Planning for a Good Century

Without contradicting those who see the Federal Government as managed by corrupt politicians, one can more politely (and, it is to be hoped, more accurately) assert that the Washington elite is composed of firemen, whereas the nation needs leaders who prevent the fires from breaking out in the first place.

It seems appropriate on this particular dark and rainy morning, with thunderheads lurking behind a screen of heavy, obscuring rainclouds, to contemplate our society’s future. A patriot might hope that our elected representatives would be doing just that, but no, surely not: they are far too preoccupied with the “firm steps” they are taking while peering through their own dark and heavy clouds of global political sturm und drang to have any time left for watching where their path is actually leading. Rather than asking men of action to think (akin to demanding that firemen write fire insurance policies), a better course would be to redesign the political system, removing the “men of action” from decision-making circles and replacing them with…well, Plato’s philosophers. Put in more modern terms, let thinkers direct strategy, restricting the power-hungry empire-builders to tactics.

And what might such a mythical philosophical strategist think about? In today’s world, given the current level of technology and degree of understanding, it would not be too much to ask that the nation’s leader focus on the next 100 years. If one glances at a map of drought in the U.S., now covering half the country and absolutely destroying the nation’s prime California farmland, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that global warming is likely to constitute the most important economic challenge to the survival of American society over the next century. From the opposite perspective, a century is long enough for us actually to have a good shot, given current technical capabilities, at modifying the course of climate change to our species’ advantage. What else, if not that, should the leader of the world’s most powerful nation be thinking about?

The short-sighted and the traditionally-minded will respond hotly, “War!” The leader should be thinking, take your pick, either about defending us from whatever new barbarian horde comes over the hills or about conquering whatever resource-rich land we “need.” OK. Point taken. So…exactly how are we to prepare for war if our society has been brought to its knees by a global warming-induced dust bowl? And what exactly do you think the borders are going to look like when mass starvation hits the developing world?

By all means, appoint men of action to devise all manner of tactical responses to this or that potential challenge, but under the leadership of a strategist pondering this:

“How do we start today to design a global structure of government that, over the next century, will minimize security threats and maximize non-violent options for survival?”

Apply that seemingly grandiose question to a current practical foreign policy problem and its utterly practical significance becomes obvious. Take the Mideast, for example. One fact about the Mideast is clear: the regional population has already entered a baby boom and has gone far enough down that road so that the issue is no longer about birth rates. The babies in question are already teenagers, and they are growing up in a political pressure cooker. Washington just turned up the heat by engineering/supporting/permitting (your choice) a military coup to reestablish a conservative, anti-reform, old guard military dictatorship in Egypt. Would the U.S. be better or worse off over the next century with a Mideast in which the exploding cohort of unemployed young men can aspire to rising economic opportunity and broadening civil liberties or one in which repressive security forces, increasingly beleaguered by demographic pressures, screw the lid down tighter and tighter? The low-risk tactical solution for U.S. leaders (taken regarding Egypt) is exactly the opposite of the low-risk strategic solution.

Global warming has occurred before, but our particular species did not then exist, and the shifts in climate, atmospheric composition, and ocean chemistry that seem to have occurred offer us little comfort. We, as a species, are entering new territory. Rapid adjustment will be required. An economically secure, scientifically well educated, highly unified population at the starting gate would offer significant advantages over a discouraged, impoverished population alienated from government and containing millions of permanently unemployed, with a handful of outrageously wealthy and utterly irresponsible billionaires on the top. Whether this applies to Egyptians victimized by a military elite, Greeks victimized by German bankers, or Americans victimized by Wall Street, the point remains the same: society is not being prepared to fight its best fight against global warming. By the self-defeating nature of our tactical responses to current economic, political, and social challenges, we are undermining our chances for managing the now-inevitable challenge of global climate change. Many of the changes needed to prepare for the coming climate challenge are well understood and technically feasible tactical steps: e.g., encourage wealth to be spread around and applied to creating a strong and redundant infrastructure, [promote popular scientific education, minimize large-scale financial irresponsibility and corruption. If these tactical steps to prepare for a more threatening future are so straight-forward, why are they not being taken? We lack strategic vision. Our weakness lies not in a lack of resources or a lack of time or a lack of capability but in the absence of a leadership able to rise above tactical firefighting to articulate a strategy for preventing fires.

The short list of major challenges to the survival of “life as we know it” over the next century almost certainly will include the economic pressures flowing from climate change and Mideast instability. Western firestorms, midwestern and western dust bowls, violent storms, sudden temperature shifts, and flooding in the streets of our great coastal cities will increasingly demand the attention of Washington politicians over the next century. Their task will be facilitated and our survival probability enhanced by political stability overseas.

To our great good fortune, the low-risk strategy for minimizing Mideast instability and the low-risk strategy for minimizing the economic harm from global warming are entirely compatible.

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