What is wonderful about planet Earth is the sheer variety of its people, cultures, environments and available experiences. There’s a beauty and diversity to it all which is one of our greatest gifts. Yet it is also our biggest problem: difference, intolerance and xenophobia could destroy us.
This is an age-old issue, yet it’s now going critical. Until about 2,000 years ago, inter-ethnic problems were often resolved by tribes moving to new pastures - there was space. More recently, 150 years ago, Britain got rid of its unwanted people by shipping them out to far-flung colonies - things had changed. Oppression, imposition, inquisition or genocide have been more common than we’d like to acknowledge.
Nowadays, the problem bounces back. We sectorise towns and landscapes so that ‘others’ are unseen, yet they’re still there. We even marginalise whole nations – North Korea, Cuba, Libya or Albania in recent years – yet chronic problems amongst ‘have-nots’ can leak back as epidemics, crime, terrorism, economic collapse, disaster or stow-away migrants. ‘They’ won’t go away! Holocausts and massacres don’t work either.
Today’s nations, with their borders, passports, laws and governments, are devices created in this last millennium. Before that, most nations or administrative districts had heartlands without clear boundaries, with space between them. Ethnic groupings often occupied different social niches in the same geographical space - until lines started being drawn on landscapes. Many of today’s nations have been shaped by the outcomes of wars, by aristocratic marriages, or the exploits of ruling classes or the periodic intervention of events. Many nations don’t reflect the people, culture and geography of an area – they are someone else’s idea.
Nations such as Canada, Iraq, Indonesia and Nigeria suffer from being abstract creations of this kind – the inventions of now-dead empires, generals and governors. The indigenous nations they replaced in colonial times often reflected much truer cultural zones – though there was often strife or weaknesses within or between these nations, allowing colonialists to take control. Some nations are obsolete historic entities – as was USSR around 1990. Some might say that India, Brazil, UK, South Africa, Iraq, USA and China are obsolete, regionally-stressed. However, this is a matter of how people feel.
Some ethnic groups possess no national recognition. 25 million Kurds reluctantly straddle four lands, without their own governance. Uighurs, Mayans, Tibetans, Copts, Hausa, Aboriginals and Sioux are aliens in their own lands. Some groups have suffered diaspora: as a result Palestinians, Chechens, Armenians, expat Chinese and Jews all now deeply need to feel at home.
For some, globalisation is a godsend, freeing them from cramping tradition or dominant neighbours – Irish, Poles, Nicaraguans and Malaysians enjoy the liberating benefits of world culture. For others who have felt threatened for centuries – Serbs, Georgians, Koreans, Greeks and Afghans – surrendering sovereignty is questionable, seen as impossible.
Yet we love Persian rugs, Cantonese food, tequila and tourism – they bring spice to our lives. Today, we are very interdependent: events in one place lead to repercussions far away. We might not love certain other human groupings, yet we need them, and they need us, regardless. There’s a process of global acceptance needed.
There’s something wonderful about our uniquenesses – even when they clash. We face deep choices: conflict is not the only option, neither the most sensible one. Something else is needed. When conflicts are resolved, a sense of social breakthrough dawns, and it’s shared with the world. The multi-racial reconciliation of South Africa in 1994, though risky, painful and only the beginning of a long healing process, was an example to us all. It reminded us of humanity’s better nature and commonsense.
Those who feel most opposed to each other share many commonalities – such as Catholics and Protestants in Ulster, Muslims and Hindus in India or Latinos and Indians in South America. These centres of polarisation form crucial nexus-points of humanity’s greater reconciliation. Big choices, big healings are difficult, yet their rewards are immense – they hearten humanity.
Today we have crowded ourselves, in our billions, into a shrinking world where we just have to get on. This isn’t a distant diplomatic process: it’s an interpersonal emotional process, a question of mutual care and appreciation, amongst billions.
Ingeniously and unconsciously, we have created a world situation where we have no alternative but to join the same family. This is our challenge.
The Illustrated Guide to the Millennium
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