The Stage is Set for Tragedy
Many years ago, I asked my father – a lecturer in English Literature – what made a Greek tragedy a tragedy. The short answer is that once the stage and characters are set, there is nothing that can change the outcome: like Newton’s Cradle, each actor will have an effect, which will in turn cause the next and so on, in a cascade of events leading inexorably to a deterministic outcome: the tragedy. My blog post today concerns whether human civilization is deterministically bound for tragedy or not.
Marching against the Tide
Yesterday, people in Tasmania rejected Labor and the Greens solidly at the polls while those in South Australia probably will have returned Labor by a narrow margin. The swing in South Australia, in particular, is mostly away from the ‘other’ parties and towards the top three: the two Old Parties and the Greens; in contrast, the swing in Tasmania is over double digits towards the Liberals. The pundits will write much on the reasons for the differences in these two elections, so I won’t concern myself with discussion of how those results came about.
The day after those elections, in every capital of the country, thousands marched to protest, not a single specific cause or subject, but to express their disgust with and revile of Tony Abbott and his regressive government. I may be wrong, but this may be the only nationwide protest against a single individual prime minister and his government in the history of Australia. Thus, in spite of recent electoral swings against the left at both state and federal levels, the latter of which was admittedly relatively small, I remain optimistic that the pendulum will swing back in the other direction, soon and with vigour.
Regrettably, although I had intended to attend the march and catch up with my friends amongst the Greens, personal injury intervened and I spent the day on the couch. Not wishing to waste my time, I decided to write a bit about the wider reasons why we should all be concerned about how our debt- and economy-driven society is being run, with no view to sustainability or balance: just profit at any cost and mostly profit to the entrenched and richest 0.1% of the population.
Most recently, I have come across a couple of posts in my news feeds that are relevant to this subject; unlike many, the news I see has few or no pictures of cats, peoples’ dinners or social events, etc. Over the years, I have culled out most such posts, elected not to follow those people who repeatedly post on such subjects, and assiduously followed a variety of news sources that provide me with a good collection of articles written on the subject of politics, the environment, energy, transport, human health and development, etc: topics that could reasonably be expected to fall into some sort of subject class that could be studied as an “-ology”. While this means that my newsfeed displays what is known as a ‘filter bubble’, I am not so foolish as to think that what I am reading is representative of the online world; in any case, my interest is in the real world.
The Short Term Outlook is Bad
The first post was from about a week ago and was a bit of an unusual one: the author is a regular blogger and has also published fantasy and non-fiction books, so not your usual commentator by a long stretch. The subject was the potential for a perfect storm of climate change-promoted weather and population demand causing a “food shock”, similar to what happened in the 70s when world fuel shortages combined with a drought in Africa to cause a spike in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) food price index. Such spikes correlate with increased social unrest all over the globe; even the recent Arab Spring has been reported to have been due to rising food prices, at least in part.
Even the stock market is trading on ‘food futures’, which is terrible news, given the notorious instability of that particular mechanism of wealth redistribution towards the already wealthy. Would you be surprised to learn that one of the darlings of the Global Financial Crisis, Goldman Sachs, was involved in food trading speculation through its inception of the commodity index?
With climate change pushing up the prospect of productivity losses – too much or too little water means the same negative outcome – is it too much to imagine that the next ‘bubble’ to bust might be the food futures market? This one won’t be based on pure speculation, either; unlike the housing bubble, where psychopaths in the financial sector were selling off bad loans in increasingly massive bundles until no-one was insane enough to buy them, in this case, real material stuff is being betted on – food that people will eat. How that relates is a bit esoteric, but explained very well in the New Internationalist article:
“When a flood of investors keep on buying (futures stocks), experts say, it creates a ‘demand shock’ in the commodities exchanges, pushing up the cost of futures… Taking their price signals from the exchange, traders on physical markets delay sales and hoard reserves in anticipation of higher prices. Panic buying starts and countries impose export bans.”
The Long Term Outlook is Worse
So, the immediate future is not looking great for the world at large, with the potential for world-wide spikes in food prices and another financial sector bubble busting. The long-term outlook isn’t much better, either, as modeled in a much-reported study funded by NASA that was released this week:
“By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilizational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.
These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.””
The conditions for the perfect storm are set and, like a classical Greek tragedy, unless the nature of the players can be changed in time, the unfolding of the future will be as inexorable as gravity. Paradoxically, perhaps, I believe that the pendulum will swing against the current fear-driven tribal mentality amongst voters that has brought conservatives to power in so many Australian legislatures.
What Case for Hope?
A long time ago, a much loved and repeatedly elected, openly gay once South Australian premier, Don Dunstan, was interviewed by George Negus, then of 60-minutes’ fame. The reason for the interview was Dunstan’s imminent death from cancer, to which he was reconciled. Negus observed that, as a life-long avowed atheist, Dunstan had not turned to God in his final hours, so Negus asked from where did he derive his strength to go on? Dunstan replied, with all the gravitas of a great orator, “People, George, from people.”
When thousands upon thousands of people all over a country march to protest their disgust at an entire government and all its regressive policies and decisions, hold candlelit vigils at short notice for a murdered asylum seeker and are motivated enough to start talking to complete strangers about the things that matter to us all, there is cause for hope. The harder the regressive right pushes against the progressive, humanist gains of the last century, taking what has been earned from the middle class, the harder the progressives will fight for the good of everyone and the easier it will be to see what gains are being lost.
So, the reason I have hope for the survival of our civilization is that it depends on people. Our culture will rise or fall on the strength of our convictions and our willingness to advocate for the world in which we are determined to live. I’m willing to fight for that in which I believe and I know that many others are of the same mind. The goal is to unite all who believe in a world where plenty is available for all and to realize that world as our own.