Monday 16 September 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'As the Amazon burns, centuries of progress are in danger'

The world has become more peaceful, prosperous and democratic - but climate change is a threat to all our futures, writes Dan O'Brien

Global rebellion: Extinction Rebellion activists outside the Brazilian Embassy in London demanding Brazil's President Bolsonaro acts. Photo: AP Photo/Frank Augstein
Global rebellion: Extinction Rebellion activists outside the Brazilian Embassy in London demanding Brazil's President Bolsonaro acts. Photo: AP Photo/Frank Augstein

'At time of writing, in May 2009, the world is in its deepest recession since the 1930s. Uncertainty abounds. Little can be taken for granted in the years ahead. Yet despite so many causes for despair, there are good reasons to retain a belief in progress. Three stand out above all others.'

This is from a book I wrote exactly a decade ago. The world was in a bad place then. Things are grim now, too. Brexit, Trump, political extremism, an emerging cold war with increasingly autocratic China, talk of a new arms race and fears of an imminent global recession are just some of the current causes of anxiety.

Looming over all else is the real danger of runaway climate change which, among many other things, could cause global mass famine and swamp coastal areas where a large portion of the planet's population now lives.

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History shows how badly wrong things can go.

The fall of ancient Rome led to a long dark age. Ground-breaking new research published last week by academics Emma Hannah and Rowan McLaughlin suggests that early medieval Ireland experienced hundreds of years of decline at the end of the first millennium.

But I argued in the book that history also shows an upward arc of progress, however unsteady. The world over the long run has become more peaceful. More people have come to enjoy more freedom. And the privations of material want have lessened over time.

After a decade is there reason to be more pessimistic?

Mostly not. The decade-old book identified three reasons to believe in progress.

A house is seen surrounded by land scorched by wildfires near Porto Velho (Victor R. Caivano/AP)
A house is seen surrounded by land scorched by wildfires near Porto Velho (Victor R. Caivano/AP)

First, an innate human capacity to invent and innovate in order to find ways to better our lives.

Second, a preference for peace over conflict.

Third, a desire for liberty that crosses time and cultures.

Despite the many problems - old and new - the world faces, these three underlying drivers of progress have remained powerful forces in human affairs over the past decade, with one possible exception.

Fire consumes an area near Jaci Parana in the state of Rondonia (Eraldo Peres/AP)
Fire consumes an area near Jaci Parana in the state of Rondonia (Eraldo Peres/AP)

Though economics is often overstated as an explanation for everything - from thinkers as varied as Karl Marx to Bill Clinton's adviser who famously said "it's the economy, stupid" - material progress is central to how people live their lives, how societies function and how states conduct their affairs in the international system.

Exactly a decade ago, when the world was plumbing the depths of the Great Recession and the Irish economy was still in a frightening freefall, there were questions about how big a change the crash heralded, including whether it would cause capitalism to follow communism into the dustbin of history.

A lush forest sits next to a field of charred trees destroyed by wildfires near Porto Velho, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.(AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
A lush forest sits next to a field of charred trees destroyed by wildfires near Porto Velho, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019.(AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

However bad things then were, recovery eventually came round. Ireland's good news story of an ever-more educated population creating new opportunities and creating new forms of employment is the rule rather than the exception. Almost every country in the world has more people at work than 10 years ago. The capacity of people to innovate and create should continue to drive standards of living upwards in the long run, even if recessions and crashes cause bumps aplenty along the way.

Perhaps the best measure of material progress is the UN's Human Development Index. It combines economic growth and two of the most important gains it brings: more healthcare and more education. The measure shows that every region of the world has made significant gains in human development since UN officials first started compiling the index in 1990.

It also shows the poorest parts of the world making the biggest gains. Until the turn of the century, African under-development was one of the most powerful arguments against a belief in universal progress. In few of the continent's 50-odd states were people's lives improving. But 21st Century Africa has experienced a turnaround. Though the continent still faces enormous challenges, it has recorded some of the biggest advances in human development of any region of the world.

The nature of innovation- based economic growth explains in part another driver of progress, the waning of war. When in the past, wealth was mostly generated from the land, grabbing other people's territory had a logic. No more. Invading countries in the information age is more likely to make an invader poorer than richer.

This shows when the number of conflicts in the world are counted. Scholars of international relations have long noted that, despite a proliferation of new states since the middle of the 20th Century, countries have been going to war less frequently. That pattern has held over the past decade, even if there have been exceptions, such as Russia's annexation of Crimea and the vacuum created by the Syrian civil war which has sucked in other state actors.

Demonstrators block a road outside the Brazilian embassy during a protest organized by the Fridays For Future movement, calling on Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro to protect the Amazon rainforest, in Montevideo, Uruguay, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)
Demonstrators block a road outside the Brazilian embassy during a protest organized by the Fridays For Future movement, calling on Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro to protect the Amazon rainforest, in Montevideo, Uruguay, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Matilde Campodonico)

What does not happen is often as important as what does happen. Trump has not unleashed America's vast military might on the many countries he dislikes for a variety of reasons. China has not used its rapidly growing hard power to settle the many disputes it has with its regional neighbours.

If the international political order has meant countries have moved away from resorting to war to get what they want, what of the political order within countries?

A decade ago there was reason to worry that economic collapse would cause a loss of faith in democracy of the kind that occurred during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Could that, in turn, lead to a reversal of the long-term trend towards democratisation across the world, as people are prepared to forego liberty in the belief that autocrats and authoritarians can make their lives better?

There is reason to be less optimistic about this than a decade ago. Observers of world politics describe the current period as a "democratic recession".

More countries are making laws and using powers that contravene democratic principles, and fewer are becoming more democratic. Some opinion surveys show some decline in the importance of democracy and its values, and voters are more willing to support demagogic candidates and parties than a decade ago.

But this is not the 1930s. The two great anti-democratic creeds that spread so quickly in that decade were then not discredited as they were to become. Neither fascism nor communism have any real credibility in the battle of ideas today.

Despite much talk of a return of fascism, the hard right of today differs in important respects, most notably in that it seeks to put up walls to the outside world whereas fascists were militaristic imperialists who sought to wage war on other people as a demonstration of their nations' supposed superiority.

Nor should the desire for freedom be underestimated. The massive protests in Hong Kong against creeping authoritarianism from the mainland show how people value their freedoms and how they will take big personal risks to retain them.

In the western world, liberalism may be under attack in some places, but elections are not being cancelled. Rather than the death of democracy, a more likely future is bouts of illiberal democracy.

The drivers of progress should continue to work their magic, making the world more prosperous, peaceful and democratic. But as the Amazon burns this weekend, the positive forces could be undone by the greatest of collective action problems.

Not enough countries are prepared to take enough measures to halt potentially catastrophic climate change. The tragedy of the commons on a crowded planet could all too easily cause centuries of progress to be reversed.

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