Some folks and groups are working very hard to build workable models of consensus that can help lift our communities out of their respective doldrums.  The work is relentless and the rewards often slow in developing.  If what we have been watching on the global stage recently then we might very well have to redouble our efforts – an imposing task.

It is a remarkable and ironic development that an emerging international sense of solidarity on climate change fell apart right as the catastrophic effects of Typhoon Haiyan were devastating the Philippines.  There are lessons to be learned from what transpired during those critical hours of international brinksmanship.

To drive the point home concerning the link between Haiyan and climate change, the Philippine head of delegation to the UN Climate Change summit in Poland, Naderev Sano, went on a hunger strike in an effort to, “end this climate crisis madness.”  He was about to be devastated himself.

Poland, the summit’s host, opted to test the international resolve by pushing hard for the use of coal just at the time when others were attempting to phase it out.  To enforce their concern, delegations from Great Britain, the U.S., the World Bank, and the European Bank, declared that their financial aid mechanism and organizations would no longer support coal.  It made little difference – Poland plodded on, knowing that in places like India coal use was rapidly rising.

The conference grew disillusioned when Japan announced that its previous goal of cutting emissions by 25% would be pared back to a meager 3.8%.  “I don’t have words to describe my dismay,” the Chinese negotiator said to the media.  It was a brutal moment.

Japan escaped heightened criticism when both Canada and Australia announced that they were abandoning their previous commitments, in lieu of more lenient policies from the conservative agendas of both governments.  What it meant was that two of key fossil fuel producers positioned themselves outside of the global framework for climate change.  Canadian and Australian reputations, already at severe lows, sunk even further.  Sincere efforts were made by other delegations to dialogue with Japan, Canada, and Australia, all to no avail – the hard line remained.

In response to such collapse, environmental NGOs walked out of the international conference for the first time ever.  Suddenly the voice for civil society and average people went silent.  The belligerents ran the table and the conference ended in muted dismay.

Regardless of where one stands on the climate change debate, the fact that a global movement of major players which had been crawling towards mutual action over a 20-year period could break down so quickly, in part through the influence of outliers, was stunning in its implications.  For all of our ability to generate wealth, to energize social institutions, to meet on a scheduled basis, and to press for global reforms, it becomes apparent that it can all lead to nothing when individual interests eclipse collective hopes.

Our current global financial model has largely been based upon competition, and, to a point, it has been successful.  But it now faces the danger of running its course, of depleting more than it gives, of instilling fear over hope.  Franklin Roosevelt lived in just such a time and made the following observation which might have relevance to us today:

Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.”

What is occurring on the international canvas threatens our local communities as well, where individual concerns and competition for resources breaks down the overall goal of building a holistic community response to our present challenges.  This is what can become of laissez-faire citizenship – a personalization of broader values that can ultimately keep individuals proverbially fiddling while Rome burns. 

Given modern challenges, communities can only be successful when they develop the capacity to pull citizens together for a broader mandate at the same time as it permits them individually to pursue their personal lives.  Given what just took place in Poland, we have our work cut out for us, and little time to get it together.