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The world today: A net assessment

Is the call for a global emergency mere alarmism? Or do we really have reason to be alarmed?

By: EBR - Posted: Wednesday, September 13, 2017

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So far, we may have disliked such exploitation, but people in today’s industrialized societies have implicitly consented to their political and economic system, which produces such drastic inequality in wealth and opportunities.
So far, we may have disliked such exploitation, but people in today’s industrialized societies have implicitly consented to their political and economic system, which produces such drastic inequality in wealth and opportunities.

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by Dirk Helbing*

“Time-to-evacuation“ is the time between the ringing of an alarm, say, in a cinema or theater, and the time when the first people begin to evacuate. This time span is decisive for the number of people who will survive a building fire.

When the alarm rings, many people will not flee right away. After all, it could be a false alarm. Is there any sign the situation is serious? Is there any smoke? Does it smell strange?

If not, what are the other people doing? Are they evacuating themselves? Then it might be better to join the flow of people trying to get out. And yet, often nobody wants to be first. It might be a false alarm, after all.

Also, what if it isn’t any safer outside? In such a case, shouldn’t we ignore the alarm altogether, for lack of reasonable alternatives?

Planet Earth is in trouble

This is the kind of situation humanity currently finds itself in. Planet Earth is in trouble. I admit, we have heard that many times – and it often seemed to be a false alarm. So, we have to get a clearer sense of how serious the situation really is.

Today’s economy is not sustainable, we hear. The world is overconsuming the Earth’s renewable resources by 50%, Europe by 250% and the United States by 400%, we read.

In less abstract terms, that means nothing else than that “industrialized countries are living at the cost of developing countries” and that “today’s generation is living at the cost of future generations.”

It’s not fair, but it’s the way things have always been, one might say. The powerful exploit the weak – not nice, but a fact of life.

So far, we may have disliked such exploitation, but people in today’s industrialized societies have implicitly consented to their political and economic system, which produces such drastic inequality in wealth and opportunities.

Most likely, their reason for acquiescence was that they did not have much to complain. Performance indicators have been growing for years: The world’s gross domestic product (GDP) went up. The number of wars went down. Average standards of living increased. And so on.

Misleading indicators

However, a closer look is revealing. The Millennium Goals were not met. Most of the progress that was made occurred mainly thanks to China’s enormous development, while many world regions are still crumbling.

Moreover, indices measuring unemployment or GDP per capita have been conveniently – but usually silently – changed many times. What used to count as unemployed has, in part, been replaced by so-called 1 Euro jobs (or internships or other precarious kinds of employment).

Similarly, GDP per capita is manipulated by changing the composition of goods people are assumed to consume. For example, if a regular steak become too expensive for many to afford, it may be replaced by cheaper goods rather than counting as inflation. This artificially keeps inflation down and economic growth rates up.

In other words, “most jobs ever“ and “lowest inflation ever” is often a result of manipulation – and that, in turn, is a sign of how serious the situation really is.

Fallout from the financial crisis

Of course, the fallout from the financial crisis still looms large – larger than most people realize. The relevant fact to keep in mind is that, so far, the upper classes of society did not suffer much from it. Central bankers came to their help.

However, public debt has increased dramatically, and this is basically everyone’s debt. Thus, aside from the fact that we are already consuming more than we can presently pay, most people would not be able to ever pay for their share of the public debt, and those who could will make sure through the political process that they are protected.

As a result, there is no prospect that most governments will ever be able or willing to pay off their debts.

This debt is concentrated in industrialized countries, which reflects again that the industrialized nations’ style of living is neither justified nor sustainable. It comes at the cost of our future, living on the backs of coming generations, and on the backs of other peoples.

Pay day is coming closer. Mass migration and terrorism are challenging the old powers. Forecasts by the Club of Rome and others imply that there are billions of people too much on this planet – commonly referred to as “over-population.“

We cannot keep the problems caused by us at bay much longer – if we don’t change the system.

Talk of World War III

Never before have people talked so much about a looming World War III. That is not really an option, however, as it would make the Northern hemisphere basically uninhabitable.

No wonder, though, that business for nuclear-proof bunkers for the elites and ranches in far-away places in the Southern hemisphere for the same elites are booming. They know things can’t go on like this much longer.

One thing is clear: Continuing with today’s economic system will surely end in disaster. In the past, we have perhaps not talked and read so much about this situation – better alternatives were lacking. The approach was to enjoy life as long as possible, if we could not do much about our existential threats.

Time to start a new chapter of human history

Now, however, it’s time to shout “the world is on fire.” We can “evacuate ourselves“ from a future that is doomed, because there are new concepts and technologies that allows us to build a different, better future.

Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things, and Blockchain Technology, 3D printers, and the sharing economy, for example, are potential game changers. They allow for a better organization of the world.

A new game begins. A better coordination of resources, empowered by digital technologies, will enable a better monetary, financial and economic system, and political systems can be upgraded as well, as this 7-part series lays out.

In other words, if we act now, we aren’t doomed, but major changes are needed. It’s time to take our future in our hands and start a new chapter of human history, as it happened when the industrial revolution was on its way.

Metaphorically, we may imagine it like the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly. In other words, the outcome may be much nicer than the future we imagine today.

*Dirk Helbing is Professor of Computational Social Science at the Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences and affiliate of the Computer Science Department at ETH Zurich.
**First published in theglobalist.com


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