Sunday, August 06, 2017
To Be Expected
Over a decade ago a few academics suggested that the 21st would be a "century of revolution." The premise was simple - societies cannot go through what confronts us without unrest, the fracturing of social cohesion, loss of faith in government and, in some cases, outright revolt.
How could this century not be wracked by instability, unrest and revolt? There's a fair chance we've already triggered an extinction event. How do you imagine that would play out? We're so far in ecological deficit that Overshoot Day will probably arrive in July next year and June well less than a decade later. We're exhausting resources we can consume and contaminating those we don't.
The planet is seriously unhealthy and supports a population of 7.5 billion en route, we're told, to 9 billion or more when a healthy Earth can support somewhat less than 3 billion. To get back to that "do not exceed" population we'd have to cull the herd by 60 per cent, possibly much more. Can you imagine that happening without accompanying chaos, instability, unrest and revolt? Do you want to die? No. Then others will have to. There's only so much room in the planetary lifeboat.
We've already changed the nature of warfare to meet the new realities of the 21st century. Academics in the field of war studies use the term "new war" to distinguish today's reality from the Westphalian state conflicts of the 20th century when governments exercised a monopoly on organized violence to achieve political, sometimes ideological ends.
New war often degenerates into permawar, war without end, that sees a confusing mix of state (nations and their allies, conventional armies, corporations), quasi-state (militias) and non-state actors (rebels, insurgents, terrorists and criminal organizations), often pursuing entirely distinct objectives that can create alliances of convenience that can shift with changing circumstances in short order. How many wars are underway in Syria? Plenty. How many actors - state, quasi-state and non-state? Plenty more.
New wars are often resource wars, wars of sustenance, wars of survival, wars fought to achieve and deny access to diminishing stocks of essential resources, food and water first and foremost. Check out Michael Klare's 2001 book aptly named "Resource Wars."
Then there's climate change. We're already seeing and experiencing the impacts of this - floods, drought, severe storm events, sea level rise, species migration and collapse, disease and pest migration and more - but what we've encountered so far are just the "early onset" impacts. Some less fortunate regions are already being ravaged. They tend to be among the spots beset by conflicts.
No matter how strenuously our leaders try to breathe air into its lungs, globalization is dead. It depends on a secure supply of resources, cheap transportation and a fairly high level of state stability across the linked, interdependent network. Those elements are as essential to globalization as air and water are to human life. That's okay. Models like the neoliberal globalized economy rarely last more than 30 to 40 years before we move on to the next great thing. Read John Ralston Saul's exploration of this in his 2005 book, "The Collapse of Globalism," and you'll find an illuminating look at how economic models, including free trade globalism, are akin to fundamentalist religions or other ideologies. They're belief-based and in that lies the reason why, across the span of history, one belief-based ideological economic paradigm has supplanted an earlier belief-based ideological economic paradigm.
New opportunities such as the age of coal delivered from the age of sail or the Industrial Revolution or the advancements in geopolitics, neoliberalism and free trade, necessitated new economic models, new belief-based constructs, even dynamic changes in the Westphalian nation state. These changes were usually shaped to exploit new emerging opportunities.
Now that we're clinging to the rotting corpse of neoliberal free trade globalism the chain is broken. New opportunities to exploit are not popping up as they have for centuries. We've overloaded the system, our ecosystem, Spaceship Earth. What economic model exists to answer our demand for perpetual, exponential growth? There is none. We're tapped out.
Even Adam Smith in his 1776 classic, "The Wealth of Nations," knew this growth paradigm would have a limited run. He forecast 200 years and that was without foreseeing the advent of cheap fossil energy and the Industrial Revolution. After that era of growth, Smith believed we would adopt a "stationary state" economy closely akin to the "steady state" economic model being championed by many economists today.
Unfortunately we've arrived at this juncture at which our failing ecosystem is met by a political caste unduly accommodating of a corporate class that finds steady state solutions anathema. It's a near perfect storm.
Yet this incestuous relationship between our political caste and the corporate sector answers none of the major, even existential threats that will challenge us over this century. Their response is to treat those catastrophic threats as what neoclassical economists would dismiss as "externalities." That is essential to the pursuit of perpetual, exponential growth, the goal pursued even by our young prime minister Trudeau.
In some ways Trudeau is as much a liar as Donald Trump. The biggest difference is that young Trudeau is a coherent liar where his American counterpart is a blithering idiot with the instincts of the Artful Dodger honed over decades of fleecing others.
This breed of leader must inevitably give rise to the uncertainty that has spread across the world today, fueling fear, anger and xenophobia, together the lifeblood for the rise of authoritarianism. Illiberal democracy is taking hold. We see it now in its infancy. Ten, fifteen, twenty years from now we may ask why we chose to ignore this while we had a chance to buttress ourselves against its spread.
In this environment it's easy to feel that there's nobody in the wheelhouse, you're on your own. That's when we can become easy pickings for some charismatic with authoritarian instincts. It's to be expected.