Sometimes when my nine-month-old is ill-tempered, I carry her to the mirror. “Who’s that cute baby?” I coo with the breathless enthusiasm of a first-time parent. “Who is she?” My daughter smiles shyly, pleased to have discovered like-minded company, someone who does not address her in an unnaturally high pitch. They wave at each other and babble in unison.
It may be a year or so before she recognizes herself. Psychologists describe the beginning of self-awareness as a key developmental milestone, one that leads to a fundamental shift in behavior.
As I return to work after parental leave, it’s hard not to find parallels between the journey my baby is on and the one we are collectively facing as the world economy faces threats from every direction.
Scarred by a pandemic that has killed millions and a war in Europe that very few saw coming, we have reached a new age of reckoning. A moment when the consequences of runaway capitalism, the dizzying growth of the internet and years of political blindsightedness have come to a head. In a book or a movie, it would be the protagonist’s “aha!” moment. The instant they realize they must leave their spouse, or job, or hometown and start afresh. A montage of ill-fated decisions, walked into unwittingly would precede the revelation.
We have learned many things the hard way. The pandemic has revealed the fragility of global supply chains and under-resourced health care systems. The war in Ukraine has shown how quickly both food and energy security can be compromised by conflict. Meanwhile, heat waves, forest fires and floods are sharpening our focus on the deadly effects of climate change.
Amid all the misery, there are good examples of action being taken. The widespread move towards working from home, which would have seemed inconceivable just a few years ago, has improved work-life balance for many and made certain careers more accessible to those with a chronic illness or disability. The rise in virtual meetings has reduced the number of unnecessary and environmentally damaging business trips and the rapid development of vaccines has shown what can be done when we invest in science and agree on a common purpose. Vaccine inequality and pervasive misinformation show we still have a long way to go but still, the path towards change has been cleared.
Russia’s attack on Ukraine has forced politicians, especially in Germany, to take stock of their energy policies. The Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which transports Russian gas to Europe, is now a household name. While fears of cold winters persist, Germany is already taking steps to lessen its dependence on Russian gas. With the Green Party a strong junior member of the three-way coalition government, the current crisis could accelerate the adoption of a more radical and climate-friendly energy policy in Europe’s biggest economy.
The conflict in Ukraine has also drawn attention to how fast the global food supply can be threatened and how little is generally known about the systems that determine how food is brought from A to B. While the empty sunflower oil shelves in Berlin supermarkets point to an irrational and disproportionate reaction, the fact that people are thinking about where their food comes from may be a much-needed first step towards a greater awareness of the forces at play in feeding the world.
These are deeply troubling times. The word “unprecedented” has become so widely employed that it now sounds like a cliché. But it has earned its overuse. I could never have predicted that my little girl would be born into a world struggling with the immediate threats of climate change, a pandemic and a war in Europe.
And yet I could not look her in the eye if I did not have hope that solutions can be found. While seeing the world reflected back at us is a rather uncomfortable experience these days, like my daughter, we must have the courage not to look away. The sooner we see ourselves as part of the problem, the sooner we can envision ourselves as part of a solution, too. In a world shaped by algorithmically delivered information and misinformation, self-awareness might present our biggest hope of salvation.
Edited by: Uwe Hessler