Concerted Action Needed

Surendra Munshi
Munshi, the noted Indian sociologist, was Professor of Sociology at the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta (IIMC) until 2006. He has researched and taught in India and abroad in the fields of classical sociological theory, sociology of culture, qualitative research, and industrial sociology. More recently, he has published with others: The Intelligent Person’s Guide to Good Governance (SAGE, 2009). He is at present a Fellow of the Bertelsmann Stiftung.


We live in a world that is devoid of visions. Economic growth over the last twenty-five years has been based on false promises. Our educational system is too fragmentary to impart a broad vision of a really better world. We need an integrated view of the problems that we are faced with, the way to handle them, and the direction in which we wish to move.
To see the danger in the direction in which we are moving and to wish to live in a sustainable world is not enough. We need to be united in intention and action to move forward, making sacrifices when necessary. Our ways of thinking and acting need to reflect the reality of the globalising world that we live in.
The following conclusions can be drawn from a series of interviews with thought leaders representing major social initiatives selected from different parts of the world that Surendra Munshi conducted in 2009 on behalf of the Bertelsmann Stiftung. The findings of the interviews are published as “Voices for the Future: Global Crises and the Human Potential”.

We were living in separate boats earlier. All that was needed was to formulate rules to make sure that there was no collision of boats. The situation has changed with the beginning of modern globalization. All the people of the world are now living in the same boat, and different countries of the world are like cabins in the boat. We take care of our cabins without worrying about the boat as a whole. This is how Kishore Mahbubani of the National  University of Singapore, one of the fifteen thought leaders interviewed for this paper, sees the world today.

I. Present Crises and Borrowing from the Future

What are the three most important global crises humanity is currently facing. This was the question formulated in different ways that was asked to each one of them. It is interesting to review their responses. While clear responses are given to this question, there are some who expressed reservations to this mode of asking the relevant question. Jerome C. Glenn of The Millennium Project, for example, draws attention to the fact that in their Millennium Project an attempt has been made to list fifteen global challenges that provide a ‘framework’ to assess the prospects for humanity. Anthony Judge, formerly of Union of International Associations, sees the danger of listing challenges, for then it is possible to lose sight of the context within which a challenge is to be considered. The key is to see the interconnection between the elements of the set. The point of interconnection is emphasized by others as well. Thus, for example, Martin Lees of the Club of Rome says that from the point of view of the Club the challenges are interrelated. He prefers to talk of ‘blocks’ rather than ‘bits’ of challenges. The world is facing – according to  Walter Fust of Global Humanitarian Forum – ‘a multidimens-ional crisis’ today.
With these qualifications in mind, the crisis that received the greatest attention was the crisis of environmental degradation, followed by the crisis created by persisting poverty. The recent financial crisis received attention as well but it was not seen as just as a financial crisis. The other crises that were noted related to population, water and security.

If this is the range of our crises, how have we handled them so far? The general response to this question is that given the gravity of these crises we have handled them inadequately, bordering on, in the words of Garrison (State of the World Forum), ‘criminal neglect’. Though some progress has been made with respect to poverty and local pollution problems in many parts of the world (Flavin of Worldwatch Institute), the point to note is that, as Johnston (Oxfam International) says, we are basically putting the solution of the crisis into the future, borrowing from the future. We are, according to Lees, passing on to our children and grand-children not only vast financial debt but also vast ecological debt by overusing our biological capital. ‘That means’, says Likhotal (Green Cross International), ‘that we are simply stealing (speaking openly and frankly) from the pockets of our children’.

The optimistic voice comes out of Asia. For Mahbubani, ‘history starts a new chapter everyday’ and he believes ‘the world will continue to move forward’, becoming a better place to live in. He sees hope in the millions of Asians joining the middle class with the projection that by 2020 there will be 1.6 billion Asians living in the middle class environment. ‘And as you know’, he concludes, ‘the middle classes tend to be responsible stakeholders’.

II. Leadership and Education for Sustainability

Leadership is needed at different levels, from the village to the international level (Fust). A new kind of leadership that is identified in the context of the knowledge economy is what Glenn calls ‘self-selected leadership’. Unlike ‘out-front’ political leaders’, self-selected leaders use their knowledge and possibilities offered by technology to take  individual initiatives to deal with pressing problems.

Is there any leadership deficit in our world today? For Karl-Henrik Robert of The Natural Step (TNS), the key issue to which all other issues are subordinate is the incompetence of present leadership. He assesses this incompetence not in terms of intelligence or goodness but as the capacity to see the world in a manner that takes it towards sustainability. What is lacking is systematic thinking to understand complex systems. Speaking metaphorically, ‘what leaders need today is to understand the trunk and branches of the challenges ahead of us’. The tree metaphor is meant to suggest that the trunk and the branches of a tree help to connect the leaves, the details. If the trunk and the branches are taken away then all that one has is a big heap of leaves on the ground. If this is understood and shared, a possibility for ‘flat leadership’ arises where people can come together, feel engaged, and using their creativity to come up with their own solutions.

On education: while the interview partners are clear about how crucial education is, they are also aware how an undesirable process of education is taking place. Television is, as Garrison notes, educating an entire population to be consumers. The idea of linking happiness with consumption is destructive, especially when goods are produced that damage our atmosphere. This point is further elaborated by Oscar Motomura of The Earth Charter Initiative. He cautions that counter-education provided by entertainment industry, advertisement, the Internet, and through other means is very powerful. No amount of engagement with the educational process can be effective unless the process of counter-education which leads to unsustainable practices is considered and countered in a strategic manner.

This does not mean the rejection of these means. As far as the television and movies are concerned, we can counter them effectively by using them. Glenn suggests taking real science to a movie like Walt Disney’s The Black Hole. ‘If it is true,’ he says, ‘that people get their news from comedians, and  their world affairs from terminator movies, then let us take those movies and comedians seriously. If this serves the purpose of education in the world, then this is the classroom we have to focus on’.

This brings to mind the emphasis given by Judge to the right way of communicating the message. He asks: why is there no climate change song? Why should unmemorable documents not be made memorable by putting them to lyrics and music? His argument for sustainability is that unless the documents concerning them are made singable they remain unmemorable documents.

There is another kind of education that needs to be carried out, and this is best illustrated by the initiatives covered here, from Amnesty International to Worldwatch Institute. This kind of education is concerned with creating awareness about our rights and responsibilities as human beings, and it is carried out in different ways. Thus, for example, Motomura tells us that there is a need for leaders  in different sectors to become sensitive about ‘the global society of all human beings’. It is not enough to think of sustainability as something concerned with protecting our natural resources. The concept of  sustainability as conveyed by the Earth Charter goes beyond it. We put life, he says, at the centre of everything. We honor all forms of life. When all forms of life are honored it leads to ecological integrity and also to economic and social justice. It leads to concern about keeping different forms of violence away from this world. Ecological integrity, social and economic justice and peace – they are all connected with each other.

III. Frameworks for Collaborative Action

If we learn to see connections in a world facing a multidimensional crisis, we need to take the next step and understand that neither ‘one brain’ nor ‘one organization’ can solve our problems (Lees). We need to come together. There is a need to work across disciplines, sectors, cultures, and countries.

The promoting factor is technology. The revolution in communication technology makes it possible for people to connect in ways that were inconceivable only some years ago. For Garrison, while globalization is weakening institutions, it is empowering voluntary networks of individuals. These voluntary networks can be powerful and harmful as shown by the example of Al-Qaeda. Voluntary networks can also play a very positive role as shown by, for  instance, Amnesty International. Through an inexpensive mode of communication, voluntary networks of committed people can come together and achieve much. It is possible to build the multi-stakeholder approach as well through these networks. Networking means serving the chosen cause together. Though such networks can be strong, we should not overlook the impediments of prejudgments and clichés. Drawing from his experience, Fust draws attention to the manner in which many people from the private sector have reservations about government officials and they in turn are hesitant to talk to people from civil society or foundations, not that the apathy is not reciprocated.

Having noted these problems, there is no reason not to look forward … Glenn sees in Wikipedia a model for making it easy for people to participate globally in doing what is good. If we are all in the same boat, he argues, we have to form an idea about the boat, how big it is, what it looks like, and how to make it work. ‘How do we make the Earth, with humans,’ he asks, ‘work as a whole’. A similar question is asked by Ekman (Tallberg Foundation) and his foundation: ‘How on earth can we live together?’ Wikipedia has shown that global collaboration can take place cutting across different boundaries. And yet with all its success, for Glenn, Wikipedia is just a pointer to what is possible in the future with the power collective intelligence.

IV. Global Governance Revisited

Why do we need to revisit the issue of global governance? The question is related in the first place with the manner in which the world has changed since the Second World War and the manner in which the United Nations systems are seen to be functioning within the changed global situation.

The world has changed in so far as we live in a world of interdependence and the problems that we are facing are far beyond the ability of individual nations to handle. For Lees, ‘the nationalinternational interface’ is going to be a crucial concern for all of us. While different people need their different senses of involvement and identity, the interests of all the people of the world considered together need a collective way of handling global problems. We are also in the process of adjusting our perspective on how to approach these problems. As Johnston sees it, we have had  a tendency to follow absolute solutions, for some socialism was the answer and for others the  market, and ‘both of these absolutes have been found fundamentally wanting’. As Lees shows it is now clear that the idea that the market regulates itself and governments should step back from regulations has partially caused the current financial crisis.‘We have to find a proper balance’, he says, ‘between the role of the market and the role of government which is the custodian of the common interest’. This ideology of giving the market a free run and reducing the role of government has had implications for international institutions as well. Lees concludes:‘it is this combination of weakening government, international governance, and the extreme freedom of the market which has got us to the point where we are today’.

There are other aspects that need to be considered in this respect. The United States, as Garrison argues, is unable to play for a variety of reasons the leadership role that the world needs. More basically, in the analysis of Mahbubani, we are witnessing an important power shift in the world:‘the end of the era of Western domination of world history’ and ‘the return of Asia’ to the world scene.

As far as the United Nations systems are concerned, they find their defense in the voice of Glenn. For one thing, they are evolving a ‘global culture of governance’ where people from different cultural backgrounds learn to work together‘trying to make the world work for everybody and not doing it for just one country’. Secondly, it is important to keep in mind that the United Nations is not just the Security Council, for, while there may be valid reasons for wanting to bring changes in the Security Council, it cannot be denied that organizations such as the World Health Organization or the International Atomic Energy Agency are serving us well. Thirdly, the need for global norms to make global systems work is met by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN treaties that lay out for all of us the manner in which we are to behave with each other. Finally, the UN is in a sense like ‘training wheels for global civilization’. We are learning how to make it work, and if there are deficiencies that does not mean we should throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The idea then is to make the United Nations more representative, more efficient, and more effective. The most persistent demand is to broaden the membership of the Security Council. As to the emergence of G20, though its emergence is seen as a good sign, there are demands that if G20 want to be global leaders they need to lead by setting the right example (Brown, Amnesty International). Also, it is not clear whether G20 is sufficiently democratic (Fust). As to institutional change, Lees cautions, it is ‘a very tough assignment’. There is a long honorable tradition of efforts to reform the United Nations, but the results have not been very encouraging. There still is a long way to go.

The overall purpose of global governance that needs to be differentiated from global government which is not under discussion here is served by inclusiveness, ‘normative diversity’ (Fust), and a recognition that global governance is emerging through a variety of mechanisms.

The problem of global governance can be approached from another end. Robert suggests that we have to build role models on a smaller scale and then try to design larger institutions and co-operative units based on these experiences. He mentions here his experience with municipalities where people have been able to transform them and with them the quality of their own lives through a shared mental model. A shared vision of what these municipalities might be like in the future helps individuals to work towards it with trust in each other. The need for vision is emphasized from yet another angle. Lees notes that for designing or redesigning an institution it is important to be clear about its objective. While the United Nations will need to find a way of ‘addressing systematic problems in an integrated way’, we need at the same time to develop globally a vision of the world that we want, the world which is desirable and hopefully still possible. We are unable to interest people in what is negative or problematic in the absence of a vision, for ‘there is no fire, hope, nor excitement’.

V. The Next Sensible Step

We need to make a mental shift. We need to tell our political leaders, as Brown does, that they cannot afford to be shortsighted any longer. You need to think beyond election terms. We need to tell them, as Glenn would say, to connect the ideas, people, and resources.‘There are a lot of good answers out there, but the world is so full of noise that we can’t get the good answers through’. Above all, we need to tell them, listening to Fust and our other partners, please listen to others, for there is virtue in listening. We need to listen to politicians as well. We need to recall what Mikhail Gorbachev told  Garrison when he asked him the reason for his fall after the Soviet Union had been dismantled. Gorbachev told him: ‘There were many political reasons why I fell, but in the end I fell because I was not analyzing reality ruthlessly enough’.

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