We face very serious challenges, one of them unlike any in history, as 2016 arrives. By far, the most serious is climate change, because within the century there is a real chance that it could end all animal life on Earth. Less serious, but more immediate, and largely unrecognized so far, is a sea-change in our understanding of “growth”. Then there is the violence of the Daesh, and in the US, the out-of-control police.
Climate change will become the only thing that really matters.
The reason this is so is that the time when we could have averted the danger is decades behind us, and now the inevitable climate changes could in time end all animal life on the planet. Our efforts have so far been utterly inadequate, and almost completely blocked by the irrational blindness of greed and political ideology.
The daily evidence has become obvious. The normal cold season failed to arrive this year, and winter wear was still mostly unnecessary even in late November, as people went about in short sleeves, eating their lunches on park benches. The Pacific Ocean in historic El Niño areas is up to ten degrees hotter than normal, which will make the 2016 storms real doozies. There have been unusual gatherings of whales and other creatures, and huge die-offs of several kinds of sea life. The Pacific crab season has been cancelled because of toxic algae, and Atlantic fish stocks have largely vanished. On my own deck several plants behaved as if spring had arrived. Californians are fearful that this fifth year of severe drought marks the return to the historic arid norm of the previous thousand years.
About once a month climate scientists release a new world report, and each one is worse than the last. The precise details of sea-level rise are notoriously difficult to predict, but every estimate is worse than the last. The Greenland ice cap would take centuries to melt completely, which would raise sea levels by some 200 feet, but melting it is, much faster than previously known. The surface shows a crowded lattice of blue rivers that vanish into the ice, bound for the ocean, and will in time cause the edges of the ice cap to collapse into the sea.
Every year has been hotter than the last for nearly a decade, each year a new record. October was the hottest month ever, registering a shocking increase. All of it means more ice melt and deeper oceans. High tides have already become a problem, even in the Bay Area, but more so in cities that will inevitably drown, cities like Miami, New Orleans and many others. A third of Bangladesh will vanish, as will the Maldives and other low lying island nations. Venice and London will drown.
And yet, even though they are figuratively and sometimes literally wet to the ankles, there are still True Believers who deny these bald facts of climate change. Republicans all, these are the people who have for decades prevented us from doing anything at all to manage the growing crisis, all in the service of profit from fossil fuels and the free market. Unfortunately, great wealth will be meaningless in the face of climate armageddon.
“Growth” itself must yield to new realities.
The world has accepted as the measure of economic health the rate of “growth”, defined as the increase of goods and services per person over a given period, usually a year. The concept that greater growth is always better faces the wall of finiteness. We cannot forever increase goods and services, any more than we can increase atmospheric CO2 or population forever. It’s a finite world.
Our population is nearly 7.3 billion. It is expected to hit ten billion by 2060 or so, and continue from there with gradual flattening out at about twelve billion. But by some calculations the Earth can sustain a population of one billion. Other estimates may be more optimistic, but the basic fact remains: infinite growth of either population or economics is like a cancer that kills its host, which is us.
We have always had difficulty accepting that economic growth cannot be infinite in a finite world, but a strange thing is happening. All over the world we are finding that economic “growth” is inexplicably low. In fact, it is zero in Japan, and shows no signs of resuming its old rate anywhere. I believe this is one indication of how economics will function in the new era.
There is a basic change in how goods and services are provided. In advanced societies, robots (mostly software) have already taken over much of the work that previously required human labor. This is true from the lowest level of simple labor to the very top management and tech levels and everywhere in between. The result is that if computers do a lot of the work there simply will not be enough work for everyone to earn a living, especially by working 40 hours a week.
The obvious difficulty relates to pay. How can we provide for everyone if we are all working “half time”? A major part of the answer concerns the owners of the robots. In essence, owning one of these robotic devices or algorithms is a perfect monopoly in the strictest definition of the term: 100% of the profit goes to one person. But their great wealth has created enormous inequality, which can only worsen if radical changes aren’t made.
We cannot simply take away their toys, because creators deserve the fruits of their genius, after all. But they don’t deserve it in perpetuity, nor necessarily all of it, in an era where even pennies per use results in billions of profit. It will take a lot of creativity to find a fair solution.
We must make world violence continue to fall.
It seems hard to believe, when daily headlines shout about bombings and shootings, but the overall level of violence is at a historical low. Even so, we have to pay attention. At the top of the list at present are the offshoots of al Qaida largely created by the two ill-advised wars of the Bush administration, and at home there is the virtually uncontrolled violence of the nation’s police, particularly against African-Americans.
The Daesh, as the Islamic State terrorists prefer not to be called, and their offshoots, particularly the African group Boko Haram, are monsters of the worst sort, murdering hundreds of innocents without mercy. Even so, they are closer to a minor problem than to the world conquerers they want us to believe they are. They are masters at publicity, making use of the latest technology to exaggerate their claims. However, they will be defanged just like terrorist groups of past decades.
But for now they have been very successful at teaching Westerners that all Muslims are terrorists. They especially endear themselves by referring to us as “filthy”, we who somehow don’t buy into the idea of following an antique book filled with machismo and barbarity.
There has always been anti-immigrant hatred, and in the US at exactly the wrong time the Republican party has bought into it hook, line, and sinker, apparently threatened by five-year-old refugee children and 75-year-old widows alike, people whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, family members often killed by the Daesh. Such dangerous terrorists arrive destitute, and are met by Republicans who think they were personally responsible for 9/11. Republicans are always looking for new ways to hurt people they don’t know, and to deny them the compassion Christians are supposed to have.
The irony is that all refugees undergo strict screening lasting some two years before they are allowed to enter the US, but for the GOP that apparently doesn’t count. It is hard to see any difference between them and those in the 1930s who refused entry to European Jews, thus condemning them to a hideous death in Hitler’s gas chambers. In fact, many of the crowd of GOP presidential candidates want to completely seal off our borders, allowing absolutely no one into the country, which is surely the supreme irony for a country composed almost entirely of refugee immigrants. Some of them want to build a literal wall all across the southern border, which I call the Maginot Wall.
It was news to most of us white folk that the US is a nation of police violence and murder, but not to African-Americans, who have known nothing but abusive treatment since their ancestors arrived as slaves. Most police behave properly, of course, but how many murders does it take before we see them all as violent criminals? That’s how virtually all black Americans view them. There is a bit more transparency these days, but little indication of improvement so far, even with movements like “Black Lives Matter”.
Too many police are simply out of control, and not held accountable for obvious crimes that officials compound by failing to prosecute. This must stop if we want to be known as a nation with any sort of meaningful justice. Perhaps citizen video, police cameras, and security video, coupled with better press reportage, will finally end the impunity, but real progress will not be made until the legal apparatus itself prosecutes police murder.
It is not an optimistic time.