Restoring Cooperation in a Fractured World

When the American Association of University Women St. Paul invited me to speak about restoring cooperation in a fractured world, I began thinking about how political division blinds us to the opportunities we have for making a better future. In many ways, the landscape of cooperative future-building is getting deeper, smarter, and more inclusive, even as our politics suggests otherwise.

Our world today is riven by many kinds of division. The gap between haves and have-nots is widening, hunger and poverty are spreading, and faith in established political systems is waning—even in those societies that do the most to protect human rights and act in service of the common good.

A lot of what we need to see restored is our ability to trust processes that require us to work with others. There is an ethical core to this challenge:

  • We may have our own way of thinking about values, but our ethical obligations require us to listen to how others express their own values and interests.

  • We have a duty to support others in the realization of the more humane conditions they seek, just as we want this from them.

When the Berlin Wall came down, millions of people experienced it as a liberation. It was that, but it is important to note that liberation and reunification were mutually necessary. Our ability to be human together, to work together for a better world, is as fundamental to our being human as anything else we prefer to talk about.

Earth’s atmosphere is thinner than we think it is. Heat-trapping pollutants are heating the atmosphere and the ocean, destabilizing the climate. The climate system is a geophysical reality, but it is also an ethical fabric connecting us to one another. We are all “downstream” recipients of the impacts of others’ choices, due to global heating and climate disruption.

Glacial ice and snowpack are disappearing. National Geographic reported last summer that “less sea ice covered the Arctic Ocean than in any other July since scientists began keeping track of it with satellites in 1979”. The trends suggest that “By the time a toddler graduates from high school, summer sea ice in the high North could be a thing of the past.”

The difference between ice and water is stark. The bright white of snow and ice reflects 90% of the radiative energy (light and heat) coming from the Sun. Open ocean is one of the darkest surfaces on Earth. When sunlight hits open ocean, 94% of the radiative energy is absorbed, with only 6% reflected back. That means an ice free Arctic Ocean is an accelerator of global heating and climate destabilization.

This means we have less time than we think to correct course and begin building a climate-smart economy. Meanwhile, our food system is at risk from disrupted water cycles, reduced and more sporadic and intense precipitation events, droughts, fires, and storms. And, the risk of zoonotic pathogen transfer from animals to humans is increasing.

It is now estimated such spillovers occur once every 4 months. All three known coronavirus spillovers have happened in the last two decades (SARS, MERS, and COVID). COVID-19 has taken more than 3 million lives worldwide, including at least 570,000 in the United States, and the pandemic has shown that the costs of resilience failure are not billions or hundreds of billions, but trillions or tens of trillions of dollars in unplanned spending and losses.

All of these systemic risks are macrocritical influences. That means they shape the overall landscape of economic and human potential. Failing on macrocritical influences means undermining health, wellbeing, prosperity, and security. Building macrocritical resilience means creating conditions in which health, wellbeing, prosperity, and security are more real and more sustainable.

And macrocritical influences don’t stand alone. They interact in vitally important ways. The question of whether young girls have access to education can be the difference between a society that slides into civil war and mass deprivation and displacement or a one that is positioned to innovate, make responsible decisions through its civic institutions, and thrive.

The Sustainable Development Goals are a useful map of actionable macrocritical priorities, which all of the nations of the UN General Assembly agreed in 2015 to implement within their borders and in collaboration with others. Moving forward on all of them brings real change to living conditions, institutional transparency and reliability, and the health and resilience of people and Nature.

The grounds for a new age of collaboration have been laid. In the work nearly 200 nations are doing to identify strategies for a transition to climate-smart practices, they are deepening and enriching our global collaborative capability. Engagement of stakeholders in community holds the promise of putting down real roots for this more inclusive, more cooperative, more liberating way of managing our affairs.

In the end, we are not a society broken by mistrust and division and struggling to pick up the pieces. In fact, each of us has a role to play in activating the already deep, and expanding root system for this more conscious, more cooperative, more intelligent way of working together to manifest our values and provide protection. It’s just a question of moving forward with awareness of what matters most.