“This is the old story: whenever one sets out to discuss collapse one ends up by talking about continuity.”
- G.W. Bowersock
When it comes to many key indicators, life has improved dramatically for more people and at a quicker pace than ever before in human history. Advances in medicine and technology have eradicated diseases, extended lifetimes and provided material comforts for hundreds of millions of people. Encyclopaedia Britannica estimates that the average lifespan for the global population in the 1900’s was 30 – 45 years, for example, but this figure has nearly doubled to 67 years old in the early 21st century. At the national level, today’s countries have more information and resources at their disposal to allocate for infrastructure projects, secure their borders, enforce law and order, manage their economies, and educate their populations than ever before. Witness the explosive rise of the developing world, made possible in part by the increased capabilities of the state in a world of rising regional powers like China and India in Asia, Turkey and Iran in the Mideast, and even Brazil and Mexico in Latin America.
In addition, novel and unique developments in the international realm manifest themselves in networks of trade, aid and cooperation unthinkable just decades ago: sovereign statehood is easier to obtain today in the age of self-determination than when empires were still in fashion, many wars are routinely prevented or interrupted by the collective pressure of the international community, and humanitarian groups and non-governmental organizations, and now individuals organized by technology, are always growing more effective in reaching and responding to the neediest people in the most isolated and repressed societies.
This picture of the world as a constant arrow of progress stems from the Enlightenment era. As Robert Wright states in Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, the belief of this perspective is that “the source of history’s directionality is intellectual advance – scientific, technical, political, moral. Over time, people build better machines, better governments, better societies, better moral codes; they rationally discern good and rationally achieve it.”
The truth is that progress is not such a simple matter. Although our quality of life globally has dramatically improved on average, we have also seen a concentration of wealth that has never before been witnessed in human history.
According to the United Nations Development Program, the richest 1% own 80% of global wealth while the poorest 50% only account for 1% of global wealth. Furthermore, The National Geographic reveals that 5% of the population in the United States consumes 23% of the world’s energy output, while 13% of the world lacks clean drinking water and 38% lacks proper sanitation. This is the bigger picture, the one overlooked by the West but experienced all too well by the rest. It is also the focus of egalitarian thinkers like Karl Marx and John Rawls who emphasize economic equality and social justice above and beyond unfettered capitalist accumulation and expansion.
“The truth is that progress is not such a simple matter. Although our quality of life globally has dramatically improved on average, we have also seen a concentration of wealth that has never before been witnessed in human history.”
None of this is to downplay or diminish the very real improvements in material well-being which literally billions of human beings now enjoy thanks to the worldwide advancements of liberal democracy and market capitalism. These ideological currents have dominated the 20th century, demonstrating their supremacy in direct competition with German Nazism, Italian Fascism, Japanese Imperialism and Soviet Communism. In the post-Cold War geo-strategic environment, liberal democratic regimes are challenged by social democracies like the Scandinavian countries and more authoritarian quasi-democracies, the most threatening of which have embraced free-trade and international capitalism like China and Russia.
This prevailing paradigm of neoliberal capitalism continues to grow and encompass most national economies by embedding them in networks of international institutions, but it neglects to rectify the glaring inequalities and imbalances in material prosperity and resources plaguing relations between the West and the rest, the rich and the poor, the North and the South, the developed and the developing worlds, and between people, their national identities and their global orientations. What can be done to remedy this unfair and unsustainable state of international affairs?
“The fundamental contradiction between utilitarian and egalitarian values need not derail all attempts to attain the best possible measurable results given the scarce resources and finite constraints inherent in all policy making.”
To begin with, exclusionary and parochial tendencies towards self-interest and national interest need to be replaced with inclusive and comprehensive attitudes that are in the global interest. Let us not forget that people of all cultures, nations, states and affiliations are just that – people. In False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, John Gray urges us to realize that this re-evaluation needs to occur at the super-structure level in order to truly affect our ability to accept pluralism at the cultural level. He states, “The end of global laissez-faire should be greeted as an opportunity for fundamental rethinking. It is possible to envisage a world in which globalization does not mean forced homogenization or intractable conflict but, rather the use of science and technology to develop a variety of ways of life.”
The lowest common denominator which unites us is a universally common humanity. This realization allows us to learn about, embrace and celebrate that which divides us in positive, respectful and constructive ways. Many countries have in recent years formed regional groupings in a common effort to reap the rewards of globalization through regionalization since nationalization (or narrow national interest) is increasingly seen as an ineffective developmental model. At the global level, material resources of a political and economic nature must be coordinated somehow to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number without further disenfranchising and disempowering marginalized populations, or just maximizing indiscriminately in order to achieve some calculus of utility in absence of effective re-allocations. The infamous invisible hand of the free market has thus far failed to redistribute resources equitably or leave any trace of its existence behind. The fundamental contradiction between utilitarian and egalitarian values need not derail all attempts to attain the best possible measurable results given the scarce resources and finite constraints inherent in all policy making.
This also leads to the crucial necessity to include the natural worlds and its limitations in our revised socio-political-economic frameworks. For too long, we have relied on the Promethean instincts of the West to guide our relationship with nature. To cite John Gray again, “The insistence that natural scarcity can be transcended by human ingenuity is not a result of scientific inquiry. It expresses the Judeo-Christian belief that humans are unlike all other animals in that they can emancipate themselves from natural constraints…It also ignores the fact that market forces cannot repeal the laws of thermodynamics.”
To push global progress forward, it is crucial that we have a nature-inclusive economy in addition to citizen-inclusive political structure. As citizens become more and more environmentally-conscious, these two expansions will feed each other to help create social and environmental justice.
Political and economic progress will no doubt continue to advance, but fostering individual awareness of our own global interests and identities while reworking the current system of global resource (mal)distribution will continue to remain a work-in-progress.