They have been called “problems without passports,” and there are many of them. When financial sector in the United States developed unsound products or when the bookkeeping around Greek public finance was not up-to-par, the consequences of these actions were felt across the world. When Indian mothers over-rely on antibiotics for the health of their children, the chances of a drug-resistant infection emerging in other parts of the world increase. When one country uses a weapon of mass destruction, the norm and stigma around their use against any of us is eroded. The manner in which chicken farms in Thailand or pig farms in China are managed have become public health concerns for everyone, as 80% of infections are common to animals and human beings, and over-crowded animal husbandry practices increase changes of mutation and the next pandemic. Marine biologists now tell us that they find plastic particles in fish all around the world; we have treated oceans and seas as one global garbage grinder, and we have started to eat each other’s garbage, albeit in miniscule but unrelenting portions. And then there is climate change, the ultimate centripetal force. No dynamic has rendered national borders as inconsequential as climate change. Emissions from the other side of the world has as much effect on climate change you experience as emissions from your own city, rendering distance and proximity irrelevant. And even the most powerful country is not powerful enough to insulate itself from the consequences of actions by others.
What problems without passports and centripetal forces have produced is a world where we live with billions of others with whom we share a planet and increasingly our destinies, but not other countries. To put it differently, we have become used to the notion of being able to author our lives, and yet our lives are increasing co-authored with others. How to manage that co-authorship of not only our own lives but also our collective destiny is, quite possibly, the toughest and most consequential question of our age.
What we need is a global civics. We have exiled civics into a boring study of governmental branches, yet civics is, at its core, what we do to co-manage our commons. It refers to our proclivities to co-create and co-habit realms of our interdependence. Public institutions are results, and not the causes, of our civic sensibilities.
Think, for example, about the way we greet each other. Greeting is something we do automatically and without much thought. Yet it may hold important clues. Greetings across the three Abrahamic faiths have one important, common feature: Assalamualaykum, Paxvobis and Shalom aleichem all mean "I come in peace," respectively in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Incidentally, the military salute is based on a convention to show that one is not bearing any weapons, and therefore comes in peace. The practice of shaking hands is presumed to be based on a similar intent of demonstrating that parties bear no arms and mean no evil. In India, Namaste means "I revere you" and is reciprocated with the same words. In South Africa, Sawubona means "I see you." These common traits are important and telling. It seems that humanity has decided that the best way to start an interaction is to confirm that all parties to the interaction are bearers of recognition and respect, and that harm will not be part of that encounter. That is, in a sense, the Da Vinci Code embedded in our greetings.
This code makes more sense, if we take a longer view. We did not always greet strangers in this manner. In his recent book, The World Till Yesterday, Jared Diamond describes the world of our tribal ancestors. In that world, people were divided into three categories: friends, enemies, and strangers. Friends and enemies are relatively straight forward; how to deal with strangers is the critical question. Diamond demonstrates that strangers were treated essentially as enemies, as there were no benign reasons for you to encounter a stranger. It looks like we started out in a world where we assumed most strangers were enemies. We evolved into more complex social and geographical arrangements, where we could not afford to assume that all strangers were malign, because we needed their cooperation and engagement. Therefore, we had to develop conventions and normative frameworks which would rule out harm, and recognize and confirm the parity of each party to the encounter. The question in our increasingly interdependent world, then, is whether –or how- we can find a manner to greet not just those who are in our line of sight, but those billions, who co-author our lives.
Fortunately, we have additional reservoirs of decency and civics. Take the Ultimatum Game: This is a game where a person is given $100, and is told to offer a split to a second person. It is called the ultimatum game because the second person has no say on what the split is, and receives, in effect, an ultimatum. The two options available to her are to accept the split, or reject the split, in which case neither of them get anything. If we were all convinced of each others' beastly nature, we would expect the most common split to be $99 for the first person and $1 for the second person. The first person would be foolish to offer anything more than $1, as she is expected to do nothing other than maximize her gain, and the second person would be foolish to turn down $1, as that is better than what he had a minute ago. Yet, 30 years of conducting this experiment in all corners of the world reveals that this is not at all what we do. The average split that the people offer is 55-45; it is not quite 50-50, but close enough. What is more revealing is that splits worse that 75-25 are routinely rejected by people in the second position, a thoroughly irrational move, if maximizing our self-interest is indeed the only metric we have. It seems that many among us are ready to pay a personal price to oppose gross unfairness. Could it be that we are not selfish brutes after all?
Fortunately, scholars did not stop asking these questions after Hobbes and Smith. Edward Wilson, for example, has shown that while egoist individuals have an evolutionary advantage, so do solidaric groups. Could that be why we oppose blatant unfairness at a personal cost, and act far more generously than crude selfishness would dictate? Robert Axelrod has set out to discover how cooperation emerges without central authority, and designed simulation experiments where strategies which start with cooperation and reciprocate both cooperation and non-cooperation proved to be the most successful and resilient strategies. In other words, having some faith in our fellow humans is not foolish, but rational. Elinor Ostrom has demonstrated how we achieve cooperation and reign in selfish free riders without a leviathan, and won a Nobel Prize for her work. She chronicled how belonging to the same normative and social communities, attending the same cafés and bars, and building reputation through the same channels all provide formidable venues for binding covenants. Other experiments have proven that we are susceptible to the gaze of our peers. When a photograph of a pair of eyes is placed over a donation box for the office coffee machine, contributions increased substantially. In addition to a commitment to ethics of reciprocity, it seems we have learned to be attentive to the gaze and regard of our peers, and to avoid their loathing. We know we cannot survive and prosper without the cooperation of our peers. The most current case for this is made by Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: Harari argues that no other species cooperate with as many members as we do, and in as many and flexible modes as we do; we are master cooperators. No other human trait explains, Harari maintains, our place in the food chain as this one. This may also be why so many philosophical and religious traditions describe humanity as an interdependent system. Desmond Tutu explains traditional African worldview, Ubuntu, as the realization of “I am because we are”. Categorical Imperative, the Golden Rule, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam refer to a commensurate temperament.
Therefore, not depleting existing reservoirs of good faith and decency, and instead replenishing those reservoirs with engagement and ingenuity are so indispensable to our response as we navigate the treacherous waters of our global interdependence. Kwame Appiah notes that we can agree without too much difficulty that we have some obligation to others; and that we cannot do terrible things to them; that we have some duty to intervene and help out if their situation becomes intolerable and we can assist at a reasonable cost to ourselves. The thorny question is whether we have any other obligations, and to answer that, he proposes the age old practice of a wholesome conversation, not unlike what MUNPlanet does. Appiah’s proposal is one that we should all heed.
Hakan Altinay is the President of the Global Civics Academy, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.