Archive | February, 2020

Forwarding Address: Enabling Escape from Desolate Places, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Feb

homeless

Bleak, dark, and piercing cold, it was a night for the well-housed and fed to draw round the bright fire, and thank God they were at home; and for the homeless starving wretch to lay him down and die.   Charles Dickens

The things that currently keep us busy and occupy most of our time do not necessarily give us purpose or leave a legacy.  Terence Lester

A castaway in the sea was going down for the third time when he caught sight of a passing ship. Gathering his last strength, he waved frantically and called for help. Someone on board peered at him scornfully and shouted back, “Get a boat!”  Daniel Quinn

What we fail to realize is that simple kindness can go a long way toward encouraging someone who is stuck in a desolate place. Mike Yankoski

One of the great blessings of this job is the openings it is constantly creating for us to connect with people making hopeful change in diverse community contexts, from sustainable agriculture to art that inspires peacemaking.   Indeed, it is a priority of ours to maintain such connections with projects that correspond to each of the many issues we monitor and weigh in on at the United Nations.  The point of this is simple – to foster engagements with people and issues as they play out beyond the policy bubble in which we spend most of our time.  This constitutes a “reality check” of sorts for us.  If the people doing good work in these diverse contexts don’t feel connected to this policy space, don’t feel inspired or challenged by what goes on here, don’t care much for what we and others attempt to do here, then this is a huge problem for us, a problem of basic connectivity that we have pledged to address and don’t always address well enough.

In this context, one of our most cherished connections is with the Institute for Leadership & Entrepreneurship at Georgia Tech University where, thanks to the encouragement of Dr. Robert Thomas, I am privileged to speak to students of business and engineering at least twice a year.  The Institute houses many interesting and inspirational initiatives including a favorite of mine – models of “servant leadership” that can re-calibrate the way businesses (and other institutions) are organized, helping them to become less bureaucratic and more “horizontal” in the ways in which employees and their ideas are regarded, supported, even cherished.

At some level, this would appear to be odd connection for Global Action — an NGO that can barely meet its basic expenses — addressing students who can easily be compensated more in their first year of employment than I have ever been compensated in any year of employment.  And yet there is synergy evident here, a welcome desire among many of the young people to make the skills they have developed serve more than a personal interest, to have a greater outcome on the state of the world and their own communities than the size of their homes and bank balances — to find a purpose as well as a career.

This is never an easy conversation for even the most issue-enthusiastic students, who often have their social aspirations tempered by parental expectations and ever-ubiquitous loan payments. Moreover, with regard to the UN buildings in which we attempt to do our own work, they exhibit both intrigue and skepticism.  They are often cautiously interested in what takes place at the center of global governance but they primarily seek connections with problems a bit closer to home, problems for which their skills and aptitudes are both needed and well suited, problems which present themselves in direct ways that can sustain the interest of students and their peers, raising the hope that they might actually — someday, somehow —  be resolved once and for all.

During these lecture sessions, I generally resist telling them too much about what goes on at the UN.  It would be too easy to dwell on global problems that we try in our own modest way to address every day – from climate change and human displacement to weapons of mass destruction and the Middle East – but about which the students can currently do little.  It might be interesting to unpack the situation in NE Syria, cyber-threats to peace and security, or the US “deal of the century” on Israel and Palestine that has generated far more skepticism than support inside the UN, but it might also be a distraction from what these skillful students seem to be looking for – pathways to their own participation that can result in meaningful, tangible change.

One possible pathway to making a more sustainable world has been a focus theme this week of the UN’s Commission for Social Development — Affordable housing and social protection systems for all to address homelessness.   As many of you already recognize, housing is an issue that is fundamental to meeting our responsibilities to the Sustainable Development Goals, especially to those left “furthest behind.” It is also an issue with both local and global implications that presents abundant opportunities for practical applications of kindness and justice. From the people lining the streets of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco to people relegated to tent cities and makeshift shelters from Tripoli to Cox’s Bazar, the vast (and growing) numbers of people who have been shut out of a resource that most of us cannot imagine ourselves without should surely be a matter of our most sustained concern.

That more of us cannot find in ourselves the stamina and kindness needed to engage these “shut out” persons and others who now find themselves in “desolate places” is in part an indictment of our compromised capacity for practical compassion. But it also reflects our diminished sense of confidence that we possess the emotional and worldly skills to make deep, meaningful connections and contribute to real relief for those who have literally been “uprooted” by conflict or climate change, by abuses of rights and threats of further abuse, by sudden changes to marital or employment status, or by other personal circumstances often beyond their control.  This is challenging work, plain and simple, and it is easy to delude ourselves regarding our fitness to engage it.

And impediments to competence are diverse.   While at the Institute earlier this month, I read one of the student groups a quote from the ever-thoughtful Alison Taylor.  Commenting on the current ethical lapses of the business community, she highlights the “disconnects” that exist as corporations brand and “manage their perimeters” as a way of keeping the core of their operations largely intact. Taylor highlights the sometimes-vast hypocrisy of policies that, for instance, tout environmental commitments “while funding trade associations that lobby against climate change efforts” or employing contractors who work without either healthcare coverage or a livable wage.

These nefarious gaps between “rhetoric and action,” these efforts to defend the perimeter as a strategy to keep from having to change our “core ways” are not news to Institute students nor are they confined to corporate interests.  Indeed, it is getting harder and harder for any of us to believe that there is substance underpinning the rhetorical flourishes we encounter, whether personal or institutional.  But we must find a way past this if we are to sustain the change that we need and that a new generation of students seeks to impact.  We must commit harder to establish our credibility at core level while we find pathways to compassion and kindness and the application of skills that can turn empathy for those hanging on amidst exposed and vulnerable conditions into housing (and related) needs solved.

The issue of housing and homelessness in all its dimensions is one that should surely motivate more of our concern and interest.  It is, thankfully, an issue that seems well-suited to the skills sets of many of the young people who cross our path.  However, like many issues of this sort, response to the of a growing legion of dispossessed is an affair of the heart as much as the head, a heart of compassion and attentiveness to the staggering, existential differences that separate the conditions and life options of those with a stable home and those without one.

For virtually all of my adult years, I have been blessed with a secure apartment, functional appliances, heat (more or less) in the winter, a hot water shower, and an address where people have been able to reach me (and my guest room) reliably over several decades.  The life that I live, the commitments we make, the sometimes dubious mental health that I enjoy, the people who honor the work we do with their words and contributions, all this would be virtually inconceivable lacking these basic assurances.

Around the corner, around the world, such assurances are, indeed, woefully lacking. For those in policy but also for younger voices seeking a greater, compassion-based purpose in an often-hurting world,  we invite you to invest more in securing the stable dwellings for others that we so utterly rely on for ourselves.

House Warming: Fixing the Thermostat on our Environmental Health, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Feb

Nature is not a place to visit. It is home. Gary Snyder

The sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself. Rachel Carson

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

The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures, and people. Wendell Berry

Home is where my habits have a habitat. Fiona Apple

How foolish to believe we are more powerful than the sea or the sky. Ruta Sepetys

The themes which run through much of the work of the UN in these precarious times are many, but can actually be placed in a couple of large and inter-related bins – the things we need to do better for the people with whom we share this earthly home, and the things we need to change about our relationship to our home itself, changes that can address at least some of the damage that we have willfully inflicted on our climate, our oceans, our biodiversity, our agriculture.

The first of these bins is quite large indeed and contains tools and norms for stopping and resolving conflict, protecting human rights, guaranteeing political and cultural participation, rolling back the excess production of weapons, responding effectively to humanitarian emergencies, ensuring decent work for people, especially young people, improving access to health and education for all, but especially for children and persons with disabilities…

You get the idea. These and more are part of our collective effort – often enabled by the UN — to better “humanize” our human relations, to provide a context for overcoming at least some of the callousness and cruelty that too-often dominate our political and economic relations. UN events on hate speech, counter-terror and excess weapons production this past week are but three examples of multi-lateral efforts to enhance prospects for and conditions of security for global constituents.

And then there are those responsibilities in that other “bin” which are about protecting the quality of human life on a planetary home towards which our species has created incalculable disruption and about which we still mostly fail to make good faith efforts that clearly convey the origins and nature of the crisis facing these eco-“co-authors” of our very existence. Here we speak of the natural treasures we claim to revere but to not sufficiently protect; the soils and insects that make our sustenance feasible but to which we pay scant attention; the climate now altering our home in frightening ways and now on the cusp of permanence but which have inspired mostly half-hearted responses and half-fulfilled commitments.

The UN has a constructive role to play here as well, given its ability to convene diplomats, scientists, NGOs, youth and others to highlight major eco-challenges.   The preparatory meetings held this week in New York for a June conference on oceans in Lisbon brought the potential and limitations of such convening to light. Despite robust enthusiasm from diplomats and a full gallery of NGOs, and noting with appreciation fresh efforts to “green” the shipping industry and approach other of what UN Special Envoy Thomson called “positive tipping points,”’ we were fearful that, much like the recent climate summit in Madrid, this could well be yet another event as likely to disappoint as to inspire, and this despite the contention of some key speakers that Lisbon could indeed be a “game changing” moment.

The reasons for our concern are, to our mind at least, quite clear. There is, on the face of it, value to be had in bringing a diverse range of stakeholders together to discuss the current state of ocean health and explore the gaps that need to be filled (including on ocean science) if we are to seize our responsibility to protect a living entity that is more than a recreational destination, more than a source of protein and recreation, more than a “sink” for our carbon excesses.

But this begs the question: Is there reason to believe that massive UN conferences that are so costly in human energy, hospitality and carbon emissions are actually able to “change the game” on matters of fundamental importance to our survival? Is the Lisbon event really going to move the needle on the “equitable prosperity” called for this week by Kenya, the enhanced ocean governance called for by the UN Office for Legal Affairs? Will it be successful in convincing the global public, as advocated by Portugal’s Minister of Oceans, that our leadership will no longer be satisfied with “half measures” on oceans instead of genuine transformation “that is urgent and fair?”

Perhaps. But events alone will not get us to the sustainable future on which our children’s lives depend.

What is missing?   From our vantage point in the middle of these global discussions, we have not yet made the case to enough people that the situation is as perilous as it actually is, that the earth and its oceans which house our collective aspirations are as “sick” as Envoy Thomson claimed this past week.   Moreover, and perhaps more important, we have not convinced people that we as erstwhile leaders are willing to make the hard choices needed to divert this course, to change the way we do our own business and not merely externalize concern to what we have already concluded are the “bad actors.”

Why, for instance, do we insist on holding large events which waste resources, burn carbon, and create often-tepid outcomes for which few leaders are actually held accountable? Why have we not made better use of the technology now available to enable participation by a wider range of stakeholders who might otherwise and rightly be deterred by the eco-consequences of long-distance air travel and four-star hotels?

And why do people like me tend to hold on to issues at global level instead of enabling the localizing of environmental concerns, the people who best know their lands and waterways and understand their neighbors, the people who can make the case for loving a home enough to preserve and protect it, certainly more than any diplomat or global “expert” ever could? Over the past few days, thanks to the great generosity of two old friends, I was privileged to see local initiatives in rural Mississippi and Louisiana, young people of very modest means, together with the adults who teach and mentor them, working the land and producing crops for local sale that are raising community nutrition levels, bringing people together and restoring community pride – and all without poisoning community relations or the local environment.

Indeed, these young people were described by one of my friends as “smart, connected to each other, knowledgeable, hopeful, proud and going places.” Who better to vouch for the preciousness of their home places? Who better to call things by their proper, local names while bringing attention to these oft-forgotten places of cultural and agricultural abundance? Who better to restore the reverence of home places as the condition for helping such places to thrive?

Like the rest of our threatened biosphere, the care and restoration of our oceans must be led by the people who know them best, the people whose every thought seems to take the ocean into account.   If the UN is determined to keep holding grand events that, to some degree, threaten the decay of our environmental home in the name of preserving it, then such events must fundamentally change their face — ensuring every technological opportunity for “greener access,” allowing for more active listening to persons closer to our lands and seas, and fully acknowledging the search of diverse peoples for deep meanings and even a bit of romance for the home places that can inspire actions in all corners of our world for a cooler, healthier, more bio-diverse planet.

Together with our friends and colleagues, we will use whatever access and leverage we have to make the case for policy that reverences local initiatives as the beating heart of efforts to lower the global thermostat and allow for the restoration of the bio-abundance that once adorned our earthly home.

Our Time: Leveraging a More Sustainable Unknown, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Feb

Wilderness

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life. Jane Addams

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are people who want crops without ploughing the groundFrederick Douglass

Is it possible that a mass is improved by the improvement of only one part and the other part is ignored?  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Every human is fated to have one moment in their lives in which they can change their own destinyTakayuki Yamaguchi

I know that it is hard for one who has held the reins for so long to give up; it cuts like a knife. It will feel all the better when it closes up again.  Sojourner Truth

In principle, therefore, the more dizzyingly diverse the images that are propagated, the more empowered we will be as a societyPatricia J. Williams

As January in New York drew to a (blessed) close, and despite rumblings regarding the spread of the coronavirus, a massive Caribbean earthquake, and the launch of a Mideast “peace plan” more likely to cause than resolve regional violence, we had to acknowledge that this has been a good week for our tiny organization.  We welcomed new interns and re-welcomed older ones; we have fresh evidence that our writing and advocacy (even our media work) is helping people in various global settings find their footing; and we have celebrated the formation of new partnerships with persons and organizations earning newly-enhanced status at the UN and with a demonstrated ability to open doors to policy and service that we could never open on our own.

The week for us was bracketed by a long interview with Global Connections Television on Monday and a Friday evening reception for younger advocates in our small, shared 49th Street office.   In between, there were numerous UN meetings on issues from the unresolved security threats plaguing Libya and the Central African Republic to discussions on appropriate measure for countering terrorist threats as well as how best to integrate our collective commitments to sustainable development and peacebuilding.

As is typical for UN conversations of this sort, the discourse in most of these conference rooms was earnest but not particularly urgent, competent but not particularly determined. Those of us who have had some time at the policy controls have presided over a period of significant successes but have also not done enough to reverse the deficits of trust that continue to plague multilateralism.  We who speak with increasingly frequency (as do current Security Council members such as the Dominican Republic and St. Vincent and the Grenadines) about the need to incorporate more youth voices into global policy continue to experience discomfort when the hands of youth reach out to share the steering wheel, or when young people wave their metaphorical tickets impatiently (often anxiously) in the hope that we older folks will recognize that we’ve used our own privilege to stay on the ride longer than the rules permit, that it is time to make the seats available for a fresher set of “paying customers.”

I get the sense that we who have been in this “business” (perhaps too) long sometimes forget what it is like to face an uncertain future, to prepare to jump into an unknown that is one part scary, one part exhilarating, regarding which younger persons know (as we once knew) that at some level we are simply unprepared to manage (let alone control) what comes next.  Will we experience the start a new war whose outcomes and consequences we can’t handle?   Will we be able to adjust to what are now virtually irreversible climate threats?  Will we have the strength of character to welcome the increasing number of displaced who are likely to show up on our shifting shores?  Do we have what it takes to ensure that “the good we secure for ourselves” can be made available to others? Can we, as Mexico and Ireland suggested this week in different UN meeting rooms, create viable action plans on peace and sustainable development to supplement what is often mere “thinking and believing” on our part?

The young people standing in line waiting for us older folks to get off the ride can’t escape the dizzying heights and unsettling tremors that they are set to experience.   That so many of our younger colleagues are still prepared to have their tickets punched for this uncertain journey is both laudable and gratifying.  As we all shared together on Friday evening, I was reminded of a favorite song, “This is Our Time” by WILD, a tune about finding the light that shines somewhere up ahead in the “open wide,” about running straight into the unknown instead of holding back – or stepping out of line altogether.  If you’ve only heard snippets of this song as background for an automobile commercial on US television, I invite you to have a listen.  In its entirety, it is a lovely reminder of the courage that life requires, now more than ever, the courage to face an “open wide” that seems as likely to swallow young people whole as to set the table for their own great adventure, the courage that we older folks have largely domesticated in ourselves and too-often sought to domesticate in those who will follow.

But as we cautiously prepare to share the controls and ultimately relinquish them altogether, we still have work to do, work to make the “wilderness” of life a bit more predictable, a bit more fair; to open up more space for innovative thinking and determined action by a greater range of stakeholders; even to enable policy relationships that can refresh the whole of the created order and not merely one or more of its constituent parts; policy to help ensure that the unknown to which young people are destined can still yield forests instead of brownfields,  gardens instead of mine fields.

In that vein, earlier this week I was honored to help a friend prepare a talk to be given on Monday focused on the human rights dimensions of sustainable development.   This linkage might seem abstract to some, but as is recognized in policy discussions from counter-terror and peacebuilding to disaster risk reduction and food security, a human rights lens is essential to ensuring that the “promise” of sustainable development results in more — much more — than development alone.   Indeed, we recognize that the sustainability of any development is clearly threatened where social and economic inequalities remain rampant; where journalists and civil society leaders face harassment and arbitrary arrest for doing their jobs; where governments feel free to divert public resources from common to restrictive uses; where impunity for abuses fuels lasting trauma and deep despair; where weapons flow like tap water from erstwhile “licit” uses to instilling terror in local populations; where people of modest means in small island states continue to bear the brunt of lifestyle choices made in the richest nations; where children are denied an education — even a childhood — via the decisions of powerful (mostly) men and women in faraway places.

These and related problems are ones to which older folks can (and must) continue to make valuable, even life-saving contributions. And, yes, we can “agitate” for a healthier planet without “clinging to the reigns” or taking up seats on rides that have long needed to be vacated for others. Moreover, we can keep ourselves open to policy and other innovations that pave the way towards solutions to pressing global problems that have largely eluded us in our own time, solutions that demand greater policy integration together with a more “dizzyingly diverse” array of active contributors.

As the first draft of this post was being completed, the bells of nearby Riverside Church were pealing, calling some to put on their clothes and come to church services, but seemingly calling the rest of us within range to make a more hopeful and sustainable future come alive, to commit to “ploughing the ground” that is ours to cultivate such that we may continue to harvest a range of metaphorical”crops” with which to maintain our own lives and share with others.

Such sharing in all its dimensions must be sure touch the lives of our “younger others,” those whose breathless journeys into the “open wide” are only just beginning.