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The new global civilization is rooted primarily in materialism (29 October 2006)

 

The new global civilization is one rooted primarily in materialism and in the commercialization of more and more aspects of human activity.


Remarks by Maurice F. Strong at Beijing Forum Discussion on “The Harmony of Civilization and Prosperity for All – Reflections on the Civilization Modes of Human Kind” on 29 October, 2006

"I am pleased to have the privilege of addressing this distinguished Forum from which I have so much to learn. The views I will present are those of a practitioner – not a scholar.

As human beings emerged, first it is believed in Africa, as the dominant species on Earth and migrated to all the other habitable continents, their evolution took a diversity of pathways.  The process of diversification responded to differing physical conditions under which people lived and the beliefs and value system which each developed, often with little influence from or contact with other groups of humans.  The benign climate of the tropics and the abundance of food available produced an environment and conditions of life that were less rigorous and challenging than those affecting the peoples of the temperate and Arctic regions.  They also prescribed the economy through which they sought to meet their needs, initially and still for many on the most basic survival level.

The common denominator in each of these earliest civilizations was that their peoples lived in direct and immediate contact with nature and their lives and beliefs were shaped by this. In the I Ching classic, the primitive condition of human society was described as: “In the beginning there was as yet no moral nor social order. Men knew their mothers only, not their fathers. When hungry, they searched for food; when satisfied, they threw away the remnants. They devoured their food,hide and hair, drank the blood, and clad themselves in skins and rushes. Then came Fu Xi and looked upward and contemplated the images in the heavens, and looked downward and contemplated the occurrences on earth. He united man and wife, regulated the five stages of change, and laid down the laws of humanity.”

Having lived both in Africa and in Canada’s Arctic, I have seen and experienced how the very different environments of these two regions have affected the modes of life and development of their economies, as well as their value and belief systems.

The Inuit people of the Arctic, originating in Asia, have lived a life of migration within their region, following the migratory paths of the caribou and other animals on which their lives depended, at the same time being very communal and caring in their relationships with each other.  Though their numbers were small, they were truly a distinctive civilization.  This changed radically when Europeans established their presence in and control of their traditional land.  Introduction of the fur trade gave the Inuit access to incomes, which made them more prosperous, though at the same time increasingly dependent on goods and gadgets that money enabled them to buy.  It has, I am sad to say, transformed them from a resourceful, self-reliant society to one that is now dependent on conditions over which they have little control.



Slave trade

 

The civilizations of Africa, far more numerous and diverse, in the equatorial regions which I know best,  the slave trade brought prosperity to some, while giving rise to practices and conflicts which constitute one of the most sordid chapters of human history.  The slave trade not only disrupted African civilizations; it gave rise to a new Afro –American civilization in which former slaves continue to live in a state of tension with the other peoples of the Americas.

The past century has been the most violent in human history, creating death suffering on an unprecedented scale – most of it to civilians. Indeed if your species survive this millennium our era may be seen as the age of sophisticated savagery.

Growth in the human population and the even greater growth in the scale and intensity of human demands on the Earth’s resource and life – support system have now reached proportions which threaten the entire human future.

Of all the differences that have developed as civilizations have evolved on their separate pathways, the deepest and most pervasive is that of religion.  This is particularly true and relevant today as religions become a primary source of the conflicts between today’s civilizations.  Long established religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are experiencing strong resurgence.  People seek refuge in them from the disrupting and threatening influences of modernization, even as many of them seek to enjoy its material benefits.  More recent religions, which have developed in the past two millennia, primarily Christianity and Islam, have become vigorously competitive sources of differentiation and conflict.  In this age of sophisticated weaponry and grassroots terrorism, these conflicts have reached ominous levels, which threaten global peace and security.  The difficulties in achieving peaceful resolution of the conflicts amongst people that are deeply rooted in their religious and ideological beliefs are evidenced by the long-standing difficulties of securing a peaceful reconciliation between Roman Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, in the conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq, and more generally, in the Middle East region.  And the most intractable conflict in that region is between Jewish Israel and Muslim Palestinian.

These conflicts cannot be resolved quickly or easily. They must be contained before they can be healed as the healing process takes time, tolerance and education.



Conflicts over resources

 

However deeply rooted in their religious differences, such conflicts have a significant and sometimes largely economic dimension.  Land is a crucial factor in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, as is access to water and other critical resources.  In Iraq and that region, oil and gas, which are the source of their unprecedented prosperity, are relentlessly sought by an energy-hungry world which depends on them.  This is undoubtedly the biggest single example of how competition and the drive of nations to achieve greater prosperity can give rise to conflicts over resources that are essential to the continued growth of the global economy.  Oil and gas is not the only example of the competition over scarce resources which is creating risks of new conflicts that will affect world peace and security and impede the efforts of people and nations to achieve the levels of prosperity to which they aspire.  War and conflicts produce profits for some, but for most they exact a heavy cost in both economic and human terms, frustrating their prospects for a better life.

We see in all of today’s existing conflicts and the potential for new conflicts which is arising, the need for the harmony of civilizations to which this session is devoted.

Globalization and particularly the revolution in information technology and communications have enabled the diversity of civilizations to interact more closely with each other.  This has given us a much greater capacity to know and understand other civilizations; At the same time it deepens their drive to maintain and assert their own distinctive belief systems and modes of life in response to their fears and apprehensions that the emergence of a global civilization threatens to dilute or submerge their traditional systems.

The new global civilization is one rooted primarily in materialism and in the commercialization of more and more aspects of human activity.  It’s symbols are international hotel chains, conferences, McDonalds, KFC, WalMart, and many other brands with which people and consumers identify wherever they may live.  The common appetite for the material goods and services which globalization makes available is not accompanied by a common ideology or culture.  There is a growing dichotomy for those who cherish and want to maintain there traditional belief systems and ways of life, while seeking and participating in the material benefits of globalization.  This dichotomy is particularly acute for the majority of the world’s population which continues to cherish their traditional civilizations, while being increasingly drawn into the global civilization.  Westerners are far more comfortable in the new global civilization because it is largely an extension of their own.

These dichotomies have ominous potential for inciting a clash of civilizations that Huntington envisaged and makes the need for achieving harmony between them and the emerging global civilization.  This harmony will not be achieved by a homogenization of beliefs and values, but rather by a greater appreciation and understanding of and respect for the qualities, beliefs, and values of others.  Education is the key and universities its main custodians.  One of the very positive aspects of globalization is that it facilitates the processes of education and interaction that make this possible.  All civilizations share a common interest in ensuring peace and security, and maintaining the integrity and sustainability of the environment, natural resources, and life support systems on which all of the world’s people depend for their survival and prosperity. 

Climate change is now recognized, belatedly and by some reluctantly, as one of the most ominous and threatening challenges facing the world community. Indeed it could give rise to the demise of life on Earth as we know it. This would be a tragedy of cosmic proportions. Although our Earth is but a minute speck in the universe it is the only place we know that is hospitable to a human form of life. Even our Earth has only experienced the conditions necessary to life for a minute portion of its history and we are now impinging on these conditions.

Our common interest in the fact of the Earth requires a degree of international cooperation that must transcend the differences which divide us.  They need not dilute; indeed can reinforce the distinctiveness and qualities of our traditional civilizations.

One of the most promising means of articulating these common interests and values with which I have the privilege of being associated is the Earth Charter, which sets out a basic set of ethical and moral principles to guide the behavior of people and nations towards the Earth and each other.  It is the product of consultations and contributions by people of all faiths and ideologies throughout the world and has been embraced by many millions of people and thousands of organizations.

As we mark the 61st anniversary of the United Nations, it is essential that we recognize the need to revitalize and strengthen this organization, which is the essential centerpiece of the global system of multilateral organizations; its Millennium Development Goals would clearly move the world towards the kind of harmony of civilizations and prosperity to which all aspire.  Sadly, the United Nations has yet to receive the kind of mandate and support it requires to fulfill its lofty goals to which divides this creation to which its members, the nations of the world, so often give lip service without the support required to implement them.  Today the United Nations is far more necessary to world harmony, peace, and sustainability than even at the time of its creation and the realization of this will hopefully provide strong new impetus to the strengthening and reorganization it requires to fulfill its mission.



Constructive influence

 

The constructive and growing influence of China in the United Nations and at the international level more generally is one of the most hopeful signs I see that the processes of change that are so urgently needed will be given new impetus.  No one has done more to cite the need and prepare the way for this new era of peace, harmony, and sustainability than United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.  His very experienced successor, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ko-moon, has the qualities and experience necessary to continue leadership of the United Nation in this process.  However, real change can only occur when member governments agree.  The governance of the United Nations and particularly the composition of its Security Council reflect the geopolitical landscape which emerged from World War II.  It does not accord with today’s geopolitical realities in which developing countries are a majority both in numbers and now in aggregate GNP.  Resistance to the necessary changes has come primarily from those countries whose interests would, they fear, be diluted by such changes.  But even they must realize that continued resistance to change will only undermine the effectiveness of the organization which is vital to their own larger national interests and responsibility members of the community of nations.

I have been greatly impressed and encouraged by the contributions that China is making to the harmony of civilizations and prosperity for all.  Its remarkable economic growth has lifted more of its own people out of poverty than has ever before been achieved by any nation.  While those who see their economic interests as threatened by China’s rise have been disproportionately strong and vocal in criticizing and resisting it, they too have benefited.  The opening up of China’s markets and the degree to which Chinese products of high quality and lower costs, have kept inflation rates low in even the more wealthy countries, while investment of its currency reserves in the United States, have kept interest rates low, all of which has contributed to their continued prosperity.

As one who has been privileged to have a long friendship with China and now spend most of my time here, I have been greatly impressed at the example China has set in incorporating into its national life the diversity of minority civilizations that make up the Chinese nation.  The Chinese take pride in the distinctiveness of their minority cultures, according them special privileges and support.  Of course, there will always be tensions and differences, but this does not undermine the cohesion of the Chinese nation or the pride that virtually all its people take in being Chinese. This is a great time to be Chinese – and to be a friend of China.

The continuity and adaptability of Chinese civilization has enabled it to survive and progress through the many periods of tumult and change that have marked its history.  This is an important source of the unique role of China in today’s world and in shaping the world of tomorrow.  Particularly impressive is the continuity of Chinese civilization, despite the many changes and difficulties it has experienced.  This is nowhere better manifested than the manner in which China has continued to revere the philosophy of their great sage, Confucius, even in periods when his teachings were not in harmony with the prevailing political mode.  The care and attention to documentation and respect of his lineage, as well as his works and ideas is especially notable.  I am excited and encouraged at the re-emergence of his philosophies, which have always been a great source of influence on me.

China’s dynamic economic growth and the revival of its leadership in science and technology make it one of the principal agents of the profound and radical changes that are reshaping civilizations as we have known them.  China has been in the vanguard of the revolution in communications and information technologies, particularly manifest in the internet, which has linked all traditional civilizations to the emerging global civilization.  This is creating a totally new generation of opportunities and risks in an economy in which knowledge in its various manifestations is becoming the main source of added value and comparative advantage.  People everywhere now have access to sources of information and knowledge and to each other on an unprecedented scale that enables them to tap into the rich storehouse of the world’s accumulated knowledge and the diversity of its current opinion, and to make their own contribution to these.  This enhances their own skills and multiplies their reach. 

A worldwide network is developing in which people can communicate directly with each other in areas of the common interest they share.  This has profound implications for the political process and democratization, as well as economic and social development.  People now can join together in special interest groups that transcend all boundaries.  This will inevitably produce major changes in traditional political and governance systems.  It also makes imperative, and makes possible, the achievement of the harmony of civilizations and prosperity for all which is the common interest and aspiration of all humankind. In rediscovering and revitalizing its ancient concept of Tian Ren He Yi (The unit of heaven and humanity) China can lead the way."