34. Geopolitical Summitry
Futurology can help us get our bearings as we peer forward in time, yet it draws on historic data and lessons learned. Wonderful things have been achieved today and across history, yet they are counteracted by the painful and distasteful fallout accompanying them. Automobiles are remarkable as long as one is not oneself subjected to the exhaust, noise and deadly dangers they bring – yet this almost-deified transportation-module kills more people than wars, drugs and murderers, popping them off in ones and twos like invisible snipers. We are (hopefully) now in a new century of correction – just as, in the 20th century, we had a century of rampant though destructive 'progress'.
A century is, for us, a long time. Most humans averagely live 40-80 years if they don't die young. Looking over a whole future century can stretch us beyond our normal imaginative capacity. A lot could take place during each single decade – and there are ten decades in a century! Yet it is natural for humans to think foresightfully, to think of our grandchildren and to plant trees for future generations – it's just that we moderns tend to have lost and forgotten this.
Consequently we busily create ominous circumstances which could make the 21st century even more dire than the 20th century. We have lived through a century of tanks, nukes, bulldozers, screaming chain-saws, horror movies, pervasive chemicals and radiation, child abuse and suicide and serial killers, and we are not yet finished with our mass self-destructive tendencies. In the 21st century we need to find new ways of life which have less tragic spin-offs.
In the mythology of disaster, it is common to anticipate times of tribulation – times when things get so tough that human life is hardly worth living. Though people don't want to think in this way, an underlying anticipation of a breakdown and a hard time nevertheless lurks there. This anticipation might or might not in our current circumstances be correct: it might actually be that the 20th century has itself been our time of tribulation, an ongoing disaster for billions of people. We have become accustomed to the (for most) chronic pain by letting ourselves go through a process of hardening and de-sensitisation, so that we don't notice what dire straits we're in. We think that this is what human life is – a painful or tedious process for some, and a joy for the lucky ones. Yet human sensitivity is very much there, and it gnaws away at us to try to get us to listen.
Even affluence is a disaster. It brings spiritual poverty, obesity, social isolation, covert competition, satiation, heartlessness and periodic nervous breakdown. Normality, economic development, trade surpluses, superstores, public education and health systems – aspects of modern life which are taken to be positive – are themselves disaster-zones. Spiritual poverty and institutionalised cultural violence are likely to be what our time is remembered for. It could well be that the averred times of tribulation lie not in the future – they might be happening right now.
We'll fully realise how disastrous our time has been when the pain and insensitivity of it lift off us. This would allow a deeper awareness and feeling of the pathos and suffering lurking underneath the concerns of daily life. Time only will tell.
Given that we stand on the edge of some sort of momentous global change, a historically-sensible game-plan would be to institute a serious audit of the state of nations, societies, environments and the world. The aim behind this would be to formulate a decade-by-decade global strategy covering the next fifty or one hundred years.
We could have started this audit in the late 1960s, when the writing went up on the wall. This would have led us to immense research programmes, debates and investigations through the 1970s. It might have been followed by large-scale foundation-laying corrective schemes and projects, experiments, planning, investment and re-education in the 1980s, together with a withdrawal and replacement of harmful technologies and situations. In the 1990s further developments and breakthroughs would have been necessary, since much would have been uncovered in the previous decades which we would previously have been unaware of – and longer-term, macro-scale complicating factors will probably have kicked into action too. In the 1990s we would have needed to seriously address fundamental and tradition-originated social-cultural issues. We would also be faced with more immediate projects dealing with current urgent situations and emergencies.
All this could have prepared the ground for larger-scale, global projects in the early 2000s, tackling interrelated and intricate issues on a far more integrated, worldwide basis – the effects of previous changes would by now be maturing, bringing with them benefits, new scenarios and additional challenges. By the 2010s, many issues then needing attention would be in progress or already surmounted: a new threshold would probably have appeared, clarifying the next phases to be addressed. The research, developmental, technological and organisational lead-times involved, plus the need for social and environmental changes to develop at a digestible pace, would require a decades-long time-scale – it takes time for trees to grow, for people to reformulate their values, for old people to die off and young people to grow up.
Thus, in this hypothetical scenario, we would have been looking at a historical change-stretch lasting possibly a century, from the 1960s to perhaps the 2060s. This all sounds rather easy in theory, and the blood, sweat and tears involved would be nevertheless great, yet such an unfolding change-process might well have been more desirable than the path we have followed.
This path is one of inevitable and encroaching disaster, conflict, pain and emergency. Blood, sweat and tears become meaningful if they lead toward a constructive end. However, our understanding of things is shifting too: any aware person looking at the global situation in the 1960s-1990s would expect some sort of eventual showdown, yet such a perspective is also a fruit of our current historic period, and we cannot claim to know all that we need to know. Thus, while prognosticating futures, we must always reserve a possibility that things can unfold otherwise – in completely different ways from those we know or anticipate.
World change is such a complex and immense matter that it could only partially be planned in advance. Much of it would involve ongoing crisis-management and application of genius, grappling with many unknowns and taking large risks. Many situations would develop – as they have indeed done in recent decades – for which humanity is unprepared, demanding rapid response and concerted action. An additional factor is that, when a programme of reform is undertaken, larger and more tangential outcomes inevitably emerge than were previously expected.
When Gorbachev set perestroika in motion in USSR in the late 1980s, he didn't reckon that nationalism and corruption would become the dominant determining factors in the changes he sought to set in motion. Yet such outcomes as these emerge anyway, sooner or later, as a compound result of previous inaction or half-heartedness.
However, the difference between willingness and unwillingness to change is immense: the latter generates more friction and greater complexity than the former. Even if the longterm programme of global change outlined above had been instituted in the 1960s or the 1990s, there would nonetheless be large technical difficulties and delays, inertia and complications to overcome, capital and resource shortages to meet, public psychological thresholds to cross and intricate infrastructural, constitutional and systemic arrangements to work through, together with ecological and social projects never before tried. But compare these to the alternative!
Arguably, a longterm global strategically-planned change-process could even have started around 1900, had humanity followed its visions of the time and had it been more receptive to such a change. In the late-Victorian period there was an undercurrent amongst advanced thinkers and inventors which suggested a radically different future course. Innovators of the time were working with water-powered combustion engines, anti-gravity and free-energy machines, vitalist medical methods, new economic and social structures, new spiritual viewpoints and many new concepts in a wide swathe of areas. Had these been encouraged and adopted rather than suppressed, these efforts might have caused us to bypass many of the ills which emerged in the 20th century. We might have avoided two world wars, a massive economic depression, insidious pollution and waste and even the new-style 20th century forms of social control and public passivity. However, this was not the path chosen.
In the 20th century we have dallied fatally, attending to techno-economic growth at the cost of wider considerations. We have lived off our resource-capital rather than nurturing our total capital-base and harvesting the interest generated from it. This capital-base is constituted of people, knowledge, materials, landscapes, energies. Each element of this natural capital yields a 'profit' (in the widest and deepest sense) when it is cared for, sympathetically cultivated and enhanced.
A person given a wholesome upbringing and learning opportunities yields positive outputs of many kinds – not least offspring who themselves will tend to be an asset to life. A piece of land which is caringly fertilised, planted and cultivated will yield increasing benefits over the generations. A piece of land rudely cleared, chemicalised and squeezed for excessive yields at the minimum cost becomes depleted. When well-treated, a resource or a person not only avoids depletion and reduction of its overall value, but also it becomes something much more – it becomes happy. The factors which make it a valuable resource are enhanced and activated through happiness: skills and assets in people and the natural environment need positive appreciation, nourishment and use, and thereby these assets will develop and multiply further. Happiness is the oil which loosens the wheels of redemption.
In the 1980s-90s, many high-level conferences and summits were staged – the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the 1993 Vienna Human Rights Convention, the 1994 Cairo Population Summit, the 1995 Copenhagen Social Summit and the 1995 Beijing Women's Summit. Laudable principles were diplomatically established, yet fundamental and cynical weaknesses accompanied them. In-ternational conferences have been characterised by rhetorical correctness and political fixing, by national and vested interests, by diluted commitment, half-hearted and unfulfilled action-strategies and minimal funding. These conferences have given the impression something was being done, yet cosmetic politics aimed at home-audiences overrode real international commitment.
One pledge made at Rio was that developed nations would invest 0.7% of their combined GNP in aid to less-developed countries to finance energy-saving, pollution and waste clear-up and eco-technological adaptation costs. This investment was to fund clean-burning generators, forestry re-planting schemes and non-CFC refrigerators. In reality, international aid provisions sank from 0.33% ($61bn) in 1992 to 0.29% ($55bn) in 1993, and it continued sinking – or worse, being cynically tied to industrial or military developments in some receiver countries. Of the $510m pledged for the period 1994-96 for the development of CFC-free technologies in developing countries, $31m was delivered . Tax-cuts at home were more important than distant developments abroad yielding slow returns. Meanwhile, a surreptitious propaganda exercise emerged in the mass media of the early 1990s to portray environmentalists, campaigners and prognosticators as cranks, idealists and extremists. Meanwhile, 20,000 species per year were becoming extinct, and millions of children continued to lack parents and a decent upbringing because of disease, war or poverty.
What hampers international summitry is unclarity over the issues of the sovereignty of nations and the re-prioritisation of global and human agendas over national and commercial agendas. The work of UN diplomats is sabotaged by national interests and controlling lobbies, worried as the latter are about election results, media coverage, taxation, profits and other short-term and (in this context) narrow perspectives. Fragmented, complex and inappropriate solutions arise, failing to tackle the root core of the question: the nature and purpose of the human social-economic system in which we live. While this failure is understandable, given the immensity of the information and issues involved, it also conveniently avoids the need for a necessarily integrated transformative strategy. It reflects piecemeal thinking looking for piecemeal, easy answers. Most of all, it reflects fear.
Dramatic sound-bite summitry gives an impression of progress, when in fact ongoing high-powered discussion, monitoring and practical action are required. Key issues need moving to the front pages of our newspapers and of public awareness. A decade-by-decade integrated action plan needs establishing, with controls and pressures to ensure adherence. Uncomfortable intercultural issues have to be aired, and priorities agreed – a difficult matter, though imperative. Such an action plan would need regular review since events arising over time would necessitate pragmatic modifications of intents and strategies. However, the salient factors here are commitment and motivation. A dearth of commitment and motivation hampers us today – whether it be from above (institutions) or below (people). Urgency, without panic, is needed.
Political fixing, however, is only one path into the future – it concerns social and international institutions and arrangements. Meanwhile, the core of the matter rests around people and what they (we) think and feel. Here the agenda is at least twofold: what is happening 'on top' – issues people can identify and relate to – and what's afoot 'underneath' – issues we're unaware of. The background fundamentals deciding the course of the coming century are being thrashed out today, in homes, streets and fields worldwide, in the back-rooms and concealed cellars of the psyches of billions of people.
It is literally an underlying battle for the hearts and minds of humanity. Two fundamental ethics are at stake: the principle of materialism, individualism and authoritarianism on one side, and the principle of inner growth, awareness and collective evolutionary responsibility on the other. Alignment with the first involves conformity with the current world system, and alignment with the second tends to undermine centralised authority and to give birth to alternatives to it.
These two principles are not mutually exclusive since each person positions themselves along a spectrum of possibilities between the two extremes. These two poles have a fluid relationship and are going through a rebalancing process in which the danger, if any, is that we veer too far one way to avoid the other.
These principles do appear to contradict one another, especially when sanctions are applied against non-conformity with authoritarian rules. Yet they need not conflict. In order to avoid throwing away good as well as undesirable things, it might well be that a sharp-edged middle path between them is the one which might bring optimum longterm progress. Otherwise we can waste time oscillating between transformation and reaction, increasing rather than decreasing the stresses in humanity and nature.