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The Crisis of Our Century

Sunday marked the 100-year anniversary of the grinding conclusion of World War I. The First World War was a human catastrophe. It upended everything the Western world had come to believe. It was a mindless, mechanical, and meaningless war that swallowed an entire generation and forever re-shaped the geo-political and cultural reality of the century to come. By the end, monarchical Russia had collapsed and was rebuilding into the Soviet Union. Germany, impoverished and resentful, was placed on a track towards Nazism. The United States stepped into the international sphere, where it would become inextricably enmeshed.

Centuries are shaped by societal trauma. Rapid shifts in collective human understandings of society cause whiplash and have consequences. WWI ushered in the era of fully mechanized war and set the stage for the rise of fascism in Europe, in turn leading to WWII, which ushered in the nuclear age, the Cold War, Vietnam, the birth of the internet, and the establishment of global American hegemony.

Reflecting on this leads one to consider the future of our present century. What is the trauma that will shape our historical era? The fundamental answer: climate change.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report warning that hundreds of millions of lives are at stake should the global temperature rise higher than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

At our present course, that will happen by the year 2040. All of the world’s coral reefs will die out. Wildfires and heat waves will ravage the planet annually. Rapid fluctuations between drought and flooding will jeopardize the world’s food supplies.

This is, disturbingly, a best-case scenario. As it stands now, it will not be possible to keep the climate from warming higher than two degrees Celsius. In fact, it’s estimated that by the end of the century the global temperature will have risen four.

The ramifications of this are immense. At two degrees, the polar ice caps will melt and flood the world’s coastal cities. The global GDP will drop 13 percent. Four hundred million people will suffer from water scarcity. In equatorial regions, such as India, there will be 32 times as many extreme heat waves, each lasting five times as long.

At three degrees, southern Europe will be in permanent drought. Droughts in South America will last 19 months, 21 months in the Caribbean, and up to five years in North Africa. A rise in sea-levels and severe flooding will exaggerate river damage globally.

At four degrees, the global grain supply may fall by 50 percent. Food crises will become  a yearly event. The international economy will shrink by 30 percent. Under widespread strain, conflict and warfare will rise in frequency.

According to the IPCC, slowing this catastrophic rise will require an effort similar to that of the United States’ mobilization before World War II, but enacted at a global scale. That is a tall order considering the state of the present world order, which has become increasingly nationalistic and authoritarian in recent years.

In fact, the trend towards authoritarianism is part and parcel with climate change. Global destabilization has resulted in mass migrations of peoples across borders. The Trump brand of ‘Build-the Wall’ anti-immigrant paranoia has been echoed across the world, and is being used to restrict individual liberties and corrode democratic systems.

It is likely that the pendulum will continue to swing right as the effects of climate change enact further instability across the world. Even people in the wealthiest of countries will be displaced. A great deal of New York City is going to be underwater in the next 30 years. Considering how many cities lie on America’s coasts, expect mass migration within the country as people annually lose their homes to flooding and storms.

The crisis of our century is three-fold. Its most fundamental is climate change, seconded by authoritarianism. Its last and far-reaching component is artificial intelligence.

AI technology is poised to eliminate 40 percent of all jobs. That is an unprecedented level of automation that will change how human society functions at an elemental level. Public trust in news and information will continue to erode as video and audio manipulation technology becomes more and more sophisticated and widespread. Facial recognition software gives governments and corporations the power to target people and increase mass surveillance. AI’s like the Google Assistant, capable of impersonating a human voice in a conversation over the phone, will likely be used to target and manipulate people for insidious purposes.

Suffice to say, the road ahead is steep and frightening.

It is important to understand that what is now history was once the present. World War I was not inevitable. It resulted, in part, from political negligence and flawed understandings of societal trends and technological capability. Most everyone living at the eve of the first World War likely thought their world would never change. But it did. And it will.

We face a century of global disruption at a scale that is arguably unprecedented. No matter the specifics of what happens, our world will not be the same, but things do not have to continue on their present course. We are not doomed to the full and apocalyptic force of climate change if we act now. We do not have to resort to authoritarianism to deal with mass migration of peoples and environmental destabilization. Artificial intelligence can do great things for humanity, so long as there are people ready to use it for good.

Now is the time to unite for the greater good of our global community. Come together on what you can. Do good. Adapt and be ready.


Source: New York Magazine

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