Why is it that our collective imagination and action can range across the galaxy to solve abstruse mysteries but humanity can’t get to grips with the immediate problems of poverty, pandemic and climate breakdown? Clem McCartney appeals for a renewed capacity to wonder that can excite us to act and protect all that we stand to lose by our inaction.

Since the equinox I have been marvelling at the changing of the seasons, the departure of tiny swallows for Africa and the improbable arrival of winter geese, while solar flares and the scrag ends of distant storms have caused many to wonder at seeing the aurora borealis well down into England and Ireland. We can also marvel at human ingenuity and abilities as well, though I am not sure that many of the examples that make the headlines are the best use of those capacities: last Sunday the Osiris-Rex capsule returned to earth after a billion mile journey, with grains of dust that might predate the solar system from an asteroid only half-a-kilometre across, to which it was directed. 

But we have been less able to use capacities to solve much more immediate problems. Some of us will have been in New York for General Assembly week when the unsolved problems are on show. As well as the General Assembly there have been a number of other meetings focused specifically on some of those problems:  

  • Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit
  • UN High-Level Meetings on Pandemic Prevention, Preparedness and Response 
  • UN Climate Ambition Summit

On all fronts progress has been slow, and the need for these meetings confirms that. In opening the Climate Ambitions Summit, the UN Secretary General yet again used images of doomsday proportion. This time he said “Humanity has opened the gates of hell” and then exhorted the member states to create the right environment and the right ecosystem. 

If there are those among us who can pick up a few grains of sand from an asteroid hurtling through space and bring them back to earth, and some of us are willing to invest the money to do so, why is humanity so slow to really get to grips with the SDGs and release the potential of all humanity, or with ensuring preparedness to deal with health crisis, or with implementing the changes at all levels to avoid global warming and the degradation of the environment? 

If there is much around us that are sources of wonder, we also have to wonder about large chunks of humanity’s inhumanity in the face of its contribution to the problems we face. We can also marvel at the capacity to ignore and rationalise away our responsibility if it interferes with our immediate self interest and convenience. Dire warnings and exhortations to do better don’t have much impact, nor do demonstrations and protests. Rather, they seem to reinforce the determination of some not to address the issues, though perhaps with more acknowledgement that there is an issue.  

I have been thinking a lot about “wonder” recently and how that can excite us and mobilise us to action. We protect the things we value, and if more of us understood and marvelled more at the wonderful phenomena around us, we might do more to protect and empower them: the natural phenomena but also the amazing efforts the poorest and most marginalised make to survive.   

We might not expect those who profit from the present unequal system to take time to get in touch with their capacity to wonder, but there are some who do. We could expect our political leaders to get in touch with their capacity to wonder and introduce meaningful checks on those who damage our environment and societies. And if that is too much to hope for, then releasing the capacity to wonder in the wider community could lead to more action across society and more pressure on governments. Film makers and scientist and journalists and activists try to share their own perceptions and stimulate that response in the wider society, but they have limited impact. Their messages are too remote and second hand. They are not the listeners’ own responses coming from within.

We need the right to wonder and the will to wonder. But instead, at the present time, people are discouraged from wondering. We are encouraging to get on with life, accept it as prosaic and banal, look after yourself, forget about the future, follow the trends, spend and consume. We are told that the problems are too big for us to grasp or do anything about, and we should rely on our leaders who know more. Many do not believe that it matters to anyone else what they think and what they do. People are losing the will to wonder. 

I return again to the need for a Shared Society where people feel empowered, where they believe that they matter and can look and listen and own their own feelings and responses to the world around them, because they themselves are treated with respect and dignity as a valuable human being. I believe this is the environment and ecosystem that Antonio Guterres at the Climate Ambition Summit said we need to create. Maybe the rest will follow.

The capacity to wonder can only start close to home, looking with a fresh eye at the everyday and common place and appreciating with wonder the underlying delicate balance that needs to be protected. From there we can lift our eyes to the horizon and beyond. 

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: Rossographer, via Geograph Ireland. The aurora borealis, visible from Ballyholme Beach, Bangor, Northern Ireland, March 2016.

One thought on “The Will to Wonder: Ambition, empowerment and inspiration for a shared society

Leave a Reply