Perhaps a single data point can summarize the shape of the world and the challenge before us. Since roughly 1975, the global economy has added more wealth per capita than we created in all of previous human history. The unlocking of the global economy across the 20th Century has produced an explosion of economic growth so staggering it is almost impossible to take it all in.
Yes, this expansion is also radically unequal, but focusing on that one fact misses an important dynamic that shapes our time. An ordinary human being born anywhere on the planet today has more personal influence on their own life, on average, than they ever have before.
The great story of our age is the sudden, unprecedented expansion in the basic value of a human life. In terms of US politics, this dynamic helps to explain a wide variety of seemingly unrelated phenomenon that are gumming up the machinery of our politics and realigning our political poles. Though this is a happy development, it is introducing new challenges that we are ill equipped to address.
In the US, expanding personal rights help explain the general acceptance of same sex relationships and the growing consensus over basic, universal access to health care. It explains the apparently conflicting yet entirely predictable tension between the expansion of women’s equality and our growing public unease over abortion. It helps explain why the viability of big central governments is crumbling at the same time that our demand for government services is expanding.
Global politics in the 20th Century may have been defined by the great struggle between central authority and personal liberty, but the victory of human rights in that struggle has given us a new paradigm, complete with a vastly more volatile and exciting combination of problems and opportunities. The steadfast refusal of the political right in the US to turn their heads around and look honestly at the future is crippling our ability to shape that future. This is a new ballgame and we are wearing the wrong equipment. Increasingly, we are also wearing the wrong jerseys.
Over the next decade or two we will answer a set of questions which will determine how broadly the prosperity of this era is shared, how many of the world’s people will get to participate, how many people will be killed by the instability created by the new dynamism, and whether the US will be a leader in this new era as by all rights it should be. We haven’t begun to make plans to address these new questions because they have emerged too quickly for us to recognize them.
There are three primary dynamics that are dictating the shape of life in this century:
Growing individual power is rendering old methods for preserving order obsolete.
Civilization is built on managed violence. The most powerful and wealthy civilizations are the ones that can contain private violence while leveraging the lowest possible levels of public or centralized violence. The more individual decision-making power a civilization can tolerate without collapsing into anarchy the wealthier and more powerful that civilization will be.
The rise of individual power is undermining the methods we once used to ensure cooperation at low levels of violence. Ethnic, religious, and tribal identities that once constrained people’s behaviors in ways that made them more compliant are suddenly, radically less effective.
The growth of individual power is a good thing, but every change has consequences. This dynamic is destabilizing traditional institutions everywhere. In the US we see this in the decline of community organizations, organized religion, and the old social-capital infrastructure of participatory government. In short, structures built to govern a slave Republic may not be as effective in serving the needs of a nation dominated by software developers and venture capitalists.
Elsewhere in the world we are seeing an unprecedented collapse in the basic viability of government. In the last century we worried about the seemingly unrelenting expansion of central government power. Now, the greatest threat to global security is the seemingly unstoppable expansion of the “failed state” phenomenon.
This is not just about Haiti and Somalia. Significant swaths of Europe are effectively stateless. There are quirky enclaves like Trans-Dniester, Kaliningrad, and North Kosovo, but the phenomenon includes larger entities. It is unclear when or if Bosnia, Georgia or Ukraine will ever have a minimally functional central authority.
We are seeing shorter cycles of creation and destruction of core institutions.
How long would it take for the world’s most prosperous corporation in 1910 to become obsolete or bankrupt. How long does it take now? Economic dynamism means the world is creating vastly more wealth than it has in the past, but it also destroys older incumbent forms of wealth generation more quickly. It is very difficult for ordinary people to adapt fast enough to keep pace with the demands of a knowledge economy. Though we are creating a lot of wealth, we are doing it the price of constant, extraordinary anxiety.
The “wild” world is gone forever.
Nothing on Earth is unconquered or unaffected by human decisions. There are no truly wild animals or wild places anymore, no matter how remote or uninhabited. The growth of human population and power means that every decision we make has ripple effects not just on other humans, but on natural resources.
Strangely enough, this does not mean that the future will be dictated by scarcity, quite the opposite in fact. It does, however, mean that a host of seemingly insignificant decisions, like whether to get my water from a disposable plastic contain or a reusable one might determine whether seal populations in the North Pacific survive or go extinct.
In other words, now that we have utterly conquered the natural world, we need to make some affirmative decisions about what to do with it. Otherwise, we will simply wreck it arbitrarily with consequences to human health and welfare that will be impossible to predict.
The new value of human life, with its accompanying expansion of personal liberty and prosperity is a fantastic accomplishment, truly the End of History as we once understood it. It is not, however, the end of the human story or an excuse for complacency. We face a whole new set of challenges, a sort of New History based less on ideological conflicts than on basic administration which will determine how rich, how peaceful, and how happy human beings will generally be a century from now.
Not only are we failing to confront these new challenges, we seem not to even recognize them. Especially on the right in the US, our politics has descended into a bizarre spectacle of anachronism, obsessed with supposed issues that have no relevance to the present or the future. To a very large and very frightening extent, the shape of the next century at a global level will be shaped by the success or failure of political conservatives in the US in recognizing and adapting to the world they helped birth. We are not off to a promising start.