the perimeter looking for cracks in the hull or worn tires or some other problem that would require immediate attention before the plane could fly again.  Close to where I was standing, people were selling coffee, newspapers and duty free items.  Flight attendants in colorful uniforms chatted with gate agents while waiting their turn to manage an outgoing flight.  TSA agents were on break from dealing with long lines of passengers anxiously (and in some instances angrily) waiting to be screened before take off.  In the distance, men and women were working in the receding but still-hot sun to repair a run-down runway that can stand up to the demands of heavier planes and more frequent landings.

It has been quite some time since I could register as a “fan” of flying.  Planes are cramped.  Service is uneven.  Screening lines can be interminable.  Transportation options to and from the airports I am most inclined to use are stuck in some bygone era.   We all know the drill and we mostly all know that flying should be less of an option given its contribution to climate change.

But this is Labor Day weekend and the airport scene has given rise to a couple of positive thoughts.  First, that part of why flying is an occasionally miserable experience is because it has become a more accessible one.  While they might not ever qualify for “elite status,” more people can find the means – and the fares – to visit some of the places they have perhaps long dreamed of; they have been able to turn a bit of hard-earned and sometimes even hard-fought income into a bit of family pampering.  Flying may not be romantic anymore, nor is it eco-friendly in any sense, but planes are now routinely filled with people making trips of a lifetime alongside fellow travelers making something more akin to trips of the week.

Beyond that, my airport scene was a reminder of just how many competent people are required to make the travel experience safe and relatively convenient.  From the chefs and mechanics to the pilots and gate agents, that so many planes filled with so many people get to their destinations more or less on time and in one piece is something of a miracle.  That most of these airport magicians work for wages which would shock many of us; that most are given absolutely no thought by the rest of us until and unless our baggage is missing or our coffee is cold; that most are considered marginal to this complex process when, in fact, the process would utterly break down without them; this is part of the modern mind-set with respect to labor, the trend to grant respect as a function of income and title rather than of competency and collaboration.

For in an age of gross and growing economic inequalities, in a time when more people have college degrees (with loans and expectations to match) than viable career options, we are strangely inclined to “root for riches,” to long for those times when we can “rub shoulders” with the wealthy and famous, the people who have “made it,” in too-many cases by putting their own interests – and those of their investment partners – well ahead of the well-being of their fellow workers.

I have no metric at hand to calculate the degree to which this current “gilded age” is more or less corrupt and mean-spirited than previous iterations.  But it has surely set a high bar for celebrity worship and stoked an often-petty competition for economic and educational opportunity at local levels.   Somehow, despite the testimony of our own senses, we have managed to misplace the basic insight that our celebrities and economic elites will be nowhere to be found when a tire punctures on the highway or our children need to overcome reading deficiencies; when our groceries need to be bagged and carried to our vehicles, or when our blood pressure starts soaring to dangerous levels.   Moreover, we seem remarkably content to let our commerce and consumption flow through our ubiquitous “devices,” ensuring that “we” get what “we” want without worrying about having to put a human face on any part of that transaction, including on the labor needed to produce our purchase in the first instance.  Indeed the only “face” associated with what is often highly complex and very human consumption is the fake smile on the ubiquitous brown boxes now waiting outside our doors; perhaps also adorning the bill that we will pay when and if we are able.

One of our favorite UN agencies is the International Labor Organization, an entity that actually pre-dates the UN and which has long advocated for labor standards that are rights-based, increasingly applicable to workers of all backgrounds (including migrants), dedicated to eliminating all forms of forced labor and economic slavery, and which allow for the bargaining that can help to ensure a livable wage for all, including and especially the toil of “all” who, among their other miracles, make today’s obscene riches and middle class conveniences possible.  The institutional memory of the ILO can call up many instances of abuses directed towards workers, as well as boardroom and state decisions to enhance shareholder value and consumer access at the expense of those who toil in fields and warehouses, with sometimes grave implications for their families and communities as well.

I have often walked or driven down major streets in parts of my still-affluent country — New Jersey or Oklahoma, Florida or North Carolina — and paid close attention to the small businesses and chain stores that occupy storefronts or populate small shopping malls.   And while I’ve had my share of jobs in such places, I cannot imagine what it must be like to work behind those counters and cash registers day after day, year after year, trying to keep a business or even a simple livelihood afloat while also preserving the often-fragile security for their families.

And, perhaps ironically, I who sit daily and help navigate policy in a powerful place have greater need for some of these people than they will ever have for me.   I need the socks they are selling to replace the ones with holes in them; I need the pizza they are selling when I forget to eat lunch; I need their skills to service our balky copy machine; I need the dish soap and paper towels that keep my semblance of an apartment reasonably clean; I need others to respond when I have interns to credential or taxes to prepare; I even need their baseball opinions while I’m cashing out my beer purchases.

Our lives are punctuated by an ever-increasing tapestry of skills and capacities that we barely recognize and often denigrate, the people whose labor should (but often doesn’t) confer the dignity that my own work confers routinely; and this despite the fact that it is sometimes unclear what we do, practically speaking, for anyone else. Indeed, if we add value beyond the confines of our UN bubble, it is shining a supportive lens on the marginal and forgotten, not as a category of need but of promise, the promise of skills, energy and passion that can contribute more to making the world we say we want and are in serious danger of losing.

The other day in the paper, a couple of CEOs were quoted in ways that appeared to reverse what has been a generation of economic orthodoxy — that the role of business leadership was primarily to serve the interests of the investment class.  As our friends at Georgia Tech’s Scheller School remind us regularly, the “servant leadership” we (and they) speak of often seems to be catching on in some of our previously “tone deaf” board rooms.  Perhaps we are finally coming to recognize that the “status” of labor is not intrinsic to the task but is a function of our ability to honor both the hard work that sustains our lives and the positive identities that accrue when work is duly respected and fairly compensated. Perhaps we are coming to recognize that a social and economic system capable of weathering the current storms that threaten will require much more from us – including more “horizontal” care and respect – than our current stew amply seasoned with overly-branded leadership and bloated salaries to match.

Perhaps a bit like the rest of us, people at or near the top of our current economic food chain like to think that they have “earned” their lofty place in the world.  But an honest review of any one of our increasingly complex institutions and social structures makes clear that we are where we are – no matter who we are — because other people helped place us there. I cannot do what I am so fortunate to do in this world without the contributions of countless (often under-compensated and under-appreciated) people – in my neighborhood of course but also in places like El Salvador where too many toil under conditions over which they have little control and from which they receive insufficient benefit.

In this condition of dependency, I am not at all an isolated case; but hopefully becoming a more mindful and grateful one.