The Fluid Society

Stop “we-they” thinking

The world has been groaning under a group of authoritarian leaders such as Trump, Putin, Xi, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsanaro, with the result that no progress is being made in the transition to a more sustainable and just world. It is no coincidence that these old-school leaders are all men and democratically elected, except Xi. They represent a conservative and fearful electorate that fears change and fears that jobs may be put at risk by migrants or robots. All these leaders claim to strengthen their nation, their values and their economy in the classical way. With jobs in classic companies such as coal mines or car factories. By closing the borders. By criticism of climate scientists, globalization and internationalization. By ending international treaties and participation in international organizations, because they would not contribute to the national economy, but only cost money. By accusing other countries of attempting to steal jobs or of playing unfair competition. The thinking of these leaders is based on enemy thinking and “we-they” thinking. Everything revolves around protecting one’s own country and people against foreign countries. It is the classical way of thinking that no longer fits and is no longer feasible in a world that must and will function as one whole.

It is the tragedy of these traditionalists that what they detest will come closer through their own actions. The demolition of classical nation-state thinking is accelerating, because the old economic theories, aimed at national enrichment and neglect of nature, are no longer tenable. Anxiously holding onto what should no longer be held onto leads to more and more protests, lawsuits and criticism from young people and intellectuals. The thinking of communist Xi and Putin and capitalist Trump and islamist Erdogan hardly differ: they all share the view that their own people and nation-state are above everything, above the interests of a wider world community, above conservation of the earth. They all run their countries as a company in competition with other countries. They all pursue world or regional hegemony with their nation-state.

But more and more people are becoming aware that we live in one world, with one nature, one humanity, where all people have the same rights to a reasonable and just existence, in conjunction with a healthy ecology. The consequence of this is that much more and better cooperation is required worldwide to solve the major problems of our time. The climate and ecology problems are urgent and growing. We do not want to leave a world for our children or fellow citizens in distant countries that has become uninhabitable due to increasing hurricanes or drought caused by uncontrollable temperature rises. It is impossible to maintain a prosperous West alongside a languishing Africa. And closer to home: a prosperous northern Europe versus an impoverished southern Europe.

The ever faster destruction of nature and ecology is shocking. This must be stopped. The corona pandemic, assuming this can be related to the irresponsible consumption of wild animals, gives us another warning of what can happen if we continue to destroy nature. The problem with migrants can only be solved if we do more about climate control, so that the countries of origin remain habitable. And by helping those countries to build a reasonable and perspective future for their citizens. That means that we, the rich western world must invest strongly in these countries. This is just as necessary for citizens in those countries as it is for ourselves, because hundreds of millions of migrants will have no perspective in the West either. “We-they” thinking is the impediment to doing something about the huge divides in the world. The climate crisis, migrations, the destruction of nature, the corona pandemic, make it clear to us that we must look at the world and our fellow citizens differently, more holistically.

The technology war between the governments of China and the US is a hopeless problem that will not solve anything and will only know losers. Neither the citizens of China, nor those of the US, or the rest of the world will benefit. The companies in China and the US do not want a technology war at all. Companies want to work together worldwide, because they have long known from experience that reliable and long-term international cooperation leads to the best results for themselves and their customers. So why this fight? To perpetuate the nonsense of world powers that want to become “great” and compete for the hegemony of the world? It is ego-tripping of old men who do not help the world and its citizens move forward, but rather put them in further trouble.

A major problem is that we are stuck between old economic laws, which stipulate that economic growth is sacred and nature is for free, versus the understanding that we will cause irreparable damage to nature and ecology if we continue as we do. We are increasingly aware of the need to change course. The question is how we do this without causing too much damage to the economy and society. When are the leaders ready to shape a more sustainable society and economy that respects nature? Economists, climatologists, anthropologists, virologists, even the financial world, warn against the dramatic consequences, including those for world economy, if politicians do not change course. Are we perhaps waiting for a female group of top leaders? Change is in the air, but there is no real turnaround yet.

We are now in the aftermath of the corona pandemic, which is not over yet. Which sends a new signal that humanity is on the wrong track. Looking closely it appears that destruction of nature is the underlying cause. The destruction of animal habitats, the creation of large monocultures, leads to violent counter-reactions from a plagued nature. Existing economic laws have created the fiction that mankind and its economy are separate from the nature that surrounds them. So we ask nature to supply us from seemingly infinite supplies to satisfy our excessive consumption. But the stocks are exhausted and there is only one pantry.

The corona virus has given us one more sign: we have to change course. The corona pandemic has led to forced rest and reflection. Society is on a hold for a moment. All around the world discussions are taking place: are we using the released billions to restart the old polluting economy or is this the unique opportunity to change course? Should we, Europe, collaborate in solving the corona pandemic with a new beginning such as a Green Deal, or will we continue in the classical wasteful way ?

Then there was George Floyd. The umpteenth stupid action by a white policeman in the US, resulting in the death of an innocent black man, set the world on fire. Protests have erupted rightly everywhere against racism, against serious and long-standing injustices by government agencies against certain groups of citizens. World-wide historical statues were toppled over. May be not right, but understandable. More and more people of all colours are joining the protests. While for decades already laws have emphasized the equality of all citizens, many have not yet fully grasped or accepted this. Too many still seem to think that people who look different from themselves are inferior, have fewer rights, or should be treated differently. But in the end, perhaps because change is in the air, the anti-racism protests seem to have been taken seriously by politicians who have looked away for years. Reputable politicians now report that there is also something wrong in many government institutions. Be it the Minneapolis police services or the Dutch tax authorities.

The underlying cause of racism is “we-they” thinking. It comes down to group thinking about other groups, rather than valuing or judging people based on personal qualities. There is only one human race, but due to contrived reasoning, some groups of people do not want to accept others. It is the result of cultivating or glorifying the “own” people sentiments on the basis of so-called historical achievements, for example, the Jewish-Christian tradition. It is a remnant of colonial times, when white peoples ruled over many other peoples. It is partly the result of an ever-expanding population in urban areas, where many cultures live too close together without integration. It is motivated by fear of what is different and what can threaten one’s own culture or habits.

But racism is just another phenomenon that has to disappear under the pressure of increasing internationalization and globalization. As more people around the world travel, collaborate and live together, the delusion that one man should be superior to another is being mercilessly dismantled. Racism is not only false nonsense, it is unsustainable and even impractical in an increasingly international world of mixed cultures. People, regardless of origin, colour, education, or location, will have to learn to work together to keep the world liveable. Racism is the very last thing we can use in this process. Some politicians are beginning to realize that racism is not only morally despicable, it is also an obstacle that must be removed to open the way for a new society that is irrevocably more international.But it will still be a heavy task to make racism really disappear in all institutions and the minds of many in all countries in the coming years. Because “we-they” thinking is deeply rooted.

Nationalism is an extension of racism. Because “we” needed all kinds of goods, we conquered many countries, founded colonies, forcing “them”, the local population or slaves, to work for us. Since “we” need raw materials or clothing, “they” must supply them cheaply or under poor conditions. Because “we” want to protect our farmers, we set import tariffs for agricultural products that “they” can also supply. Because “we” use palm oil or biomass, “they” have to sacrifice their forests. It is becoming increasingly clear that this unfair situation cannot continue. The tropical forests, the Amazon, the habitat of animals, which are destroyed by excessive western consumption, have also become a western problem and not only for those “others” who live far away. There appears to be only one world and not one for “us” and one for “them”.

If it really gets through to the minds of all people that all people on earth are equal and should therefore be treated equally, this will have profound global economic and social consequences. It will not only have consequences for doing away with past injustices within countries with different population groups. It is by no means enough to apologize for past slavery that most people today cannot do anything about and do not want to have anything to do with. It is much more important that in the present active attention should be paid to improving relations between population groups and the institutions. This will also have consequences for our dealings with other countries.

Stopping “we-they” thinking means stop robbing the poorer countries of their raw materials or (palm) oil. Or the expulsion of native people from tropical forests, or the expulsion of local fishermen from fishing grounds by large companies with floating fishing factories. Or unequal treatment of products from other countries to protect “one’s own people”. When we think about it, our actions are swarming with “we-they” thinking and racist operations, both within our western countries and in relation to other countries.

Stopping “we-they” thinking also means that the reconstruction after this corona pandemic should not be used primarily to strengthen the already rich countries that have enough money, but that we should invest substantially in lagging countries and areas like Africa and South America. Fortunately, some political leaders like Macron and Merkel seem to realize this. It also means that we must use the many billions that are becoming available for post-corona pandemic recovery operations for a sustainable economic turnaround. This has been necessary for a long time, but is also justified by the need for western countries to deal more carefully with the climate and increasingly scarce raw materials, for the benefit of the many who still live in poverty.

Perhaps for decades to come there will be only one chance to invest so many billions in the necessary sustainability and energy transition that will benefit everyone on Earth. We can not miss this opportunity. The corona pandemic has taught us that we can make much more use of digital tools to do our work and to maintain social contacts, and that this is also more efficient and sustainable. This momentum must be maintained for example, by working from home and reducing unnecessary transport. Finally, the corona pandemic could have the consequence that the necessary sustainability change will be brought about.

George Floyd’s death could eventually work as the butterfly effect in the Amazon, which as a metaphor indicates that a minor cause, the wing beat of a butterfly, can cause a hurricane and lead to a turnaround. George Floyd’s death might have the effect that it is finally and deeply understood, not only in formal laws, but also in our daily actions, that all people are equal. The consequence of this is, first of all, the elimination of racism. But the consequence of this should also be that we will realize one habitable and shared society for all people on earth and not just for “our own people”. This makes us realize that national populist tendencies only create divides between people and can therefore never lead to real solutions.

Governments need to learn not to compete with each other, but given the challenges we face around the world, they need to focus on aligning laws and regulations. The principle of equality of all people has to lead to an increasingly synchronised policy between countries. It would also enhance the efficiency of public administrations and their accessibility for citizens. Equality for all people means a different way of dealing with migrants. It means more attention to the working conditions in factories that make goods for western countries. Or for the way in which many agricultural products are grown. With digital tools such as blockchain technology, chain transparency is easy to achieve and it would contribute a lot to prevent or unmask illegal or harmful production conditions.

Ultimately, the aforementioned change means the breakthrough to another world, to the fluid society. In which the nation-state is no more than an area where you happen to live or not live, but not one of many of states that compete with each other. Inequalities of all people must disappear step by step and everyone should be offered the same opportunities. This has not been achieved yet, not even, as George Floyd shows, in the rich western countries. But digitalization can also help us here. To accelerate the exit from the old economy, to accelerate digital collaboration worldwide, to help other people and countries digitally, to accelerate sustainability through digital working and to stop “we-they” thinking.

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