One Minute to Midnight

February 2, 2015
By Sundeep Waslekar

In the Arctic region in Norway, in a frozen mountain, there is a high security zone. It is probably the world’s most protected site. In fact, the place can withstand future nuclear attacks, climate catastrophes, and earthquakes. Inside the frozen mountain is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is funded by the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault aims to preserve all possible seeds on the planet. It is not the only seed bank in the world. There are a thousand others but Svalbard is constructed especially to survive nuclear weapon explosions and other catastrophic disasters. The good news is that the earth’s bio-diversity may survive extinction if the successor generation to the present civilization discovers Svalbard. The alarming news is that the world’s elite, including the Gates and the Rockefellers, are preparing for Doomsday, which means they don’t consider Doomsday inconceivable.

In fact, the talk of Doomsday has gripped the minds philosophers such as Nick Bostrom, scientists of the repute of Stephen Hawking and an entrepreneur of the credibility of Elon Musk. All three of them warned in 2014 that a Leviathan created by super intelligence may take over and wipe out humanity. More conventional alarmists recommend the colonisation of space by human beings to avoid annihilation of life on the earth.

While there seems a growing willingness to prepare for a post human era, there is relatively little attention being paid to correct the structural imbalances in our present world. In fact, these imbalances are being reinforced, driving the world towards the systemic crisis which can snowball into existential risks.

It is common for the rich and the powerful to ignore warnings. The Titanic sank because it ignored advice from a small boat about an approaching iceberg. The elite on The Titanic were busy merry making until one minute to midnight. At midnight most of them were dying.

Already states and societies have collapsed in large parts of Africa and the Middle East due to “exclusive growth” model practised by the political-mercantile nexus in those countries. The world can ignore these crises because they are localised or dismiss them as aberration of a religious philosophy because those who oppose the exploitative nexus resort to terrorism in the name of a religion.

The world cannot afford to ignore the next wave of crises when they would simultaneously engulf five countries with large population and geography, economic endowment and entrepreneurial potential located in different parts of the planet. Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa are currently enjoying high GDP growth, stock market indices, and real estate rates, driven by the “exclusive growth” model. In the process they are accentuating inequality, sponsoring an excessively greedy and arrogant nouveau rich generation, and ignoring discontent that is growing. The “exclusive growth” model is slowly tearing apart the moral fabric in these countries, threatening social degeneration. No edifice of economic and political might can survive when its social and moral base has disappeared.

Of course, international analysts who write poetry about BRICS do not want to believe that emerging countries can fall before rising but the elite in the BRICS believe that they have already reached the pinnacle of growth. The Roman Empire collapsed at the height of its glory. The Shah of Iran, the Soviet Politburo, and the Marcos couple believed they were eternal rulers until one moment before they vanished. And let’s always remember that the elite on The Titanic were partying until 11.59 pm.

In the last two decades, the “exclusive growth” model countries have experienced high GDP growth rates and also lifted a number of people out of poverty. During the same period, Brazil witnessed a million homicides, mostly involving young men. China saw increase in protests and socially disruptive events from 50,000 in the early 1990s to about 200,000 in 2014, though China has capacity to withstand such pressures with its emergence as the alternative global lender to countries in distress, its investments in modern technologies ranging from genomics to space science and its growing hard as well as soft power. In India, districts under the influence of Naxalites, rural groups engaged in terrorism and other violent acts to attack the state apparatus, increased from 50 to 200 out of the total 600 districts. And in South Africa, last year alone 200,000 men, women and children were assaulted, out of whom some 18,000 were murdered. The number represents a significant rise over the previous year and the year before.

If the economic model of the last two decades in these countries is spearheading growth and alleviating poverty, why are people resorting to homicide, riots, terrorism, and all other conceivable forms of violence? Or is the economic model, even while reducing poverty to some extent, increasing social and power inequity by producing a class of people who believe that they can “manage” the state while marauding environment, depriving poor people of their assets and promoting the culture of extreme greed, arrogance and ostentatious exhibition of wealth, humiliating others in the present growth process? What has been labelled in the last two decades as liberalisation is in reality crony capitalism of varying degrees where membership of the political-mercantile nexus is all that matters. The debate between free and regulated markets has concluded in these countries with markets that are neither free nor regulated. They are manipulated!

When a large number of people feel humiliated by an arrogant political-mercantile nexus, they lose a sense of stake in the society, even where their economic conditions may improve to some extent. This is when they resort to violence. It would be unfair to explain growing discontent only with socio-economic analysis. The economics of exploitation and politics of deceit is not a monopoly of the political-mercantile nexus. It is practised much more intensely by the terrorist-criminal nexus. In some cases, regional and trans-national factors fuel violence. The reasons for growing social fragility can be questioned. The reality of eroding social harmony in many countries of the world is beyond question.

Initially, violence is limited to individual crime and homicide. Gradually perpetrators of violence seek religious or ideological justification. There is in some groups, a popular appeal for theocracy and in some groups for the communist ideology. However, history shows that both theocracy and communism create their own monopolies of power, which can be as bad as or even worse than the oligopolies in the “exclusive growth” model countries. Therefore the already discredited nexus between religion and merchants or the party and merchants cannot be a substitute for the nexus between new political and mercantile elite.

The American society of today appeals to many people as an alternative. The United States has enabled its citizens to live with freedom, justice and trust, albeit not without a few aberrations in the system. But the same United States which believes in the right of its citizens to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness feels no hesitation in depriving innocent people in other parts of the world of their right to life, liberty and happiness in the American pursuit of power. In fact, the United States has been aggressive in strengthening the “political-economic nexus” and even “military-economic” nexus in other countries so that a few of its favourite acolytes can rule the rest with its assistance. The examples of American sponsorship of such a nexus range from Chile, Iran and the Philippines in the past to Ukraine and Pakistan in present. Such a hypocritical and double-faced political system cannot be an ideal model for future governance of the world, despite the great admiration that the American way deserves for what it has achieved internally. To some extent, the British and French follow the American model of duplicity and at times even cajole a reluctant Washington DC to launch warfare where the eagle does not want to dare.

The world is therefore facing a conceptual crisis, where the “exclusive growth” model invites catastrophe from within, the American duplicity model causes devastation from outside, and the discredited ideas of theocracy and communism show no promise.

Such kind of conceptual crisis gives birth to different kinds of anomalies. Terrorists kill innocent people not only in Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, India, Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria and Yemen but also on the streets of Paris, trains of Madrid and London, coffee shops of Sydney and marathons of Boston. Great democracies like France, Australia and Denmark export extremists to Northern Iraq.  Xenophobic parties rise in Austria, Germany and Sweden. The Americans, the world’s leading advocates of freedom and the custodians of most sophisticated weapons get so scared that they put a million individuals on a “watch list” and almost 50,000 persons on a “no-fly list”.

Such a milieu is perfect for the rise of authoritarian leaders, ultra nationalist forces and non-state violent actors of all types. When global society allows trust to erode, it has no glue to bind itself. This is the beginning of a free for all. In such a context, the pursuit of more and more advanced weapons for self-preservation becomes inevitable.

So far the most advanced weapons that some governments have are nuclear weapons and the most advanced weapons terrorists have are bombs and machine guns. This is changing with new developments in genomics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and space science.

If the “exclusive growth” model produces authoritarian leaders replicating the mental framework of Hitler or his ilk, in future they may focus on controlling the geo-synchronous and geo-stationary orbits of space. This will give them control over critical global infrastructure including the capability to destroy military and civil organisations from their vantage point in space and attack any part of the earth.

If the “exclusive growth” model produces sophisticated terrorists, they will not turn aeroplanes into missiles. They may develop expertise in self-replicating artificial intelligence that can take control of the world, including the Svalbard Global Seeds Vault, or biological agents that can harm the atmosphere.  While only states can have aircrafts and missiles to deploy nuclear weapons and control space, non-state actors can have capacity to develop super intelligence, man-animal chimeras and synthetic bacteria.

The destructive potential of human beings is at the stage of surpassing humans themselves. We may be approaching the end game without our knowledge. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists maintains a Doomsday Clock. Recently the scientific committee that manages the clock decided to shift its hand to three minutes to midnight. The committee made its calculations based on the risk of nuclear weapons and climate catastrophes. There is no indication that it took into account the possible abuse of post nuclear technologies not only by states but also by non-state actors. If these existential risks are considered, the Doomsday Clock should be more appropriately at one minute to midnight.

World’s thought leaders seem to be aware of the position of the real position of the Doomsday Clock at one minute to midnight. That’s why there is rush to build Svalbard Global Seed Vault and undertake similar measures. It is unfortunate that there is no evidence of equal enthusiasm to break the current mental frameworks, demolish models based on “exclusive growth” and duplicity, and create a new web of concepts for the governance of nations, world and environment.

The journey from here to midnight need not necessarily be towards complete annihilation of our civilization. History gives up hope. In the past, priests, monarchs and colonialists reigned over large parts of the earth. They all lost power. The old Greek states, eighteenth century Europe and nineteenth century America and Russia experienced “exclusive growth” models. They all disappeared in wars of all types, from civil wars to world wars. Those manipulating masses to promote “exclusive growth” and duplicity today will also see their end. The big question is not merely a change of masters. It is about what and not who will replace them. It is about how the rich and the poor, the rulers and the ruled can be partners in advancing human civilization. This requires a new social contract within nations and a global social contract in our world. Solon first crafted such a concept of social contract over 2,500 years ago in highly polarised Greek States. Rousseau refined it some 250 years ago in Paris dominated by an oligopoly. The Scandinavians modernised it recently in the age of competition between capitalism and communism.

We need to reinvent social contract at the community, national and global levels. It will require a huge intellectual effort. We are currently witnessing worldwide collaborations to eliminate disease, search the origin of universe and discover a perpetual source of energy. If we can pursue such seemingly impossible objectives, it should be possible for us to undertake global collaborative endeavours to eliminate exploitation, search shared values derived from intrinsic human nature, and create perpetual source of harmony. If we decide to begin a journey to define and practise universal principles that can bring harmony in every society and happiness for every individual in the world, in the last minute we are left with, we will discover that there is a bright day waiting for us on the other side of the midnight.

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