Only the ethic and practice of sharing can provide the necessary values-based policy framework for planetary rehabilitation – one that compels us to think in global terms, prioritise the needs of the poorest, and recognise that we only have one planet’s worth of resources that must be fairly shared by all people.
An edited version of this article first appeared in Tikkun Magazine, the interfaith (and secular-humanist) voice of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. You can subscribe to Tikkun at www.tikkun.org and join the Network of Spiritual Progressives by visiting www.spiritualprogressives.org.
Whether catalysed by Pope Francis’ relentless critique of the global market economy, or the wakeup call presented in Naomi Klein’s urgent polemic This Changes Everything, or else the activists calling for ‘system change’ worldwide, there is a growing realisation that Sustainable Development Goals and non-binding CO2 emission targets simply won’t go far enough. Many millions of people now recognise that without reforming the policies that are responsible for widening inequalities and encouraging environmentally destructive patterns of consumerism in the first place, our response to socio-economic and ecological crises will remain inadequate and fail to create the “more beautiful world our hearts know is possible”.
Although periodic negotiations facilitated by the United Nations offer governments a vital opportunity to overcome national self-interest, prioritize the needs of the disadvantaged, and curb environmental damage, these conferences take place within a wider political and economic framework that is structurally incapable of delivering global social justice or sound environmental stewardship. As such, the policies and institutions that drive our economic systems do not embody a basic spiritual understanding of the meaning and purpose of human life, which can be simply interpreted as our collective obligation to serve the common good of all humanity and protect the natural world.
To be sure, an outdated assumption that human beings are inherently selfish, competitive and acquisitive has long defined the politics of domination and control, and still underpins how society is organised and the way the global economy functions. There can be little doubt that the ongoing obsession with prioritising national interests and safeguarding corporate profits at all costs has failed to benefit the world’s poor and led to catastrophic consequences for the environment. As the economist David Woodward recently calculated, it would take 100 years to eradicate $1.25-a-day poverty if governments relied on global economic growth alone – and twice as long if we use a more realistic $5-a-day poverty line. Meanwhile, humanity as a whole has been in ‘ecological overshoot’ since the 1970s, and most people in rich industrialised countries currently have lifestyles that would require between three and five planets worth of resources to sustain if it was the norm across the world.
In recent years it has become painfully clear that aggressive competition between nations, the lobbying power of multinational corporations and the financial interests of an ultra-wealthy elite severely impede the possibility of effective international cooperation. In 2012, the director of Greenpeace condemned the much anticipated Rio+20 Earth Summit as “a failure of epic proportions” and lamented that its outcome document was “the longest suicide note in history”. There has been little improvement since then: after a series of ineffective UN climate change conferences over recent years, governments are widely expected to fail in their objective of keeping global warming below the already dangerous two degrees centigrade threshold. There is also a sizable gulf between the ambition and political feasibility of meeting the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly since it is not clear how governments will bridge the $2.5tn a year financing gap.
The path ahead: sharing and cooperation
Transforming the paradigm within which nations attempt to resolve the many pressing crises we face will require moving beyond the aggressive, competitive ways of the past and embracing solutions that meet the common needs of people in all nations. In accordance with Ghandi’s popular maxim that you should ‘be the change you wish to see in the world’, it stands to reason that this process of reforming the global economy should begin in our hearts and minds with a profound realisation that ‘humanity is one’ – in other words, that all people are part of an extended human family that share the same basic needs and rights. This simple spiritual insight must be translated into a heightened empathy for those who suffer needlessly in a world of plenty, as well as a sense of indignation towards the injustice of the world situation and a demand for change. If these reactions are put to constructive use, they can empower us to articulate a new ethos for public policy rooted in an appreciation of ‘right relationship’ as it applies to how we serve our fellow citizens across the globe and protect Mother Earth for the benefit of future generations.
This is the approach we have taken at Share The World’s Resources (STWR), where we place great emphasis on the fundamental role that the principle of sharing can play in addressing interconnected global crises. As the organisation’s founder Mohammed Meshabi explains, the new institutions and laws that are needed to heal our divided world must stem from an engagement of our hearts with the suffering of others, and a recognition of the all-encompassing spiritual, psychological, socio-economic and political significance of implementing the principle of sharing as a solution to humanity’s problems. To quote from Mesbahi’s essay ‘Uniting the people of the world’:
“Sharing is inherent in every person and integral to who we are as human beings, whereas the profit-oriented values of commerce are not a part of our innate spiritual nature. The individualistic pursuit of wealth and power results from our conditioning since childhood, nurtured through our wrong education and worshipping of success and achievement. But you cannot condition someone to cooperate and share, you can only remind them of who they are … True power is togetherness and sharing among millions of people, which is unifying, creative and healing on a worldwide scale … When all the nations come together and share the resources of the world, when humanity brings about balance in consciousness and in nature – that is power in the truest sense.”
These are views that the US-based Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP) no doubt broadly share, as they relate to the need for a new ‘bottom line’ to counteract the dysfunctional view of human nature that is perpetuated by the mainstream media and reflected in the culture of consumerism. As the NSP emphasise in their Spiritual Covenant, any international program for creating a more compassionate and sustainable world must reflect “the Unity of All Being and our commitment to care for each other as momentary embodiments of the God energy”. Hence with a spirit of repentance for decades of perpetuating global injustice and environmental degradation, our response to the world situation should be one that is based on deep humility and a strategy of ‘overflowing generosity’.
But at a time when the institutions and policies that underpin the modern world in no way reflect the inner connectedness of all life on Earth, how do we translate this spiritual vision into a political and socio-economic reality that is inherently humane and ecologically sound? It’s in response to this epochal challenge that the ethic and practice of sharing can provide the necessary values-based policy framework for planetary rehabilitation – one that compels us to think in global terms, prioritise the needs of the poorest, and recognise that we only have one planet’s worth of resources that must be fairly shared by all people. Simply put, a response to poverty and climate change based firmly on the principle of sharing would ensure that all people in every nation are able meet their basic needs without transgressing the Earth’s ecological boundaries.
Global priorities based on radical generosity
From these basic propositions of equality and sustainability, STWR have advocated a cooperative and just approach to sharing the world’s resources in our ‘Primer on global economic sharing’. As outlined in this publication, a broad coalition of civil society need to bring pressure to bear on governments to coordinate a global program of wholesale economic transformation under the aegis of a reformed and democratised United Nations. In response to a worldwide public consultation, nations would have to focus on both the immediate and long term measures needed for mitigating the interrelated poverty, environmental and security crises, which would require a dramatic shift in international relations on the basis of true cooperation and economic sharing. Such an aspiration to simultaneously address multiple global issues may seem far-fetched or radical in the existing political context, but it broadly echoes a proposal put forward more than 30 years ago by the Report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues. Even though the ground-breaking recommendations set out in the ‘Brandt Report’ were never translated into the necessary inter-governmental policy measures, it was extremely influential in promoting the need for North-South cooperation in an era of fast expanding global interdependence.
Drawing on the Commission’s recommendations, STWR propose that the first pillar of a transformative global agenda should include an international program of emergency relief to prevent life-threatening deprivation and avoidable poverty-related deaths – regardless of where they occur in the world. Such a program needs to be agreed and implemented in the shortest possible timeframe, and will require an unprecedented mobilisation of international agencies, resources and expertise over and above existing emergency aid budgets and humanitarian programs. However, an emergency relief program can only be an initial stage in a broader transformative agenda, in which governments must also agree to a comprehensive plan for restructuring and cooperatively managing the global economy in the interests of all nations. Among the many reforms that should be considered during these negotiations, particular attention should be placed on building an effective ‘sharing society’ within each nation that provides social protection for all; establishing a just and sustainable global food system based on low-impact, ecological systems of farming; and instituting a cooperative international framework for sharing the global commons more equitably and within planetary limits.
There are some obvious parallels between these proposals and the NSP’s inspiring Global Marshall Plan (GMP) initiative – particularly in relation to the GMP’s call for systemic reforms that are based on core spiritual values that must drive social and economic policy in the 21st century. In many ways, the principle of sharing underlines any ‘strategy of generosity and care’ in which the advanced industrial countries of the world use their resources to guarantee that everyone has access to the basic necessities of life, including a quality public education and essential healthcare, while at the same time unprecedented action is taken to repair the environment. Furthermore, an international policy framework based on generosity, solidarity and genuine economic sharing is likely to be the most effective way to address the national security concerns of governments – especially at a time when humanity’s failure to share is continuing to escalate interstate conflicts over land, fossil fuel reserves and other resources.
Perhaps most importantly, both STWR’s vision of an international emergency relief program and the NSP’s Global Marshall Plan share a central focus on completely eliminating poverty and hunger as a foremost global priority, and both place responsibility on rich countries to show leadership in mobilising the full range of resources needed to address this longstanding crisis – from finances and military personal to the active engagement of the world’s citizens through an International Peace and Generosity Corps, as the NSP propose. There cannot be a more urgent international imperative than a coordinated program that seeks to end inhumane levels of deprivation in a world of plenty, especially when more than 800 million people are still classified as hungry (an official figure that may be considerably underestimated). For every single day that nations fail to end this atrocity, around 40,000 people die needlessly from a lack of access to the basic nutrition, clean water and essential healthcare that so many of us take for granted.
Campaigning for ‘what is necessary’
We are often asked whether STWR’s proposals for international sharing constitute a realistic demand from civil society, given that economic policy in most countries is increasingly based on neoliberal ideals that favour privatisation, deregulation and the expansion of market forces within a competitive international framework – one that clearly undermines meaningful cooperation between nations. It is of course true that progressive calls for social and environmental justice will remain politically unfeasible as long as real power continues to be taken away from ordinary citizens and concentrated in state institutions, unaccountable corporations and a minority of high-net-worth individuals. However, it is surely far more unrealistic to think that we can continue on the current trajectory while millions suffer needlessly in abject poverty and ecosystems endure the devastating impacts of unbridled consumerism. From the most realistic and pragmatic perspective, ending poverty in all its forms through sharing the world’s resources is now a moral, economic and geopolitical imperative that governments can no longer afford to ignore, and it must be rapidly achieved at all costs.
To some extent, the very question of political feasibility fails to recognise how many progressive organisations and activists already propose economic alternatives or practise sustainable, democratic solutions for how to organise society and manage the commons. This often requires challenging the status quo and proposing a new vision of society that will necessarily seem radical or unrealistic when compared with the prevailing orthodoxy. For many civil society groups like STWR and the NSP, it’s clear that the only sensible response to the world situation is to focus on what is now absolutely necessary and not what is merely possible to achieve within the current political framework. This determined approach proved to be effective for both the civil rights and environmental movements in the past, and is still in tune with the demands of millions of campaigners that remain focussed on seemingly unrealistic goals in the face of widespread opposition and public apathy.
Similarly, any concern that proposals for global economic sharing are unaffordable is a red herring. After all, these same financial concerns are quickly set aside by politicians when plans are being made to bailout private sector banks or finance military interventions. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, governments spent $14.3 trillion on their military budgets and the economic impacts of violence and war in 2014 – which is more than 13% of global GDP. In comparison, the 3-5% of world GDP that the NSP estimate is required to end poverty and improve international security is an extremely cost-effective investment, especially since it would reduce the costs associated with regional and international conflicts. Indeed, according to some calculations ending income poverty for the 21 percent of the global population who live on less than $1.25 a day would require as little as 0.2 percent of global income.
As STWR detailed in our report ‘Financing the global sharing economy’, governments have the means to mobilise staggering amounts of additional finance for urgent humanitarian purposes. The report demonstrated that by implementing a range of policy options that already have much support among progressives (such as redirecting a proportion of military spending, taxing financial speculation and ending fossil fuel subsidies) governments could redistribute more than $2.8tn a year to prevent life-threatening deprivation, reverse austerity measures and mitigate the human impacts of climate change. Moreover, the institutional structures, capacity and expertise needed to utilise these additional resources for essential human needs is already in place – all that lacks is a sufficient level of public support to overcome the political barriers to implementing such an emergency program of international redistribution.
Sharing as a common cause that unites us all
There is no denying that these fundamental changes to the international economic order can only become a reality if sufficient numbers of people support this pressing cause. That’s why values-based civil society proposals that embody the principles of generosity and sharing are so crucial at this time: they allow people to be inspired by a vision of the world that resonates deeply with an inner sense of justice and goodwill towards all people. Only through this heartfelt response to the world situation, anchored in a spiritual perception of what it really means to be human, can the possibility of a dramatic shift in global public opinion become an observable reality.
Given the current business–as-usual approach to policymaking, it is likely that the demand for sane economic alternatives will continue to mount until the crises of inequality and environmental breakdown reach a dangerous climax in the years ahead. If in response to these spiralling crises the US government were to put its full weight behind a Global Marshall Plan, civil society organisations operating across Europe (including STWR) would be in a much stronger position to build public support for a similar program to share essential resources across the world. A truly global campaign of this nature would require a fusion of progressive causes and a consensus among a critical mass of the world population about the necessary direction for transformative change. A key task for progressives is therefore to work together in order to mobilise a movement of supporters and build a momentum for change that could one day help create such a tipping point.
In STWR’s most recent report ‘Sharing as our common cause’, we outline how a worldwide movement of movements is already on the rise, driven by an awareness that the crises we face are fundamentally caused by an outmoded economic system in need of wholesale reform. Never before has there been such a widespread and sustained mobilisation of citizens in countries across the world around actions that challenge leaders and influence progressive social change. A renewed sense of idealism and hope is emerging everywhere for a new society to be built from within the existing one, and for a radical transformation in our values, imaginations, lifestyles and social relations, as well as in our political and economic structures.
It’s for these reasons that STWR recently launched the ‘Global call for sharing’ campaign, in order to promote the role that a demand for sharing can play in uniting citizens and progressive organisations across the world in a common cause. As stated in the campaign report, the principle of sharing is already central to diverse calls for social justice, environmental stewardship, global peace and true democracy. Whether expressed in implicit or explicit terms, all of these urgent demands relate to the need for a fairer sharing of wealth, power or resources throughout our societies – from the community level up to the international. Everyone understands the human value of sharing, and by upholding this universal principle in a political context we can point the way towards an entirely new approach to economics – one that is based on overflowing generosity, deep humility, and the spiritual recognition that all life on Earth is an integral part of an interdependent whole.
Rabbi Michael Lerner and the Network of Spiritual Progressives were early signatories to our online campaign statement, thereby affirming “the fundamental importance of strengthening and scaling up all genuine forms of sharing in our divided world”. Moreover, their ongoing work is an important example of how individuals and organisations can help spark public awareness and a wider debate on the importance of sharing in economic and political terms. We look forward to continued cooperation and mutual support with the worldwide community of Spiritual Progressives, and as our campaign continues to gain momentum we would like to invite readers of Tikkun Magazine and supporters of the NSP to also endorse the global call for sharing campaign statement by visiting www.sharing.org/global-call.
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