Almost daily we hear statements about generational differences as if “generations” actually exist as facts, social and behavioral reality. They do not, because people are born every day. Individuals are facts and generations are abstract concepts created by someone else—for their own beneficial purpose—to arbitrarily bind many individuals together. This is similar to a relationship between forests (concept) and trees (facts). Everyone can see where trees grow. Yet, most of us could not agree on where to demarcate the boundaries of a forest. Trees do not care if they are part of a forest, but a forest service that delineates the boundaries of a forest does.
And when a forest service conducts a controlled burning of a forest—like in a devastating forest fire that nearly destroyed Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 2000—it is that the individual trees are destroyed for sake of re-growing a forest. Thus, a third party’s decision to make life better for a group almost always ends up costing an individual. That, in essence, encapsulates why geography of the contemporary world’s conflicts frequently revolves around a familiar issue: someone from the outside makes blanket decisions for people to abide by within their own living environment, despite their unwillingness to do so.
Figure 1. Landscape of west Texas. Humans are like electricity transmission poles. Combined, they can work for a common benefit of power distribution, but each of them is self-governed, individually holding its own position among others. (All photographs by the author.)
This morning I reflected upon my book One World or Many?, thinking how much global conditions have changed over the almost decade since its publication [note that a decade, too, like generations is an arbitrarily temporal concept]. Below, I share a few excerpts from that book, adjusted and modified to fit the context of this post with added graphics and photographs.
In the context of this book, the most essential [conceptual] difference is that between an individual and the collective (group). No matter how culture progresses this polarization may never disappear. But we must remember that an individual is the foundation for the existence of any group. At the same time, an individual cannot solely change a group’s overall behavior. (Unless, of course, an individual is a military dictator who uses power to forcefully exercise his wishes to the suffering of other individuals.) History is full of examples in which individuals chosen to lead turned against what they were supposed to represent.
Cultural Barriers to One World
In an ideal world, cultural barriers would not exist. Yet they are everywhere. Political regulations prevent people from public speaking in many countries. Social restrictions legally limit the number of children per family in others. Elsewhere residents cannot own a private business or watch foreign television programs. Why should such barriers exist? As long as they do not harm others, people should have the freedom to determine how they live and what they do. No one needs to be prevented from seeking “the pursuit of happiness,” as America’s Founding Fathers recognized over two centuries ago and recorded in The Declaration of Independence. They were well aware that the pursuit of happiness is an essential aspect of every person’s life.
What we know as the “traditional moral values” represents a well-defined set of behaviors. The Ten Commandments, for example, is one way of expressing such traditions in a religious context. Each culture follows basic moral guidelines in a similar manner. Regardless of where people live, they know the difference between good and bad, support and harm, and works in daily life. In that context the different cultures should indeed form one world established on the basis of universal values.
The recipe certainly sounds simple, doesn’t it? Most complicated cultural problems are essentially simple to understand. Why, then, one might ask, are they so often difficult to resolve? How is it that despite the guiding lights of moral values, the pursuit of happiness is being frequently ignored? Why cannot everyone embrace an individual’s right to choose his or her own future? One of the problems is in the “collective solution” approach that works for the “common good.”
Figure 2. A view of a copper mine in Arizona. The process of utilization of the natural environment is frequently a topic of debate about values, rights, and cultural barriers. Unsurprisingly, throughout the planet, some of the most intensive areas of conflict are exactly in a domain of exploitation of resources and individuals who reside there, while the resources extracted are consumed elsewhere.
Common Good Scenario and Cultural Barriers
As globalization forces cultures to work together, other factors may actively work in the opposite way. Political leaders who favor isolation instead of openness are present everywhere. Their actions generate many barriers, beginning with free speech and elections. Free practice of one’s religion is a luxury that may be taken for granted in one country, but brutally suppressed in another. Many of the nations that experience such issues share a similar experience. They have an unelected government through which the ideas and decisions of a few rigidly restrict and otherwise impact the lives of many.
The purpose of such barriers is to keep the masses under political control and prevent individualization of society. How is this justified? It is done by their leaders telling the masses that they know what is best for them. One of the traditional values we all share is compassion for others. Therefore, the unelected (and occasionally elected) leaders create collective solutions for the common good of all people. One aspect of a collective solution is almost always present: barriers to foreign ideas and lifestyles. This alone forms perhaps the main reason why global connections do not operate the same way everywhere, despite the presence of universal moral values. The interpretation and modification of collective solutions for a specific purpose is what creates the problem.
Size Does Matter
Support for global integration is far from uniform. Critics, and there are many of them, argue that the “one world” concept is unrealistic. Regardless of how many unifying factors bring humanity closer, they argue, dividing factors will always prevail. Diversity is simply overwhelming. In terms of international affairs, integration into one-world government creates many unhappy parties. This is why the number of countries continues to increase, rather than decrease. People want to have more input into their own affairs on a local level. They feel, as the argument goes, that despite the common goals of humanity (peace, a clean environment, and so forth) it is the local issues that matter the most. The larger and more complex a state becomes, the more local issues lose value and importance.
Think in terms of your own community. What are the major issues where you live? Are they the same concerns held by your state (or province) or nation? Do residents of Boston feel compelled to pay taxes to help agriculture in rural Iowa? How about Iowans paying extra taxes to help fund tunnel and highway construction in Boston? How about Ghana or Thailand? As much as global connections affect our lives, they do so in an indirect and long-term way. Most people think about what is going to affect them only in the short term. In the middle of a blizzard, no one is concerned over whether there will be enough road salt next year. Commuters want their roads clean now. How much does saving the tropical rain forest affect the daily life of western Europeans? Perhaps much less than the inability to provide natural gas and heat their homes in the midst of a harsh winter.
Figure 3. Afghan girls preparing for a school event. Issues that directly pertain to their long-term livelihood, ability to make decisions in life, are created by those who “know” what works the best for all of them in all of Afghanistan’s regions at the same time.
Universal solutions cannot be applied to a one world concept. Enormous political diversity and a wide range of priorities create a complex system. A single global government can neither understand nor fulfill the needs of everyone. Small countries already have little influence in global affairs. There is no guarantee their problems would ever gain any significance under the umbrella of a single international government. In the past half-century, many if not most heated conflicts were the result of peoples’ desire to be self-governing. Conflicts labeled ethnic or religious have a common denominator: people want to be self-governing and manage their own affairs. Supporters of the many worlds concept foresee up to 300 countries in the not too distant future (there about 200 countries today). More and more groups, they believe, will attempt separation and seek independence.
Back to the Future
Late geographer, Erhard Rostlund, once noted that “The present is the fruit of the past and contains the seeds of the future.” He died in the 1960s, a time in history remembered for domestic and international conflicts almost identical to those ongoing today, between the proponents of one world versus many. I can only imagine that in this regard the “generational changes,” term does not actually exist. But it is necessary for it to “exist” to foster an agenda of a one world universal solution. It is the individuals who change and then, as a “generation,” (collective) are conditioned to think like their forebears. How else can one explain the continuous repeating of mistakes and reappearance of conflicts that should have been avoided at all cost?