For years, we have seen a fundamental mismatch between the magnitude of the common global challenges we humans face and the insufficiency of our existing institutions to address them.
In a better world we can imagine, for example, we would have a global health organization with a robust pandemic surveillance system reaching to the far corners of the earth. When the first tripwire of a pathogenic outbreak was hit, a fully resourced team of experts would immediately be dispatched to work with local authorities to squelch it. If the outbreak could not be contained, the global health organization would then lead governments and civil society organizations around the world in a coordinated effort to share best practices and allocate resources where they are needed most for the common good of humanity. The organization would be a repository for the most reliable information and coordinate consistent messaging the world over to help facilitate the most thoughtful, targeted, efficient, and effective response possible. After the crisis had abated, the organization would then study the lessons learned, strengthen its surveillance capabilities, intensely prepare for the next pandemic, and work to help prepare local officials, civil society leaders, and general publics for future threats.
We already have an organization kind of like that, you might say, the World Health Organization. Established in 1948, the WHO, is, according to its founding document, “the directing and coordinating authority on international health work.” Yes. On paper. In reality, the organization, with which, in full disclosure, I have the honor to be associated, is underfunded, understaffed, and under-empowered by states. The Chinese authorities waited at least 4 days from when they identified the novel coronavirus (later named SARS-CoV-2) until they notified the WHO, and it took another 42 days from then until the first WHO team of medical experts were allowed in. Then, the WHO, however well-intentioned and capable its leadership and staff, did not have the capacity, tools, or authorities to drive a coordinated global response. The world is now in deep crisis and many people will die because of our collective failure, realized over many decades, to build the type of robust response infrastructure we now need. For our own collective good, we must do better.
Last Tuesday, I was invited to give a talk to Singularity University’s global virtual summit on the COVID-19 crisis. I had initially planned to discuss whether the tools of the genetics revolution could be used to win this battle (a topic I explore in my book Hacking Darwin). After listening to the excellent presentations of my SU faculty colleagues speaking before me, I decided to change tack and hurriedly put together my thoughts for what became this talk entitled “The Future of the Past: The Coronavirus Pandemic and the New Normal.” In it, I make the case that this year, 2020, is more equivalent to 1941 than it is to 2001, the year of 9-11. Like 1941, our world is at risk, the future of our system is at play, and some fundamental cracks in the way we have organized ourselves are becoming clear. But just like in 1941, when leaders like FDR, Churchill, and others came together to plan for the world they wanted to build after the war, we must now start laying the foundations for the very different world that will emerge following the current crisis. The core issue is not whether the world will change but is instead what values will guide that transformation and what institutions and processes can be reformed and established to realize those values.
The brilliant planners in the early 1940s recognized that the rigid models state sovereignty that had led to World War I and of excessive nationalism to World War II needed to be tempered with new models of shared sovereignties and broader and more inclusive political identities. Our multilateral institutions including the UN, World Bank, IMF, EU. NATO, and others all stem from that basic insight. But today we are seeing in sharp relief that our system of national states and the multilateral institutions they have created is not able to sufficiently address the greatest common challenges facing our species and our collective home. To do this, I believe we must add a third leg of this stool. That leg, what the crises of our time demand, is that we create a new global, democratic political force representing our collective aspirations as members of the same species whose common interests far outweigh what divides us.
Since the YouTube video of my talk went a bit viral these past days, I have been inundated with messages from people suggesting well thought out master plans for how to achieve this goal. Many of these plans make great intellectual sense to me. But my gut tells me we can’t create a new, democratic, and inclusive system from a master plan generated by a few very well-intentioned and self-appointed visionaries. Instead, we must build this new political power center bit by bit (or brick by brick (choose your metaphor) from the ground up, starting with a declaration of principles. To get this ball rolling (too many metaphors!), I have drafted and included below my first draft effort. Very soon, I will be placing this text in a more open, wiki-like platform to open it up for an inclusive, public deliberative process equivalent to Iceland’s (albeit mixed) 2011 effort to crowdsource its constitution.
Once this is done, we will work together, as openly and collectively as possible and feasible, in a democratic process to determine next steps, perhaps collectively developing a constitution and/or committees to explore how we might best address particular global challenges. Our goal is not to work down from an existing master plan but to work up from a foundational set of common values moored to the existing principles of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Sustainable Development Goals. We should not seek to undermine or supersede our states and international institutions but to augment and complement them.
None of this will be easy. Huge questions remain. How can we keep an inclusive process from becoming chaotic? How can we secure the participation of people off the global information grid or living within authoritarian states? How can we protect ourselves from attacks from or manipulations by national security services? How can we move from a small number of people involved in this process now to hopefully billions in the future? I don’t have complete answers to any of these questions, but I do have every confidence we will find them.
Because 7.7 billion humans, with our far greater commonalities than differences, if given the connectivity, infrastructure, and half the chance, can, if we put our hearts, minds, and labors to it, make that so.