The survival of the present level of human civilisation is in doubt. Present policies could eventually promote a dramatic die-off in the human population which will destroy technological civilisation. For various reasons, chiefly the depletion of accessible resources, it will be hard to develop a new technological civilisation if this happens. There is a remote possibility of destroying humanity altogether. The future is not a pleasant place to look at.
The best-known source of the problem is global warming. Global warming can cause the ice-caps to melt, thus raising sea levels. This sounds like a crisis, but it would merely force the abandonment of coastal areas; the bulk of civilisation would survive this. It is true that a great many cities are on the coast and the bulk of international commerce runs between these cities which would all have to be replaced at enormous difficulty and expense. It is also true that a great deal of agriculture takes place near the coast. But these are difficulties which can in time be overcome. In any event major ice-cap melting will probably take place over fifty years or more, giving us an opportunity to adapt to the change. (In which case we should be beginning now, which is not happening.)
Unfortunately global warming will affect all the crops which humans grow, including trees and animals. Changes in rainfall will provoke desertification in some areas and excessive rainfall in others, both of which ruin crops. Modest changes in temperature make some areas unsuitable for currently-farmed crops. Meanwhile, other areas, previously cool, might warm up enough to be accessible to those crops, but this does not necessarily make those areas usable. If the Hex River in the Cape heats up and becomes unsuitable for fruit-growing, the Karoo plateau might become more temperature-suitable for fruits, but the Karoo is dry and has poor soil conditions, so it would be impossible to shift the crops there. Meanwhile the Hex River Valley might then be too dry to grow crops like maize.
Nobody knows how bad the situation can get, because the weather is driven by complex feedback loops of temperature, water vapour in the atmosphere, and the interactions of air pressure. We do know that the very modest temperature increases over the last few decades have already changed the growing climate in many areas and forthcoming decades will see much more radical, but unforeseeable, changes. We need resources to adapt to these changes.
Unfortunately, resources are running out. The trebling in the price of oil (due to the impending depletion of easily-accessible fields) makes transporting goods expensive, which accounts for part of the spike in all commodity prices. This spike, however, is partly because various important commodities, particularly minerals, are running short. It is difficult to extract them in order to keep pace with demand, much like the situation with oil — but like the situation with oil, the implication of this is that these resources are becoming less accessible, except by spending a lot more money.
In the case of oil, we may have used up as much as half the available resources (and since we are using oil at an ever-increasing rate, if this is the case it will be gone relatively quickly). Natural gas is disappearing much faster. Coal is still available, but only at the cost of hideous environmental damage such as the “mountaintop removal” mining methods in the United States which lay waste to vast areas of the landscape. (This further shows how the best and most accessible coal is gone.) It might be possible to go over to uranium, but even this is being rapidly depleted (and no country is developing the dangerous plutonium cycle which is the only way to make mass-used fission power sustainable for more than a few decades).
Meanwhile, the seas have been mined of their fish, forcing a move towards “fish farming” which is itself extremely environmentally damaging and is possibly unsustainable (since it entails destroying sensitive coastal land in order to build the farms, whose runoff poisons the coastal waters and further depletes ocean life). The forests have been mined of much of their trees, which like the fish schools show little sign of returning (clear-cut a tropical forest and what grows back is grass or scrub).
Some commentators think that we are running out of minerals such as lead, copper and some of the metals used in producing high-grade steel. Possibly this is mistaken, but the mere fact that this is suggested should worry us. Few people are talking about this danger, meaning that we might one day suddenly discover that our steel mills no longer produce steel, or we no longer have batteries or cabling to transmit electricity. Our civilisation might experience technological breakdown without warning, simply because somebody did not want to tell us about the dangers.
Not only are we faced with a future crisis, but we do not now have the capacity to address the crisis; we need to discover how to stabilise our technological society under new and more costly conditions — spending a lot of money to keep ourselves where we are, while at the same time spending a lot of money evolving systems to replace the unsustainable ones we are using at the moment.
Very well then; the money is available, so we should go ahead and do this. But this may not be the case. Either the money does not exist, or it is not available for use for this purpose.
In our contemporary society, the big money is in finance capital; in speculation on stock markets around the way in which certain industries may perform (especially industries which do not produce things, such as banking, insurance and real estate) and the way in which international capital markets perform. Many multinational corporations have shifted their emphasis from making physical goods to promoting financial services of various kinds, because financial services are so profitable. Under these conditions, money does not go into resolving problems or making things or paying people to do things; it reproduces itself. Any physical effect of this money is not visible to the people in charge of the money, whose interest is in numbers and in lines on graphs.
Those multinational corporations, again, are very large and very widespread. They have no particular allegiance to one country (their strong sympathy for the United States is partly nostalgic, and partly because the U.S. government has for many decades done whatever they wanted it to do). Hence a crisis in any particular region is not seen as particularly important. The people in charge of the corporations do not experience the crisis; they do not live near it, and they are in any case so rich that they do not have to be aware of its physical effects; they cannot smell the poisoned landscape, they do not starve, they are not killed in violence.
The coincidence of their allegiance to their corporation, and their allegiance to the belief that finance capital is the best (because most profitable) path for their beloved corporation to pursue, has another unfortunate consequence. Finance capital relies not on reality, but on short-term perception; the most contemptible bucket-shop can make money for its promoters if the public believes, if only for a few months, that it is a going concern. Hence multinational capitalists see real crises as threats to the positive perception of their companies. This is why tobacco companies, to take the most egregious example, were so happy to falsify evidence on lung cancer and emphysema; it wasn’t that they were evil, it was that they thought only in terms of perceived image, and realising that the facts were bad for the perceived image of their companies, they strove vigorously (and in their own terms, quite justly) to conceal or discredit the facts.
Such corporations adopt a “What, me worry?” approach to almost everything which seems to threaten their share prices. This approach spreads elsewhere; food stocks are low worldwide very largely because governments tell themselves that food stocks are a waste; that food could be sold to earn them income. (Of course, when people starve, politicians risk losing their jobs — but like finance capitalists, they think in the short term.) Finance capital, unconcerned with reality but only with the money to be made out of reality, maximises profits even at the cost of future problems.
There have always been predatory capitalists who bought flourishing companies in order to make money out of their destruction, But nowadays, such raiders are not aware of what they are doing. Many of them are traders, sitting at computers, who know nothing of the consequences of their actions. The people who know what the consequences will be defer to the finance capitalists. Multinational capitalism today is a runaway train with no driver. Leadership can only be provided by politicians, who, unlike the leaders of today’s capitalism, face actual personal risk in a crisis. Many politicians have been driven from office and hounded out of their countries if disaster strikes, whereas corporate leaders, even if they are flagrant criminals, are let off lightly..
But politics now is extraordinarily insulated from reality, like the leadership of corporations. This is not an accident, for the politicians are mainly chosen by corporate leaders, who put the money down for expensive political campaigns. Bush, Sarkozy and Berlusconi are virtually the norm which people like Brown and Zuma ape; the Leader as CEO.
These are the leaders of depoliticised political systems, where a small number of parties, all with the same policies, flap each other with comic bladders every five years to the melodious sound of mendacious editorials, and this is called a democratic process. Actual political debate does not just take place elsewhere, in smoke-filled rooms — it seems not to take place at all. It has been replaced by spin-doctoring which is the equivalent of the perception management carried out by delinquent corporations.
Politicians are not altogether at fault in this. In the past, their authority has been so thoroughly undermined by past politicians short-sightedly adopting neoliberal practices and policies, that today politicians can almost honestly claim that they do not have the power to make meaningful changes on socio-economic issues. They can declare war on countries and slaughter millions of foreigners, of course, but that does not enable them to take action against their overmighty subjects, the barons of big business. (Interestingly, one of the weakest of such leaders, Vladimir Putin, turned out to be perfectly capable of taking such action in spite of the supine neoliberalism of his predecessor Yeltsin — but Putin is denounced everywhere as a result of this.)
In addition, the problems of the world are international problems. Politicians are national leaders. The United States borrows money to buy things from China and in consequence is in terrible economic danger, but all that US politicians can see is the need to borrow more money; China, meanwhile, is in horrible ecological danger, but all that Chinese politicians can see is the need to sell more stuff. Hence both sides respond to the results of the crisis by making it worse, because neither is capable of responding to the problem of the entire system.
In the name of nationalism, national leaders have prevented the United Nations or any other international agency from having the capacity to resolve problems of this kind. In the name of transnational capitalism they have provided international financial and trade agencies with the capacity to exaggerate these problems, but not to resolve them. Having done this, the political leaders wash their hands. “What can we do, when the IMF, World Bank and WTO are so powerful? Boo hoo!”. Nowadays this has become such dogma that many people probably even believe it.
The present political system can’t solve the economic crisis, the present economic system can’t solve the resource crisis, the present resource system is provoking the ecological crisis. To change all this will require changing everything, in society, in economy, in politics, in the way we respond to each others’ problems. It seems an impossible task. Unfortunately, the alternative seems to be apocalypse. The most tempting response is to fall into depression and say that nothing can be done.
Which is exactly what the finance capitalists want us to do.