Awkward questions, shifting contexts
and Last Words
Values and judgements can change. In Britain, most people believe we should ‘save the NHS’. The National Health Service provides near-free universal healthcare, and this is a good thing. But wait, we need to think more clearly. To be blatantly forthright, the NHS is the biggest drug-pusher in town – it deals ‘painkillers’ and ‘anti-depressants’, sparking an opioid addiction epidemic. It kills people through institutional negligence and medical error, it hyper-medicalises the delivery of babies, even death, finding itself in a situation where its healing mission is arguably compromised.
Some wonder whether the NHS is primarily a healthcare institution or a Big Pharma moneymaking operation. Many of the best doctors and nurses leave the NHS to avoid burn-out, preserve their sanity or help people in other ways. Something is very wrong with this. These are harsh and extreme judgements, but future generations could come to such conclusions, just as, today, we disapprove of the slavery, fascism, imperialism or ‘dark, satanic mills’ of the past. Situations taken today to be givens and facts of life can later be perceived as wrongs and crimes.
This highlights the mess we are in: a good organisation like the NHS can incrementally become part of the problem when it was founded to be part of the solution. This has happened in many sectors: perfectly normal, accepted benefits of today, such as mobile phones, antibiotics, agrichemicals, fish trawling, property appreciation, profitable financial instruments, corporate takeovers, arms sales and internal combustion engines are all candidates for the status of crimes against humanity or against nature. We continue permitting them while half-knowing this. Until perspectives shift.
American social commentator Michael Ellner bluntly puts it thus: “Just look at us. Everything is backwards, everything is upside down. Doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, psychiatrists destroy minds, scientists destroy truth, major media destroy information, religions destroy spirituality and governments destroy freedom”. Fierce judgements but thought-provoking. If we are to get through the future successfully, we need to be ruthlessly honest.
What emerges from this report is that a transformative option is likely to be the most promising option if humanity is to reach the end of the 21st Century in something resembling good shape. Tackling problems on the same basis by which they were created is not a viable option – it could tip humanity from a manageable or difficult scenario into a disastrous one. For a transformative option to come about, there needs to be a comprehensive outbreak of good sense, a corrective shift in the logic by which society and the world economy works.
To take one example, with conflict as a key obstruction to global progress, the world needs a thorough de-escalation of both conflict and all that feeds it – an oppositional, competitive psychology, inadequate domestic and international mechanisms for resolution of differences, an enormous arms industry, leaderships exploiting war and polarisation as a means of gaining or holding power and a public acceptance of force and violence as facts of life.
Conflict de-escalation is easier said than done – having worked in Israel-Palestine and as a citizen of a militarised, arms-exporting society, Britain, the author knows this well. But it must be done: this is not an idealistic but a pragmatic, economic, realistic statement. It must be done. Or there will be consequences we might not want.
Much hangs around the question of power. Humanity has the means to get things right, but one key ingredient maintains the status quo: those who benefit most from it in terms of wealth and power naturally have an interest in maintaining their position, since in their experience it is to their advantage to be there. But the history of socio-political revolutions is not a happy one: hierarchies sit at the top thanks to a collective psychology that permits them to do so, and in times of change or revolution this psychology has a way of perpetuating itself in the form of new, updated hierarchies.
Thus, following the democratising dynamics of the early 20th Century, around mid-century we had Hitler and Stalin, later Mao and, in the West, sophisticated oligarchies that philosopher Herbert Marcuse once called ‘the megamachine’ – all totalitarian systems that were neither wise nor benign. They rose to power in the wake of rampant social change, modernisation and social insecurity.
So revolution as we have known it is not necessarily a way forward for the 21st Century since it tends simply to substitute new winners for old, making old winners into new losers, whose fightback potential and capacity to block change can be considerable. Ordinary people, too, can feel better living in a secure system that hurts than risking unknowns that could make things better. 'Better the devil you know than the devil you don't'.
What changes things is the perception amongst hierarchies that, unless they change, they too will be losers. Thus, to retain power they must become genuine reformers or permit reform. As reinforcers of the psychology of dominance they hold a key role in deconstructing its psychology – though it is also true that ‘when the people lead, leaders follow’.
There is no magic answer to this equation of power. But an underlying truth hides behind it: elites truly succeed when they act in the general good, without exclusion or exaggerated imbalances of wealth and power, and when power is based on merit and service more than inheritance or control of the means of oppression – security forces, media, religion or resource control.
To re-quote Georges Pompidou: “A [true] statesman is a politician who places himself [or, today, herself] at the service of the nation.” But also: the people will manifest true leaders when they create conditions wherein true, benign leaders might serve. The unifying link is this: we are all in this together. This maxim is truly transformative, perhaps the 21st Century’s biggest lesson.
The way things currently look, we are heading for a difficult rather than a manageable global scenario around 2050. This could lead to a disastrous or to a transformative scenario and perhaps, for a period, an uncomfortable mixture of both. However, barring serious mishaps, the author does not believe that humanity will destroy itself. It’s more a question of how much pain and loss we must go through before breakthrough. We are in an historic crunch-period.
Predicting the future is a minefield, and the future landscape painted in this report might or might not turn out to be correct. But there is one important variable we must re-examine before we go.
Black swans: events and trends that no one thought possible until they actually happen. To remind you, this term arose because, up to 1790, everyone knew that all swans were white. Then, black swans were discovered in Australia and an impossibility became possible. This happened at the same time as the French Revolution, another impossibility that just couldn’t happen, except it did.
History is packed with black swans. Unforeseeable quantum developments constitute one of the main forces shaping our world. Similarly, the future will be influenced by game-changing events that nobody (or very few) foresaw, and that everyone currently accepts to be impossible.
But here’s the rub: speculating on the shape, form, timing and implications of future black swans is interesting but not at all reliable. To illustrate, try these four hypothetical black swan scenarios (and note your responses to them):
- Instead of global warming we see rapid, semi-catastrophic global cooling. An accidental nuclear war between India and Pakistan takes place that throws up so much dust and fallout that it causes a dramatic fall of world temperatures, leading to decimated harvests, loss of life and hardship worldwide. All because a military operative got things wrong.
- Artificial intelligence disables itself. A Silicon Valley AGI takes over key global systems until a Chinese AGI system hijacks it. Then an Israeli AGI, unable to do more, alters peripheral system responses to the Chinese system, making them behave erratically. The Chinese AGI tries many options, concluding that AGI systems are incapable of handling unprecedented situations such as this. Anticipating what humans would do, it disables all other AGIs, then disables itself and shuts down. Chaos ensues across global digital networks, power supplies, transport and payments systems, and the need for international cooperation is such that, de facto, national sovereignties are overridden, a global currency is instituted and world governance has been brought about.
- India becomes the world’s leading superpower. Violent weather damage in USA, Japan and China leads to insolvency in global reinsurance markets, prompting a cascading economic crisis starting in London and Frankfurt and spreading fast. USA and China default and the Dollar and Yuan collapse. Shortages, migrations, terror and trade disruptions break out. Market demand for Rupees escalates. Europe, Russia, Brazil and other countries prop up the Rupee, and it suddenly becomes the world’s reserve currency.
- One person changes the global narrative. A Russian oligarch’s wife, known for her charitable work, is lost after a plane crash in Kazakhstan. After three years she appears in Turkey, having been freed from Chechen rebels. In the spotlight and righteously angry, she starts speaking out candidly about global issues, oligarchies and deep-state power. Her statements go viral and, within months, she becomes a worldwide icon of change. Authorities try to suppress unrest and sabotage in many countries. She is assassinated. This swings even doubters and moderates against the authorities. The world narrative suddenly shifts against governments and institutions which, cornered, are forced to change their game. Radical regime changes and reforms follow.
These are hypothetical examples. Freak occurrences such as these work only if there is already an under-the-carpet potential for them to occur – even if few were aware of that potential until a defining moment arose. The game and the landscape change – it’s a tipping or an inflection point.
One characteristic of black swans is that, once they occur, they are rapidly normalised. Questions are asked about why no one saw this coming, or why no one owned up to a truth that was visible but denied. We have difficulties with unknowns.
Nevertheless, the author regrets to remind you that the future is unknowable – until we get there. It will be a fortuitous mixture of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Until then, we can posit possibilities and probabilities, based on what we know. This is where we stand.
There is one other matter too. A wonderful poem by the late CBS news anchor Charles Osgood sums it up and it goes like this:
The Responsibility Poem
by Charles Osgood
There was a most important job that needed to be done,
And no reason not to do it, there was absolutely none.
But in vital matters such as this, the thing you have to ask
Is who exactly will it be who’ll carry out the task?
Anybody could have told you that Everybody knew
That this was something Somebody would surely have to do.
Nobody was unwilling; Anybody had the ability.
But Nobody believed that it was their responsibility.
It seemed to be a job that Anybody could have done,
If Anybody thought he was supposed to be the one.
But since Everybody recognised that Anybody could,
Everybody took for granted that Somebody would.
But Nobody told Anybody that we are aware of,
That he would be in charge of seeing it was taken care of.
And Nobody took it on himself to follow through,
And do what Everybody thought that Somebody would do.
When what Everybody needed did not get done at all,
Everybody was complaining that Somebody dropped the ball.
Anybody then could see it was an awful crying shame,
And Everybody looked around for Somebody to blame.
Somebody should have done the job
And Everybody should have,
But in the end Nobody did
What Anybody could have.