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Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era. What’s Next?

Coronavirus Spells the End of the Neoliberal Era. What’s Next?

Coronavirus is a political crucible, melting down and reshaping current norms. Will the new era be a “Fortress Earth” or a harbinger of a transformed society based on a new set of values?

Think Bigger

Whatever you might be thinking about the long-term impacts of the coronavirus epidemic, you’re probably not thinking big enough.

Our lives have already been reshaped so dramatically in the past few weeks that it’s difficult to see beyond the next news cycle. We’re bracing for the recession we all know is here, wondering how long the lockdown will last, and praying that our loved ones will all make it through alive.

But, in the same way that Covid-19 is spreading at an exponential rate, we also need to think exponentially about its long-term impact on our culture and society. A year or two from now, the virus itself will likely have become a manageable part of our lives—effective treatments will have emerged; a vaccine will be available. But the impact of coronavirus on our global civilization will only just be unfolding. The massive disruptions we’re already seeing in our lives are just the first heralds of a historic transformation in political and societal norms.

If Covid-19 were spreading across a stable and resilient world, its impact could be abrupt but contained. Leaders would consult together; economies disrupted temporarily; people would make do for a while with changed circumstances—and then, after the shock, look forward to getting back to normal. That’s not, however, the world in which we live. Instead, this coronavirus is revealing the structural faults of a system that have been papered over for decades as they’ve been steadily worsening. Gaping economic inequalities, rampant ecological destruction, and pervasive political corruption are all results of unbalanced systems relying on each other to remain precariously poised. Now, as one system destabilizes, expect others to tumble down in tandem in a cascade known by researchers as “synchronous failure.”

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“The collapse of our civilization is not a political issue.” Really??

“The collapse of our civilization is not a political issue.” Really??

The cover article of New Scientist this week asks “Is Western civilization on the brink of collapse?” I’m glad they’re raising this question, but their discussion was extremely disappointing.

First, as George Monbiot points out in a follow-up article, the article fails to distinguish between Western and global civilization, conflating two very different issues: 1.) the recent historical dominance of the West over the rest of the world, and  2.) the unsustainable dynamics of our global civilization.

Worse, in their editorial, they argue that on the issues of climate breakdown and environmental collapse, those raising the alarm have “prematurely politicised the science and hence provoked pushback from people on the other side of the fence.” To me, that reads like saying that those who argue that the Earth orbits the Sun have prematurely provoked pushback from the Flat Earth Society by emphasizing the role of gravity. It’s the kind of thinking that grants false equivalency to climate deniers and leads to pseudo-scientists funded by the Koch brothers getting equal television time to real scientists representing 98% of scientific opinion.

Bill Nye and climate deniers
Arguing against “politicizing” civilizational collapse is the same mindset that leads to offering equal TV time to pseudo-scientific climate deniers

As I describe in my recent article, “What Will It Really Take to Avoid Collapse?“, the underlying drivers impelling our global civilization to the precipice are the economic structures of a global capitalist growth-based system driven by massive transnational corporations that are more powerful than individual nations. Since politics is, by definition, about the dynamics of power and governance, how is it possible either to diagnose the problem or suggest solutions without it being political?

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The Collapse of Global Civilization Has Begun

The Collapse of Global Civilization Has Begun

But this doesn’t mean we have to give up hope.

A temporary settlement of the Penan, Borneo 1993 © David Hiser

Only the fewest today think that global civilization is on the brink of collapse — but it’s doubtful that the Romans, the Greek, the Mayans or the Mesopotamians saw their own fall coming either. We hear about new obstacles on a daily basis; most of the news consist of disturbing stories on increasingly overwhelming issues that, plainly spoken, seem impossible to solve. And yet, no one even recognizes that it is collapse that starts to unfold all around us.

Civilizations are characterized by the emergence and expansion of cities, as the Latin root of the word suggests (lat.: “civis” = inhabitant of a city), that, in some instances, turn into states. A city is a permanent settlement of humans where more humans live than their immediate environment can support. Therefore, the city requires the import of food and other resources from the surrounding area. The use of the term ‘require’ hereby implies that if the rural population doesn’t agree on exporting the product of their work, the city comes and forcefully takes it (Scott, 2017; Jensen, 2006). The city continuously expands as its population grows, requiring evermore resources from the rural surrounding, and therefore depleting an ever-increasing radius of land. Civilizations can, by definition, not be sustainable, since every expansion on a finite planet logically has a limit — and “colonizing other planets” is obviously nothing but science fiction. Earlier civilizations reached this limit after a few hundred or thousand years, but with the advancement of technology we repeatedly found loopholes that allow us to artificially modify conditions in our favor. As we slowly reach the limit of technological, physical and biological possibilities to further expand as a civilization, it is of utmost importance to understand what is happening and why.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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