08 February, 2011

21st Century Challenges for Civilization

We are on the threshold of unprecedented, rapid and unavoidable change over the next 10 to 20 years as we struggle to negotiate a path through a confluence of growing fundamental uncertainties, the scope and dynamics of which have never been encountered before by humanity at any one time.  These uncertainties threaten local community security as well as national security.  They include climate uncertainty, energy uncertainty, economic and financial uncertainty as well as political and employment uncertainties while global natural resource depletion is accelerated by growing demand for resources in the developing high growth economies of India, Brazil and China in an increasingly over-populated world.
Of all these uncertainties, energy uncertainty is perhaps the most ominous as it presents the most immediate and compelling direct threat to modern society and economic growth.  In the Western world in particular, all human activity is entirely dependent on secure and affordable sources of energy which in turn underpins the value of all investments in global property, commodity and financial markets.  Hence, with growing energy uncertainty we are experiencing unprecedented volatility in these markets which are now directed by short term speculation largely financed through speculative debt, rather than responsible long term investment strategies.
Approximately, 20% of the world’s population consume 80% of all resources.  This obviously can’t continue indefinitely and dictates that already developed societies in the West (G8 Nations) must adopt sustainable and more self-sufficient lifestyles that will require a reversal of current cultural values and consumption habits in order that the standards of living in the rest of the world can catch up and be raised to an extent limited by available resources.  The latest Chatham House report titled “More for Asia: Rebalancing World Oil and Gas” confirms that this investment and resource demand shift towards Asia and other developing economies is ongoing and has major geopolitical implications for North America and Europe over the next ten years.
Current unrest in North Africa and the Middle East highlights the need for UK energy independence as international tensions grow in proportion to the increasing risk of major oil and gas supply disruptions (highlighted recently in a US military report to Congress) in regions threatened by or undergoing regime change by popular demand.  A revolution in Saudi Arabia, for example, would have a catastrophic impact on oil supplies worldwide that would undermine global economic recovery from the 2007/8 financial crisis to an extent that it may not be possible to recover from.
In a world with finite resources but ever increasing global demand for resources brought about by exponential population growth, coupled with the rising energy usage and costs of new technologies to increase resource extraction rates from less accessible or already diluted or depleted resource deposits, we will simply exhaust affordable resources much faster than any of us realise.  Consequently, we have a very limited window of time for radical change to take place within.
"The Optimum Population Trust (now Population Matters) believes that Earth may not be able to support more than half its present numbers before the end of this century, and that the UK's long-term sustainable population level may be lower than 30 million."
Without rigorous but humane population and immigration controls (as effective as China's), the future standard of living of our children will decline rapidly with increasing competition for dwindling resources and job opportunities.  Western society in general is only just beginning to appreciate that increasing population and greater population densities simply dilute the resource per capita share, dilute democracy, the value of individual worth, individual growth potential, opportunities for employment and thus, the ability to have any individual control or even influence over the quality of life that can be expected in a world with severely depleted resources.
These are stark realities that many people will have great difficulty in accepting and facing up to, preferring instead to maintain the “status quo” that they have a lifelong vested interest in.  This attitude is reactive and can only lead to increasing the risks of international conflict or resource wars.
It is essential that we adopt a proactive attitude towards preparing society for a very different future by promoting and enabling cultural change towards sustainable lifestyles.
This can only happen with reform of our sense of values and perceptions of what is important for the future of humanity, bringing our whole value system into question.  Can we continue to condone or morally justify the excessive amounts invested in military spending or being paid to a few sports and entertainment celebrities, business or government elites and bankers, for example, when this money can be better channelled towards developing more equitable and self-sufficient communities within a low-carbon economy?  How can we develop a fairer and better distribution of wealth throughout a more inclusive society?  What are the core values that society should aspire to?  Which is more important - standard of living or quality of life?  The two are not necessarily intertwined or mutually dependent.  It is high time we reviewed these fundamentals that underpin our “advanced” civilisation because the current Government policy of economic growth at all costs may literally cost the earth and eventually consign our advanced civilisation to oblivion.  Capitalism as we know it must undergo radical change or perish.
In the UK, the new Coalition Government has recognized the urgent need to stimulate reform, substantially reduce costs and waste, eliminate bureaucracy and red tape that get in the way of progress and empower communities in its recent launch of “The Big Society” which aims to deliver cultural change and inspire social enterprise, highlighting the urgent need to increase community resilience and self-sufficiency through Localism and Relocalisation.  The differences between Localism and Relocalisation are explained here.
All communities should be looking at ways to collaborate, share scarce resources and take advantage of these reforms to help regenerate many of the now derelict commercial and industrial sites that have become casualties of globalisation, in a bid to stimulate local employment.  This is because the necessity for local employment will increase exponentially as the costs of fuel and travel escalate beyond the means of the majority of residents that commute daily to distant places of employment.  However, this will depend on communities taking a significantly more proactive or pragmatic “hands on” and “can do” approach to shaping their future.  This also means communities must accept that they can no longer expect big business (e.g. Superstores and national property developers) or Local Government to cater to all their demands for facilities, goods and services and that they will have to begin a process to help themselves as the government’s austerity measures combined with growing inflation stemming from the rising costs of imported goods and resources add momentum to a spiral of economic contraction that further reduces local business and employment opportunities which in turn limit access to credit and diminish the general well-being of a cash-strapped society.
The UK government is desperate for private enterprise to employ the mass of people expected to be laid-off in the public sector but fails to recognise that businesses can only respond to consumer demand for goods and services.  If consumer demand falls due to rising unemployment, concerns about job security and a lack of confidence in an economy with restricted access to credit, then employment opportunities in the private sector will also fall.  This leaves social enterprise (charities, local community or worker owned enterprises) as the most hopeful source of future gainful employment, financed through credit unions, mutuals or co-operatives as well as Local Government issued bonds and debentures guaranteed by local Council Tax payers for those projects that we all have a stake in.  Local development of microcredit organisations, similar to those in Bangladesh, may also enable new small business opportunities in UK.
Capital raised on the open financial markets will do what it always does which is fly to where it gets the greatest return on investment.  Currently, this is in the developing high growth economies of Brazil, India and China which has led to a vacuum of investment capital in North America and Europe that have had to resort to large scale borrowing to stimulate growth over the past decade or so.  However, credit has been over-leveraged and severely restricted by the continuing high risk of economic contraction and new banking capitalisation requirements in the wake of the 2007/8 financial crisis.
Partnerships between local businesses, social enterprises, Local Government and communities must be established so that a consensus can be achieved as to how best to develop local resilience to anticipated energy, food, employment and financial shocks to come.  This will necessarily test local direct democracy to the full extent possible.
The degree and pace of change necessary to enable transition (planned descent) to a low-carbon steady state economy can be compared with that of the extraordinary transformation of China from a large backward nation, recovering from a long bloody Cultural Revolution, to an economic super-power in the space of a mere 30 years.  Conversely, due to over-population, ensuing resource depletion and climate change, we face the increasing risk of impending economic collapse the longer we procrastinate and fail to swiftly make the transition to a low-carbon Steady State economy. The degree of urgency has never been greater.  Change needs to take place on a wartime footing if we are to succeed.  As Lester Brown of The Earth Policy Institute puts it:
“Continuing with business as usual (Plan A), which is destroying the economy’s eco-supports and setting the stage for dangerous climate change, is no longer a viable option. It is time for Plan B.  There are four overriding goals in Plan B: stabilizing climate, stabilizing population, eradicating poverty, and restoring the earth’s ecosystems.  At the heart of the climate-stabilizing initiative is a detailed plan to cut carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2020 in order to hold the global temperature rise to a minimum.  The climate initiative has three components: raising energy efficiency, developing renewable sources of energy, and expanding the earth’s forest cover both by banning deforestation and by planting billions of trees to sequester carbon.”
Plan B includes a wholesale restructuring of the world energy economy with a wartime sense of urgency, much as the U.S. restructured its industrial economy in a matter of months at the beginning of World War II.  The stakes in World War II were high, but they are far higher today. What is at issue now is whether we can mobilize fast enough to save our global civilization.

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