Whither the world. It is hard at times not to be pessimistic. The world, our world, is admittedly finite. The illusion of expansion and of conquering frontiers, a hangover from the European expansion (the great reconnaissance) and their subsequent temporary dominance of the world, made us think otherwise, but only for a time. There are no more hidden worlds to discover and no more frontiers to conquer. The economy of the West, meaning that of the United States and Europe, seems to be in inevitable decline. The power and influence of the BRIC countries and the GCC seems to be on an inevitable rise. If one clings to the importance of the dominance of the West, this change of affairs may seem to be an unfortunate one indeed. If one looks at the betterment of the balance of humanity, it could equally be a cause for celebration.
I guess, at the end of the day, few in the West would argue for dominance forever. Nor would any sane person want that dominance to be maintained at the expense of the bulk of humanity. I think what we in the West are all afraid of is not the loss of dominance, but the loss of freedom and economic security. It has been a very good ride here for most of us, and we would all like that to continue. Granted, this is not a God-given right (meaning something we have no right to) but, humans being what they are, it is understandable that we would like our children and their children to experience a quality of life that bears at least some resemblance to our own. I believe we are less certain that this is the case than at any time in recent memory. As a consequence, we all have a sense of uncertainty and fragility that seeps into both our public experience and our private thoughts. What will happen next?
I think there is also the concern that, with the loss of dominance, we might not be treated so well. We know that in many respects we have not been the best stewards of the world. We have not treated others so well, including both our fellow humans and the natural world of which we are inextricably a part. Of course, such thoughts are very much the product of our colonial memory (very much alive here in North America, and mostly suppressed in Europe) and do not tell the whole story. We are also, I think, afraid of the “other”. We accept, at times almost without question, that the West is the bulwark of freedom and democratic values. We neglect in this thinking the democracies in countries like Japan or Korea and, moreover, the fact that only a very short time ago civilized Western nations like Germany and Italy were very far indeed from being democratic. We also neglect our own chauvinism towards people within our own borders and those wishing to be within our borders. At the bottom of all of this I believe we have to be willing to trust that others in the world – other nations, other races, other social entities – might be able to do as good, or better, a job than we have done. I say “we” here not to identify with any particular racial/ethnic group – but with any group (nation, region) that fears the changes in the world that result from shifting centers of power. It may not be a bad thing.
In many respects, focusing on the shift in the centers of power in the world is also illusory, as human beings do not really command the stage to the extent that we might like to think. Issues of provisioning for us humans, regardless of who is “in charge”, loom before us in a manner that has never happened before. There are no more “worlds” to save us. We need to provide ourselves with food – with water – with energy – with air to breathe. We need to be able to dispose of the waste products of our existence. These things are axiomatic to life. We do not have forever to figure out how this can be done on a global scale. What we have in place now, the source of the pessimism at the outset of this piece, will not do it. We need to find a new way forward, a new understanding of the world, ourselves, and our relationships to one another.
I like to think that the GeoWeb, and this little conference, GeoWeb 2009 , can contribute in a small way to this change.
That is the reason that the conference exists. This is where the business of Geo and the Geo for business meet each other. This is “Where 2.0” for grownups.