The aftermath of the recent Wadi Derna flood in Libya
Language matters. If we talk only about “global warming” or “climate change”, those terms don’t convey anything like the scale of the devastation that the climate crisis is already inflicting on humankind. So let’s call it what it is: A very present climate crisis.
Figuring out how to respond to this crisis is made many times harder by the fact that it is closely entwined with crises of governance collapse at many levels around the world.
The most impactful level of entwinement has long been the global. Global discord and the often-blind selfishness of the leaders of rich countries mean that these countries still continue to pump greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere at a rate that guarantees there is no prospect that worldwide GHG emissions—and therefore global heating—will be ended within the next 25 years.
The pace of global warming (heating) has accelerated visibly in recent years. But it’s been underway for several decades already, with effects such as the melting of ice-packs worldwide, desertification of land-masses, heating of seas and the exacerbation of hurricanes and other dire weather events becoming increasingly evident in many parts of the world.
The above image shows colonels from the North Korean and U.S. militaries discussing possible lines for an armistice, October 1951
Pres. Joe Biden’s avowals that the United States will back Ukraine’s campaign to push the Russian military out of its eastern provinces for “as long it takes” have become a mounting chorus over recent months. (He has seldom if ever spelled out the precise nature of the “it” in question. That’s problematic, since Washington and Kyiv have deep disagreements over the extent of their war goals. Perhaps U.S. taxpayers and everyone else deserve some clarity on this point?)
Of course, if Biden were to offer a clear and compelling vision of the outcome for whose pursuit he has been pouring money and weapons into Ukraine, he might also have to explain such anomalies as to why this war against Russia’s bad actions should be supported when he and his predecessor have steadfastly supported Israel’s annexations of Golan and East Jerusalem; whenWashington has long thought that blithely splitting Kosovo off from Serbia was quite okay; and why no-one in Washington has ever been held accountable for the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq…
There are doubtless numerous factors that hold Biden back from offering a specific and principled vision of Washington’s goals for the anti-Russia campaign in Ukraine… And in its place we are offered only the content-free pablum of “as long as it takes.”
This is dangerous territory. Especially today, as we survey the failure of the summer’s long-touted “counter-offensive” against Russia’s military units in eastern Ukraine… Biden’s repeated “ALAIT” declarations portend only a lengthy, continuing commitment of U.S. and allied resources—and of Ukrainian lives—into a World War I-style meat grinder with increasingly devastating local and global consequences.
The image above shows a Liebherr mining excavator and associated truck. Such an excavator can weigh > 800 tons and produce 4,000 horsepower
The crisis that our climate is in is now evident to all. It reminds us of the extreme risks humankind ran by failing to rein in our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Many of us have long understood that fossil fuels that exist in limited quantities—and that as humankind draws those fuels down toward “empty” we will need to have in place robust energy systems based on renewables. But there are three other broad types of planetary resources whose depletion by humans is now also close to crisis point. These three categories are: metals, non-metallic minerals, and biomass.
This graph from the University of Vienna’s excellent Materialflows.net website tracks the annual global extraction of all of these four resource categories over the half-century 1970-2019, measured in billions of tonnes. In those years, the annual extraction of fossil fuels (grey) increased by around 150%. But the annual extraction of of metals (blue) and non-metallic minerals (orange) both increased by around 350%.
The world population of humans increased by 110% in that period—which was roughly proportional to the increase in the extraction of biomass, shown there in green.
By the way, sustainability scientists calculated a while back that 50 billion tonnes of total annual resource extraction is roughly what’s sustainable over the long haul. We breached that limit in the mid-1990s and are now close to extracting twice that amount.
The above image shows Slim Pickens riding a U.S. nuclear missile to its target, from “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)
With this week’s unveiling of yet more indictments of former Pres. Donald Trump and the defiant (Trump-stoked) reaction of his supporters to the indictments, the U.S. governance system now looks closer to suffering a major, systemic collapse than at any point since 1787.
Given the United States’ possession of a mega-capable nuclear arsenal, any such collapse would have massive—potentially existential—consequences for all of humankind. Policymakers and publics worldwide need to start planning how to forestall the worst possible consequences of any such scenario. Starting now.
I don’t think I’m being alarmist. I lived and worked in Lebanon for the first six years of that country’s civil war (1975-81.) I have done in-depth reporting in two other countries recovering from civil wars (Mozambique and Rwanda), and conducted research in other conflict zones. Now, living here in Washington DC I can sense the extreme risk posed to this country’s political system by the battling narratives, the sharp erosion of trust in national institutions, the greed, the positioning, the exchange of harsh accusations, and the mounting fear and intolerance.
But the United States is not Lebanon. It is not Mozambique, or Rwanda, or any of the numerous other countries wracked by civil wars in recent decades. This is a polity that has sat at the apex of the world system since 1945. Its massive, extremely capable military is deployed on every continent. And did I mention the nuclear arsenal? An internal political implosion in this country would be far more momentous for humanity than any of those other civil wars.
Above: Pres. Putin poses with some of the African leaders who attended the Russia-African summit he hosted this past week
Biden administration officials and their supporters have long claimed that the conflict in Ukraine is a clear-cut contest between “democracy” and “authoritarianism” that affects the whole world… and that on that basis the countries of the Global South should line up to support NATO’s campaign against Russia. One big recent version of this argument has been the claim that Russia’s refusal to renew the agreement allowing Ukraine to export grain via the Black Sea is raising grain prices and preventing much-needed foodstuffs from reaching hunger-struck countries in Africa…
But the campaign to win global support for NATO’s anti-Russia crusade has never been very successful. Recall that in the three votes Washington initiated at the UN last year to denounce Russia’s actions inside Ukraine (e.g., 1, 2), three dozen countries including global behemoths China, India, and three dozen other countries failed to support the “Yes” vote.
And just this past week, the proceedings of key gatherings held in South Africa and Moscow have underscored the extent to which the “West” has lost the support of that large majority of humanity that lives in the formerly colonized countries of the Global South. (If indeed, it ever had it… Perhaps a better description of what’s been happening in recent months is that the West is now revealing itself as incapable of imposing its will on the countries of the Global South. More on this, later…)
The above image shows four major heat-domes over the northern hemisphere this week. Credit @WeatherProf via Umair Haque
The climate crisis we’re living through this year is real. It’s global. And it’s just a foretaste of what humankind will see over the years ahead if the leaders of our most powerful governments don’t find a way, SOON, to work together to address it.
The impact of this crisis (actual, and forecast) puts the conflict in Ukraine that has dominated the attention of Western media for so long now into a much more realistic and sobering perspective. From a global point of view, the conflict in Ukraine is yet another localized tiff between different factions in that tiny (< 12%) portion of humanity that is of European heritage. And by contrast with the two larger intra-European conflicts of the 20th century, this time around most of the rest of global humanity is actually very little involved. During the two intra-European wars of the 20th century, the global reach of that era’s European empires brought hundreds of millions of non-Europe directly into the hostilities—as combatants, as conscripted labor, or as direct or indirect victims of the conflict.
This time, not nearly as much. This time, quite appropriately, the reaction of the vast majority of non-“Western” governments and peoples to the intra-European conflict in Ukraine is mainly: meh.
It’s not that the Ukraine conflict hasn’t harmed the peoples of the Global South. It has. The main ways it has done so have been:
Have you, like me, been wondering what U.S. “climate czar” John Kerry has been talking about with his hosts in a Beijing that, like much of China and the United States, is drenched in extreme weather events?
John F. Kerry praised China’s “incredible job” expanding renewable energy sources Monday, while urging the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter to stop building coal-fired power plants.
Let’s hope that Kerry’s approach toward his hosts was indeed respectful and collaborative. The fate of humankind and our whole, deeply troubled planet hangs on these two mega-powers finding ways to work together to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, while also reining in the currently raging over-depletion of all of our planet’s material resources.
If these two governments cannot overcome, or set aside, their political differences and find a way to work together to reduce CO2 emissions and resource depletion, then we will surely, within the next 20 years, see extreme weather events “baked” into all of the world’s climate system. We will also see entire economies, small and large, forced screeching to a halt—and also, all the social and political turmoil that will predictably result from that.
First, two key pieces of data regarding these two countries’ recent and projected CO2 emissions:
Click on either graph to expand it. The y-axes (verticals) show the same thing: billions of metric tons of CO2 emissions—but to different scales, as shown. The x-axes show past reported CO2 emissions levels through 2021 or 2022, and then projections from then through 2050.
The above painting is of the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), estd. 1602. The painting is from later in the 1600s.
In the earliest phases of the West Europeans’ construction of transoceanic empires, from 1415 CE through the early 1500s, well-armed Portuguese and Spanish flotillas would use the height and maneuverability of their ships and the firepower of their cannons to overcome Indigenous populations and then either outright rob them of their crops and possessions, or force them on pain of torture, death, or enslavement to trade those items on highly coercive terms.
The earliest of those contacts were, as we saw here, “hit and run” raids. But soon, the plunderers saw the advantages of maintaining more permanent garrisons to control the Indigenes and extract and exploit their resources. Those coastal garrisons then grew into the remarkably durable, trans-oceanic settler-colonial empires that plunderers from the west coast of Europe established and maintained on every continent except Antarctica between the 16th and 18th centuries CE.
The early Portuguese empire-builders had pioneered the (neo-Viking) model of organizing a multi-nodal, trans-oceanic plunder network, which they did down the coast of West Africa. Then, in the 16th century it was the Spanish who pioneered the model of a more durable settler colonialism, which they did initially in the Caribbean and the Americas. (Later, the Portuguese, seeing the profitability of this model, tried to institute something like it in Brazil.)
The Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) that the Spanish monarchs established for this purpose assigned exclusive control over vast tracts of land in the “New World”— including all the human and non-human resources therein—to conquistadores who were favorites of the king, under a system called the encomienda. That system had been perfected over some centuries within Iberia itself, as the Christian lords of Castile and Aragon seized—or, as they claimed, “reconquered”— successive tracts of land from their former Muslim rulers. It was then transferred with few changes, but on a far larger and more lucrative scale, to “New Spain” and “New Granada” in Central America…
The above image is a tilework rendering of Portugal’s Prince Henry (“the Navigator”) conquering Ceuta in North Africa in 1415 CE
Broad phalanxes of commentators, politicians, and pundits in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere speak easily about the role of “the West” in world affairs; and the contest/contrast between “the West vs. the rest” has even become a thing.
But what is this “West”? What do people mean when they use the term?
At a time when the effective hegemony that the United States and its allies in “the West” have exercised over the peoples and politics of the world is starting to crumble, it seems worth exploring the historical record of “the West” a little more systematically.
Is “the West” only a vestige of the West-vs.-East bipolarity of the Cold War? Or, is it a civilizational matter, as in the habit of many U.S. universities to offer courses in “Western Civ” that draw a straight line back from Peoria to the civilizations of Greece and Rome? Or, is “the West” best defined in contrast to an “Orient” that has all the—deeply “Orientalized”—attributes of despotism, backwardness, and so on that have been ascribed to it? (And is “the West” thus largely co-terminous with modernism itself?)
I’ve been thinking on, and writing about, this issue for a number of years (including here), and now I’m planning to present my best current understanding on the history of “the West” as we see it today, summarized into six historical episodes. Today, I present Episode 1.
(I realize I’ve left a lot out of the summary and would much welcome helpful suggestions for improvement, which can be left in the comments.)
The above photo is of one of the exultant visits Hillary Clinton made to post-Qadhafi Libya in 2011
I am delighted that after a hiatus of more than a dozen years (in the course of which I was working mainly as a book publisher) I have now returned to the pages of The Nation, with this article about the return of Syria to the Arab League and the prospect this raises for radically de-escalating the civil war that has devastated Syria for the past 12 years, or even—inshallah!—helping this conflict toward an end.
I warmly invite everyone to read the whole of the Nation article! But toward the end I wrote this, which was a point I want to explore a little more deeply in today’s essay:
Especially since the end of the US-Soviet Cold War, many Americans have been attracted to the idea that our foreign policy should be based on morality. But the version of morality that’s most widespread in today’s America is worryingly vulnerable to the influence campaigns of parties that seek to entangle the United States in regime-change operations in various places. And it pays little heed to the long-existing wisdom that war itself is something that inflicts deep harm on everyone caught in its tentacles, and therefore that bringing a halt to an existing war is itself a deeply moral endeavor.
Regarding the “influence campaigns”, I had provided a lot more information (here) on the heavily funded influence (propaganda) campaigns that Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others had maintained for many years in Washington DC, regarding Syria . Let’s hope those campaigns are now dialed back, or even pushed into a strongly pro-reconciliation mode!
In today’s essay, though, I want to dive deeper into the topic of “the long-existing wisdom that war itself is something that inflicts deep harm on everyone caught in its tentacles.”