Taking the long view of human history, however, there have been many cases where it was perfectly rational to conclude that apocalypse had befallen society; and not just in Biblical stories, but in classical Greek and Roman worlds, during Europe's plague coinciding with the Hundred Years' War, the first and second world wars. Outside of Judaism and Christianity, apocalyptic tradition is found in most religions including Hinduism and Mayan culture, even in Isaac Newton's occult studies.
While the religious or spiritual approach to mega crises continues to have a mass appeal and finds its way into modern fiction and motion pictures, analyzing specific crises from a rationalist/humanist perspective and proposing constructive solutions for the duration best suits human welfare especially in a secular world. It is also worth looking at how specific crises converge and what their impact may be on society? Is it merely the irrational fascination with the end of all life, or are there tangible signs that convergence of crises spells trouble for humanity and the ecosystem?
The rationalist approach to apocalypse that I am proposing betrays my faith in assumptions developed in the Age of Reason when 18th century thinkers were confident of solutions by the application of reason and the scientific method as though human nature operates like a machine. With that caveat in mind, the concern about crises convergence today is worth analyzing methodically without superstitious or religious preconceptions.
After three years of the most damaging global recession affecting workers and middle class on a world scale since the Great Depression; after months of North Africa-Middle East revolts; and after the natural disasters in Japan that caused the nuclear plant catastrophe that is now worse than Chernobyl, I am convinced that it may be worth examining some of the more significant crises and their impact on humanity.
Clearly, some of the crises are confined to the northern hemisphere, but many afflict people in the southern hemisphere where there is a large concentration of the world's poor, although they live in lands rich in natural resources. Not to place the issue into the North/South dichotomy that has become a cliche, but this is clearly an issue of popular sovereignty for the weaker countries, an issue that includes everything from water and sanitation justice to food and energy sovereignty. At least this is how some see it that analyze conditions in the southern hemisphere and in poorer northern countries.
1. Climate change, deforestation, desertification, environmental degradation. All are the result of institutional mismanagement of the ecosystem that operates in order to serve a political economy of mass consumerism and maximizing profits for the short term. Although governments and corporations are well aware that ecosystem mismanagement has a longer-term cost and devastating consequences to human welfare there is no incentive to alter course, other than to engage in PR 'green economy' exercises to placate the public.
2. Widening gap between rich and poor nations, between rich and poor social classes, widespread poverty, rapidly rising population, commodities shortages and rising prices, food riots in more than 65 countries in the last four years, one percent of Americans is engaged in food production. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called for a 70% rise in food production to meet rising demand. Biofuel production contributed to food shortages and rise of food prices. Chronic energy problems in the early 21st century that destabilize the world economy points to failures by the private sector to invest in alternative sources of energy and to governments' failure to take the lead in research and development as well as creating public ventures for alternative energy sources.
As far as the promise of capitalism to make people wealthier, the record of the last 500 years has demonstrated that wealth is created but because it is perpetually concentrated the poor-rich gap remains. Despite UN, World Bank, and policies by the developed countries to close the poverty gap and better manage population growth, those familiar with the issue know that the political economy has no incentive to find a solution for poverty-related problems, because it is giving birth to them with the process of capital concentration. All campaigns proposed as solutions to these problems are intended as vehicles to generate more profits by commercializing natural resources, including water and land, rather than ending poverty, disease and illiteracy, human trafficking and rising narcotics trade that are all an integral part of the rich-poor social and geographic gap.
3. Sovereign debt crises for many countries, discredited credit economy and corresponding rise of precious metals and declining currency values, 'Ponzi scheme' (fraudulent) markets protected and financed by the state. The preeminence of finance capital in the marketplace and its support by the state and central banks as well as transnational organizations like the IMF, World Bank, OECD, etc. accounts for a regime of economic oligarchy that perpetually maintains a system of cyclical economic crises that devastate the lives of workers and the middle class. Such cyclical crises wither away the social fabric and gradually lead toward the evolution of social discontinuity.
4. The crisis of authoritarianism in Islamic countries and the trend toward authoritarianism under the guise of democracy for many countries, including the US, combined with the dictatorship of finance capital that dictates the course of the economy. Operating under the veneer of 'democracy', the market economy of neo-liberalism and globalization is maintained largely by a media that is heavily concentrated and geared not just to sell products, but a market-based value system and ideology. Therefore, indoctrination is ubiquitous so that people are convinced they are content with the status quo or at least have no choice.
5. Militarism drains resources from the civilian economy on a world scale. Even amid the global recession of 2008-2011, defense budgets continued almost unaffected. Shockingly for some, predictably for others, Germany and France backed by NATO and US demanded that the debtor EU members like Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Spain continue to maintain high defense budgets and spend billions on new purchases while they were borrowing to finance past debt and imposing massive austerity measures.
In a previous posting devoted to militarism, I noted that within that corporate welfare structure rests the defense sector, which is largely parasitic and contributes to sectoral imbalances in the global economy. In 2009 global military expenditures amounted $1.531 trillion, or 2.7% of world GDP. Led by the US, which spends about half (48%) of the world defense spending is 49% higher today than in 2000. Europe comes in second highest in the world with 20% spending on defense, Chine at 8% and Russia at 5%.
The rise in US defense spending despite the 2008-2010 economic crisis, and despite Obama whose slick PR campaign convinced the American voters that he would change course from the previous regime. And he did in areas where the basic structure of corporate welfare capitalism was not impacted. When I addressed this issue on the WAIS Forum in 2004, global defense spending stood at $1.1 trillion and the US share was $623 billion.
In the US, the current debate on cutting social programs at the local, state and federal levels, including entitlements, is accepted as a worthy sacrifice, while defense cuts are seen as unpatriotic. Under the powerful influence of banks and defense contractors, governments refuse to cut defense but have no problem cutting health and education.
6. Globalization is gradually destroying local and national cultures while China's emerging global economic hegemony and realignment of regional economic blocs. Many years ago in the US, one of my students from Japan studying in the US commented how tragic it was that the Spaniards destroyed native cultures in Latin America. The other students were surprised with the comment, assuming that the Japanese would understand sacrificing culture in the name of 'techno-progress'. Today, it is not only the political economy based on social and environmental injustice that is at stake as far as many dissidents are concerned, but the all out effort to efface native cultures in order for globalization to succeed. For many, this is the dawning of a new cultural Ice Age.
A recent article in a business journal blog listed ten of the Fortune 500 companies - high tech, defense-contractors and conglomerates - as the solution to the US economy. Is the solution more and better neo-liberalism under globalization, or is the solution the abandonment of this failed experiment? Considering the phenomenal advances in science and technology, considering the enormous reservoir of talented people on the planet, why have we not solved many of the problems listed above?
Is it because science and technology operate under the political economy of capital accumulation that does not allow for solutions? Is it because rationalist assumptions are all wrong and we must redirect ourselves toward a new way of thinking? Why is there mass violence (wars) and predilection to destruction by the state? Is the solution a matter of a better techno-fix, altering institutions, altering human nature, spiritual orientation, other, what....?