As we embark on a new year, it is time to look back and look forward.
We humans face serious threats in the immediate future. At the close of the 2022 UN conference on climate change, Secretary-General António Guterres said, “The world still needs a giant leap on climate ambition (…) COP27 concludes with much homework and little time.” He likely would say the same thing about the recent UN conference on biodiversity. The ongoing threat of nuclear war is heightened by the war between Ukraine and Russia. COVID persists, as epidemiologists do their best to watch out for new deadly diseases.
Who will be our guides through these difficult and challenging times? It is important to consider who we can trust to lead us through these perils to a better world for all. What qualifications should these guides have? Here are a few ideas. Please take a few minutes to think of your own.
Our guides should have a vision of the world we want and need. One thinks immediately of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He had a dream that “little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little White boys and White girls as sisters and brothers.” Definitely a good start.
Climate leaders like Geta Thunberg dream that we can hold global warming to 1.5°C. Biodiversity advocates dream of 30×30: to conserve 30% of terrestrial and marine habitat by 2030. Transition towns envision more sustainable bases for everyday life. Many people continue to strive for economic equality and social justice.
Our guides should have a realistic view of the road ahead. Good leaders seek out relevant credible information and consult with experts about specialized issues. Historians know which roads have led to flourishing and which to disaster. We should consult physicists (how soon can we scale up fusion?), biologists (how can we help species adapt to changes?), medical personnel (how can we manage risks to human health?), social scientists (what helps to overcome stereotypes?), and so forth. Realism cannot be tainted by disinformation or misinformation in any form. But knowledge and judgment are never perfect: capable leaders admit their mistakes and learn from them; they are open to feedback and will change course when it is justified.
Our guides should be concerned, first and foremost, with the common good. They cannot be self-centered, greedy, or ruthless. They cannot care only about their own power and fame — which nearly always come at the expense of almost everyone else. Good guides are not vulnerable to “means justify the ends” thinking.
For example, billionaires have been accused of giving mega-dollars to their chosen charities, but many do not pay living wages to their workers. Leaders should be humble in the face of the vast responsibility that comes with power and resources. Wise guides must be compassionate toward everyone, especially the less fortunate, and make every attempt to understand their experiences, joys and struggles.
Our guides should recognize the interdependence of all life on Earth, including all humans. They should exemplify the values needed to get everyone pulling together. These include seeking understanding, respecting everyone, ensuring fairly distributed resources and engaging in collaborative communication. Most importantly, they should recognize that all creatures matter.
There are no human “nobodies,” there are no expendable species (certainly not pollinators). Indigenous societies throughout the world carry lessons about human relationships, our relationship to the Earth and about other species — lessons that are ignored with great loss.
We might call this “wisdom.” They may seem like super-human qualities, but they lie within all of us. We think of wisdom as coming with age, though not always. Older people have more life experience, probably have attended the “school of hard knocks,” and may have learned to de-center a bit from ego, being especially aware that their own time on Earth is limited.
Still, wisdom can be cultivated. A quick search reveals advice books on “how to raise a wise child.” At a glance, they seem pretty reasonable. There are even good animal role models. Elephant matriarchs draw on their decades of life experience to guide the herd to long-forgotten sources of food and water. They look out for the entire herd because elephants understand their interdependence.
We have much to learn from wise leaders: Volodymr Zelensky, who had the courage to stay in Ukraine and lead its heroic and heartbreaking struggle to remain self-governing; UN Secretary General Guterres who will not let the world look away from our existential threats; Jane Goodall and David Attenborough, who continue to celebrate and advocate for all life on Earth.
There are also many who belong to the ages: Nelson Mandela for standing up to injustice and mending divisions; Abraham Lincoln for charting a course through troubled waters “with malice toward none; with charity for all”; Thich Nhat Hahn, whose activist Buddhism that was born out of the Vietnam War spread worldwide; Octavia Butler, whose novels invite reflections on future utopias and dystopias that are hinted at today. All readers will choose differently, but the point is to reflect on how wisdom is enacted and projected.
What do we do to cultivate wisdom in ourselves and others? Do we consider it an important life goal? Do we encourage our children to be wise rather than just smart or fast or tough or rich? Do we elect wise leaders? Do we try to develop our own wisdom as we move through life, striving to be better role models? Do we celebrate the virtues of honesty, integrity, compassion, courage, humility, generosity? All of the world’s major religions would ask us to do just that.
Sally Planalp and George Cheney are residents of Cortez, Colorado, former residents of Moab, and are professors emeriti in communication at the University of Colorado. The views expressed here do not represent the university or any other institution. A longer version of this piece appears in the January issue of the Four Corners Free Press.