While my little boy plays water-guns, builds Lego sets, learns to type and do extra-math and watches Alvin and the Chipmunks, the world in which he will live is being formed — and in fast forward.
So far, the attempts to understand it are maudlin at best. These are not the days of great thinkers. Today’s debates are between the technocrats and ‘experts’ on one side juxtaposed against the fiery populists of all stripes on the other. The technocrats begging “Please, oh please just do as I say” against those who respond “Why, why should I? You never did anything for me, and your recipes never saved my hide – only your own!”
But this discussion is unhelpful, and crowds out the real debate we should be having; of how our world is changing, and quickly, and how we should form the future world to make it work for as many people as we can. It is about people, after all. Even environmentalism; for if there were no people on the planet, who cares if it is as rocky and barren as Mars? Yes, we love the little animals – they give us joy. We revel in the green forests and the blue oceans. They were created for us to give care, and we’re doing a terrible job. But without humanity, do they matter? Food for thought.
I’ve been reading as much as I can on what is coming next, what in fact has been coming for a while but we decided to ignore “it” and focus instead on the immediacy of our urges. Most recently I found an article by a certain John Ikenberry from his ‘safe space’ at Stanford “The Next Liberal Order”. He was to a certain extent parroting what Henry Kissinger wrote April, “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order”, which I read with great enthusiasm until I realized that the recipes given by Kissinger (and now Ikenberry, and so many others) are – “Double down, folks, double down.” We need to reinvest in our ‘globalist world order’ because COVID has proven that threats are transnational.
True enough, however there is a counterpoint, one forgotten by the globalists. That is, the problem we have now is not a result of a world without enough global institutions. It is the final result of those institutions, filtered through the lens of politics. China, specifically: the greatest recipient of global largess – from the Nixon ‘opening’ to the WTO membership and ending in the avalanche of easy money to buy their cheap detritus made in their Uyghur slave-labor camps, bodies overworked until they collapse and then harvested for their organs to go into the global black market for livers of diseased diplomats and lungs of reckless ‘vapers’. China which unleashed upon us through its lies and pride a disease, put on airplanes in Wuhan where the “globalist order” made their cheap crap, about which there can be no pride, and rapidly sent around the world. Meanwhile the west descends into softness, looking for grievances deep into the past as we re-litigate 300 year old sins in an attempt to fill the void in our hearts left by abandoning our fear of a terrible God who is watching in disgust; encouraged by the same global institutions recipients of the Chinese slave money siphoned off to subsidize ‘Confucius Centers’ and used to purchase UN Human Rights (UNHRC) Council seats for the perceived legitimacy of the light blue flag.
And we have become stuck. Go back to fighting over UNHRC seats? Or abandon it all and return to the age of empire as Robert Kaplan writes in “The Return of Marco Polo’s World” – where imperial Persia, Russia, Ottoman Turkey and the Chinese vie for control while Europe watches from the sidelines drinking expensive wine and eating sticky cheese. Those are the options we are presented.
But if we dig deeper, there are more fundamental shifts happening than those on the front pages of the COVID obsessed or for they who still see a Russian behind every bush long after the Cold War ended. It is not going to be disease or war that defines my son’s life (and, even more so, my grandson’s) – but demographics. The world is getting older. The countries in the greatest trouble – Japan, Italy, Russia, South Korea and China. Japan’s population will reduce by half in the next decades; and those that remain will all be ancient. China’s population will also half, albeit more slowly (by 2100). Geriatric care and robot waiters, those are the problems of the 21st century. The exception (in the rich world), perhaps – USA, Australia and Canada and UK – where immigration will continue and, assuming we all can find reasonable governments, our immigration policies will track more closely with Australia’s, seeking out the greatest in the third world to offer them a home in the bosom of the free world. Finger’s crossed. This aging will bring tremendous economic stress. We’ve already seen in miniature – during the great lockdown of 2020 – what happens when global demand dries up. The shocks that reverberate through the system. Our global economic model is based upon the principle of growth… what happens when populations shrink? When they age and downsize? When they no longer make large purchases, but prefer simple time spent in family as they realize that they – too – are mortal and begin to count the cost of what really matters?
And the scary exception to this trend? Africa. Africa, which has never made it; Africa, whose population will go from one billion to four in that same period. Nigeria (where I spent almost four years) goes to a billion – it will have a greater workforce than China in my son’s life. As it is, the carrying capacity of that desiccated land caused one famine – in 2016. Imagine the next famine? Imagine the wars, if as it is those cleptocratic governments steal everything not bolted to the crumbling cement floors of their offices devoid of any maintenance product of collective national pride?
Yes, the world of the future belongs to USA on one end, and Nigeria on the other, with “Sichuan home for elderly men (remember the one-child policy and the corresponding 100,000,000 extra dudes?)“ somewhere in between, where nobody wants to go even if they were allowed. A massive wall surrounding Elysium outside of which the wars rage.
Of course none of this is fore-ordained; the future is not written by people smart or dumb but by the constant action and reaction of agents of change – violent and benevolent and compassionate and rapacious vying over what interests them. That is what is missed in this COVID world; any understanding that we cannot march in a planned parade resolutely into the past – either the recent past where bloated men sit drinking expensive cognac within silent halls in Geneva ordering the world as if on an ivory playing-board, or even further back with Sultan Mehmed II and his Janissaries breaching the fabled walls of Constantinople. We must go forward, somehow. We should stop and think about how, and where…
A final point, for now, is that our technology adapts quickly to respond to the needs of the world. That, too, I have learned in our terrible 2020. Food delivery services, teleworking, internet ZOOM conferences and dramatic rapid modifications of our health infrastructure. What does not change is human nature – reflected in human politics. That old fight of “left” against “right” – populist both as people become increasingly annoyed at the lectures of the technocrats from spaces safe funded by stolen money. “You should all stay home,” while the economy burns and the hunger rages. “Don’t worry, we’ll send you a check.”
As for me, I’ll keep reading and searching for voices who can synthesize the happenings for the benefit of rational debate. It may be a difficult quest…