How can we build a sense of collective responsibility for risks that affect us all? Depending on where we live, in the developed North or in the Global South, we most likely tell different stories about the world that we live in. This fragmentation stands in the way of effective measures to address global catastrophic risk. And so, we must invent and share new stories, stories of a unified world where risks and challenges form part of a shared human narrative.
All global challenges, whether environmental degradation,
wars or poverty, have a fundamental ethical dimension, best understood through this one question: how far should we track the consequences of our actions? This question applies to all official accounts of history and, indeed, to any narrative construction, collective or personal.
Let us consider the progress of new communication technology. Its positive effects are well documented, informing a global tale of increased connection through the power of innovation. But if we change the frame, and look slightly further, the story changes. Most of the mineral resources that make up our devices are extracted from the “Global South”, with significant consequences on local environment and social structures. Then, after a few years of use in the developed world, outdated gadgets finish their lifecycle in the “Global South”.
Ghana has one of the largest electronic waste dumps in the world. Young unemployed people, often migrants from the North of the country, spend their days burning used electronics to extract valuable minerals and resell them. The air, the soil and the nearby ocean waters are heavily polluted, with direct impact on the health of these Ghanaian youth and local communities. Some choose to search greener pastures, and venture across the Mediterranean towards a cleaner Europe. But Europeans are selective: African resources are welcome, people searching for unpolluted homes – not so much.
Improved international and local environmental regulations could form an important part of addressing these interconnected problems. But we will not reach a systemic solution to the major challenges that we face without a shared understanding of what is at stake, and a sense of common destiny.
To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny.
Sixteen years ago, the Earth Charter was launched as an effort to build a shared ethical framework for a globalised world. It brought together civil society, political and spiritual leaders, including representatives of indigenous people from around the globe. After a decade long process of consultation and negotiation, sixteen core principles were distilled, and the Earth Charter – the people’s treaty – was born. This was the most inclusive and participatory process ever associated with the drafting of an international declaration.
The Earth Charter proposes a vision for a just, sustainable and peaceful world. This vision is one in which environmental protection, human rights and human development are interdependent and indivisible. The Earth Charter emphasises the importance of unity in diversity: “We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.”
This vision is anchored in Indigenous wisdom. Its core principle is that our efforts to create a sense of common destiny across the globe – uniting people across space – must be accompanied by parallel efforts to build a sense of common destiny between generations – uniting people across time. This continuity between generations is fundamental to the worldview of most indigenous people. When it comes to decisive life choices, we must look beyond our contemporaries, and fully consider our responsibility to both our ancestors, and future generations.
Most indigenous groups use stories to capture this sense of common purpose, and instill a profound reverence for life among their people. Stories give an understanding of the world and our place in it. Therefore, setting the right frame for the stories that bind us together is a crucial ethical and intellectual challenge. Stories of technological progress rarely feature Ghanaian waste dumps. Stories of African misery rarely mention affordable technology, and the possibilities it opens. Until they do, systemic problems will continue to grow in this fragmented world, and the risks that we face will remain.
But things can change. We can choose to think of the world as fragmented or whole, by the stories we tell, and the stories we listen to. New stories will lead us to new solutions, and make us question our idea of progress. We are at a turning point. To face the challenges of our interconnected world, we must invent new modes of storytelling that can include the many voices of the planet, those of the developed West and North, those of a rising Asia and those of the Global South. We must invent new stories that will help the youth of today, living in fragmented countries, become the joint ancestors of tomorrow’s unified world. Together, we must start telling new stories that make change both imaginable and urgent.
Ama Van Dantzig is a Dutch-Ghanaian innovator and community leader. She co-founded and directs Dr. Monk, an international innovation studio with headquarters in Amsterdam and Accra, and is a member of the Earth Charter Council. The Earth Charter is a universal expression of ethical principles to foster sustainable development, launched in 2000 following an extensive community engagement model on a global scale. It inspires the Earth Charter Initiative, a global network that embraces, uses and integrates the principles expressed in the charter.