The world order as we know it is seriously threatened. In the coming years and decades, we will face several (dis)orderers – I know, there is no such word, but that does not stop me from inventing it! – that could, indeed would, upset the status quo in different ways. While individually all of them present a real challenge, some of them can reinforce each other in a kind of feedback loop leading to major shocks and upturns.
Let us examine them one by one.
1. Temperature Rise
Climate change has become a commonplace concept and no longer seems to raise major concerns to many persons. That is why some scholars and activists prefer to call it a climate crisis, especially as the effects of climate change are now being felt more acutely.
Focusing on just one aspect, temperature rise, will let us see the enormity of the unfolding situation. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that greenhouse gases are responsible for the global warming we are experiencing. The World Health Organisation warns that the temperature increase is already causing more than 150,000 deaths every year and the figure will double by 2030. But the total death toll is probably higher due to other effects such as the melting of glaciers (that are fundamental to provide freshwater in many places), the increase in droughts, the upturn in diseases currently restricted to warm or tropical regions, substantial crop reduction in many locations, more frequent and more violent storms (especially in coastal areas), a higher frequency of wildfires, the loss of biodiversity, and a general decrease in the quality of life for millions.
We can anticipate which countries will be hit harder, or we can study how many places may be rendered uninhabitable, and thus estimate how many people will be forced to move or to relocate. We will also need to determine if we will be able to produce enough food or if we will have the capacity to fight new, emerging pandemics. In short, the international community and overall humanity is going to be tested – and then we will see if we are up to the challenge.
2. Artificial Intelligence
In 2014, Stephen Hawking told the BBC that ‘the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race’. As a top scientist, his opinion carried much weight. Yet it must be noted that he said this using an improved software programme that was able to predict most of the words he would use. So yes, artificial intelligence can be risky, but it also carries the promise of great enhancement of human capacities. And this is the key concept here – the human.
We continue defining artificial intelligence as the ability of a computer or a robot to reproduce the human mind’s capabilities – skills such as learning from experience, identifying patterns, understanding and responding to common language, solving problems or, the top one, making decisions. Although the kind of AI that is akin to Skynet in the Terminator franchise does not exist yet, we do have many specialised AI applications on which we are becoming more and more reliant.
Nevertheless, Hawking’s argument stands. Full AI would be capable of out-evolving us and could even consider humanity a pest that needs to be purged from the Earth. Then again, it could also help us to overcome our struggles with gender, ethnicity, or nationality. It could prove what real rationality is and help us to evolve.
So far though, it seems that AI is too human for its own good. Microsoft chatbot Tay had to be shut down after it turned into a bigoted, misogynistic Nazi after less than a day interacting with humans. But transhumanists may be right and the pursuit of AI may help us to reach the singularity – the key moment of merging between the organic and the artificial, which would take humanity to a new stage. Or to the beginning of its demise.
3. Pervasive Surveillance (Internet of Things plus 5G)
We are constantly granting apps access to our personal data. With the use of smartwatches and health gadgets our vital signs can be monitored 24/7. Our cars and home appliances are also giving away information about us. Our lives are compacted in neat data packages so we can be more accurately targeted. In the West, this is occurring mostly for commercial purposes, but China is already showing us what a Big Brother on steroids can know about us.
American scholar Shoshana Zuboff’s book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism describes how capitalism is using present technology to follow us and our life in scary detail. More and more facets of our daily activity are being recorded and analysed. Our very identity is being transformed into data that can be commodified and marketed. With the imminent arrival of worldwide 5G technology plus the continuous deployment of the Internet of Things (IoT), the potential to track and record every single aspect of our life will reach a new high.
Of course, we like the comfort this connectivity provides, including the ease when writing, researching, scrolling or, of course, shopping. Our phones contain most of the keys to operate and move around the present world – we don’t get lost, we are constantly in contact, we are completely mobile, and we can do almost anything from everywhere. But, in the process, we may not feel the numbness this entails or the dependence and the privacy we forsake. Furthermore, the same pics we like to post on our social networks can be instrumental in preventing us from getting a job or a loan. And, right now, this information is mostly in the hands of private companies that are subjected to little or no accountability.
4. Feminist Consciousness
One thing that all old hegemonic systems and orthodoxies share is that they are deeply rooted in a structural patriarchy. We live in a world that systematically marginalises, oppresses, and harasses more than fifty per cent of its population. On average, women earn about thirty per cent less than men for the same job. Not only that, women perform most of the domestic tasks and are often trapped in economic dependence. In numerous places around the word, they need a man’s authorisation to get a passport, own a bank account, or even decide where they can live. Sexual harassment, abuse, or assault is minimised, enabled, or even condoned through legislations in many countries. Cultural bias against women has caused a huge but undetermined femicide of baby girls in China, genital mutilation in several African countries, and countless deaths all over the world.
Fortunately, the consciousness that this must change is growing and we may have reached a turning point. Initiatives like #MeToo made many women realise the power they have when acting collectively. More to the point, Covid-19 has shown that some of the countries that have dealt better with the pandemic and its associated crises are governed by women. Their administrations have eloquently shown that it is possible to lead in a more empathic and caring way and still be effective. It is difficult not to conclude that many of the present problems we face are caused by men. Could it be that the constant resort to violence and aggression is a consequence of patriarchy? Could women provide much needed alternatives to a more sustainable, compassionate, and equitable world? In any case, it is only fair to let them give it a try.
Do you fancy making your own honey in groovy colours – green, blue, brown, or even technicolour? Would you like your pet mice to be green or fluorescent? Well, your desire can now be fulfilled. Just visit www.the-odin.com and you can order your genetic engineering beginner’s kit for US$350 or an advanced one for US$900. You can even order a kit-and-class pack on human tissue engineering for US$650. It would be easy to believe that the Odin site is an exception, but the fact is that more and more sites are offering gene editing services. Origene (www.origene.com), for instance, sells Genome Knockout Kits. Genome Knockout – would you believe!
The more we know about our gene pool the more we realise how our DNA determines different aspects of our present and future wellbeing. And CRISPR – an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats – offers an easier (and cheaper) way to cut out and fix gene malfunctions and thus get rid of many ‘undesirable’ hereditary traits or predispositions to certain diseases. Unfortunately, it also allows for more questionable interventions that could border on eugenics or just to please some parents who would like their children to uphold hegemonic beauty standards. This, as with any new technique that allows us to do something that was impossible before, poses some real hard questions. Do we have the right to prevent children from inheriting traits that would make their life harder? Can we deny the removal of certain genetic conditions wholeheartedly? Would gene engineering techniques lead to eugenics? Or, is CRISPR just the lastest tool for the privileged to remain on top?
There is little doubt that SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid-19 – is one of the nastier varieties of coronavirus. Its combination of high infectivity with high lethality has made Covid-19 one of the worst pandemics we have suffered. But there are much worse viruses around with even higher lethality ratios, and our current globalised lifestyles generate wide opportunities for them to thrive. As the effects of climate change progress, the possibility of more and worse pandemics increases. Tropical diseases will spread to much bigger areas, the melting of the permafrost will also let ancient pathogens resurface, and the collapse of the biosphere may trigger as-yet-unknown biohazards.
Covid-19 has shown that we lack the global governance tools to fight pandemics effectively. It has exposed the limits of our present nation-state system when dealing with a global epidemic. The thing with global plagues is that if we are not able to address them globally, we will never truly overcome them. The current Covid-19 crisis will leave many countries in a dire condition. If another outburst happens before recovery, it will be far more damaging, leaving us even more exposed to another one. Overall, it boils down to one pressing question – will we be able to put in place the structures to prevent, manage, or fight new global pandemics?
7. China’s Hegemony
China is on the rise. For decades it has shown robust growth that has made it the world’s main economic power. Not only does it own the biggest share of the world market, it also controls a big share of world’s production and supply. Additionally, it is using its growing political influence to secure critical resources like rare-earth metals, and has accumulated a significant percentage of other countries’ debts (it currently owns about US$1.1 trillion of US debt). China is also showing an increasing technical and innovation proficiency that has made it a space power on its own. Its military strength is rising too. After years of American dominance, it looks like China’s moment has arrived. Being the focal point of the current pandemic could have been a real source of concern, but China has responded with strong and decisively enforced management. As a result, it has been one of the first countries to bounce back to normalcy.
China is becoming more and more conscious of its own power and demands acknowledgment from the rest of the world. President Xi Jinping embodies this new China, with a more muscular and belligerent leadership. China may have a plan for world domination; and it has the patience, resources, and the determination to implement the plan. Just look at the way Beijing has repressed democratic opposition in Hong Kong, interned the Uyghurs in enslavement camps, and its growing political and military pressure on Taiwan. But, it may be that the rest of world needs China more than China needs the rest of the world.
8. Food Scarcity
There are many indicators that we are facing a global food problem. Firstly, according to the US Global Change Research Program’s Fourth National Climate Assessment report, ‘warming temperatures, severe heat, drought, wildfire, and major storms will increasingly disrupt agricultural productivity, threatening not only farmers’ livelihoods but also food security, quality, and price stability’. Secondly, there is the overexploitation of certain resources, such as fish – we have already killed ninety percent of large fish populations (especially tuna or marlins). Thirdly, our current lifestyles, particularly in the West, are unsustainable – as David Attenborough puts it in A Life on Our Planet, ‘Earth can’t support billions of large meat-eaters’, because our current consumption of meat requires too much space and too much energy and generates too much waste. Any of these three elements is important enough in itself to risk food production – combined, they build up to a very big challenge.
In the meantime, we may be facing the disappearance of highly significant products like cocoa or coffee due to a perverse market logic. We may even be jeopardizing many other crops by eradicating bees. All in all, we may be left with few options such as resorting to consuming invertebrates to increase our protein intake. The European Union has recently started to consider mealworms as food. Similar measures will surely be taken regarding insects and jellyfish.
9. Democratic Decline
According to the American NGO Freedom House, 2021 is the lowest point in global freedom since 1995. Its last report, Democracy Under Siege, indicated that less than twenty percent of the world population lives in a free country enjoying a full democratic regime. However, Freedom House’s concern is not just about those states that are clearly authoritarian, but also what it refers to as troubled democracies – for example, the United States and India, and also Spain and Hungary.
Freedom House indicates that there has been a sustained deterioration in democratic quality since 2006. Another report by Swedish institute IDEA, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, indicated a similar concern in 2019 when they stated that ‘democracy is under threat and its promise needs revival’. Both reports agree that after decades of sustained democratic expansion we are witnessing how democracies are being eroded and their citizens are growing disenchanted with the democratic promise.
Among the factors that can be listed are: the crisis of representation that political parties are undergoing which it makes it easier for populist figures and movements to gain public attention; the spreading of democratic backsliding with more and more countries willing to reduce the scope of rights and liberties; the shrivelling of civic space worldwide; the upsurge in corruption; and, what is even worse, the spreading perception that corrupt leaders always manage to escape unscathed.
Finally, what may be the most concerning element is democracy’s incapacity to react to new forms of digital manipulation and misinformation. It is quite evident that, in many regards, the present democratic design was meant for an analogic world – what the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan called the Gutenberg Galaxy. Liberal democracy was attuned for an industrial context. It was fitted for the rise of nation states, rationalism, mass production, and mass media. But it does not seem to be so adequate for a postnormal world that is far more complex, chaotic, and contradictory, and where facts do not seem to hold any currency.
And Covid-19 has become a justification for even further cutbacks in democratic regimes. Freedom House has denounced how public health has been widely used as an alibi to undermine rights and even the rule of law. For instance, the press has experienced all sorts of restrictions in most countries, and new ‘emergency’ legislation, meant to fight the pandemic, has often been passed but it remains to be seen if it will be withdrawn once the situation improves.
10. Access to Outworld Resources
In November 2020, NASA discovered a very valuable asteroid, 16 Psyche, between Mars and Jupiter. The interest in 16 Psyche comes from the fact that it is almost entirely made of metal and its estimated value is in the US$10,000 quadrillions. This mind-boggling figure means that, if distributed equally among all Earth’s inhabitants, each of us would get more than one billion US dollars.
It is no wonder that there is such a gold rush to access the resources of other planets and asteroids. Several companies are already actively working on how to solve the many technical and legal issues to be able to exploit these resources. The potential gains are so large that even astronomical investments seem reasonable. Right now, the initiative is private, but some countries are also moving this direction – the US passed a bill in 2015 to grant property rights over asteroids and their resources to private companies, and Luxembourg is working to become the regional hub for mining businesses. The current projects to establish bases on the moon by China and the US, plus the Space X initiative to create a settlement on Mars, will also include the potential tapping of available resources. We can speculate that these countries and companies will use the resources to expand their wealth and, ultimately, their power base.
Nonetheless, with a declining biosphere and many environmental challenges coming up, it may be that the focus must shift from gaining money to securing resources that are necessary for the salvation of humanity and the Earth. And yet, it is hard not to wonder what it could mean to seize that valuable asteroid – the end of poverty on Earth or… the mother of all inflations!
These (dis)orderers are very important when considered separately. But we are living in a postnormal world and we must realise that the most likely scenario is that at least some of them will happen simultaneously – and that will mean that a new world order, whether we like it or not, will have risen.