I don’t know of a single person who doesn’t feel knocked off course by the year 2016. As the year has wound down, the anxiety we feel has just continued to wind up. The economy seems out of control, political instability is growing in four of the six countries I’ve called home so far in my life. Terrorism and crime meet us at every corner, especially this month in South Africa, my current home. What’s going on?
Meanwhile, as if in a humming bubble of intensity, psychological challenge and scenic grandeur, seventy-six of us have just come back from a three week voyage to Antarctica, cut off from the outside world. We were on the inaugural voyage of Homeward Bound. It’s a brash, bold initiative to take women with a science background (in applied or academic research, in policy and advocacy, in journalism and in community and humanitarian activism) to a place where we could focus on building our effectiveness as changemakers in the world today. Have a look at https://homewardboundprojects.com.au/ for some inspiration on that line.
But why women? I guess for a host of ancient and current reasons: because our evolutionary heritage has made us the natural conflict-resolvers in our work, our families and communities; the primary “nesters” who might most fervently care for the safety and cleanliness of our nest (including Planet Earth); the ones with the most facility at negotiating tricky changes affecting our children and grandchildren; the ones most trustable with limited foodstocks or medicinal plants when a hard winter looms. And currently, of course, the ones most visibly excluded from major leadership roles despite making up more than 50% of the Earth’s human population.
Literally, Homeward Bound came to its leader, Fabian Dattner, in a dream one night. She woke up one morning, having travelled in her dream to Antarctica with us, changing and building our purpose and focus in making the world a better, safer, more sustainable and just place. And so, it went, leaving Ushuaia, Argentina for the Antarctic Peninsula on 2 December this year. Fabian is an Australian leadership expert and coach with a business, Dattner Grant, which excels at women’s leadership coaching. She assembled a remarkable team of world-class experts in personality analysis, visibility and strategy coaching, to confront us with a range of personal growth and leadership tools. It was an incredible, intense, sometimes emotionally very raw and yet affirming time.
The changes of 2016, and the year or two leading up to it, provided a stark backdrop to our work. But as we sailed on the M/V Ushuaia, a former US NOAA research vessel and later a spy ship now doing duty with tourist groups, I couldn’t help reflecting wryly on the irony of the ‘unsinkable’ RMS Titanic, which sank in April 1912 after striking an iceberg from which it could not veer away in time. I’m sure the irony wasn’t lost on my Homeward Bound colleagues, although I didn’t hear any direct discussion of it. One of our quirkiest and most appealing members, house doctor and climate researcher Danielle Medek from Queensland, also proved to be a talented recorder player, and one evening I came around the lower deck (where I was doing laps, to shake off the physical inertia and mental intensity of ship life) to find Danielle playing Celine Dion’s theme song from the movie Titanic, accompanied by a small gathering of songsters… to which I of course elicited a few laughs by lunging out, over the railing, like Kate Winslet waiting for Leonardo di Caprio to come up behind her.
Our global economic order, basically created by fewer than two dozen men, has seen the rich get significantly richer, and the poor poorer, in my lifetime. My own birth in 1961 more or less coincided with many current environmental and social UN-type baselines. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, for example (for which I was a board member) used the baseline for its rigorous analyses of the ability of ecosystems to support human health, wellbeing and economic activity, had a baseline of 1960. So I feel a strong sense of personal responsibility for the changes that have happened in my lifetime, even though of course much of this was already well set in motion before I was born, before almost all of us were born.
On the Antarctic course, one morning at breakfast with colleagues, I was suddenly taken back to my memories of my dad’s stories of World War II, and what I had been taught about the outbreak of World War I. My breakfast companions were of Austrian and Polish origin, and both had harrowing stories of their grandfathers, on different sides of the war, in stark conditions of survival that not one of us had ever personally faced in our lifetimes. I felt tears suddenly come to my eyes. How quickly we humans forget the stories of our forebears! My dad, in the US military in the Pacific Arena during World War II, was due to be sent out to Pearl Harbor and, if necessary, Japan. My mom, in her loving attempts to reassure her probing child, had told me more than once that if the US had not deployed the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I probably wouldn’t be here. Instead of reassuring me, this only made me feel a stark responsibility for the carnage and inhuman suffering that resulted. By the time I was born, my dad and mom were 43 and 37. So I was a 'late-born lamb' (as the Afrikaners say: ‘laatlammertjie’) who therefore probably heard more about world wars than many of my peers - and certainly probably more than many, not all, of the women on our Homeward Bound voyage.
The world doesn’t have to be this way – we can change it.
But twelve words that I personally find most heartening, and motivating, in these troubled and seemingly downward-spiralling
times are this: The world doesn’t have to be this way. We can change it. And for goodness’ sake, let’s change it as steadily and smoothly as possible, since the nearly-inevitable alternative is not pretty.
With a global population of 7.47 billion people (as I write this just before Christmas 2016), we undeniably have the talent, the motivation, the skills, the will to change it.
So what holds us back? It’s not this simple, of course, but these days people are likely to point to the super-rich. It’s a familiar build-up to many revolutions, the French Revolution among them, where Marie Antoinette had little idea of the suffering of her feudal subjects. In truth, many of the super-rich 1% of our global economy are directly engaged in thoughtful, if sometimes perhaps imperfect, ways to change the world directly – Bill and Melinda Gates among them, but by no means unique.
They are the 1%. But we are the 99%.
So here are my ‘other’ twelve words that I find heartening. They are the 1%. But we are the 99%. Being a lover of peace and stability, although not at the cost of the planet or the suffering of humanity, I don’t really want to see this set up in oppositional terms. At least some of the 1% of humanity, the super-rich, know that the long knives are drawn. Nobody really wants revolution, at least if they have observed what’s happened across the Middle East, from the beginnings of the Arab Spring five to six years ago. And five more important words: None of this is inevitable. We don’t actually need to choose revolution. There are progressive moves afoot to transform the global economy without toppling it, both within the UN system and multinational corporations (see http://www.globaleconomicethic.org/02-manifesto-01.php and http://www.globaleconomicethic.org/02-manifesto-02-eng.php) and with international development and faith communities (e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manifesto_Global_Economic_Ethic).
Icebergs we know about. Politics we don’t.
As we sailed through the spectacularly beautiful Antarctic Sound and Paradise Bay, isolated for a few short weeks from the troubles of the world, I thought about my long-simmering frustrations. Like how we’ve been able to see what’s coming my entire life - my entire life! – and yet seemed powerless to avoid it. Earth Day happened in 1960. Electric cars could have been rolled out soon thereafter. Instead, we have all been unwitting grist to the voracious mill of hyperconsumerism and planned obsolescence, so much so that we now truly believe that we must have the latest iPhone to be current with world trends. Instead, our own greed and fashion addictions are toppling us over the cliff. Like many of us, I’ve spent my whole life in various projects to do good works for sustainability - biodiversity conservation, climate change adaptation. But still, the cliff looms.
Icebergs, we can now see coming. Politics, we should, but often can’t. The Arab Spring. Brexit. Trump. If you’d like a salutary lesson in the patterns of history, of economic turmoil, political instability and climate change, read “Catastrophe” by David Keys (https://www.amazon.com/Catastrophe-Investigation-Origins-Modern-Civilization/dp/0345408764) – a relentlessly documented but eye-opening reference for anyone concerned about the future of our planet and society.
And the good news is....
There is actually plenty to be heartened by, and plenty of good initiatives around. We just need to accept that the tipping point is coming fast, and embrace and strengthen (and stabilize) it. One of our shipmates was Ida Kubiszewski of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University (https://crawford.anu.edu.au/people/academic/ida-kubiszewski and http://www.idakub.com/), who’s long been manager of an interesting journal called Solutions (https://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/).
So between the energy that Ida and several of our other shipmates brought to the leadership-training table on board, I came away with plenty of renewed energy and momentum to achieve positive change to steer our global economic Titanic away from the cliff.
And as I leave the political and economic frying pan of South Africa shortly, to take up the helm of the Pacific Biodiversity Institute in the political fire of the USA, this reassurance could not have come at a more opportune time.
The world doesn’t have to be this way. We can change it.