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A perfect storm of the apocalypse

The crises of the environment care nothing for human squabbles and timetables and are proceeding apace on their own schedule

EnvironmentWar Zones

Image by Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

There is a tide in the affairs of men.”
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Not only is there a tide in human affairs, but there is actual meteorology, and Great Game geopolitics is beginning to look like a perfect storm of folly that could end in a literal great deluge.

In his 1997 book, The Perfect Storm, author Sebastian Junger coined the eponymous term to describe the synergy created when a powerful nor’easter merged with Hurricane Grace to become a new supercharged cyclonic system of its own. The resulting tempest was the now-legendary Halloween Storm of 1991 that took the fishing boat, Andrea Gail, with all hands. The term has since been used ad nauseam for any convergence of elements that results in a dangerously multiplied crisis. The storm, now 30 years behind us, is also an apt metaphor for how bad policy decisions are making a realistic approach to the unfolding crises of the environment all but impossible.

So what are the elements of the perfect geopolitical storm?

The first “storm” of the Apocalypse is the COVID-19 pandemic. Although likely a natural visitation, it should come as no surprise that the more that people violently encroach into the remaining wild areas of the world, the more these kinds of viruses will crop up and make the leap to human hosts. The pandemic was enabled by factors like globalized world transportation and increasingly porous borders (we are, after all, socially interacting petri dishes and there are nearly eight billion of us now). A constantly mutating novel virus, one can only wonder if COVID-19 is an opening volley of a Gaia-like response of the planet to human overpopulation.

The second storm is the Russo-Ukrainian War. Starting with Russia’s invasion, presumably in response to a quarter-century of NATO expansion, the war has continually escalated over the past six months and threatens to escalate catastrophically. With a new offensive underway in southeastern Ukraine, there is no hope for a ceasefire in sight.

The third storm is the renewal of tensions between the United States and China. This emerging crisis is itself a geopolitical perfect storm—a synergy resulting in part from a curious US policy stance pledging support for the Taiwanese people while not supporting Taiwanese independence. Add to this a US ban on microchip-manufacturing gear to China, a Taiwanese electorate evenly split between the pro-unification Pan Blue Coalition and the pro-independence Pan Green Coalition, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s monumentally ill-timed trip to the island, and US-Taiwan trade talks, and it is amazing that the missiles are not already flying.

In wide-angle, the crisis in East Asia is an example of the “Thucydides Trap,” or rather the instability resulting from shifts in the world order caused by a rising or revitalized world power as an existing hegemon declines. In the early 20th century, the rising powers were Germany and Japan, and the instability caused by their ascendancy—coupled with the mismanagement of their rise by the community of nations—resulted in two world wars. In the early 20th century the declining hegemon was the British Empire; today it is likely the Empire’s liberal heir, the United States. The spectre of declining US influence in the Far East coupled with the rise of modern China has made this chilling situation at least as dangerous as the hot war in Ukraine.

In even wider angle, the world order appears to be shifting from the post-Cold War, neoliberal paradigm of economic globalization with the United States as its protector, to a multi-polar world that includes both independent regions and world powers with economies based on authoritarian state capitalism. As British philosopher, John Gray observes, “China and Russia may be able to live in peaceful coexistence with the US, but they will never accept American moral tutelage; the notion that they can be conscripted into service in a campaign to convert the world to American-style democracy is laughable.”

It is doubtful that the world order of 1991-2022 was ever a truly mono-polar moment and it is even less so today. If anyone needs proof of this, the ascendance of modern China and Russia’s violent response to the enlargement of NATO should put the idea to rest once and for all. The Western responses to the present crises in these regions may push China and Russia closer together as an increasingly adversarial bloc for a ‘new Cold War.’ The response of the Islamic world to Western interventions there since 2001 is additional corroboration that the world is comprised of multiple regional systems, some of which are non-amenable to a neoliberal world order.

Taken individually, the current storms are fearfully dangerous in themselves. Worldwide, COVID-19 has killed almost 6.5 million people. With more than one million deaths, the pandemic is already the deadliest crisis in US history, having exceeded the total number of US combat deaths of all of our wars combined by a third of a million. It has also been a long and costly distraction away from the crises of the environment, and may be an initial volley of these crises.

The crises of Taiwan and Ukraine, although more localized, are ominous in their portents. You do not have to be a chess master to see that either of these two flashpoints could result in great power wars leading to nuclear conflict within a few escalatory steps. But not only are the Russo-Ukrainian War and the resurgence of tensions between the US and China dangerous in themselves they are also powerful and perhaps terminal distractions from what threatens the entire planet.

This is because the war in Ukraine has already divided Russia and its allies from much of the rest of the world at a time when international cooperation is most needed to address climate change. In response to Pelosi’s visit, China has declared that it will not cooperate with the United States on climate issues.

The only hope to effectively address and mitigate climate change would be through a concerted and unified world effort. All of the major nations and regions of the world would have to come together in earnest cooperation—a shotgun marriage of necessity, like the teaming up of the Western allies with the Soviet Union in the Second World War. This alliance would have to include Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the European Union, India, Indonesia, the Islamic Middle East, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, the Republics of South America, and South Korea. A majority of major nations and regions so aligned in common cause would yield a critical mass of political will and authority that would compel the smaller nations and regions of the world to comply. But if any of the major players are missing, the plan would be unworkable. Without China, India, and Russia, it will be a nonstarter.

The Russo-Ukrainian War and souring relations between China and the United States would appear to preclude such a world effort for the foreseeable future. The crises of the environment care nothing for human squabbles and timetables and are proceeding apace on their own schedule. Nature’s clock keeps ticking.

The climate cries is another perfect storm; with nearly eight billion people in the world, the overarching storm is overpopulation. The second storm is climate change caused by human-generated atmospheric carbon dioxide. The third and most permanent storm is the shocking loss of biodiversity and habitat (half of the world’s coral reefs have died since 1950 with 14 percent dying just between 2008-2019 alone). Of course, there are a whole range of secondary issues, like the plastics crisis and any number of water-related crises. At this writing, much of the western United States is burning, Europe is cooking, the Arctic is warming four times faster than expected, and ocean levels are rising.

Adding to the crises are political and economic subplots including populist unrest in the world’s democracies (some of which are openly flirting with authoritarianism), more than 100,000,000 refugees in the world, and the damage and disparities wrought by economic globalization.

The two fundamental questions facing humanity in regard to the crises of the environment are: 1) Can we rise above our animal nature via reason and moderation to address these existential issues and mitigate their worst effects? 2) Will we? I have long answered the first question with a cautions yes, although the world’s geopolitical storms over Taiwan and Ukraine now threaten to render it an academic point by answering the second question in the negative.

More and more, the human enterprise is looking like a great Shakespearean tragedy in which an intense internal struggle distracts from a far greater external crisis that threatens all sides. To use another idiom from the 1990s, it will be the mother of all crises.

Michael F. Duggan blogs at realismandpolicy.com.

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