18-, 19-, 20-years… Time’s up! (sort-of)

At twenty years on, it’s once again time to revisit J.F. Rischard’s 2003 book, High Noon: Twenty Global Problems, Twenty Years to Solve Them. LOTRW provided an earlier look at the book on November 9, 2013, ten years after its publication.. Here’s that earlier text, reproduced in its entirety:

Speaking of books, in 2003 J. F. Rischard, then Vice President for Europe of the World Bank, and based in Paris, wrote and published High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them.

We’re halfway to his deadline. How are we doing? And how well is Mr. Rischard’s book standing the test of time?

Worth a look.

First some background on the book itself.  This CliffsNotes version won’t do the book justice. It merits a thoughtful, relaxed read in its entirety. But here’s the gist. Mr. Rischard notes two great trends: explosive population growth, especially in countries ill-equipped to handle it, and the globalization of the world’s economies. The first trend produces stresses. The second stresses us as well, but also creates opportunities. Mr. Rischard notes that government attempts worldwide to provide stability in the face of these trends instead of adapting to the changed circumstances have allowed a number of problems to fester and grow more urgent.

Mr. Rischard acknowledges that inventories of these problems are a subjective matter and might vary. Some people might see ten problems; others fifty. He offers a list of twenty, binned in three categories, nicely labeled:

(1) Sharing our planet. Global warming. Biodiversity and ecosystem losses. Fisheries depletion. Deforestation. Water deficits. Maritime safety and pollution.

(2) Sharing our humanity. Poverty. Peacekeeping. Education. Disease. The digital divide. Natural disaster mitigation.

(3) Sharing our rulebook. Consistent rules worldwide for: Taxation. Biotechnology. Financial architecture. Illegal drugs. Trade, investment and competition. Intellectual property rights. E-commerce. International labor and migration.

He next points out that we don’t have all the time in the world to solve these problems (hence the book title’s channeling of the 1952 Gary Cooper western film). Perhaps for some it’s as short as ten years. For others, it might be fifty. So, he says, let’s just say twenty. He argues that in nearly every case, the first five years are the most important and urgent. He then (rhetorically) asks: how many of us think that government, in any of various combinations – individual countries, the United Nations, the G-7, the European Union, etc. – are up to the job? He closes by suggesting the formation of what he calls global issues networks to deal with each. Each network would bring together governments, private enterprise, and academic expertise to tackle a problem. The idea is that experts from all three sectors will supply the best thinking, and that after a year or so of global brainstorming,  governments, whether singly and in combination, could start to take over the task of implementing the more practicable ideas. (This is evocative of something like an IPCC-process for each issue. Mr. Rischard himself , though referring to the IPCC in the global warming section, doesn’t make this connection, and you shouldn’t be put off by any baggage you happen to associate with the IPCC, unless and until you have read his full description, or have a better idea yourself to offer.)

The book wears well with age. Remarkably, it looks to be pretty much as fresh and insightful today as it did when first published. For example, the worldwide financial-sector meltdown of 2008 stemmed from concerns he identified under the section on financial architecture. Subsequent multi-lateral efforts to build in more margin and resilience into the financial sector exemplify the steps he’s suggesting. The same can be said for many if not all of the other nineteen issues. While the world hasn’t fully embraced Mr. Rischard’s prescription, we do see organizations of various stripes taking steps similar to what he’s proposing. I might be alone in this, but I actually see the IPCC process, with all its flaws, as a rousing success story.

What about actual progress? Are there any victories to be claimed? Well, it could be argued we’re making progress with respect to global poverty. But in most instances, we see a pattern of small, isolated victories, as well as a number of battles lost, and the outcome of the twenty “wars” still very much in the balance.

The bottom line for you and me? We could do worse than to read (or re-read) this book, make a connection to that piece of the puzzle where we have something to offer (there will be one or more for each of us), and then pitch in.

Oh, and did I mention that this book is a great read? A real page-turner? Mr. Rischard has a flair for clear exposition, and a magical way of keeping the arguments grounded, accessible, and compelling. Got an e-book or Kindle? Within minutes, you can reading his book over your weekend coffee. It’s crisp, engrossing… a quick read. You can be finished by Monday morning, and hit the workplace with a spring in your step and a renewed sense of purpose and understanding of your role in making the world a better place.

Back to the present day/some impressions.

Twenty years on, the book still feels fresh and relevant. If you’re keeping score, it would be fair to say that none of the twenty global problems has been “solved.” Hardly a surprise there. What’s more, while some progress has been made on most of the problems, the problems themselves have morphed over the two decades. Each today poses a bigger lift: looming larger, extending in scale, growing more complex, intersecting more strongly with the others. We’re falling behind.

Mr. Rischard might wish to tweak his thesis in some small ways. As for noting the role of “population growth, especially in the countries ill-equipped to handle it,” he might want to balance that with a few words on the subject of the aging of populations elsewhere (in Europe; in China, and in other countries seemingly equally “ill-equipped to handle it”). He might today give greater emphasis to “international labor and migration” (as both a problem and an opportunity). And today he might ponder the promise and the threats posed by artificial intelligence to his twenty global challenges.  

Perhaps most sobering at this 20-year mark is Mr. Rischard’s sense, dating from 2003, that the first five years of the twenty were the most critical. But it’s also important to note that Mr. Rischard was careful to say that “twenty years” wasn’t meant as a fundamental physical constant, but rather to denote a range of 10-50 years, say, and convey a sense of urgency.  But again, that’s before factoring in AI.

One area where Mr. Rischard seems most prescient – most insightful – is his choice of the notion of sharing as the organizing principle to cluster his twenty challenges into three bins. Ponder these again: Sharing our planet. Sharing our humanity. Sharing our rulebook. Grand. Visionary. Spot on.

And chilling. Perhaps if we had to name one virtue or trait that has nearly universally eluded us as individuals, as nations, and as a species, for virtually our entire experience spanning many millennia (not just some twenty-year interval), it would be sharing. We don’t share so well with others.

But suppose: if we were more gifted at sharing – if it were an innate part of our nature and culture, rather than something we accomplished only spasmodically, through strenuous effort, and for a special few people in our lives – perhaps each of those challenges that seem so insurmountable would fade away.

On its face, our struggle to share seems somewhat surprising. At a personal level, many if not most of us probably grew up hearing our parents exhorting us to share with our siblings. If we could perhaps hold that childhood thought and at the same time extend its circle of application, the world might quickly become a better place – perhaps even within the next twenty years. What’s the problem? Social scientists tell us that at its root is a scarcity- versus an abundance mindset.

Interested in how to shift from a scarcity to an abundance mindset? The internet has lost of advice to offer. An example, one of many:  a Forbes article from a few years ago lists five steps: (1) focus on what you have. (2) surround yourself with people that have an abundance mindset. (3) create win-win situations. (4) incorporate gratitude into your daily life. (5) train your mind to recognize the possibilities

Hmm. Simple, doable ideas that can be accomplished by each of the eight billion of us almost overnight. Cost-free. And look closely! These actions aren’t sacrificial; they are in our self interest while at the same time working toward the greater good. If even a fraction of us made this mindset change, we could see those twenty mountainous challenges turn into twenty global molehills before our very eyes.

All together now… share!

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