Global Problems with National Solutions?
I was surprised to discover this month that knowing something about the Yellow River gave me a better idea of what was happening in politics in the US and the world today. When people survive challenges, the hope is that we find a better path for ourselves or at least see the consequences of our choices.
The challenges the Yellow River presented were not dissimilar to what we face. The river winds over 5,000 miles through China and its floods have killed millions of people over the centuries. The 1931 flood killed between 1-4 million people. Another killed over half a million.
Flood waters didn’t become manageable until a series of bridges, dams and levees were built. The first dam was not completed until 1960. Now there are 16 to protect people and property, provide power, and distribute water.
In the case of the Yellow River, you don’t get all that. In 2008 one-third of the river’s water was declared unsafe for aquaculture, agriculture, drinking, and even industry. Getting a worse rating wasn’t an option, and it hasn’t gotten better.
There’s actually a Chinese expression, “when the Yellow River runs clear” that translated into English means, roughly, “when pigs fly.” The water is clean when it leaves its source, and then becomes polluted by industrial runoff.
The bad news is the pollution, but the good news is flooding is more manageable. The worst flood, close by on the Yau River, killed 66 people in 2007. Caused by heavy rains, it was the worst flood in 50 years.
The big challenge the Chinese had to overcome was that along the river’s 5,000 miles were many different tribes or independently governed populations that had their own way of doing things.
There were 15 groups that controlled sections the river. The river could not be managed unless each group participated. It took only one group going its own way to prevent the goal of avoiding floods.
The author of Sapiens and (just released) Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari uses this example to describe a challenge that the world faces today. Both books are published by HarperCollins.
One place this professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem applies this analogy is to the Internet. All it takes to “pollute” and make the Internet unworkable is a small part of one tribe.
Can the goal of clean air or clean water be accomplished when a few groups or countries ignore the wishes of a majority of people who don’t want to live in an environment that makes them sick?
How can the world’s economy be managed on a national level? Labor and materials to build one make of automobile, for example, come from all over the world.
Our challenge right now, Harari says, is that we have a global economy and global ecology and national politics. Unless we all have the same politics, how can anything be corrected? The idea is that all countries could agree enough to unite—well, the European Union can’t decide how to proceed and we’re talking about the whole world.
This challenge, he says, explains the revolt of people around the globe. Governments can no longer govern the “forces that shape our lives.” Can anyone really bring the US coal industry back to previous production and job levels when markets in the U.S. and the world—and consumers and populations desires—are moving in a more sustainable direction?
People feel betrayed and are upset at politicians who have lost their ability to correct what politicians seem to have a hard time understanding, let alone control.
To describe what happens next he uses another analogy. When you’re in an unfamiliar city and you get lost, what do you do? You go back to a familiar place where you know where you are and can navigate. Then you start again.
In the U.S., for instance, the time when life was more predictable and equitable seems to be when there was less government; and so existing systems and structures are being thrown out right and left. Especially left.
Harari suggests his culture might want to go back 2000 years before they might feel comfortable again. Each country is different, but what they have in common is the idea that those in charge are responsible and should fix it by going back to a time they feel it was working.
While this change is going on around the world, the ability of any single government—working on its own—isn’t effectively going to change a global environment or a global economy. Doesn’t it have to be addressed from a similar level? A cooperative one, ideally.
Harari believes that when it comes to the global environment, knowing the scope of change needed to make a difference to the planet’s ecology—and not wanting to change the status quo—the only reaction they have is the expedient one and simply deny that a problem even exists.
His book, Homo Deus: The Future of Tomorrow, addresses a lot more. I don’t agree that we will find ourselves in all the situations I’ve heard him talk about, but his perspective is a valuable one to consider.
There are still a lot of Harari’s materials I haven’t gotten to that I want to explore. There’s an interview with him online at Ted.com I recommend.
With no clear one-nation solution, however, we can see that what politics has become here is just as he describs. We are dismantling the government and going back to a time when those in power now perceive that “it” worked.
That leaves us with big questions, of course, such as, when was that time when things were “great” or everything worked? And have we made no progress since that time?
Unfortunately, some define that as being when we were more racially, religiously and economically (somewhat) more homogeneous.
We now see groups singled out and blamed for our problems who are victims of where we have evolved to just as much, if not more, than those who are also dissatisfied and most upset.
That’s sad and dangerous for us all. Especially because it all seems too frighteningly familiar.
Does returning to what many consider our “core values” mean it will be in a way that challenges the principles and rights guaranteed in our national core, founding document—the US Constitution?
Are we throwing out the baby with the bath water? Or will we protect it?