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.


Lorne said...

In earlier times, it must have been much easier to form a coherent revolution, given that the threats were smaller (often state-based) and the targets were in plain sight. Today, however, with so many economic and existentialist threats, and the incestuous relationship between the political and corporate class you describe, the old model of revolution seems quaint and ineffective. Perhaps that is why real change today will be very difficult, if not impossible, to bring about, Mound.

The Mound of Sound said...

Popular revolts are uncommon. Most are instigated by upper middle class discontents - America's founding fathers - who compete with the established order for popular support. I suspect that the more fractured and riven the populace the less traction revolutionary movements can achieve. That's when strongmen unhesitant to use force can prevail.

Hugh said...

Here's a recent quote from our PM:

"We are committed to growing the economy and protecting the environment at the same time."

Is he delusional? Hoodwinked?

Anonymous said...

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.

Thats because no one will like the honest answers to today's problems!
Honest answers will not buy votes.
Education , which is under attack worldwide, is the only hope for change.

Trudeau is more or less in the Hillary Clinton camp;a self proclaimed progressive ( don't make me laugh) but a self indulgent millionaire.
Trudeau and Clinton are calculated unlike the blustering Trump.
It will take revolution for change.
The system is broke and cannot be fixed.


the salamander said...

Exceptional article, thanks.. Its likely the solutions, if any, will be rather punishing all round. Breaking points are just that.. stuff and people get broken. I was reminded recenty of a quote from Marshall McLuhan - “World War III is a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation" - Now we can certainly see that becoming reality.. but it will be overlaid with the direct military & factional violence we are experiencing today, along with truly advanced cyberwarfare. Did you catch the statement about the founder of Blackwater suggesting Afghanistan utilize his private air force? Believe he has since sold the company and gone even more hi tech. The fake president has already suggested the windfall of specialized minerals in Afghanistan could be looted.. as a prize of war a la his view of 'why didn't we take Iraq's oil?'

On a side note, I will try to find the dissertation from an American military consultant for the War College, Pentagon etc re arms design & procurement. He was very very coherent.. concerned by the extreme focus on F-35s and lack of recognition that in almost all current and future wars and battles, support for ground troops, especially Marines is completely lacking or outmoded. Yet he sees how almost all battles are becoming urban scenarios amidst large populations.. ie street battles a la Blackhawk Down. He wants to see powerful & sophisticated drones that can remain on site for days, with stunning firepower, exceptional power to coordinate fire from other weaponry or resources, manage and direct real time data and visual analysis. These highly responsive craft can remain above most missiles or in fact destroy them. I thought about you while reading it. Will try to re-identify the source & send you a link. I thought about variations on this aircraft for Canada's coastal defense.. which is virtually non existant currently.. and skip the F-35 nonsense

With a determined Prime Minister willing to stick his neck out instead of in the sand or up his arse, development and funding could be in place & smaller versions could conduct vast analysis, sampling etc to ensure compliance with laws currently missing in action - ensuring active or abandoned well bores, pipelines, tailings ponds etc that are leaking methane or fluids are identified and the polluter investigated and charged.

Anonymous said...

Did you catch the statement about the founder of Blackwater suggesting Afghanistan utilize his private air force?

His air force has been seen in use in Libya.