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“The World in Crisis” by Andrew Palmer, a Synopsis

Paradigm Shifts and an Inflection Point   – This is a Synopsis of “The World in Crisis”, which will be published later this year (2017)

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. It encourages you to think differently about global issues, to examine our assumptions and certainties, and to reflect on how we see the world.

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. 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 and environment and 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. In The World in Crisis I attempt to highlight the growing accumulation of compression forces represented by the four dimensions.

The perspective I seek is that of a historian from the distant future, asking how, and why, there were such dramatic changes in the 21st century. I hope that as you read this inevitably fragmentary account of what is a highly complex story, you will gain a sense of the tsunami that will overwhelm the way of life that we have come to regard as immutable, as our birth right. As Amitav Ghosh said, “We have set in motion chains of causality whose ends we cannot see.”[1]

When we consider the problems of 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 a way of life which is now passing, and many will seek to deny what is happening.

Climate change and the stresses we face today are themselves “inconvenient truths”, they do not fit the agenda of many, who think that events they find intolerable cannot possibly happen. As Daniel Kahneman noted, the “search for information and arguments is mostly constrained to information that is consistent with existing beliefs”.[2] Our certainties will be challenged and new realities will emerge.

We must avoid denying facts that we feel are too hard to bear, because we thereby refute emergent realities. As our old worldview loses its relevance, we have to be aware that a new worldview is slowing emerging. We sit at a frontier, pioneers of a new zero carbon age, because this is the only way halt the processes which now threaten our well-being. 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. The alternatives will only lead us down paths of dark despair; uncontrolled climate change, and universal global conflict for diminishing resources.

Stephen Hawking, highlighted our dependence on planet Earth, when he 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.

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. The next section is a study of the impact of the four dimensions in a selection of countries. This is followed by 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 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 is extremely limited, and it is this fact which will enforce the early abandonment of fossil fuels and the rapid change to a carbon neutral economy, notwithstanding any increase in the availability of hydro-carbons.

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, based on the UN’s medium fertility model, could see the population of Africa increase from 800 million in 2000 to 4.38 billion in 2100; an additional 3.576 billion people over the 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 dark fortress, denying entry. Changes in age and gender structures are also covered. The ramifications of the aging populations of Japan and Europe, and the increasing gender imbalances in China and India, created by the selective abortions of female children, are considered. 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 examined. Population is an important dimension, because it includes the development of human societies and the 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, draws to a close. China’s development cycle is also ending. 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 malfunctioning; that we are at the end of a very long term economic cycle. We are now waiting for a truly sustainable economic system to evolve.

The next section looks at the impact of the four dimensions, and their interaction, in six countries, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, China, the United Kingdom and the USA, and 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, but is seen as an attractive destination by migrants, and this has created political pressures to reduce immigration, which were a major factor behind the vote to leave the European Union (Brexit). 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 river levels in the Indo-Gangetic Basin and many other major rivers. I attempt to indicate the likely course of events without dealing with every forecast and possibility. 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 dynamics of unconstrained capitalism are incompatible with the restrictions and controls which we now need.

Ironically, it is the existence of these challenges which 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, so nonsensical and false will such claims be seen.

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 will 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 of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, 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 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. There are many volumes that falsely claim to tell you precisely how our societies will react to the changes which are happening, and what the changes will be at specific dates, this is not one of them.

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.

The changes we inevitably face, will mean a reorganisation of the social, political and economic systems that we have grown up with. Nothing will be the same. We have no alternative, but to embrace emergent technologies and new political and social models. We need to stop beating our chests and the bewailing our lot, 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 before us.

(c) Andrew Palmer, 2017, not to be reproduced without permission.

[1] (Ghosh 2016)

[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)

 

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