Tag Archives: vision

Petty-Coat Junction: Deepening our Survival Focus, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Jul

Earthrise

Mankind accepts good fortune as his due, but when bad occurs, he thinks it was aimed at him, done to him, a hex, a curse, a punishment by his deity for some transgression, as though his god were a petty storekeeper, counting up the day’s receipts. Sheri Tepper

We dislike feeling inferior to an ideal. So away with ideals, with essences. The only ideals allowed are healthy ones — those everyone may aspire to, or comfortably imagine oneself possessing. Susan Sontag

But like infection is the petty thought: it creeps and hides, and wants to be nowhere–until the whole body is decayed and withered by the petty infection. Friedrich Nietzsche

More than jealousy or possessiveness pettiness kills love.  Marty Rubin

In a week characterized by considerable ugliness on the political front in the US and elsewhere as well as new threats of armed confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz, there was another story that penetrated our news cycle, a story that once upon a time united old and young in a gaze of genuine if temporary wonder, towards a story of courage, ingenuity and attentiveness that managed to put humans on the surface of the moon and (perhaps more miraculously) return them safely to the mother planet.

The genuinely glorious story being shared at that time wasn’t entirely as it was told.   We know now that US President Nixon was preparing a speech in the event that the astronauts ended up marooned on the lunar surface or failed to connect back with their orbiting ship.  We also know that, amidst a sea of men in shirts and narrow ties sitting in front of what for us would be oldest-school computer screens, there were remarkable (unknown) women performing essential calculations and making other contributions that kept the mission on track.

There are always so many more involved in our great human endeavors than make the headlines, people who can pay close attention to detail while keeping their gaze focused on the grand achievements we have chosen — or been forced — to pursue. We need more of these people. Too many of us allow ourselves to drown in minutiae, fussing about many things that have little connection to a narrative any larger than our own comfort and convenience. Too many others of us have somehow been convinced that “caring for the world” absolves us of the responsibility to contribute to the practical success and well-being of our neighbors and communities.

We must recognize that, despite a stunning array of human accomplishments since those days 50 years ago — in engineering and medicine, in agriculture and communications — few could only approximate the consummate wonder of that “one small step,” a step that signaled a mingling of technical competence, human determination, a grand and compelling vision, fidelity to detail, community-care and a bit of good fortune that might serve as a template for the next iterations of our sometimes great and sometimes greatly-flawed human adventure.

Leaving the conspiracy theorists aside (as we should always do), some people I know actually did feel as though space travel had robbed the moon of some of its romance, that having astronauts in thick suits leaving their footprints on lunar soil took a bit of the mystery out of a ball that in its full splendor has helped inspire and navigate harvests, explorations and innumerable human relationships.

But astronauts on lunar soil was not, as I recall it, the most powerful image from this quest.  That honor was bestowed on the image at the head of this piece, an “earthrise” that had first captured our imagination in an earlier Apollo mission, but which communicated a paradox that still haunts and inspires me – a remarkable human endeavor emanating from what appears to be a fragile blue ball, a ball that for most of our history (and from our narrow vantage points) has seemed endless, impervious to destruction; a ball that we believe could absorb our seemingly-boundless greed and overly-narrow ambitions, and continue to deliver enough bounty to sustain the needs of at least most of us, and some quite a bit beyond that.

This ball that we have so taken for granted for so long looks modest even from the standpoint of our nearest terrestrial neighbor, so vulnerable and isolated rotating in the dark void of space, appearing as though it could literally break apart through acts of violence or willful neglect.  The predictability on which our lives depend belies a blue globe seemingly now in perpetual motion, shaking and storming with a force for which we are only rarely prepared.   This “third rock from the sun” on which we have built our ambitions – both epic and petty – is less a rock in the end than an organism under great stress, one needing more care than we have yet demonstrated our capacity to provide.

Even as a youth I had  large expectations for that first “earth rise,” expectations that we could collectively temper and even cast aside our excess consumptive habits and personalized ambitions, our petty grievances and social hierarchies,  and allow it sink in just how close we are now to a “junction” where our cleverness is simply insufficient to get us past our current extinctive threats.  There is a resolute narrow-mindedness that permeates so many of our cultures now, some of which leads to overt defensiveness and hostility, other of which speaks of indifference or even of a willful disregard of both the carrying capacity of our planet and of our own creative and practical generosity.

Thus, the expectations of my youth have remained largely expectant. At the UN we just completed the Ministerial Segment of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.  As mentioned last week, the HLPF serves as a significant forum for the review of progress on several sustainable development goals, including those goals related to climate, to inequalities, to partnership, to our children.  But as the HLPF wound to a close, some of us were left with the impression that we still share too many powerpoint graphs and too few stories of human imagination.  We still place too much emphasis on what our political and economic leaders are doing (and sometimes only claiming to be doing) and not enough on the extraordinary local initiatives, nurtured and sustained by diverse communities, that are ripe for replication in these discouraging times.  There was a bit too much bureaucracy-speak, even among NGOs, and not enough on humanizing our threat responses in ways that could motivate us all to move beyond our too-small comfort zones and embrace a grander vision of a planet at peace.

Regardless of levels of inspiration towards a more sustainable world, regardless of the magnitude of our current, compelling human quest, we can of course still choose to turn our backs, cover our ears and simply walk away.  But let’s be clear:  much like with the side-view mirrors on our automobiles, the disturbing images we seek to leave behind are quite a bit closer than they might otherwise appear.

 

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Sorry Day:  The Security Council’s Misplaced Vision, Dr. Robert Zuber

9 Sep

This Way

No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.   George Eliot

You have the power today to reset your boundaries, restore your image, start fresh with renewed values and rebuild what has happened to you in the past.  Shannon Alder

And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment.  Herman Melville

The question is not, are we sorry? The question is, what lesson have we learned? The question is what are we going to do now that we are sorry?  J.M. Coetzee

Like many others, this past week pulled the UN in diverse directions.  An important inter-governmental conference to protect Marine Biological Diversity and a mood-altering celebration of “staff day” was offset for us by some controversies over NGO access during a busy September and a couple of Security Council sessions which underscored divisions both political and normative.

The US has taken over the presidency of the Security Council for September and thus will be in the chair during the soon-to-open 73rd session of the UN General Assembly, a time when heads of state and their ministries fill the UN building beyond capacity.   US Ambassador Haley, who has made her reputation as someone willing to speak her mind — even when that mind at times deviates from her political superiors – as well as someone who is often dismissive (and least in formal settings) of contrary points of view, is handling the presidency deftly to date.

But deft leadership is surely not sufficient in these perilous times, not for the US delegation nor for the others who, given the Council’s “provisional” acceptance of seemingly endless, largely repetitive statements in “national capacity,” fail to address the need for a larger, more reassuring narrative on peace and security.  “Where is this going,” is a concern uttered by our interns at various points, young people who appreciate their access to the space where the Council muses over its puzzle pieces but who also wonder what the end game is, what the puzzle would look like if all the pieces were finally made to fit?

As many of you know, the current Monthly Programme for the Security Council was issued late due to a controversy over including Nicaragua on the agenda in accordance with US wishes.  The issue here was not whether images of unrest in Nicaragua warranted the attention of the international community, but whether or not such unrest has risen to the level of a threat to international peace and security, thus demanding Council attention?  On this there was serious disagreement among members, in part because there is no clear guiding definition for such a threat level, and certainly no definition that presumes to encapsulate transgressions committed by the permanent Council members themselves.   Why are Kosovo, Guinea-Bissau and Liberia still matters of recent Council attention when events in Nicaragua and Cameroon struggle for recognition and Yemen needed to be shoved on to the agenda after a long and bloody wait?   And why do Council members, especially the permanent ones, continue to soft-pedal their own violations of Charter provisions while (often selectively) holding other UN members to theirs?  Why do they (and other states of course) continue to bend the arc of justice to suit national interests and then claim that they are simply upholding some version of the “rules-based international order?”

And in areas this week where the Council rightly recognized clear implications for international peace and security – the use of banned chemical agents as weapons and the fate of the already-displaced residents of Idlib, Syria who now anxiously watch the skies to see if they are to become the next to be sacrificed in the “war on terror” – the Council has threatened much but delivered only modestly.   We still have no ironclad method for ensuring compliance regarding the use of banned weapons.   We still have no method for ensuring that counter-terror measures are conducted in accordance with human rights standards.  We still have no method for ensuring that the erstwhile “guarantors of the international order” also abide by its prescriptions and limitations.

Indeed, as many others have noted, we have no way to ensure that those tasked with maintaining Charter values on peace and security are actually demonstrating a commitment to their fulfillment. For all the talk by most Security Council members (and rightly so) about the importance of ending impunity for international law violations, impunity still persists among Council members themselves.  For all of the diplomatic skill and at times good will around the Council oval, that body remains the most political and least-accountable space in the UN system and probably well beyond.  There remains this palpable sense that the Council continues to prioritize rearranging the furniture – albeit tastefully at times — while the house continues to leak from above and rot from below.

If the Council were to hold occasional discussions focused on fulfilling the vision of the 2030 Development Agenda, surely the broadest and most hopeful vision this system now embraces, members might be compelled to examine the ways in which inaction and mis-action on peace and security jeopardize the fulfillment of that Agenda as little else.  Unless we can stem the current propensities to violence in all its forms – from economic inequalities and gross rights abuses committed against civilians to out-of-control arms production and modernization – the odds are that no amount of corporate funding, big data or ocean-cleaning technology is going to rescue us.  Council effectiveness is critical to what has become the UN’s most comprehensive and inspirational vision, whether it wishes to acknowledge that in formal session or not.

In a few hours New York time, Rosh Hashana will begin, a time of repentance for our Jewish sisters and brothers with much to teach the rest of us. A good bit of the commentary I have read early this morning points to the great difficulty we have enacting what should be a regular element of work and personal life.   It is, indeed, hard for us to admit our wrongs, to grant those we have aggrieved the acknowledgment they deserve.  But it is especially difficult to move beyond the rhetoric of repentance to the practical matters of amendment, to use our mistakes as the text for a shift in our attitudes and priorities that is more sustainable than ceremonial.

Repentance in its best and most sustainable sense is partially about shifting our vision, but even more about shifting our course, about resetting our boundaries and priorities.  The person who seeks forgiveness but fails to adjust direction toward a more accountable and hopeful horizon, who fails to plot a viable “escape” from the lazy and hostile habits of the past, is more likely to find rejection than relief.  This is true of our institutions as much as our families and communities of faith.

Repentance, in the end, requires a larger vision of who we are, what we are capable of, and what we can become.   The 2030 Development Agenda – an agenda not imposed on states but painstakingly negotiated by them — provides evidence that the UN system understands both the momentousness of the times and our still-potent capacity to adjust our ways.   The Council simply must find a way to bring its sometimes petrified mandates and politicized policymaking into conformity with that vision, at least to understand their own pivotal role in making that vision achievable.

We don’t need sack cloth and ashes.   We don’t need wailing and gnashing of teeth.  What we need (as noted by the SG and others) is a clear, consistent and actionable understanding of the ways in which the impediments and inconsistencies in our peace and security architecture compromise larger commitments to a healthy and prosperous planet.   What is arguably still the single most important room in the world would do well to incorporate (not seek to control) the larger vision of the 2030 Development Agenda and the conflict prevention and resolution strategies that will give humanity the best chance of saving us from ourselves.

 

Lens Crafters:  The Vision Deficits that Cloud our Global Policy Choices, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Feb

I am sitting in my New York office having earlier braved a record cold morning, wearing more clothing than I ever knew was in my closet.  Time now to reflect on a line from a speech given in Munich yesterday by Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, who reportedly wondered:  “Can we unite in order to stand up against the challenges we face? Yes, I am absolutely sure that we can.”

The “challenges” in this case refer mostly to those related to Syria – ending the war, “degrading” ISIL, addressing almost unprecedented violations of international human rights law, providing access for humanitarian relief to those trapped in zones of despair or sitting in camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

Any alleged “certainty” about Syria’s future is heartwarming I suppose, but also mostly problematic.  The bombs of several countries (including far too many of Russia’s) continue to fall.  The Saudis are set to send in ground troops.   Turkey continues to keep an eye open for opportunities to vanquish the Kurds.  A full spectrum of abuses committed against civilians continues to unfold.  NATO ships are set to interdict and return refugees to places characterized by empty markets and violent unrest.  Arms continue to flow in all directions.  Pledges of assistance are more numerous than pledges honored.

Prime Minister Medvedev is right at one level.  We can address these and other global challenges.   They are not beyond our collective skills set; not even beyond our politics.  They might, however, remain out of reach given the self-inflicted “degrading” of our collective vision, seeing what we need to see, what we need for others to see, rather than all that lies in front of us.

 Self-distraction and self-delusion stealing the stage from clarity and honesty

The default for sub-standard policy these days seems to be some form of “we didn’t see this coming.”  At the same time, we gush over all of the technology – both earth-bound and in space — that allows us to probe and peek, to prod and predict.  The weather system rattling my leaky apartment windows last evening was forecast well over a week before it arrived.   Indeed, our forecasting in so many areas relevant to policy has reached breathtaking proportions.   We might not have been able to predict with full confidence the extent of the current Zika outbreak, but we certainly know enough to stay vigilant regarding potential pandemics, the “when” exhibiting a stronger probability than the “if.”

Unfortunately, our policy vision these days is too often saturated with a blend of enthusiasm and desire.  And there is no impediment to clear and honest assessment quite like that of desire.  When we want it to be so; when we need it to be so; we find ways to convince ourselves that it is so.

More and more, our claims “not to have known” are undermined by the very technology on which already we over-rely.   When we fail to see all that is in front of us, when our enthusiasm blocks our willingness to assess all obstacles that threaten our cherished policy assumptions and conclusions, we run the risk of doing damage to the very constituents we otherwise seek to assist.  But this is less about our technological “eyes” than it is about the personal lenses we have allowed to become foggy and dusty.

In the case of Prime Minister Medvedev, it would appear that his enthusiasm for a resolution to Syria consistent with Russia’s national interest has created its own thick blinders.  Russia’s conduct in Syria is hardly the only conduct beyond reprehension, but it is staggeringly reprehensible in its own right.  Indeed, it is hard to see how peace can be sustained given such levels of myopic leadership.

This problem of vision affects more hopeful policies as well.  The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, a remarkable achievement in their own right, have been subject to a series of urgent discussions in the early days of 2016. Much to its credit, the UN has not waited for the dust to settle but is making strong connections to important stakeholders (youth, women, indigenous, persons with disabilities) and urging member states to quickly identify areas of priority activity and relevant needs for capacity assistance.

In addition, good work is being done in two key areas – the indicators that will drive assessments and the financing that will sustain progress.   But there also seems to be a largely unspoken assumption of predictability in the “enabling environment,” one which is likely related more to our enthusiasm for the goals than to a sober assessment of current security, fiscal and climate prospects.

As noted in a recent UNCTAD briefing in New York to launch the report, “Rethinking Development Strategies after the Financial Crisis,” any assumptions about an “enabling environment” are fraught with peril.   UNCTAD officials noted two major impediments which have to date received insufficient attention and which have the power to short-circuit the most enthusiastic applications of the 2030 development agenda.  The first of these is the prospect of another major financial downturn, most likely initiated by some of the very same institutions that we failed to hold accountable for the last one.  In such a scenario, equity markets will shrink and states will feel forced to preserve stasis rather than reaching out to help lift the fortunes of those hitherto marginal.  Another financial collapse will likely ensure that our best development efforts will still “leave plenty behind.”

Second, there is a noteworthy shrinking of policy space in many countries, a shrinking that damages prospects for full participation, but also for policy innovation and assessment of “official” priorities.  We must explore the participation and assessment implications of all the SDGs, perhaps especially Goal 16, but we must do so based on clear analysis of the current threats posed to journalists, human rights advocates, indeed most anyone who dares to expose an emperor’s nakedness.  In many parts of the world, there is currently no “enabling environment” to count on here either.  Not yet anyway.

For many young people rightly frustrated by their elders and our global legacies, there are occasional bursts of concern for our collective future.  Are we going to make it?  Do we have what it takes as a species to get over ourselves and address the full implications of all the challenges that face us, not just the ones we are willing to see?

It would be foolish to sell us short.  We can still make good on our promises and bring some healing to the planet in the process.  We can end violent conflict, bring international finance under control and wedge new policy space in otherwise recalcitrant states. But it would also be foolish to believe that we can make any sustainable change merely by tinkering with policy resolutions and other international instruments.   Those instruments, while not perfect, are mostly already sufficient to their purposes.   The “wild card” here is us, what we see and what we refuse to see.

In the Christian bible, there is a line in which Jesus of Nazareth warns those looking for specks in the eyes of their neighbors to first take the “logs” out of their own.  Such excavations are encouraged as they can do much to restore the clarity of vision and firmness of purpose we will need to get over both our “enthusiasms” and our current, bulging “humps” of security, development and climate challenges.