We are one and the same
Do you know about Fr Alfonse Mayerhoffer

As storm clouds gather, are we prepared?


ADELAIDE - I have spent many decades studying the wise, wonderful, astonishing, strange and all too often terrible and cruel behaviours of human beings as, collectively, we have created what we call history.

One thing is obvious. History does not follow a predictable and linear trajectory by which we collectively reach progressively higher levels of economic success and enlightened civilisation.

In fact, a feature of history is how good we are at engineering the collapse of elaborate, successful and productive civilisations.

Until very recently the typical governance structure of these civilisations was a kingdom or empire, with power concentrated in the hands of comparatively few people at the very top of the social structure.

The often sudden collapses usually happened due to a combination of hubris, greed, incompetence, occasional bad luck and, sometimes, outright stupidity.

War features prominently in many of these collapses.

Over many millennia a succession of initially well organised and managed imperial civilisations has collapsed.

Examples familiar to many readers will be the collapse of the Assyrian, Mayan, Aztec, Persian, Egyptian, Roman, British and other European empires.

Typically, those caught up in these collapses only realise what is happening when it is too late to avoid disaster.

This pattern remains relevant today, as we watch the two largest modern imperial powers, the United States and China, jostling for influence on a global scale.

Russia is also an imperial power, but its political, economic and military weaknesses make it a poor candidate for exerting the significant international influence it so recently did.

Of course, none of these powers would agree they are imperial in nature even though, by any objective analysis, they are just that.

In each case power has become concentrated in the hands of a professional political class; the greatest influence resting in the hands of powerful corporations and super-rich individuals.

The way they go about expanding and consolidating power and influence is entirely consistent with the imperialist traditions of the distant past.

It is primarily money that is wielded as both an inducement and a weapon.

However, in the background - discreet but visible - sits great military power.

If all else fails, it will be this military power that is brought directly to bear.

Any Roman Senator resurrected into the 21st century would instantly recognise that what the USA, Russia and China are doing is an almost exact replica of the policy approach of any Roman Emperor.

Modern humans may delude themselves into thinking that the societies we have created are impervious to the collapses that ravaged past civilisations. This is a poorly-founded belief.

A characteristic of modern societies is how immensely complex they are, and it is this complexity that makes them very vulnerable to disruption.

Consider for a moment your access to food and manufactured goods or services such as energy or water.

The supply chain that extends from the point of production or manufacture is frequently very long and reliant upon a series of systems working together seamlessly to ensure consistent and reliable distribution of goods and services.

The ongoing pandemic the Russia’s destruction of critical infrastructure in Ukraine have demonstrated the considerable vulnerability of our supply chains.

Many things we take for granted in what we call the ‘developed’ world are, in fact, susceptible to sometimes massive disruption.

In the less developed world sometimes basic goods like food supply or access to water are very vulnerable to environmental disruption due to droughts, floods, cyclones and fire or human causes, most often war.

Recently there have been ominous signs that all is not well within Western civilisation. The war in Ukraine is unnerving the West, as is the struggle within the USA between the forces of reaction and those which regard themselves as socially progressive.

This latter conflict is a struggle for the ‘soul’ of the USA. The secular mandate of the founders is being challenged by religious reactionaries and an extreme right wing polity, which have always been a significant presence in the country and galvanised by a charismatic leader have become a potent force.

The US economy, although still a dynamic and innovative powerhouse compared to almost anywhere else, appears to be seriously over leveraged with debt.

Recent problems with the failure of significant financial institutions both in the USA and Europe, suggest that the market is beginning to realise that more than a decade of loose monetary policy has led to more risky bank lending.

The risks of a serious crisis in the world’s financial markets are recognised and better understood.

Russia has embarked upon imperial adventurism in Ukraine for which it was woefully ill prepared.

The ensuing destruction of its political, economic and military power will endure long after the war ends.

It seems that it has now become a supplicant to China, with Putin rendered a much diminished ruler over his large, ethnically diverse and increasingly restive subjects.

China too has many internal problems, although not as visible as those of the USA.

The country’s environment has been seriously degraded in the race to industrialise. The supply of arable land has reportedly diminished by half. Water resource management has been poor and is a serious problem.

In addition to this, the population is rapidly ageing and, having begged, borrowed, stolen and occasionally bought much Western technology, China is now compelled to undertake the much harder task of genuine innovation.

Like the USA, China has also accumulated a staggering level of debt, much of which seems unlikely to ever be repaid.

Superimposed over all these national weaknesses and hazards is ongoing degradation of the global environment, a crisis which the world’s political elites seem quite incapable of addressing in any meaningful way.

All of these issues constitute ‘red flags’ that a global scale systemic meta-problem is emerging.

If the situation should worsen to a point we cannot at present forecast, there could be a sudden collapse of the consumer driven, market economy that has existed since at least the end of World War II.

Economic crises can and do drive political crises. When strategic resources such as energy, food or water become scarce, the political elites begin to look around for explanations.

These explanations only rarely reference their own incompetence and lack of foresight. Frequently this results in a convenient scapegoat being identified, with a foreign ‘other’ often being the victim of choice.

If this scenario seems implausible, bear in mind that Vladimir Putin claimed that Ukraine was being run by a cabal of drug crazed Nazis, despite being led by a Jewish man whose family members were murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

Many Russians evidently believe Putin, thus defying both history and basic common sense.

In a similar way, the Islamic extremists who control Iran characterise the USA as ‘the Great Satan’ and many in the USA regard all Chinese as enemies.

It seems to be as depressingly easy today as it has ever been to persuade many people to accept the demonisation of others even in the absence of evidence.

The simple truth is that people are much the same everywhere across the globe. Most are just trying to get on with their lives as best they can and are certainly not interested in war.

However, an irreducible minority apparently will always be looking for trouble in some form or another and, all too often, they manage to find it.

We must always be wary of claims that, somehow, someone else is causing our problems.

This can be true but is mostly wrong.

And, almost invariably, other people claiming us as the cause of their problems, are deflecting in the same way.

I don’t believe I’m indulging in catastrophist thinking here. It seems fair to say that the current state of the world is not one that encourages optimism about the immediate and long term future.

In particular, many years of relative peace, technological innovation and debt fuelled prosperity (for some) in the more developed countries, has encouraged the complacent but erroneous belief that this is the natural state of affairs in human societies.

A moment’s pause for thought will reveal that this is not the case: calamitous events can and do occur ’out of the blue’, the origins of which are only recognised after the event.

There now appear to be many storm clouds gathering on the horizon. I hope our political and business elites have realised this too.

If they have worked out nothing, and carry on business as usual, we may all end up suffering a great deal of harm if, as I suspect, a succession of serious crises is soon to assail us.

And I hope, if they have worked out that crisis looms, that their corrective strategies are realistic and workable.


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