January  2018
"MAY YOU LIVE IN INTERESTING TIMES"
And this sure is interesting times-because so many momentous things are happening.

But these momentous things also have the potential to make it the worst of times. Sure, we aren't currently facing existential threats of the immediacy that my parent's generation lived through during WW2, or that my generation endured during the 1950's and 60's, when humankind grappled for the first time with the technological capacity for total destruction. But there are greater risks and uncertainty now than most people alive have previously experienced.

I don't believe we need to be too concerned about pandemic diseases.
The 'black death' European plague of 1348 killed probably 25million, approximately 8% of the world's population at that time. The prevailing contemporary theory for its cause was that God had been offended in some way- but praying proved to be a completely ineffectual response.
By the 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed more people worldwide but perhaps only 3% of the, by then more populated world, micro-organisms and the infectious theory of diseases were known- but effective antibiotics and anti-virals had not yet been developed.
We've learnt a lot in the 100 years since then, and it's likely that pandemics can now be contained without too seriously impacting our species, even with the 'arms race' of rising drug resistance.

Nor am I that worried about the direct effects of climate change. The world is in a warming trend, and humankind is almost certainly responsible for a significant part of this, but the environmental changes we have caused so far are comparatively trivial. Cyanobacteria, all-time winners in the 'make a difference' stakes, changed our atmosphere from CO2 to oxygen/nitrogen, turned iron into rust (Australia for example), and caused the near-extinction of all anaerobic life. Even grass has changed the world by more than we will probably ever manage. Life on earth has easily survived hotter periods and complete ice cover. Sea levels have been much lower and higher.
While human civilisation will be challenged by even minor changes in the benevolent climate that we've generally enjoyed since the last ice age- and which was a key factor in its rise- it is now well within our technological capability to survive and thrive in any likely climate scenario.

But there are political risks in climate change that are seriously worrying:

The first of these is leadership that sees climate change not as a problem to be solved, but as an opportunity to extend their own control and power. This is a pathway to tyranny.

The second is expensive but ineffectual responses, such as the Paris Accords, which won't usefully reduce temperature increases but deplete the world's economic resources, reducing our capacity to take effective adaptive action in the future.

Third and most worrying is that climate change has become a religious call to arms for the misanthropic Green movement. To them, humankind is the enemy of that mystic entity they call 'The Planet', and should be culled back to a subsistence hunter-gatherer existence. Religious crusades such as this can be enormously destructive.

And, more generally, political risks may be our greatest challenge in the next few decades:


Mushroom Cloud
 
The 20th century was roiled by two world wars and, more destructively, by attempts to move societies to the left. The impetus for collectivism is partly driven by young adults yearning for the security and wrap-around care they enjoyed as children, feelings that fade as they learn to fend for themselves- as evidenced by political views shifting to the right as we age.
Unfortunately, attempts to make states into centralised super-families have caused death and suffering on a scale exceeding the worst plagues, famines and wars there have ever been. Just Stalin's, Mao's and Pol Pot's 20th century collectivisations are widely believed to have cost 100million lives. And those, like Jeremy Corbyn, who want to do the experiment again with a few different settings, need first to explain Venezuela. Venezuela is ranked first in the world by oil reserves, but they are now eating their pets to survive-after moving to the left under Hugo Chavez.
Even more unfortunately, rising generations in many Western democracies are blind to history; a worryingly high percentage of those under 45 in the US, the UK, and much of Europe want to move to the left. Their cats and dogs are running scared!
And, starting innocently enough in 1950's France, a strain of postmodernist philosophy put down roots in academia worldwide and now has a strong grip on left-leaning Westerners. In mild form it's what we call political Correctness, but the cutting edge of this movement is 'intersectionality'; viewing the world as a hierarchy of victimhood. By this view, nothing that a top-rated victim does can be wrong, while everything about those at the other end of the scale is blameworthy, even just existing. White males are sexist and racist by definition: New Zealand recently had a political leader who publicly apologised 'for being a man'. In an ominous trend, on US campuses, gangs of hooded 'Antifa' activists deploy to intimidate those with different views and stop them being heard. And, through some strange reasoning, Israel has become their great Satan; strange because by any objective criteria, most countries in the world treat women and minorities worse than Israel does.
But very little about this type of movement (Nazi Germany's Brownshirts, China's Red Guards, the Catholic Church's Inquisition) makes conventional sense; they are like random storm events that boil up in human society from time to time, wreak their path of destruction and subside.
There are some signs of kickback against the extremes of intersectionality, but political correctness has a grip on Western thinking that will be hard to shake.


If status and job placements are to be determined by claims to victimhood rather than by ability and performance- and this is what political correctness is on the way to 'achievin' - decline and fall won't be long delayed. Some future Edward Gibbon will get to write the book about it- but not in English I fear.

And any new romance with collectivism will likely end just as badly for Western democracies as it has for every other country that's ever tried it- are we really such slow learners?

These movements are damaging Western democracies just when they once again face challenges from resurgent authoritarian regimes. The risk of conflict is rising sharply as China, Russia, Iran and others extend into areas being vacated by a weakening and distracted West. There are clear similarities with the 1930s rise of Nazi Germany- right down to policies of appeasement, which didn't work then and almost certainly won't work now.

But this time around, the protagonists have nuclear arsenals- which seems to almost guarantee there will be no all-out war (except by mistake of course), so we can hope that new balances of power will be established by nothing more destructive than shouting, proxy fights and skirmishes.

What I wouldn't give to be around for the next 50 years to see how this lot plays out, especially from down here in New Zealand, which is about as far from danger as it's possible to get- though still not nearly far enough.
Interesting times indeed!

Peter Lynn, Ashburton, New Zealand, January 1 - 2018