We did not see the back of 2009 soon enough. In fact, it will be good to be done with the entire first decade of this century. “Double Aught” is more revealing than it might seem. Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman opines that the last 10 years should be called “the Big Zero,” “a decade in which nothing good happened and none of the optimistic things we were supposed to believe turned out to be true.”
That might be a distinctly American perspective on the last decade — Japan’s “lost decade” is generally associated with the 1990s — but there is no escaping the disappointment that blankets any assessment of that period. One crisis followed another — from the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the wars they triggered, to the growing recognition that human activity was altering the climate, to a financial debacle that destroyed trillions of dollars of global wealth, ending the dream of millions of people who hoped to escape the poverty that marks their daily lives.
That enduring poverty is disturbing, but we should be even more troubled by the poverty of our collective imagination. It has been two decades since the end of the Cold War. The world has changed in fundamental ways; indeed, it is more accurate to say that the world has been transformed. Yet despite this change, the norms, institutions and operative procedures of global governance remain as they were. We seem to be running on autopilot. There is a profound need for the renewal and renovation — and in some cases the reconstruction — of the international system.
Some of the forces at work are tectonic: connections among states that render borders invisible; the emergence of multinational communities defined by economic and cultural ties; a broader distribution of technologies and knowhow. Not surprisingly, old structures are giving way as a result.
The sclerosis of the Group of Eight is evident. The emergence of the Group of 20 is one indication of the smaller group’s obsolescence, but this new grouping is probably going to serve as a transitional mechanism for another smaller group — a new G8 or -10 — pushing for reform and modernization of other global institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank or the Bank of International Settlements.
Reform is also badly needed at the United Nations. The list of “to-do items” there is long, starting with removal of the “enemy state” clause of the U.N. charter that identifies Japan and Germany, along with five other nations, as former enemies of the allies of World War II. Of course, Security Council reform is needed, but that will be a long and difficult process; the enemies clause is a relic that should be easy to eliminate.
Institutional renovation is important, but it is not going to be enough. What is needed to tackle the many challenges — both old and new — that the world faces is a new mindset. Without a fundamental reconceptualization of our world and our roles in it, enduring problems will get worse.
Consider, for example, the paralysis that characterizes global trade talks. This round was supposed to focus on the needs and concerns of developing nations. Instead, the priorities of developed states continue to drive negotiations. The result is the continuation of obscene subsidies that lead to the overproduction of goods and the protection of obsolete industries in rich nations from competition from the poorest and neediest citizens of the world. Fundamental concerns for fairness and decency should drive these talks. They do not.
The same can be said for efforts to halt climate change. This issue has been debated ad nauseum.
But the bottom line is unchanging: A majority of people are unwilling to incur costs today for changes that will improve the world. This reflects a sense of entitlement and privilege: Because their predecessors enjoyed a life that was richer than deserved, they believe they deserve the same.
Underlying all these problems is a mindset that is focused on immediate rewards, on consuming, and divorces individuals from society and the world in which they live. All too often, we live in the moment, which is a death sentence for the planet when combined with a consumerist, “winner-take-all” approach.
This new thinking should rest on several pillars. The first is interconnectedness: The planet is shrinking and the fates of its inhabitants are linked as never before. With both good things and bad now traveling at light speed, we cannot afford to be indifferent to the lives of the less fortunate. Second, we must reduce our footprints. As a species we consume too much and pay too little for the privilege. We must adjust our thinking not only about what we consume, but how we consume. Third, and related to that point, we need to reconsider the definition of “the good life.” Too much emphasis has been put on quantitative indexes, rather than on the quality of life.
Most important, we need to encourage innovation and creative thinking. A time of change is a time to challenge assumptions. If all we expect is more of the same, we are certain to be satisfied. Given the record of the last decade, this is a grim prognosis.
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