In the first of a two-part analysis of a world in decline, Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett looks at the new change drivers for society and asks, how resilient is the UK?
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic the debate on the so-called “new normal” for society has been an enduring theme. Political leaders have expressed hope that we could “build back better” and use the lessons from our experiences with a global pandemic to be better prepared for the next major event and to change tack in the ways in which our societies work.
Technology in the form of communications has allowed some mitigation of the issues for economies. Science has provided the vaccines that have allowed sporting stadiums, theatres and restaurants and bars to re-open. Any look at football stadiums on the first day of the new season or the Lord’s Test Match suggests at least some degree of normality has returned. But is this a temporary situation? We are likely to be engulfed by a new wave of Covid-19 arising from the emergence of yet another variant in the virus as it steadily mutates.
It is important to ask the question, is a “new normal” little more than a pipedream? Are we now in a situation where many of the norms of our society need to be changed? Going further, are we seeing the conditions set where Darwin’s teachings of the survival of the fittest create the conditions for a fundamental breakdown of society?
Indeed, it could be argued we are already being overwhelmed by the next crisis. Are we hoping everything is returning to normal just at the point when even greater challenges are appearing on the horizon that will test our resilience even further? And does that mean we have to learn lessons from our Covid-19 experiences quickly? Something that is an anathema to political leaders that wish to kick any inquiries into their obvious failures into the long grass.
Few who watch the television news or listen to the radio can have missed the fact that the world appears to be burning. Forest fires in Russia, Turkey, Greece, Canada and the US all create the sense that something dramatic is happening. The images are profound. The sheer scale of forest fires makes mankind’s attempts at controlling them appear puny.
Nature has the power to checkpoint humanity’s desire for economic growth and it is perhaps time that we planned for a new normal. One driven by considerations of pandemics. From a societal resilience viewpoint, we need to think way outside the box of lessons learnt from the pandemic. That is to set our horizons on a far to narrow basis.
To be resilient we need to think what might happen and then design approaches that mitigate across the range of possible events. Some, linked to climate change, like the acidification of the ocean and sea-level rise are already hard programmed in for the next century. Even action today will not stop those chemical and physical processes continuing to damage the environment.
This is not a single isolated incident in Australia, fuelled by winds and a seasonal lack of rain, these are different forms of meteorological phenomenon, so called heat domes formed as the world’s weather patterns are clearly changing with temperatures touching 50°C.
Climate scientists commenting on these developments are quick to hedge their bets. What seemed well understood and certain now appears to have its inaccuracies. Climate models are now being revised. For some the whole relationship between science and mankind, played out in detail over the last 18 months, appears to be undergoing a further revision.
The world’s rate of heating appears to be going faster and that can only mean one thing: more unpredictable weather, more incidences of flash floods and dramatic downpours and more lethal heat waves. In effect it means more challenges to the resilience of our societies. It is as if humanity, by its own acts of disregard for the environment, has created the conditions for the arrival of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse.
In the Bible, Revelations has the story of the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which signals what is in effect the end of days. Representing conquest, war, famine and death the four horsemen have also been symbolised in the Old Testament’s Book of Ezekiel as sword, famine, wild beasts and pestilence or plague. For those keen on understanding the eschatological basis of the end of time, the parallels with what is happening in the world today seem like the conditions forecast as a prelude to Doomsday.
For mankind the question is, how many people really appreciate what is going on? Certainly, few political leaders seem to show they have the faintest grasp of the dramatic nature of the pace of recent climate change. As any scientist knows, models of climate change are punctuated by assumptions and by aggregations of measurements that may miss the one vital chemical, biological or physical interaction that is not yet being represented in sufficient detail to understand their chaotic outcomes.
On their own second and third order effects can often be dismissed as noise. Acting in harmony, due to circumstances, it can create situations that are wholly unpredictable. Science is always a search for the truth. It is a journey that is incomplete. This, however, is not a point understood by many in the public. In an era of uncertainty, the one thing the public crave is certainty. That is not something that science or political leaders can provide. It is, as ever, only an approximation of the understanding of complex processes that exist today. As ever, more work needs to be done.
Current trends highlight those major changes happening in the world that are and will have a profound impact upon society the world over. Plague, in the form of Covid-19 and its ever-present potential to create even more harmful variants, is just one dimension of this impact. A recent uptick in Ebola and the appearance of a mixed Magdeburg-Ebola virus strain, the like of which we have never seen before, all add to the current confusion. There are many others.
If we think we have a problem with migration now, the situation is only going to get worse. As the impact of desertification really starts to have an impact on countries, such as those in the Sahel, more and more people will be on the move. As this happens the borders that define so-called status will literally evaporate and our 17th century Westphalian ideas on states being an entity upon which its populations can depend for services (such as the National Health Service) will atrophy. After all, what is a state if it cannot protect its borders?
Recent images showing the collapse of the situation in Afghanistan support this thinking. The speed with which the Western created administration in Kabul collapsed seem to surprise many. The state created by the West was clearly not based upon a grillage. It was shifting sands, undermined by corruption and criminal activities endemic in societies whose cultures date back to feudal times that fundamentally undermined Afghanistan.
The outcome was, in fact, easy to predict. No society underpinned by criminality can survive very long. When the tough questions were asked there was no resilience in the state. But is this just the case in Afghanistan? Or is it symptomatic of a wider problem that is currently undermining Western society?
So-called experts whose understanding of the way the world is unfolding are in very short supply. Too many are tainted by outmoded ways of thinking. Perhaps understandably many commentators have suggested that the fall of the Western-supported government in Afghanistan signals the start of a new wave of terrorism.
New Wave of Terrorism
Al Qaeda has lain dormant in Afghanistan for many years now. The return of the Taliban creates opportunities for many to hark back to the era before September 11, 2001, and the situation that enabled Al Qaeda to thrive and project terrorism onto the world stage. While the Taliban may desire international recognition and be willing to utter the kind of platitudes that weak Western political leaders will be only too happy to latch onto, the reality on the ground in Afghanistan is that new safe havens for terrorists will be created.
After all, one of the fundamental duties of an Islamic State in Afghanistan will be to proselytise the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad wherever it can. This, again, will challenge the notion of borders and, by implication, the concept of state. It is not difficult envisaging many Islamic extremists now leaving where they are and setting course for Afghanistan. For many experts it is inevitable that it will become a new nexus for the development of even more extreme forms of terrorism.
This twin axis of threat from climate change and terrorism comes at a time when arguably the West’s own resilience and faith in its political systems is at an all-time low. Western liberal thinking is challenging the basic precepts of society. It is creating an inherent uncertainty that questions our faith in political institutions and more importantly our own sense of identity. This does not provide a firm foundation upon which a resilient society can be built.
All of this points to an urgency about addressing the issues we face in society. Sticking our collective heads in the quicksand of social media will not help us “build back better”. People at large need to get out of the grip of social media and raise their heads to the new reality.
The world is a complex, politically unstable, dynamically evolving place underpinned by a competition between fundamentally different forms of society. The mantra of the “new normal” means nothing more than a drastic reappraisal of society and the ways in which it works. Something no political leader wants to read. But this is the “new reality” and designing that new resilient society must start now.