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A Storm of Historic Proportions

Is the world currently enjoying its last moments of relative peace before a major catastrophe will occur?

July 9, 2004

Is the world currently enjoying its last moments of relative peace before a major catastrophe will occur?

We remember storms, but we rarely remember what it was like just before the storm.

Today, however, after a period of enormous accumulation of wealth, power and technology in the North — and during the decline of one international order and the search for a new one — we are, I believe, living in the time before a storm of historic proportions.

This will be a period of great difficulty for the peoples of the world and the planet itself.

Two plays from the beginning of the last century — The Cherry Orchard, by Anton Chekhov and Heartbreak House, by George Bernard Shaw — portray a similarly uneasy, hauntingly disturbed era.

I am drawn to these plays, set in the period just before World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, because they capture a mood present again today: a foreboding that deep forces we can barely discern, let alone direct, are reshaping the world we know.

Against this unsettling, often reluctant recognition, we are at once appalled and diverted — as we were at the beginning of the 20th century — by great wealth, intense artistic exploration, technological breakthroughs, narcissism and a feeling of helplessness in the public arena.

In common with the generations alive in that pre–World War I period, we see a fading calm marked by glowering storm clouds on the horizon.

We feel the psychological impossibility of living every minute with one's consciousness acutely tuned to impending danger.

At the same time, we feel an attachment to the very last beats and chords of the comfortable, known rhythms of a way of life now substantially undermined.

When will the shifts along the fault lines occur? We cannot know. We sense, fleetingly, that a new world landscape is emerging.

But we know only the territories we have navigated before — we know how to dance only to the melodies we have already learned.

There are moments in history when American philanthropy has been farsighted, entrepreneurial, daring and powerfully attuned to the critical issues of a coming challenge.

And there have been moments when American philanthropy has seemed trapped in a curious mix of defensiveness and caution.

Perhaps consistent effectiveness and relevance are incompatible with the very nature of philanthropy, which must be speculative and venturesome.

Very few U.S. foundations have agendas that address frontally the newly global dynamics of our present situation. And yet, within those dynamics lie the very challenges that will affect the future of both the United States and the world profoundly — perhaps definitively.

Philanthropy is generally harnessed to one of two great purposes: conservation of something of value — such as a forest or a collection of works of art — or constructive change in some human condition, behavior or system.

The philanthropy of conservation will always have value, but an individual philanthropic enterprise aimed at conservation may turn out to be quixotic or counter-productive. This will be the case if the basic dynamics of social activity have changed — and the advocates of conservation have mustered neither the wit nor the means to change with them.

For example, it will accomplish nothing to "preserve" a forest — if at the same time nothing is done to stabilize the world's population and afford every family and child living near that forest a workable, fair stake in their own economic future.

The act of housing and conserving a great work of art will have only temporary meaning unless the society that values and enjoys that art also pursues fairness, opportunity and sustainability. It also requires commitment to these values compelling enough to disarm those whose indifference or hostility might otherwise undo it.

Therefore, I believe it is the second purpose of philanthropy — constructive change in some human condition, behavior or system as it applies to the new global threats — that is the most important challenge of this generation.

And because of the distinctive characteristics of our age, this work may properly be called the philanthropy of human survival.

The human community faces two looming ultimatums. To address them should constitute an important agenda for philanthropy over the next two decades. "Ultimatum" is, of course, a strong and threatening word.

But I believe it's an appropriate term to describe the threats we face now, because for the first time in our history these threats are global in scope — capable of changing the outcomes of the whole human adventure on this planet.

The first ultimatum before us is the threat of weapons of mass destruction.

This threat presents itself today in two forms: catastrophic terrorism carried out by stateless actors and the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by one state against another.

In these forms — and in others that may later arise — this threat is permanent.

As long as there survives on this planet a substantial community of humans who tinker with technology, who explore, exploit and engineer in the realm of science, then the capacity for inventing and employing instruments of mass destruction will be present as well.

The second ultimatum is the progressive destabilization of the global environment.

This danger may seem less acute than the first, but it is relentlessly cumulative in the sense that — like tooth decay — the longer it builds, the more difficult and expensive it becomes to reverse.

As we have come to understand that environmental degradation is inherent in the particular developmental path that human economic activity on this planet has taken over the last few hundred years, we have come to realize that this model of headlong exploitation of natural resources is no longer workable.

The earth is our host and we are its guests — and we are on the verge of destroying the only habitat in which we can live.

For the human community to survive in anything like the condition to which we aspire, these two ultimatums must be addressed successfully.

And there is a third dimension of the current global situation that presents a moral and pragmatic imperative for action: the large and growing disparity in wealth and circumstance between the richest and poorest among us.

To understand how these issues connect — and to develop an approach to all three that can command a high degree of allegiance around the globe — is the biggest challenge we have faced during our existence as a species.