New Year’s Eve 2019 Forecast (What’s this?)
I’m a cynical-optimist; optimistic about our future as humanity and cynical about individual humans and their anxieties and insecurities getting the better of them. As described in Q10 contrary to popular belief, the world is objectively getting better in concrete areas all the time. And the processes which deliver these improvements are often “hidden” from obvious view, churning away, day in and day out creating goodness. Much of what we fight over are abstracted forms for our insecurities and anxieties, divorced from tangible connection to real world things. And yet the policies that arise from these insecurities and anxieties can cause tremendous harm to vulnerable populations and risk undermining the processes which have been making life better for the last few decades.
With that preface the things that keep me up at night for the next ten years are:
Antibacterial resistant bacteria and antiviral resistant viruses, or new viruses we struggle to make the antivirus for. This is the top of my list, where for many others it’s climate change. My point of view is that, without underplaying the challenges of climate change, we are well equipped evolutionary and materially to adapt and engineer responses to climate change, as we have as humans for thousands of years. In contrast, we’ve only been able to master disease and infection within the last 100 years or so. Pandemic infections without effective treatments we’ve developed can easily wipe out 5%, 10%, or 20% of the population in a year or two. There is no threat we face, short of a meteor strike or nuclear war that can cause so much death so quickly. And in a highly coupled world such massive death would have enormous consequences.
The dissolution of the international order based on the combination of enlightenment-style governments joined with free market capitalism. The world has tremendously prospered in the post WWII era, and that prosperity has undeniably accelerated in the last twenty years that marked the globalization of these two forces. Now both are at risk for what are very shoddy arguments rooted in the kinds of anxieties and insecurities I mention. These anxieties and insecurities are leading less-and-less to efforts that seek to keep the good working parts and improve the other parts of the system, to a child-like frustration to “throw the whole thing away” because we’re angry it’s not doing what we want. But when we don’t recognize the processes that deliver the prosperity and improvements to the world population, and angrily reject it based of petulance, we risk breaking the very engines which make our modern life possible.
A byproduct of the concern on dismantling an enlightenment approach to government combined with free market capitalism is the return of the regional hegemons and spheres of influence to the global order. This is a much more 19th Century “balance of power” ordering of the world interests. Where Russia’s neighbors lie within its sphere of influence, and thus they have no say of their own unless Russia okays it first. The US, as a superpower, can always seem to have been considered a global hegemon, but at least for much of the last few decades there was an earnest attempt at multilateralism and development of international order through that hegemon. (A notable exception to the history of empires.) Now, as the US seems to withdraw it’s focus internally and to its local neck of the woods, regional hegemons are on the rise around the world. Some are superpowers in their own right: Russia, China. Others are local powers seeking to break gravitational pull and become regional hegemons: Turkey, Iran, Nigeria etc. The problem is that system doesn’t work. We know that. We’ve tried it. People who think we’d be “better off” without a multilateral capability to organize ourselves need to open their eyes and start looking around to see what that looks: greater wars, greater oppression of neighbors and winner-take-all approaches to foreign affairs.
The next concern arises from focus on dismantling these regimes and methods both out of the ignorance born of populism/nationalism, but also kind of out of an enlightened ignorance that typically accompanies climate change enthusiasts. I’ve described some of the long-term results in Q10 about how strong growth in developing countries seems to finally be exceeding Jevon’s Paradox and in Q16 how critical strong growth is to avoiding instability and war. My fear with climate change activism is it tends to discount the consequences of abrupt reduction of economic growth in favor of these apocalyptic scenarios of world-wide disaster “if we don’t do something.” My concern, in the hypothetical, let’s say we “do something” and world economic growth drops by 5% over a 10-year period. That would kick off a cascade of the mechanisms I’ve described elsewhere that contain instability, violence, and conflict and would result in more wars, famine, ethnic cleansing, genocide and mass death. And do you know what no one cares about when you’re fearing ethnic cleansing or consumed by a rabid nationalism or racial supremacy that advocates it? Fixing the climate. Our glidepath to navigating climate change lies through the free market capitalist growth systems, not in rejection of them. The surpluses provided by international orders combined with free market, surpluses both in ability to take on big projects related to climate change and having the technical, engineering and implementing resources to do it – all require robust economic activity.
And since everyone tends to run around every time there’s a regional sneeze declaring “This is it! This is World War III!!” I thought it would be fair for me to give my forecast, in advance, of the only scenario I see as plausible for a nuclear exchange in 2020. And that contingency is the same as it was in 2017-2018. If North Korea resumes intermediate ballistic testing over the Pacific there are between 4-6 tests that the United States could tolerate before the risk of a nuclear strike on American soil exceeded the costs of preemptively attacking North Korea. And because of the complexities of the North Korean retaliatory capability into South Korea, the only viable way to preemptively attack, and knock out, North Korea would be targeted nuclear strikes. And the US would not be alone in this calculus as other nuclear capable countries such as Russia and China would begin to have to make a calculation in their heads “How much do we really trust Kim once he is nuclear capable?” And my guess is among the nuclear capable powers, at least one of them, more than one, are going to come to the decision that the risk is just not worth it. And that results in a limited nuclear strike in the North Korean country side where the nuclear materials, research facilities, and production facilities are located in deep mountains. This wouldn’t necessarily result in millions of casualties, as the strikes would be away from North Korean population centers and we have nuclear capabilities designed to bust mountains vs. level wide areas, but there could be no question it would still be an extremely damaging and harmful strike to have to make.