Solar geomagnetic terror, wizards and “the rise of the rest”

It’s week 5. That means deadlines, deadlines, deadlines. Not so much sleep. Bad diets. Possible colds. The inability to form basic sentences. It also means I’m half way through Winter quarter, which is absolutely absurd.

Today as I sat under the slightly sickening lighting in the Cyber Cafe at Korbel (I’m not sure if anyone else finds it sickening, but it’s a slightly nauseating light/not light that always causes me to wonder why I bother trying to study in there), a rising sense of melancholy came over me. Even as I do battle with mountains of readings, wage war against page limits, and stand tall in the face of 144 unopened emails, I am sad to think I only have three more months of this. And then…the real world. Where I am not constantly indulged by a mini-universe of international relations geeks, endless intellectual stimulation, and an array of themed parties. Sigh. (*violins play softly in the background…*)

Anyway. That’s not what I’m here to talk about. Instead I thought I’d dedicate this post to two great talks I went to over the last couple of weeks during my spare time. Interestingly, they overlapped significantly in their themes, and truly gave me pause to think about what kind of world we will be living in in 10, 20 or 30 years time. That’s a typical lunch time at Korbel for you.

The first was Pankaj Mishra. According to google, he’s a “noted Indian essayist and novelist”. But oh no, Google: he’s so much more….He’s also the kind of towering intellect that rolls his eyes at being named one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy magazine (literally). He writes for the New Yorker, Economist, the New Statesman, Bloomberg, and well, whoever he wants to, apparently. And he’s been called the “heir to Edward Said” (big deal).

This talk was definitely worth the time. Mishra has recently published a much-acclaimed book titled the “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia”. In his talk, he discussed how the US is essentially entirely unprepared to navigate the world as it is currently evolving, in which emerging powers like China and India are becoming increasingly assertive, and a “narcissistic” idea that they can simply be “accommodated in a US dominated system” is untenable. US military strength is successfully challenged by rag tag insurgents. US-led capitalism has “plunged societies into chaos” and ignores the fact that “global growth means absolutely nothing to the majority of the world’s population”. Add to this the “professionalisation of intellectual endeavour” that has taken place over recent decades, where technocrats working for the US government have provided analyses and predictions of world trends and events ultimately with an eye to simply “legitimising their own employment”, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster, suggests Mishra.

How the US “perceives the present, future and the outside world” is simply outdated and dangerous, claims Mishra. The media, think-tanks and other interests have been complicit in “helping us to become blind to what is happening”. Today and going forward, rather than the US as a global hegemon, the world will increasingly devolve into a “multiplicity of power centres with conflicting interests and values”.

“I hope it will find its own equilibrium,” said Mishra, somewhat ominously.

Well simply letting things find their own equilibrium is apparently not what the US had in mind when it commissioned the National Intelligence Council commissioned the Global Trends 2030 report, which the Korbel School’s Pardee Center for International Futures played a part in producing. In a way, this report, which was presented to the President last month or so, seems to be the best answer I’ve heard of to date to how the US may in fact be trying to respond to the new global landscape that Mishra described.

The Pardee Center, situated in Korbel, is basically a centre for wizards. This is not simply to say that Barry Hughes, its affable and all-knowing Director, could be Gandalf after a beard trim. No, it’s to say that they do magic there. They PREDICT THE FUTURE. Or at least that’s how it seems to an outsider looking in. And that’s apparently why the US government needs their services.

Barry Hughes gave a presentation to us mere mortals on the Pardee Center’s contribution to the report. It’s really a fascinating piece of work that I’d recommend checking out if you want a better idea of what the world will look like in 2030. It identifies so-called “Megatrends”, “Gamechangers”, “Black Swans” and “Potential Worlds” – things that we know are happening, things that might happen and have a major impact on global outcomes, things that are less likely to happen but would have a major impact, and “scenario vignettes” of what the future may look like as a result.

As for Megatrends, there are 4: Individual empowerment, diffusion of power (here’s a big part of the overlap with Mishra’s “Rising Rest”), demographic patterns and the food, water and energy nexus (think: climate change). Game changers include factors like the global governance gap (who will deal with the problems, how are emerging economies being accommodated in the international system), the crisis prone global economy (will increased global volatility lead to collapse, or will greater multipolarity strengthen the system), the impact of new technologies, the role of the US, the potential for increased conflict and wider scope of regional instability.

While up until this latest version of the report, the role of the US has been downplayed as a factor (since the national intelligence council apparently isn’t allowed to tell the White House what to do about all of this), there’s subtle but definite nod in the 2030 report to the distinctly different outcomes that could result from the US taking different approaches to the shifting world around it. So the question is – does the US continue to seek to lead as the global hegemon as it has since the early twentieth century, and as all of us currently alive are so used to it doing, or does it take another approach that recognises the apparently inevitable – – it is declining, economically, politically, and in terms of its ability to maintain a state of global thrall.

Oh and if you ever want to choke on your lunch, just try being in the middle of eating a falafel when someone suggests a “solar geomagnetic storm” might be in your future. Now, to be honest, I’m not even sure exactly what said storm entails, but I know I don’t like the sound of it, and if it really looks anything like this, then I’m definitely not happy:

A friendly solar geomagnetic storm is apparently a “black swan” scenario that features in the report, alongside possible outcomes like the collapse of China, more rapid climate change or a collapsed Euro/Europe. Considering what Europe’s been looking like recently I’m really not pleased to see those two scenarios in the same category.

But this is why we go to lunch talks: to be prepared! (Also, is it time to start placing bets on how soon Nat Geo will start a reality TV show about a group of families preparing for the arrival of their solar geomagnetic apocalypse?).

Now back to what I’m really supposed to be writing: midterms. Goodnight.

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Posted on February 6, 2013, in Josef Korbel School of International Studies and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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