Friday, January 06, 2012

Ideas Going to Bed

I once attended a conference organized by the Common Bond Institute at Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the keynote speaker, Dr. Maureen O’Hara, stated that, given the amount of information available in modern times, the human brain was only capable at grasping at any one time only a trillionth of all knowledge. This marked me in my career as peacemaker and conflict facilitator, as I reflected on the fact that this meant what we ignored was pretty much everything. In other words, I realized that what we ignore is so vast that it is a very arrogant posture to believe one is right about anything. In a conflict situation, this means that believing I am right and the other one is wrong is the least constructive stance of all, because it is leaving the solution –if any- to a third party decision, like a referee or a judge, or to the political might or any other force that would influence the harmonious and synergistic approach of transforming the conflict towards mutual benefits and enriching the relationship. Impossible? Too idealistic? Precisely. That’s what principles are made of and their raison d’ĂȘtre.

When Dr. O’Hara mentioned this humbling fact, we were barely scratching the surface of what has become a social media globalization. Now we are really connected with hundreds of millions of people around the world in real time. The amount of content that is being added onto the internet today, to some accounts, is equivalent to all the knowledge that our civilization had created until the year 2000 every two days. This is yet another reason to understand that it is ineffective to believe we know any better than anybody else.

If you know what I mean, take a look all around you and you will see examples of this jumping at you everywhere. Look at the political dynamics in your country or in any other country. Are politicians asserting opinions as if they were right and others were wrong? Are they categorically making statements that leave no room for doubt? So their political counterparts have no choice but to air out their discontent in a very similar fashion, asserting how mistaken the other is. The vicious cycle goes on and on and does not seem to come to an end. What is worse, it seems to be growing over time. When we have heard this discussion before, and we have seen the outcomes of many a debate that really leads to a stalemate in the best case scenario, and intense animosity and even violence among rivals, then it makes us wonder if this will have a positive outcome some time in the future.

Do you really think that politics will overcome the deadlock on Sunday morning and we will go back to the honorable way of making politics, being first of all respectful of the other, obedient of the legitimately elected leaders, willing and able to engage in transparent and principled negotiations that observe the superior and common cause of collective wellbeing? If you have grown skeptical to this scenario it is probably because you are not a politician or aspiring to become one. On a more serious note, your skepticism is the natural projection humans make into the future when we perceive tendencies that are unsustainable, detrimental to our collective prosperity, in a word: destructive.

The fascinating reality is that, even though we see it worsening, and we envision a dead end where our governance will hit a wall, we react indifferently to the theatrics, sometimes we experience five minutes of rage every so often, but most of us do nothing else about it. We do not have constructive conversations about how to get together and try to influence the neighbors on our street or the coworkers on our department, or our friends on our digital network. We do not consider running for office. We do not even consider staying away from the voting ballot. We the people, citizens of our respective countries, still support the show we are being fed day in and day out by our ever ineffective, tasteless and uncharming public leaders.
Transforming our political system is among the top priorities for our global governance and sustainability. In fact, it might be an indispensable and urgent change for our survival. As long as group o 20 people –mostly men- get together once or twice a year somewhere around the world to decide to continue on the same unsustainable path towards collapse just because change is too politically costly in each of their constituencies, then we can be certain that we will continue traveling this same path, not an inch in any direction.

The way to transform the largest system is exactly the same way to transform the smallest system: interrupting the spiral of violent and vicious growth of a trend and drastically start moving in another direction. The smallest system I can think of that we can influence and transform radically and dramatically is our individual self. Have a look at your past choices in life that have become achievements. They all started off by a decision you made to change, for whatever reason. Have you ever passed a school subject? Have you ever successfully completed a school year? Have you graduated from elementary or high school? Do you have a university degree? Have you ran a marathon or similar athletic accomplishment? Have you quit smoking or put down weight? Have you planted a tree, raised a child or helped someone on the street? All these small and not so small acts of progress have been the result of a decision you made.

Decisions are emotional resolutions that we choose, pacts we make with ourselves: I will do it. All decisions come from a more primitive source: an idea. Eureka! I have an idea: I will do that thing. The reason is not so important as the fact that the idea was entertained in your mind for some time –seconds, days or years- until it finally received the emotional resources to be attempted.

The funny thing with ideas is that they are not invented. They come from somewhere else. Which does not mean that nobody invents something genuinely new and original. There would be no innovation if that were true. My point is that many ideas are the result of observation, whether something we saw or listened, consciously or unconsciously, from someone else or on the media or out on the street. Which means that we owe at least a tiny part of the credit of an accomplishment to the source of where the idea came from.

In fact, innovation sometimes means that one person or group of people put together two or more ideas and come up with something that did not exist before, although the separate elements were already there. The point I am trying to make here is the importance of ideas coming into contact with people, or to put it in more proactive terms, that people get in contact with ideas, as many as possible, as often as possible, as diverse as possible. Perhaps that is what makes traveling to other geographical locations is so enriching, because one enters into contact with an entirely different system of human interaction that is composed of hundreds or thousands of ideas that blend together harmoniously. Then we grow at a faster pace than if we only occasionally entered into contact with an infrequent idea here and there. Again, that is why it is so critical for one’s own decision-making process to remain constantly exploring new ideas through reading or listening to systematic trains of thought, like books or manuals or lectures or speeches that have been elaborated carefully as a collection of other ideas that come from somewhere else.

Innovation is what we need to do with our individual personal system, which is going to train us to do it later with those around us, our relatives, neighbors, colleagues, and beyond. To change the world, therefore, we first need to change ourselves. And the easiest way to do it is to be open and perceptive to new ideas that already exist all around us. Those ideas, in fact, mutate faster than we think. Today there is an idea that tomorrow has become something different when it entered into contact with someone else. When we are the main characters of this process of transforming ideas into something different, then we make individual progress, we make decisions that are life-changing, and we build our character stronger, ready to take on a new challenge.

In a way, we could say that ideas reproduce at the pace at which they are incepted into people’s minds. Do not think of elephants. Now you are thinking about elephants. The notion of an elephant has been incepted into your mind (it was actually already there, I am just illustrating this example with elephants, which you were not supposed to be thinking about now, except I mentioned it). It may be hard to let the elephant go for a while, but you could use the idea of an elephant to think about other things that may be valuable for you. It might remind you that you have not fed your pet, or that you need to congratulate your friend from Thailand on her birthday (there are many elephants in Thailand). It could also help you think about your diet, not because you are fat, but because you are thinking about becoming vegetarian and elephants are. Or you may have remembered a sad story you read about elephant tusks being illegally traded, causing the death of thousands of elephants worldwide. These secondary ideas can derive into something else. The article you are supposed to write by Monday, the Thai restaurant around the corner, or any other thing that is activated when all the database in your brain enters into motion around this new idea of an elephant.

This pace of reproduction of ideas is vital for our individual and collective development. It is this hyper-reproduction of ideas that has brought us so much scientific development that has been transformed into technological tools and gadgets that has added so much value to our lives and has even provided us with a high degree of comfort. In fact, this process will continue to lead the solutions that are required to transform some of the most serious problems we face as a global civilization, especially in terms of energy consumption as a need and pollution as a consequence of our behavior.

It is in our individual and collective interest that more ideas come together, because when they do, they reproduce virally and spread around the world increasingly fast and we grow in digital connectivity with one another. Since no one can have but only a trillionth of all the information available, the best we can do is to share what we know and in the process go exchanging what we know for what we do not. Of course we are not going to lose what we already know. It is already with us permanently, like the idea of the elephant. In fact, this process is a win-win situation for you and for everyone you interact with: they will gain from your ideas and you will gain from theirs. So go ahead and mingle as much as you can, with as many and as diverse a people as you can, spreading your wisdom and collecting new one. Your future decisions will most likely be triggered and composed by things you still do not know and you are about to learn.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Preliminary Considerations on Intercultural Ethics

It is mandatory that we identify more opportunities to create change in the way we interact with one another and with other living beings. Symbiosis is the intricate co-dependency between species in any and all ecosystems. Unfortunately, humans have grown to believe that we reign over the rest of plants and animals on the planet and that we dispose of them with a sense of ownership that empowers us to even destroy what we believe belongs to us. Right or wrong, the truth is that we cannot survive without clean air and drinkable water, and the process of cleaning air and water in the planet relies, almost entirely, on trees in our dense forests in Latin America and Africa and Southeast Asia, where most rainforests still remain. As Jared Diamond wonders about the defunct inhabitants of Easter Island, what did the person that cut down the last tree on the island think as she was chopping it down?

Of course, the most expected response to this question is denial: there are still plenty a tree around to think about this question. True. But this denial has led humanity to reduce forest coverage as much as five million hectares, cause a loss of land to soil erosion of seven million hectares, and lead to the desertification of fertile land to almost 12 million hectares. The scariest thing is that these statistics are for 2011 alone. At this pace, the question is not whether or when will we run out of trees. The critical question is how much are we reducing nature’s capability to renew itself to continue cleaning our air and water, especially when, also in 2011, human industry managed to generate 33.5 billion metric tons of CO2.

When I say it is mandatory to seek change, I am not suggesting that it is mandatory by force of law or market incentive or sanction –say, like a carbon tax. Instead, it is an ethical mandate that crosses borders and cultures, gender and socioeconomic status. Survival on the planet lies on the symbiosis that must exist between animals and plants, oceans and skies, as a single and perfectly integrated system that has worked flawlessly for millions of years and has only been disrupted by the footprint of just a few generations of humans roaming the Earth.

This is not too hard to understand. Anyone who studied the water cycle in third grade science knows what I am talking about here. It is far more difficult, I presume, to change course of what we are doing on a daily basis that is causing so much irreparable damage. It is partly due to the fact that it is more complex to comprehend the connection between a beef patty on your burger and the corresponding carbon emissions attached to the transportation of that meat from Uruguay to Singapore, as well as the emissions generated where forest has been transformed into grassland to produce beef meat. In this particular example, when a tree has been chopped down to clear land for agricultural production, the calculation of CO2 emissions is inestimable, since a tree acts as a vacuum of carbon dioxide, and cutting it down reduces the planet’s ability to absorb those emissions permanently.

This is a hard fact and a solid truth in any language, for every religion, in every small village in the world. This is why the ethical mandate is of intercultural characteristics. Whoever cut or burned down those five million hectares of forests in 2011 affects you and me and them alike. We may consider the reasons as to why people do that, whether lack of information or the presence of very strong, monetary incentives. One thing is that a person knows that cutting a tree damages the environment and his own ability to actually grow food to put on his table, and another very different one is understanding that, in order to buy the bottled drink or mobile phone he will need money to do so. This is a microcosm of the trade-off that takes place billions of times every day around the world: doing what is right for the environment by planting a tree or choosing a different product with a lower ecological impact, or going for the immediate hedonistic satisfaction that only money can buy.

The reason why I consider the mandate that is calling is of an ethical nature is precisely because we are reducing the quality of our own lives and increasing exponentially the risk of health and safety for future generations. There is another reason why it is critical that we revise our priorities as human civilization based on ethics and values: because there has never been so much monetary wealth to go around in our history, it is despicable to know that as many as one hundred thousand people die every day from preventable causes, whether lack of proper hygiene, drinking water, malnourishment, diseases that should have been already eradicated, or violent armed conflict.

As it seems, prosperity is not correlated to monetary wealth. Even people that live well off are mistaken if they believe that they are prosperous because they are rich, because, as long as our natural capital is decreasing, we are all worse off. This trend of loss of wealth has been occurring for over two decades now, and as long as we continue to measure our wealth in coins, we will be oblivious to the reality that each and every coin, as well as every single gold bar is backed by a portion of the planet’s limited –and decreasing- natural environment.