Last year was an important one because certain events signalled much about our current direction and prospects as a species on this planet. On the whole, the message we take from 2003 is that we are making the same stupid mistakes as usual. The trouble is, we just cannot afford to do this any more.
World events and events in Australia were dominated by the same basic trends. The war in Iraq and the ongoing refugee issue (which is in reality a global matter but has taken on particular poignancy here), which promise to be key election issues in the US and Australia respectively, are both prime examples of these problematic trends.
The crucial trend is a shift away from a viewpoint that sees things in terms of an emergent human civilisation that covers the globe back to one that sees things in terms of nation-states. Some argue that there are common cultural and other beliefs that join some of these nation-states into groupings. Such arguments are put forward by Tony Blair and John Howard to explain their support for the US in its newfound belligerence. They are strangely similar to the “English speaking” idea that was promoted as a justification for British Imperialism in the latter part of the 19th century and are just as specious.
The simple fact is that we face a series of unprecedented challenges that must be met on a global scale. In this sense the key identity for all of us is as humans, as one species. And as such, the nationalist ideas that dominated thinking up until recently, and which have made a big comeback in the last two or three years, are just out of date.
For instance, last year gave us yet more indications that global warming is now happening. The prestigious international journal Science reported that in 2003 animal migration, crop failure, melting ice and droughts all gave further proof that climate change was well under way. This problem, perhaps the greatest challenge humanity has faced since the end of the last ice age, can only be dealt with by a global community.
Then there is technological change. Recalling that Iraq was initially invaded under the excuse of seeking out weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the still current stand-off with North Korea over this issue, it is clear that technological progress will only make this problem worse. Again, the proliferation of WMD can only be prevented by global cooperation. The failure of the US to secure even Afghanistan and Iraq shows the limits of simple military power, and extraordinary techno-fantasies like ballistic missile defence will ultimately create a totally militarised world, even if they actually work.
We do, of course, already have global scale institutions of governance in the form of the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. Both have serious limitations, but they exist.
These organisations came out of the harsh lessons that came out of the worst human-caused disaster in history, the global war from 1914 to 1945. This war, with a break in the middle to recharge the techno-industrial batteries and allow another generation of cannon fodder to be born, was brought about by the rise of mass-industrial civilisation after 1850. It occurred because nationalism was asserted over globalism, a concept promoted on one hand by international financiers and on the other by socialists. This approach was an unmitigated catastrophe which nearly brought material ruin to the whole civilisational project and – through such horrors as trench warfare, terror bombing, concentration camps and atomic bombs – caused a basic moral crisis which has still not be resolved.
So we have tried nationalism, and it failed us. To return to these ideas when the stakes are so much higher for humanity is stupidity of the highest degree. Unfortunately, we are now led by men who are that stupid.
But how is it that such tried and failed ideas are still credible? One major reason why there is so little intellectual support for notions of a global, human civilisation is that most intellectuals are still linked to academia and most academic programs of research and teaching are still national in outlook. If you want a good job in a university or government department (and that’s just about it if you want to be an intellectual these days) then you have to be focussed on the “national interest”. Australia is an outstanding example where government funded research is increasingly narrowed to national interest priorities, increasingly defined in restrictive economic or military terms.
In 2003 the world suffered materially from the gross inadequacies of some of our more prominent leaders, specifically President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and Prime Minister Howard. The massive amounts of money and effort that went into the war in Iraq and that will go into the ballistic missile defence, for instance, would go a long way to restructuring the global economy to deal with global warming.
If things continue this way for even a few more years, it may well be too late to avoid a global catastrophe that will make the global war of the last century seem like a picnic. If this happens it will not be an unfortunate accident; it will be negligence of the worst sort. It will give the term “crime against humanity” a whole new meaning because it will place humanity itself at risk.
To end on a positive note, there was one outstanding success for humans in 2003. Due to unprecedented cooperation between various authorities, the SARS outbreak was controlled and stopped. China, where the outbreak began, originally acted on nationalist principles and tried to keep it secret. But eventually the Chinese understood that in this global age this was a question of humans versus bugs, not China versus the rest.
We can get it right when it is so obviously an interspecies conflict, like SARS was. To deal with the problems our emergent global civilisation has created – like global warming, WMD proliferation and international terrorism – we have to think like humans, and not like Australians, or Americans, or Chinese, or . . .