A historical foray into the past few centuries reveals that the advance of modernity, spearheaded by capitalistic modes of production relations, led to a quest for planetary civilization via liberal, Enlightenment-inspired ideals in the late nineteenth century, resulting in bitter disillusionment after the two world wars in the twentieth century. The hope of achieving these ideals via socialist revolution turned sour after the geopolitical and economic realities of the Eastern bloc resulted in static, regimented and undemocratic societies, struggling unsuccessfully to compete with the West—far from the global socialist vision.
The neoliberal era developed not just from the emerging financial class, but also from the fertilization of ideas (such as those by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others) that lay dormant in the Keynesian era that followed the Second World War. When the time was right, i.e., when Keynesian reforms seemed inadequate in the 1970s, neoliberal ideas and their advocates (both conservative and liberal) formed a partnership that has resulted in some spectacular progress towards economic globalization, with all the attendant social, ecological and geopolitical crises. Today, we seem to have achieved economic globalization (except in Africa) with all its attendant glitter, glamor, and stench.
The capitalist quest for maximization of monetary profits is mathematically convenient and yields palpable results, but it neglects a whole array of important side effects. Yet, this is a simplistic and attractive way to achieve growth and wealth in traditional societies still in the grips of older forms of production-relations. The trickle-down effect there is also substantial—a lot of wealth is created, generating a huge middle class geared towards higher consumption and youth eager to break away from traditional constraints and embrace modernity with all its glitter. It creates another round of chaotic urbanization (as, for example, in China and India).
It should be remembered that constraining and corrupt feudal-bureaucratic forces were rampant in the Keynesian/old-style socialist economies. Economic globalization and privatization were quick ways to deal with these barriers to economic growth for the neoliberals of the West, as well as the local elites in these old-style economies impatient with the stultifying status quo. However, this process also increased inequities (in already unequal societies) and has given way too much power to financial/corporate institutions and certain segments of the elites, while engendering newer forms of corruption.
These forces have accelerated the ongoing clash between the traditional and the modern; between more nationalistic, industrial forms of production and the globalist (mobile-global-capital-based) forms; and between those who have made it in the globalist era and those who have fallen behind.1 And these clashes have led to obscurantist political movements—like ultra-nationalistic, religious, xenophobic, and fascist forms in both developed and developing countries (as we are seeing now). Progressive forces are also on the rise, especially among the enlightened youth.
However, except for the most ideological of neoliberals, many enlightened individuals in the neoliberal camp, such as Barack Obama, see the breakdown to a fortress world and ecological degradation as undesirable and would pursue incremental, piecemeal Keynesian and ecological reforms. Emphasis will be on market reforms, with policies to ameliorate the most glaring forms of social inequities.
We are entering an accelerated phase of technological innovation—biotech, energy, nanotech, artificial intelligence, and medical breakthroughs will reshape the modern world. Ecological modernization will become a new force as a way towards a sustainable future with increased commodification of nature in the name of natural capital and ecosystem services. The momentum of technological change and the necessity of modern institutions adapting to them will demand a substantial amount of human management skill. Smart Internet-based solutions will become more widespread and penetrate all aspects of the global discourse. While newer, more decentralized forms of energy creation offer better ways to organize from local up, more centralized forms will compete to keep the status quo in terms of centralized bureaucracies.2
The momentum and the consequences of an 81 trillion dollar economy historically achieved mainly through capital accumulation via profit maximization will be hard to constrain (towards equitable distribution of income and ecologically sustainable development). There are bound to be winners and losers, and inequality and polarization of wealth will wax and wane, and may struggle towards some socially acceptable level in the absence of major catastrophes. The UN-inspired alternatives to GDP that emphasize better indices for measuring “human well-being” will try to reform some nasty aspects of capitalism from within—factoring in the transnational aspect of production and distribution and the growing “precariat” class.
Our most global of ecological problems, the possibility of rapid, human-induced climate change, also inevitably creates winners and losers (mostly along traditional lines). A total ecological collapse, while possible, is still unlikely, because it underestimates spatial and temporal uncertainties, species adaptation and niche construction, and the amount of technological and social management of which humans are capable—although it is very likely that some fragile ecosystems will be permanently damaged if the IPCC projections of the rate of change are accurate, and no serious steps are undertaken to lower emissions. Some of the worst effects attributed to climate change today are very much confounded with human land-use change and other developmental, consumption, and population demographic pressures in the pursuit of rapid economic growth geared towards global markets. Soil degradation and water scarcity will probably top the list as the most palpable of these impacts. Blaming it all on climate change would be counterproductive in the long run since climate change, even towards a new high, can be nonlinear and yield surprises that will feed the skeptics.
In summary, there will be a lot of social, political, economic, technological and ecological forces at play that will engender assorted political movements—some sinister and parochial, others progressive but fairly localized, others elitist and global, some bizarre and of no real consequence. What shape all these will eventually take is anyone’s guess: one can envision this as an ongoing dialectical political struggle with no predictable winners or losers. In some respects, all battles have to be fought all over again as the late Tony Benn used to say, and this dialectical struggle towards a planetary civilization appears to be no exception. The progress is never linear, although there are periods when this may seem so.
Grand global visions (still the domain of a small fraction of the globalized elites), however, are necessary to inspire, shape, and constrain these chaotic forces, and Paul Raskin’s contribution is therefore timely and invaluable. Detailing an elaborate vision (with all the major themes), and evaluating it via simulation and scenario analysis (and even hopefully a small scale real-world experiment) is a worthwhile exercise. For example, can we develop mathematically feasible indices (with future computing capabilities in mind) which can maximize non-monetary profit that increases human well-being? How can food production/distribution, and other essentials like education, healthcare, and basic income be developed in the era of rapid technological change? Will the future society be a form of market-assisted ecosocialism? If so, what kinds of resources should be outside the domain of the markets? What kind of regulations and conflict resolution by national/supranational/global bodies will be feasible? What kinds of institutional changes and political movements can address inequalities, unsustainable human population growth, ecological degradation, etc.? How to formulate a universal, consensus based early education with a planetary focus, and our commonality emphasized? How can one enable this to become a global curriculum that will be taught in all schools?
Similar to how capitalism emerged from within the feudal society, the elites can set the stage for a planetary phase with ecosocial-economic democracy as the goal. This is more likely to be a co-evolutionary process with some radical leaps and setbacks dotted spatially and temporally. Solidarity and the shared global vision necessary to move towards a planetary phase are formidable, especially those that are true to our cosmic, biological/evolutionary, and behavioral constraints. Raskin’s narrative, therefore, can act as a catalyst and, when the time is ripe, can help the takeoff towards a shared planetary civilization, with all its trials and tribulations.
1. Jerry Harris, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy (Atlanta: Clarity Press, 2016).
2. Jeremy Rifkin, Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).
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Anantha Prasad is a Research Ecologist at the US Forest Service, where his work relates to conserving forests under multiple threats of climate and land use change. Prior to coming to the Forest Service, he worked on inertial navigation systems in aircrafts, estimated carbon emissions from sub-Saharan Africa, and modeled tropical forest biomass degradation.
As a forum for collectively understanding and shaping the global future, GTI welcomes diverse ideas. Thus, the opinions expressed in our publications do not necessarily reflect the views of GTI or the Tellus Institute.