by Michael Shank
This piece was originally published on Vice Impact.
This September, as world leaders gather in New York City for the General Assembly of the United Nations, the timing couldn’t be more critical. From South Asia to Southern Florida, extreme weather is terrorizing communities, wreaking havoc on infrastructure, killing thousands, dislocating millions, and quickly adding to the rising number of climate refugees. And from North Korea to North America, antagonism appears at an all-time high, with nuclear war a real possibility and racism raging like an uncontrolled western state wildfire.
It’s fitting, then, if not ironic, that the theme for the UN meeting is ‘Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet’. We’ve clearly lost this focus, if we ever had it. In America, especially, it feels like there’s little peace, little decency, and little sustainability left. And there’s no clear sign from the White House that we’ll return to civility anytime soon.
Enter the United Nations, this month, to remind us that even amidst climate chaos and racist rhetoric cooler heads and clarion calls, for big goals like peace and sustainability, is an important process. But here’s the rub. Most goal setting at the UN – such as the 17 Sustainable Development Goals agreed to by 193 nations two years ago – is completely voluntary and can be ignored at any time. Much like President Donald Trump’s backing out of the Paris climate agreement, which was a similarly voluntary process, there is little here that’s legally binding.
What do non-heads-of-state like us do, then? Sit and watch as prime ministers and presidents come and go, pontificate and promise, only later to be replaced by recalcitrant leaders who repeal, rescind and maybe never even replace? Something needs to change in this calculus. We can’t keep depending on traditional, top-down models to tip the scales in peace and sustainability’s favor. It’s not going to happen.
Time is ticking on the climate changing watch, for example, and more inaction on carbon cutting, or worse, a ramping up of fossil fuels, is putting every single UN member state, though some much more than others, at increasing peril. As Leo DiCaprio intoned at a previous gathering at UN headquarters, we don’t need more talk and we certainly don’t need more ten year studies on climate change. He’s right. We know what the problem is – so does 97 percent of the scientific community.
The expectation that nation states will somehow save us from climate chaos or even nuclear annihilation needs to be retired. Leaders like Trump are quickly moving us closer to both chaos and annihilation. It’s also time to retire the reliance on centralized governments to save the day. As mass movements are increasingly mobilizing around every issue under the sun, from immigrant rights to minority rights, people power is seeing a resurgence. But more is needed if activists are going to upend the status quo.
It’s going to require both a boycott of what’s not working – or that which is worsening the chaos – and a switch to what is working. While we may vote every year, or even less often, we do a lot more, daily, that props up systems that aren’t peaceful or sustainable. We make food and fashion choices multiple times a day, most of which are carbon intensive. We make transportation and technology choices daily, which often have a heavy impact on natural and human capital. And we make water and waste choices daily, which often adversely impact the poor. We could each, individually, change all of this overnight without any help from the UN.
As Martin Luther King correctly communicated in a Christmas sermon on peace, “Before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world”. Add our social media choices to the mix, which can either propagate the world with goodwill or eat away and erode our fragile social fabric, and you’ve got a daily impact that outpaces any annual UN meeting minutes.
If middle America, or middle anywhere, wants to make the UN’s General Assembly goal of peace, decency and sustainability a practical and possible reality, it won’t come from more official high-level political forums. We know what the problems are and we know what the solutions are; it’s a matter of public and political will at this point. And we’ve built this will before, on terrorism.
Everyone in America, for example, knows how to finish the phrase “if you see something…” [say something]. Everyone knows how to spot an unattended backpack in the subway. We’re hyper aware of terrorism, though our chances of dying from an act of traditional terrorism are minuscule: Last year, 25,600 people died globally from an actor of traditional terrorism, while 6.5 million died from air pollution.
The real “see something, say something”, instead, should be pointing public fingers at the uncontrolled wildfires raging across the western United States. The real “see something, say something” should be focused on the devastating hurricanes and superstorms inundating our cities. The real “see something, say something” should be aimed at fossil fuel consumption, resulting in uncomfortable water cooler conversations about excessive meat intake and fast fashion, for example. The time for individual patriotic action is now.
We can’t keep expecting world leaders to save the day, especially as more global agreements get undermined. In this climate changing era, which is making a mockery of American inaction, the unattended backpacks of our time are heavy meat consumption, excessive fashion waste, gas guzzling sports utility vehicles, incandescent bulbs, frequent flyers and more. Climate change is delivering a much more devastating terror to the world and it’s time, in true patriotic fervor, to see something and say something. The time for timidity is over.
Dr. Michael Shank is Head of Communications at the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network and Adjunct Assistant Professor at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs.