Monday, September 12, 2005

The Times, They Are A Changin'

I have had the sense for a long time that much of the centre-left in Canada (I'm thinking the Council of Canadians, the NDP, lots of other folk) bases much of its agenda on assumptions grounded in a world that no longer exists -- there is a refusal to admit that the material conditions which made it politically sensible for elites in the West to agree to the post-World War II social democratic compromise no longer exist. A refusal to come to grips with that reality limits the ability of left-liberals and social democrats to accomplish what they claim to want to accomplish.

But it has occurred to me more recently that there are certain other major changes on the horizon which we also need to take into account, changes that may mean that 2035 looks a lot more different from now than now does from 1975.

There are three things that I can think of that are going to have huge implications for how our society is organized and how progressive movements can and should organize in response.

  1. From what I've read, the idea that we have hit "peak oil" seems to be sound. In other words, the volume of oil production in the world right now is either at its peak or will hit its peak in the near future. After that point, production will shrink. However, demand is continuing to increase. This means that oil prices will rise. Our economy and even the physical arrangements in which we live in North America are based on the assumption that cheap energy is available. When energy ceases to be cheap, there will be big and potentially very unpleasant changes. The speed at which all of this will have to happen is uncertain. The ability of new technology to harness other energy sources in ways that can replace oil is uncertain. And it is also uncertain whether progressive movements will be able to force a proactive and pro-social response, or whether we will see an incompetent, anti-social, and authoritarian one from the states that govern us (a la New Orleans).

  2. There seems little doubt that global environmental instability -- aka "global warming," aka "climate change" -- is real, and that it is likely to have severe but highly unpredictable implications. There will be destruction. There will be shifts in climate that will force changes in human uses of at least some environments. There is no way to know for sure what impact this will have, and I fear it is too late to prevent it entirely, but we have to be ready to react to it and to force changes in policy and economy that minimize the damage.

  3. The dominance of the United States is in decline. This may sound like a strange thing to say, but I think it's true. I won't go into the details of the argument, but the link I've provided gives at least an introduction. There are a number of economic indicators that show this, not to mention its inability to marshal support from the other major capitalist powers for the recolonization of Iraq, and its inability to take and hold Iraq despite the fact that the scope of the armed resistance to the occupation is much less than it was to the occupation of Vietnam a generation ago. This doesn't mean a collapse of the United States is imanent, or anything like that, but it does mean that there will likely be a serious renegotiation of the world order to the disadvantage of the United States over the next couple of decades. Unfortunately, the area in which the U.S. remains most dominant is that of military force, which means that Iraq is probably not going to be the last example of the use of such force as a means of jockying for strategic economic and military position with the other rich countries. The current radical right extremist cabal in control of the United States is going to be particularly unwilling to give up ground without a fight, which will probably be brutal and nasty and kill lots of people. But when it comes to the kind of decline of U.S. power that seems to be on the horizon, I don't know if the less fanatic factions of U.S. elites will really end up being much better.

    This issue is a particular poser for Canada. Post-colonization northern North America has never been anything but an appendage of the most powerful empire on the planet, whether that empire happened to be based directly to the south of us or across the Atlantic, and much of the history of conflict among Canadian elites is about how best to play that role. The playing field will change drastically as the ubiquity of U.S. hegemony fades. The degree of economic integration between the two countries is likely to seriously limit the willingness of Canadian elites to explore positions beyond the range of tepid loyalty to fanatical loyalty to the slowly sinking U.S. ship of state. This is a problem, and a big one, because neither sticking with the U.S. nor striking out in another direction will have easy consequences for the majority of Canadians, I suspect.

Well, there we go -- my injection of pessimism into the blogosphere for the day. I'll try to write something happier next, perhaps something about my trip to Montreal over this past weekend. I think it was that story I came across just before bed last night, which tried to put a cheerful spin on an end-of-the-world scenario, that made me think about this stuff when I should have been sleeping. But, unfortunately, I don't think I'm wrong, and I think we really do need to think about it.


Ricia said...

Totally, utterly, agree. On all three points. I am actually (in the most amazingly long-about way) leading up to making simular points in a series I'm currently posting. Why I felt the need to provide support material (general historical context and references) when I might have made the same point-black statements... Well... I'll never know (except that I seem to think someone whom doesn't share my views might read it all. I'm a sucker for 'trying').

Good on ya, and thanx.

Scott said...

Hi Ricia...thanks for stopping by to read. I'm generally a fan of historical context and references, even if I don't always have the time to put 'em into what I post here, so I'll go on over to your site and check it out!