The shape of things to come
18 August 2021
ADELAIDE - The title to this piece comes from a book written by H G Wells and published in 1933.
In his book, Wells made a number of predictions about how the world would develop in the aftermath of World War I.
Some of his predictions were correct, notably regarding the development and use of air power to influence the outcome of warfare, especially strategic bombing.
Others, such as the withering away of the state, a popular Marxist notion of the time, proved to be fanciful.
Like so many pundits before him, Wells found that predicting the future is a fraught and chancy process. Basically, the past is not a good predictor of the future except in the most general sense.
This is why futurists focus more on the evidence of emerging trends than upon making specific predictions.
So it is with some trepidation that I venture to make a few predictions about the future that will confront us all over the next several decades at least.
First, the advent of Covid-19 has been a massive disruptor of the world’s economic, financial and geo-political systems, the consequences of which are still not fully apparent or understood.
What can be said with some degree of confidence is that Covid is likely to be with us as an endemic illness for a very long time, in much the same manner as influenza.
Because this virus is at least three times more lethal than influenza its impact will be more severe. Also, the post-acute illness, popularly known as ‘Long Covid’, may prove to be very damaging in its own right.
One obvious result will be that international travel is likely to require possession of an immunisation certificate, without which entry into many countries will be prohibited.
Also, it seems probable that air travel will become both more expensive and more infrequent.
The world’s airlines and the associated tourism and hospitality businesses will be heavily impacted by this development and the economic consequences seem likely to be severe.
For Papua New Guinea, this means that efforts to grow tourism within the country will be, at the very least, seriously constrained for many years.
Second, the catastrophe in Afghanistan has demonstrated that the era of ‘Pax Americana’ is definitively over.
The United States is still an immensely powerful country, economically, culturally and militarily, but is riven by internal divisions and its people are war weary.
It now seems likely to turn in on itself and resist future demands that it be the ‘world’s policeman’ to solve current or emergent problems.
As a consequence, there is now a grave risk that there will be no effective international rules based process by which to either constrain authoritarian adventurists or deal with issues like climate change.
Without the USA, all efforts to create such capacity will fail.
When it comes to armed conflict and relations between nations, the United Nations is a mere ‘talking shop’ which has proved almost entirely incapable of constraining humanity’s worst behaviour.
There is no reasonable prospect of it developing a capacity to enforce humane and rational behaviour anytime soon.
The main implication of this is that we can expect to see various authoritarian and revolutionary groups feel greatly emboldened by the apparent success of the Taliban.
We can expect to see more and more severe and protracted civil wars in places like Myanmar and parts of Africa and, potentially, extensive regional wars, as stronger groups attempt to impose their will upon others.
Also, as American power and prestige wane, so will those attributes of its major competitors increase.
This will be observed most notably in the case of China, whose ambitions in the South China Sea, South East Asia, Africa and the Pacific will become even more evident than they are today.
In particular, the long threatened invasion of Taiwan is probably more likely than it was just a short time ago.
Beijing will take the precipitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan as evidence there is no longer the political will in Washington to go to war over Taiwan.
This poses some great challenges for Australia, which must inevitably make a decision in relation to its stance.
Will Canberra have the resolve to persuade Australians to fight and die in another regional war on the basis of saving Taiwanese democracy is an open question.
Will it follow the United States into armed conflict, its default position since World War II, this time against a nation upon which a considerable part of its prosperity demands?
PNG also has critical decisions to make: will it cosy up to China as a new best friend; will it stick with its long term relationships with the West, including Australia; or will it attempt to play a role of appeasement to both?
Closer to home for PNG, the success of the Taliban should cause Port Moresby to reflect upon the wisdom of trying to resist Bougainville’s demands for independence.
Bougainville has already fought and succeeded in a civil war based on guerrilla tactics.
The Taliban has demonstrated the truth of Mao Zedong’s famous axiom that for an armed insurgency to win ‘it is merely necessary not to lose’.
This was the lesson of the Bougainville civil war. Does PNG need another to reinforce the lesson?
In considering the shape of things to come, it would be remiss of me not to mention the global financial system.
To be sustainable, the predominant neo-liberal capitalist model requires ever increasing consumption of an ever increasing array of goods and services.
This process necessarily requires ever increasing credit extended to an ever increasing number of corporations and individuals, often with no regard to their ultimate credit worthiness.
As a result, the world has accumulated a level of debt that exceeds all known historic precedent by several orders of magnitude.
The true nature and extent of this is not known or understood by anyone, anywhere. Nor are its possible consequences.
In short, the world is incredibly vulnerable to a sudden and catastrophic collapse of its entire financial system.
This is not a fanciful notion; there are many historic precedents.
At the same time, the world’s financial regulators have become effective captives of financial markets, which demand ever increasing levels of public debt being incurred to support their transactions and other activities.
It is difficult to see how this can be permitted to continue indefinitely.
No-one knows what may happen when the current endless supply of credit is curtailed.
There is fear, however, is the world’s vast edifice of interlocking debt obligations will collapse and economic mayhem ensue.
Perhaps the greatest, most obvious and now most imminent threat to us all is climate change.
The likely consequences of climate change are so serious and profound they may overwhelm all the foregoing issues.
Many of these catastrophic consequences are already written into the world’s future and cannot be avoided.
We humans can only survive in the thin band of atmosphere that extends from the earth’s surface to an altitude of about eight kilometres.
Right now, we seem to be sleep walking into an existential disaster that we have made possible; a tragedy that threatens the very existence of human life on earth.
Whether an intelligent and concerted effort will be made to avoid catastrophe appears problematic at the moment.
For subsistence based economies, like that of PNG, climate change promises a dreadful future.
Even small adverse changes in climate could be ruinous for millions of people.
If we cannot restrain our exploitative, wasteful and destructive habits, there will be a very high price.
Covid-19 is a warning from the future.
Afghanistan is a warning from the present.
We appear to be at a hinge point in history. How the future unfolds will be subject to developments, like climate change, we know about and which we can predict, and many unpredictable events.
President Xi Zinping has more than once warned the Chinese people about potential ‘black swan’ events that can confound the hopes, dreams and ambitions of humanity and prove to be historic turning points.
As this world lurches unsteadily into a future without ‘Pax Americana’ we should be mindful of this warning and tread a wary path.
The future, it seems, is not what is used to be.
Well may it be said that the "likely consequences of climate change are so serious and profound they may overwhelm", because that likelihood is no small washover.
Not to panic but, nudge nudge, the penny may drop as climate change begins to impact on property values.
The nudge today is that 254 'climate-sensitive suburbs' in Sydney are at increased risk of a drop in value by 2050 rising to 1,438 suburbs by 2100.
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 21 September 2021 at 10:29 AM
"We must not allow the clock and the calendar to blind us to the fact that each moment of life is a miracle and mystery" - HG Wells
Wells was one of Michael Foot's favourite authors, along with William Hazlitt, Jonathan Swift and Miguel de Montaigne.
He dabbled with Fabian socialism but claimed it was merely a middle-class talk fest:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 19 August 2021 at 09:36 PM
To quote Ramzy Baround, the editor of 'The Palestine Chronical':
Global warming is, in large part, the outcome of a destructive pattern instigated and sustained by capitalism. The latter can only survive through unhindered consumption, inequality, greed and, when necessary, war. If we continue to talk about global warming without confronting the capitalist menace that generated much of the crisis in the first place, the conversation will continue to amount to nil.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 18 August 2021 at 01:52 PM