Tag Archives: sustainability

Pajama Party: Impediments to Rescuing the Commons, Dr. Robert Zuber

20 Oct


The way things are supposed to work is that we’re supposed to know virtually everything about what they [the government] do: that’s why they’re called public servants. They’re supposed to know virtually nothing about what we do: that’s why we’re called private individuals. Glenn Greenwald

To claim the affection and to do the spying. It is something not wrong, but the danger. Ehsan Sehgal

Of course I’m not going to look through the keyhole. That’s something only servants do. I’m going to hide in the bay window. Penelope Farmer

Harry swore to himself not to meddle in things that weren’t his business from now on. He’d had it with sneaking around and spying.  J.K. Rowling

On Friday afternoon, in the presence of Dr. John Burroughs of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy and Dr. Bonnie Jenkins – formerly the US National Threat Coordinator – we met with a group of our younger activists regarding threats to their future and what older folks like me need to do differently such that their stake in a future clouded by weapons, climate and other threats can be better magnified and encouraged.

We try to have these conversations on a regular basis, in part because of our deep respect for the people we are blessed to attract into our space, in part because the list of threats seems ever to be growing and shifting, and in part because few (in this work at least) offered us the same opportunities for sharing and disclosure way back when we were the younger ones.

I have often said, jokingly, that when I was younger, I spent most of my time catering to whims of older persons; now that I am older I spend a good bit of time catering to the whims of young persons.  Perhaps it has always been so.  Perhaps it must always be so.  Indeed, one of the tests of character that we subtly employ here is the “test” of concern for generations to come, the recognition that those in their 20s and 30s are not, in fact, the last generation but merely the latest in a sequence to “come of age” with younger persons nipping at their heals, needing guidance from them now about how to navigate the treacherous spaces relentlessly unfolding in the global commons.

Part of this mentoring responsibility involves the courage to assess the risks coming into view and not only the ones that are widely known.  We “know” about threats from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.  We “know” about threats from climate change and biodiversity loss, though we often organize our lives as though we don’t.  We “know” that economic and social inequalities are still growing, though here in NY’s privileged spaces we tend to evaluate the success of our lives within narrow peer bandwidths, failing to appreciate the many advantages that have allowed us entry into the economic and policy “pods” we now jealously guard.

And we seem to assume (or wish) fervently that technology will somehow enable our collective rescue, that we will find the precise coding that will allow our machines to deflect incoming meteors, “eat” the carbon that is warming our atmosphere, skim the plastics off the surface of our dying oceans, and “blockchain” our way to more efficient and ethical means to link productive capacity and consumer demand.

And it might eventually be able do all of those things.  But in the meantime, we are also guilty of enabling technology of a different sort, enabling it to essentially run amok beyond the control of government and multilateral institutions, making more and more decisions for us that, at both a personal and institutional level, we feel less and less able (and inclined) to resist. From self-driving cars and autonomous weapons to highly sophisticated surveillance that, more and more, relies on the phones that have become deeply embedded in our psychology as well as our logistics, we have largely abandoned scrutiny of a force that to some now seems as inevitable as our genetics and hormones.

The UN has not remained entirely aloof from these concerns. In a report recently released by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, the authors made clear that, for all their potential and realized benefits, global digital platforms tend to further  “accentuate and consolidate” wealth and power rather than “reducing inequalities within and between countries.” Moreover, at a Mexico-sponsored “Youth Migration Film Forum” event this week, the highly moving films about the value and dignity of migrant youth were punctuated by cautious referrals to the high-tech surveillance on both sides of the US-Mexico border that mostly reinforces caricatures of migrants as disembodied threats rather than as human beings with families, aspirations, skills and faith.

And during a session of the UN General Assembly Third Committee, the ever-thoughtful Philip Alston gave his final report as the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, during which he spoke about the ways in which technology is now insulating and intimidating rather than liberating persons living in poverty.  He spoke passionately about the largely “human rights-free zone” characteristic of much big technology, the degree to which surveillance of the poor (and the rest of us) is being used by the governance and investment classes to “punish” persons who use “our” money for purposes that the authorities don’t approve of.  As he (sadly for us) ends his mandate, Alston urged creation of a “shared language of human rights” that can help us avoid the collective (and very real) danger of “stumbling zombie-like into a “digital welfare dystopia” where decisions about human beings are based on algorithms rather than relationships, on the need to control rather than the need to assist. Indeed, in a world where many people trust their phones more than their neighbors, this “dystopia” warning is not as far-fetched as it might initially appear.  Our interns certainly took it very seriously.

Part of the solution clearly lies in technological oversight, in resurrecting the role of the state to protect people from excessive interference from the technologists – and from the governments themselves. Clearly, the “surveillance culture” of our time has impacts, not only for migrants and the poor, but for others who seek to defend their rights and interests, to any effort to reaffirm the importance of public spaces and values not subject to private priorities. Much time at the UN now, including this week, is properly devoted to increasing attacks on civil society, activists or journalists, anyone who dares to defy “the norm.”  But in too many instances, under-regulated state interests and private-sector technologies are aligned in a desire to shrink and securitize public spaces.  Even UN spaces.

At another event at the UN this past week on “public space in a digital age,” UN-HABITAT brought together a variety of experts who critiqued “sanitized, securitized” and highly expensive development priorities such as NYC’s “Hudson Yards.” Such priorities often lead to the neglect of public spaces more conducive to personal engagement, spaces that can help people connect to each other and inject dimensions of “playfulness and plurality” into communities in ways that enable and enhance both personal connection and the “emotional health that we in this city (and in so many others) badly need.

This session was full of insight, much of which was directly relevant to this post:  the suggestion that “citizens are not aware of how social media now allows private actors to create, define and surveil public space,” the degree to which digital space encourages narrow mindedness while public space tends to cultivate “broad mindedness,” and the sense that in healthy environments, personal relationships must take sequential precedence over their digital counterparts.  Amazon, one speaker half-joked, “wants us to live our entire lives in our pajamas,” engaging the digital realm as consumers of goods and gossip while eschewing the risks associated with that “playfulness and plurality” which only public spaces can deliver.

I can only speak for myself here, but I don’t want a life without risk, nor do I want a life dominated by technology over which I have no control, one which offers me products I don’t want and promises to “save” me from “threats” that, to my mind at least, are less threatening than the steady erosion of personal freedom, respect for diverse voices, and some semblance of privacy.   I would also much rather sit in a Bronx park watching children play than walk the High Line with tourists and their selfie-sticks.

As one of the youth delegates at the “Migration Film Forum” rightly noted, technology can in fact create new contexts for inclusion.  But this is mostly true when we sequence it properly, when technology becomes merely the means to extend connection, not give it birth.  We may be collectively too addicted now to our devices, too willing to forgive them for digitalizing our complex life preferences, keeping us in our sleeping clothes, and spying on every idea and action our lives are capable of generating.

But unless we can find the courage to resist and reshape that addiction, to re-personalize the spaces and relationships that are now, too-often, providing little more than digital fuel for Alston’s “dystopia,” this self-inflicted “pajama party” is not going to end well.  We cannot go on “claiming affection” while spying on each other, judging each other by what we find in some random database rather than what we know from our own direct engagements.

The lesson here seems clear: when we cease to trust our own senses and experiences, we risk losing a good chunk of our remaining capacity to trust one another.  There is, perhaps, no risk facing the global commons greater than this.

Loose Change: Fortifying the Habits that Matter, Dr. Robert Zuber

30 Dec


I made no resolutions for the New Year. The habit of making plans, of criticizing, sanctioning and molding my life, is too much of a daily event for me. Anaïs Nin

A resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible.  Thomas Hardy

Good resolutions are like babies crying in church. They should be carried out immediately. Charles M. Sheldon

I’m starting to think nothing goes away, no matter how deep you try to bury it.  Laurie Elizabeth Flynn

As the sun sets on this often-tumultuous, often-invigorating year, I return to a favorite subject — resolutions – those things we pledge, individually and collectively, based on an often-shallow view of the human condition that presumes that change comes, if at all, through careful articulations of intent rather than through painstaking reversal of the patterns that have contributed to our being less than what we could be.

In the worlds that I inhabit, the quest for change often embodies a schizophrenic character that ultimately undermines its potential.   The mantra of far too many – this is just how I am – shares the pot with an often deep and impatient demand for change in others, even in the systems that govern and otherwise impact the planet.   Essentially the formula goes, “impossible for me, essential for you.”

In an age of climate change and other existential threats, we can perhaps agree that change towards more sustainable futures is “essential.”  But we can perhaps also agree that such futures require more than summit declarations and resolutions from international institutions.   We have such things in tow now and they “should” make more of a difference in the world.  That they don’t is in part a function of our unwillingness to carefully track and then assess the impacts of previous resolutions and in part a function of our belief – perhaps more like a suspension of disbelief – that there is a tighter relationship than could possibly exist between the presentation of our intent and the diversion of practices that have impeded more significant progress up to the present time.

Some of this is a legacy courtesy of our religious dispositions.  In the Christian tradition, we recite (enthusiastically in my case) a Eucharistic prayer that ends “but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  In a similar vein, clergy too-often believe that the word “they” pronounce convicts, that preaching at people provides them with the energy they need to resolve their problems, divert their course, or achieve healthier outcomes.

It might have that impact, at times, in the same way that a timely storm can release long-dormant desert toads from their drought-imposed slumber.  But for most of us, in most instances and contexts, change is less an event than a process, a process that is more about redirecting our life energy – step by step – than by episodic epiphanies which are surely exhilarating if largely unsustainable.

Alarmingly, more and more people I speak with seem suspicious of the notion of change at all, plying rhetoric about “human nature” that seems designed to provide comfort, somehow or other, that we are essentially cut from a self-interested and predatory cloth, about which we can actually, in the end, do little.  This worldview casts suspicion on efforts to seek the good and inspire hope while simultaneously accepting violence and economic predation with an undeserved resignation that simply deepens the habits we would do much better to change. Especially as our calendars flip over, we seem anxious to “turn the page.”  But the book and its plot remain largely the same, and we aren’t as committed as we might be to rewrite what has long become a tired script.

Earlier in what passes for my “career,” I was regularly in touch with a Boston-based group called Second Nature.  I appreciated the work they did but was even more enamored of what the title suggested – a striving for a lifestyle redirected towards more healthful, less violent, more sustainable outcomes, but in such a way that the outcomes became almost effortless – recycling and repurposing of the products we use, saying “yes” even at moments of inconvenience, pushing past the people we have grown comfortable being to the people we say we want to be, demonstrating that it is possible to make modesty of consumption, hospitality for strangers, even leadership for causes and issues close to home or across oceans as part of the “habit” of our lives, what we have “re-trained” ourselves to do, and do differently.   And of course more effective conflict prevention that stems the need for protracted conflict resolution.

Ironically, there is support for this “second nature” approach from diverse sources, certainly from within the religious community, parts of which have long stressed the need to “walk the path of righteousness” rather than wait for a divine lightning bolt. But even neuro-biologists have evidence to suggest that, health permitting, it is within our power to change the way our brains function.  We can, in effect, rewire ourselves to overcome our compulsive life investments – addictions if you will – that are impeding our progress and ensuring that even our resolutions to change and reform are mostly relegated to the waste bin.

But this rewiring isn’t easy and certainly doesn’t happen overnight.   It takes many steps in a new direction before our brains, let alone our hearts and souls, can adjust to a new set of demands and responses.   This is especially the case since we have too often rejected the call to mindfulness about ourselves and the distance that remains to be traveled such that we might contribute –as second nature — to the world that we say we want. This is true of ourselves; also of the United Nations and other institutions we rely on to direct a common response to current global challenges.   As in the personal realm, resolutions to reform are no substitute for concrete measures, day by day, to make our institutions more attentive, more accountable, kinder and more cooperative.

As this New Year unfolds, we find that there is little time to waste.  While we have some progress to celebrate, our unsustainable habits run deep, our tolerance of violence and its many distractions runs deep also.  The longer we continue to walk down the current path –one generally cheered on by advertisers, sports franchises and politicians in power, but also by our friends and neighbors who seem to need reassurance that we will not “rock the boat” on our current, often-rapacious course– the harder it will ever be to shift energies and priorities to better meet the demands of the times.

This shift is not about resolutions per se, not about the “loose change” that seems to be the best we can muster and which will result in little noticeable difference, little in our personal lives but also in the settings where global challenges predominate.  Rather its about the small and resolute steps, one by one, determined as we must make each of them, that will get us to the places envisioned by our personal resolutions and institutional promises; indeed that will help make our better selves “second nature.”

Let this latest calendar shift be the one where we take the consistent, determined steps towards lasting change that we have largely abandoned in resolutions past, stuck in domiciles filled to brimming with our stubborn habits and in houses of worship and other institutions filled with metaphorical “crying babies” that should be “carried out” with much greater urgency.  We can’t bury the mistakes of our past, but we can celebrate our still-formidable potential and those determined and sustainable achievements still to come – indeed that must come – but that surely won’t appear in a timely fashion without the gritty participation of an enhanced version of ourselves.

Gun Running: New Prospects towards Silencing the Weapons, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Nov

Ignore those that make you fearful and sad, that degrade you back towards disease and death. Rumi Jalalud-Din

Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions and the mean ones truths?  Edith Wharton

Grief does not change you.  It reveals you.  John Green

Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.  George Bernard Shaw

This past week, I was honored to team-teach a course at the NATO School, located in the German Alps.  The School attracts military and diplomatic personnel from NATOs 29 members, but also from other states which are considering membership or which have training needs that cannot routinely be fulfilled at national level.

To say the least, NATO isn’t the usual stomping grounds for Global Action.  Indeed, we were one of the voices (rightly or not) that questioned the existence of NATO as the Cold War subsided, assuming that the continued existence of such a partisan, militarily-focused organization in the absence of a clear security threat (“enemy” as they would say) would likely stoke future tensions as sustain their elimination.

And then Crimea happened, and whatever we imagined to be the trajectory for a thaw in global tensions had to be recalibrated.  Moreover, and despite the occasional Russia-obsessive policy responses within NATO countries, there appeared other visible, credible threats to international peace and security in the form of climate degradation, famine in Yemen, insurgencies across the Sahel, DPRK missile launches as well as nationalist and racialist resurgences inside several NATO states on both sides of the Atlantic.

And then there are the weapons which we continue to develop and then deploy in every corner of our proximate universe: modernized nuclear weapons, weapons in outer space, autonomous weapons, new generations of rapid-firing small arms, more target-efficient shoulder mounted weapons, all of which push from prominence previous generations of arms, weapons that are still deadly, still a major generator of grief in our communities, still threatening to civilians and protection forces alike.

The concept note for the course stressed two matters seemingly unrelated but integral nonetheless.  The first is an opening to leverage the impact of a large alliance that NATO created in June at the review of the UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons, an opening for greater collaborative engagement as stressed in the statement written by the widely-respected Roman Hunger (also the primary director for this NATO course).  The second piece is the recognition that our agreements and resolutions, at the UN and beyond, have largely failed to alleviate a problem that seems to get more serious by the month – weapons being “improved”, trafficked over borders and through port facilities, leaked from storage, sold on the black market and on the dark web, printed 3-D or created as “craft weapons” or improvised explosives.  This arms activity creates gaps between what we have promised global constituents and what we have so far been able to deliver.  It is this need for better “promise keeping” together with enhancing prospects for NATO as an honest broker on arms production, destruction and trade within its alliance that created the incentive for our own participation.

Our group of 18 consisted of active military and equally active diplomats.   NGOs and NATO representatives were brought in to cover both the status of international small arms agreements and the “state of play” on technical matters from arms destruction and landmine clearance to addressing arms trafficking and the need for more comprehensive data on arms movements, especially in areas such as the Balkans where circulating arms too-often seem to hone in on unauthorized and unstable users.  We also spent time on the gendered dimensions of the arms trade in the process reaffirming the non-negotiable premise that all security sector dimensions must be better balanced by gender.

As one might expect, there were disagreements among participants regarding where and how to push, largely due to their positioning in the world.   While diplomats wrestled with how to better engage NATO in all areas of disarmament, including in the often-neglected area of small arms, active duty military had a somewhat different interest – how to protect themselves and those they in turn were tasked with protecting from small arms ambushes or makeshift explosive devices while on patrol.   Some of these differences of focus were narrowed during “syndicate” meetings which allowed participants and their “coaches” to debate and share recommendations for NATO on how the world we collectively inhabit can be made safer, fairer and more fulfilling for persons within and beyond the NATO orbit.

Perhaps the one thread that most linked course discussions beyond the weapons themselves was the need for accurate, timely data on small arms throughout their (often lengthy) life cycle.  Given the vast numbers of “second hand” weapons that have been dumped on our streets and in otherwise unstable societies, and given the “lust” of governments (of more or less corrupt dispositions) for state-of-the-art armaments, the challenges of monitoring weapons flows, weapons storage and weapons availability is vast.  Once ammunition is thrown into this mix — and as the “oxygen” of weaponry it needs to be there — these data challenges merely multiply.

Two highlights (for me) emerged from the many insights in our discussions. First, that while data is essential to evidence-based policy, we might also consider producing a “user’s manual” for data in terms of its reliability, its comprehensiveness of scope and relevant disaggregation, its timeliness in unfolding ever-evolving security contingencies.  In addition, as noted by one of the more senior military officials in the course, we must ensure that data does not become a substitute for action or even an impediment to it.   Getting the numbers right and getting the world right are overlapping but not identical tasks.

The other learning of high note had to do less with numbers and weapons, and more with ourselves.  We seem now to have greater insight into our tools and toys than the humans behind the controls.  We routinely have better success (though not enough of it) manipulating the outside world than fixing our inner spaces.  We recognized through this course that, regardless of our disarmament views, we must do a better job of ensuring that future procurement is relevant to civilian protection, a better job of making security from weapons fully beholden to the goal of security for communities.

This weekend before boarding a plane for home, I was privileged to visit the Alte Pinakothek in Munich and its extraordinary collection of paintings by Rubens, including one of his “Allegory of Peace” series along with many other of his graphic images of war and even interpretations of Armageddon that routinely sent shivers down my spine. Yes, we might indeed have come a considerable way as a species in terms of our thirst for violence, lust and revenge, but we have also created new threats to our very existence that we have not properly prepared for.  Moreover, whether we like to acknowledge it or not, we are in the midst of a cynical cycle of half-hearted actions and half-baked solutions.  More than we might recognize, we need to find the path to believe again in life-upholding change, to reaffirm our ability to prevent and transform threats of violent conflict.  We need to believe that the thin coating of civilization that barely now protects us from the worst of our predatory impulses can be fortified and made more sustainable with additional layers of varnish.

Our best impulses on moving (carefully as many of our students warned)  to a world of fewer arms made, fewer arms sold, fewer arms trafficked, fewer arms used to intimidate and abuse are not at all “illusions.”  These impulses are necessary to creating stable environments from which we can address our other sustainable goals commitments – from governments we can trust to oceans that can continue to support the life on which we all depend.   Terror and other threats notwithstanding, these and related promises simply will not come to pass at the tip of a gun.  For all the weapons we have convinced ourselves we need, we will never be able to shoot our way to a sustainable future for our children.  Our grief will some day overcome us if we think otherwise.

What became clear from this course amidst all the technical guidance and skepticism about peaceful change is that the ingredients to sustain ourselves and our planet are still available to us.  Our task now is in part about us:  to refuse to settle, to ask the next questions, to keep pulling metaphorical spices from the shelves until the recipe for our common survival is satisfying for all.   We can do this, but it will take more caring and flexibility from each of us in all our diverse deployments, more resistance to the current degrading of our humanity which promises little more for our common future than “disease and death.”

Thin Ice: Coping with the Planet’s Many Demons, Dr. Robert Zuber

28 Oct

Societies in decline have no use for visionaries.  Anais Nin

Civilized people don’t put on airs; they behave in the street as they would at home. Anton Chekov

When humor goes, there goes civilization.  Erma Bombeck

One person’s ‘barbarian’ is another person’s ‘just doing what everybody else is doing.’  Susan Sontag

We are made to be crazy by other people who are also crazy and who draw for us a map of the world which is ugly, negative, fearful, and crazy. Jack Forbes

This piece is dedicated to the memory of the former Ambassador of Palau to the United Nations, Dr. Caleb Otto.  Dr. Otto was a man of integrity and faith, a gentle soul who understood the frailties and limitations of the human condition but who continued to nudge us in the directions of sanity, integrity and health.  He was one of the best diplomatic friends that Global Action has ever had.

I have been sitting and listening to a press conference by some of the officers who had the unfortunate assignment of responding to the carnage from yesterday’s shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.  The shooting, predictably, captured a news cycle that had been dominated earlier this week by the mailing of suspicious packages to political opponents of the US president.

It has been a week when what seems as the last, thin layer of wrap which we foolishly believed would keep our demons “in their place” has finally been peeled away.   And now we are experiencing the normative version of a jailbreak – angry, isolated, weaponized people seizing the recently-granted permission to take their long-shunned and often-ridiculed values and ideas into the streets, into our synagogues and mailboxes, into our schools and statehouses.

Despite protests from senior government officials seeking to brush off any implications of responsibility, we have clearly failed the collective culpability test.  Our leaders have taken refuge in a strategy that is sadly all too familiar to the rest of us – cope with anxiety and remorse by pushing blame as far away from ourselves as possible.  It’s never my fault.  I have nothing to apologize for.  It’s them, over there.

As evil genies circle around us like vultures feeding on souls instead of carrion, we have blithely forgotten that a “civilized” response takes into account what our words and actions permit, and not only what we ourselves do.   And what we now permit has crossed the line from appalling to numbing: the shooting that stole the home page from the suspicious packages, that in turn stole the front page from the “caravan” of Latin American people we allegedly “don’t want,” that had stolen the radio news headlines from the butchery of the journalist Khashoggi or the children already forcibly separated from desperately anxious parents.

There is a lot of anger in my country — and not my country alone — but also an epidemic of deep restlessness at our apparent decline alongside what a dear friend has called “preventable sadness.”   We claim over and over to be “better than this,” but it is no longer clear what the “better” entails, what the benchmarks are for civilized living in these times.  We have lost both our focus and our sense of humor.  We justify patterns of concern that are deliberately circumscribed and often self-interested.  We shout out the part of the “truth” that serves our own agendas rather than speak the truth that might better serve the general interest. More and more of us have retreated into private conversations and deepening skepticism guaranteeing that we remain out of the fray, beyond the prospect of direct accountability, ducking the demons as it were rather than daring them to a proper wrestling match.

For those of you who regularly read this post, this is surely beginning to sound like an Advent message rather than a UN reflection.  But it is a UN reflection as well.   As the suspicious packages were being delivered and the Pittsburgh gunman was readying himself to “go in,” the Security Council was struggling with its current “big three” responsibilities – Syria, Myanmar and Yemen.   Each deserves a lengthier dissection than I could test your patience with here, but each also demonstrated some of the limitations and self-deceptions of the times, the way in which issues are maneuvered to conform to national interest and allegedly help to keep everyone “blameless.”

And despite the fact so much of the credibility (and even fiscal viability) of the UN is tied up with the success of the Security Council in these three and other areas of security concern, it remains challenging at times for observers such as ourselves to find kernels of hopefulness amidst the avalanche of tepid policy commitments or half-hearted acknowledgments of responsibility.   The three contexts are different of course:  In Syria the government is now (predictably) balking at a formal UN role in forming a Constitutional Committee.  In Myanmar, the Council struggles with if/how to ensure accountability for state abuses while guaranteeing safe and voluntary return for the staggering number of refugees that have too-long been under Bangladesh’s care.  In Yemen, in many ways the most frustrating of the three crises, governments continue to wring their hands over the staggering humanitarian crisis while refusing to publicly acknowledge the massive arms sales to Saudi Arabia that have thus brought Yemen to the brink of a desperate famine that simply cannot be justified by geo-political references to curbing the regional influence of Iran.

It is not all negative and disingenuous of course.   The UK and France made passionate statements this week on why the UN must play a major role in a sustainable peace for Syria. Bolivia and others continue to remind Council members of mistakes previously made as well as new factors (such as shrinking water access) that influence current security crises.  And the Netherlands raised its voice after a deeply disturbing Yemen briefing to remind Council colleagues that, as essential as humanitarian relief is, their primary task is to end the conflict, to stop the bombing and its violent retaliations.

Nevertheless, it is interesting and often unsettling to watch the ways in which the deep anxiety of these times is affecting Council members and other UN entities in much the same way that it is affecting the rest of us. We’ve collectively become downright prickly and hyper-sensitive, dismissing any and all criticism of our values or directions, but in a larger policy sense reacting to the shrinking spaces for free expression and the application of human rights law by pointing to and attacking only the demons outside ourselves, the ones who allegedly threaten and annoy us, but also the ones who blockade and occupy, who carve up adversaries and rob children of their futures.

But there are plenty of candidates for fits of barbarism now, plenty of leaders and citizens willing to get in lockstep with the worst of our impulses, justifying our own bad behavior by the bad behavior of others.  Our racism, their greed.  Our violence, their indifference. Our interference, their aggression.  And so it goes.  And goes again.

As the late Ambassador Otto would clearly have recognized, we have let so many evil genies out of their bottles in recent times and given them such permission to swirl and confuse that we must no longer delude ourselves – in our living rooms or our policy centers – that we are exempt from the evils we say we contend against.  If we really are “better than this,” then our task now is to define anew that “better,” make sure it’s benefits are available to all, and commit to the struggle to keep our baser instincts at bay.

But the ice we skate on now is still too thin. The “map” towards our human future that we have currently been drawing is, indeed, too ugly, fearful and crazy.  It is past time for all to revoke the permission we have recently lavished on our lesser selves and envision another map that can help us define a higher and more honest calling as prelude to a kinder and more sustainable global path.

Oceans 14: Making Peace with Life Below Water, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Jun


Global warming is the foreboding thunder in the distance. Ocean acidification is the lightning strike in our front yard. David Horsey

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.   Ansel Adams

If you’re out someplace like the ocean on a capsized boat, it doesn’t matter if you have academic degrees, or if you’re a martial-arts ninja. Nature is a bigger force than you. Rachael Taylor

Monday, the UN is poised to welcome delegates from around the world, including many heads of state and foreign ministers from Small Island Developing States (SIDS). These leaders have come to profess their deep commitment to the vast and unique resource represented by our oceans.  They have come to share threats of desalination and sea water rise, of acidification, fisheries depletion, mass “islands” of plastic waste and growing species loss.  They have come to ask for justice and assistance to preserve their island homes and ways of life.

For months now, under the guidance of the president of the General Assembly, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, and with enthusiastic support from much of the UN system, our UN conference rooms been the scene of intense scrutiny of the consequences of our frivolous and longstanding misuses of our oceans, a resource that our western mythology has long cast as infinite and fearsome, but which we now recognize is showing grave strains that jeopardize the livelihoods, safety and well-being of all who live on its shores, all the families and communities who depend on its bounty.

The culmination of efforts by President Thompson and many other UN leaders is what is known as “The Ocean Conference,” or in its longer version, the United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

The larger policy backdrop for this meeting is a series of climate-related warning signs with implications for and from our oceans, including mass ice cap fissures, record high global temperatures, and increasing levels of food insecurity exacerbated by climate-related drought, flooding and damage from massive ocean storms.  And then there is the decision by the UN’s “host state” to pull out of the Paris Climate agreement, only one of a series of steps taken by the current US administration to roll back virtually all environmental protections for which the federal government has previously taken responsibility.

This isn’t the setting to undertake a thorough critique of the US president’s decisions on environmental protection, ocean health and climate change. From a multi-lateral perspective, though, we are inclined to reject the lens promoted by many in the media that US leadership is utterly indispensable to the urgent pursuit of ocean and climate health.   We have, in fact, both seen and welcomed the determination of many states around the world to step up their environmental commitments in partial recognition of the fact that the Paris agreement, for all of its hopeful policy urgency, establishes a still-shaky floor for climate health.  Many scientists believe that the targets established by Paris are probably not robust enough (a point also made by Nicaragua which has thus far refused to support the agreement); some scientists believe that we have already crossed a dangerous threshold and that much more will be needed from many corners of the globe if a permanent crisis is still to be averted. A bit of formal US government hostility towards environmental health may increase the shaking a bit, but thankfully others are doing more and pledging even more than that.  And the tide in the waters of US state concern can always turn again.

In this context, we should recall that a lack of formal US commitment to UN agreements has rarely, on its face, indicated an unwillingness to work with relevant UN mechanisms.   The US has long been a serial offender when it comes to ratifying UN treaties but not always a serial offender when it comes to honoring their spirit.  The US may never ratify the Rome Statute, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that the US won’t work with the International Criminal Court prosecutors to promote justice for mass atrocities.  There is wiggle room here to negotiate cooperative, if not binding arrangements on oceans and other climate-impacting resources, even with members of this fact-challenged administration.

Nevertheless, given recent threats to state support (at least for now in the US) for climate-healthy, environmentally-friendly policies, the onus must shift (and has shifted in many instances) to cities and communities, activists and academics, designers and farmers, people from all walks of life and their supporting organizations who have both skills and contexts to contribute to our urgent environmental tasks.  Indeed, one key feature of this week’s Ocean Conference is its focus on voluntary commitments from state and non-state actors, commitments ranging widely from efforts to rid the oceans of discarded fishing gear and micro-plastics to establishing new or larger ocean sanctuaries.  We will need to solicit and network many thousands more of these commitments by government and non-government actors, especially from within the major oceans-abusing and even climate-denying states.

One “commitment” that we value greatly is Green Map, which is now in the process of aligning its global iconography (170 core images) with the Sustainable Development Goals.   The point of this exercise is not to promote the icons themselves, but rather what the icons themselves promote – hopeful local sustainability initiatives taking place in communities worldwide.    There are many such initiatives underway and many more soon to take root.   We need them all, and then some.

If some states begin to lose their grip on the urgency of our ocean and climate risks, the rest of us must tighten our collective resolve.  We cannot survive as a species without our oceans.  We surely cannot meet our diverse obligations to the SDGs without healthy oceans. We cannot eliminate poverty, educate our children, resolve our governance-related issues, end discrimination and even solve climate change without oceans that can sustain its complex and still-undiscovered life forms while continuing to host our livelihoods and absorb our carbon excesses.

Many of us have had the experience of standing on an ocean shore staring at darkening clouds kissed by a setting sun.   Alarmingly, the thunder in those clouds is louder now; the lightning is getting closer than is comfortable.  The time has come, indeed past, for us to pause our grateful gaze and take up our urgent cause.


Green Lantern: UNGA Informal Debate on ‘Harmony with Nature”

23 Apr

As a nod to Earth Day 2013, the UN General Assembly was the setting for an ‘informal debate’ focused on ways to more effectively promote planetary ‘harmony’.

A half-full conference room listened to a short presentation from the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and more passionate speeches by the UN General Assembly President, Mr. Vuk Jeremić of Serbia, and by Ministers from Bolivia and Ecuador, two ‘left-leaning’ governments that tend to exercise a great deal of control over national economic outcomes.

There were some valuable reminders shared by these four speakers during what was a bit of an ideologically-imbalanced opening session.   From our own organizational standpoint, it is good to be reminded that consumption in the developed world is largely optional and has increasingly deleterious impacts on natural health in all global regions.  In addition, we should recognize that too much of the ‘green’ movement has been co-opted by those who seek to institutionalize levels of developed world consumption while attempting to ‘manage’ levels of growth in less developed nations.

At the debate, there were also renewed calls for a ‘universal declaration’ of the rights of nature tied to an alleged, if helpful, ‘right to recovery’ for nature that has been ravaged by a preponderance of short-term economic resource use disconnected from any reasonable capacity for future generations to access (and preserve) the same resources.

Our economic situation has been increasingly dark in recent times – inequities and shortages abound, as do the toxic effects of our mindless exploitation.    While it is not yet clear how ‘nature rights’ could be properly identified and enforced, nor is it clear how economic reform would result in locally based economies rather than state structures attempting to micro-manage large scale economic development, it is critically important to shine a light on alternatives that are urgent, viable and fair.  Needless to say, we don’t have sufficient alternatives at present. We need to keep the lantern lit as much as possible.

An office like ours has very limited access to deliberations on economic futures.   From our experience in meetings such as this one, it is clear that States too have limited options, more limited than they generally acknowledge.  Economic decisions, more and more, take place beyond the reach of states in board rooms and investment houses.  Whatever one thinks of “Occupy’ and other movements to expose economic inequities, including in economic decision making, it is clear that this current system is being driven by self-interested and unaccountable forces.   If such forces were merely accumulating wealth, there would be sufficient cause for general concern.  That accumulated wealth is driving so much planetary dysfunction should be cause for the loudest general alarm.

Simply put, there are biological limits to economic growth.   And those limits are not being acknowledged, let alone respected.   As one of the ministers from Ecuador wondered aloud and with some urgency, “Who precisely is going to bell this cat?”  How will that be accomplished? The cat has a defensive, nasty disposition and sharp claws.  It will take some real courage to bell it.  Until that happens, though, the rest of us will largely remain ignorant (willfully or otherwise) of the ways that our lives are about to become more painful and toxic than they need to be!

Our collective disenchantment with our economic system seems to grow daily.   At the same time, our resistance to economic change borders on the neurotic.   We have deep addictions to unsustainable and largely optional patters of consumption that remain stubborn in their remedial application and are also quite devastating to our long-term biological prospects.

On Earth Day, we need to shine more light on the structures and choices that undermine a ‘green’ agenda – unequal economic access, unsustainable (and largely optional) patterns of consumption, and more.  We also need to renew our connections with some of our more ‘intimate’ ecological processes – how our food is grown, where our drinking water comes from, what happens to our waste when we are ‘done’ with it.

Our ignorance of basic environmental processes as well as our insistence that we own everything we use are both planet-defeating attitudes. Our preference for owning a neighbor’s land to having a neighbor undermines community integrity.   Our relentless pursuit of non-essential consumer goods represents a psychologically defective, wasteful application of time and resources.   Our ability to simultaneously express a deep love for our children while contributing to the demise of the system that supports their lives is a dangerous inconsistency.  Clearly, we must continue to shine a light on these and other discontinuities, and then organize a viable, participatory strategy to overcome them.


–Dr. Robert Zuber