Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Imagination moves mountains

Albert Einstein is quoted as having said that “imagination is more important than knowledge”, perhaps based on the fact that, as a kindergarten toddler, he was taught how to imagine before he was even taught how to read or write or make the simplest mathematical computations. We all know what happened next: he imagined mathematical formulations about theories related to the origin and dynamics of the universe, some of which have not yet been disproven, many decades after he imagined them. And I stress the fact that he imagined them because he never traveled at the speed of light to have even the slightest empirical proof of what he was suggesting.

Since humans settled their predominant nomadic lifestyle some 10,000 years ago when they managed to domesticate crops and developed what we know today as agriculture, we have developed a sense of ethnocentrism, giving great importance to the location of our community and believing there is not much more beyond our surroundings and definitely not better than what “we” have “here”.

Even today, the Chinese name of China is “zhong guo”, which translates into “middle kingdom” or the central kingdom. It could be claimed that it makes historical sense given the times when the centuries-long battles of the kingdoms over what today is Chinese territory came to an end when all kingdoms where consolidated into one and had their political center at “Go Gong”, what we know today as the Forbidden City.

But the truth is that many Chinese people, mainly those that have never traveled abroad –the immensely vast majority of them- believe nobody has it better than them in terms of quality of life, civil and political rights and freedoms, environmental standards. In fact, we all behave like this, in a way, believing that what “we” have “here” is better than others elsewhere.

The times we live in today, where we have sufficient information about material limits of the natural environment, about the socioeconomic services provided by ecosystems worldwide and about the essential constraints that affect the subsistence of life on Earth within this century, make it mandatory that we focus on the dynamics of a conflict so severe and so widespread as climate change, in order to transform unsustainable tendencies and recover viability of human civilization on the planet.

Perhaps it is important to restate the obvious: this is the only planet in the universe where there is scientific proof of the existence of life, and humans are the only species with such awareness. This puts us atop the hierarchy of intelligent species and the only one willing and able to actually change the course of actions that are conducive to collapse of human civilization as we know it, and also to the extinction of thousands of species that, simply but sadly, exist no longer and have disappeared within this generation.

But as David Suzuki exclaimed at a conference at United Nations University in Tokyo on December of 2012, “what intelligent species pours every year billions of metric tons of a highly toxic chemical into the very air it breathes!”

Einstein also said “we cannot solve problems thinking in the same way we did when we fell into them.” Therefore, there is no choice but to imagine a new way forward and shift into paradigms of collective action that are not yet here. This includes, but is not limited to, multilateral institutions, modern diplomacy as we have come to understand it in the last 300 years, the representative political systems that have been mainstream in most states during most of the last 100 years at least, and perhaps even the way in which we create laws, public policies, economic incentives, and even the territorial limits we have self-imposed onto us humans. Needless to say, we are the only species that has artificially created limits to deter large migrations. This could be detrimental in the long run in our quest for solutions to climate change.

Upon reimagining human civilization, a quest for an identity that entails a feeling of belonging to the planet itself lies at the foundation of an urgent reconstruction. That is, a sense of wellbeing that includes not only all human beings but also all forms of life; a special sensitivity for all forms of life as a proof that we are still bioliterate; a vision for the future in which the elements that sustain life on Earth are enriched and not degraded any further.

So, being a global citizen means it does not really matter where one is born or what passport one carries, where one resides or what work one does. The main concept is being aware that, whatever one does, there is a consequence, an impact, an output that affects the entire global environmental ecosystem. This is true, whether our multilateral organizations are aware of it or not.

Throughout his experiments with truth, Gandhi not only transformed himself but also transformed millions of people even beyond his own life. The impact of his life’s quest can be described in political terms, even though his intentions and his methods were anything but political. He was only searching for the truth and verifying it empirically over and over again.

The country I represent has a unique track record in its institutionalized decision-making based on ethical principles that transcend even the local culture that defines it. In the XIX century, coffee growers imposed taxes on themselves in order to create government funds to invest in public infrastructure. In that same century, a military general who presided the country abolished the death penalty and, later on, a peculiar Education Minister pushed for a reform that made education public, obligatory, free and sponsored by the State.

During the first half of the XX century, universal healthcare was institutionalized and the military army was abolished. Environmental conservation started around mid- XX century and it included heavily investing public funds in renewable energies. Today, Costa Rica has legally reserved up to a third of its territory as conservation areas; it generates up to 95% of electricity from renewable sources; it created the payment for environmental services, a policy innovation that is considered today as an optimal mechanism to regenerate biocapacity and recreate natural capital; it is a pioneer in ecological tourism; and it hosts ten times more biodiversity per square kilometer than any other country.

All of this has been the result of an understanding that the Costa Rican nation is part of a larger entity, both of human beings and of other forms of life. This makes Costa Ricans aware of their global citizenship, conscious that we might not necessarily have it better than others elsewhere, but content with our current path of development. So proves the three years in a row topping the Happy Planet Index.

To end on a future note, since 2007 Costa Rica launched the Peace with Nature initiative, an aspiration to become the first carbon-neutral country, which is no easy task, but an audacious and doable challenge. Although there has been criticism about the feasibility to reach the goal by the expected date of 2021, there has been widespread consensus to attempt it on behalf of public and private institutions, as well as academia and other civil society organizations. Most interestingly, there is no law or public policy behind this initiative. It was simply a presidential call for action and the public responded affirmatively. This is ethics. And it moves mountains.

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