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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.

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.

Melancholy Moment:  Restoring an Unmanageable World, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Aug



I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow.  Edgar Allan Poe

He had the appearance of one who has searched for the leak in life’s gas-pipe with a lighted candle.  P.G. Wodehouse

As the current answers don’t do, one has to grope for a new one, and the process of discarding the old, when one is by no means certain what to put in their place, is a sad one.  Virginia Woolf

Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cures for depression.  Dodie Smith

Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  T.H. White

Here in the northern hemisphere, we are confronting the end of another summer.  The heat and humidity persist but the days shorten, the trees and bushes have lost much of their vitality, and the time sadly wanes in which we might grab just a bit of rest and outdoor recreation, time to be taken up all-too-soon with fall preparations and duties focused on our families and institutions.

Even for me, for whom this current period represents the best time of my life, I now also breathe a bit of an “atmosphere of sadness.”  Like some who feel pangs of melancholy at dusk, I grieve that we might not have what it takes to address current threats from cold and darkness: the shifting climate that impedes any residual semblance of normalcy, the people falling further and further behind; the stresses that seem to come out of nowhere and linger far too long; and of course the search for better “answers” in policy and practice as our current stable of solutions seem too-often akin to searching for “the leak in life’s gas pipe with a lighted candle.”

How the world “wags” now is a mixed blessing at best.  It will take many noble deeds from many sustainable sources, many public displays of service and discernment, many acts of courage and discomfort, if we are to get through this precarious time and heal the emotions that we neither confess nor control, feelings of gloom that dampen enthusiasm for even those activities and relationships that were once reliably joyful.

At breakfast this week with my friend and colleague Wendy Brawer, we discussed a range of sustainability issues and concerns which have been our obsession for many years at Green Map – from pollinators and parklands to bicycles and food security.   When I asked her about issues that have not gotten sufficient treatment, she mentioned “climate grief,” the sense of sadness that comes from knowing that our current trajectory is not at all sustainable and largely absent clear markers regarding how best to bend that arc and what our role in that bending could be.

I experience a bit of that grief despite the policy-privileged position that I find myself in every day – near the center of discussions about which we have some modest impact on strategies for a more peaceful and sustainable world.   Being near the center is accompanied by its own melancholy, of course, wrapped up in the policy compromises that prevent people from having the basic security and prosperity which should by now be our common inheritance. But “having a say,” being one of the “somebodies” that can do something about what collectively ails us, creates its own positive energy.

We at Global Action always have plenty to do, plenty to share (some helpful) on issues which these weeks range from international law to ocean governance, from the dispute over Kashmir to state-sponsored violence in Cameroon.  And yet there is also that nagging sense that we are not doing enough, nor with sufficient wisdom and nobility, to ensure that this time of metaphorical dusk will not descend into a colder, darker time.  As one commentator noted, with respect to climate change, we seem now to be like a passenger in a car speeding towards a cliff that we don’t acknowledge and without a clear strategy for diverting our course.  This metaphor could equally apply to our refugees and our weapons, our biodiversity and our fresh water supply.

For those raising children, for those who are still children themselves, this race-car scenario doensn’t offer much in the way of comfort nor much in the way of a path to transform some of the current melancholia into sustainable action.

Of course, climate grief is tied to other sources of emotional discomfort, from the ofen-bewildering and regularly escalating complexity of our “modern” lives to the self-protective and sometimes vicious manner in which we, formally and informally, engage the rest of the planet.  We defend within our circles what at times we would do better to renounce, and this current iteration of defensiveness seems less about the other and more about coping with the spoiled fruits of our own melancholia, our own fear of personal fraudulence and social impotence.  We know that something is seriously wrong; we know that we are literally being besieged (largely through our hand-held devices) by those desperate to persuade or distract us; but mostly all we seem to know to do in response is to aggressively defend and protect what is closest, to hope that, somehow, the looming and severe storms will magically pass over our self-made havens without us getting thoroughly drenched.

This epoch of high stress and higher anxiety that we are living through inclines us to medicate but not mediate; to demand from others what we neglect to offer ourselves; to cling to policies and practices that have long-lost their flavor in part because we refuse to adjust our speed to the cliff looming just over the horizon and in part because we no longer completely trust the authors of policy to take account of needs and aspirations of more than themselves and their “interests.”

There is simply too-little health in us.

But there remains another path, of simpler living and clearer thinking, of services gratefully offered and received, of governance at all levels compelled to help us release from their bottles only the genies that can inspire our better selves. We haven’t had such inspiration in what seems like quite some time.  This current wave of xenophobia and climate-obscuring narcissism is not entirely a creature of our present but has deep and complex roots.  Save for too-brief periods and circumstances, we have long been encouraged primarily to pursue the interests of self – and then to “shoot” in one form or another anyone who seems to threaten our various domiciles and dominions.

That other inspiration — to the service of others and to policies that might actually save us from ourselves — is not a matter of moral virtue but of common survival.   We know this somewhere deep in the recesses of our being, in the places that we collectively allow to generate more anxiety and fear than determination and empathy.  It is time to own up to and shed light on our legitimate melancholy but also to the still-potent change capacities and aspirations to which those feelings remain tied, and to do so before the often-beautiful light of dusk turns into a deeper and more foreboding darkness.

These are tough times.  They need not be the end of times.

Disappearing Act: The Struggle for Transparency and Humanity in Detention, Dr. Robert Zuber

11 Aug

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He didn’t worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.  Neil Gaiman,

The system does everything within its power to sever any physical or emotional links you have to anyone in the outside world. They want your children to grow up without ever knowing you. They want your spouse to forget your face and start a new life. They want you to sit alone, grieving, in a concrete box, unable even to say your last farewell at a parent’s funeral.  Damien Echols

Locks didn’t cure; they strangled.  Scott Westerfeld

God’s creatures who cried themselves to sleep stirred to cry again.  Thomas Harris

They keep us in our cells for a long time…  And, if we get out, we lug them with us on our shoulders;  Like a porter with a chest of goods.  Visar Zhiti

For me, one of the most compelling image from this often-dismal week belonged to a child in Mississippi whose father had just been arrested (with hundreds of others) by  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a child now seen crying in front of the cameras with little or nothing to reassure or comfort her, no promises that the cruelly-abrupt, information-starved distance between this child and the father on whom the quality of her life largely depends will not grow ever-longer.

This is how it is in too many places around the world.  People locked away without charges, without contact with loved ones, without anyone to defend their interests when they are brutalized, ostensibly for inconveniencing in some political or security sense the entities and their guards into whose hands they have now been forcefully committed.

The sad fact remains that in too many parts of the world, “criminal justice” is a system which refuses to scrutinize  its own conduct, which refuses to abide by its own principles, including principles governing humane treatment.  It is bad enough to arrest and detain arbitrarily.  It is another thing to prevent any thread of connection that can preserve a glimmer of hope for families and friends that their loved one will eventually be released with some measure of physical and emotional health intact.

The states that detain arbitrarily are as unlikely to concern themselves about the health and well-being of those released from prison as they were likely not concerned about their health and well-being while in detention. Indeed, it is to the benefit of unscrupulous governments that the often-grave damage lingering from forcible detention be plainly visible as a warning to the citizens beyond prison doors – all with whom the formerly abused comes in contact — that they need to watch their step, watch their words; that the psychic “strangulation” they now behold came from a facility that could easily enough have their own names engraved over a prison door.

This week the UN Security Council took up the matter of arbitrary detention and disappearances in Syria, a raucous discussion at times (including several heated exchanges between the UK and Syrian Ambassadors) that featured testimony from two Syrian activists who took umbrage at the failure of the Council to take a firm and united stand and end the suffering of those arbitrarily detained and abused during this 9 year conflict.  But these women also highlighted the suffering of the families who have endured the equally-long pain of official silence, of not knowing what is happening to loved ones, where they are being held, how they are being treated, how long their isolation might continue.  Information, even if it only references the remains of persons who have “left this world” without a fair trial, even that would provide families some small comfort.

For we human beings — faced with a cruel information void such as this — can often and easily imagine the worst.  In cases like those described in Syria, with practices such as torture and disappearances experiencing a resurgence in some regions, such vivid and horrifying imagining comes much too easily.  One can only guess what that Mississippi girl must now fear in her deepest parts, for herself and her own future, but also for her perhaps permanently absented father.

As many of you who peruse this space know, we maintain a close affiliation with the Paris-based organization FIACAT, in part because of its faith-base, in part because of its strong connections to the protection of human rights in Burundi and across Africa, and in part because they keep focus on what used to be at the core of human rights concerns – torture, arbitrary detention and forced disappearances — abuses that place individuals in mortal jeopardy, families in unrelenting sorrow, and communities in perpetual fear.

As the UN’s human rights mechanisms have grown more sophisticated, if not always more effective, and as the “menu” of human rights obligations and concerns expands in important ways, it is perhaps a bit easier to overlook the detention-related damage that continues to be inflicted by abusive states and officials in many parts of the world, states that seem to have forgotten their obligation to ensure that criminal justice embodies transparency of process, respect for both prisoner rights and information for loved ones, and in the best of all worlds a practical commitment to restoration more than punishment.

This “forgetting” is a stain on Syria’s government to be sure, and we welcome the Secretary-General’s commitment to a process of inquiry which will hopefully obtain the access needed to expose, remediate and eventually even prosecute and begin healing for the conditions and perpetrators highlighted this past week by the Syrian women.

But Syria is not at all our only problem; its prisons are not our only scourge.  At the UN this week during an event on “Peace and the Brain,” an NYU Psychology Professor noted that the times require firm commitments to adaptation as well as to ensuring that the darker sides of “consciousness” are held at bay.   Species like ours with “voracious appetites,” he noted, including the appetite to abuse, might well not survive this current “extinction moment.”  A youth speaker at the same event took up a similar theme, underscoring  the relationship between “human greed and social disorder.”

Where abuses such as disappearances reign, where “yesterday has already brought” some of the worst pain and isolation humans are capable of inflicting, we must all continue to push for access, information, rights and justice.  But we must also save some of our focus for the long-term psychic impacts of our appetites to abuse and disappear – the trust that continually eludes our grasp, the access to services we cannot promptly secure, the scars from cells that prisoners display long after their release, the tears of now-abandoned young children for whom sleep offers only temporary relief.

Nelson Mandela once quipped that we cannot truly know a society until we have been in its prisons.   In too many parts of our world, that narrative remains needlessly ugly, needlessly distanced from our better selves. We seem driven now to dig a deeper hole than we collectively have the skill and capacity to extricate ourselves.

It’s past time to put away that shovel.