The right to complain
by Dr. Horst Walther, Diplomatic Council Commissioner to the United Nations
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. …”These words are attributed to Socrates (469–399 B.C.). Since then and probable even before those times, the complaints about the perceived moral decay of the respective contemporary youth have not ceased.
Simple logic suggests, that moral worth – however it may be defined in the particular period’s context – cannot have been steadily deteriorating over 100 generations. We would have all become anti-social criminals by now. Rather there seems to be something completely wrong with the subjective perception of those elders, who emit the complaints. At minimum they seem to have forgotten that they themselves once were young and full of ideals, desires – and nonsense.
Moreover, do they have any right to complain this way? Can the elder generation or generations really be taken as the shining role model, young men and women ought to follow?
A closer examination rather delivers a devastating picture. Even if we leave the strongmen, which are on the rise around the world aside, if we don’t consider the retro-politics or even paleo-politics reigning is even in major western countries. Let’s take for example a European country like Germany, which is internationally regarded as moderate in all respect, or France which allegedly attempted to re-start. Take Sweden, Canada – not the US. Do their governments really address the long-term sustainability of human life?
Let me be blunt: I doubt that. Those in charge rather desire to be re-elected (in democracies) or stay in power under any circumstance (under authoritarian regimes). I’ll keep this section short as I contemplated about these fundamental flaws before. Maybe they can’t do otherwise. In consequence however their actions are far from being responsible.
They act as if they had no children, no grandchildren, no future.
At least they do not care. They sacrifice the future of mankind recklessly for their short-term gains in the present. For them it may still work out fine. It is the coming generations who will have to pay a terrible price for this.
Need some evidence?
As evidence is abundant that the party eventually will come to an end, I arbitrarily limit the indicators of looming disasters to just seven …
- 1. Overpopulation
The current world population as of April 2019 just passed the 7.7 billion mark. Until the time of Napoleon, there were less than 1 billion people on Earth at any one time. Since the Second World War, we have been adding a billion people to the global population every 12-15 years. Our population is more than double today what it was in 1970. Global population is currently rising by more than 80 million a year. With a birth rate more than doubling the mortality rate it is most likely to continue rising for the rest of this century unless we take action. The growth rate is expected to flatten out within a few generations, resulting in a saturation of the total global population at about ~ 10 billion by ~ 2050.
Given our actual technological status, our aspirations and even just our physical needs it appears doubtful that mankind can maintain a long-term sustainable existence at this number. Maybe we are too many already.
- 2. The sixth extinction
Palaeontologists discovered that throughout earth’s history there have been (at least) five mass extinctions, which wiped out major fractions of all life on this planet. At the end of the geological periods Ordovician, 444 million years ago, 86%, Devonian, 375 million years ago, 75%, Permian, 251 million years ago, 96%, Triassic, 200 million years ago, 80%, and Cretaceous, 66 million years ago, 76% of all species were lost. The sixth extinction, this time however man-made, is now in full swing. According to the UN’s Global Environment Outlook 6 since 1970, the vertebrate population has declined by around 60 %. At present, between 25 and 42 % of invertebrates, such as insects, are threatened with extinction. The disappearance of insects poses a particular threat to the growth of new food. But this is not the only threat directly affecting human food supply: One third of the planet's land area now belongs to the "degraded soils" category; in the past 50 years, 40 % of the world's wetlands have disappeared. Warming and overfishing endanger the livelihoods of over three billion people who depend on fish as their most important food source.
So, probably even the rather unpleasant outlook of a planet, whose biomass primarily consists of humans, residing on a huge pile of garbage on a largely devastated planet, is even not pessimistic enough. Rather we ourselves may be affected severely by ignoring the fact that we humans too can only survive as part of a functioning ecosystem.
- 3. Depleting the planet of resources
The consumption of resources increases in parallel to population growth and exponentially with the much-praised prosperity. It is not only the often mentioned "rare earths" that could become scarce. Agricultural land cannot be increased at will either. A "green revolution" can probably only be repeated once or twice. The soils degrade, are exhausted. Even water for agriculture and human consumption is becoming a scarce commodity. They don't like to say it. But many of these resources are finite. They cannot be reproduced. Technical progress can still push the boundaries a little further, as can be seen from the example of the "peak oil" theory. This however does not change the fundamental problem of finite resources.
Nevertheless, it looks like we have never been farther away from a global management of scarce resources as a precondition for our survival. Rather resource scarcity seems to become a major source of geopolitical risks and resulting conflicts.
- 4. Economic inequality
Globally the economic inequality of humanity is growing. If not limited at least to a certain degree, it will eventually destroy all social order. Historical considerations teach us that only cataclysmic events like wars, epidemics or revolutions had the power to level inequality again. During ‘calm’ periods like the current century of US American world hegemony the wealth of the economically acting individuals drifts apart again.
Several "tribes" already live side by side in the USA without any contact. Occasionally, they fight each other. This trend will only intensify. It leads towards isolation tendencies. The globalisation of the 1990s is collapsing before our very eyes. It was never to be confused with fair world trade. Rather, it was used as an instrument of domination to implement hegemonic aspirations.
Nevertheless, it has led to interdependence and promoted exchange. Thus, the hoped-for global community is falling apart into increasingly authoritarian power blocs and spheres of interest at a time when community action could perhaps still avert regional and global disasters. This hope now has gone.
- 5. Climate crisis
Much has been written already on this main topic. It remains high on the list of our major concerns. This it can be handled here just briefly. Even palaeo-politicians like Donald Trump no longer deny that climate change is happening right now before our eyes. That doesn’t mean however that this rather new insight instigates any useful actions to counter the unstoppable change. Quite to the opposite his administration advocates for outdated traditional energy sources at the same time denouncing renewable energy production as ineffective and even dangerous.
- 6. Growth economy
It is an unquestioned dogma among the members of the ruling classes in all countries I know of that the economy must grow – the more, the better. How long can this go on, infinitely? Maybe we should remind the leading schools of economists that we in the end live on a finite planet. Taking this proposition combined with the outlook of a finally stalling population growth should only leave productivity increase as a remaining driver for economic growth. Raised in an era where infinitely on-going ‘progress’ was our underlying assumption for all further considerations only a few academics so far regard a zero-growth economy as desirable or even possible. However, the outlook of a stationary economy appears to be only a logical consequence, if we seriously pursue the goal of a sustaining human life on earth. I think it is time to demand new sustainable economic models from the scholarly world.
- 7. Potential for conflict
As it could have been expected evidence is mounting that resource scarcity drives competition and potential for conflict, as does overpopulation. According to the “The Global Risks Report 2019, 14th Edition” of the World Economic Forum the geopolitical risks are on the rise. In its foreword it explicitly asks rhetorically:
“Is the world sleepwalking into a crisis? Global risks are intensifying but the collective will to tackle them appears to be lacking. Instead, divisions are hardening. The world’s move into a new phase of strongly state-centred politics, noted in last year’s Global Risks Report, continued throughout 2018. The idea of “taking back control”— whether domestically from political rivals or externally from multilateral or supranational organizations— resonates across many countries and many issues. The energy now expended on consolidating or recovering national control risks weakening collective responses to emerging global challenges. We are drifting deeper into global problems from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves.”
Obviously, our leaders are collectively heading into the wrong direction. They don’t do that just by their own discretion, as we have to concede. Nevertheless, it’s time to mobilize appropriate counterforces.
Where is the resistance?
But where are the young people, who later have to pay the bill?
Do they just let it all happen to them? Or do they even believe the barely hidden agendas of the devious elites? Are they willing to be instrumentalized? Do they still have hope, while should know it better? Or have they already given up inside and just apathetically play their role in the end-time game? Have they defiantly but despondently withdrawn into the cocoon of a small, private life?
One thing can be said for sure: certainly, they are not rebellious.
Of course, there are some iconic exceptions, well-known for a while, pushed by media and possible interested groups. In some cases, they have been awarded prizes, sedated by public honours, inserted as a well-dosed opposition into a likewise well-functioning system. The role assigned to them then is to add credibility to those in charge, to assure all those who maintain their doubts: Look, people, we take you seriously, we listen, you have your important place in society - and then we continue as we did before. Anyway, the show must go on.
Let’s randomly pick and mention a few examples, representing all the others, who didn’t make it into the public consciousness. But even they quickly did or will fall victim to public amnesia.
Malala Yousafzai a prominent Pakistani activist of the Pashto tribe, who engaged for the right to education for girls. In 2014 she was awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize, making her one of the youngest Nobel prize laureates ever. Two years earlier she nearly had to pay with her life for her activism, when she was shot by a gunman of the so-called Taliban in an assassination attempt.
Emma González, an American activist and advocate for gun control. As a high school senior she survived the February 2018 Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. In response she co-founded the gun-control advocacy group Never Again MSD. Her touching speech is still or even more worth listening to.
Greta Thunberg, a 15 years old Swedish school girl, was recently in the headlines, when she refused to go to school to get politicians to act on the looming climate crisis. Her actions indeed gained worldwide attention. She inspired school students across the globe to participate in student strikes.
All three selected activists are girls. I am not sure, if this is just a coincidence. Each of them took action for a different reason, targeted different nuisances, calamities, threats. All in common have the limited effect on the course of the world, while global societies are racing with high and even accelerating speed towards the dead end of the road.
One more remark on the last person in the list, who is about to lead an international movement: One may not want to trust the students, who are truanting school lessons, to have a lasting influence on the course of the world. It is well easy to blame them for their actions, to criticise them. They however hold one precious ingredient in their hands: moral legitimacy. Who if not them, who will later have to shoulder the burden of the ‘relentless unforeseen’, has more right to stand up against the prevailing political ignorance?
The stupidest of all objections, which immediately backfired, was brought forward by the leader of the German Liberal Party, Christian Linder. He in all seriousness stated that the protesting students should leave such complicated things as actions against climate change to the professionals. By that he most probably first and foremost meant himself. Let's once again make ourselves clear what distinguishes a professional from the rest of the world: He does his job not out of his own inclination, as an amateur would, but as a profession, i.e. for money.
It is precisely these professionals who have led the world to the edge of the abyss. In their hubris they also have the chutzpah and arrogance to tell us that we should please let the fox guard the chicken - again. How stupid do they think we are? Well, obviously very stupid.
So folks, having read all this, what exactly now should be done, can be done? As giving up definitely is not an option, something needs to be done, some swift and bold actions to be taken. Time is running out, if it isn’t too late already. Should a new political party be founded, one that is better than the existing ones? Should we vigorously funnel our concerns into the established political channels? Should we keep on protesting until those we put in charge finally wake up to reality?
Well, maybe all of that. Of course, corrective actions are necessary, even overdue. But first the world needs to be shaken by clear and powerful message. To do so, we have to agree on the core message. Next we need to spread it globally. “Think global, act locally” to me appears to be more than convenient buzzword for playing bullshit bingo. We should rather take it as an imperative.
There can be no doubt that the current major challenges are global by their very nature. They will affect us globally. They will not be successfully addressed by a single heroic act of a single responsibly acting state or region, but ask for a joint global effort.
On the other hand, the environment for political activities is set up differently according to local conditions. In democracies indeed a new political party could be the vehicle of choice. In countries under authoritarian rule a kind of civil disobedience of the majority would need to prepare the ground for some more enlightened activities.
My advice is twofold:
1st convene & commit,
2nd agitate & act
Why should we deliberately weaken our forces by splitting them into several units?
Let me briefly explain, what I mean …
Political day-to-day business can sometimes become stressful and turbulent. The actors, especially when they are still in their initial phase, all too easily experience the pressure of established forces. Occasionally they may tempted to give in, to agree to dirty deals, just to save a tiny bit of their original noble intention, in short: to deviate from the principles they once set for themselves, hereby betraying them.
Also, as mentioned before, political actions, at least nowadays are local by their nature whereas the principles need to be global in order to allow a sustaining life on earth. And finally not only our goals need to be adjusted, the political programs reshaped, our targets recalibrated. The operational mode of performing politics itself needs to undergo a fundamental change in order to better cope with our human weaknesses, which onto today managed to compromise even the noblest intentions. But more on this further down in this text.
So we deem it wise to separate imagination from implementation, principles from politics, and rules from ruling, just like legislation an execution should be well separated in a properly governed state. Principles and rules should better be elaborated and maintained by a separate organization unaffected by the hardships and deceptive temptations of everyday political life.
Convene & Commit
To unfold even the slightest impact, we first need to become many, I mean assemble all those concerned individuals, who consider themselves as world citizens to some kind of group. Let’s call it the world citizen league for now. The sole purpose of this separate organisation will be defining and refining these principles and rules and publishing them. That’s all – nothing more, nothing else.
Second we ought to agree to a few basic principles. Some of which should be unalterable, others, on a lower level, so fundamental that can be changed only through the vote of a overwhelming majority and below those, principles which remain open for frequent discussion and occasional alteration via simple majority.
Thirdly we should publicly commit to these self-imposed principles and vow to act according to them.
Once we happen to achieve these three stated goals, we will create a voice which cannot be ignored any longer but needs to be listened to.
Agitate & Act
Political activists, pressure groups, parties may then refer to these world citizen principles, incorporate them into their programs and agendas and locally implement them locally in ways which could never be foreseen centrally from a global perspective.
This chapter is deliberately left short as, following the above statement, there is not much we can say here about how to implement these principle in effective action. However the principles themselves will shape the actions to be taken as they not just focus on the political message but gives hints how to run political operations as well.
- #1. Sustainable life
Principle: All our deliberate human activities must integrate into a sustainable model of coexistence with each others and with all other living beings of this planet, which is best suited to ensure a long-term survival of humanity.
Rationale: Ensuring the on-going existence of mankind is the dominating goal. Next to it there can be no other goals of equal rank, but prerequisites and derived goals. An obvious prerequisite is the preservation or restoration of a healthy and sustainably habitable environment. So we have to put an end to all unsustainable economic activity. All other goals are of a lower rank and need to be subordinated to the fundamental ueber-goal #1.
#2: Preserving civil liberties
Principle: We follow principle #1 with the utmost diligence while granting as much of the individual’s civil liberties as possible without being detrimental to principle #1.
Rationale: To stop looting this planet and to eventually repair the damage, that has already been done so far, certainly requires a huge joint effort. It is hard to imagine that all individuals on this planet will voluntarily join any initiative, which intends to take up with this gigantic project. Rather we will have to act globally as a community. This means getting organized and disciplined to a much higher degree than it has ever been done outside of strictly authoritarian regimes. As following principle #1 may be conflicting with following principle #2, our vision of a free and self-determined life will be put to the test. The civil liberties, which we hold deer in Europe and some other parts of the world may well become threatened. We surely must be cautious not to lose too much of what we have achieved in this respect during the last 300 years since the dawn of enlightenment. For this reason, ‘Preserving civil liberties’ is the only secondary goal to stay unaltered under all conditions.
#3: The nation state had its time
Principle: A few supranational bodies need to replace the current multiple nation states. Ultimately one single multi-nation state will remain.
Rationale: Nation states, as we know them, will not be capable to successfully face the current and future challenges. We think, feel and act as world citizens. Facing common challenges, we need to act as one community – the world citizens. In terms of governance in mid-term time frames a few supranational bodies need to replace the multiple nation states, which are currently competing for the scarce resources of this planet. Eventually there will be no alternative to some consolidated world governance, resulting in statehood for a federated United Nations.
#4: Reduce world population
Principle: We need to actively manage the world population
Rationale: The world population number is by far the most impactful key factor for any globally sustainable human life. Several foot print calculations, best expressed in the yearly world overshoot day, as well as simple logic teach us that there will be an upper limit to the number of humans this planet is able to sustainable nourish. Assuming to take the average standard of living and of resource consumption of economically advanced countries as the global standard, simple logic, once applied, tells us that it is too late already, as we are too many by now. Short term goal must be to stabilize world population well below the magic number of 10 billion. On the long run we will be compelled to reduce the total world population again. The maximum sustainable number is still unknown. It is expected however to be considerably lower than the current unsustainable world population. In the end it might be not much higher than 1 to 2 billion heads.
#5: No more professional politicians
Principle: Let machines rule our daily affairs – according to human made principles & rules.
Rationale: Politics is too precious an art to leave it to politicians. While there is much consensus to be found that the much-desired mythical strong leader to ‘pull us out of the morass’ and ‘lead us to the promised land’ will do more bad than good. In states under democratic rule too the elected and mandated politicians after a short while overwhelmingly just care for their own career as political professionals. At best they will be just dominated and, in the end, corrupted by the hunt for voters for their parties and themselves. The temptation of populism is their permanent companion. They fall prey to lobbyists or simply lose touch with the mundane problems of their original voter’s base. In corporate management there is a early movement considering to "get rid of the managers" (e.g. Ricardo Semler, whose TED Talk went viral). Still considered as esoteric by the majority of orthodox scholars they demand to redefine the term “manager”, and question whether the idea of “management” as it was inherited from the industrial era, has outlived its usefulness. As the ‘agent dilemma’ applies to governments as well as to business corporations, the operational acting power needs to be taken away from the ‘professionals’ and rather transferred to systems. Let humans contribute to Meta politics. But let systems rule – not politicians.
#6: Limitation of inequality
Principle: Economic inequality needs to be limited to an upper bound.
Rationale: “All men are created equal” states the US Declaration of Independence. The idea was adopted from European Enlightenment philosophy and likewise found its way into several other constitutions. It is safe to equal "all men" with humanity in this context. Of course, it was never the intention to ‘make’ all humans being equal. Rather the goal was to grant them equal chances. Even equal chances were more of a program, or even a dream than ever reality. For economists inequality is a prime driver of economic growth – the higher the inequality, the higher the growth rate. Indeed, the ability to differentiate from others seems to be a driving force. Leading us humans to undertake great efforts to be different, unequal. However, there are limits to these beneficial effects. One inequality, e.g. measured by Atkinson index introduced by Sir Anthony B. Atkinson rises to a degree where the worlds wealth concentrates in the hand of a few (and we not very far away from this situation), where a few sovereign individuals can steer the fate on the masses, where economic power seamlessly blends with political influence, inequality has the potential to tear societies apart. In economy markets are very efficient instruments - as long as they don’t degrade. They need to supervised and regulated in order not to run astray. Besides that, there are several areas like the infamous ‘natural monopolies’ or limited natural resources, where free markets don’t work at all. In history there are many examples of harsh corrective action taken by states like anti-trust regulations, forced split up of corporations and other measures how to deal with this problem. Likewise, we have to find measures to limit inequality in order not to risk the bloodshed of a revolution. Maybe Tony Atkinsons 15 proposals may give us some guidance.
#7: Steady state economy
Principle: establish and run an economy which can be in a healthy state even with zero growth.
Rationale: economical growth cannot be any longer the underlying paradigm of all economic theories. Our current economy however is structured for growth. When consumption slows in a growth economy, recession ensues. Saying goes that failure to grow causes economic turmoil and unemployment. Surely no one wants that. Population growth is one of the major drivers of economic growth. But world population growth needs to be stopped very soon and rather reversed to a certain degree over the coming decades. Also exploitation of natural resources will soon be limited in either or the other way. Technological progress may still provide growth via increase of productivity and the creation of new markets for immaterial goods. Traditional ‘scientific’ orthodoxy however still has to find ways to deal with the fact that this kind of economy will not very likely resemble the proclaimed growth economy, but rather some kind of stationary economy.
A final word
As this paper certainly is not the right place to elaborate the complete driving principles, all world citizens should commit to, I will limit its number just to 7. Those are fundamental principles. They need to be augmented further and detailed several levels deeper to eventually result in executable rules. Balancing these often-conflicting basic principles certainly will be a monstrous task. It will require years of work dedicated by a larger group of devoted people.
To act as a community for our future, we must be that community. No one else will. And we have to do it now. The ruling no-future generation will not like it. But there is no time to lose if we don’t want to end as the renowned Australian scientist Professor Frank Fenner predicts “Humans will be extinct in 100 years”.
So, stand up and convene & commit.