Alternative Visions

A world at peace. Environmental sustainability. Social justice. These three principles undergird the vision of the future that many of us share. They have determined the broad direction of the efforts of most of the world’s leaders over the past several generations, at least in the more technologically advanced countries. They are on the cutting edge of an evolving awareness that we are all one species dependent on Planet Earth for our survival, and that ultimately, we can only survive if socially responsible democratic nations cooperate to solve global problems.

But there is another vision, which I might disparagingly label the frat boy, or New Rome model, which animates President Bush and his close advisers. Government is by and for the privileged few. Nature’s bounty, and the teeming masses it supports, exist for the amusement and glorification of the rulers. Rome was a marvelous empire—if you were a Roman aristocrat. Now technology has advanced to dizzying new levels of efficiency and the world’s most privileged individuals no longer need as many slaves or helots as the Romans did. There is a big problem, in that there are far too many people than are needed, but means are now available to keep them in line that are more effective than the bread and circuses of yore. Over time their numbers will be reduced to the minimum required to refresh and entertain the aristocracy, while menial jobs will increasingly be taken over by machines.

This may sound like an absurd caricature of the present administration, but not when you look at what it has actually accomplished. Bush has consolidated power in his office to an unprecedented degree. He has kept broad support in Congress despite numerous fiascos while packing the judiciary with ultra-conservatives. Throughout the executive branch he has placed his people in key positions to ensure that his environmental policies, for example, benefit the interests of his corporate friends rather than the public, and to advance other parts of his grand design. His tax policy has allowed the very rich to become very much richer while the rest of the people tread water. Whenever anyone defines his policies as a form of class warfare, the administration applies scorched earth policies to the accuser. But that is what it is. Class warfare, deftly camouflaged.

But it is Bush’s foreign policy that most clearly shows the imperial mentality at work. The misadventure in Iraq, on trumped up charges, was the fruit of a line of thinking in neoconservative think tanks that was mesmerized by our military prowess and conjured up a whole fantasy of what the world’s sole hyperpower could do if it so chose. My way or the highway. Rome at the height of its power is the outstanding historical example of great military power leading to such arrogance and hubris.

The common impression that this is a failed presidency, and Bush the worst incumbent in our history, has to be revised if you assume that his objectives are neo-Roman rather than modern, that is, animated by the second of the foregoing visions rather than the first. In terms of the criteria that follow from that vision, his administration has succeeded to a degree that would have been considered impossible a few years ago.
Class warfare at home and aggression abroad, how does he get away with it? First, because he has wordsmiths and spin doctors on his team that use modern advertising techniques to reframe the issues and feed them to a gullible public through a mass media industry that is heavily influenced and partly controlled by members of his elite group of rulers. Second, because 9/11 gave him a perfect peg on which to mobilize support by scaring the public. Forget the bread and circuses. The threat of terrorist attack is much more effective.

Enough. It is not my purpose to make this essay yet another analysis of the wrongs committed by the administration. I want to take a look at the two visions I have described from an evolutionary point of view, and take a shot at predicting which is more likely to prevail in the long run.

Two of the most important factors affecting the evolutionary future of our species are population and climate. The first has changed radically during the last couple of centuries and the second is very likely to change equally radically in the next two hundred years. A favorable, stable planetary environment allowed our species to multiply many times over, and now impending change and instability threaten to cut it back down again. It is becoming increasingly likely that some form of doomsday scenario is not just possible, but probable. The main issue is not whether, but when, and how we cope.

Within the coming hundred years, if the sea level rises ten meters, there’s not much future for the average Bangladeshi, the Dutch are going to have to scramble, and much of Florida will go down the tube. A lot of people could either drown or be swept away by hurricanes and tidal waves. If the planet as a whole warms up as much as some experts predict, with attendant climate changes, a lot of real estate in faraway places will suddenly become very desirable while billions who are left behind will roast or starve, as the land that supported them turns to desert. Drown or dessicate, take your pick. The sensible ones will get up and move—if they can.

And just who will the fortunate ones be, who can afford to get up and move? You guessed it, the frat boys, the multi-multi-millionaires, the new Romans. They will have the money to invest in the new land, they will control the media to keep the sheep docile, and they will control a powerful enough military establishment to back up their decisions with force if necessary. When Antarctica becomes habitable, if someone wants to buy some land there, he or she is likely to find that the title is already held by a descendant of someone in the present administration or one of its industrial bedfellows.

Some fifty thousand years ago a group of perhaps five thousand humans, who seem to have been particularly articulate and well organized compared to their fellows, broke out of Africa and spread rapidly throughout the Old World. We are all descended from that small ancestral group. I wonder if they were Republicans. I wonder if they had an attitude toward the people they left behind comparable to that now held by the Bush babies. If so, perhaps the neo-fascist, imperialist stance of the present administration is not on the wrong side of history after all. It is a sobering thought.

There is, of course, another scenario, based on the more benign first vision with which I started this essay. Democracy and social justice, not fascism. Global efforts to control climate change where possible and at least to mitigate its effects. Climatic challenges that spur an increasing sense that cooperation is the answer, not a “devil take the hindmost” dash for the nearest exit. Damage control for everyone’s benefit..

Our future will most probably blend elements of each of these two scenarios. But which end of the spectrum will dominate? That is a question we need to ponder right now, while we still have a little time to influence the outcome. If we wait much longer to establish more effective global cooperation, the “devil take the hindmost” scenario becomes increasingly likely. Not desirable, but eventually, perhaps, inevitable.

Carl Coon 7/7/06

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