Let's take Egypt's lessons and apply them to the planet

The internet and cellphone connectiveness that powered the Egyptian revolution should be harnessed for other global problems, Owen Gaffney argues.

Vive la révolution. A whisper at first. Soon, the words spread like wildfire from Tunisia over the tinder-dry African plains and mountains to the over-populated streets of Cairo.

Vive la révolution. The words Twittered and fluttered on iPhones and Facebook, tumbling into the mass media, a global din, coming to rest even on the tongue of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in the hallowed halls of Davos, Switzerland.

At a pro-democracy rally in Beirut, a woman carries a mockup of a Facebook page urging the ouster of Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Modern communications technology is mobilizing crowds. (Sharif Karim/Reuters)

We need a revolution, he declared at the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the mighty and the powerful. It may seem strange to speak of global revolution at a gathering like that, but that is what he said.

As for why, a clue can be found in the 2011 Global Risks report, the WEF's regular look at the big problems facing the planet.

The report reels off the familiar threats — financial instability, food prices, energy security, water, floods, storms and fires. All have hit the headlines in the last several months.

The number of environmental catastrophes is rising and more economies, more businesses and more people are being affected, thanks to globalization, urbanization and our growing interconnectedness and interdependence.

Owen Gaffney is a writer and the director of communications for the International Geosphere Biosphere Program, a research organization funded by 37 countries to study the phenomenon of global change. He is also an organizer of the 2012 international conference Planet Under Pressure: New Knowledge Towards Solutions. 

Consumption without consequences has turned into a recipe for national disaster — "a global suicide pact," according to the secretary general.

Tensions everywhere

The two largest risks, according to the report, are economic disparity and failures in global governance.

The widening gap between rich and poor is tightly connected to fragile states, conflict and disease. What's more, these inequalities between countries are being exposed more directly by the internet and global communication network, heightening tensions.

Meanwhile, ineffective global governance is blamed for everything from grinding poverty to the inability to dent greenhouse gas emissions.

Politicians argue that technological innovation is the solution to these global problems.

If we invest enough in technology we can feed everyone and supply all the energy we will need, while protecting the environment. The so-called green economy.

But if this is the only solution, it is doomed to failure.

Technological innovation is bound by the political framework it sits within and, at the moment, global governance is a mass of fragmented international networks, agreements, organizations and national governments, lacking a mandate for the kind of reform urgently needed.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2008, calling for new ways to think about global problems. (Stefan Wermuth/Reuters)

So how do we create such a mandate? Well, the report argues, if only everyone were better informed and viewed themselves as global citizens.

Is that so hard to do? I'd argue that the solution may be just around the corner and technology is central.

Let's go on a journey.

A vision for 2030

Imagine waking up one day in February 2030 in Toronto or Timbuktu. Your phone beeps and a text message reminds you that it is global election day.

How could you forget? For months the media has spoken of nothing else.

Like everyone else on the planet, you know the candidates' politics, values and beliefs. You are familiar with their rhetoric.

You've heard the slogans: global equity, poverty eradication, responsible planetary management.

What marks this day as historic is that it is the first global election. On this day, all eight billion people will vote for a leader for the planet.

Polling booths open first in Tonga, Fiji, and New Zealand. Voting spreads around the world, finally stopping, at the end of a long day in Hawaii.

Critical mass

Of course, looking back from 2030, we would see that it has taken nearly three decades to reach this point, beginning at the turn of the century with the explosion of global communication technology.

By 2010, about one-third of households worldwide had internet and 90 per cent of the population had access to mobile phone networks. By 2012, a critical mass had been reached.

But while everyone belonged to the global village, a powerful few dictated how it operated.

Still, with this revolution in information technology, international governance came within reach of everyone and, driven by the necessity to change rapidly, the world began to experiment with genuine global democracy.

First one referendum, then another, on globally important issues needing urgent action. As national governments saw the spread of equity, cleaner cities, responsible development and strong economic growth, they began to relax.

With personal empowerment came a shared responsibility for globally common resources, for the atmosphere and the oceans.

The tide began to turn. Greenhouse gas emissions fell, fish stocks improved.

Outside the box

Back to the present. Ban Ki-moon spoke in Davos about his global sustainability panel, due to report to the 2012 UN Earth Summit at Rio.

The high-level panel of presidents and business leaders is tasked with finding solutions to the interconnected global challenges we face. They are well aware that they are running out of time.

There will be a UN-sponsored Earth Summit in Rio in 2012, 20 years after the one that sparked the interest in global warming. Fresh ideas are wanted. (Reuters)

As a result, The secretary general is calling for out-of-the-box thinking.

Well, the best way to improve global governance is to empower more people. Global communications tools make this possible right now.

By 2012, communications technology will reach all but a handful of people on the planet. It is the game changer.

The first experiment in global democracy might even begin in 2012 at the UN Earth Summit in Rio.

Imagine if the UN and other international organizations, along with Google, Yahoo, Research In Motion, Facebook and cellphone providers, joined forces to develop the first global referendum.

After all, the ultimate owner of international governance is named in the first words of the 1945 UN Charter: "We the peoples."

The referendum could deal with energy and greenhouse gas emissions, perhaps whether to phase out harmful emissions within a decade.

People could vote online or by text message. Can you imagine the turnout?

Chinese leaders, among others, would no doubt oppose such a plan, but Chinese voters with their cellphones would be another matter altogether.

With the results published online in real time, I can envision celebrations breaking out around the world. It would be the start of a giant leap for humanity, the dawn of a new era.  Vive la révolution!