Friday, December 16, 2016

World War III: avoided in 2020 by the election of Senator Elizabeth Warren

In the year 2000 I published long articles in each of two newly formed journals, Ecosystem Health and Global Change and Human Health. These papers were called "Entrapment: global ecological and/or local demographic? Reflections upon reading the BMJ's "six billion day" special issue"  and "Inequality, global change and the sustainability of civilisation". They are both behind paywalls today, but their titles convey their essential meaning. Their abstracts are also free, at least while we have a functioning internet and publishing system.

A chequerboard of barbarianisation

Until very recently I thought the biggest risk to civilization before 2050 has been though a process I call "piecemeal barbarianisation", such as we have become conditioned to watch in Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Burundi and elsewhere. I, with many others, worried about the rise of inequality, both globally and within rich countries, and I tried to warn about it too. But despite writing my doctoral thesis on inequality (and sustainability), despite numerous articles and chapters (about 150), edited books, blogs, tweets and media interviews I feel I have had very little impact - especially with mainstream media, who have largely ignored me, with a few humble exceptions.

Censorship of global scientific assessments
I have been part of four international scientific assessments, including the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Global Environmental Outlook. In each of these I have witnessed the heavy hand of censorship, applied if authors dare to hint at taboo subjects such as a critique of runaway capitalism, high rates of population growth and its effect on poverty, or human rights. I recently wrote of a recent experience of this censorship, by a Chinese reviewer, but most censorship is self-imposed. Contact with the chairs of some working groups in these assessments can also have a chilling effect, as I experienced in 2003 when I tried to raise the issue of human carrying capacity and limits to growth, only to be told by Dr *** that "Boserup has solved that; we'll have a drink to discuss in more detail". In reality, I knew far more than Dr *** about Ester Boserup, and our friendly chat over a drink never eventuated.

The taboo on straight talking about the risk of  conflict over declining resources

Writing about the risk of conflict has also generally been tabooed in these assessments, even when the topic is future human well-being until 2100. I also recently wrote about this in more detail, concerning suppression of the reality and risk of conflict over scarce water, even though, for sure, limited resources can sometimes stimulate co-operation. I believe that this taboo in part occurs because the global power elites and the military industrial complex penetrate very deeply within academia, especially in the US, but also, to a substantial (and increasing) degree in Australia

The main reason conservative academics, who are more likely to be funded, downplay the risk of conflict over declining resources is their concern that the literature will be "securitised". By this, they appear to think that talking about such risks might enhance the likelihood of conflict, leading to a "self-fulfilling prophecy". Actually, the converse is true. If academics don't discuss the risk of conflict arising though competition for limited resources, then only the military will .. and they certainly do. Denial of the risks of conflict from diminishing resources is one reason we are now in such peril, as a civilisation.

Paths to accidental World War III

I mentioned that I have mainly worried about pockets of barbarity, whether in sub-Saharan Africa (eg 1300 children  recruited as soldiers in 2016 in Christian South Sudan), the Middle East or South Asia. But the election of Donald Trump is tilting the scales towards accidental World War III, and much sooner than 2050. China has brazenly grabbed power in the South China Sea, and there are growing concerns that Russiawill re-occupy the Baltic states. I have likened Trump's election to a sorcerer, whose spells cannot be controlled, released by excessive faith in market forces (which led to unacceptable class and regional inequality and thus rejection of Hilary Clinton)

But Trump is selecting a cabinet which itself has profited from neoliberalism, and controlling wealth equal to that held by the over 100 million Americans, have proven themselves brilliant at plundering the resources not only of the American people, but of much of the world. It is in the self-interest of the kleptocracies which now rule the Russian Federation and the US to avoid nuclear annihilation, and perhaps the coziness between Putin and the coming US cabinet will avert this.

WW III is also not in the self-interest of China (also ruled by a rising kleptocracy) and, probably, Chinese threats over Trump's phone conversation with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen will soon calm down. Likely, cool heads within the US military will minimise further provocation of China, due to their assessment that Chinese pride and fear of loss of face will in fact provoke extremely violent retaliation, such as against Taiwan.

But even though the three great powers are likely to co-operate in a triangle of mutually assured destruction (MAD) meaning proxy wars, rather than direct confrontation, there are numerous other routes which could trigger WWIII, including an attack on Iran.


It truly is hard to find hope at the moment. However, there is hope. California Governor Jerry Brown has suggested that California launch its own satellite to monitor climate change, even if Trump's administration cuts all funding for this. Although most people in Florida appear to be walking into a gigantic financial trap, due to rising sea levels and falling property prices, they recently resisted an attempt by the big utility companies to slow the solar transition. Third, the rise of Bernie Sanders and the rejection of Hilary Clinton's neoliberalism means that, even in America, there is an awakening to the folly of untramelled market forces. 

Although such forces have given birth to the coming kleptocracy of the Trump cabinet, the new cabinet is unlikely to be able to do much to reduce the plight of the working class in the US (even if they try, which seems unlikely given their own backgrounds of eroding public goods). Trump's regime could therefore be voted out in four years, perhaps to be replaced by Elizabeth Warren (with a vice president chosen from the South, or the mid-West).

I have above argued that the three main nuclear powers are likely to avoid launching their ballistic missiles aimed at each other. So, in 2021, there may still be a civilisation worth saving. The election of Warren may usher a more rational, fairer, and scientific America. China, I think, does not really seek world domination, only to be seen as at least equal to its two main rivals. Russia may be content (irrespective of who is in power in the US) to prowl within its territory, occasionally growling at its neighbours.

The real solution lies in being more honest about the long term threats we face, reducing piecemeal barbarianisation, and lowering the taboo on these discussions. That won't happen under Trump, but it could in the 2020s.

Also giving hope is the rise of the internet and the power of the young, such as the Earth Guardians.