Strategies of Communication on Climate Change

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Has Humanity Missed its "Appointment with History"?

Guest post by Max Iacono

In this post, Iacono argues that we missed our "appointment with history" because we don't have an appropriate governance system able to act in view of the climate crisis.  (image source)

The well known Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci tried to “Interview History” back in 1976 during a particular period of history.  

Some say she “spoke truth to power” (of that particular period) and succeeded. Though speaking it and publicizing the replies she received, changed nothing.

But Fernand Braudel the famous French historian also known as The Prince in French “Annales” history circles said in his monumental book The History of Civilizations that there are three types of histories: 

1)  L’histoire evenementielle (the history of events)
2)  L’histoire des periodes (the history of periods)  and 
3)  L’histoire de la longue duree. (long term history)

And the difference between Fernand Braudel's History of Civilization and other histories written at that time i.e. the early 1960's (since then his multi-disciplinary approach also characterized by other significant differences has been more widely adopted) is described at the above link to his book. 

Forgetting for a moment the history of events (journalism plus) and the history of particular periods (e.g. the post world war II period of the second half of the twentieth century which was “interviewed” by Oriana Fallaci;  (and the list of world figures she actually interviewed is listed at the above link to her book) let’s look for a moment at “l’histoire de la longue duree” and go back (at the very least) to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648.

The world (meaning the European world of those times) had just come out of an interminable, bloody and highly destructive and draining  “30 year war”.   

One response to the end of that war was for the European powers to enshrine the notion of “the sovereign nation state” thinking that this might help to prevent future such wars.   Other things that have been enshrined in various ways though mostly by default over the past 350 years or so have been “international relations” based on “realpolitik”.   We owe this to Macchiavelli,  Metternich, Bismarck and many other thinkers. 

What do we have today?  196 “sovereign nation states” which are not at all able to deal effectively with the major threats that face “common humanity”.   

These are:

 i)     The continuing threat of nuclear war;  
 ii)    The very real threat of catastrophic and irreversible climate change;  and
iii)    The continuing irreversible degradation of the earth’s environment and the biosphere due to
        ignoring  the obvious Limits to Growth which exist on a finite planet.  (and everything which that then brings)   

These threats are very likely to lead to our collective demise.

How could humanity have been present at its appointment with history and what needed to be done between 1648 and the present with an accelerated sense of priority and urgency starting right after World War II?

Two obvious things are missing from world politics and international relations and international decision-making now,  that could have been developed (but were not) during the above “longue duree” sequence of successive “periods”.

The first is an effective global governance.   Meaning a global governance that is inclusive, legitimate, effective and efficient and with the right kind of architecture to deliver these four key variables.    

The current “Disunited Nations” of the world is not and cannot be such a type of global governance.  
What should have been developed over the past 350 years is a “United Peoples of the World” characterized by “good global governance” and its corresponding “architecture” in both a political sense and in a psychological sense.

The first would require a proper combination and synthesis of what are now called the global governmental or public sector,  the global civil society sector, and the global private sector so that the resulting “collective sector” would be able to act in a concerted manner to solve problems of the “global commons” in an effective and sustainable manner.

The second would require the development over time of what is now typically called “a cosmopolitan identity”.   

What this means is that the 7.1 billion humans now populating the earth (and they would have been far fewer now if the above two things had been accomplished in time and humanity had “showed up” at its appointment with history) would each have -above all other elements of identity-  a personal identity which would be firmly cosmopolitan and global.  

Current identities are instead based on other “variables” which regrettably tend to make it impossible to implement the necessary global governance that could address global commons issues and problems and also seize global commons opportunities. 

These other variables are those we see operating all the time and which divide “the peoples of the world” i.e. nationalities, ethnicities, tribes, races, religions, sects, political and economic ideologies,  and political and socio-economic and cultural differences.  (just to name a few of the major “elements of identity”;  there also are many others such as gender, age, sexual orientation, occupational category, language, dialect, regional and local origin) 
Over the past 350 years some of these currently existing differences could have been retained, some eliminated and others could have been modified or transformed or qualified or combined or merged or fused.    

All should have become subordinate to a single global cosmopolitan identity as humans.  Humans which moreover would recognize that we are only one living species here on earth which to survive needs to live in harmony with all the other living species which have evolved alongside of us over the past 3.5 billion years or so.

But we have MISSED this appointment with history.   So we have neither a single effective and legitimate global governance nor a common cosmopolitan identity.

We remain instead hopelessly divided politically, economically, socially, culturally, institutionally, psychologically and intellectually.

There are many ways and mechanisms and institutions which we have established to try to cope with such “diversity” and divisions and none are up to the task humanity is now being confronted with.

We have for instance set up the United Nations, “inter-governmental” processes and mechanisms of all types and for all types of purposes (the “COP” climate mechanism being just one of these),  international treaties,  international economic institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO and several other regional “development banks” and many others, and we also have of course our current 196 nation states and their state institutions,  and a rich and diverse global, national and local civil society,  and a rich and diverse global, national and local private sector.

What we sorely lack however is i) good global governance and ii) a common cosmopolitan psychological identity.  Naturally these two things would reinforce each other significantly if either one existed or had started to emerge seriously.

Personally I think that as a result of having “missed our appointment” with history we will NOT be able to solve the climate change problem and we will NOT be able to solve the many Limits to Growth problems which we face as a collective human society.    

What will happen to humanity and to planet earth’s biosphere?  I certainly do not know and I don’t think anybody else knows (or can know)  for sure either.  But one thing is for certain,  we would have been in far better shape if we had showed up much earlier at our appointment with history.   We can and should of course keep hoping and trying but at this very belated stage our task is immensely more difficult.  


(*)   With respect to “long term history” what has changed and what hasn’t changed over the past 350 years?   Here is a link to the “Thirty Years War” after which the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 was agreed and the principle of “sovereign nation-states” was established and enshrined.   And here is a series of photographs of various recent G-20 meetings showing all our current world leaders nicely dressed in their suits and ties (and there are "even a couple of women")  and with the beautiful large flags of their (and our) sovereign nation-states placed just behind them.  More or less the same states and flags– plus a few more recent ones – which were established with the Peace of Westphalia.   But if one looks at them carefully and a bit more in depth one can see and perhaps “read” within their minds -and behind their more “modern” external clothing-  to perceive or intuit their deeper mind-sets,  their attitudes, fundamental values, and ways of reasoning and of treating one another.  Have these mental or socio-cultural or ideological characteristics really changed all that much from those of the various kings and emperors of 350 years ago which one can see (or intuit) from the images, looks and mannerisms visible in the first article?  “Images speak”.

And YES, they (and all of us) have indeed (fortunately) changed somewhat and are now somewhat different, but clearly not enough to arrive in time at our Appointment with History.  The era of fossil fuels energy – first that of coal and right after it that of petroleum – began roughly 100 years after the peace of Westphalia.  And from 1800 to the present the human population of planet earth has increased by 700% -and that of animals for human consumption such as cows and pigs by similarly large amounts- and total world GDP as well as GDP per capita -moreover apportioned in extremely unequal and inequitable ways- have increased even more.  But there is still no effective “global governance” and “no common cosmopolitan / global identity” and instead we witness a terrible stewardship and management of “our” various “global commons goods and services”.   And so to conclude, here is one final article about some “Thirty Year Wars” of the current period,  which have been one of the many (disastrous) results.   


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