The world faces immense and unavoidable security, climate and economic tests. In the effort to meet them, the second decade of the 21st century is crucial.
The next thirty years, until the mid-2040s, will be hugely challenging in the effort to establish worldwide peace and security. A combination of deepening socio-economic divisions and accelerating environmental limits, especially the impact of climate change, represents an unavoidable test. What are the underlying reasons for the predicament and what needs to be done? Will it be possible to move to a more equitable, emancipated and low-carbon world, and if so, how? A new report from the Oxford Research Group seeks to answer these questions, and argues that the second decade of the 21st century is the vital period for effecting change.
The report, entitled Chances for Peace in the Second Decade: What Is Going Wrong and What We Must Do - is rooted in a historical perspective. During the superpower "cold war" from 1945-90 there were many "proxy wars" waged in the global south that killed more than 10 million people. At the same time, the nuclear arms-race peaked at over 60,000 nuclear warheads, with many nuclear accidents and dangerous crises along the way; it was more by luck than wisdom that the world survived without armed nuclear catastrophe. The cold-war era also saw massive expenditure on the military, diverting resources and attention from much more important human needs. Even now, there is great peril in nuclear proliferation, even if it is less that of tipping over a precipice into all-out disaster and more of a slippage towards “small nuclear wars in far-off places”.
The cold war ended in the late 1980s. The west's security attitudes in the 1990s were captured in the incoming CIA chief R James Woolsey's comment that the United States had slayed the Soviet dragon but now inhabited a jungle full of poisonous snakes. When that “jungle” bit back (including with the 9/11 atrocities), the only response to be considered was to crush that part of it in an all-out “war on terror”.
The result in the 2000s was the appalling loss of life in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the al-Qaida idea retained its potency, not least in south Asia, northern Africa and the middle east. In the process, the west lost the will to put tens of thousands of "boots on the ground"; instead, it is now moving into an era of “remote control” in which armed drones, special forces, private military companies, intense expeditionary warfare and rendition all play a part in keeping the lid on threats to security.
Yet it is now clear that the challenges facing humankind stem from much more substantial drivers of change: the inability of the global economic system to deliver socio-economic justice, and the failure of both political and economic systems to respond to environmental limits, especially the potentially disastrous consequences of climate disruption.
The financial crisis of 2008 made only a marginal dent in conventional economic wisdom. The orthodoxy is still that the west may have a few years of austerity, with a little bit more financial regulation to patch up the system, before a vigorous return to the old ways in which upcoming countries play a leading role. It sounds plausible, but leaves out the basic inability of the system to deliver fairness. Free-market capitalism is rooted in difference, and always produces plenty of losers. But the disadvantaged on the margins, who are in the majority in so many countries, are also today much better educated, have greater access to communications than ever before, and are far more likely to resent their exclusion and react against it.
In practice, this might be expressed in the Naxal rebellion in India, social unrest in China, protest from the much better educated and knowledgable youthful Arab generations, or even recourse to radical and sometimes brutal faith-based movements. The response from the powerful might be to seek to maintain control, whether within or between states; but this is guaranteed to produce yet more resentment and anger. Meanwhile, environmental limits encroach remorselessly; and, in the case of climate disruption, accelerate steadily.
The end result, at least on present trends, recalls Edwin Brookes's dystopic future expressed in the 1970s: of “a crowded, glowering planet of massive inequalities of wealth, buttressed by stark force yet endlessly threatened by desperate people in the global ghettoes…”.
That is the negative scenario. The Oxford Research Group report tries, in a very tentative way, to suggest some positive outcomes. In the simplest of terms, the way ahead is straightforward - though translating the obvious into the actual is far from easy. Severe climate change has to be prevented by a rapid transition to low-carbon economies, with the main carbon-emitters of the global north having to decrease carbon outputs by 80% in less than two decades. The lesser emitters must be enabled to develop along economic paths that are truly sustainable, aided substantially by the northern states that have been responsible so far for the great majority of emissions.
Such an environmental transition has to be paralleled directly by an economic transformation to a far more equitable and emancipated system, both transnationally and within states. For the global south, this involves much greater debt-relief and the linking of trade with development in a manner similar to that advocated by UNCTAD in the 1960s but never implemented - a genuine "new international economic order". Technological innovations may well help, not least in adapting to the level of climate change that is already inevitable; and a rapid transition to versatile renewable-energy sources, often seriously localised, can enhance economic autonomy.
The sheer size of the task is enough to induce a feeling of profound powerlessness, but this needs to be met head-on with a sense born of combined hope and history.
Thirty years ago, in the early 1980s, there was a palpable fear of nuclear annihilation and doubts whether the world would make it to 1990 - yet we did. Thirty years before that, some far-sighted politicians sought European economic cooperation as a means of preventing a third European civil war. The European Union has many problems, but a Franco-German conflict is now almost inconceivable.
There are numerous recent examples where warning-signs have been heeded and steps rapidly taken. The shock of the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, for example, helped stimulate a raft of arms-control treaties later in that decade; and the discovery of the Antarctic “ozone hole” in 1983 led to the Montreal convention to control the pollutant causes of ozone-depletion.
The equivalent for climate change - the "canary in the coal-mine” - might well turn out to be the increasing incidence of severe weather events. But dynamic responses to environmental limits and the socio-economic divide will come fast enough only if these are underpinned by enough new thinking. If prophecy is “suggesting the possible”, then bring on the prophets and their movements!
There are, fortunately, quite a few of these around already. Britain alone has many pioneers, among them the New Economics Foundation's "great transition" project, the "transition towns" movement, or even the delightfully named "incredible edible Todmorden" (based in an innovative west Yorkshire town) and its many offshoots. The work of the Centre for Alternative Technology is as imaginative as ever, and Oxford Research Group's work on "sustainable security" does its best with modest resources to take on conventional security thinking.
On a worldwide level, many economic alternatives already exist - from the small and startlingly different (such as self-managing communes or industrial zones) to vast associations such as the cooperative movement with around 950 million members. The former have many opportunities to grow, while the latter are fully embedded in many societies yet still full of potential.
An earlier column in this series proposed that the hundred-year period between the mid-20th and mid-21st centuries is proving crucial to humanity's future, by testing our ability to contain and avert two risks of self-destruction: the production and use of weapons of gargantuan destructive power, and the wreckage of the global environment and distinct societies within it (see "A century on the edge", 29 December 2007).
On the eve of 2013, more than two-thirds of the way through this pivotal century, the picture is mixed. Those terrible weapons were unleashed on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the very start of the period, but so far there has (again, by luck more than wisdom) been no repetition. The risk remains, however - alongside that of environmental destruction and of deep economic divisions.
In addressing these dangers, the early decades of this century are key. The chances are with us, and much of the knowledge is there too. But we are nearly into the third year of the second decade and time is getting short.