Monday, 8 December 2014

Winning Some Battles, but Losing the War -- An Overview of the Present-day World Situation

About two months ago I read an article on the war against the Islamic State (IS). The author Andrew J. Bacevich1 wrote inter alia: “Islamic State militants extend into Syria, Iraq War III has seamlessly morphed into Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV. …. Even if we win, we lose. Defeating the Islamic State would only commit the United States more deeply to a decades-old enterprise that has proved costly and counterproductive. … U.S. efforts to promote stability [in the region] have tended to produce just the opposite.”
    Here I am not going to write on the IS. My concern here is not the Greater Middle East, but the world, not the Iraq War III, but the “war” (if I am allowed to use this term) to prevent the coming worldwide collapse and to start the transition to a peaceful and sustainable world society. I have started with the Iraq War III because it is at present the clearest, the strongest and the most convincing pointer to the coming collapse.

    This has several manifestations: (1) conflicts and wars – fought with varying degrees of violence – raging since the past few decades in various parts of the world, (2) global warming, climate catastrophes and global all-round ecological degradation going on unabated, (3) societies disintegrating, followed by failed or failing states.

    As regards violent conflicts, even though Prof. Steven Pinker tells us in his book The Better Engels of our nature that the world of the past was much worse, and that we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence, it is little comfort. For in the last two decades, we have been observing a worsening of the situation. Compared to the great hopes raised in the early 1990s after the end of the Cold War, when commentators even spoke of a huge peace dividend waiting for us to take, the following years plagued mankind with many small, medium size, and large violent conflicts: the genocide in Rwanda, followed by the unending small war in Eastern Congo; the Yugoslavia wars leading to the violent breakdown of that socialist federal republic; the rise of Islamist terrorism in many parts of the world, with the Al-Qaeda. the Taliban or the ISIL at the forefront; the bloody 26 years long ethnic war in Sri Lanka; the violent independence movement of the Kurds in South-Eastern Turkey; then the decades old civil war in Colombia – FARC etc. against the state forces; the terror of the drug-dealer gangs in Colombia and Mexico; the ongoing wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, and the Ukraine; and the many small-scale conflicts and insurgencies, for instance, in the Philippines, in Central India, in Xinjiang province of China, in the Russian Caucasia.

    Some of these conflicts and wars have been settled, have been won or lost or ended with a compromise: North Ireland, Rwanda, Yugoslavia etc. But they have only been so many “battles” that have been won. We are losing the “war” to prevent the threatening worldwide collapse and to start the transition to a peaceful and sustainable world society. As Bacevich wrote in connection with the war against the IS: “Suppress the symptoms, and the disease simply manifests itself in other ways. There is always another Islamic State waiting in the wings.” We could here perhaps mention Nigeria and Pakistan.

    That exactly is the point. Mankind is today, so to speak, suffering from a grave disease, but we are only fighting to suppress the symptoms.

The Disease and Its Symptoms

    The difference between the violent conflicts of the past and those of recent times is that in the past, humanity in general and the particular peoples hit by wars and violent conflicts could hope that after the end of the particular wars and conflicts there would again be peace and recovery followed by prosperity. Even after the devastating 30 Years War in the 17th century, central Europe recovered, albeit slowly, and again prospered. After the two World Wars in the 20th century, societies and economies of all the devastated countries quickly recovered and prospered, along with those of many others that were not directly affected by the wars. Today, however, we fear that the social and economic structure of many countries is going to break down, that the number of failed states will grow; and all that, although, compared to past eras, the number and severity of wars and violent conflicts have gone down.

    Today’s threats of collapse are not really coming from wars and violent conflicts. The latter are merely symptoms or results of a disease. They are coming from the very prosperity that could be created in the recent past for the greater part of the human population. It is somewhat like the inordinately obese person, who has eaten too much in the past years, and, as a result, suffering from many diseases. We have undoubtedly vanquished hunger. For some time past, there has not been any severe famine anywhere – like the one witnessed in the 1980s in Ethiopia. At the earliest sign of famine anywhere, help can be rushed from food surplus countries. Although poverty is still there, it is no longer the dire poverty that could be observed in many parts of the world some twenty or thirty years ago, e.g. in India, Africa etc. Today, in most formerly poverty-stricken countries, a large part of people from the lower strata are enjoying TV-shows and communicating through cell phones. Yet, today, hundreds of millions of people, particularly young people, are without work. Since the 2008 crash of capitalism, the economies of many countries are experiencing recession, stagnation or falling growth rates; real incomes and welfare benefits are being cut. Hundreds of thousands are leaving their native countries in the quest of refuge in the rich countries – risking thereby tremendous suffering, even dying of drowning in the sees.

    All these are happening because the very basis of the relative prosperity of the recent past is fast eroding. Global warming is wreaking havoc with climatic stability. Storms, storm surges, floods and landslides are devastating large tracts of inhabited land, destroying houses, infrastructure and crops. Essential resources needed for keeping the present-day world economy afloat are dwindling, while the world population continues to grow. And the environment is being incessantly degraded.

    In an earlier article in this blog2, I have shown how the civil war in Syria has been to a large extent the result of a severe drought and population growth. Generally speaking, the so-called Arab Spring, the revolt of the Arab youth in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen was caused by the frustration of the youth, who did not only demand democracy but also wanted to see prosperity and gainful employment coming. Youth revolt and general, partly destructive, manifestations of discontent are also taking place in European countries (Greece, France and England, for example). In the USA, the black minority is massively protesting against institutional racism, police violence and a broken justice system. The costs of just repairing, maintaining and defending the capitalist industrial society that is in place today are immensely growing, while the resources are dwindling.

    A war usually has many fronts, also a “war” to prevent the threatening worldwide collapse and to start the transition to a peaceful and sustainable world society. It is necessary to fight at all the fronts. But activists must have an overview of the whole. It seems to me, however, that most activists are fixated on the battles they are fighting at the moment and ignoring the “war” that is necessary, namely the “war” against the industrial-capitalist system. Sometimes they already celebrate the small insignificant successes in their particular battles.

When Do We Celebrate Victory?
Thus I recently read a letter written by Bill Mckibben, one of the awardees of the Right Livelihood Award (the “Alternative Nobel Prize”) of this year, addressed to his fellow activists who, together with him, organized in September of this year the great People’s Climate March in New York and other cities of the world. He wrote2a:

“… by the time that day was over (and remember that it ended with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund announcing their divestment from fossil fuels) I was letting myself think that we’d seen the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel industry.” He wrote further:

“Which doesn’t mean we’re guaranteed a victory, of course.  Unless that end to coal and oil and gas comes swiftly, the damage from global warming will overwhelm us. Winning too slowly is the same as losing, so we have a crucial series of fights ahead: divestment, fracking, Keystone, and many others that we don’t yet know about.”

    Note that he is already celebrating a victory after the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has announced their divestment from fossil fuels. But it is not even a victory in a battle, it is only an announcement. It is being suggested in this quote that everything will be well when the fossil fuel industry has been abandoned and the renewable energy industries have taken over the task of powering the industrial societies of the world. There is no question raised about the viability (energy balance) of the so-called renewable energy industries, no questioning the sustainability of industrial society, no questioning of capitalism.

    Also the announcement made by the USA and China in the run-up to the UN climate conference in Lima – namely that these two giant CO2 emitters have agreed to stop the growth of their emissions in ten to fifteen years – was much celebrated. Roughly around the same time, however, The New York Times International Weekly (28.11.2014) published an article entitled India’s Ruinous Pursuit of Coal (ruinous for the climate, naturally), in which they reported that India plans to double the output of coal in five years. I recently read in a report3 from the said Lima conference that, at half-time, the European delegates are highly satisfied with the progress made. They are very optimistic, they think that this time a positive agreement can be reached. But at the same time it has been reported4 that at the conference all difficult and controversial questions are being studiously avoided – e.g. whether oil- and coal-rich countries (Saudi Arabia, Russia, Australia, Poland etc.) would be prohibited from exploiting their mineral riches; whether economic growth, that particularly less developed countries strive for, would still be possible when consumption of fossil fuels has been drastically curtailed; whether Ecuador and Bolivia, the two countries that most loudly preach “buen vivir” (good life, in contradistinction to rich life) will stop exploiting their fossil fuel riches; whether capitalism is compatible with the goal of protecting the climatic balance and, more generally speaking, the natural environment.

    My readers know my views on these questions. They can be found in the previous articles published in this blog. Therefore I do not want to repeat them here. Only so much for conclusion: We should postpone our celebrations until real victory has been achieved. And now at the latest, let us stop deceiving ourselves, let us take up in right earnest the real issues for our struggles, namely gradually overcoming the industrial mode of living and capitalism. For as long as these two dominate our life and societies, little else can be achieved. Then we are sure to lose the “war”.


1. “Even if we defeat the Islamic State, we’ll still lose the bigger war”, in The Washington Post online, October 3, 2014,
2. “The Tragedy of Lampedusa – What To Do?”
2a. My friend Kamran Nayeri forwarded the letter to me. He didn’t however give a link.
3. Bayerischer Rundfunk
4. die tageszeitung