This century’s major battles are upon us. Can we act before it’s too late?
Dark days lie ahead as a perfect storm of social and climate breakdown swirls closer. Great loss looms unless we move faster towards reform
To mark the milestone of 1,000 columns over 20 years for openDemocracy, the previous column in this series looked back to the first, which argued against going to war in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks and predicted a long conflict to come.
Some 18 months later in April 2003, and two weeks into the Iraq war, another column argued that terminating the Saddam Hussein regime would lead to a drawn-out war and create deep instability across the Middle East.
The articles may have seemed thoroughly misjudged to some at the time but have turned out to be on the right track. Both were written in the context of a wider view of global security that cited three factors that were going to determine the nature of international conflict in the coming decades. These were an increasing rich/poor divide, environmental limits to growth and a global defence culture that prioritised military responses to challenges.
None of these elements were new but my book, ‘Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century’, published in 2000 after being written in the late 1990s, had aimed to go further by integrating the trends into a broader overview.
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
One conclusion was that the combination of these trends would lead to resentment, anger, loss of hope and the risk of violent revolts from the margins. These problems could not be countered by military control, and had to be addressed at source. I pointed out that a fairer and more environmentally sustainable economic system was needed, coupled with a transformed security paradigm that prioritised conflict prevention.
Obscene wealth increases inequality
Two decades on, this thinking has stood the test of time well, which raises the valid question as to what predictions could be made for the next 20 years, at least going by current trends.
On the economy, firstly, the neoliberal model that came to the fore at the end of the 1970s remains largely in place. Chinese authoritarian capitalism is pursuing a parallel path, and transnational corporations may incorporate a degree of multi-stakeholder initiatives, if rarely engaging in democratic change. Countries affected by COVID-19 may even take state-level economic actions, with increased public spending.
These economic trends typically benefit private sectors most, and the overall neoliberal system remains largely in place. As this continues, the wealthy accrue funds that can only be described as obscenely excessive, as shown by the world’s 2,189 billionaires increasing their wealth by 27.5% from April to July last year during the first surge of the pandemic.
There is plenty of bright new thinking coming to the fore in many countries as think tanks and gifted economists advocate for more just economic systems. And the fact that at least 12% of humanity is a member of one of the three milliom cooperatives worldwide is promising. Even so, wealthy elites across the world are deeply resistant to change. 'Tax the rich' has not yet become a general mantra – but that may be only a matter of time.
With environmental sustainability, on the other hand, there has been substantial progress. Public awareness has risen markedly in many countries, aided by impressive new campaigns, and the repeated experience of extreme weather events is at last having an impact on public opinion. Meanwhile, the technology of decarbonising economies has come on apace, especially in the field of renewables such as wind and solar power.
This decade will involve an enduring problem with COVID-19 that will heighten poverty and food shortages, and the progressive onset of climate breakdown
The two catches are that the neoliberal system has not responded remotely fast enough to curbing carbon dioxide emissions sufficiently, and inter-governmental political cooperation remains hopelessly limited. If we had started making changes at the turn of the millennium, we could have reached a tolerable position by now – but that is simply not the case.
Finally, the military security culture remains deeply embedded in the control paradigm, with that war-promoting hydra of the world’s military-industrial complexes holding a powerful position in national cultures, whether in the US, China, Russia, the UK, France, India or any other large economy. The ability of the US, Australia and the UK to move seamlessly from the failures in Afghanistan to locking horns with China in barely a month has indeed been quite a feat for the military-industrial complex.
In contrast to this traditional thinking, the far more important challenges facing us all are not state-based but instead are global – the pandemic and climate breakdown.
Judging by present trends, this decade will involve, firstly, an enduring problem with COVID-19, as vaccine nationalism trumps global cooperation. This vaccine inequality will increase the risk of new variants and add to existing problems of rising poverty and food shortages. Secondly, there will be the progressive onset of climate breakdown, shown primarily by increasingly severe weather events, leading to catastrophic loss of life and endemic hardship.
Urgent need for change
There will be moves to address both, but they will not create sufficient effect and by the end of the 2020s, global insecurity will have substantially increased, greatly exacerbated by the anger and resentment of the marginalised majority, especially hundreds of millions across the Global South. This will accelerate the desperate need to move, but the migration pressures will reinforce the 'close the castle gates' mentality of wealthier societies.
The combined impact of these trends will give rise to far greater revolts from the margins, leading to deep instability met with force, which will add to the anger. At some point, most likely around the turn of the next decade, the global predicament will have become so dire that radical change will be forced upon society, even on those elements that are singularly wealthy and powerful.
The pressure of change during the 2030s will become too great to resist and total global disaster will be avoided, albeit only when the alternative predicament is too dire to contemplate and there have already been multiple disasters.
The truly urgent task is to speed up the rate of change, with the rest of this decade being the key period. We either carry on down the current path, making some welcome changes but doing so far too slowly to prevent catastrophe, or we accelerate what needs to be done so that the transformation to a just and sustainable world order comes earlier, with less loss of life and environmental damage.
If prophecy is indeed a matter of 'suggesting the possible', then there is an awful lot of suggesting that needs to be done right now, and we can all use our voices to speak up and play a part in being the change.
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