Lost decade

I was recently reminded of a message (below) I posted January 18, 2000 on my website, PlanetPath.com.

Since then, humanity has continued killing one another and failing to address global warming. We’ve likely already have passed “the tipping point” beyond which it is impossible — no matter how aggressively we conserve energy and find alternative energy sources — to prevent substantial warming, catastrophic mass species extinction, and incredible disruption and loss of human life.

Most depressingly, since I posted my message, America has been part of the problem, not the solution. When I wrote “We distrust… and hate, torture and kill… those from outside our group,” I never imagined America’s president would declare “a crusade” and start torturing people.

A decade ago, I envisioned the Internet as a tool for connecting people with one another and discovering how much we have in common and the wonder of our cultural, musical, artistic and linguistic diversity.

Although the Internet enables such connections and cross-national experiences, our self-centric use of the Internet has not encouraged us to learn about those different from ourselves. The Internet offers so much news and information on topics of every kind that we can easily spend all our time reading about the ten or twenty things that most interest us, ignoring everything else. Information is now so plentiful that we can (and do) target our Web surfing narrowly, leaving us even less informed about the rest of the world than we were when we relied on ink-on-paper newspapers.

What I envisioned a decade ago was an audio-visual National Geographic. But competition for people’s attention is now so strong that such a website — no matter how well conceived and executed — would likely remain a niche website, never achieving my ultimate dream of helping humanity perceive our shared humanity and shared future that demands mutual sacrifices to keep our planet habitable.

PlanetPath Goals

I recently began PlanetPath as my hobby. By day, I work as an economist building the business intelligence consulting service at Perfect.com. In my spare time, I collect links to news, music, photos, etc. from around the world. I hope more people will share my excitement about the rich diversity of life on this planet and my concern that we are rapidly destroying our oceans (through drift net trawling and greenhouse-induced global warming) and forests (because we clear so much land to graze cattle and to grow crops to feed the cattle).

Every human being on Earth is 99.9% genetically identical. Our nearest biological cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, are only 98.5% identical to us. Despite humanity’s genetic homogeneity (which leads us to think, act and feel very much like one another), we humans divide ourselves along blurry cultural, linguistic and racial lines. We distrust… and hate, torture and kill… those from outside our group. Ironically, the very fact that humans worldwide fear outsiders and foreigners proves how similar we are.

PlanetPath is dedicated to encouraging everyone to feel part of a global community, learn what makes other countries and cultures special, and feel personally responsibile for protecting our planet.

All humans love music, art, gossip and dance. We appreciate good food, and we love chasing after goals, especially noble causes. [Even war itself is generally considered a noble cause… by both sides. Human nature leads us to selectively remember the good things we have done and the bad things others have done to us. Selective memory causes both sides to feel abused… which often leads to war.]

What sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is our incredible ability to think and communicate using symbols and abstract reasoning. This enables us to invent new technology and pass on our knowledge to future generations. But the speed of technological growth is creating new environmental and military dangers faster than our social institutions and cultural/historical thinking can adapt. Cultures and countries still regularly misunderstand one another and fail to reap the benefits of cooperation.

Fortunately, our track record of inventiveness offers hope. By learning about and communicating with other cultures and countries, we become better “global citizens.” If every person on Earth adopts a more forgiving, charitable, thoughtful attitude, we could collectively solve any problem. PlanetPath hopes to stimulate such a planetary dialogue.

James Lavin

January 18, 2000

Read this full blog entry for another January 2000 essay, “The PlanetPath Philosophy.”

The PlanetPath Philosophy

PlanetPath connects you to the most entertaining and informative information about every nation on Earth.

Instant access to local news in English lets you view national and international events through the eyes of locals.

And one-click downloading of photos, music, video, art, language materials… even food delivery… lets you experience foreign countries with all your senses rather than just read about them.

Newspapers and TV tell you what happened in politics yesterday, but they are lousy at giving you historical and cultural context.

Countries are collections of individuals. PlanetPath tries to redress media’s overemphasis on politics by spotlighting common people and everyday life.

Teenagers listen to more cross-cultural music than anyone else. Since music cuts across cultural boundaries and uplifts people, teens are more culturally aware and accepting than their parents.

PlanetPath wants to spread music around the globe to strengthen cultural awareness and tolerance much as the Olympics reminds us that we are all global citizens.

PlanetPath also highlights positive, uplifting news about people working to make our world a better place to live.

Each small success provides hope that we can improve our lives and our planet.

And each small success story contains valuable ideas usable elsewhere.

Many good things happen every day. Whenever families and friends get together to talk and play, people are happy. And many people practice “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty.”

But the news is full of sad events… wars, natural disasters, starvation, ethnic cleansing, economies constrained by corruption. And we must manage dangers created in the 20th Century by human technology and our exploding population (e.g., nuclear weapons, pollution and environmental destruction).

The sad news can overwhelm thoughtful people. But the magnitude of the challenge is no excuse for not trying.

PlanetPath believes that we will solve our common problems if we understand, tolerate, embrace, celebrate, and learn from our differences. We have witnessed this multicultural spirit in Silicon Valley, so we know it can spread around the world.

But the recurrence of war throughout human history proves that human societies are naturally distrustful of and intolerant toward outsiders (a trait we share with our close genetic relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas).

Cooperation toward mutually beneficial outcomes requires seriousness of purpose and the courage to override our inherent feelings of distrust and selfishness.

The media often presents world affairs as a battle between good and bad countries. PlanetPath fights stereotyping of countries based on their governments. Governments in many nations may be tyrannical, rapacious, and corrupt, but the people in any nation contain a mix of good and bad.

At PlanetPath.com, you will meet people from every nation. You will discover that we share strikingly similar needs, desires and fears, regardless of nationality. We’re all striving to lead healthy, happy lives and feed and clothe our children. You will discover that people everywhere enjoy music and dance.

As you enjoy learning about various cultures and religions, you will grow to appreciate how similar humans are beyond our obvious superficial differences.

PlanetPath’s most ambitious goal is to help people understand other societies from the perspective of natives. Too often societies have sought to impose their own views and values on other societies out of a naive zeal that their ideas and cultural values were superior. Religious wars, colonialism and Nazism are three examples.

Only if we understand how others view their society are we in a position to push our own values as superior.

But morality is not completely relative. Certain “human rights” seem universal. What can justify rape? What legitimizes torturing political prisoners or children? But reasonable people can disagree about the set of “human rights” and their relative importance.

Many Westerners believe government should play no role in reproduction decisions. But spending just minutes in a Chinese city would convince many that China must limit population growth. Had China not adopted a two-child policy decades ago, everyone in China would be poorer today because there would be millions more mouths to feed.

Many Westerners advocate democracy, believing that it spurs economic growth. Instead, scholars have found, the correlation between democracy and wealth arises because the creation of a middle class kindles a hunger for democracy. In fact, totalitarian political regimes which provide economic freedoms seem to do quite well in the early stages of economic development.

Nations will not and cannot become perfect copies of America overnight. It took even America more than 200 years to become America. Originally, all “men” were created equal, which of course meant only white men. Americans held slaves till 1865. America didn’t give women the right to vote till 1920. We didn’t outlaw poll taxes preventing Blacks from voting till 1964, and we racially segregated as a matter of policy into the 1970s.

We must be patient with others. Complete enforcement of “human rights” as perceived by many Americans is often impossible in poor nations. For example, due to China’s painful history of political weakness/fragmentation and foreign domination, many Chinese value political stability above the right of dissidents to protest. Chinese dissidents are more popular abroad than in China.

Of course, Chinese would love democracy and economic freedom. But they do not perceive that as a realistic option. So, many Chinese are willing to let the Communist Party dominate as long as it practices communism in name only and safeguards individual economic interests and freedoms.

As much of Africa demonstrates, unstable governments usually have weak economies because potential investors run from risk. Chinese prefer their stable economy and government to the chaotically unstable economies and governments of Russia and Eastern Europe.

Different nations emphasize different aspects of “human rights” based on their histories, cultures, values, and political-economic situation. A rich nation like the U.S. can afford to pursue all dimensions of human rights. Nevertheless, we are criticized for tolerating poverty, guns, and a completely unfair educational system.

Poor nation governments undoubtedly rationalize political oppression because it suits their interests, but political stability is a key determinant of economic investment and growth. In Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs,” shelter, clothing and food come before self-expression. Of course, both are desirable, but rich nations should not expect poor nations to transform overnight. Comparison of Eastern Europe with China suggests that gradual, thoughtful change yields better outcomes than rapid, lurching change because institutions and people require time to adjust and adapt.

Posted by James on Monday, May 25, 2009