A dangerous world; optimism in a time of pessimism

While I’m a fan and admirer of the journalist responsible for the theme of this blog, I am not a practitioner of his self proclaimed ethos, “pessimistic realism.” When asked during an interview for our first ever pod cast to sum up what I thought the near future of global affairs entailed I answered “Unknown,” and asserted my sense of cautious optimism.

On any given day it’s easy to give over to the pessimistic vision of what’s going on around us. We are inundated by media reports rife with live reports depicting either the lowest points of humanity or the greatest suffering of humanity. In just the last few days news reports informed us of the fiery crash of an airliner out of Lebanon (breathlessly claiming that “sabotage,” despite the claims of the Lebanese government, was hardly off the table,) a synchronized series of explosions directed at hotels in Baghdad had killed at least twenty and of course the media’s darling of the year; Haiti’s being smashed from abjectly failed state to that of, well, no state.

Combine this with the likes of a decade long promise of apocalyptic climate change, the pervasive experts promising the next existential terrorist threat, the ever present promise of looming economic ruin and it’s no small reason that we look into our televisions, listen to our car radios and conclude that the near future of humanity is, as succinctly stated by my learned colleague; “fucked.”

So I read, with particular interest , this piece by Thomas Barnett titled “New Rules: The Fallacy of an Increasingly Dangerous World.”

The meat of the article expresses exactly what the title entails. As bad as things are we, as a planetary collective, are forging a legacy quite contrary to what pessimists might paint:

<blockquote>In 1950 the planet consisted of 2.5 billion souls, while today our global population approaches 7 billion. Likewise, the number of U.N. member states has roughly doubled to nearly 200, meaning a greater number of possible configurations for war. In short, despite far more bodies and far more states, wars have nonetheless become less frequent and less lethal, while we as a planet have grown stunningly more interconnected and thus interdependent. Even the three biggest conflicts of the last decade — Iraq, Sudan and Congo — involved, at most, 2 percent of the world’s population.

That amazing trajectory now places us far closer to Immanuel Kant’s vision of “perpetual peace” than to Thomas Hobbes’ “state of nature.”</blockquote>

As I stated above, I’m not a “pessimistic realist.” While I’m loath to accept being pigeon-holed into some neat category either politically or intellectually I could live with the label “pragmatic optimist.” I agree that we are “far closer” to Kant’s perpetual peace than Hobbes “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” but would argue that we’re only beginning to move away from Hobbes’ “war of all against all” in too many areas of the world. That’s a beginning that I’m much more willing to embrace than the pessimist’s embrace of the “beginning of the end.” We’re a fallible species and guilty of our own self induced eras of violence and ignorance but on the whole we’ve maintained a remarkable ability to advance. And I believe we’ll continue that advance.

I’d be curious to see what our own readers think in terms of just how dangerous our world is and just what their positions are regarding the overarching progress (or regress as it may be) of humanity.

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9 Responses to A dangerous world; optimism in a time of pessimism

  1. Joe Jones says:

    Too much information. Things seem to be getting worse because they have an increased ability to seem, rather than because they are actually getting worse.

    Do you think the Tudors or even the Japanese daimyos gave a flip about the Shaanxi earthquake that decimated an area larger than many European countries? I doubt it; they would have probably celebrated it as a sign of divine favor. Now we have a global community capable of responding to atrocities on a global level with global compassion (well, except for Pat Robertson, at least).

    Climate change, terrorism, economic downturns and natural disasters have happened before and have been proportionally worse in the past. We always have to remember how good things are for us in comparison to our great-grandparents. Turning off the TV kind of helps, too.

  2. Klaus says:

    I’m inclined to lean toward your own “pragmatic optimism” myself. While there are certainly areas of high political tension, as stated war has broken out far less frequently than in the past, and also as stated has been less bloody. The Congo may be an exception to the less-bloody rule, but its impact on “safety” is limited to the Congo. Despite the constant braying of the latest diseases leading to massive mortality rates (SARS, H1N1) , in fact these have proven to be minor irritants because delivery infrastructures are in place – not everywhere, but significantly widespread.

    Genocide still occurs from time to time, and I don’t have at my fingertips presently a good solid point of comparison to years previous. Nazi Germany and the Khmer Rouge come to mind, as well as the Armenians… Stalin and Mao managed to get a few, although I’m not certain I’d call it genocide – but at a glance it seems less of a problem.

    So fewer people die of plagues, wars, hunger (thank you Mr. Borlaug). Crime in certain areas remains rife, but I’m not certain the various drug cartels or Russian mafia are worse than their predecessors within or outside the law.

    Overall I’d say there has been significant progress. Not everywhere or all at once, but here and there standards of living rise, people and capital move more freely (speaking of which human capital, slaves, remain an issue but is it as bad as yesteryear?). The Great Powers are unlikely to war with one another, as there’s far too much to lose.

    I’m not sure what to think regarding progress/regress for the Middle East. In part that depends on Iran, which if it does move more Westerly will destabilize the region in the short term. Long term, I’d say the fall of the Islamist government would constitute progress.

  3. Klaus says:

    Damn Joe, you just had to be succinct while I hammered out an incoherent ramble :)

  4. Curzon says:

    I would like to think, and part of me believes, that Joe is correct.

    But o course, when asked the same question as you, to sum up the near future of global affairs in one word, I answered “fucked.” I think we’re on a trajectory that leads us to somewhere that no one knows what it means. A rising population — 9 billion or so — with most of the growth taking place in the anarchic nightmare regions of the world; dwindling hydrocarbons and access to easy energy; and a decrease in other minable minerals and resources. While we currently care about the mess in Haiti, I don’t think we’d care if we had difficulty securing our own basic standard of living on a national or international scale.

  5. IJ says:

    I’d be curious to see what our own readers think in terms of just how dangerous our world is and just what their positions are regarding the overarching progress (or regress as it may be) of humanity.

    This is close to a rethink of the United Nations Charter.

    Dangers? A clue is that a regional security organisation approved by the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation [NATO], is currently redrafting its strategic concept, which is the meat on the bones of NATO’s treaty drawn up at the end of WW2. The leadership of the regional organisation has recently identified key threats to it as nuclear proliferation, climate change, international terrorism, energy security, failed and failing states, and cyber attacks. Are these regional priorities also priorities for the world, to be endorsed by the UN, because NATO is focusing more on ‘out of region’ operations?

    Progress or regression of humanity? Dangerously uneven. Last year 14 people died in US as a result of terrorist attacks [most in one incident at an army base at Fort Hood, Texas]; whereas there were 14,000 murders in the US last year. In failed states, for the last 20 years the average is 2,000 deaths every day from civil wars which are often the consequence of state failure. So failed states are the single cause of the most violent deaths in the world today. This is likely true for the foreseeable future.

  6. Ralph Hitchens says:

    TPM Barnett keeps things in perspective and I think his weltanschauung is correct. The other thinker that comes to mind is Francis Fukuyama, whose main idea is that we have in a fashion turned a corner. Or, as a CIA friend said ~15 years ago, we’ve reached the end of the “Westphalian interlude.”

  7. Joe Jones says:

    A rising population — 9 billion or so — with most of the growth taking place in the anarchic nightmare regions of the world; dwindling hydrocarbons and access to easy energy; and a decrease in other minable minerals and resources.

    Again, though, our predecessors had the same problems and dealt with them by adapting. When Europe became overcrowded, the problem corrected itself through resettlement (or plagues). When we started running out of whales, we stopped killing them for baleen and oil and we switched to petrochemicals. By the time the petrol runs out, we will probably be synthesizing natural gas from our toilets, driving nuclear-powered flying cars and dumping our toxic waste into the sun. By the time we use up Earth’s minerals we will probably be able to collect them from Venus.

    I think the biggest threat for humanity is the threat of complacency — that we eventually might not have the ability or the energy to keep outmaneuvering the problems we create by virtue of existing. (In other words, the Idiocracy scenario.)

  8. spandrell says:

    The problem is that white and east-asian populations are not replacing themselves.
    And if they are replaced by south american, arab or south east asian peoples,

    well, I don’t see them collecting minerals from Venus, sorry.
    If you think about that, yeah, the future is screwed.
    Civilized nations are not the whole world.

  9. Safety Neal says:

    I am concerned about our ability to feed the world’s growing population in the face of global climate change. Large quantities of fossil fuels are currently required to grow our food and then transport it to the population centers for distribution and consumption. Even assuming a breakthrough in power production (e.g. fusion power), we are still faced with radically altered growing seasons and more violent weather patterns as well as soil depletion from overfarming and erosion.

    Another concern is insufficient potable water. Fresh water is a finite resource and pollution of water sources is negatively impacting health in many places. The Clean Water Act is the US has been helpful in mitigating this harm, but not stopping it and globally water sources are increasingly polluted. The inexorable growth of population makes this a significant concern to health.

    While Mr. Barnett’s article on the limited nature of conflict is good news, I fear that an inability to feed and water growing populations will lead to riots and civil war. In response to shortages, governments may increasingly engage in resource wars for dwindling supplies of water, arable land and fossil fuels.

    Modern warfare is incredibly frightening because of the increased lethality of munitions (e.g. fuel air explosives), the emergence of “warbots” and de-personalized killing (e.g. Predator drones). Chemical warfare is an old threat, but the chemical-industrial complex has grown far more robust and prevalent since mustard gas was used in WWI.

    Pandemics are also a threat to civilization and it may prove difficult to distinguish natural pandemics from biological warfare.

    While these problems are not insoluble, they require prompt action and global cooperation at a level that has previously proven difficult to achieve.

    I agree with Joe Jones that complacency is the threat. The specter of global climate change has (thus far) failed to galvanize the world’s leaders to take effective action to mitigate this threat.

    Hope is a not a method. We need serious action or we risk significant consequences in coming decades.

    My concern is not the extinction of humanity; we are a very resilient species. I am concerned about the loss of civilization, science, and progress: a new dark age.