In 2019, we must move beyond the myth of the lone individual to recognize our deep interdependence and responsibilities for one another and nature.
(Commentary originally published by YES! Magazine, Dec 31, 2018)
It’s not likely that many of us will mourn the passing of 2018. It’s been a deeply troubled year defined by wildfires, floods, earthquakes, water shortages, financial chaos, political gridlock, flows of displaced persons, growth in the gap between rich and poor, the rise of dictatorial leaders, and a dire consensus warning from scientists on the impact of climate change.
I’ve been pondering my New Year’s resolution for 2019. Deep change is clearly needed. But what can I do that might measure up to the magnitude of the problem? A promise to turn down my thermostat? Buy an electric car? Give to a charity? Take in a refugee? The possibilities that come to mind—even those that might involve serious commitment—seem trivial, given the scale of the problem.
The problem isn’t me. It isn’t you. Nor is it those folks over there. The problem is we. The big we, humanity: What we believe, how we live, how we relate to one another and Earth. We have gotten something terribly wrong that we must now get right. But what? Do we even agree on the problem?
Perhaps moving forward begins with honoring our African roots—the birthplace of our species that produced the wisdom of “Ubuntu,” often translated as “I am because we are.” Ubuntu is a profound truth long ignored by so-called Western civilization, but now confirmed by the leading edge of contemporary science: Complex life exists—can exist—only in living communities in which organisms together create and maintain the conditions essential to their individual and collective existence.
Not only do we depend on one another, but our ability to live rests on the services contributed by the many members of Earth’s community of life—the bees that pollinate the flowers, the trees essential to the water cycle, the beetles that aid the decomposition of plants after their death, the microbes that digest my food so my body can use its energy and nutrients. Without these many, wondrously diverse beings, Earth would be just another dead rock floating in space.
I sense that humanity is awakening to a profound truth: We—the big we—thrive together, or we expire together. This comes with a recognition that many of the myths by which we live are falsehoods so divorced from reality that they threaten our mutual existence.
It is deeply deflating to realize just how much of what we call Western civilization is built on deceptions: The myth of the lone individual; the myth of freedom without responsibility for our neighbor; the myth that societies built on the exploitation of people and nature are advanced civilizations morally superior to the peoples they devastate; the myth that rule by the richest among us is a form of democracy.
And also, our society is built on the myth that our well-being is enhanced by institutions, technologies, and infrastructure that substitute financial transactions for caring relationships, and isolate us from one another. Too many of us live alone, travel in single-person cars, and buy whatever we need from Amazon.com with no need for contact with another living being, because society gives us few attractive alternatives. We celebrate our “freedom,” we wonder why mental health declines and suicides grow.
As we approach 2019, I see hopeful signs of widespread awakening to the truth that either we embrace the responsibilities of community life and thereby thrive, or we will perish together in the faux freedom of our isolation.
Everywhere I turn—from the spontaneous conversation a few nights ago with neighbors gathered for Christmas, to recent meetings in South Korea that included the mayor of Seoul, and to global strategy conversations with fellow members of the Club of Rome in Europe and Africa—I am finding an eager readiness for discussions about our global crisis and the path beyond it. These discussions cross the lines of race, religion, and class beyond anything I’ve previously experienced.
Conditioned to think and act as an isolated “me,” we may find it difficult to hold to the “we” space. Yet the “we” conversation is essential to the task of creating a truly civilized and democratic civilization that works for the whole of life.
So, my resolution for the New Year? To devote my time and energy at every opportunity to encouraging and engaging these conversations about getting from me to we. I hope you may consider making this a resolution for yourself as well.