Delivered to students at Bradford Grammar School, Friday 1 Oct 2021
Before the assembly, I put a card and a pencil on a dozen seats along the middle row of the assembly hall, saying ‘Complete the sentence: “I am a citizen of…”.’ I had also asked my Year 12 tutees to do the same the previous day.
A week ago, there was a global series of concerts, from London to Lagos, from Seoul to Sydney, and in many other places in between. The event was called ‘Global Citizen Live’.
Let’s start with this young person, Emma Raducanu.
Professor of Leadership Guido Gianasso wrote these words a couple of weeks ago about Emma:
A new tennis champion has emerged.
Emma’s father is Romanian. Her surname is Romanian and she speaks Romanian fluently. Hence she is considered Romanian by millions of Romanians. But Emma has never lived in Romania.
Emma’s mother is Chinese. She speaks fluent Chinese. Hence she is considered a Chinese hero by millions of Chinese.
Emma was born in Canada but has lived most of her life and trained in the UK. She holds dual British and Canadian citizenship. She is considered British by most Britons. But the British public that now celebrates her success is the same that voted Brexit with the objective to make it difficult for East Europeans such as Emma and her father to live in the UK.
At a time when many countries are going back to very ethnocentric models and policies, Emma is the best evidence that … we must embrace a geocentric mindset. Emma Raducanu represents the future of humankind.
A geocentric mindset? What does that mean? I am more familiar with another way of putting it. Global citizenship.
Global citizenship can sound woolly, and indeed our last prime minister, Theresa May, said in 2016 “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”. Some people can see where she’s coming from: if you identify as a ‘global citizen’, they might say, you are abandoning any commitment to more local forms of identity.
But are these England supporters any less loyal to their local club? The names on their flags seem to show otherwise.
And are these British Lions any less loyal to England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland, even though they are playing for a bigger entity?
Which groups do you belong to?
I put cards on some of your seats in the central aisle. I also asked my Year 12 form members. I asked recipients to finish the sentence “I am a citizen of…” Here are some responses: [read out responses]
[Of the twelve cards which Year 7-9 students had, one said the school, some said their home town, a couple said Yorkshire, some said England or Britain, and one said Earth. My Year 12 form gave a similar spread of answers.]
All of these responses are valid. How can that be?
Because we can live with more than one identity.
Yuval Noah Harari points out that some fanatical creeds reduce people to single identities – e.g. fascism prioritises national identity over all others. But you can be a patriot without denying others their identity.
He also points out that “Human tribes… tend to coalesce over time into larger and larger groups… in the long run, history’s direction is clear-cut. … In recent generations the few remaining civilisations have been blending into a single global civilisation”.
Harari points out that people still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital or a bomb, or how to measure things like time – almost all of us belong to the same civilisation.
So if we agree with Harari that we already belong to the same civilisation, why do some people – like me – feel the need to promote global citizenship?
Well, yes, we already live in a cosmopolitan – or globally shared – condition. It’s inescapable.
But as Ulrich Beck pointed out, as a society, we have yet to develop anything like the cosmopolitan awareness necessary for society and the environment to thrive or to operate sustainably.
In other words, we live a globalised life, but we have yet to take full responsibility for our role in it.
In 2020, the developed nations promised to help less developed countries to vaccinate their populations. Gordon Brown, another ex-prime minister, insists that ‘No one is safe until everyone is safe’. It would cost about £70bn to vaccinate the world – a lot of money. But the cost of not vaccinating the world, in terms of lost productivity, trade, livelihoods, and so on, is estimated to be 50 times bigger, at £3.3tn. But national self-interest and some degree of corporate self-interest keeps the world from the much cheaper global solution.
In 2009, the developed world, who industrialised and prospered on the back of a fossil fuel led economy, agreed to pay $100bn a year to developing countries to help them to adapt to a changing climate and to invest in alternative energy sources to help them not commit as much environmental damage as we did. But very little of this has been handed over. And again, the cost of meeting the challenge of climate change is much, much less than the social and economic cost of suffering its consequences.
But as you make your way in the world you can be part of this shift in our collective mindset.
What could you do now though?
Firstly, you could recognise that on top of your more local identities, you are a citizen of the world.
So the second action you could take is to co-operate beyond your immediate circle. Nichola Raihani has written about co-operation in the animal and human world. It’s not a silver bullet to solve all ills, but it’s underappreciated. She points out that many people are misled by the word ‘selfish’ in the idea of the ‘selfish gene’: in most contexts, the best way to survive and thrive as an individual – to advance your ‘self’ – is to co-operate.
Thirdly, you could use your intellect to widen your horizons and find out more about the steps we’ll need to change our ways to deal with the global challenges of the 21st century, and you may then decide it’s time to act.
Let me finish with Mike Berners-Lee, author of ‘There is No Planet B’:
He says “If our sense of ‘tribe’ doesn’t embrace the whole world, we are going to be in for a very nasty time. … All of us need to be able to keep in mind our shared and overarching global tribe. We have to get our heads and hearts around the idea that we are in this together because that is the only way any of us can live well.”
[ For a copy of the slides and the scriptContact me on Twitter at @DavidAlcock1, @HopefulEd, or email me – alcock_david AT hotmail.com.
As ever, feedback is welcome. I recognise that there are different conceptions of global citizenship and that cosmopolitanism is a complex beast; I have also necessarily simplified the messages of the people mentioned!]