Monday, February 18, 2019
The Breakdown of Governance
As a global civilization we really have behaved terribly.
For couple of weeks I've been working on a piece on pollution. Greenhouse gas is a part of this problem but just one.
We rely on Earth for everything that keeps us alive. It provides the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, the food that we eat and the resources we use to build our civilization, everything from sewer mains to cheap and abundant fossil fuels to base and exotic ores.
Nature also empties civilization's bed pan. It cleanses our waste water. It absorbs our atmospheric emissions and distributes them in a variety of ways, providing CO2 for photosynthesis, transmitting upwards of a quarter of man-made CO2 into the oceans and holding much of the rest for centuries while it degrades. Other pollution is cleansed as it passes down our rivers and into lakes or out to the sea.
The Earth has done a good job for us in handing our pollution but there's a snag. Earth is a finite planet. It can only process a finite quantity of mankind's waste and we have never tried to identify much less stay within those boundaries.
Now, that waste and pollution is backing up. It's akin to homeowners when the sanitary sewer floods their basement. It manifests in a variety of ways including algae blooms that foul our rivers and lakes, coastal dead zones, swathes of plastic circling in our oceans, fish kills and more. We're already losing this one and it's just going to get worse. Sepsis on a civilizational scale.
Both the greenhouse gas problem and the waste and pollution problem are anchored in the neoliberal order with its constant quest for exponential growth. "The economy," which has been elevated to an institution unto itself now rivalling the political institution, sees to it that the environmental damage it causes is kept off the books. With the complicity of cooperative governments it is taken off the hook.
Just as the gentle climate of the 60s and 70s is gone and, we're told by some really educated people, never to return, at least not for many centuries, the clean world of the past is also a thing of the past. The planet is just going to get dirtier and more foul as we've overwhelmed Earth's ability to clean up after us. And, like a planetary form of sepsis, bad things probably await.
In the early years of this blog I assembled a list of natural and man-made calamities that confronted human civilization and tried to make sense of them. It struck me that, somehow, they all had to be linked. I looked and looked for the common threads. Eventually they emerged. There were three threads - climate change, overpopulation and over-consumption/exhaustion of resources. We had charted ourselves a course to our own destruction. Ouch, not very nice.
Anthropologist Jared Diamond convincingly argued that, faced with multiple existential threats, you must either solve all of them or you'll succeed at none of them. His logic is sound and he has ample research to support his thesis.
So we have a world that has taken up the cause of climate change, sort of, some more than others, a few barely at all. But we're stopping well short of addressing overpopulation or our rapacious excess demands on the planet's resources.
We live in a world where population growth has achieved rates akin to malignancy. In less that a single lifetime we've gone from 2.5 billion to more than 7.5 billion, soon to be 9 billion and possibly soaring to 12 billion in my children's lifetime.
We're consuming the planet's resources far beyond their exhaustion rate. We now consume the equivalent of 1.7 planet Earth's supply of renewables and our rate of consumption grows year upon year. We've been very creative at meeting our demands by robbing tomorrow. It's pure sleight of hand, conjuring tricks, a civilizational Ponzi scheme. This ends badly.
Our rapaciousness is incontrovertible. It's visible to the naked eye from space where we can see the tailing ponds of Athabasca, the scourge of deforestation, the desertification of once arable farmland manifested in dust clouds that rise over China and cross the Pacific to North America, algae blooms from agricultural runoff that poison our rivers and lakes, disappearing lakes and rivers that no longer run to the sea. We can see it at our docks as the industrial fishing fleet collapses one species after another, fishing "down the food chain." We are warned that we're degrading our remaining farmland so rapidly that most of it may be barren, incapable of producing food, within sixty years.
Whether it's overpopulation, excess and unsustainable consumption, or climate change, we're living far beyond the limits of our global environment. Humankind and our civilization cannot survive on this path. This is a question of survival.
What keeps me up at night (it certainly did last night) is the breakdown of civil governance and social cohesion around the world. At the very moment in history when mankind most needs governments that can rally their people to the cause of their own survival, governments that can unite their people and restore social cohesion, we have a world led by the likes of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Recep Erdogan, Theresa May, Andrzej Duda, Putin, Duterte, Sisi, MbS, Netanyahu and many others of their ilk. We have nations whose people are fractured and therefore powerless, more deeply divided than they have been in decades. It's a world that has been left mortally weakened - socially, economically, politically, often by self-inflicted wounds, at the very moment when strength and courage and resolve are what matters most. Even Canada is in a mess.
Neoliberalism is bad enough but, worse, we have failed to tame it in time to prevent the rise of authoritarianism and the erosion of the vital comity of nations. Without that requisite level of trust and cooperation, we're all left to our own devices and, in some corners of the world, that will probably mean war. There are no longer any great statesmen to steer us to a safer course.