Ross Urquhart: Boundaries hinder solutions to global challenges

Numerous lines may be drawn on maps but none exist on the planet itself

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      There’s an old saying that goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff”—think macro as opposed to micro, to use the vernacular of economists and environmentalists—and it has never been more necessary than in today's world. At the risk of sounding like an aging hippy, few people seem to realize that we are (to borrow a couple of cliches) all members of the same race, the human race, and co-residents on this unique and tiny planet hurtling through the cosmos in the guise of Spaceship Earth.

      If that description sounds a bit far out (seriously, I am not a hippy) it’s because the vast majority of us spend our lives looking at the world through the wrong end of the telescope. We restrict our vision to tight circles that emphasize family first, and after that, in descending order, culture, religion, community, nation, and, lastly, the rest of the world. Undoubtedly we gain personal comfort and security from concentrating on close associations. However, when we set those basic priorities it doesn’t promote co-operation on many of the issues impacting our future well-being.

      Numerous boundary lines may be drawn on maps but none exist on the planet itself, and in a world where the only thing growing faster than the population is our ability to communicate, artificial boundaries are rapidly becoming a hindrance. When Middle Eastern countries face crises over religious conflicts the resulting turmoil creates uncertainty in energy markets and the cost of living for each and every one of us goes up. A man in China dies from a flu bug, supposedly picked up from chickens, and every country in the world begins preparing for a pandemic. A nuclear reactor in Japan melts down and spews radioactive particles into the air, and untold tons of contaminated water into the ocean, and it changes how we buy fish half a world away and view power generation policies in our homelands. Wall Street takes up barely a few acres in one borough of New York City, in New York State, in the United States of America and, yet, can initiate activities that plunge the entire world into a recession, which years later we are still recovering from, and whose consequences will continue to challenge us for decades.

      Hundreds, perhaps thousands of these examples exist, from the causes and consequences of worldwide terrorism to arguments over where the loyalties of multinational companies should lie… and then there’s the revolutionary changes wrought by universal access to the Internet.

      All paths, however purposeful or unintentional, are pushing us toward being one global community. Still, in the face of that, we keep choosing leaders who promise to protect us from those strange and different people who live outside the lines drawn on our map.

      It’s easy to be sideswiped by issues involving local imperatives when attempting to overcome global challenges. It’s a big world and trying to solve far-flung, complex problems can seem like a poor use of our precious time. Politicians and voters alike prefer simple and clear issues. Nationalism is here and now. It’s emotional, and imbedded, stemming from years of programming beginning on the day we are born and continuing until the day we die. It’s not evil, or at least it’s not meant to be. For hundreds of years it was vital to every person’s survival by creating an atmosphere of shared responsibility and self-sacrifice. It laid the basis for joining with others in a defense of common lands. Without nationalism each community was alone and vulnerable in a dangerous world—but has this pendulum swung too far? Is building each nation as a distinct and superior entity now becoming a burden, a barrier to the free and easy exchange of new ideas, concepts, and associations? Again, are we looking at “the big picture”?

      For hundreds of years our nations created myths, legends, songs, and dramatic images, to bring us together as one people and differentiate us from everyone else. These myths fortify the special place we hold in the hierarchy of nations. We have excelled at this; so much so that it brings tears to our eyes when we watch someone climb onto a podium and receive a medal as our anthem is played. We beat the world, proved we are better, if just for this one moment, in this one small pocket of endeavor.

      Wining as a country reinforces the idea that we are different—hopefully better—although most of us would deny that because it sounds racist, or bigoted. We talk a lot about being proud of our accomplishments as a nation but how many of those accomplishments are actually a means of maintaining the boundaries between “us” and “them”. Lauding our achievements is great for nation building but in a world of increasing interdependence how far can each nation go in hoisting themselves above all others. We pay lip service to co-operating with other nations. Supposedly in an effort to improve life on the entire planet, but only if that means everyone else adopting our goals and values. We are, after all, the best, so why should “We” have to change?

      These are very narrow limits. Countries regularly make decisions that severely affect people outside their borders and little consideration is given because the other people are, after all, just “foreigners”. If a politician in any democratic country were to stand up and say, “We must take into consideration what the rest of the world wants as we make policies that govern our people,” how long do you think they would remain in office? Sovereignty is sacred. It is what our soldiers fought and died for, so how could we throw this away and join “them” to gain some small say in how the whole world operates? We sign treaties and trade deals, join with other nations to form alliances and co-operate on feel-good policies from the United Nations, but only so long as it benefits us—or, at least, doesn’t inhibit our prosperity.

      Someday soon this may not be enough. In today's world nuclear bombs may be exploded in national capitals due to arguments over religious dogma—a total monetary collapse may occur thanks to the greed of a few financial wizards and their power to influence one national government. Backward countries starve their population in exchange for advanced weaponry while so-called First World countries poison our oceans and land at an ever increasing rate and declare it's not a problem. Rapidly evolving technologies are magnifying the destructive power of even the smallest nations. Will it really make a difference if we can blame someone else when a major global catastrophe occurs? How truly satisfying will it be to have bragging rights as a resident of the greatest city, in the most beautiful province, in the most envied nation… on a dying planet?

      Ross Urquhart is a retired eccentric and grump who spends his time writing when the rest of his chores are done and the weather is too abominable to do anything outside. His latest book, Being Reasonable: Plain Talk About Living in the Future, is now out in a print edition. He may be contacted through his blog, Middle of the Road Radical, at