The world is currently groaning among a group of authoritarian leaders such as Trump, Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsanaro, with the result that no progress is being made in the transition to a more sustainable and just world. It is no coincidence that these old-school leaders are all men and democratically elected, except Xi. They represent a conservative and fearful electorate that fears change and fears that jobs may be put at risk by migrants or robots. All these leaders claim to make their nation, national values and the economy, especially the classical ones, strong. With jobs in classic companies such as coal mines or car factories. With stopping strangers threatening to cross borders. With criticism on climate scientists, globalisation and internationalisation. With ending international treaties and participation in international organisations, because they would not contribute to the national economy, but only cost money. Accusing other countries of attempting to steel jobs or companies or to compete unfairly. The thinking of these leaders is based on “we-they” thinking. Everything revolves around protecting one’s own country and people against foreign countries called deemed hostile. It is the classic way of thinking that no longer fits and is no longer feasible in a world that must and will function as one whole.
It is the tragedy of these traditionalists that what they are detesting so much comes closer by their own actions. The demolition of classical nation-state thinking is accelerating, because the old economic theories, aimed at national enrichment and neglect of nature, are no longer tenable. Anxiously holding onto what should no longer be held on leads to more and more protests, lawsuits and criticism from young people and intellectuals. The thinking of communist Xi and capitalist Trump differs little: they share the view that their own people and nation-state are above everything, over the interests of a wider world community, over conservation of the earth. Both run their country as a kind of company in competition with other countries. Both pursue world hegemony with their nation-state.
But in an increasing circles is dawned that we live in one world, with one nature, one humanity, where all people have the same rights to a reasonable and just existence. In conjunction with a healthy ecology. The consequence of this is that much more and better cooperation is required worldwide to solve the major problems of our time. The climate and ecology problem is urgent and growing. We don’t want to leave a world for our children or fellow citizens in distant lands that have become unliveable due to increasing hurricanes or drought caused by uncontrollable temperature rises. It is impossible to maintain a prosperous West alongside a languishing Africa. And closer to home: a prosperous Northern Europe versus an impoverished Southern Europe.
The ever faster destruction of nature and ecology is shocking. That must be stopped. The corona pandemic gives us yet another warning of what can happen if we continue to destroy nature. The problem with migrants can only be solved if we do more about climate control, so that the countries of origin remain habitable. And by helping those countries to build a reasonable and perspective future for their citizens. That means that we, as the rich West, must invest deeply in those countries. This is just as necessary for fellow citizens in those countries as it is for ourselves, because hundreds of millions of migrants have no perspective in the West either. “We-they” thinking is the impediment to doing something about the great contradictions in the world. The climate crisis, the migrations, the destruction of nature, the corona pandemic, make it clear to us that we must look at the world and our fellow citizens differently, more holistically.
The technology war between China and the US is a hopeless problem that will not solve anything and will only know losers. Citizens in China, neither the US, nor the rest of the world have an interest in this fight. The companies in China and the US don’t want a technology war at all. Companies want to work together worldwide, because they have long known from experience that reliable and long-term international cooperation leads to the best results for themselves and their customers. So why this fight? What is it for? To perpetuate the nonsense of world powers that want to become “great” and compete for the hegemony of the world? It is egotripping of old men who do not help the world and its citizens move forward, but rather put them in further trouble.
A major problem is that we are stuck between old economic laws, which stipulate that economic growth is sacred and nature is for free, versus the understanding that we will cause irreparable damage to nature and ecology if we continue as we do. We are increasingly aware of the need to change course. The question is how we do this without causing too much damage to the economy and society. When are the leaders ready to shape a more sustainable society and economy that respects nature? Economists, climatologists, anthropologists, virologists, even the financial world, warn for the dramatic consequences, including economics, if politicians don’t change course. Are we perhaps waiting for a female group of top leaders? Change hangs in the air, but there is no real turnaround yet.
We are now in the middle of the corona pandemic, which is not over yet. Which sends a new signal that humanity is on the wrong track. After all, destruction of nature is the underlying cause. The destruction of animal habitats, the creation of large monocultures, leads to violent counter-reactions from the plagued nature. Existing economic laws have created the fiction that mankind and its economy are separate from surrounding nature. So we ask nature to supply out of seemingly infinite supplies for our infinite gluttony. But the stocks are exhausted and there seems to be only one pantry.
The corona virus gives us one more sign: the helm has to change. The corona pandemic leads to forced rest and reflection. Society stands still for a moment. It is discussed in thousands of groups: are we using the released billions to restart the old polluting economy or is this the unique opportunity to change course? Should we as Europe finally work together on a new beginning such as a Green Deal, or will we continue to blame each other? Should we solve the corona pandemic the old way, according to the law of the strongest, or should we organise common solutions, vaccines, and crisis response?
Then there was George Floyd. The umpteenth stupid action by a white policeman in the US, resulting in the death of an innocent black man, set the world on fire. Rightly, protests have erupted everywhere against racism, against serious and long-standing injustices by government agencies against certain groups of citizens. Historical statues were toppled worldwide. Maybe not right, but understandable. More and more people of all colours are joining the protest. While the laws have emphasised the equality of all citizens for decades, many have not yet fully grasped or accepted it. Too many people still seem to think that people who look different from themselves are less, have fewer rights, or should be treated differently. But at the end, perhaps because change is in the air, the anti-racism protests seem to be taken seriously by politicians who have looked away for years. Reputable politicians now report that there is also something wrong in many government institutions. Whether it concerns the Minneapolis police services or the Dutch tax authorities.
The underlying cause of racism is “we-they” thinking. Group thinking versus other groups, rather than valuing or judging people based on personal qualities. There is only one human race, but due to contrived reasoning, some groups of people don’t want to accept others. It is the result of cultivating or glorifying the “own” people sentiments on the basis of so-called historical achievements (for example, the Judeo-Christian tradition). It is a remnant of colonial times, when white people governed over many other peoples. It is partly the result of an ever-expanding population in urban areas, where many cultures live close together. It is motivated by fear of what is different and what can threaten one’s own culture or habits.
But racism is just such a phenomenon that has to disappear under the pressure of increasing internationalisation and globalisation. As more people around the world travel, collaborate and live, the delusion that one people would be superior to another is mercilessly dismantled. Racism is not only false nonsense, it is also unsustainable and even impractical in an increasingly international world of mixed cultures. People, regardless of origin, color, education, location, will have to learn to work together to keep the world liveable. Racism is the very last thing that we can use thereby. That may be what some politicians are beginning to realise: racism is not only morally reprehensible, it is also an obstacle that must be removed to open the way for a new society that is irrevocably more international.But it will still be a heavy task to make racism in all institutions and the minds of many in all countries really disappear in the coming years. Because the “we-they” thinking is deeply rooted.
Nationalism is an extension of racism. Because “we” needed all kinds of goods, we conquered many countries, founded colonies, forcing “them”, the local population or slaves, to work for us. Since “we” need raw materials or clothing, “they” must supply them cheaply or under poor conditions. Because “we” want to protect our farmers, we set import tariffs for agricultural products that “they” can also supply. Because “we” use palm oil or biomass, “they” have to sacrifice their forests. It is becoming increasingly clear that this unfair situation cannot continue. The tropical forests, the Amazon, the habitat of animals, which are destroyed by Western gluttony, also become a Western problem and not only for those “others” who live far away. There appears to be only one world and not one for “us” and one for “them”.
If it really trickles down into all people that all people on earth are equal and should therefore be treated equally, it has profound global economic, social and social consequences. It does not only have consequences for cleaning up past injustices within countries with different population groups. It is by no means enough to apologise for a past slavery that most people today cannot do anything about and don’t want to have anything to do with. It is much more important that it be given active attention in the present for improving relations between population groups and the institutions. It will also have consequences for our dealings with other countries.
Stopping “we-they” thinking means stopping the robbing of poorer countries because of the raw materials or (palm) oil. Or the expelling of native people from tropical jungles, or expelling local fishermen from fishing areas by large companies with floating fishing factories. Or unequal treatment of products from other countries to protect “one’s own people”. When we think about it, our actions are swarming with “we-they” thinking and racist operating, both within our Western countries and in relation to other countries.
Stopping the “we-they” thinking also means that the reconstruction after this corona pandemic should not be used primarily to strengthen the already rich countries that have enough money, but that we should invest substantially in lagging countries and areas like Africa and South America. Fortunately, some political leaders like Macron and Merkel seem to realise this. It also means that we must use the many billions that become available for post-corona pandemic recovery operations for a sustainable economic turnaround. This has been necessary for a long time, but is also justified by the need for Western countries to deal more carefully with the climate and increasingly scarce raw materials for the benefit of the many who still live in poverty.
Perhaps for decades there is only one chance to invest so many billions in the necessary sustainability and energy transition that will benefit everyone on Earth. We should not miss that opportunity. The corona pandemic taught us that we can make much more use of digital tools to do our work and to maintain social contacts, and that this is also more efficient and sustainable. That momentum must be maintained for example, by working from home and by reducing unnecessary transport. Finally, the corona pandemic could have the consequence that the necessary sustainability change will come.
George Floyd’s death could eventually work as the butterfly effect in the Amazon, which as a metaphor indicates that a minor cause, the wing beat of a butterfly, can cause a hurricane and lead to a turn around. George Floyd’s death can have the effect that is finally and deeply understood, not only in formal laws, but also in our daily actions, that all people are equal. The consequence of this is, first of all, the elimination of racism. But the consequence of this should also be that we will realise one liveable and shared society for all people on earth and not just for “our own people”. This makes us realise that the national populist currents only create contradictions between people and can therefore never lead to real solutions.
Governments need to learn not to compete with each other, but given the challenges we face around the world, they need to focus on aligning laws and regulations. The principle of equality of all people has to lead to an increasingly synchronised policy between countries. It would also enhance the efficiency of public administrations and ease of use for citizens. Equality for all people means a different way of dealing with migrants. It means more attention to the working conditions in factories that make goods for Western countries. Or for the way in which many agricultural products are grown. With digital tools such as blockchain technology, chain transparency is easy to achieve and it would contribute a lot to prevent or unmask illegal or harmful production conditions.
Ultimately, the aforementioned change means the breakthrough to another world, to the liquid society. In which the nation-state is no more than an area where you happen to live or live, but not of states that compete with each other. Inequalities of all people must disappear step by step and everyone should be offered the same opportunities. It is not that far yet, not even, as George Floyd shows, in the rich Western countries. But digitisation can also help us here. To accelerate the exit from the old economy, to accelerate digital collaboration worldwide, to help other people and countries digitally, to accelerate sustainability through digital working and to stop the “we-they”thinking.