The coming anarchy
At the dawn of the 21st century, three thinkers with radically divergent views dominated our vision of the future. The most prominent Nostradamus was Francis Fukuyama, who saw the definitive victory of democratic capitalism as the ideological terminus of human history. Drawing on the works of Plato, GWF Hegel, Alexandre Kojève and Nietzsche, he argued that communism was the last real challenger to the Western concept of an ideal society that, in turn, was bound to be replicated, or at least imitated, by the rest of the world. His biggest worry? Boredom and sloth amid prosperity. Unwilling to be outdone by his former pupil, Samuel Huntington postulated that far from an “end of history,” what we are about to confront instead is a “clash of civilizations.” For the late Harvard professor, history will be defined by an irreconcilable conflict between China and the Islamic world on one hand, and the West and its partisans on the other. His biggest worry? The decline of Western civilization.
Curiously, President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” is a bizarre fusion of the Fukuyama-Huntington thesis. However, as we move into the third decade of the 21st century, it’s the third thinker who has proven more prescient.
In his book “The Coming Anarchy” (1994), the peripatetic journalist Robert Kaplan warned that instead of Western ideological dominance or a clash of dominant civilizations, what we would be confronting is generalized anarchy throughout much of the world.
Visiting the world’s fragile and failing states, from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Balkans and Central Asia, Kaplan postulated that ecological degradation will accelerate political decay and fragmentation across much of the world. As he starkly warned, “[I]t is time to understand The Environment for what it is: the national-security issue of the early twenty-first century.”
Anarchy is not simply the absence of order, but also collapsing confidence in existing institutions. And Nature has its way of overpowering even the most sophisticated civilizations. From the months-long wildfire in Australia, which has reduced communities to ashes and driven countless species to the verge of extinction, to the ongoing epidemic in China, which has forced the government to lock down megacities, what we are witnessing is the ravenous power of Nature.
Whether we like it or not, climate change will alter our way of life like never before. The megacity of Calcutta and the populous nation of Bangladesh may not even make it to the twilight decades of the 21st century, while huge parts of the developing world will either be too hot to live in, salinized by massive flooding, or, in the case of coastal megacities, inundated by rising sea levels. Later in this century, many islands could be literally wiped off the map due to new categories of hurricanes and supertyphoons, and/or the increased frequency of once-every-500 years natural disasters, now coming on a yearly basis.
As climactic mutation festers, certain areas could be hit by several natural disasters almost simultaneously, from droughts to typhoons to wildfires. Absent a massive and systematic reduction in global emission levels, we may see up to a four-feet increase in sea levels over the coming decades, and up to 10 feet by the end of the century.
To put things into perspective: Close to 600 million people live within only meters of oceans today, the bulk of them residing in the Indo-Pacific. Over the next century, we may see between 100 million and 1 billion climate refugees across the world, the vast majority coming from the climate-vulnerable Indo-Pacific nations. According to an HSBC study, of the top 10 countries most vulnerable to the adverse impact of climate change, seven are from the Indo-Pacific region: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Oman and Kenya.
Many ignore the fact that Asia’s newfound prosperity and all the rhetoric of the “Asian Century” have been increasingly purchased at the expense of ecological stability and, over time, the very long-term survival of humanity. With the twin meta-challenges of climate change and hyper-disruptive technology lurking over the near horizon, what we desperately need are young, dynamic and innovative leaders who can guide us through the incoming valley of tears.
As T.R. Malthus observed in “An Essay on the Principle of Population:” “[M]an as he really [is] is inert, sluggish, and averse from labor, unless compelled by necessity.”
Note: This article is partly based on the author’s latest book “The Indo-Pacific: Trump, China and the New Struggle for Global Mastery” (Palgrave Macmillan). —————[email protected]
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