I once was having a debate with a diplomat friend of mine regarding climate change or global warming or environmental degradation or whatever you want to call it. We were standing under a piece of metal zinc awning beside an abandoned airstrip in a remote corner of West Africa waiting for our airplane to arrive. The topic, specifically, was the ill-fated “Copenhagen Climate Summit” – the predecessor to the also ill-fated Paris Climate Agreement. We were discussing mostly policy and implementation, not the actual climate science. Particularly that defunct deal’s intention to give the “developing world” a pass while saddling the United States and Europe with all the emissions restrictions and all the redistribution costs (it was called a ‘carbon market’ back then – in an Orwellian foray into the absurd). “We have arrived,” was my friend’s not-too-subtle contention. “We now need to allow others the chance now to catch up.”
“The End of History” anyone? Americans have, historically, never had much time for hubris. Is it fair to say that? I guess most people have forgotten the time when the Greatest Generation fought two world wars, won them both and returned home happily to their verdant valleys and rolling hills wherein were nestled their ideas of home; to manage the hardware shops and diners of their age. Love – family – faith. Even our leaders those days were more humble. Military victories; communism defeated; ungodly acts of technological advancement like space travel and the computer revolution and the information revolution; the creation of enormous wealth. All through great acts of sacrifice and a tremendous sense of self-awareness through ownership of the idea of who we were as a people, courage to recognize what was going well and what was not, and some consensus on how to fix stuff; at least the big stuff.
Hubris – it wouldn’t seem to be warranted these days, would it? Our new enemy, a many-headed hydra who gets stronger with each head chopped; confounding our great empire even as they live in caves and send messages by mule. Blue helmets sitting upon a berm as their beards grow long and turn white from age. Democracies that collapse as the model frays, to be replaced not by a new system but instead by a strange sort of 21st century entropy. All sustained only by 200 trillion in debt – an amount that grows faster and faster with each failed state.
A world disorder. Our order is fraying because it has lost its greatest champion. We no longer believe the things that we used to about our epic political experiment. A system built to permanently disempower the oligarchs has led to one which sustains new nobilities; who do not seem to care about the people that Peggy Noonan calls the “unprotected“. Free speech, enshrined by our laws but made gentle by our tremendous sense of humanity has led instead to discussions of safe spaces and trigger warnings and hate speech – with the only beneficiaries being those who peddle in infamy.
Where are we going from here? I certainly don’t know – although I’ve been thinking a lot about that particular question. I figure somebody should. To lay out if only for myself the vague outlines of the Phoenix which might be emerging from our “World on Fire“. I recently participated in a contest – an academic exercise about the reshaping of the UN to make it effective; to make it work for rich and poor alike. As usual – as a novelist – mine takes the form of a story. I’ll certainly share it with you – win or lose.
Something old and treasured is falling away – and what is coming, just below the horizon, is still unseen: unknown. It’s an exciting time to live; like St. Augustine considering the burning embers of Rome, we watch and we read and we write, in hopes that somehow clarity will find our pens and we can also help to give shape to what comes next.