The Euro crisis and the climate crisis highlight a key and potentially fatal shortcoming in our abilities as a species: we find it very hard to cooperate – even if we are collectively with our backs to the wall. It seems like we cannot have compassion with and trust in people we cannot touch and feel or at least imagine. Our social skills and concerns evaporate rapidly at even a short distance of ourselves. In that sense, in spite of global trade, communication and mobility we are still cavemen. Can we emotionally globalize fast enough to deal with the existential challenges we face?
The Euro crisis is a crisis of confidence. We, and financial markets, somehow and quite suddenly stopped believing that the Eurozone will continue on its path of limited but stable growth. We stopped believing that the specific governance and economic problems of individual countries can be securely contained by the sheer weight of the union and its institutions. Without confidence, there is shockingly little that is left. Countries and people, in trying to save their skins, are tempted to race to the chaotic bottom each by protecting own interests. A wonderful edifice of cooperation is threatening to unravel.
At the same time, in preparing for the Paris COP, global leaders are painstakingly trying to create some measure of international cooperation in order to avert a crisis that vastly exceeds even the Euro crisis in its potential fallout: climate change. So far, they are not doing so well. If there is a tendency, then it is this: We are moving from an inadequate international agreement (the Kyoto Protocol) to inadequate voluntary commitments. At the same time, annual emissions keep rising, while the adverse effects of climate change already impact millions of lives – mostly in the poorest countries.
There is a trust deficit. We fail to trust one another enough to be able to act in our common interest. Therefore, we hedge our bets and protect our narrow interests. Maybe there is also an empathy deficit: we do not want to create a common good, even if it is good for ourselves if someone else gets more of it than we do. Equal misery is preferred to unequal improvement.
These may have always been human flaws. The difference is that we have reached a level of global population, environmental degradation, resource scarcity and emissions concentration that can turn this human flaw into our last mistake. It seems like we need to be shocked into cooperation. The European Union was born out of the devastation of the Second World War. The fragile Cold War equilibrium of “mutually assured destruction” – with the telling acronym MAD – came into being after the Cuban Missile Crisis. I can see how we could survive a crash of the Euro that may than (again) spurn people and governments into action. I am more skeptical about our chances to recover from a wrecked climate.
Are we capable of a paradigm shift towards more cooperation and a long-term, intelligent, shared perspective on our interests? We already manage to that in our families, perhaps in our neighbourhoods, sometimes in our countries where we feel the human bonds. We trust people around us because they are not anonymous. That needs to grow to encompass other peoples. Social media helps in achieving that, as does our increasingly obvious and inescapably global interdependency (e.g. the refugee crisis).