“We shall never cease from exploration, and the end of all of our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T.S. Eliot
The world feels slightly out of balance these days.
It is hard to read a newspaper today and deny the pervasiveness of fear and discontent. The uncertainty from Europe has made us question our basic economic foundations and the tenets of global cooperation. A silent, and largely ignored, famine in the Horn of Africa reminds us of our shared inhumanity. And the social unrest in Syria, Egypt, Russia, China, and the United States has brought to our attention the challenges of an overcrowded world, replete with greed and oppression.
At the same time, we are reminded, every day, of the extraordinary capacity of human beings. Over four billion people today have access to mobile phones – a technology that largely did not exist 35 years ago. Our scientists put a man on the moon two generations ago, and have subsequently discovered the cures to diseases afflicting humans throughout the globe. And finally (especially relevant to the readers of this magazine), advances in transportation have allowed us to travel the world – either on an airplane or through the wonders of the Internet.
This is the essential paradox of our time: though we have many of the solutions to solve the world’s pressing issues, we have yet to follow through. It is this paradox that the world must both understand and begin to solve in 2012.
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I have been living a peripatetic life since the day I was born. My parents emigrated from India in the 1970s and had caught the travel bug early in their lives. As a result, my brother and I spent summers crisscrossing Germany and Austria en route to family reunions in India, going on car trips through Peru and piecing together Arabic sentences in Egypt and Jordan. In college, I found myself monitoring elections in Mauritania, working at NGOs in Hong Kong, and enjoying the Zurich summer nightlife. By the time I turned 23, I had travelled to well over 50 countries, and was on my way of becoming “a global soul.”
As time passed, however, travel slowly began to lose its allure. Like anything in life, abundance had created complacency. The countless cathedrals I had visited all melted together in my mind. I could no longer tell the difference between the Royal Palace in Bangkok and the one in Kuala Lumpur, or differentiate the bazaars of Cairo, Dubai or Istanbul. The world had almost become too small, too accessible. This was a coup de foudre – and I started to ask myself what is the point of traveling if this was the outcome.
As I looked around, however, I realized that this passiveness had become a widespread affliction. Friends, classmates and colleagues of mine had traveled the world, but had made no new connections and developed no new interests. They had been to the poorest countries in the world, but upon their return, not joined any new organizations or charities. They had traveled wide and far, but came home completely unchanged. For many of them, international traveling was still a novelty, and I could not understand how this outcome was possible. This mindset puzzled me and led me to further explore what could be the cause.
After years of thinking and countless discussions, one central fact became clear to me: the world has stopped being present. This was particularly true for those fortunate enough to travel around the world. International travel had become so easy, for so many people, that it had become a purely hedonistic and passive experience. We were enjoying the comforts of home – Western food, music and friends – simply in a new background, and this is what we were calling travel.
As I reflected more, I realized that this aloofness, this lack of presence, had afflicted all parts of our lives –from travel, to social interactions, all the way up to government policy and international relations. It became clear the same affliction that was impacting travelers was impacting the world at large.
And the result of our aloofness: we have stopped listening to one another.
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Listening is crucial for one simple reason: only our fellow humans have the ability to set the world on the right path. Each conversation, each new experience is important because the ideas, talents and abilities that surround us can ignite miracles. With each lost conversation and insight, we have lost a possibility to start the world anew. This is true for individuals and for governments alike.
As individuals, we experience our inability to listen every day. Overpowered by technological distractions, we have become junkies – fixated on our Blackberries and iPods with no care for the people around us. Teenagers walk around with music buds in their ears and dinner conversations for couples usually have at least four participants: two people, 1 iPhone and 1 Blackberry.
Governments have stopped listening to their citizens. Nowhere in the world is this clearer than the United States, which is undergoing a political free-fall right now. Our political leaders are not present – they are too busy worrying about re-election, campaign contributions, and their legacy. From Beijing to Damascus to San Francisco, tens of millions of people are marching the streets every single day, demanding to be heard by their governments. It seems that very few people are listening on the other side.
Lastly, nations have stopped listening to one another. Despite the inter-connection of global economies and populations, nationalistic sentiment pervades. Policies are constructed to narrowly benefit individual countries. The lack of true dialogue also means that countries no longer learn from one another – this is again particularly true with the United States, which continues to suffer from its Middle Kingdom syndrome. Instead of embracing economic convergence and the rise of Asia, the US is falling quickly into isolation and protectionism.
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On December 10, we will celebrate International Human Rights Day. It is a momentous day for humanity, commemorating when the global community enshrined the rights of every man, woman and child on our planet.
However, as every year, the day will go by, and the world will not have truly listened.
If the world had listened to the International Human Rights Day of 2010, we would not have over 2 billion people living under $2 dollars a day. We would not have 50 million people living in poverty in the richest country in the history of the world – the United States. We would not have allowed the Syrian government to murder more than 4,000 under our watch.
I fundamentally believe that as humans, we can change any condition and solve any problem in any part of the world. Listening is just the beginning. It is necessary, but not sufficient. When we start to listen and be more present, we will appreciate both the scale of the problems as well as the proximity of the solutions. This is more than just turning off your iPhone – this is about re-developing our curiosity, our desire in knowing not just the who, what and where but most importantly the why. It is about being present in our wonderful, enigmatic and deeply troubled world.
We have a lot of work to do. But I assure you that many of the best ideas, partners and solutions are right around us. So let us use 2012 to start the world anew.