The Shaky State of Life on Earth, What Has Gone Wrong, and What We Can Do to Correct Our Course
Geoffrey Holland interviews Joan Diamond about her thoughts on the shaky state of life on Earth, how things have gone wrong, and what humans, particularly women, can do to correct course.
Joan Diamond has an executive background in private and non-profit sectors, including Fortune 500 energy enterprises including the executive VP of Hawaiian, Electric Company, vice president and corporate secretary of a Silicon Valley telecommunications company, and COO of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability. She is the Executive Director of Stanford University Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB) and of the Crans Foresight Analysis Nexus (FAB).
- What is the current state of life on planet Earth?
JD – The best of life on Earth is threatened; the natural environment as we have known it, biodiversity, social progress, clarity of individual purpose, moral compasses, and responsibility for the greater good and the future. It is complex, but now too often decisions, policies, and directions, are driven by narrow tribal identity, and not common ground or shared interest. The process of people coming together to solve problems has been twisted by politics: too often people come together to promote (often aggressively) their view. Compromise is seen as weakness, rather than the essence of all progress. So, the current state is not encouraging in terms of the trajectory, but it’s also not impossible to shift that trajectory.
- What are the milestones in your life that have shaped your worldview?
JD – In thinking about that I have contradictory responses. The first is that milestones is a misleading way to think about the world: it suggests a sort of progress and plan. When I think back on my life, defining moments is a more useful way to think about it in part because defining moments are usually and often very random, the wildcards—the unexpected not the planned. The most important has been the kindness or trust of others, and opportunities that have been offered to me, not because I planned it, not because I earned it in some way. Early in my life, I was shy and self-conscious and, like most of us, concerned about my inadequacies. Probably in high school, I gravitated towards political engagement, thinking that through politics, focusing on good governance, was the most important pathway for thinking about a better future in a healthy world. In terms of a defining moment, John Kennedy was assassinated on my 13th birthday. Even at the time, the timing seemed very significant. Turning 13 was a milestone but the significance was that his assassination was a total shock, a revamping of paradigms about the world. Later I was the youth chairman for Robert Kennedy’s campaign. And, you know the worst thing that could possibly happen was if he would lose the California Primary. Obviously, that wasn’t the worst thing. But it was an amplification of this belief or feeling of vulnerability with regard to our political system—the importance of wild cards and the fundamental power of uncertainty. That began my shift away from broad-scale governance to thinking of what could be done at the community level. There’s an irony in that, and that many, many decades later, I now find myself leaning again towards governance as a focus, not because I believe in it so much, but because I think worthy governance is the only thing that can really direct us away from the dark path that we’re on. Another defining moment for me: I’d always done a lot of swimming—water is magic and healing. I saw a sign for an all-women’s Golden Gate swim. Now when there is a Golden Gate swim, or an Alcatraz swim hundreds of people sign up from all over the country. But in 1977 there were 23 women from California. But that opportunity was fundamental, a mental breakthrough of imagination and possibility. I signed up on a lark—not macho competitive, but fun. An unexpected unplanned defining moment that was empowering. Later, we moved to Hawaii. And I ended up in the electric utility business. At that time the electric utility in Hawaii was very male, and it was very Asian; two things I’m not. And that was okay. After so many years there, with continual opportunities to grow, the CEO asked if I would become a vice president; the first woman officer in the company’s 150-year history, and the youngest. My husband was in Nepal. And in those days international travel was not so common as it is now. And, my five-year-old daughter had chicken pox. And there’s nothing you can do with a kid with chickenpox, but stay home. Anyway after reminding the CEO of my other life, I accepted the opportunity. Obviously, there was something about me, but it was the courage, the creativity of the men I worked with that made opportunities. So, I think about that as a defining milestone. It’s not that I was passive, but it certainly wasn’t a path that I laid out for myself. Lessons learned: Rather than fixed on an inevitably disappointing plan, be humble, be open, be honest, and keep learning.
- These days, so many of the challenges humans face are global in scale. How do we build the cross-cultural trust and cooperation that is essential to solving our Earth’s looming existential threats?
JD – It starts with humility, a heavy dose of humility. Along with that is respect. Respect for the differences in cultures and people. A third is that we have to be willing to let go of control, or what I like to think is the illusion of control. Because you can’t break through, you can’t bring people together, you can’t build a trusting environment without humility and respect, without letting go of control, and without being more comfortable with the uncomfortable. Even though it’s inherently threatening when you’re in a different culture, and people do things differently, and you’re not sure of your ability to not so much influence the dialogue, but be understood. Understanding that trust and cooperation come from listening, and being willing to change, and to drop all the silly language about a singular reality and one truth. I hear it often from pro-social progressives; ridiculing others and the differences in the way people do things. You have to drop the elite humor, making fun of other people, thinking other people are stupid, or they just don’t get it. You have to see your own elitism. I don’t think we have a chance of dealing with problems at a global scale in this world unless we’re truly inclusive. Without creating a platform that’s truly welcoming to other people…I often have to remind myself that part of my brain knows that I would do things differently if I controlled things, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s that issue of control that gets us in trouble; it is being truly welcoming and open to the differences, and the power of different perspectives that moves us positively forward. I see very little of that. Unless we can build that trust that comes from humility, and respect, recognizing that it’s about solving the problem we are doomed to a less compelling future.. It starts with shared commitment, not with being in control.
- In the US, the promising trends toward equal gender rights are under full-scale assault by the political old guard. How important is it for women and non-binary people to assert their equal rights and take their rightful place at every level, where cultural decisions are made?
JD – The most important thing to me is recognizing this is not a woman’s issue, or an issue of non-binary people. It is a human issue; How do you build a civilization and a society? To the extent we find ways to bring more people into the conversation and build awareness and foster non-divisive communities, we will be able to shift current global trends of degradation and hate. It’s important that everyone be involved in the conversation. Men, women, non-binary people, and children; there has to be a conversation. At one level people behave rationally—I spent a few years teaching junior high school—a wonderful head-spinning experience—and my breakthrough came when I realized all the seemingly destructive, disruptive behavior was rational given the world as they knew it or were trying to figure it out. We can only deal with the threats facing us if we can work as an inclusive society, and work around the divisions in society. We frame some of these issues in ways that make men defensive. The best way to affect men is to start with working with boys, and young kids. Every Friday at my 6-year-old grandson’s public school, they have an all-school assembly; all the kids sit out on the basketball court and they start with this chant, and there’s something about trust, and there’s something about respect, and then the school principal says, ‘Oops, we forgot one’. And they chant about being everyone’s ally; always be everyone else’s ally all the time. This sense of commitment to every person that you’re touching. The kids don’t really understand the full implications of that kind of commitment, but they do understand the notion of what it means to be an ally or to take care of other people all the time. There’s a tremendous amount that could be done to be building those sorts of values into the culture; ideas that lead to greater acceptance and understanding. When I went to my grandson’s school at the beginning of the school year, his first year in school, kindergarten, and looked around the kindergarten play area I realized that for half of them, I couldn’t tell if they were girls or boys. That wasn’t distressing. It just seemed really healthy that the kids aren’t identifying in some strong, gender stereotype way. The hair length and the way they dress. So, there’s a lot of room in existing systems to educate and build the culture with young people. Some people aren’t going to change. The best way to deal with them is to have young people voting for politicians who are welcoming the inclusive kind of change. The media doesn’t feed us some of the positive things that are happening with women’s empowerment, you know, that include the whole families involved in the empowerment process. That’s a missed opportunity. We need the news to highlight more of the powerfully good things that are happening in Asia, Africa, and in the Americas. Not to mask the huge problems, but to empower change by building on success. I think that we’re more energized to do things when the challenges don’t seem so overwhelming, so impossible. There are some good things that are happening. There are hundreds, thousands of effective activist initiatives going on in the world that we rarely hear about. Not every one of the initiatives is “my cup of tea” but they are moving us in the right direction.
- The esteemed Australian science author, Julian Cribb, is getting a lot of support for what he calls, The Earth Systems Treaty, which offers a legally binding prescription for correcting the human course on Earth. You have expressed support for this idea. What is it about this treaty that makes it so potentially impactful, and why should it appeal particularly to feminist women and young people?
JD – There are two important components of the EST—the first is that it focuses on systems; the second is that it includes and builds on the many fabulous treaty proposals, established international goals for human wellbeing, proposed and passed UN statements of critical action and rather than being critical of what other similar initiatives have done, includes them in the overall EST; it introduces at a new level, bringing legal ramifications into non-compliance. I don’t think it should appeal particularly to women or young people any more than men and non-binary and any other grouping of society—the future of civilization depends on all identities, groups, and distinctions collaborating with a shared moral compass and determination to build a just future for all.
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