The State of the World, Ep. 5: What Now?
In the final episode of The State of the World, Talking Policy host Lindsay Morgan sits down with former California Governor Jerry Brown to discuss the challenges we face as a global community and pathways forward.
The State of the World is a special series on IGCC’s Talking Policy podcast that explores the biggest global challenges that will shape our future. The series is part of a suite of activities celebrating IGCC’s 40th anniversary.
This episode was recorded on January 9, 2024. The conversation was edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Talking Policy on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Has there ever been a time when the challenges we faced as a global community felt as dire as they do today?
The two most powerful countries in the world – China and the U.S. – are increasingly at odds.
[Susan Shirk: “There’s a kind of cloud of fatalism over the overall relationship.”]
Wars are being fought around the world. And nations are retreating from dialogue that could avert future conflicts.
[Brandon Kinne: “Countries claiming they could be our friends or allies, we don’t really know if they’re our friends or allies. So, you know, what’s the best thing to do? It’s to increase your own security, right?”]
Meanwhile, climate change has pushed the planet towards a tipping point. And global leaders appear hesitant to take significant action.
[Fonna Forman: “I’m actually becoming increasingly skeptical about what global cooperation looks like. It looks like a lot of sloganeering. It looks like a lot of greenwashing.”]
And democracy is being challenged with a vigor and at a scale that is unprecedented.
[Emilie Hafner-Burton: “We should be supporting democracy in the ways that we can around the world, and we’re not.”]
This is The State of the World, a series of five conversations hosted by the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. I’m Lindsay Morgan, Associate Director of IGCC.
Throughout this series, I’ve talked with experts from across the University of California to better understand the challenges we face. Although they are serious and even daunting, everyone I spoke with agreed that giving up is not an option.
So what can we do? What are the ways forward?
This is the fifth and final episode of the series, where we’ll begin to answer the question: What Now?
Lindsay: To seek guidance about how to move forward, given the state of the world, I sat down with former California governor, Jerry Brown.
The 85-year-old is something of an elder statesman, with a long and varied political career under his belt. He served four terms as California Governor, from 1975 to 1983, and again from 2011 to 2019. In between, he ran for president three times (unsuccessfully); served as California’s Attorney General; and was mayor of Oakland for nearly a decade.
Jerry Brown is a man who does things – but he’s also someone drawn to contemplation. As a young man, he nearly became a Jesuit priest. As an adult, he studied Zen Buddhism in Japan.
40 years ago, he was instrumental in founding IGCC. And so, for this series marking our 40th anniversary, we couldn’t think of anyone better suited to discuss the state of our world.
I began by asking Governor Brown about which of the challenges covered in the series – China, war, climate change, and democratic backsliding – he thinks is most pressing.
Jerry Brown: Overarching is the danger of nuclear blunder. It could happen today. Next week. The threat of that colossal calamity, which could involve hundreds of millions – and now with the greater understanding of nuclear winter and its possibility – billions of deaths. So that has to be overarching.
On another perspective, people say, well, the democratic breakdown in America, the possible election of Trump, all that pales in terms of disrespect for tradition and our system of law and checks and balances, that is even greater.
I’m not going to try to weigh the two, they interact.
Now, the antagonism with China continues, and as we could look back in history and say, well, when did World War I, when was it unstoppable? I don’t think we ever quite know when we’ve entered a slide into an ultimate conflict.
But we’re sliding toward conflict. Whether it’s going to be in six months or six years, that I don’t know. But when it’s absolutely clear what’s going to happen between the U.S. and China, it’ll probably be too late. We’ll be at war.
So I’d say the China matter calls out for attention right now.
Now climate is another– we’re sliding, each day, each year, as the load of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses in the environment keeps piling up. And CO2 lasts hundreds of years. So, there’s no time to wait.
That’s not going to happen like nuclear, [where things] could all go in half an hour, but it’s certainly something that bears a response and very much in real time.
So I’d say the whole picture, it isn’t good. And our own system is more dysfunctional, and the antagonisms are such that people should be profoundly, profoundly concerned.
Lindsay: So, these problems feel kind of apocalyptic. Let’s turn to talking about practical solutions. What areas hold the most promise in your view for global cooperation? Is it climate? Is it health? Where can we work together?
Jerry Brown: Okay, there’s not just one area, there’s multiple areas. Let’s just take China in the U.S. There are so many interactions here. The tariff rules, or the restrictions on investment, or the efforts to block Chinese technology, their national interest, national security or otherwise. Immigration, visas, nuclear, climate, there are many areas.
And I would say, if we look at the economic for one, there’s hundreds of little rules that we could talk about. In diplomacy, you’re always looking for confidence-building. What can we do to start building confidence in our relationship?
All right, attack some of these tariffs, some of these rules. What are they? What’s China doing that we don’t like? What are we doing that China doesn’t like? Let’s talk about it in detail, not general. These very wide, general problems, repression in China, China, you know, stealing our technology.
There’s so many things to talk about.
The president can decide– he can pick up the phone and arrange a call with Xi Jinping. He can talk to him – not twice in person and two or three times by Zoom, but he could talk dozens of times. That’s what’s required.
I don’t see that the response is commensurate with the threat. Economically, to the fiscal system, or climate, or nuclear. But we certainly know one thing, they take many, many hours of very intelligent investigation – and communication!
It’s not us against them, only. That is a major element, but it’s us together. It’s interactive. We co-create our own problems. We are emeshed (sic). We’re entangled. And those interactive, escalating kinds of entanglements have to be dealt with.
Lindsay: Across each of the issues covered in this series, do you think that the primary obstacle to progress is political? Is it technological? Or is it something else?
Jerry Brown: I think the obstacle is just inertia. It’s just human beings who are fallible. We’re flawed. We don’t see clearly. And looking back in history, from earliest times we’re talking about war and slaughter and competition of all kinds. So it’s the weight of history that shapes what we’re doing. And you have to have courageous people who have clarity.
Albert Camus used the phrase “polar lucidity.” And from that, I take the idea of really clear– nothing obstructing your view. And we have a lot obstructing our view. A lot of ideology, a lot of images are in the minds of the Congress, the media.
And we need clear people. We need clear people in the universities, in the commentariat, through the press and journalism, think tanks, as well as in Congress and staffers. We need people to try to work toward clarity. What is our state? Where are we and where are we headed?
And I think we’re in a muddle. We’re in a real muddle. And so I think any effort at reducing the muddle, dispersing it toward clarity, is welcome and absolutely necessary.
Lindsay: Given the state of the world… and, you know, we all have different spheres of influence. You have a large one. Most of us have pretty small spheres of influence. In whatever sphere we’re in, what should we do? How should we respond to these challenges given the circumstances that we find ourselves in, in this age?
Jerry Brown: We should strive, in our own way, to create a more sane situation. Whether it’s at a university or a think tank or in a congressional office, in the state. Seeking the truth, seeking the– what is the best understanding of where we are.
And the understanding is never a hundred percent accurate or complete. So striving to see, to understand, is a constant challenge. It’s lifelong and it takes a relentless effort.
It’s much easier to fall into the comfort of your current assumptions, predilections, and the ways you– it’s comfortable. It’s called habit!
Habit is the way we survive. We can’t constantly be innovating every hour of the day. So we rely on our habits, but our habits of thought have to be challenged when they are dysfunctional.
Schopenhauer says the world is will and idea. And that you have to put your mind on a rack like a medieval torturer, and you have to almost, you know, force– torture yourself, force yourself into into seeing. Into clarity, pursuing the truth.
So it’s not, you know, something that’s so easy. It’s relentless. It’s extremely difficult. And that’s why groupthink and inertia is much much easier. I think you have to challenge that. But you have to challenge it not, you know, like just throwing bricks through a window. You have to be persuasive.
Now, sometimes you have to rattle the cage. Somebody used the phrase, “you have to break the china to get their attention.” Well, sometimes you do. But then you also have to bring people along.
Lindsay: You’ve worked for many decades – in elected office, outside of elected office – to make the world a better place, to make the world different.
You’ve kept at it over decades, starting in 1969, when you were elected to the LA Community College board of trustees, through four terms as governor of California, you hosted a radio talk show called We The People, you’ve served as attorney general of California, chair of the California democratic party.
You’ve done so much over so many decades. Why have you kept at it?
Jerry Brown: Well, I don’t want to disappoint you, but I find it exciting. I hesitate to even say– I don’t want to use the word fun because that’s too trivialized. But I thoroughly enjoy what I’m doing. And you make it sound like I’m some noble soul that wants to serve the public. Well, I ran for office because I wanted to get elected.
I was very ambitious. That’s the word I would use, ambitious. I ran– I loved my first vote in the primary election in 1969, when I won my first election. That– you can call it validation or whatever you want. I really liked that. And I like getting elected Secretary of State. I like getting elected governor better. And then I ran for president, of course, and I lost.
So, yes, I’m trying to– I’m taking these issues seriously. Climate, intelligent workings of government. All these things are important. But if I didn’t have the zest, the excitement… I mean, every day I get up and I’m excited just to deal with what we’re talking about.
People say, “Wait a minute. How can you get excited about nuclear holocaust?” Well, nothing is more important than dealing with these profound issues.
As a young man, I felt a calling to enter the Jesuit order, the Society of Jesus, because I wanted to deal with the, the ultimate issue: God, meaning, life itself.
So I was drawn to the deepest issues, the apocalyptic issues. I mean, nothing – if you believe in eternal damnation – nothing is more important than avoiding that. So when you start, if you think about that, that’s a lot more important than what movie or game you’re going to.
Well, analogously, if we leave these theological issues to the side, we have something very, very equivalent. If we have a nuclear holocaust, if the climate disrupts the way human beings are living on the planet, if life is synthesized in a laboratory with the help of artificial intelligence by rogue actors and massive plagues are unleashed, or we have another deep global recession and China and America don’t collaborate like they did in 2008, all that’s big stuff! And it’s more important than the day-to-day issues that people come up with.
So I find it a privilege, a pleasure and a real opportunity to be able to work and even talk about it, think about it!
So then when you have your office, whether it’s the Junior College Board in Los Angeles about working on community colleges and helping kids, make, you know, make a better life for themselves, or working on climate as governor of California. It’s all part of being human in ways that strike me as significant.
Lindsay: You were asked, in an interview last year, what you enjoyed most in your career. And you immediately said being mayor. Because you could see things being done in front of you. It was a real place. “It’s a real place,” you said.
And this actually is a theme that ran through a couple of our episodes, especially on climate change and on threats to democracy.
In those interviews, the experts I spoke with suggested that if we want to look for something hopeful, we should look where we are. What do you think about that?
Jerry Brown: Well, I remember looking at the wall behind the altar of a Black church. And in big gold letters across the back wall, it said, “bloom where you are planted.” “Bloom where you are planted.” Be here now, as Ram Dass talks about. Live the present moment, as we’re always told in the spiritual life or even from psychologists.
So I would recommend being grounded. What is within your grasp? And I think in the intellectual world, academia, there’s a lot of abstraction. And that’s good. We have to think through large issues. But we’re still encased in a concrete body with very specific needs and possibilities.
So the immediate is very important. That’s also from a Zen perspective. Having a cup of green tea. Be present. Be aware. That is the highest calling, the highest possibility.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things you do. I mean, you can be a carpenter or you can be a diplomat, or you can be a scientist, or a teacher. So we have multiple dimensions as human beings. But in terms of our own life and its meaning, being present…that is the most difficult of all.
But it all comes down to, the sensitivity, the awareness, the ability to see, and not be clouded with our desires and needs and fears.
Lindsay: The impetus for this podcast series is IGCC’s 40th anniversary. We were founded in 1983. You were instrumental in the conceiving of the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation as a center for peace research, as a center for analysis, dialogue.
I wonder– in terms of your legacy with IGCC, 40 years is a long time. The world has changed. Why do you think an institute like IGCC is relevant? And where do you hope to see us go over the next 40 years?
Jerry Brown: Look, I started what I call the Peace Institute. That was what we were talking about. Where’d it come from? It came from the debate at the Board of Regents at the University of California about the weapons contracts. The weapons labs of Los Alamos and Livermore, principally, where the weapons are designed.
And there was a demand, a very strong demand, for the university to separate from those labs.
The regents voted. I voted to separate from the labs on the part of the university. I lost. So as kind of a consolation prize, we decided, let’s take some of the money that goes to the labs and create a peace institute. That’s where the idea came from.
So the idea of your institute is to counteract the power of weapons. And I think this institute has to explore all the ways that we create a stable world. Not just a world that can compete, but a world that can be peaceful, and we don’t hear the word peace anymore. That’s– that’s almost like a word that can’t be used. But it’s a good word: peace. Even though you don’t have that in your name, because it wouldn’t be taken serious.
Peace is what we want, not war, and not getting ready for war with all these multiple conflicts that we’re now, encouraging and cementing.
Lindsay: Governor Jerry Brown, thank you for being with us on talking policy.
Jerry Brown: Good. Well, thank you. And I hope we illuminated a little bit.
There is no one thing that will solve the problems we face. But the point of this series isn’t to leave listeners depressed and overwhelmed.
As Susan Shirk said in Episode 1: human agency is a big part of what determines the course of history. And what that means is: nothing is set in stone. Nothing is inevitable. Not the good things, like democracy, or the bad things, like wars.
The future is unwritten, and it’s up to us to write it.
And in whatever sphere of influence we have, we have the chance to do what Jerry Brown said – to see possibility in the midst of an uncertain world.
Thanks for listening to The State of the World, a special miniseries from Talking Policy. I’m your host, Lindsay Morgan.
This episode was produced by Anna Van Dine. Production manager, Gabriela Montequin. Mixing and sound design by Alex Brouwer. Our production partner for this series is CitizenRacecar.
The phrase “the future is unwritten” was originally penned by Joe Strummer.
Talking Policy is a production of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Archival audio used in this series is from NPR; the University of California, Irvine, audio recordings collection; Freesound.org; the Internet Archive; the Library of Congress; and the United States Government. Used with permission, where applicable. Any unauthorized duplication is strictly prohibited.
The UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC) is a research network comprised of scholars from across the University of California and the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories that conducts policy-relevant research to mitigate conflict and promote a more peaceful world order. Our focus is on challenges that have the potential to lead to wide-scale conflict, and that can benefit from global cooperation to solve. Our portfolio includes both traditional security issues—defense innovation, strategy and deterrence, nuclear weapons policy, and security cooperation—and emerging and non-traditional challenges such as climate change, geoeconomics and great power competition, and threats to democracy. In each of these areas, IGCC builds diverse, multidisciplinary research teams that analyze the causes and consequences of global conflict—and help develop practical solutions.