The crew of an amphibious cargo ship move Vietnamese refugees from a small boat, South China Sea, 1975

Transition 2020: How can we be good ancestors? Part I

In this set of posts titled “Transition 2020: How can we be good ancestors?” I share some stories, ideas and practical approaches that I believe are crucial to our times. I explore themes of tragedy, trust and transformation, and bring us to some bold yet practical “transition pathways” for the decade ahead.

These posts are based on the Douglas R. Wilson lecture I had the honour to give in October 2019 at the University of Alberta.* Part I is a perspective on tragedies — of the current moment, of the commons, of the horizon, and of declining trust — and it questions some of our deepest societal assumptions. Part II proposes transformation: three dimensions of change required with 10 needed transitions, and concludes with 20 pathways for transition in the 2020s.

I welcome comments and suggestions. Feedback received will help inform our thinking and design for the next phase of Cities for People and other community transition initiatives incubated at the McConnell Foundation as we build a more ambitious mission-oriented agenda for the decade ahead.

*I’d like to thank Dean Shanthi Johnson and Dr. Wilson and the team and faculty at the School of Public Health for inviting me to give this lecture and for an outstanding week of learning and exchange in Edmonton!

Part I: TRAGEDY

I begin with a personal story.

I was 9 years old when the Vietnam War ended in 1975. That first year, 125,000 refugees came to the US by boat (the so called boat people). My family — 5 kids, our parents and a bunch of animals — lived on a small farm in Pennsylvania, about 10 miles from a large US military post where thousands of refugees were temporarily housed. The refugees were Vietnamese, those leaving behind their lives in a country that had been brutally torn by war for nearly 20 years, and Cambodian, many of whom narrowly escaped the “Killing Fields” of the Khmer Rouge regime.

My family decided to take an active role with the refugees. Most weekends that summer we packed up picnic baskets and blankets, soccer balls and a volleyball net, and we hung out on lawns at the military base with hundreds of refugees. At 9, I had a vague sense of what was happening — that the refugees were there out of desperation. They had lost their homes and homelands, family and friends, everything but the clothes on their backs. They were now living as near prisoners on a military base in a foreign land. We didn’t share a common spoken language, but we managed to play and smile, make food and eat together. By the end of the summer my family was approved to sponsor two Vietnamese refugees — a brother and sister, 25 and 19 years old — and to foster a teenage boy of 16. The three then moved in with us.

The experience of living with refugees in our home was transformative. I learned careful Vietnamese methods for gardening and cooking, and how to more humanely butcher a chicken and not waste one ounce of the carcass, important lessons for a farm girl (who later became vegetarian!). My new older brother had fought in the Vietnam War, and part of his coping strategy in this new land was to become an avid fisherman. He became legendary in fishing circles throughout our region — this Vietnamese guy who could show up at any lake and magically bring in one catch after another, even when no one else could. In his quiet way, he dealt with war trauma (or so the 9-yr-old me understood). The experience of living together with “others” in the same home was significant. It made me acutely aware of my privilege — to not go to bed hungry, to have a safe shelter and a warm bed, and to have a loving family. And it helped to shape who I became, the choices I made throughout my life and the way I see the world.

I saw the human costs of distant political and economic interests. I saw all of us as needing each other — as kin — as equal and bound together in our struggles and our freedom. This planted the seeds for me to understand the world differently. My family was no longer just my own bloodline, but included these new brothers and sister. It awakened me to the oneness of humanity. I began to understand better what the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King had written from his jail cell in 1968: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Fast forward 40-plus years to 2019. Tragedies, wars and displacement continue on an unprecedented scale. In 2019 alone, the multiple, complex and globally interrelated crises are staggering. You’ve read about them and seen them on your screens and in your feeds. Here are just a few.

As of August 2019, there was, on average, more than one mass shooting per day in the US. Hundreds of people were killed this year in protests around the world, from Ecuador to Chile, Hong Kong, Iraq, Bolivia and beyond. And then there are predictions of tragedies to come. One report estimates that by 2050, 5 billion lives will be at risk due to environmental degradation. We are only just beginning to grapple with the unprecedented scale of disaster expected in the coming years.

The growing protest movements paint a picture of the state of things: climate crisis, widespread inequality, anger with political and economic elites, and the fervent desire of people to act collectively and have agency to create a better future.

In 2019 alone we have witnessed widespread protest movements: most start peaceful and some have become violent as tensions rise: the Yellow Vests in France and elsewhere; Indigenous protests in Ecuador; Haiti Petrochallenge protests; Extinction Rebellion; Youth Climate Strikes led by Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier and others; Hong Kong protests fighting for democracy; and others in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere.

In 2019 alone we have witnessed widespread protest movements: most start peaceful and some have become violent as tensions rise: the Yellow Vests in France and elsewhere; Indigenous protests in Ecuador; Haiti Petrochallenge protests; Extinction Rebellion; Youth Climate Strikes led by Greta Thunberg, Autumn Peltier and others; Hong Kong protests fighting for democracy; and others in Chile, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran and elsewhere.

On the surface these crises may appear to be primarily about climate and inequality, but there are, of course, underlying symptoms and drivers.

There are two economic concepts that are commonly referred to as tragedies and that underlie how we think about these crisis and how we approach solutions to the challenges we face.

TRAGEDY OF THE COMMONS

Garrett Hardin’s parable is about a flock of hypothetical herdsman who, if given access to a communal pasture, will increase their herd size. The tragedy is that, ultimately, they collectively degrade the pasture and “the commons” collapses. This metaphor is often used in the context of environmental protection. The global atmosphere is a “commons:” It is owned by no one and used by everyone, and, if left unregulated, then like the pasture, it’s doomed to be overexploited and ruined.

The main solution to the “commons problem” has generally been seen as privatization, which supposedly gives the private owner an incentive to enforce sustainability. That, however, has clearly not worked to improve the health of the planet or to advance human equality.

Returning to the example of the global atmosphere, many companies use the atmosphere as a free waste disposal area, without accounting for the costs that a polluted atmosphere imposes on others. Privatizing shared resources often incentivizes companies to make sure that profits stay inside the bounds of what is considered “theirs” while the costs are borne by the resources or entities that cannot easily be owned or divided up, like the atmosphere.

TRAGEDY OF THE HORIZON

The “tragedy of the horizon,” coined by Mark Carney, is a fundamental problem of traditional investment in our dominant economic system; that is, short-term horizons in financial markets limit the effective transmission of long-term risk signals and, therefore, inhibit a more efficient long-term allocation of capital.

The tragedy of the horizon reveals our collective lack of responsibility to address our externalities across generations. Short term horizons prevented us from looking at risks of climate change and we are now paying the price economically as well as environmentally.

The tragedy of the horizon also has a relationship to our collective capacity to imagine the future in the long term. The challenge of short-termism, and what seems to be our collective incapacity as a species to think and act for the long term, is truly another deep crisis we face. For example, the way we build cities has changed very little over the past 80–100 years; it’s merely the technologies and scale of their change that have exponentially accelerated.

This tragic short-termism also shows up when corporations and governments throw up their hands in defeat in the face of complex wicked problems. We often seem capable only to address consequences of problems that are truly imminent.

The tragedy of the horizon and the tragedy of the commons are deeply rooted within many western institutions and ways of thinking, and they are part of what impedes our ability to respond systemically to the complex and large-scale disasters that are unfolding. Our collective neglect to take responsibility for the global commons and for the long term, along with rising inequality, have contributed to our difficulty to build trust, norms of reciprocity and capabilities to solve our collective action problems. And it is a vicious cycle. Trust is needed as a precursor to mitigate tragedies. So how can we build trust to strengthen our society-wide collective action capabilities?

TRAGEDY OF DECLINING TRUST

Trust is a critical factor in raising our collective consciousness in ways that will yield better social outcomes. By trust, I don’t mean a conscious act of commitment, but rather a culture or attitude which is strengthened or weakened in day-to-day activities: exchanges between people, in our transactions, relationships of reciprocity and in our ever-evolving social contracts.

Trust is sometimes called the glue of society, and it is arguably the most important foundation for all healthy relationships — social, familial, romantic, economic and societal.

In my work I collaborate with hundreds of partners. And I can testify to the adage that “collaboration moves at the speed of trust.” I have seen a number of initiatives die over the years, many with great potential for impact, because trust was broken in the relationship system. Trust is hard won and easily lost.

Where does trust show up?

It shows up in the workplace. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Employees in high-trust organizations are more productive, have more energy at work, collaborate better with their colleagues, and stay with employers longer than people working at low-trust companies.”

In informal economies, trust tends to play a critical role, and sometimes stands in for formal legal contracts or other mechanisms of state judicial and oversight and enforcement systems.

Trust plays a fundamental part in our norms of behaviour in public settings, and in our social contracts with governments, institutions and businesses.

And trust shows up in our neighbourhoods and our cities, which, as I’ll come to in Part II, are sites of transformation for building trust.

But it is getting harder to trust each other. Public trust is declining globally, and here in Canada.

We have less confidence in our governments, particularly provincial and federal governments, our corporations, and each other.

A recent study by the Centre for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University reveals that people in Canada only moderately trust democratic institutions. We trust academics (65%) and judges (63%) most, and elected officials least (34%). By comparison, we show high levels of trust for people in our neighbourhoods (65%) and for people with a different ethnic backgrounds than our own (59%).

People tend to trust more at local level. 61% of Canadians believe that municipal governments are best placed to find solutions to community problems.

I want to get into some specifics about the breakdown of trust, particularly regarding industry.

Douglas Rushkoff recently wrote: “The digital economy, so far, is just corporate industrialism on steroids: extract value from people and places … The moment we stop optimising the digital economy for the growth of capital, and optimise it for the circulation of value between people, everything will start to get better really fast.”

We have an increasingly complicated relationship with technology companies, in particular the big platforms: Facebook, Google and Amazon. These massive platforms are also the world’s largest advertising companies and most of us are feeding them a near constant supply of data about all aspects of our lives: our health, work, romantic relationships, communications, curiosities and searches, transactions and interactions of all kinds. These companies are amassing and concentrating power and wealth on a scale the world has never seen.

We now know that these platforms can pose a threat to democracy. Facebook and others played significant roles in influencing recent elections, such as the Brexit vote and Trump’s election. And while tech companies have finally publicly acknowledged their influence and impact on society, we have still not seen them take legitimate social responsibility for their roles.

Author and scholar Shoshana Zuboff published a large volume this year, the Age of Surveillance Capitalism, “about the darkening of the digital dream.”

She makes the case that we are moving toward a society in which capitalism doesn’t function as a means to inclusive economic or political institutions, but rather as a “profoundly anti-democratic social force.” Zuboff’s reasoning echoes Thomas Paine’s: … “Paine argues for the capabilities of the common person and against aristocratic privilege. Among his reasons to reject aristocratic rule was its lack of accountability to the needs of the people, ‘because a body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody.’”

Rebecca Solnit, in a recent article in The Guardian, talks about how big tech isn’t interested in a better world, just a more profitable one. It is aptly titled: “What the climate emergency demands of us and what capitalism does to us are at war with each other”.

Solnit writes: “Though many have used technology to further democracy and participation, big tech doesn’t want us to be citizens. It wants us to be consumers. To address the climate crisis we need to be citizens — free, powerful, with our private lives private and our public lives vivid, energized and safe.”

Beyond tech, industries like pharmaceuticals and fossil fuels also have a great deal to account for. For example, consider the opioid epidemic. In the province of Ontario alone there was a record-high 1,473 deaths in 2018 (up 17% from the previous year), and very little media attention. What is the role of the pharmaceutical industry in the opioid crisis? Why hasn’t there been greater accountability and responsibility? (This is very personal for me: my own dear nephew died of an overdose last year. His autopsy revealed that the injection that killed him was 100% Fentanyl.)

And what about fossil-fuel companies? What should we as a society expect? Surely we cannot continue endlessly the path that we are on. What does accelerated transition away from fossil fuels look like?

The trust breakdown is in many ways linked to growing social and economic divides. How can the obscene inequality that we’ve constructed not breed corruption and thereby breakdown our collective trust? It’s hard to expect trust to be strengthened and deepened across societies in the current context.

Trust between people matters as the precursor to developing shared values, which are foundational for social capital.

In the language of social capital, bonding social capital can still be built between groups of people with shared identities, but it becomes much harder to build bridging social capital between diverse groups of people. Bridging social capital is what is required to strengthen our collective community resilience to live and work together to navigate the increasing risks and uncertainties we face, both in everyday life and in times of disaster.

So where does that leave us today? And can trust, social capital, and a sense of kinship help us transcend the tragedies of the commons and the horizon? I believe that trust will grow as awareness and consciousness are raised and notions of kinship are cultivated. When we all see each other as kin, our starting place is different. We can trust across difference. Kinship is about seeing ourselves in the other, about recognizing that our collective fates are intertwined. It is about relationships, which are about trust.

We need trust in each other to imagine and build together. That requires a new global solidarity and a new practice. And that requires transformation.

For positive transformative change to occur, many of our deepest assumptions about how we organize society need to be questioned and upended. Otherwise, we are destined to repeat patterns of tragedy. Following are three assumptions to bust in order to open up transformative possibilities.

ASSUMPTION BUST 1: OWNERSHIP

We assume we have the right to ownership of property and goods. In the world we need to create, should we have a right to own land? Or should land be self-sovereign? Does the land own us? How can we rethink property rights? Or how could we create more collective ownership models of property, and companies owned by people who work there?

And we must ask, who owns the city? If the answer is that we all do, then there are serious implications for how we choose to allocate and cultivate resources, and how we live and work together.

ASSUMPTION BUST 2: SOVEREIGNTIES

We assume that sovereignties and jurisdictions are fixed. Political boundaries of nation states are far different from Indigenous notions (see map of Indigenous territories of Turtle Island, present day North America). I learned from Indigenous law scholar John Borrows that law is a verb in Anishnaabe language; so in that tradition, we ‘law’ together and all people are considered legal practitioners. What would it mean to manifest that? As well as the special constitutional context with respect to Aboriginal rights that we have here in Canada? How could natural assets (such as watersheds, forests and other commons) have sovereignty and what would that look like? What is appropriate jurisdiction to effectively transform how we live and work together for the future we need, at the nation state, territory, provincial, regional, city and local community level?

We need social contracts at a different scale of jurisdiction and for higher purposes. And institutional arrangements that foster legitimacy and trust. Cities, neighbourhoods and communities are the site of that.

ASSUMPTION BUST 3: ROLE OF CORPORATIONS

By and large, big corporations act primarily in shareholder and short-term interests. What should be the role of the corporation in today’s world? Should shareholder interest give way to public or common interest? What about data and digital rights? Who should own or steward data, and who should get to use which data for which purposes? Should we expect our smart phones and all that they hold and are capable of to actually be good for us, as well as for our children, for nature, for democracy, for generations to come?

In this first of two blogs, I have summarized some tragedies and highlighted some assumptions to upend as we collectively reimagine society to affect positive change in increasingly dark times. In Part II, I will address some of the transitions in culture, mindset, action and institution-building that can and need to be advanced in order to chart pathways of transformation for the health of people and the planet for generations to come. I’ll provide 20 transformation pathways for the 2020s that require: 1) new ways of understanding value; 2) that favour commons based sharing and wealth creation; and 3) that move beyond narrow definitions of intelligence to understand a multitude of intelligences in people and nature with the power to act on collective wisdom.

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