Our Dysfunctional World

Humanity faces unprecedented challenges that are far more important than the ideologically driven election campaigns that are currently annoying us. How the world collectively responds to these challenges will literally determine the fate of our common world civilization. Below are half a dozen of these challenges.

1. Global climate change caused by human actions is a firmly established fact that is no longer open to question. It is not a question of political faith, and Republicans are the only group in the world who continue to deny it. Climate change has arrived regardless of what Republicans believe, and will worsen considerably over the next few decades. It is upon us, and we have done almost nothing about it. It is most unfortunate that even the Republican presidential candidate doesn’t “believe” in what he sees every day.

It is far too late to prevent climate change, and neither the US, the world’s worst polluter, nor much of the rest of the world at large have so far taken significant steps to lessen its future effects. There is justifiable uncertainty about the exact effects global warming will have, but we will be forced to accommodate new ones as they occur. At the least, we can probably count on a sea level rise of at least a foot within a few decades. This will make large areas around the world, including the US, either totally uninhabitable or susceptible to frequent flooding. Secondly, temperature increase will change climate patterns in most of the world. In the US we already face the possibility of permanent loss of large areas of our most valuable farming land.

2. Inequality and mal-distribution of the world’s goods threatens to destroy meaningful social progress and cause untold suffering. Equality does not mean that every person has the same wealth, which is impossible in any case. To the contrary, equality means unfettered access to opportunity. Inequality in the US stands at a record high and continues to worsen.

In practical terms, equitable distribution of the necessities for wellbeing should be a worldwide goal. It’s not that nobody should be rich, but rather that nobody should be so poor that they lack essentials. This is a relatively modest goal that neither includes nor precludes the pursuit of wealth. Human wellbeing depends on the defeat of poverty and provision of the common elements of a secure life. It does not depend on the accumulation of excess wealth, and when equality is improved, it has broad positive effects on social wellbeing. Many other social traits—everything from crime to obesity to academic achievement—improve along with equality.

3. Human population growth continues to threaten the stability of the planet in the economic, political, and environmental realms. It has become popular to discount the predictions of mass starvation made over two centuries ago by Thomas Malthus, which were confounded by improved agriculture, as well as the predictions of The Population Bomb (1968), which were confounded by the unexpected population decline that accompanied improved health and wealth. To everyone’s surprise, reduction of poverty and its dangers was itself enough to bring birthrates down, an unexpected consequence that was positive, for a change. But there are billions more people now, and the population continues to rise. The real dangers inherent in overpopulation have not been addressed.

It is unrealistic to believe that any sort of central authority could control human population, but healthy political structures, including universal education, can create widespread understanding of and support for common goals. Unhealthy political structures and ignorance, on the other hand, can stymie common goals. Here’s an example. As polio was on the verge of annihilation in 2003, with significant infection remaining only in Nigeria, Nigerian officials halted the vaccination program and spread rumors that the vaccine would infect people with HIV and make them sterile. Shortly thereafter many Nigerians made the Hadj to Mecca in Saudia Arabia, some bringing polio with them and infecting pilgrims from elsewhere. Polio eradication was set back at least a decade at an additional cost of many millions.

Common goals might include peace, economic equality, and environmental understanding, in addition to population control. Ignorance leaves populations susceptible to false promises and unrealistic expectations.

It is a simple fact that neither the human population nor anything else can increase infinitely on a finite planet. We have not yet reached these limits, and even something so simple as diminishing our dependence on beef could delay their arrival for some time. The more serious immediate challenge lies in the equitable distribution of food, clean water, and ordinary wealth, and it is a difficult challenge indeed.

4. Worldwide unemployment or underemployment remains one of the most significant factors threatening equality and justice. In advanced nations, modernization with computers in every realm of commerce is creating a condition of increasing permanent unemployment, poverty, and inequality. Large numbers of these displaced workers will never find work again. This condition cannot be overcome with any sort of laissez faire policy or dependence on a free market, but will instead require new thinking and wise political guidance, virtues in short supply.

In the US, virtually no politicians have grasped the significance of this trend, which in essence amounts to too few hours of available work hours nationally to provide for full employment. It is not a partisan issue, and it is important to act for the benefit of the nation. Unfortunately, the current political climate of non-cooperation makes this unlikely, to everyone’s misfortune.

Worldwide, whole countries suffer from unemployment and deep poverty, with attendant high disease and mortality and low levels of education. The peoples of these countries want nothing more than to be able to work and be paid for it, and are thwarted by circumstances over which they have no control.

5. Universal education offers the best possibility for avoidance of unsupportable beliefs that threaten peace and wellbeing. The understanding of scientific method is crucial to the political stability of the world. Religious beliefs must accept and endorse the provable truths of science, which is not at all to say that religion should not be part of the modern world. Even the Catholic church, after all, no longer opposes the discoveries of Galileo.

No better educational investment could be made than to teach girls, particularly in the developing world. They will become the women who manage their families. Well educated women bring improved life for everyone.

Worldwide, there are still many millions of people whose lives are controlled by superstitious beliefs. Such superstitions, for example a belief that a disease is caused by someone casting a spell, can prevent a family from making use of common modern medicine in favor of paying a witch doctor to cast a counter-spell, thus preventing effective treatment and possibly causing a death that could have been easily prevented.

This sort of belief is prominent in places where structured universal education is absent, but it also exists in modern nations. Fundamentalist religious leaders in the US and even some people in Congress blame naturally occurring events, such as storms, earthquakes, or even eclipses, on their favorite political demons, such as gay marriage, abortion, or the national debt.

The greater the general level of education, the better off we are as a worldwide culture. An ignorant population can easily make wrong conclusions and worsen their own condition. Furthering of knowledge of all sorts depends on education that reaches as many people as possible. Advancement of science and technology depends on it in particular, and these determine the wellbeing of the world to a large extent. No nation can be a modern nation if its people remain poorly educated.

6. Tyrants who ruin their country are too common, and they are difficult to dislodge. In most cases these men preside over a kleptocracy that extracts the wealth of the people and redistributes it to themselves, henchmen, and a repressive military or police force. Brutal tyrants literally kill or imprison many people, but they also thwart the modernization, democratization, and common wellbeing of their country and its people, and their malignant reign has international effects as well. The reign of such tyrants often continues until they die, and after their death with the succession of a son or henchman. Peaceful dislodging of such rulers is rarely achieved, even though their rule is hated by virtually every citizen.

New, hopefully peaceful, ways are needed for dealing with political leaders who refuse to leave office when they should. An award was established that will give leaders who leave office on schedule $5-million and an annual income, but it may mean nothing to a tyrant with $500-million in numbered Swiss accounts.

One possibility would be to devise new ways of controlling the manufacture and sale of weapons and ammunition, as well as their distribution to the offending tyrant. The role of world opinion, via international organizations such as the United Nations, may be of some value in changing this situation. However, even the worst tyrants usually have some extra-national support, and this support can prevent unified action to change the political situation. A contemporary example is Iran and Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad of Syria, whose refusal to reform or yield authority, along with his unremitting brutality, has shocked the world. Fairly often, nations that support a tyrant also sell weapons to him. Such nations should themselves be subject to censure of some sort.

While the political power of combined nations can be brought to bear, and has helped to topple several tyrants of the Middle East recently, it is too easily blunted when the tyrant simply steals all the national wealth and uses it to preserve his power while impoverishing the people. New ways to address the issue must be devised.


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