This coming September I will be teaching my Global Politics of the End of the World (As We Know It) course again. This will be the third time I have taught this senior undergraduate course, although this time it will be taught in the aftermath of a real live existential crisis: the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, if the major threats now facing the world were turned into a computer game COVID-19 would be the tutorial level. This is not to downplay the suffering and long-lasting effects of the pandemic, but rather to play up how much bigger and more complex are the other problems on the horizon. We have been dealing with pandemics for millennia, and we have a history of finding solutions. It is also a danger that attracts our immediate attention. Beyond this tutorial level, though, there are threats that are both novel and of a type that our current institutions are not equipped to deal with.
It was for this reason that pandemics, while mentioned in the course (including that we were overdue for another big one), did not get their own week. Pandemics are bad, but they are usually part of a problem, rather than the central problem when it comes to the disintegration of a society. After all, before COVID-19 few people remembered Spanish flu, but many had something to say on the First World War. Spanish flu killed twice as many people in half the time, but it is the war that still haunts us the most. Having said that, though, the pandemic has brought questions of collapse and environmental threats to the fore.
This leaves me with the question of how I should teach the course now, and what part the pandemic should play in it? In many respects little has changed, and the same subjects need to be covered. At another level, though, the pandemic tutorial level has revealed important issues that can help us both explore and confront the bigger threats. That, after all, is what tutorial levels do.
You Are Now Entering the Anthropocene
Let us start with a little perspective. Humans are not good at perspective because our lives are short, and we are very good at assuming the way we live now is normal and stable. There is also creeping normalcy: our tendency not to see change because to our limited time perspective it happens too slowly for us to notice. Thus, like many people I failed to notice the decline of insect populations over my lifetime. It was only when a German report came out that I realized that the bug-splattered windscreens of my youth did not happen anymore. Insects play a major role in our ecosystem, and if the pandemic can give us a better appreciation of non-human actors in our world then an important lesson would have been learnt.
This insect biomass loss is one symptom of an epoch-defining rapid change that we often miss because of creeping normalcy. This change has occurred in two stages, with the second being even more rapid than the first. The scale and the effects of this two-stage change have turned human civilization upside down. From the mid-nineteenth century industrialization and the use of coal revolutionized the global political economy. Human societies went from relying on annual solar energy harvested as food each year to feed human and animal muscle, to digging up buried sunshine accumulated over millennia as hydrocarbon deposits that could be burnt for its energy. The result was a leap in the amount of energy per capita used by societies. With the later addition of oil and natural gas we became a new high growth and high energy consuming hydrocarbon civilization.
Yet even this growth was measured compared with what has happened since 1950. Earth system scientists call the unprecedented growth spurt over the last seventy years the Great Acceleration. Alongside spikes in energy use, urbanization, human population and other socio-economic indicators, the Great Acceleration also saw an increase in the effects of humans on the natural world. These changes included the decline of wild animal biomass, over-fishing, changing composition of the atmosphere, release of artificial chemicals, and the spread of plastic pollution. Humans had always been a force of nature, but now humans were transforming natural systems that had been stable since the birth of agriculture ten thousand years ago.
A consequence of this has been a shift in thinking about the geological timescale. Officially we still live in the Holocene epoch, a stable warm period since the last ice age that has lasted 11 700 years. Within this period humans developed agriculture and, eventually, the complex global society that we take for granted today. Such has been the human effects on the Earth that geologists are currently debating the addition of a new epoch, the Anthropocene: a new unstable epoch dominated by human activity (the latest news suggests that the beginning of the Great Acceleration – 1950 – may also be chosen as the start of the Anthropocene).
Crucial here is that the rapid changes associated with industrialization and the Great Acceleration have brought about an age of technological marvels that is as equally unsustainable as it is miraculous. Crashes in biodiversity, rapid global heating, and the release of chemicals, plastics and radioactive isotopes all threaten to undermine the Holocene ecology upon which our civilization relies for its survival.
The first problem we face in dealing with these challenges is that our thinking has not evolved as fast as our societies. Usually human cultures have centuries in which to adjust their politics to new realities. We still culturally think as though we live in a stable & agrarian Holocene. Our politics is one that still assumes a timeless stable 2-dimensional world where wealth came from land, state boundaries are clear, and perceptions of space could be contained in a well-drawn map. Variations, whether seasonal or in a business cycle, are assumed to follow a pattern.
Yet, industrialization has forced us to think vertically. Deep mines, trans-oceanic cables, submarines, aircraft, vertical cities, and wireless broadcasting added a third dimension to our life. Since the third dimension includes the oceans, atmosphere and the subterranean (the places where we dump our waste and pollution), a failure to think in three dimensions has allowed two dimensional thinking ideologies and institutions to ignore the build up of problems associated with waste and emissions.
Yet there is a fourth dimension that has gained importance from the Great Acceleration: time. The velocity of human development has sped up the use of materials in the other three dimensions faster than they could be replaced. It has also pumped refuse and gases into the third dimension faster than they can break down. The prevalence of two-dimensional thinking in our political life leads to a failure to even see the impending crisis, let alone react to it. We need a new politics that is four dimensional.
The End of the World (As We Know It)
If the pandemic has done anything it has forced us to think about how societies face a crisis of collapse. At one level the unprecedented nature of the Great Acceleration means past (agrarian) collapses are poor guides. One aspect of this is that the rapid increase of energy available through hydrocarbons has staved off one form of collapse, giving our global civilization a strong sense of its own permanence. Joseph Tainter has argued that complex societies solve problems they face by creating more complex solutions that, in turn, use increasingly large amounts of energy. As energy sources are limited, diminishing returns soon set in, and collapse (defined as a rapid loss of complexity) is the inevitable fate of all complex societies. With our rapid increase in energy use, thanks to fossil fuels, our global society has managed to put in place increasingly complex and energy-intensive solutions without the threat of collapse. Yet, these advances have brought their own problems by increasing the use of carbon dioxide emitting fuels.
Another bit of good news is the overall resilience of human societies. Civilizations have been remarkably good at fending off challenges one at a time. Collapses usually seem to come when a society hits a perfect storm of multiple challenges. Thus Eric H. Cline has suggested that the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia involved a combination of famines, earthquakes, invasions, revolts, and climate change. These fed into each other and overwhelmed the coping strategies of the interdependent Late Bronze Age societies. In this sense the current pandemic might be important not as a crisis-in-itself, but as one amongst many. A pandemic – occurring alongside climate change, biomass loss, and chemical pollutions – could exacerbate weaknesses caused by inequality, debt (both public and private), and existing political tensions between nuclear powers. The result could be a perfect storm where the pandemic is the trigger.
A bigger problem, though, lies in the quality of leadership and decision-making. Arthur Demarest, in his study of the late classical Maya collapse, noticed that when elites face a novel threat they do not necessarily find solutions that fit the nature of the crisis. Rather, they double down on what they do best. Thus, Maya theatre state god-kings, when faced with famine, doubled down on warfare and monumental building. In this sense, our ability to solve a crisis rests on the tools our political institutions can give us. If you have a hammer then all problems look like a nail.
The one positive thing about the pandemic crisis is that our elites are intellectually equipped to handle the problem, and they are able to marshal public health institutions as effective tools. When dealing with other crises, such as the climate emergency, our elites are not so well equipped. Many elites fall back on political arts that they have experience of, such as accountancy tricks (reclassifying emissions to hide them from official tallies), or public relations (selling your oil and gas as ‘clean’, or linking current hydrocarbon use to some distant future transition to renewables for which there are no concrete plans). The way that leaders have claimed to have acted on the climate emergency while simultaneously increasing greenhouse gas emissions, shows a worrying affinity to Mayan leaders building spectacular new stone pyramids while famine ravished their lands unchecked. Their solutions seem to make matters worse.
Governance in the Anthropocene
Public relations is our version of the elite tendency to double down on what we do best. The basic resilience of our energy-rich global society has meant that, when faced with a crisis, it has been easy for governments to weather the storm through a combination of inactivity (kicking the can down the road) and spin that presents the problem as solved or over-stated. Thus, the multiple problems with inequality are dealt with through a refocus on ‘lifting people out of poverty’ that is based on seemingly compelling, but dubious, global statistics. Inequality is solved by a rebranding of the problem.
With global heating this inactivity and spin is further encouraged by the mismatch between the long-term unfolding of the crisis and the four to five year election cycle found in liberal democratic governments. The line of least resistance to winning the next election can be accountancy tricks and spin. It takes vision beyond the partisan fray to come up with public policy that will actually confront the problem. Even the increasingly worried voices of scientists and other experts can be spun by hunting out and amplifying the voices of others. We might call this ‘Lysenko syndrome’, named after the anti-genetics scientist lionized by Stalin to drown out a growing science that contradicted political dogma. The problem with this use of spin, of course, is that it can only deal with low level problems that either go away over time or can be tolerated as a low level problem.
The trouble with governance in the Anthropocene is that the problems we face are novel and cannot be ignored without risking enormous damage to (and even collapse of) our global society. Here we need a public policy that can work in both the third and forth dimensions. The third dimension forces us to think about new spheres such as the oceans, the subterranean, and the atmosphere where we both extract and dump. Adding the third dimension also diminishes the role of jurisdictional borders, which always take on a seemingly insurmountable reality when we only think in two dimensions, but shrink in importance when we move beyond such flatland logic. Similarly, adding the fourth dimension of time adds a sense of urgency to our extraction and refuse practices, while also challenging the Holocene delusion that things naturally return to a status quo ante.
Our constitutional governance model, with its idea of protecting rights and legal/institutional norms against capricious human threats, assumes a stable background environment. We need a politics for the Anthropocene that is capable of dealing with rapid change and capricious threats not from human sources, but from the environment itself. Similarly, in an unstable environment our usual goal-orientated political ideologies and institutions need to be replaced by ideas and institutions that privilege process over goals (interestingly both Mary Parker Follett and David Mitrany had argued for this in the early twentieth century). Abstract goal-orientated thinking assumes a stable Holocene environment. Pragmatic process-driven thinking designed to react to sudden change may be what the Anthropocene will need.
A model for how this new thinking might look is provided by my colleague Sarah Martin’s approach to the political economy of food, with her focus on how it is practiced in the everyday and involves non-human actors. Indeed, taking Sarah’s courses on global food politics and infrastructure projects are superb companions to my course that cover crucial topics in more depth than I can.
Which brings us back to the pandemic.
A tutorial level is meant to help you to play the game, and in certain respects the pandemic may do that. It has shaken us out of our complacency by revealing the fragility of the status quo. The sudden liquefaction of our seemingly solid reality may help us to understand that, when we take the fourth dimension of time seriously, what we think is solid reality is actually a slow-moving liquid. It also demonstrates that human institutions, given the will to do so, can react quickly.
I also have worries about the effects of the pandemic. With the accompanying global depression, it may also take our minds off the slower moving (but greater) threats such as climate change. The problem of COVID-19 can also be confronted successfully by institutions that are still very much organized around Holocene thinking. We are not forced to question and rethink our ways of doing things, but rather to enact measures familiar to similar past health emergencies.
The pandemic has also revealed the inequalities both within and between societies. The relative insolation of the better off could lead to the privileging of policies that do not fully address the wide range of problems. Our tendency to use spin as an alternative for action is encouraged by the inequalities in both power and suffering. This is also analogous to one of the political problems at the heart of climate change: that the global rich are disproportionately responsible for the problem, while the global poor disproportionately suffer the consequences.
Thus, the pandemic does not change what I will be teaching in POSC 3230 The Global Politics of the End of the World (As We Know It). Rather, it potentially does two equal and opposite things: it illuminates the issues around the bigger problems that I was already teaching, while also threatening to distract us from the major changes that are necessary to confront these challenges. I will address both of these next semester.
Underlying all this discussion, though, is our need to escape the Holocene delusion of two-dimensional thinking (where there is a status quo to return to, and our reality is solid, rather than liquid).
1. a four-dimensional politics that takes the game changing nature of industrialization and the Great Acceleration seriously;
2. an appreciation of the mounting multiple threats that would likely overwhelm our institutions; and
3. an awareness of the dangers of our elites doubling down on policies they are familiar with but that only defer the pressing problems.
This new thinking will hopefully lead to a new governance fit for the purposes of this new reality.
Welcome to the Anthropocene.
An earlier and shorter version of this blog appeared as an article in The Newfoundland and Labrador Independent, under the title “Thinking Outside the Crisis: A Tutorial Level in Apocalypse(s)” on 24 April 2020. Thanks to Robin Whitaker for her organizing and editing of the “Thinking Outside the Crisis” series, and Drew Brown for publishing the original article (not to mention giving permission for me to reprint this longer version).