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Synopsis of the book

Synopsis of “The World in Crisis” – Andrew Palmer

Paradigm Shifts and an Inflection Point

The World in Crisis is an account of the fundamental and systemic problems that we face today, and the way in which these stresses will interact to force systemic change in the 21st century. I have tried to avoid placing the main focus on the negative aspects of this change, but rather to consider the characteristics of the paradigm shift we are now experiencing. It was Thomas S Kuhn[1] who identified the fact that scientific revolutions are associated with new paradigms; in the same way, major socio-economic revolutions, which overturn established systems, also generate new paradigms, or different ways of perceiving the world we live in. This would have been the case in the first farming communities, and when the first cities emerged; we are living through a similar era of change.

We stand today, at one of the great inflection points in history, on the verge of changes that will create a dramatically different world. The World in Crisis is an attempt to provide a framework for understanding the forces that are driving change based on the best available research. It is easy to list current threats to our way of life and well-being, but then to fail to grasp the way in which they are inter-connected.

The fundamental argument of The World in Crisis is straightforward; it is that the four dimensions of change, which I identify, climate change, resource depletion, human population, and the global economic system, will interact to induce nonlinear changes in the environment and our socio-economic system. This book is not about climate change, nor population, nor resources, nor the economy; it is about the paradigm shift that I believe has already started to take place.

The forces I describe act like the seismic energy that creates earthquakes. An earthquake occurs when tectonic plates move in relation to each other, releasing large amounts of energy. In the build-up to an earthquake massive forces compress energy in the Earth’s crust. I attempt to highlight the growing accumulation of compression forces represented by the four dimensions.

When we consider the problems outlined in The World in Crisis, it is too easy to be despondent. We may be distressed at the lack of foresight which has allowed humanity to arrive at such a pass, the stupidity, greed, cruelty, and pointless aggression, which too often seems to dominate events, and the lack of common humanity towards those who are poor and less able to cope in this changing world. We may also grieve for the way of life, which is now passing. Many will also actively seek to deny what is happening.

Climate changes, and the other stresses we face today, are themselves “inconvenient truths”; accordingly they do not fit the agenda of many, who can too easily believe that events they find intolerable cannot possibly happen. This is because, as Daniel Kahneman noted, for most people, the “search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with [their] existing beliefs”.[2] Our certainties will be challenged and new realities will emerge, no matter how vigorously we attempt to hold on to our old beliefs.

We must avoid denying facts that we feel are too hard to bear, because we thereby refute emergent realities. As our old world-view loses its relevance, we have to be aware of the paradigm, which is slowing emerging. We sit at a frontier, pioneers of a new zero carbon age. As Christiana Figueres said, “We don’t have an option, we have to address climate and in fact we have to address it at a faster rate than our own wonderful and well-beloved Paris Agreement says.”[3] The challenge we face is to create an economy which is stable, static, and which is based on only using available and renewable resources, that is sustainable. The alternatives can only lead us down paths of dark despair, living with the consequences of uncontrolled climate change.

Stephen Hawking, highlighted our dependence on planet Earth, wrote, “We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it. Perhaps in a few hundred years, we will have established human colonies amid the stars, but right now we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.”[4]

Our only hope is to acknowledge the acute threats we face, and respond effectively; we cannot deny this knowledge. As a species, we have developed a sense of entitlement, the expectation of a comfortable life, of security, we are wedded to the notion of progress (at least in the developed world), the growth of knowledge and the idea that technology will, at the end of the day, save us from our mistakes. We can no longer rely on any of these certainties. Technology, in particular, will be particularly important in enabling us to deal with the problems we face, removing carbon, planning, developing effective scenarios, but it is not in itself, a get-out-of-goal card. Technology is an enabler, a toolset, which has made the developments of the last two centuries possible.

The World in Crisis consists of an introduction and a study of each of the four dimensions, starting with climate change, the first dimension, followed by the second dimension, resource limitations, which focuses on the diminishing balance of CO2 following the limitations agreed in The Paris Agreement, then the third dimension, population, concluding with the fourth dimension, the Global Economic System. This is, in turn, followed by a study of the impact of the four dimensions in a selection of countries, finally there is the conclusion.

The section on climate change considers the processes of climate change, the scientific consensus, and the Earth’s climate system, including the atmosphere, maritime circulation systems and the cryosphere. The mechanisms whereby climate change affects the environment is also dealt with, including sea level rise, the growth of aridity, higher temperatures and possible feedback loops. The objective is to reflect current scientific research, not to write a polemic. Where developments, such as the increase in Antarctic ice, or the ocean warming “hiatus” of 1998-2012, have not followed the conventional view, these are explained. The scientific references are primarily from leading academic journals and care has been taken to include the latest research findings. There is also mention of the impact that climate change has had on past civilizations, and the climatic extremes of geological epochs like the Miocene and the Eocene. The urgency of the threat from climate change is illustrated from the reports from the Scripps Institute’s Hawaii observatory in April 2017, which recorded a new CO2 record, exceeding 410 ppm.

The section on resource limitations firstly considers the energy and resource cycles associated with the explosive development of China, and the resultant collapse in value of commodities, as Chinese growth slows. The most important factor is seen as the emergence of a global Carbon Budget, as a result of the work of the United Nations, and in particular The Paris Agreement, to constrain the output of CO2. This Carbon Budget must of necessity be extremely limited, and it is this fact that will enforce the early abandonment of fossil fuels and the rapid change to a carbon neutral economy, notwithstanding any increase in the availability of hydrocarbons.

The third section, on human population, firstly considers how the human species settled the whole planet, developing complex societies over the past few thousand years. In much of the world populations are already stabilizing or contracting, but in Africa a population explosion is taking place, which, if the UN’s medium fertility model is correct, could see the population of Africa increase from 800 million in 2000 to 4.38 billion in 2100; an additional 3.576 billion people added during the 21st century. It is this very large projected growth in Africa’s population, combined with the stress of climate change and conflict on that continent, which will be the main driver of (attempted) illegal migration into Europe in the 21st century. In response Europe will likely become a fortress, denying entry.

Changes in age and gender structures are also addressed, including the ramifications of the aging populations of Japan and Europe, and the increasing problem of gender imbalances in China and India, created by the selective abortions of female children. The current pressures for mass migration are set out: war, population growth, poverty and climate change. The mechanisms of migration are described, people smuggling, the way in which criminals treat migrants as a fungible commodity; to be sold, exploited and even killed (a migrant is worth about $15,000 when cut up for his, or her, organs by Egyptian gangs). Finally, the rapid pace of urbanization is highlighted, the vast conurbations of East Asia, covering whole landscapes, comprising tens of millions of people, the dominance of slums in the emerging world, and future threats to cities are considered. Population is an important dimension, because it includes the development of human societies and the continuing adaptation of our species to its environment.

The fourth and final dimension is the Global Economic System. This is as dynamic a system as climate change and is also approaching an event horizon; as the Great Acceleration, which started in 1950, is drawing to a close with the final stages of China’s extraordinary development cycle. This section considers the impact of Chinese trade on the US economy prior to 2008, as a casual factor in the financial crash. The weaknesses of the Eurozone and the structural problems of the German economy are also examined. Inequality, and the increasing concentration of wealth, is seen as a primary cause of increasing stress within the Global Economic System. The key argument is that the Global Economic System is now at the end of a very long-term economic cycle. We are waiting for a truly sustainable economic system to evolve.

The next section looks at the impact of the four dimensions, in six countries: Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, China, the United Kingdom and the USA. It also considers the impact of immigration on the European Union and its response. The early impacts of climate change are most obvious in Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan, whereas the impact of economic changes is currently of the greatest importance in China, including the problems of excessive debt and non-performing investments. The UK is relatively protected from the early impacts of climate change. However, it is seen as an attractive destination by migrants and this has created political pressures to reduce immigration. The European Union experienced the 2015 March, which saw a million undocumented migrants enter Germany.

The USA is currently experiencing a number of economic, social and environmental threats, including rising sea levels, drought, growing inequality, reducing wage levels, immigration and the deterioration in the standards of its national infrastructure. In practise the United States is a canary in the cage for climate change; ironically in the light of the policies of the current American administration.

It easy to believe that as we enter the new climate-changed world, that the sign over the entrance reads, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”, the words that Dante saw over the gates of Hell. It is true that the weather forecast for the next 80 years looks bad, soaring temperatures in the Middle East, and the tropics, hot and dry weather in the Mediterranean, Northern Mexico and the Southern United States, rising sea levels which will overwhelm many coastal cities, together with falling water levels in the Indo-Gangetic Basin and in many other major rivers.

We do face a choice, there are two roads in front of us, one is business-as-usual, and the other is to radically change our social and economic systems. In the words of Robert Frost, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.” We need to take the road less travelled by.

In December 2015, The Treaty of Paris set out a new agenda for global economic and social development. Furthermore, with the commitment to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the world has a framework for dealing both with climate change and the problems of development. The phase change in the economy, created by falling prices for renewable energy, has also come at precisely the right time to enable the conversion to a zero-carbon world. We are at the end of the Great Acceleration, and the idea that our economies can continue to grow without restriction is a modern myth.

Ironically, it is the existence of these challenges that has created the best hope for the future. The debate over climate change and the response has been dominated by scientists and by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC); some commercial and political interests attempted to sideline the issue, claiming that climate change was not happening, but although they caused some investment in renewable energy to be delayed, ultimately their effect has been marginal. Only a global response by governments can deal with the problems we face. This is undoubtedly the most important work the United Nations has ever done. The serious nature of the threats has forced the governments of the world to act together. Undoubtedly there will be some who will backslide, ignoring their obligations for short term economic gain, or folly, there are still politicians who believe that they can gain by denying the urgency of the problem, but the changes now underway are inevitable. Attempts to deny what is happening will in fact only serve to focus more attention on the realities of the situation.

The key drivers of change will be the need to severely restrict carbon emissions (and I don’t think that any one country can now derail this process) in order to avoid a feedback loop and accelerating climate change, and the replacement of the “growth” economic model with a sustainable model, which of necessity must focus on stability and the reduction of economic inequality. Traditional capitalism will be transmuted into a new form, investment will be needed, but within the internationally agreed framework of the COP agreements. We are facing a planet-wide threat to our survival, a war-time situation. It is interesting to speculate on how this process may take place, we can see the elements, the emergent technologies, growing public awareness of the threats, the obvious impact of climate change, the growth of the sharing and public domain economies. We have no choice but to change. Profound change is not a political issue, a difference of philosophy, capitalism versus socialism; it is now a matter of survival, of the necessity of maintaining our world.

We are at the end of a long cycle, a Super-Kondratieff wave. If we can avoid roasting our civilization with out-of-control climate change, a whole new world awaits us. The path will inevitably be rocky, tragic for many, and our old certainties will be cast away. There are two other things that it is worth reflecting on, firstly, our history is littered with the gravestones of dead civilizations, from the Mayan, the Roman, Ancient Egypt, and long lost empires and rulers, whose names have almost vanished, like Shelley’s Ozymandias. Secondly, we live today in the first truly global human civilization, linked by the instantaneous communication of the Internet and using English as its lingua franca. As a result, there has been an exponential increase of scientific knowledge and near universal access to this research. If our current civilization fragments we will lose access to this vast store of knowledge, and destroy the institutions which continue to create new knowledge and understanding. If our civilization is to survive it must ultimately be, not about wealth, about parades of gaudy consumption, or ostentatious displays of military might, but about a deeper understanding of our environment and our place in the cosmos. Only by increasing our awareness and understanding can humanity endure.

It is far from clear how this will play out on a global level. It is claimed that Neils Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”.[5] The purpose of this book is not to predict the future, nor to unduly alarm the reader; it is to point out the forces that are now being brought to bear on our planet and our species, and to identify key issues.

If we are honest we can see that the current economic system has become unsustainable, despite all the efforts applied by governments and international organisations like the IMF and the World Bank. Uniquely, the primary impetus for change is not the impact of new developments in technology, but the urgent need to address the problem of climate change, by drastically reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The state of the global economic system is a matter for grave concern. Global debt (excluding derivatives) in 2015 was $175 trillion, or 225% of global GDP, and total amount of outstanding derivative contracts was $550 trillion.[6] The Eurozone has become dysfunctional with Italy, Portugal and Greece unable to support their liabilities, weak banks, and massive trade imbalances between the southern and northern Eurozone countries. Ultra-low, or negative, interest rates distorted markets, undermined pension funds, and removed the incentive to save; by July 2016 $10 trillion was held in bonds carrying negative interest rates – cash in a shopping bag was a better investment. Global growth was flat, and government income fell steeply in many countries, as the value of commodities plummeted.

However, it is possible to be optimistic about our future, while not denying that there will be periods of great difficulty. The threat of climate change has had the effect of forcing all the governments of the world to cooperate, in a unique manner, in the face of an extreme and universal threat to human life on this planet. We have been fortunate, to have to face the threat of climate change, at a time when zero carbon technologies have emerged as real alternatives to fossil fuels. The Fourth Industrial Revolution, a package of important new technologies, may enable us to deal effectively with the threats that we face. We live in a time of exciting and deep change, the like of which comes rarely in the life of a species. We have a great adventure ahead of us; we need to grasp the opportunities that lie before us.

[1] Kuhn, Thomas S. “The structure of scientific revolutions, International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, vol. II0, no. 2.” (1970).

[2] (Kahneman -“Thinking Fast and Slow”, 2011)

[3] Christiana Figueres, WFES Abu Dhabi, January 2016, author’s notes

[4] (Hawking 2016)

[5] quoted in (Ellis 2001), p. 431

[6] (Kay 2016)

(c) Andrew Palmer, 2017, please do not reproduce without permission.