Archive for March 17th, 2009

A New Reality

When I started this blog, moving from having “Scott’s Blog” on my university server to a WordPress public blog, I named it “World in Motion: Reflections on culture, politics, philosophy and world events during an era of crisis and transformation.”   That was May 9, 2008, and my first post was “Katrina vs. Nargis,” comparing the typhoon that hit Burma with the famous hurricane that slamed New Orleans in 2005.

At the time, I realized that my blog subtitle was a bit sensationalistic.  An era of crisis and transformation?   At a time when things seemed marginally better in Iraq, the US economy appeared to be on the uptick (the ‘subprime crisis’ was being dismissed as minor) and the big news was the Hillary vs. Barack battle, “crisis and transformation” seemed a bit much.  And through the summer, as I followed the campaigns I had a number of posts warning about coming economic crisis and the possibility of America in decline.   Part of that was related to the high oil prices at the time (though I noted that a recession would give us a respite), but part was due to structural contradictions that could not continue, in a world with violence, terrorism, and threats from many corners.

Now, the subtitle of the blog seems rather predictable — who would deny that this is a period of crisis and transformation?   Yet as I reflect on what we’re going through, and what is yet to come, I believe many still haven’t come to grips with just how profound this period of transformation is.  We are literally in a new reality, a “new world” if you will, where the old conventional wisdoms need to be jettisoned and new thinking is imperative if we are to avoid severe consequences.  These are scary, difficult and yet interesting times.

The economic crisis is only one of the new realities we face.  Oil shortages and high oil prices will return as soon as the economy improves.  Moreover, the forgotten Mideast — suddenly no longer at the center of the headlines due to Obama’s election, unemployment, and fights about stimulus money and AIG bonuses — is as dangerous as ever.   Israel today warned that Iran is closer to nuclear weapons than thought, thanks to secret laboratories.  They say they are ready to act militarily, if necessary.  Iran for its part has rebuilt Hezbollah into a major power in Lebanon, remembering that Israel had been unable to achieve its goals against Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon war.

Israel’s efforts to revive peace talks in the occupied territories and the US desire for a two state solution are on hold thanks to the rise of Hamas as a radical anti-Israeli faction dominant in Gaza, even if distrusted by the Palestinian authority.  It wouldn’t take much to bring that conflict back into the headlines, or to have it spread.

Pakistan is undergoing severe protests and riots, and many think that civil unrest could bring down the government and lead to uncertainty and even the risk that extremist elements could take control.  Given that Pakistan has nuclear weapons and over 100 million people, that would be a major shift in the global power structure and cause alarm from India to Israel to of course the US.

Iraq’s apparent moves towards stability seem under threat, as the Kurds act more like they want to maintain autonomy rather than be part of a unified Iraqi state, and violence is on the uptick.  Iranian backed militias remain powerful, and people like al Sadr bide their time, maintaining support and powerful militias.  Prime Minister Maliki’s government struggles for minimal penetration into Iraqi society, while Sunni tribal leaders govern much of the Sunni regions.  It wouldn’t take much to push Iraq back into more violence.  Afghanistan, on the other hand, is in such a crisis that many in NATO consider the war there “unwinnable,” and indeed it’s not clear how the US can construct any long term solution.  This means that al qaeda can still be a threat, and the costs of the conflicts are increasingly hard to bear given the economic crisis.

In Nigeria violence in the delta, which produces most of the oil from that important oil rich state, is on the increase.   Wars dot the African continent, even as China pumps investment money into Africa, creating some hope that this could push African states into a better financial situation — with economic loyalty to China.

Then, of course, there are the almost forgotten but just as real as ever threats from global warming and other environmental problems.  This could cause mass migrations, increased storms, and intense famine in much of the world, arousing anger among radicals who will blame the West for the pollution that caused the problem, while the West will try to protect itself from the consequences of all this.

Add all that together, the “Three E’s” – Economy, Energy and Environment – with unrest, extremism and instability, and the world could be on the grip of a major crisis that goes far beyond our current fears of possible depression.  Indeed, the last depression coincided with the most horrific war and set of atrocities in modern history, all this could come together very badly.

The point of the blog is try to reflect on these things as they happen, and recognize that the secret to solving these problems is not to simply craft a good policy, have a strong military, win a war, or create some new global institution.   We literally need a culture shift.  We need to move away from consumerism, materialism, and cultural ignorance towards sustainability, a sense of ethics, and an understanding of other perspectives.   We need to find a way to honor our democratic values in a manner that recognizes that as a planet we’re all in this together, even if we disagree on some core values.  The most important thing to do is to recognize we occupy a new reality, that the world is fundamentally different than it was just a decade ago, and that the old way of thinking and doing things is no longer valid.

That is no easy task.  Individuals and cultures cling to what they are used to, and try for a long time to interpret reality into their old world view.  The Catholic Church up through Pius IX thought it could combat modernism.   The Ottoman Empire ignored its stagnation for centuries, and like the Russian Czars tried to hold on to a system that was anachronistic and doomed to fall.   Americans don’t want to think that the era of easy consumption and the US as a power that need not concern itself with what other states want is over.   But it is.  The very viability of our system is at stake, and our way of governance and way of life will be tested like never before in coming years.  Our best hope is to get ahead of the crisis and have the boldness to make major changes — even if the naysayers seem to think it’s “too much change for change’s sake” and represents too stark a break from the past.  Especially those who perceive themselves on the losing end will fight to try to avoid taking the necessary actions.

I wonder what kind of world my young sons will inhabit in coming decades.  As a social scientist I am in awe of the “luck” I have being able to observe an era as exciting, dramatic and uncertain as this one first hand.  Historians will be studying this time in global history for centuries, that is how important I believe our era on this planet is.   We are entering a new reality, and the goal of this blog remains one of first observing, commenting upon, and trying to understand this change, and then to try to develop and promote the kind of “new thinking” needed to avoid having this transformation be catastrophic for our culture and society.   And it’s only begun.