Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The decisive struggle of the 21st Century? Hint -- it's not terrorism

By Nancy Jane Moore

Bush missed the point -- as usual -- in his Sept. 11 anniversary speech (text here) when he said the struggle with radical Islamists "is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation."

In The Washington Post report on the speech, he is quoted as saying that this situation -- in which he clearly includes the civil war in Iraq as well as terrorist attacks -- is "a struggle for civilization."

He's wrong. The struggle between the US and those Bush described as driven by a "perverted vision of Islam" will be a mere blip in the history of the 21st Century. That will be true even if Bush starts a war with Iran.

Even if terrorism is defined more broadly to include every person and group who uses murder to further a political or religious cause -- a much larger group than Islamic fundamentalists -- addressing it isn't even close the most important challenge we face.

Not that dealing with terrorism isn't important. But as security expert Bruce Schneier points out, "Terrorism is a law enforcement problem, and needs to be treated as such." He goes on to say, "Intelligence and investigation have kept us safe from terrorism in the past, and will continue to do so in the future."

Terrorism is scary, to be sure -- who wants to die for someone else's crazy political or religious goals? We all still feel the losses from Sept. 11. And there will be other terrible attacks -- there are far too many people in this world who think violence is the answer. But ultimately terrorism isn't all that different from other forms of war or crime or pandemics or many of the other difficulties we face regularly. It's important, and it's something we must address, but it's not the ultimate issue facing us.

And neither are a number of other important issues: human rights, civil liberties, the growing economic gap between rich and poor, the Bush administration's disastrous foreign policy and unnecessary wars, the struggle to control the world's oil, even genocide. All things we need to deal with, yes, and all quite crucial, but none of these qualify as the most decisive struggle of our times.

The most decisive struggle of the 21st Century will be over how we handle global warming. In fact, it may well be the most decisive struggle in human history.

Note that I didn't say "ideological struggle." Our various ideologies will come into play (surely in a world this large we can have more than one good ideology), but ultimately dealing with human-caused climate change is a practical problem -- and the ultimate test for the human race: Pass this one and we continue forward to true civilization. Fail it and we could tumble back to primitive times, if we survive at all.

I'm not going to go into detail about the science here. If you want more information, check out Real Climate, which is written by climate scientists, or the website for Al Gore's movie, "An Inconvenient Truth." Suffice it to say that we are putting excessive amounts of greenhouse gases -- primarily carbon dioxide -- into the atmosphere, and the world is getting hotter as a result. Human beings are generating those gases. Despite what you may have read, this isn't a matter of scientific dispute.

To a great degree, we ended up in this mess because things changed too rapidly. We've gone through about 150 years of rapid technological change and population explosion (our population of 6.5 billion is more than five times what it was in 1850, and double what it was in the 1960s). Human life is short, so I don't think it's surprising that most people didn't realize what was going on for quite some time. 150 years is a mere blip in terms of life on Earth, but to individual humans it represents five or six generations. And much of the science that we now use to calculate historical weather is relatively new -- we have dramatically increased our understanding of how the world works in the past 50 years.

Nothing in human history has prepared us for this situation. We're still very much the same agrarian people we've been for millennia, but now we need to change very rapidly to save ourselves and our planet. We don't have the luxury of adapting to this new way of living over time, through evolution; instead we must use our not inconsiderable brainpower to change course.

I don't think moral error got us into this problem, but I agree with Gore that refusing to deal with it now is immoral. It's not just that our children and grandchildren will have to pay for this -- as they will have to pay for our unnecessary wars and profligate tax cuts -- it's that they may well inherit a planet they can't live on.

And morality will come into how we deal with it, as will all those other problems facing us today: human rights, civil liberties, terrorism, pandemics, war, famine. Will we end up following China's lead and penalizing people for having more than one child or is there a better way to slow down population growth? Will we deal with famine by letting a billion people starve? Will the rich shut themselves up in enclaves and leave the rest to fend for ourselves? There are ways we can pass this test -- survive as a species -- that will be cruel beyond belief.

But it might be that we won't be able to pass it without developing true compassion.

Both the enormity of the challenge and the way it affects all of human life make this our ultimate challenge as an intelligent species.

That's why we need to stop obsessing about terrorism. Deal with it -- yes -- but don't blow it out of proportion. We've got bigger fish to fry.


Gracchi said...

I've come over the Liberal Carnival. Yes I agree with you that terrorism isn't the major struggle of the century and is ultimately a law enforcement problem- perhaps proliferation of nuclear weapons is but terrorism isn't. Global Warming I agree is a real crisis and to me also the other major challenge is orchestrating the decline of the West and the rise of China and India in a peaceful way- by the middle of the next century they will be the biggest powers and I think it will be important that their rise is peaceful.

Oh as for population growth- the real issue there is India- Western growth has stopped basically, but India is still roaring ahead.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Very good points and thanks for dropping by. It seems to me that the environmental issues will have a profound effect on whether the rise of China and India is peaceful or not. Their energy needs are dramatic, and both could be prey to some epic national disasters if the oceans rise.
I cannot think about India without recalling that when I was in college, my biology professor, who was very worried about population issues, told us that it ws already too late to do anything about India. At the time, India had a population of 500 million; now they have a billion -- almost as many as China with much less land to put them on. I'm not sure they will be able to live up to their potential as a world power without coming to terms with their population problem.
We are certainly in for interesting times.