[Image: Heading for Europe's Exit | © Herriot–Watt University.]
I very rarely get too disheartened – despite the very real sustainable development challenges that I get exposed to – yet, in a recent trip to Europe, I found myself faced with the realities that the UK is currently dealing with as it lurches, divided, towards a future outside the European Union.
Probably because it was my home for almost 30 years, but I really struggle to stay optimistic when I see a country like the UK so divided over an issue that never really needed to be placed front and centre as Brexit has been.
I had too many narrow–minded and one sided conversations about the issue; heard about too many businesses already starting to suffer economically; saw families and communities hopelessly divided and fearful of the future; saw too much evidence of the amount of bureaucratic effort and scale of resources being poured into extricating the UK from Europe. Effort and resources that could clearly have been put to work in much more positive and societally transformative ways.
And despite the noise emanating from Trump's America, I saw how the UK's rapidly approaching exit from the UK has the potential to have a far greater and longer–lasting detrimental impact on the world than Trump aspires to have – even if he achieves the unthinkable and makes it to a second–term.
On so many levels Brexit is already having a negative impact on the interconnected world we live in. Whether that be at the smaller scale with the breakdown of informed and respectful debate about the future of the UK, or through the macro–economic impacts that (to me eyes at least) are already visible in the country of my birth.
Yet, as I flew out from the UK, it was the scale of the distraction that Brexit is creating in Europe and beyond that worried me the most. At a time when the world's climate scientists have given us less than 12 years to act to avoid devastating climate change, when we also have just 12 years to make significant progress on some of the world's most serious development issues, and when isolationism and self–interest seem to be becoming the default positions for too many nations, having a divided and distracted Europe seems to be the worst possible way to head into the 2020s.
For too long Europe has been the one real beacon of hope coming from the West when it comes to meaningful action on climate change, whilst also providing one of the clearest and most durable examples of what can be achieved socially, economically and environmentally when countries work together rather than separately.
And yet here we are in 2019 with the great European experiment facing the first real threat to its existence in over 60 years.
And as I contemplated the future impacts of Brexit on the long flight back to Australia, it took all my optimism to focus instead on the hope that I get from the growing leadership being shown by so many of the countries in the Asia–Pacific when it comes to climate change and sustainable development. I can only hope that this leadership both continues and accelerates to fill at least some of the void caused by the ongoing political turmoil in both Europe and the US.
Because if Asia can't find a way to turn outwards and lead in the next decade while Europe and the US turn further in on themselves, then I fear my natural optimism is going to be challenged like never before.