Well, the previous critical decade came and went, and we entered the “real” or final or at least the current critical decade. We are now in the early days of a global COVID-19 pandemic that is deadly, disabling, highly contagious, and socially and economically disruptive. Responsible leadership and mass compliance have been shown to be key factors in whether a country has been able to stop the pandemic or not. Climate fires have engulfed the US west coast. Authoritarian plutocracy is saying a firm no to fair elections and charging ahead with its agenda of transferring trillions of dollars to the 1%. People are committed to voting with their votes counted, or else democracy may come to an end. Racism is seen as systemic and police violence is on the rise as well as the Black Lives Matter movement.
Women’s rights are more in danger than ever, even as women have been shown to be the most effective national leaders in managing and stopping the pandemic as in Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, and elsewhere. Much of the economy of Main Street has collapsed as businesses have shut down and gone bankrupt. Millions of people have lost their income and may lose their homes. Wall Street is booming with billionaires and millionaires making a windfall. Artificial Intelligence (AI) may be threatening jobs, income, and survival. Truth, facts, and decency have suffered under a constant barrage of falsehood, distraction, and personal attacks. People are traumatized by unremitting chaos and a continuous series of scandals.
The viral pandemic is linked to several other pandemics battering us, to name just a few, the systemic racism pandemic, the ecocide/climate pandemic, the wealth-hoarding/systemic poverty pandemic, the misogyny/patriarchy pandemic, the violence/warfare pandemic, and the fascism/plutocracy pandemic. I have been writing and speaking about these six pandemics for the past ten years or so, but the viral pandemic was so sudden, confusing and distracting, that my brain and heart could not relate it to these other six, when actually, it is not separate from them.
Two words came to me: mortality and morality. The viral pandemic shocked me/us into facing that today, not in ten years, I could die, which is related to, someday I will most certainly die: mortality. Many people had already been talking about the death of ecosystems and the likely death of human civilization, but suddenly, almost the whole human race woke up to the fact that our species was under attack and my body and ego were threatened at this very moment. Yes, climate chaos of floods, fires, super storms, and food shortages may wipe us out, and we were already being assaulted by the other five pandemics, but in an instant, we were in mortal danger. And, my loved ones and I are on thin ice.
Awareness of our own mortality can make us more awake and sensitive. We can become more reflective, and grateful, or we can become traumatized and fearful, or some of both. It is in this state of being, that we may be more open to responding to other people’s suffering and may try to relieve that suffering – thus the protests over the tragic death of George Floyd, and so many others, as well as the systemic features of racism.
Now, morality: we humans are arguing and fighting about what is true or false and what is right or wrong. Are black and brown people actually equal to white people or are they even people at all? Is climate chaos really happening or is it a hoax? Is it right that a few billionaires have more wealth than half of humanity? Do women have the same importance and rights as men? If you fear or hate someone is it okay or even necessary to kill them? And, isn’t democracy a crazy notion which should be replaced once and for all by strongman rule (yes, man), representing a superior race and religion, and being one of the rich who have well demonstrated their superiority? Aren’t those other people not even worthy of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness: the disgusting black and brown people, the weak-minded women, the immoral gays and trans, the pansy liberals, and the poor who are obviously losers? The belief in one’s superiority can lead to some of the greatest evils of humankind.
Or is it true that all people are of infinite value and that society is indeed obligated to enable each person to realize her or his full potential in this life? Should we not be doing everything we can to mitigate and adapt to climate chaos to protect life on Earth? Is it not necessary to distribute wealth through taxation and universal basic income (UBI) to care for everyone? Doesn’t everyone deserve healthcare? Are women not half of humanity with unique wisdom and gifts of leadership that society desperately needs? Is democracy not required to ensure that every voice counts, that every person can help govern human society? Isn’t war depraved and shouldn’t it be abolished as an option for conflict resolution?
These are all questions of morality. What is right and good for human beings to embody and act out on this Earth?
Now comes the virus of death. The recognition of a COVID-19 pandemic woke up many people concerning who gets to live and who gets to die. The people most likely to die of the virus are the poor – mostly black and brown people, the sick, the elderly (those already approaching death), and “essential” workers many of whom are wage-slaves and/or saints. But these are many of the same people whose lives are already being cut short by climate chaos, poverty, misogyny, racism, fascism, and war. There is so much unnecessary cruelty and suffering. Many of us find ourselves often in tears or outrage.
What is true? What is right and good behavior? The wisdom traditions and historical religions all advocate acts of love, compassion, kindness, justice, and forgiveness. But much of modern culture promotes cutthroat competition, domination, ego, self-interest and pleasure, greed, bias, fear, and violence. Scientists are increasingly showing, however, that our basic nature is indeed one of mutual concern, care, and cooperation. And in any case, since our lives are so noticeably short, can’t we simply be kind to one another?
How are we humans going to facilitate this societal dialogue and this transformation? How are we going to care for people and planet? Personally, I am not sure of the answer. What are your thoughts? What would you propose?
After fifty years of trying to catalyze a better world, I am perplexed.
One thing I do know, however, is that we must not give up. We must each do everything we can to manifest our care for family and friends, the weak and the vulnerable, both near at hand and far away, and the ecosystems of plants, animals, air, water, and soil. We are one human family. We are one Earth family. We must get out the vote, speak, and write what is true and loving, facilitate dialogue, act responsibly, care for those in need, and engage in nonviolent direct action. We can catalyze a compassionate-ecological civilization, community by community, organization by organization, and network by network. In fact, there is already a movement of movements (MoM) at work around the world doing just that. And the speed at which the whole world responded to the virus is proof that we can change quickly to crisis.
After being a community developer, policy advisor, facilitator, professor, and consultant, I am now focusing on being an ecosystem/justice activist, and a nonfiction author. I will keep writing, speaking out, and demonstrating care for others. What about you?
May the critical decade of 2020 – 2029 be a time of healing and transformation, a turning away from dystopia to embrace a “utopia for realists” as Rutger Bregman put it in his book by the same name. And, may we meet the inevitable suffering of the many pandemics with compassion for ourselves and others. For life is fleeting but is very, very good.
(Note: The above essay is based on the Epilogue of The Critical Decade 2020 – 2029: Calls for Ecological, Compassionate Leadership.)
About the Author
Robertson Work is a nonfiction author, ecosystem/justice activist, and founder/facilitator of the Compassionate Civilization Collaborative (C3). He has published four books and contributed to eleven others. For ten years, he was a UN consultant, public speaker, New York University Wagner Graduate School of Public Service adjunct professor of innovative leadership, a Fulbright Senior Specialist assisting universities overseas, and a Fellow of the NYU Wagner Research Center for Leadership in Action.