“Some of the biggest problems facing the world―war, hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation―are essentially system failures. They cannot be solved by fixing one piece in isolation from the others, because even seemingly minor details have enormous power to undermine the best efforts of too-narrow thinking.”
Donella H. Meadows
The most pressing issues afflicting humanity today are multivariate. They require a great deal of effort to grasp thoroughly. Analyzing them can be disturbing and reveal errors in our worldview, so downplaying their severity can, at times, be comforting.
Environmental depredations, the potential dangers of A.I, warfare over resources and ideologies…..who cares? Why think about that stuff anyway?
Ignoring these topics may bring temporary relief, but those oblivious to their wide-ranging impacts risk having their lives upheaved by them. One crucial, yet widely mischaracterized trend occurring today is globalization.
Individual nations are losing power relative to supranational entities (the EU, IMF, UN, etc.) and transnational corporations.
The leaders of the world’s major powers frequently congregate to align their national agendas and further integrate. When confronted about this, they stress the goal of peaceful co-existence. They talk of creative expression and free exchange of ideas across borders. They want goods and services to reach those desiring them swiftly and cheaply.
To be fair, these are admirable goals, and some of the people working towards them are virtuous.
But like all movements, there will be those who subvert the aims of the well-intentioned to pursue their selfish interests.
The major Western central banks coordinate their policies to keep insolvent nations and mega-corporations afloat at the general public’s expense, which is stoking the flames of radical politics throughout the Western world.
John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit-Man details the sinister and devious ways global institutions proclaiming to help developing countries ensnare them in debt-traps, plunder their resources, and wreak unimaginable havoc on their populations. There’s simply no denying the destructive and larcenous acts that have transpired under the guise of globalization.
The fervid emotions of globalism’s extreme detractors and blind cheerleaders alike have led to its appalling misrepresentation in the public sphere. Objectors stereotype anyone with extraordinary wealth and influence as a thieving, duplicitous snob who relishes in the pillaging and subjugation of common folk. To them, globalization is a mechanism for the Powers That Be to create a permanent slave class that’ll cater to their every whim.
On the other hand, the unwavering supporters fail to see how the movement is occasionally hijacked to impoverish and strip working-class people of their identity and purpose.
Very few protective measures were taken by prior Democratic and Republican U.S Presidents against intellectual property theft and the offshoring of manufacturing jobs. The transnational corporations that bankrolled their campaigns profited immensely from this shift in the supply chain, all the while downplaying the long-term consequences.
Even today, American companies acquiesce to forced-technology transfers by China to access their markets, since the cost of jeopardizing America’s future is more than offset by the revenues generated from China’s one billion-plus consumer base. We’ve yet to reach an equilibrium where national borders are open enough to allow meaningful commerce, yet capable of fending off parasitic behavior from abroad.
Despite the views of the extreme detractors and uncritical supporters failing to encapsulate globalization in its entirety, they receive a great deal of media coverage.
An explication of the phenomenon’s core driving forces will lay bare the failings in both perspectives.
In any competitive domain — be it athletics, medicine, or law — competence hierarchies will emerge where a small number of staggeringly industrious, hyper-skilled participants (some virtuous, others immoral) sit on the top while incompetent people occupy the bottom.
There will be those who can’t write a line of code and others whose programming talents will net them billions of dollars. Localized inefficiencies will exist (i.e, someone is a little higher or lower on the pyramid than they should be), but the schema is generally accurate. It’s the reality of life, and shouldn’t be too deflating given one’s vocation isn’t the only factor in attaining self-fulfillment.
The key takeaway of this is: the demand for energy, banking, telecommunications, etc. is global, and so is the arena to capitalize on them; so it shouldn’t be surprising that gargantuan enterprises, led by those who are among the best alive at meeting these demands, have arisen. And considering the activities of business and government often overlap, it makes sense they are, in some ways, fused and dependent on one another.
Nation-states can’t achieve their aims without corporations and vice versa.
In other words, globalization isn’t some demented ideology foisted onto us from on high; it’s a natural response to what we as a people, admittedly or not, aggressively seek: affordable, high-quality goods and services that make our lives as enjoyable, secure, and streamlined as possible.
Even globalism’s most irate critics reap its benefits by using smartphones, pumping fuel into their cars, consuming imported products, etc.
This doesn’t excuse the predatory and destabilizing behaviors these entities engage in, nor suggests that globalism, as it exists today, is without serious flaws. An echo-chamber effect appears to be constraining its efficacy.
Countless studies have proven, when it comes down to it, an exceedingly small number of people possess the bulk of the world’s wealth and devise public policy. These individuals, through interlocking corporate directorates, social clubs, and private policy-making forums, exercise an astounding amount of influence over the world’s leading institutions and countries.
What’s dangerous about this hyper-concentration of wealth and power, aside from the unceasing temptation to abuse it, is that those wielding it may think it’s beneath them to understand the challenges and needs of people outside of their social class. If, from their vaunted position in society, they’re unwilling to do the exhaustive work of engaging with the public or amassing the data necessary to accurately grasp the world at large, disastrous outcomes are highly probable. One’s natural brilliance or purity of intentions won’t overcome decision-making based on faulty or incomplete information.
The turbulent political climate in the West is a result of widening wealth inequality and large segments of the population recognizing that shadowy, decadent elites are indifferent to their hardships.
The other central impetus behind globalization is that the systems sustaining our survival — the biosphere, digital networks, capital markets, bureaucracies — all abide by the laws of complexity science. Complexity theory is a field of study that unequivocally proves: in any system where a variety of components are performing multiple actions simultaneously, unexpected events are a certainty.
Whether the unpredictable occurrences are benign or catastrophic depends on the stability of the interconnected systems in question. Larger, dysfunctional systems can wreak havoc on smaller, stable ones.
Feedback loops run within and between complex systems with blinding frequency, so it behooves world leaders to strengthen intergovernmental frameworks to anticipate and resolve problems that are global in nature.
Attempting to synchronize the world’s economies and construct a global political order is a bold undertaking. It’s undeniable some of globalism’s leading architects have blundered; because of their position on the socioeconomic pyramid, they believed all of their strategies and practices would be foolproof. In their eyes, it was them, and only them, who should chart the course for the rest of our species. They underestimated how incomprehensibly difficult it is to monitor and adapt to all of the planet’s complex processes in real-time. They failed to realize, if globalization is to be ultimately beneficial, it can’t be the bulk of humanity following the dictates of out-of-touch “elites”, we all have to play some sort of a role. Leaders of successful companies with vibrant cultures know, even if the contributions of all the employees are unequal in weight, they all matter in the company’s overall viability.
Envisioning a world where civil strife is easily contained, resplendent artistry and technological marvels are widespread, and everyone has access to stellar healthcare, education, housing, etc. is exhilarating, but what if it’s just a pipe dream? Is this too utopian a future to ever come to pass?
As antithetical as it may seem to the increasingly overworked and miserable American populace, by a wide variety of metrics (literacy/poverty/infant mortality rates; the frequency of violence worldwide), life on Earth has never been better. During this century, hundreds of millions of people throughout the globe have been lifted out of poverty and are experiencing comforts (i.e, basic sanitation and internet access) we’ve long taken for granted. But the indefinite continuance of these positive trends isn’t set in stone.
The version of world order discussed earlier isn’t the only one being fought for on the international stage.
The rallying cry of Iran and radical Islamist groups is a restoration of the Caliphate — a world where precepts such as national sovereignty and non-interventionism are cast aside to allow the Qu’ran to be the staple of civilization. Under this conception of world order, the Qu’ran is strictly followed, Muslims are to convert (or at least limit the influence of) nonbelievers by any means, and non-Islamic communities are, at best, merely tolerated, never seen as equal to Islamic ones.
The adopters of this doctrine have strongholds in numerous Middle Eastern countries and are prepared to fight to the death to make it a reality. Even if radical Islam is exterminated, the possibility of another extremist ideology virulently spreading in the future can’t be ruled out.
Also, plenty of countries pay great lip service in wanting to collaborate to promote peace and stability yet, either overtly or clandestinely, sabotage others in an attempt to elevate their global standing. Whether the cultural differences of the world’s various nations are too vast to be surmounted has yet to be answered.
Several years ago, I spent an afternoon campaigning with a wealthy political candidate near my hometown. He made a sizable fortune in finance and real estate. I’ll never forget his response when I asked why he was running for office.
“I’ve had enough career success that my family never has to work a day in their lives. I still have plenty of life left to live, why not help others achieve similarly? What else is there to do?”
Here’s a thought experiment:
Imagine you had all the money you could ever dream of.
Even after visiting the planet’s most exotic locales and working through your bucket list, you’d likely have an inordinate amount of time to be alone with your thoughts.
What if, in those periods of self-reflection, you realize: despite your stupefying riches, you still aren’t immune to the tragedies of life? That you can still lose a close relative, become severely sick or injured, have things go sour with a lover, or experience a tumultuous falling out with a friend? That, despite being alive up to this point, the probability of you being killed or traumatized by some unforeseen event was never zero, and countless people throughout history, people with talents, aspirations, and relationships as deeply cherished as your own are to you, weren’t so lucky and either died prematurely or lived primarily insufferable lives? And people are still being devastated by circumstances out of their control at this very moment?
What if this scenario isn’t so hypothetical? What if these are the thoughts hammering the consciences of some of our most influential decision-makers? Every year, an estimated 19 million people die from air pollution, starvation, and preventable diseases alone. Scores of others are dreadfully unfulfilled, wracked by physical/mental illnesses, and/or in constant fear of financial ruin.
Responding to this by indiscriminately seizing the assets of the “one-percent” isn’t the answer. Nor is lavishing our savings onto the needy with no strings attached. But at some point, we have to ask ourselves, “Is it advantageous to help these ailing people and, if so, to what degree can we uplift them before we compromise our well-being and futures?”
“How optimally are we using the resources available to us?”
“Given that we exist within and depend upon a multitude of complex systems to stay alive, how equipped are we to manage the chaos and freak incidents that are certain to flare up throughout the planet?”
Ray Dalio, billionaire hedge fund owner and among the “global elite”, recently wrote about how the cost of helping people maximize their potential is often less than having them languish in destitution and misery. Large swaths of indigent, poorly educated, mentally unstable people inflict massive costs onto society via crime/incarceration, healthcare expenses, dependency on government, etc. and reduce a nation’s productive capacity.
Addressing these problems on a global scale is a herculean task that’d make even the most dedicated bureaucrat turn pale. Perhaps some of the socioeconomic crises currently attributed to globalization are the early failures of a project that’ll take the better part of a century (if not longer) to finalize.
Globalization is poised to mightily transform human affairs throughout our lifetimes. The increasing sophistication and interdependence of the systems sustaining our survival will warrant some sort of world order.
The groundwork for global centralized governance, a unified world currency, and a worldwide taxation system has already been laid and is being built upon daily. Whether we as a species end up ameliorating or exacerbating the ills currently plaguing us is something we’ll all play a role in determining.