One World Only

Daily the world grows smaller, leaving

understanding the only place where

peace can find a home

(Huston Smith)

At the turn of the new millennium, a book titled The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home went to press. It was authored by Pico Iyer, an essayist and novelist who is best known for his travel writing, and for his introspective pieces on identity, belonging and place. Iyer hails from multiple corners of the globe. Born in the UK to Indian parents, he has lived in Japan and California — and by his own admission, he spends more time in the air than on land. The Global Soul mirrors his own upbringing and life experience. It contains descriptions of franchise-filled airports, cosmopolitan cities like Toronto, high-profile international events like the Olympic Games, and reflections on what this world, ‘global,’ does and might mean.

Those of us who grew up in multiple worlds at the same time gravitate towards these sorts of books like desert travelers in search of fresh water. It is rare to come across pieces of writing that acknowledge, openly and with mixed emotions, the fact that the world is now being made by exchanges of knowledge and culture and commerce that nationalism and tribalism are utterly ill-equipped to explain.

At the same time, many people roll their eyes or huff in frustration at such writing. The world, they say, has become all too global. Valuable fabrics of community and accountability have been eroded by new configurations of people and identities that are dizzying, and basically unnecessary.

In Global Soul, Pico Iyer recounts his experiences at the World Economic Forum in 1999. How he managed to swing an invite to this event is another question. But we’ll set it aside for now.

The World Economic Forum has been recognized by Swiss authorities (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that it is located in Switzerland) as the premier international institution for public-private cooperation. Its stated mission is: “committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas.” It is, in other words, one of the world’s premier fora for the sort of globalization that we all live with, and very often distrust.

This is a sort of globalization that is led by a coalition of public and private interests, who readily accept the charge of expanding opportunities for people all over the world, but do not necessarily deliver on this aim.

Iyer recalls the words of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president at the time:

“Our global village has caught fire. We have to put out the flames… but we do not know where to begin rebuilding.”

Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations, asked: “Is globalization only to benefit the powerful and the financiers, speculators, investors and traders? Does it offer nothing to men, women and children who are ravaged by the violence of poverty?”

These are extremely important questions. And for my part, I feel sick every time I hear somebody propose a solution to the world’s ills which benefits them a great deal, and offers at best only peripheral, coincidental improvements in the lives of others.

Most of us know about the abuses of large multinational entities such as the World Bank. And those of us who grew up thinking of justice in global terms need no reminder that goals such as ending poverty (which, by the way, is embossed in gold in the World Bank’s foyer in Washington, DC) are merely words, unless substantiated with deliberate action.

Returning now to the other form of ‘globality’ which Iyer explores (indeed, celebrates) in his book. This type of ‘global’ is not charted out behind closed doors by the world’s political and economic elite. This type of ‘global’ reality is created, and recreated, every day in the world’s most multicultural spaces. It is comprised by the small, frequent exchanges of food, language, dress, and humor that animate cities such as New York, Toronto, London, Dakar, and (I would add) Washington, DC. It is the lifeblood of places and people that have grown up in the company of influences from all over the world. It is the energy that permeates international conferences about social and/or environmental justice, and which inspires people the world over to learn new languages and (at least in the days of snail mail) collect stamps. Far from being elite or exclusive, this form of cosmopolitanism is expansive, inclusive, and inspiring.

In The Global Soul, Pico Iyer muses about his book’s title. Having illustrated several situations that typify our present moment of globalization, he asks: where is the soul in this? And how do you describe the people who are, at a deep level, defined by this “global” world that we live in? In seeking an answer to this question, he considers Emerson (the nineteenth century Transcendentalist)’s view that we are all made by a “universal soul” which shines through us, and links us.

Iyer notes: “Our shrinking world [gives] more and more of us a chance to see, in palpable, unanswerable ways, how much we had in common, and how much we could live … beyond petty allegiances and labels, outside the reach of nation-states.”

Clearly, we are talking about several different kinds of globalization at once. There is the spiritual kind: the belief that we are all linked by unbreakable bonds of responsibility and love. There is the prevailing economic sort, which has more to do with linked markets than with promoting bonds between people. And then there is the social variety, the unmistakable brand that makes cities like New York so special.

No matter how each of us feels about these various forms of contact, we cannot deny that they exist. As Iyer puts it, “Intimately implicated in one another’s life-ways, we cannot dismiss this ‘one world’ notion as mere ideology. Born out of economics, or interpersonal contact, or spiritual truth, it is here.”

For some of us, this truth is as obvious and necessary as the air we breathe. For others, it is less apparent or attractive. But either way, the fact that we are so intimately linked to each other- however you define that- means that our futures are linked, too.

It is possible that no one understands this more than the people all over the world who are being affected by global climate change.

About a year ago, by a bizarre and lovely twist of fate, I found myself spending a week with young climate activists from all over the world. We were in Rome no less, and while the implications of that spectacular location choice make for a great story, that’s not what this post is about.

In a way, the whole world was at this conference. Activists from every continent, and many islands, gathered together. By and large, they worked at a grassroots level, and had a direct and intimate understanding of the lived consequences of the issue that we had met to discuss. This consciousness permeated each day of the conference. It was there during our Una Terra, Una Famiglia Umana march to the Vatican, illustrated through the rich variety of clothing, language, and worldviews that we brought to the streets of Rome. It was present each night at dinner, when we chowed down in a spirit of camaraderie. And perhaps most powerfully for me, it was evidenced during our first evening together.

We had each been asked to bring with us one object that represented our reason for being involved in climate activism. To the tune of (if I remember right) Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” we placed our objects on a table. They would remain there for the duration of the conference. They would serve as the material, but also soulful, expression of our intention to act as a unified, global community.

That said, the conference sparked a bit of controversy. I am still a bit confused (no, I believe the better word is dismayed) by the tensions that developed within our gathering. To the best of my knowledge, and without violating the special privacy of our event, this is how I would sum it up:

The organization and choreography of the conference was, on the one hand, deeply predicated on the idea that, beyond our differences, we are all members of the human race. And we are all going to grapple with the issue of climate change in our lifetimes. One Earth, One Human Family: This was the slogan of our march, as well as the spirit that undergirded much of our time together.

On the other hand, the conference was taking place in a Catholic country, with a Catholic majority in attendance. (This was an interfaith conference, by the way.) There were some among us who did not trust the universalist message that the organizers promoted; perhaps it belied a less inclusive notion of climate activism, when push came to shove.

There were others of us, though, who believed strongly in the “one world” promise, and were frustrated by those who contested it. We were acutely aware of how rare it is for young people from all over the world to take to the streets as one. We thought that it was not the time, or place, to dispute the “one world” slogan. Indeed, it was the only identity that could unify us all, and demote more typical brands of identity (i.e. black, white, North, South, rich, poor) to a secondary status. Surely this does not happen as often as it must.

The tension between thinking of “one world” as a promise, and seeing it as a lie, is mirrored in debates about globalization, universalism, cosmopolitanism, and difference in many countries and contexts.

Given that this is the case, I find it impossible to not stress out about this particular question:

What is the future of our world if this “One World” idea is so viciously contested? How can we sustain our people and our planet, if we do not trust each other enough to admit that this is the only world we have?

Amidst talk of the global, amidst talk of diversity, we do not talk about our common humanity nearly as often as we should. Yet decolonial scholars, environmental activists, and human beings everywhere affirm that beyond the great Mess that we have co-created, our most fundamental qualities know no geographic — and certainly no cultural — divides. Moreover, most of the walls we live with are of our own making, and it is up to bring them down.

In the most fundamental ways, all life is connected. And we would do well to learn more about the Earth we live in, and the men and women and children that we share it with. Just as we do not talk about humanity very often, neither do we talk about friendship. We do not always consider the sorts of bonds that defy the power of multinational corporations, self-interested politicians: the people who insist upon claiming our one, precious world for themselves.

“Daily, the world grows smaller, leaving understanding the only place where peace can find a home.”

In the last couple of years I’ve seen a few examples of human-based solidarity, on a global scale, that have sparked my interest in the notion of “one world, from below.” Or, stated differently, a vision of a unified world that is based upon shared commitment to our most basic emotional and spiritual needs, and to the wellbeing of plant and animal life. A world that is unified in the service of life, rather than the economic and political interests of unmoored elites. And in an age of ecological immediacy, “one world” must be based upon a commitment to sustainability and peace.

Almost a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi linked the needs of his historical moment with human growth. In other words, he said that the political and economic transformations that we must see are deeply tied to the soulful needs of our moment. In his case, colonialism was the political and economic challenge of the day. In our time, I would argue that the challenge is the dehumanization and exploitation of the world’s people and the world’s biosphere, respectively. The spiritual change we require is a sense of interdependence which is based upon sensitivity, intelligence, and (allow me this) love.

In our case, we need to re-evaluate our default sense of interdependence in an age of climate change. Our interdependence these days is all too often exploitative, and we need to make our economic, social and ecological relationships more humane. The idea of “one world” is not an enemy to this project. On the contrary, I don’t think that we will be able to survive very long without this idea. But equally, we must consider what this “one world” means today, and what it could mean, might mean, at the horizon.