TWO years after the election of Trump and the UK referendum on Brexit, we have the bizarre events of a US government shutdown over the building of a wall with Mexico, and the UK Prime Minister overwhelmingly rejected on her proposals for Brexit.
Walls and votes are hurdles that we need to overcome in order to move to the next stage in the relentless arrow of time.
But the biggest hurdle is a mental one – how do we prepare ourselves for a phase of chaos?
As Douglass Carmichael, adviser to the Institute for New Economic Thinking, says in his forthcoming book, GardenWorld: “The economy is doing well but the people are doing badly. There are alternatives”.
“The conventional thinking is that the problems facing the world are simple road bumps, and after that, life will go back to business as usual.”
But the road ahead may be washed away by flash floods, mined by terrorists, collapsed by earthquakes or built to go nowhere.
Our existential crises are climate change and human inequality leading to nuclear war, but many of us feel helpless on how to address them.
In its 2019 Global Risk Report, consulting firm Oliver Wyman asked whether the world is sleepwalking into a crisis, as global risks seem out of control (www.oliverwyman.com), because “we are drifting deeper into global problems from which we will struggle to extricate ourselves.”
Their Global Risk Perception Survey, which covers 1,000 stakeholders, reveals an interesting pattern.
In 2009, the No. 1 global risk in terms of likelihood and impact was “asset price collapse.”
Climate change did not feature at all.
By 2019, four out of five global risks in terms of impact were associated with climate change – failure of climate change mitigation, extreme weather events, water crises and natural disasters.
In terms of likelihood, data fraud and cyber attacks were considered two of the more likely, in addition to extreme weather, failure of climate mitigation and natural disasters.
However, 91% and 88% respondents put “economic confrontations between major powers” and “erosion of multilateral trading rules” as the greatest economic concerns.
Businessmen still put their priorities at the economic level, rather than the human or mother earth levels that threaten their very existence.
Global problems are complex because they are highly inter-connected and inter-active, making their identification, interpretation, analysis and responses more polarised than ever.
At the existential level, nuclear war and climate change are top level threats, but what we do not see, because it is slower in manifestation, is how climate change through natural disasters, water stress, etc is driving human migration and exposing human inequalities that have ramifications way beyond their points of origin.
Droughts led to disease, food shortages and civil conflicts, creating the wars in the Middle East and North Africa that is driving migration into Europe.
But what the rich cannot see is that these negative sides of climate change, caused largely by unsustainable human consumption of natural resources, is having an unequal impact on the poor, way beyond their ability to solve.
Such inequality (rising unemployment, most middle and lower income class living at precarious financial and social state) gives rise to huge anger, pushing populist voting patterns, loss of trust in both experts, elites and the national and global governance models. The old order is crumbling, and there are still climate deniers.
The optimists have painted a picture of the bright side, whereas most of us fear that the dark side of technology, the Web and crime are taking over.
In ancient times, man struggled against nature, and through science and technology, learnt how to control it. Afterwards, the biggest struggle was between man and man.
In Dickens’ terms, “we live in the best of times and worst of times,” a small fraction of human beings, more equal than the 99%, preaches equality but own and consume more than their fair share of both natural resources and the labour output of the rest.
Climate change and social revolution are the revenge of nature and man. Every time there is a collective action trap – the inability to deal with a social and environmental problem – it is the weakest, the poorest and Mother Nature that are sacrificed. Witness the tax cuts for the rich in the US, whilst Yellow Vests protesting against French President Macron over austerity which the masses have to bear.
Award-winning science writer James Gleick, (Chaos, 1987), claim that chaos is a phase transition, meaning that all systems go through a phase of chaos as a disorderly transition from old order to a new but uncertain order.
But there are patterns that we can discern from the chaos. The most powerful man in the world is threatening to increase disorder (shutdown of the government) in order to get what he wants, whereas across the Atlantic, Theresa May is trying to maintain order by pushing through Brexit because she believes that is the best deal for Britain. One reason why she survives is that she is admired for her steadfastness, whereas her indecisive male Opposition leader is a worse alternative. In the US, Nancy Pelosi is trying to restore order after receiving the biggest mandate in the mid-term Congressional elections. The women are revolting, not just against MeToo abuses, gaining and taking over power because for too long, the men are fooling around.
Mr Trump is playing very high stakes Russian roulette, rolling a loaded gun and pointing it at his whole government, if not the whole world. Despite his claims, ISIS has not been defeated, because it is a virus that feeds on inequality, quite a lot of which stems from water stresses compounded by failing governance wherever they operate.
The fact that the share of districts controlled by the US-supported Afghan government has shrunk from 72% in 2015 to 56% in 2018 means that America is losing the war in the Middle East.
Many on this side of the Pacific feel that the guns are pointed in our direction to cover up for losses elsewhere.
This is the time not for fighting each other, but to rise above petty politics to work together to address the clear and present dangers of climate change and social inequality. These are the real loaded bullets in global Russian roulette.
No wall, concrete, steel or mental, can stop us blowing up ourselves, if we do not face up to these realities. That is the tragedy of man, but it is not the vision of women.
- Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.