The Vastness of the Open Water

A note on entering the new age of exploration*

Lake Superior is the largest body of fresh water in the world, by surface area, unless you count Lakes Huron and Michigan as one lake, because they are connected by an open flow of water 5 miles across. Where we draw boundaries determines how we rank the objects of our experience and exploration. On my first visit to Lake Superior, I had the privilege of being with two friends, who have redefined boundaries in ways that bring benefit to the wider world. Paul Thompson is a brilliant convener of friends and citizens, who brings people together, with a unique confidence in their ability to find each other’s virtues and build on them, together. David Thoreson is a sailor and Arctic explorer, whose voyages have taken him through the Northwest Passage, in both directions, and around the Americas, fully 28,000 miles in one trip.

Our time together in Minnesota reminded me that we are always at the edge of our prior experience; we are always exploring. We tend to think of our lives as bounded by known quantities, by economic limitations, political prescriptions, and the strict definitions our choices subject us to. We often fail to see how we can transcend systemic limitations.  So, it becomes important to think about how our experience is exploration, and how our way of thinking about possibility matters.

What lies over the horizon is, by definition, unreachable, existing beyond the far reach of our gaze. Traveling there requires energy, and teamwork, and we aren’t easily going to have the most resources or the biggest team. What I have learned from Paul is that there is not a lot of use in doubting people: human beings together do great things, so just get started. As we stood at the edge of Lake Superior, with Katya Gordon, another explorer unwilling to let the standard definitions of what is possible limit her experience, it was easy to see that for the human mind and body, looking past the horizon is a natural endeavor. We are uniquely equipped, through intellect, language, science, and trust, to work together, build on each other’s talents and experience, and see beyond the horizon.

Today, at the United Nations, I had the good fortune to attend a strategy meeting for the World We Want platform, a space for stakeholder engagement with the global policy process.

Ana María Guacho, speaking for indigenous Andean communities urged us to recognize that appropriation of traditional knowledge, without respect for the sacred meaning of that knowledge, is not properly invention, or discovery, but something very different, which is damaging to future human conditions. She represents communities that are “not poor, but impoverished, not marginalized, but put into marginalization”. These definitions set boundaries on how we relate to each other, and so limit our ability to work together effectively. Marta Benavides noted that if we define human beings as stakeholders and not rights holders, we may increase the likelihood of a less humane outcome: the definition, the boundary language by which we describe what is possible, matters. Stakeholders should have rights, but if we call them something other than rights holders, part of the discussion ends up being about how and why they should acquire rights.

We are sailing into uncharted waters. Never before have we had to consciously manage our relationship to Earth’s whole climate system; now, we do. Never before have we had to worry about whether the world community, beyond Lake Superior, has enough fresh water for everyone; now, we do. Never before have we had the opportunity to give all people everywhere a role in making policy; now, we do.

More engagement means more crew members to pilot Spaceship Earth into the future. Governments and intergovernmental organizations, like the UN, benefit from rights holders acting as citizens, sharing information, and teaming up to better navigate uncharted waters. We are learning to align our climate politics with the call to good stewardship, learning how to empower people to be true citizens of a smarter, more connected world. This is a new age of exploration, in which all of us have a role.

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* The insight that we are entering into a new age of exploration is derived from David Thoreson’s own moment of clarity, sailing through an ice-free Northwest Passage.

As David told us, during his recent talks, he realized upon achieving this long-awaited maritime aspiration: The Golden Age of Exploration had come to a close, and we are now entering a new period of exploration, in which we are seeking to understand how our climate system works and better manage our relationship to whole Earth systems. “This is the time we live in; this is our challenge,” he told us.

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[ The Note for April 2015 ]


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