“A World that Works for No One”

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Unless people of good will join in common cause to build a truly democratic world that works for all, we will find ourselves living in a world that works for no one. —David Korten (2000)

There is a sense in which we already find ourselves living in “a world that works for no one”: not the rich, and certainly not the poor; not the believer or the agnostic, not the Ph.D. or the high school drop-out, not the pop celebrity or the homeless veteran still suffering from PTSD. It’s not just that the rich are as depressed, confused, and cynical as the rest of us, which is certainly true in many cases; or that the world we live in seems to be unravelling in a dozen different ways, which has certainly been the case during all of our lifetimes. It’s that the world cannot work for anyone unless it at least begins to work for everyone.

A few recent examples. Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Palestine, Ukraine, Russia, Pakistan, Sudan; Greece, Spain, and the rest of the European Union; the U.K.; and a majority of nations in Africa and Latin America. And the ones left out are not doing too well either. The Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, all sinking beneath the waves. The residents of New Orleans and the rest of the Mississippi River Delta, of the U.S. eastern seaboard, of Bangkok. The citizens of Camden, NJ. And on and on.

Today’s BBC Newsnight (2/23/14) carries two stories, one from the U.S. and one from Britain, that bring the point home. Between 20 and 25% of women on U.S. college campuses will experience some form of sexual assault, often with devastating psychological as well as sometimes physical consequences. What does it mean that a quarter of U.S. female graduates will carry this memory of trauma into the workplace and into the home? What does it mean that 20-25% of male college graduates will recall having visited violence on women? The story from the U.K. is about welfare recipients who’ve been dropped for “minor bureaucratic infractions,” and shows the decaying, rat-infested buildings where they live, try to keep warm, and bring up children whose lives will forever be blighted by hunger, disease, and privation.

And this is not to even mention the extremes of “man’s inhumanity to man,” as detailed, for instance, in Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958), his account of being sent, at the age 12 along with the rest of his family (all of whom perished) to the Nazi death camps.

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Elie Wiesel at age 15

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. —Elie Wiesel (1958)

What this really reveals to us is that all of us have some version of “survivor’s guilt,” however submerged or suppressed; whether we live lives of utter banality or throw ourselves into a variety of worthy causes, we are all scarred by the wounds of human cruelty, misery, and terror that pervade our species’  history.

It is in this sense that the world truly works for no one, because none of us can escape the sense that we too are capable of both suffering and perpetrating all this. However secure or privileged we are, some random act of criminality may leave us with completely shattered lives; however saintly or nonviolent we are committed to being, a moment of inattention on the highway may plunge others into a life of misery; and even if we do not have an evil or unkind bone in our bodies, the everyday choices we make at the supermarket or the gas pump have consequences for others around the world.

Moreover, the fact that you and I do not do evil, cruel, or unfair things does not relieve us of the guilt we share as a common heritage of humanity, for the genocide of Native Americans or the Spanish Conquest, for Nazi Germany and the surrender of the Jews, for Vietnam, or 9/11 and Iraq, or…  for the everyday injustices that surround us.

So this is one of the truths of our world, and one that we need to come to terms with: right now, the world we have, works for no one. Even those who are most successful, and who appear most certain and most confident, know in their hearts that a better world is possible; indeed, they may even recognize it more than others, and spend an important part of their lives working to make it happen.

In launching a “world that works” project, we are not seeking to gloss over any of the realities we face today. On the contrary, we need to accept the bitter truth that we are not, as a species, the heroes of the universe, the stewards of the planet, the protectors of life. On the contrary, we are the problem. And its up to each one of us to declare that we can and must also be the solution.

Nature has a way of righting itself in the end; but that may include terminating us if we don’t alter our course. Right now we are in the process of extinguishing up to half of all the species in existence; but once we ourselves can no longer survive (or survive only as the remnants of today’s self-destructive civilizations) this pressure will cease. This is the almost-inevitable outcome of today’s economic and ecological practices and policies, which are in turn held in place by the structures of power that we have, collectively, created.

We have, therefore, one of two choices. We can acquiesce, or we can, as Al Gore puts it in An Inconvenient Truth, “rise again to secure our future.”

algoreYou see that pale, blue dot? That’s us. Everything that has ever happened in all of human history, has happened on that pixel. All the triumphs and all the tragedies, all the wars all the famines, all the major advances… it’s our only home. And that is what is at stake, our ability to live on planet Earth, to have a future as a civilization. I believe this is a moral issue, it is your time to seize this issue, it is our time to rise again to secure our future.        —Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

In the end, “coming from” the act of co-creating a world that works does not guarantee success, or happiness, or peace. It offers us wisdom and compassion, and the joy of knowing that we have made our own choices, and that no matter what we do we have each fulfilled our destiny in the cosmic unfolding. But perhaps this is all we need or deserve.

Starting from the recognition that the world works for no one alive today, and that many millions are already condemned to lives of misery, of injustice, and of tragedy, we can only add our strength to the effort to repair and restore it for the benefit of all future generations. This is the big task of our generation, and perhaps of generations to come for a very long time, perhaps forever. We may never achieve a world that works for everyone with no one and nothing left out. It is not even probable. But it is only when we stand for it as a possibility that we even have a chance of becoming fully self-actualized and being fulfilled. At the same time, it is not enough for individuals to be self-actualized, we need the whole of humanity to be on the path to Self-actualization, the recognition and restoration of our oneness with all that is.

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  1. Pingback: Jonathan Cloud::Life, Examined » Blog Archive » “A World that Works for No One”

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