2012 promises to be a pivotal year in world history. This is because a number of core trends – economic, political, social, technological and environmental - are reaching critical points. Each trend is a major challenge in itself, and in combination they will transform the way humans live on this planet. Whether this transformation is for better or worse depends on how we respond at a global level.
2012 is, now famously, the year that the long count Mayan calendar predicts will see radical transformation. The exact causes put forward to explain this transformation differ and are sometimes hard to take seriously, but however that all turns out, the timing is interesting. There is an underlying psychological factor at work here: if enough people believe that change is imminent, it most likely is.
The underlying causes of the growing global crisis are that our core socio-economic institutions are fragmenting with changes in our underlying material conditions. In short, we are hitting limits to growth and our main social institutions are just not ready to deal with it.
The basic concept of limits to growth emerged in the 1970s as computer modelling first got going. It initially generated some concern but this fell away under criticism about the value of the underlying models and the go-go materialism of the 1980s. The models were improved and recent research indicates they were roughly on target. So limits are back.
The material changes we face are mostly to do with limits to resources, but this also has to do with our technology. The limits related to all fossil fuels (including, ultimately, coal), fresh water, arable land (and thus food production), phosphates, some essential ores, and in a different way, the atmosphere and the oceans. Pollution, especially carbon pollution, is now a problem because we have run out of air and water to suck it up and safely store it.
In other words, the massive production and consumption machine that is mass-industrial civilisation, which relied on ever growing (indeed exponentially growing) use of resources and generation of wastes, has begun to hit the limits of its operations on a finite planet. This was always going to happen at some point, and that point happens to be the early twenty-first century.
The question of our runaway technology is little discussed but central to a number of growing problems. The nuclear proliferation issue is just one example. The threat of pandemics, spread globally in short time by jet travel, is another. The growth of threats to our basic infrastructure by computer viruses, worms, bots, etc, is another. The general complexity of modern civilisation, and the uncomfortable feeling that everyday life is just too hectic and confused, is another.
The two blades of the pincers, material limits and runaway technology, which are two aspects of the long process of mass-industrial development, have been steadily closing on our institutional structures for decades. In 2012 they will really start to cut; who feels the pain first and most, and whether and how that pain is addressed will be key questions in coming years.
So the emerging crisis has been caused in part by the erosion of core institutional structures. Institutions are arrangements - partly made up of people, buildings and other assets but mostly concepts – that enable relative stability in which to live out our lives. They include ancient ones, like marriage and religion, old ones like empires and markets, and newer ones like nation-states, corporations and global markets.
Some of these institutions have been eroded in recent decades by the actions of two waves of solvent, the first financial and the second technological. In particular, since the late 1970s the growth and spread of financial flows have undermined the nation-state and transformed the business firm. The other wave was digitisation which has transformed government, business and just about all social life.
In 2008 financialisation came undone as too much risk was built into markets. Profits initially soared, and then the inherent instability of the new paradigm kicked in and disaster was narrowly averted. The underlying problems remain, merely shifted from private to public cost, and require structural reforms to the way our global economy functions.
We can’t expect any process of control over technological advances to occur, because we just don’t have a way of thinking about it other than when related to arms proliferation of medical ethics. We can hope that government intervention will shift the resources and money into what we need, like efficient renewable energy technologies.