Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Transitional Imperatives"
With Richard Falk, I believe that the “most daunting challenge of adapting to the realities of the Anthropocene is achieving a soft transition [...] from our state-centric world order to a geo-centric reconfiguring of political community that enables the emergence of effective and humane global governance.” I intuit that what Falk means by global humane governance is a type of governance at the global level that will recognize and ensure respect of the dignity of all women, men, and children, wherever they live on Earth.
The current state-centric world order cannot deal with urgent global issues because national decision-makers today act according to the interests of the part with little regard for the whole. And they do so in line with citizens’ expectations: “Most people do not want or expect the perspective of the whole to be the basis of policy and action by decision-makers that represent the state, but are insistent that those who decide do their best to protect and promote what will most help the part.”
Against this “old realism,” Falk calls for the emergence of a “new realism” that “involves a readiness to uphold commitments to serve human and global interests as necessary, even if it requires subordinating currently incompatible national and private sector interests.” The possibility of a soft transition is thus played out through a struggle between old and new realism, a struggle that unfolds primarily within the political space of nation-states and that aims at gaining people’s support. For only with this support will it be possible to challenge the “institutionalized social forces that are threatened or opposed to such a transformation.”
Spearheading this struggle is the figure of the citizen pilgrim. S/he acts at two levels concomitantly. At the global level, s/he participates in elaborating innovative global institutional arrangements of the geo-centric type and independent from direct state control. At the national level, s/he struggles to change the perspective adopted by national decision-makers—whether for them to adopt the perspective of the whole or to accept to reduce significantly the powers of the nation-state. In sum, s/he leverages the nascent geo-centric global institutional arrangements to contain the power of nation states.
The important question, it seems to me, is from where the citizen speaks. The end of Falk's essay provides a clear answer: “The citizen pilgrim offers society a voice of sanity that speaks from the liberated isolation of wilderness”; his/her basic drive is “spiritual, […] to affirm the perfection of the human experience within the diverse settings present in the world.”
It is unclear whether Falk describes here a social reality—a description of the people who fight for the transition—or whether he holds that the people who will be the more effective in bringing about the transition are the ones Falk means the latter, for that would then explain his view that the transition requires “a widespread re-orientation of individual identities toward a new model of citizen [...] whose principal affinities are with the species and its natural surroundings rather than to any specific state, ethnicity, nationality, civilization, or religion.” So the effective citizen pilgrim would be a person who comes from the wilderness, free from any loyalty but that to the human species.
Let me question this view. If the objective is to create “conditions of mutual respect,” there is no need to speak about it from such a standpoint; indeed, doing so can be counterproductive.
For one, achieving mutual respect is complex, and one can only learn what it entails through interactions with others. When acting globally, the citizen pilgrim encounters other persons living in distant lands and in very different conditions (unlike world-traveling businesspersons who do not meet those not like themselves), and explores through this encounter what it would mean to create conditions for mutual respect. It is this particular experience of the global that s/he brings back to the national level; rather than speaking from the isolation of wilderness, s/he speaks from the emerging agora of nascent geo-centric institutional arrangements.
In national political spaces, the citizen pilgrim is effective in her/his struggle to the extent that s/he can connect with fellow-citizens by referring to the shared ideal of creating conditions of mutual respect. Many people who continue to support the “old realism” are convinced that to do so is not incompatible with, and indeed even conducive to, creating such conditions. Sharing the knowledge acquired from encounters with others that this is no longer the case in the Anthropocene, s/he will promote the “new realism” by referring to values s/he shares will fellow citizens and which provide the bridge between past and future.
Once at a seminar on international solidarity in Finland, a woman explained that she conceived solidarity in concentric circles: solidarity to her family, solidarity to people in her local community, then to her fellow citizens, and to distant others. She felt part of and loyal to all these communities at the same time. And this engenders creative tensions: in order to be loyal to distant others, she felt the need to change Finnish policies that impact them negatively, for instance through complex environmental interdependencies. Her struggle does not make her less Finnish or indeed disloyal towards Finland. In fact, she could even leverage the basic values at the core of the Finnish social contract, such as respect of human rights, to advance it. And it seems to me that this approach—convincing people that to be Finnish implies to care about how Finland behaves towards the rest of the world—is more promising and rich than one which would hold that one should stop being Finnish to become a member of an emerging global community.