Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Change, It's the Only Constant. We Don't Like It. We Don't Have To.

It's not that we're really all that troubled by the idea of change. In fact we like it so long as it's gradual and heading in our preferred direction. More often than not, however, we don't get the sort of change we'd like. We get things like wars and natural disasters; more disruption and less certainty.

Change is the subject of a fascinating essay by geo-paleontologist John Feffer posted at TomGram. Feffer opines on the death of the dinosaurs. No, not T-Rex and such, but the lumbering beasts of the 20th century - Czarist and Soviet Russia, Mao's China, the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and perhaps, before long, the European Union and even the United States of America.

Back in my youth, we imagined that lumbering dinosaurs like Russia and China and the European Union would endure regardless of the global convulsions taking place around them. Of course, at that time, our United States still functioned as its name suggests rather than as a motley collection of regional fragments that today fight over a shrinking resource base.

Empires, like adolescents, think they’ll live forever. In geopolitics, as in biology, expiration dates are never visible. When death comes, it’s always a shock.

...When dinosaurs collapse, they crush all manner of smaller creatures beneath them. No one today remembers the death throes of the last of the colonial empires in the mid-twentieth century with their staggering population transfers, fierce insurgencies, and endless proxy wars -- even if the infant states that emerged from those bloody afterbirths gained at least a measure of independence.

My own specialty as a geo-paleontologist has been the post-1989 period. The break-up of the Soviet Union heralded the last phase of decolonization. So, too, did the redrawing of boundaries that took place in parts of Asia and Africa from the 1990s into the twenty-first century, producing new states like East Timor, Eritrea, South Sudan. The break-up of the Middle East, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the “Arab Spring,” followed a similar, if far more chaotic and bloody pattern, though religious extremism more than nationalist sentiment tore apart the multiethnic countries of the region.

Even in this inhospitable environment, the future still seemed to belong to the dinosaurs. Despite setbacks, the U.S. continued to loom over the rest of the planet as the “sole superpower,” with its military in constant intervention mode. China was on the rise. Russia seemed bent on reconstituting the old Soviet Union. The need to compete on an increasingly interconnected planet contributed to what seemed like a trend: pushing countries together to create economies of scale. The European Union (EU) deepened its integration and expanded its membership. Nations of very different backgrounds formed economic pacts like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Even countries without any shared borders contemplated such joint enterprises, like the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and, later, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (the “BRICS” nations).

As everyone now knows, however, this spirit of integration would, in the end, go down to defeat as the bloodlands of the twentieth century gave way to the splinterlands of the twenty-first. The sense of disintegration and disunity that settled over our world came at precisely the wrong moment. To combat a host of collective problems, we needed more unity, not less. As we are all learning the hard way, a planet divided against itself will not long stand.

Feffer sees 2015 as the year that begat what he calls "the great unraveling."

Water boils most fiercely just before it disappears. And so it is, evidently, with human affairs.

Just before all hell broke lose in 1914, the world witnessed an unprecedented explosion of global trade at levels that would not be seen again until the 1980s. Just before the Nazis took over in 1932, Germans in the Weimar Republic were enjoying an extraordinary blossoming of cultural and political liberalism. Just before the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Soviet scholars were pointing proudly to rising rates of intermarriage among the many nationalities of the federation as a sign of ever-greater social cohesion.

Before 2015, almost everyone believed that time’s arrow pointed in the direction of greater integration. Some hoped (and others feared) that the world was converging on ever-larger conglomerations of nations. The internationalists campaigned for a United Nations that had some actual political power. The free traders imagined a frictionless global market where identical superstores would sell the same products at all their global locations. The technotopians imagined a world united by Twitter and Instagram.

...Few serious thinkers during the waning days of the Cold War imagined that, in the long run, nationalism would survive as anything more significant than flag and anthem. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm concluded in 1990, that force was almost spent, or as he put it, “no longer a major vector of historical development.”

As it turned out, however, commerce and its relentless push for comparative advantage merely rebranded nationalism as another marketable commodity.

The fracturing of the so-called international community did not happen with one momentous crack. Rather, it proceeded much like the calving of Arctic ice masses under the pressure of global warming, leaving behind only a herd of modest ice floes. Rising geopolitical temperatures had a similar effect on the world’s map.

Feffer sees in the near future the E.U., China and even the U.S. and their empires experiencing if not outright chaos then an unraveling, disintegration.

The centrifugal forces first set in motion in 2015 tore apart the great multiethnic nations in a terrifying version of Yugoslavization that spread across the planet. Farseeing pundits had predicted a wave of separatism in the 1990s. They were wrong only in terms of pace. The fissures were slower to appear, but appear they did. In South Asia, separatist movements ate away at both India and Pakistan. In Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar fractured along ethnic lines. In Africa, the center could not hold, and things inevitably fell apart -- in the Congo, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, and Chad, among other places.

There was much talk in the early twenty-first century of failed states like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and Haiti. Looking back, it’s now far clearer that, in a certain sense, all states were failing. They had little chance against the governance-eroding winds of globalization from above and the ever-greater upheavals of non-state actors from below.

And to the enormous burden of disintegration and the failure of globalization was added the monstrous impacts of climate change.

Perhaps under the best of environmental conditions, these forces would have pushed empires, federations, and trade pacts to the edge but no further. As it happened, however, despite conferences and manifestos and sort-of-binding agreements, the global thermometer continued to rise. The effects of climate change turned out to be the proverbial tipping point. Water shortages intensified conflict throughout China, as did food shortages in Russia. The tropics, the islands, the coastlines: all were vulnerable to the rising waters. And virtually every country entered into a pitched battle over drinking water, clean air, indispensible minerals, and arable land.

...What no one anticipated was the impact climate change would have on nationalism. But how else would people divvy up increasingly precious natural resources? National sentiment proved to be the go-to principle for determining what “our” people deserved and those “others” didn’t. As a result, instead of becoming an atavistic remnant of another age, nationalism has proved to be this century’s most potent ideology. On an increasingly desperate planet, we face not the benevolence or tyranny of one world, but the multiple confusions of many worlds.

Feffer's conclusion - as a species, humanity has just two options. We embrace cooperation - which means a great leavening to sharply reduce inequality among the haves and have nots - or we see society as we have known it perish and adapt, as best we can, to dystopia.

Yes, I can anticipate your criticism. Perhaps it’s true that, in 2050, we are at a nadir of cooperation and some new form of centralization and globalization lies ahead. Clearly, the jihadis, who operate their mini-caliphates around the world, dream of uniting the faithful under a single banner. There are diplomats even today who hope to get all 300-plus members of the United Nations to agree to the sort of institutional reforms that could provide the world with some semblance of global governance. And maybe a brilliant programmer is even now creating a new “killer app” that will put every single person on the same page, literally.

As a geo-paleontologist, I am reluctant to speculate. I focus on the past, on what has actually happened. Anyone can make predictions. But none of these scenarios of future integration seems at all plausible to me. “That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” we used to say when I was a kid. And a cookie can only crumble in one direction.

Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out something that many have noted over the years. We have been fragmenting at precisely the time when we should be coming together, for the problems that face the planet cannot be solved by millions of individuals or masses of statelets acting alone. And yet how can we expect, with desperate millions on the move, the rise of pandemics, and the deepening of economic inequality globally, that people can unite against common existential threats? 

...At the beginning of the great unraveling, in 2015, I was still a young man. Like everyone else, I didn’t see this coming. We all lived in a common home, I thought. Some rooms were in terrible disrepair. Those living in the attic were often exposed to the elements. The house as a whole needed better insulation, more efficient appliances, solar panels on the roof, and we had indeed fallen behind on the mortgage payments. But like so many of my peers, I seldom doubted that we could scrape together the funds and the will to make the necessary repairs by asking the richer residents of the house to pay their fair share.


Dana said...

Well, that cheered me up.

The Mound of Sound said...

Dana, as always, I live to please.