How will we survive this cascade of crises?
Around twice in every century, an old era ends and a new one begins.
The Global Financial Crisis. Climate change. The precipitous decline of the United States. China. Ukraine. The pandemic. No wonder we’re feeling depressed.
By 2007, the way the world had worked for fifty years had become so fragile that it took only the bursting of a real estate bubble in the United States to trigger the great upheaval in economics, politics and society that we are still living through.
Change happens all the time, but changes sometimes bunch up alarmingly, creating a great extinction of ideas and institutions. It’s a pattern that has persisted since the beginning of the modern era 250 years ago. History tells us that these periods can end well or very badly.
The turmoil that followed the late-18th century Enlightenment produced brutal revolution, 25 years of war and a conservative reaction that took two generations to undo. Developments in the early 20th century set humanity up for a depression, two world wars, the Russian Revolution, the Cold War and nuclear weapons.
Or the last such period, which began among the Vietnam peace campaigns of the late 1960s and ushered in the civil rights movement, feminism, gay rights and multiculturalism. It also, of course, ushered in the small-government austerity programs of Reagan and Thatcher, which supercharged inequality and corporate overreach.
With the GFC, the blind faith in free-market capitalism that had persisted since the 1970s was shattered. Reagan was wrong: Government wasn’t the problem, after all. Government was the solution but it had gone missing.
That crisis was about far more than the finance system. It was about how the world had been run since the 1970s: as one crisis led to another, the legitimacy of western liberal democracy came under greater challenge than at any time since the 1930s. The GFC should have been a warning that a new order of things was now needed, but the only people who heeded the message were those who couldn’t do anything about it.
“The Chinese”, said John F Kennedy, “use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger – but recognize the opportunity.”
From the viewpoint of right now, it’s difficult to be optimistic. Multiple dangers are obvious, but where’s the opportunity?
Take climate change. Even now, when most governments at least say they take the threat seriously, there is a palpable lack of action. It’s been easy to sign up to international agreements – Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris, Glasgow – without any real intention of delivering on what was promised.
A recent study concluded: “Three decades of carefully crafted political statements, rumours of significant decoupling, and promises of technical breakthroughs have barely dented the apparently inexorable rise in emissions …
“Three decades of choosing to fail on mitigation have shifted the climate challenge from a technocratic adjustment to business-as-usual, to requiring a rapid, system-level change within both industrial and industrialising societies.”
The climate has already warmed by 1.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Any chance of limiting the increase to 1.5 o degrees has probably passed. The best we can realistically hope for now is two degrees, but that would still mean massive crop failures, global hunger, melting of glaciers and ice sheets, sea level rises of up to 10 metres, 99% destruction of coral reefs, unliveable heat for hundreds of millions of people, fires, floods and cyclones.
DISEASE, WAR AND AMERICA’S DECLINE
As more pressure is put on natural tropical environments, new infectious diseases are emerging more and more quickly. And as the range of vector insects increases, established tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue will become endemic in places like northern Australia and the southern US: places where white people live.
If Covid-19 is a rehearsal for the future, you’d feel like delaying opening night. More than 6.3 million people have died. In Australia, 85.3% of the population has received the primary two vaccine doses. It’s 73.8% in Britain, 77.6% in Germany and 67.3% in the US.
Those figures are disappointing. But it’s 3% in Papua New Guinea, 6.6% in Tanzania, 8.2% in Nigeria and 0.12% in Burundi.
How will the governments of rich nations, like ours, deal with the unprecedented millions of climate refugees whose homes can no longer support life?
How will we deal with the regional wars that have already begun?
What will the world look like if the United States – weakened, fractured and increasingly undemocratic – is unable to fulfil its role as the world’s policeman? Or if, refusing to accept its weakened state, it becomes involved in war with a resurgent and aggressive China?
After all, the history of America’s military adventures is hardly inspiring. The US has fought five major wars since 1945: in Korea for three years, Vietnam for ten, Iraq (twice) for eight and Afghanistan for 20. That adds up to 41 years. And they didn’t win any of them. They did, though cause the deaths of 102,000 American soldiers and several million civilians.
What will happen to nations like ours when the US can no longer be regarded as the bastion and exemplar of liberal democracy?
How much confidence do we have that the world’s national and international institutions – NATO, the G7 and G20, or the toothless United Nations – will successfully handle this cascade of crises?
The people in charge will no longer be around when the world is hit with the full force of these problems. The outcomes will instead be bequeathed to people who are young today, and the generations after them. What judgment of us will they make?