The 21st Century’s Horsemen of the Apocalypse: The Big Four Deep Drivers of Destabilization

By J.P. Harpignies

A series of recent destabilizing electoral outcomes — Brexit, the defeat of Matteo Renzi’s reform package in Italy, and of course the biggest of all, the Trump victory — have understandably drawn a great deal of political commentators’ attention these days. Many of us greeted the recent election in Holland with great relief and are now going to watch the upcoming elections in France this spring, the one in Germany in September and perhaps an Italian one before year’s end with a great deal of angst, praying the advance of the far-right can be stopped or at least slowed down at “Old Europe’s” gates. But it also behooves us to on occasion back away a bit from the daily churn of news, as shocking as much of it is these days, to take a broader look at the deeper, long-term forces that are likely to be most consequential in shaping the world order in the coming decades.

Along with the environmental crises that potentially threaten the viability of the biosphere’s capacity to sustain life, the development and deployment of a series of new, radically disruptive genetic and A.I. technologies are, in my view, the most significant factors that will radically affect the future of our species in the long-term. However, in this piece I will focus on the trends that I believe will be the main drivers of large-scale instability in the medium term, the next few decades.

There are, in my estimation, four main major interrelated sources of threats to the human enterprise during that time frame: nuclear war, environmental crises, radical socioeconomic disruptions, and geopolitical instability. All four pose immense conundrums, and at least the first two of them are truly existential as regards the continuation of civilization as we have known it.

First, and so painfully obvious it’s not sufficiently discussed, is the risk of nuclear annihilation. The possibility of a somewhat limited nuclear exchange between regional rivals (India/Pakistan to cite the most obvious) or of such weapons being used “tactically” in the midst of a larger conventional conflict is higher than a full-out nuclear war between major global powers, but in general the odds of nuclear weapons being used one way or another have risen sharply in recent years, and the current erosion of the post-WWII order is exacerbating the situation.

There was a time, not that long ago, when a number of countries (Brazil, Argentina, Sweden) voluntarily abandoned their incipient nuclear programs, and Libya, Egypt and Iraq had to stop theirs under duress of one kind or another. Some nations that actually had nuclear weapons and warheads gave them up: South Africa abandoned its covertly Israeli-aided program after the end of apartheid; Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan all relinquished the nukes on their territories after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russian and American scientists were cooperating to safeguard plutonium stocks, but today’s geopolitical situation has radically changed the nuclear landscape.

As China has become the dominant Asian power and a major global player, all the biggest of the surrounding countries, some theoretically formally protected by the U.S.’ “nuclear umbrella,” are now, in the light of America’s perceived declining power and its political instability, pondering developing their own nuclear arsenals as the only credible way to have some last ditch deterrent should China choose to flex its military might. Japan is known to be in position to develop such weapons very quickly if necessary, though it is still very reticent to cross that Rubicon.

Should confidence in the U.S. wane further, it is easy to envision South Korea, Australia, even Indonesia and, less likely, Vietnam and the Philippines at least exploring that expensive and highly consequential option. On other fronts the Saudi-Iranian tensions make those two nations prime candidates for a nuclear arms race, especially if the Trump administration torpedoes the Iran nuclear deal; and Russia’s aggressiveness and the Trump regime’s unreliability have boosted the (admittedly unlikely but not impossible to imagine) possibility of continental Europeans having to rely on French nukes to slow a conventional Russian offensive into Western Europe if the situation there radically deteriorated. And the Middle East is such a tinderbox, some sort of scenario involving Israel’s nukes is not beyond imagining, especially as extreme settlers and religious fanatics gain more traction in that country’s politics.

One has to pray that the recent trend of unstable, hot-headed political figures rising to positions of power will abate and that nuclear Armageddon can be averted, but as Manuel De Landa explained way back in 1991 in his brilliant War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, we have moved from the Cold War’s M.A.D. (“mutually assured destruction”) to D.E.A.D. (“destruction entrusted automatic devices”) because the need for ultra rapid response times (especially in case of nuclear attack) and advances in A.I. have led to increasingly automated weapons systems. Throw in ever more sophisticated hacking and cyber-war capacities globally, and it’s not hard to imagine a few snafus leading to the unthinkable.

The next horseman is of course the environmental crisis, which includes climate destabilization but also plummeting biodiversity, deforestation, dramatic losses of topsoil, fresh water scarcity in many locales, crashing fish stocks, the growing toxification of the biosphere, and most scarily the acidification of the oceans, which risks unraveling the entire marine food chain and could hamper phytoplankton’s oxygen-generation capacity (probably 50 to 80% of global oxygen creation!). That last one is probably the most terrifying, as, should that acidification accelerate and reach a tipping point that reduced oxygen levels in our atmosphere, it could eventually spell the end of mammalian and much other life on the planet.

On the global scale, these trends are all getting worse. There are more and more arid and low coastal regions becoming virtually uninhabitable, and the odds of major “water wars” are high in quite a few places. This rapidly metastasizing environmental degradation is, barring a full-out, massive global nuclear war, the most serious existential threat to much of the life on the planet, and it is of course a driver of sociopolitical instability as droughts, floods, rising seas, pandemics, etc., all exacerbate massive migration patterns and push restive populations to undermine or even overthrow governing structures in the most vulnerable regions. In a global economy those massive population movements and breakdowns of social order can’t be contained, and we are now seeing those migratory flows challenge the European project, among other institutions and structures that have been pillars of at least relative global stability.

It is truly astonishing how our ecological predicament gets so little traction in elections and in public commentary and discussion in the mass media, despite the best efforts of so many in the environmental movement. The destabilization of the biosphere is treated as though it were one more in a long list of secondary “issues” rather than about the integrity of the matrix of all life on our planet (and as far as we know so far, in the entire universe). We are horrified by brutal murders, serial killers, violent governments and terrorist groups, but most of us don’t seem to flinch at the commission of ecocide/biocide because it occurs over a longer time frame. I’d argue that as horrible as genocidal leaders who order large-scale ethnic or class cleansing are, those whose actions risk making the entire biosphere uninhabitable for human and much animal life are even more criminal because life can recuperate after genocide, but it can’t once one has unraveled the underlying conditions conducive to life.

It is an open question whether our species is wired to be able to respond to long-term existential crises, and the global and national political systems now in place certainly don’t seem to be currently equipped to handle them, especially with the recent crop of abysmal leaders who have acceded to power in so many countries. We have to hope the increasingly dramatic, tangible, clearly visible impacts of climate change will finally convince a sufficient swath of the population to at least begin to face the situation with the urgency required to avoid catastrophe. The jury is out…

Another critical factor driving destabilization is socioeconomic disruption, driven by the rapid deployment of radical new information and robotics technologies. These are now major contributors to the erosion of many previously fairly well-remunerated working class and middle class livelihoods in the developed world and therefore one important causal factor in the recent surge of the far right throughout the West, as those extremist parties have been successful at using the economic insecurities of substantial swaths of the electorate to scapegoat immigrants, cultural elites and intellectuals and assorted “others” as somehow to blame for all their woes. This erosion of the upper echelons of the working classes and of the entire white-collar middle class is going to get much worse unless radical new economic policies, such as guaranteed incomes, are put in place. Self-driving vehicles alone (and I’m not opposed to them — they would most likely save countless lives) could put some three million people (mostly men) out of work just in the U.S., and slews of other professions are being depopulated as more and more work is automated. I don’t see any economic sectors that will be able to replace the enormous numbers of jobs that will be lost, and very few of the new jobs that might emerge will be well remunerated.

Communication/information technologies that permit the blindingly fast, highly opaque global movements of immense capital flows coupled with ever more complex financial algorithms and the tolerance of dozens of tax haven jurisdictions are also key factors in pushing wealth inequality to dizzying new heights. The best mathematical minds in the world are handsomely paid to assure that the rich pay as little tax as possible and to use any regulatory ambiguities and grey areas to fleece the commons over and over on behalf of their patrons (when they’re not committing actual out-and-out frauds).

This would not be hard to at least partially remedy since, despite what many in the business press tell us, it’s not at all impossible to craft intelligently designed tax rules that would force the wealthy and large corporations to pay a more equitable share of the pie. It would, however, require adequately funded, well-insulated lobby-proof regulatory agencies, credible international agreements, and a higher degree of transparency. For the moment, it’s a Catch-22: those social groups that profit from the system, because of revolving doors between government regulators and large corporations and financial institutions, control the very mechanisms that could reform the system, so, for the time being we are actually racing backwards on this front as the nihilistic corporate elites have the full support of the Trumpists to roll back the halting steps in the right direction that had been taken during the Obama years. For now, you can’t get there from here. As it stands, the continued erosion of the middle classes and the obscene increases in wealth disparities are sure-fire recipes for ever worsening political instability throughout the industrialized world and beyond.

The last but definitely not the least of my horsemen is the post-Cold War geopolitical situation. The fall of the old Soviet Union and the “czarist/orthodox/nationalist” revival in Putin’s Russia, the meltdown of much of the Middle East and some of Central Asia, immense population increases in Africa, political instability in the U.S. and Europe, and of course, most consequentially, the dramatic rise of China, have created a far more dangerous landscape because there are so many more “hot spots” that could trigger major conflicts, and the stasis of the Soviet-US stalemate has been replaced by a slew of far more dynamically fluid crises.

The most potentially globally consequential of all is of course the U.S./China rivalry. History is not comforting about what usually transpires when a rising power and a declining one face off. Known among historians as “Thucydides’ Trap,” the classic pattern, from Athens vs. Sparta in antiquity, to Spain vs. Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries, to Germany vs. the allies in the 20th, is that there is a war or a series of wars. In 12 of 16 comparable cases over the past 500 years, that has proved true, and in those cases in which war was narrowly averted, massive and painful adjustments were required.

So, the odds are high that some sort of Chinese vs. U.S. armed confrontation is likely at some point in the next decade. One has to hope that should this occur, it would be limited to tactical engagements in the South China Sea and not escalate to a nuclear exchange. An enormous 21st Century “Great Game” is now underway as all the countries in southern and central Asia are carefully hedging their bets. Myanmar’s military opened a bit to the West because they realized they would become complete vassals of China if they didn’t, but they can’t push it too far lest they incur their massive northern neighbor’s overt wrath. Vietnam has used a rapprochement with the U.S. for similar reasons. The Korean Peninsula is of course another very hot and fluid flashpoint. And while Russia and China’s relationship is currently good, finding common ground in their hostility to the U.S., the Russians have long been fearful that their southeastern neighbor will gaze at the resource-rich and sparsely populated vast Siberian expanse with hungry eyes, and those two nations did engage in some border skirmishes a few decades ago. The evolution of that geopolitical relationship will prove critical, because a Russo-Chinese entente would control the lion’s share of the Asian landmass, and the Chinese fear encirclement more than anything. Their aggressiveness in the South China Sea arises from that historical fear.

In any case China has become far too powerful and dynamic to put back in a box. It is the main trading partner for just about all of Asia, and in fact many other nations’ main trading partner globally, as well as probably the leading source of investment in much of the developing world, so the planet is going to have to find a way to accommodate its rise, one way or another

Whether China is culturally suited to eventually replacing the U.S. as the new “hegemonic power” is open to question. We are more likely to see the rise of a more multi-polar world, which has positive elements but also far more instability built in. In some ways it may resemble the geopolitical scenario in Orwell’s 1984, with its major blocs (Oceania, Eurasia, Eastasia). Many of us had hoped the E.U. could become a counterweight to both the U.S.’s robber baron corporation model and China’s state kleptocracy, offering a more humane, eco-friendly template of a well regulated market-based economy blended with a benefic social safety net, a sort of larger-scale version of the Scandinavia model.

The post-WWII European elites, many of whom were highly intelligent and well-intentioned, desirous above all to never again witness the carnage of the two world wars, made a few major miscalculations. They were ahead of their still often very culturally traditional, nationally oriented populations in their readiness to erase borders. They should have done more to appease public opinion with an inspiring pan-European message and to attach more obvious incentives for the masses to the project. Instead, they allowed corporate interests to have too much sway over economic policies in the nascent union, thereby alienating many in the working classes. They also let too big a bureaucratic apparatus congeal. Their heirs then expanded too quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, understandably wanting to rapidly re-Europeanize the former Eastern Bloc countries, but many of those nations weren’t ready to become modern democracies. They should have been integrated more gradually.

Managing the union is now akin to herding cats, a few of them (in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, etc.) very authoritarian or corrupt (or both) cats. It remains to be seen whether the European experiment implodes or merely muddles through or surmounts its current travails and emerges as a viable alternative model. My sense is that the best hope would be for a “multi-speed” European project, with the core Western European countries (France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, Malta, perhaps Holland and Austria and a few others) with the most robust democratic institutions, accelerating their integration on the economic and perhaps military fronts, and permitting them to act without all 27 (once the UK leaves) member states having to agree about everything. Other countries could participate in some common policies and not others. This is already the case with the Euro, which only 19 EU members adopted. This will be very politically difficult to work out, but without it, it’s hard to imagine an E.U. nimble enough to be an effective major power on the global scene.

In my view it would be a major catastrophe if the European experiment failed, as if it could be sufficiently reformed it could offer a potential anchor for a saner global zeitgeist, but the odds are not looking great at the moment. The coming elections there should begin to give us some clues as to whether it can weather at least this portion of the storm, or if the floodgates of destabilization will be thrown wide open.

The social discourse in the West has, across nearly all ideological divides, been imbued since at least the Renaissance and especially since the Industrial Revolution with the idea that whatever hiccups and detours it encountered along the way, the human project was characterized by a march toward progress: greater prosperity, greater wisdom and compassion, increased efficiency, and so on. The unfolding of evolution certainly seems to have led to more complex organisms (admittedly with periodic cataclysmic extinction events that wipe a lot of the slate clean), and there are indeed long stretches of human history that follow that progressive trajectory.

There are also periods that are characterized by devolution. The fall of Rome led to the centuries’ long “dark ages.” It would be hundreds of years before literacy, trade and social organization in Western Europe came even close to what they had been under Roman rule. We can’t just assume that the best aspects of human civilizations (and yes they have also always contained a plethora of dark aspects) are immune to unraveling. We should do our best to build sociopolitical and cultural contexts that create fertile conditions for the most positive human tendencies to flourish and that help transmute and contain our basest impulses, and I urge us all to continue working to those ends in whatever ways we are each best equipped and positioned to do, but we must also cultivate clarity and lucidity about the headwinds that will challenge us in the years ahead, and build our courage, fortitude and resilience, as I can guarantee that the coming decades are bringing very stormy weather.

J.P. Harpignies, Bioneers Conference Associate Producer, is a Brooklyn, NY-based consultant, conference producer, copy-editor and writer. The author of four books: Political Ecosystems, Double Helix Hubris, Delusions of Normality, and Animal Encounters; he also edited the collection, Visionary Plant Consciousness; and was associate editor of the first two Bioneers books: Ecological Medicine and Nature’s Operating Instructions. A senior review team member for the Buckminster Fuller Challenge for the past seven years, he was formerly a program director at the New York Open Center and the founder/co-producer of the Eco-Metropolis conference in NYC. J.P. also taught t’ai chi chuan in Brooklyn, NY for nearly 25 years.