“Chaos Creep” Enters Stage Left: Why Unrest in the Middle East and Africa May Foretell the End of the World as We Know It
Chaos Creep” Enters Stage Left: Why Unrest in the Middle East and Africa May Foretell the End of the World as We Know It
With the future of oil and the fate of nations, economies, and millions of people’s great expectations on the line, no wonder analysts’ eyes are glued on Africa’s Mediterranean coast and the Saudi Peninsula. But the real story is one nobody’s talking about: what it means for the rest of us.
By Ellen LaConte
Unrest is the new norm in northern Africa and the Middle East; unease is the new norm for every nation, corporation, and economy vested in the outcome. As for you, well, you may think what’s going on “over there” is relevant only to those with financial interests in these regions. After all, most media analysts compare what’s happening to past efforts to unseat autocrats and oppressive governments. The underlying assumption is that, eventually, Life will return to business-as-usual—different players, same familiar international system. But what if they’re wrong?
What if, rather than uncovering the truth, the current media clamor is actually burying it? What if the turmoil you’re seeing on your high-def, flat-screen TV is actually making its way to a town square near you? Unthinkable? Not at all.
Be prepared to be wrong-footed about the outcome of this recent cluster of revolutions. We’re witnessing chaos creep, hitting a critical mass of destabilizations, a point after which, despite heroic efforts to manage the chaos, nothing will be the same again.
What’s coming is like a disorienting game of whack-a-mole played out on the world’s stage. Tumult will erupt here and there until, sooner or later, the entire global political and economic system collapses. And the same thinking that got us into this mess—and it is indeed a mess of epic proportions—can’t get us out of it.
The past is sometimes prescient, but sometimes it’s just the past. We’re seeing unprecedented worldwide convergence of environmental, climate, energy, and socio-political crises, a dramatically widening gap between the few filthy rich and the many dirt poor. When you consider the vulnerability of nations, civilizations, and economies to collapse, and the failure of the world’s leaders to effectively address these problems, it’s clear the time has come to think outside the proverbial box.
So if we assume the usual suspects may not have the best answer to the question “What’s next?” where should we look for the answer? I suggest we look to complex living systems for guidance.
We’ve forgotten that Life rules (we don’t).
Think about it this way: Every living system from the cell to the body to ecosystems as large as the Amazon rainforest is dependent on, is a subsystem of, the larger systems of which it’s a part all the way up to the largest. If drought decimates the rainforest, all but the hardiest of the subsystems—the ecosystems and natural communities that it comprises—are decimated. The largest complex system is the determining and limiting factor for all the smaller ones. And no subsystem can get bigger than or have more than the largest system in which it participates.
Yes, this sounds obvious, but we’re so accustomed to looking at the parts of things to see how things work that we consistently forget this overarching principle—and we forget at our peril.
The largest complex system that we and all the political, economic, and social systems we’ve created and count on are parts of is the biosphere—Life itself. That means Life rules; we don’t. We depend on Life for our lives. More specifically, we depend on Life as we know it for our lives, for the familiar climate, resources, natural communities, and ecosystems that provide us with what we need to live and our economies of whatever kind with what they need to function.
The present global economy is too big not to fail.
The next largest complex system on which we depend is the now-globalized capitalist industrial economy. It is a subsystem of Life. Unfortunately, its methods—the ways we produce, distribute, and consume goods and services under its influence—are incompatible with the rules of Life itself, and therefore collapse is inevitable. Here are three reasons why:
First, it’s astoundingly inequitable. Yes, the global economy supplies a very few people, the public and private managers of the system, with a lot more than what they need to live. But it supplies the majority—about two-thirds of humans including the majority of protestors in the present revolutions—with not enough to live very long or well. And it leaves the other living things and systems that comprise Life as we know it less and less to live on. This guarantees that revolutions in human and natural communities will continue.
Second, it depends on perpetual growth for its survival. As a subsystem of Life on earth, the global economy depends entirely on Life—and earth—to supply it with what it needs to grow. But what most leaders and economists have failed to, or chosen not to, account for is that conventional capitalist economies, the only kind we’ve ever known, can persist only if they grow persistently. And to do that, they have to consume ever greater quantities and more kinds of resources.
On a finite planet with finite resources, persistent growth is not sustainable. Additionally, when a capitalist industrial fossil-fueled economy grows, it pollutes, poisons, alters, and destroys the network of subsystems that comprise Life. Since it too is one of Life’s subsystems, the global economy’s destruction of the other subsystems on which it depends is not sustainable.
The global economy is rapidly exceeding both earth’s and Life’s means of supporting it. Think about that for a moment. It’s terrifying. Life will last, but Life as we know it may not.
Third, all signs point to global economic collapse. The end of cheap oil, defeated and depleted natural systems, an unrecognizable, unfriendly climate, shortages of basic necessities, and failing social programs among others of the crises we presently face are symptoms of an economic system destroying its support systems. And rather than checking and balancing each other—as constructive and destructive forces tend to in living systems—these and other crises are converging to form an economically induced syndrome, a critical mass of crises that are reinforcing each other.
Like the unrest they trigger, these Life-averse conditions will be the new norm if we do not forgo the present economic model and adopt one that works in harmony with Life’s eco-economies. If we keep trying to grow the present economy further—which, ironically, is exactly what the protestors in every nation have been encouraged by a handful of pro-globalist NGOs to want it to do—we are doomed to fail. We will run smack up against the reality that Life, which is the determining and limiting factor for every kind of economy on this finite planet, will rule this economy, and many of us, out.
Doing more of the same—further exceeding earth’s means of supporting us—would be like injecting someone with AIDS with more HIV. (This analogy, that our global economy has infected earth with AIDS, is a theme that runs throughout her book.)
Extinction is the fate of species that overreach.
NOTE TO EDITOR: See attached sidebar on five ways humanity can save itself.
The end is nigh. (No, really!)
Here’s the harsh reality: We are bumping up against the limits of the earth’s largest complex system. And it will determine our limits for us if we don’t determine them for ourselves. Because most of us haven’t realized this, and because many of those who have realized it have a vested interest in continuing to get elected or getting as much from the present economy as they can while they can (or both), we’re about to witness clashes of expectation with reality on a massive scale.
The expectation is a fairer and expanded global economy allowing prosperity for all. But the reality is that it would take more than twelve earths to support such universal prosperity. It’s not much longer possible for a majority of humans to achieve American-Dream-like lives, or for most Americans to retrieve the ones they had, no matter who’s sitting in the presidential houses and palaces.
There are and will be spikes of economic gain and renewed great expectation, but they will be scattered and brief. Promises will be made but not kept. Lies about our actual circumstances will be told and, since denial and hope both run deep in the human mind, often believed.
The longest oppressed and hardest plundered regions have been the first to react, hence decades of unrest in Africa, the Middle East, southern Europe, Pakistan, the drift to socialism in Latin America. (Watch China. The CCP is already clamping down on Jasmine Revolution copycats. And Malaysia and the Philippines are solvent on sufferance of shrinking reserves of timber and oil.)
Americans have dodged the bullet so far. But that won’t last. In fact, we are seeing the beginnings of recognition of the ground shifting under our lives in various ways: the public employee labor union protests in Wisconsin…Tea Partiers stirring the pot this way and then that in confused dissatisfaction with their governments…unemployment predicted to last six years or more…trimmed state and federal social program budgets…revelations of mishandling or mismanaging TARP funds…and more demands being made on what’s left of increasingly funny-money than can be met without printing lots more.
The barrage of images of protestors on the other side of the world bringing their leaders to heel can’t help but tickle frustrated Americans’ imaginations.
Cooperation is our last, best hope.
Chaos may not be pleasant, but it’s a creative gateway for complex living systems on an ever-changing planet in a perpetually repeating evolutionary cycle from order to disorder to order again.
Species, especially young ones, trapped in rigid, aged ecosystems, drop functionally out of the moribund system in order to save themselves. They vie competitively with each other for space and sustenance for a while, but eventually they settle into productive partnerships and collaborations and create remarkably democratic new economic systems that allow cooperators to thrive, or at least survive, in their equivalent of a changed political environment.
If leadership rises out of the ranks, rather than being imposed, that helps the present crop of demonstrators realize the futility of just changing who’s running the system and tweaking a few of the rules by which it runs. And if they were helped to see in non-human, complex living systems a viable set of guidelines—I call them “Life’s Eco-nomic Rules for Survival”—they could pull off a true coup. They could begin to shape a truly sustainable human future.
The teachers, teachings, tools, and technologies for this exist. Other species do this all the time. It’s how they transformed the asteroid-blasted, scorched earth of 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs went extinct, into a suitable home for us.
So back to the Middle East and Africa: Could their current struggles be the beginning of a new beginning for human society? Yes, but it won’t happen right away. I anticipate efforts on the part of the world’s present and potential leaders to oppress or organize and tame opposition movements in order to perpetuate something like the status quo and maintain their power or legitimacy.
We’ll see the usual rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic. But when they fail to deliver, we can expect round after round of revolution. Chaos creep. Whack-a-mole.
Dependency on and faith in the present economy run deep, and the forces vested in maintaining it have very deep pockets. But sooner or later dramatic change will happen. It will be that or another very long, very dark age or extinction.