Thinking Big Enough: The Global Perspective

by Ray Grigg

We don’t think big enough. This is one of our largest failings. We have global environmental problems that we are mostly attempting so solve with small measures — the situation is conspicuous in Canada where its national government has been unresponsive to international pressures to address climate change, and where the solutions to such problems have been left to the initiatives of individual provinces, cities and municipalities.

Nations, of course, have been willing to gather their military power to fight a common enemy. “Coalitions of the willing” or similarly named amalgamations of power have been recently arranged for conflicts in Ukraine, Libya and now to combat the perceived threat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And the world’s entire economic system is expanding and reconfiguring to accommodate and exploit global resources, markets and consumers. Numerous free-trade agreements between groups of countries attest to this international thinking. Corporations have long been planning beyond the limits of national boundaries, a trend explored by Chrystia Freeland in “How They See Us” (Globe and Mail, Oct. 27/12).

“For most of the 20th Century,” Freeland writes, “those at the top needed everyone else. This is the Henry Ford paradigm: his workers needed to earn enough to buy his cars. Today, that connection has become more fragile: capitalists can — indeed, they must — find labour and markets wherever in the world they are cheapest and most profitable.

“The results are not always negative,” adds Freeland. “The US-based CEO of one of the world’s largest fund managers told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing out of the American middle class did not really matter. His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India into the middle class, and meanwhile one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade.”

Other comments from the chief financial officer of a large US technology company makes a similar contribution to this style of thinking. “We demand a higher paycheque than the rest of the world,” he said. “So if you’re going to demand 10 times the paycheque, you need to deliver 10 times the value. It sounds harsh, but maybe people in the middle class need to decide to take a pay cut.” In corporate thinking, even essential social structures and fundamental ethical values are expected to bend to the imperative of ever-higher profits.

A version of this corporate thinking is needed to solve our global environmental problems. The evolving crisis is caused by innumerable local affronts — from the emissions of individual cars to the clearing of tropical forests to grow palm oil — but we still lack the globally integrated regulations to correct the situation. National governments have been reluctant to submit to the mandatory measures that would be enforceable by international law. The Kyoto Accord attempted to do this, with only partial success because not all countries took their commitments seriously, and compliance was not enforced by serious punishment. Canada signed and then reneged on its legally binding Kyoto obligations — obligations it could have met if it had tried, according to Professor Mark Jaccard of Simon Fraser University. Not only was this unfortunate for the global climate but it set a disquieting precedent for the authority of future UN agreements. While Canada is willing to go to war rather than “let down its allies”, it’s not willing to meet its emission obligations to the entire planet.

So we have the political interests of individual nations that don’t mesh with the solutions to global environmental problems. The family of humanity does not yet speak with one voice, even though every one of its members lives on the same Earth. The United Nations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the entire world community of scientists are all attempting to broaden the scope of the environmental conversation to fit the size and urgency of the challenges. Environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and internet organizations such as and Avaaz are all functioning at an international level. The reluctance of national governments to think and act globally is strangely anachronistic considering that this expansive thinking already permeates finance, economics, corporations, communication, travel, entertainment and sports.

The prognosis for continued global environmental deterioration suggests two broad options. Individual nations can continue to bicker and feud in chaotic response to the escalating effects of progressive ecological breakdown. Alternately, national governments can accept that their principal environmental threats are rooted in causes too large and complex to be solved by small, ad hoc measures, and that, by necessity, they will have to collaborate and co-operate.

This optimistic option is coming — inevitably, sooner or later, willing or not. The cumulative effect of local ecological damage is now becoming structural, too pervasive and complicated to be solved without an internationally integrated approach. On a single planet with one biosphere, individual nations will eventually discover that their interests are inseparable from those of every other nation. At this point — if it is not too late — we can start thinking and acting globally.

The large thinking needed to address the reality of our environmental problems will necessitate a wholesale reconfiguration of our global civilization. Politics, economics and diplomacy will become increasingly complex, stressful and difficult. The alternative will be worse.