By Jack Pearce
If you want to stay even with events, you can lose the concept 'foreign affairs', which is about as obsolete as Ayn Rand.
Earth Inc. has become so interconnected and comprehensive as to make all 'commons' internal resources. There are no 'externalities' in in human transactional space other than the hot sun, cold space, and the magma beneath.
At the same time, our understanding of life organization, including, of course humans, has been fundamentally altered by the emergence of of the concepts of non-equilibrium thermodynamics. Life systems, we now understand, are ordered energy flows (as indeed are all phenomena we see as ordered.
Investigations of various characteristics of dynamic organization, including social systems, suggest the following perspectives.
First, Energy Rules
Humans have elevated our energy flow by several levels. Only recently, geologically, we were just hunting and gathering. We then funneled a large share earth's photosynthetic energy flow into and through our agricultural systems. Then we tapped into the stored residue of past life, in the hydrocarbons we call fossil fuels. Now, if we do not make these stores a springboard into artifactual photosynthesis at scale, supplemented by nuclear and wind energy, we seem doomed to drop back to agricultural levels, or, for a while, even below. Obviously this is humanity's first priority, if we are to pursue our recently acquired ambitions.
The socialists' suggestion that social organization reflects the means of production needs updating. We can now suggest that social organization must reflect the imperatives of ordering energy flows. This applies to what we call physical structures, social patterns, and institutions.
Power Laws Also Rule
Many observers have pointed out that 'power laws' or 'log normal distributions' appear ubiquitously in this universe -- as to the sizes of suns, cities, wars, earthquakes, network nodes, etc. They also apply to wealth distributions among individuals, and among societies. We will never get all humans or even all societies on equal footings, however much we wish to.
In the United States we benefit from our current positioning on the curves depicting wealth and economic activity. But of course this is unlikely to be a permanent placement.
Hierarchies Also Rule
We do not want our hierarchies to be too rigid and static, for life is a dynamic process, and we hope human life will expand its scope and complexity. But we must and will have ordered international flows of goods, services, and people. And if we do we will have coordinating systems.
We now have a plethora of protocols, standards, treaties, and specialized international organizations. They're as essential as what we call ethics among people, and other organizations of more familiar scale. Get used to it.
The Win-Win Requirement Still Exists
Hierarchies cannot be stable if their constituent parts are unstable. Sustainable trade differs from exploitation, and cannot persist without mutual gain.
To stretch the imagination a bit, we cannot just rape our ecosystem and expect it forever to sustain us at our desired economic, and therefore energy, levels. In the agricultural era metaphor, we are going to have to fertilize the ground we till. In the current ecosystem perspective, given the way power laws work, we are going to have to have a richer ecosystem to support our high complexity niche within it.
Controlling Within-System Human Parasitism is Necessary
Democracy is one such system. How do we make 'checks sand balances' and lowest level up controls extend throughout global hierarchies? What are the alternatives?
Maintaining Sound Knowledge Systems is Also Essential
The agricultural era sages counseled us to love God first and each other as ourselves. The modern collective corollary is that if humankind is to prosper, humanity must understand the universe in which it functions, heed its limits, and respect the integrity of its own life structure and the larger life structure of which it is a part.
We currently use 'science', institutions of higher learning, and free communication among ourselves for these purposes. However, we also regularly see ruling elites bent on parasitic gain suppress these mechanisms.
How will be build a global ecumene which durably incorporates the mechanisms for seeing ourselves as the universe, were it volitional, would see us, the better to understand our imperatives?
And We Need Continuity
If our large scale systems collapse catastrophically, or drastically wither, the road back up maybe very difficult. Our most accessible resources will have been cherry picked -- the hydrocarbons, minerals, etc. Economies of scale, once lost, may be much harder to regain.
Given all the requirements listed herein, it is easy to project dystopian futures. Google and Amazon are replete with all-fall-apart publications.
But even if we avoid these, one can imagine a future in which the continuity requirement and social stratification produce a stagnant, caste-ridden human community, rife with internal parasitism, and fearful of even evolutionary change. Stasis may be better than liquidation. We would hope, and should work, for amplification and refinement.
So it is time to see ourselves, economically and socially, as one big fractious family. This is not just a cleric's generous impulse. It is a current economic reality and a social requirement.
As an incentive, we see before us the possibly of enlarging the energy budget of earth life. No mean feat for a Johnny-come-lately species. If we do, we will, as a species, succeed in living large – even larger than our affluent segments do now.
On the onerous side, this is an unprecedented organizational challenge for humans.
In the agricultural era we learned that we had to plan and work to entrain life's abundances. The sages of that day said we had left the garden of Eden, and had assumed responsibility for our livelihood, though still drawing on Nature's abundances.
We cannot now expect the remainder of the ecosphere sustainably to endow us with the plenty we have come to see as our due. The ecosystem has its limitations, which we we have begun to bump into. It cares nothing for us, and will just go with its internal logic – though crippled, perhaps, with a cancerous part called humanity. Now we must learn how to work and plan to manage earthlife itself into greater abundance. Or suffer the consequences.
That is a global human endeavor, at this point. There is no 'foreign' element in it. There are only other human beings and organizations, however limited, reactionary, and fractious we may consider some of them to be.
Thus, we need to recast our thinking in terms of 'international affairs', or global affairs. And we need to recast our mission as learning how to function sustainably and constructively in the current and evolving ethical systems necessary to sustain those international, global, affairs.
Rating the United States by These Criteria
How would we rank the United States on conformance with the requirements here suggested.
Knowing that each brief assessment suggested here could be debated (a bit of understatement here) and reassessed from time to time, I will venture some general, short form evaluations.
As to realizing and confirming to the energy requirement, the U. S. has positioned itself well for fossil fuel supply. Collectively, in general tendencies, taking into account State as well as Federal policies and practices, we rank behind Germany in moving toward renewable fuels, but we do have a robust R&D program under way, solar and wind energy production have been growing at a sizable rate, and the prevailing 'all of the above' orientation leaves room for accelerating the transition to renewables. However, we have not been able to tax carbon, or levy any other tax for the social and health risks, and the transition risks, of our current dependence on fossil fuels.
As to realizing the prevalence of 'power law' distributions of wealth, economic activity, etc., the US has generally acted as if it understood this. Frequent calls for equalizing wealth from various quarters do not echo strongly in the Halls of Power, or Main Street.
Many do audibly worry about the degree of social and wealth inequality in the US. There is a good deal of push back against government policies which would widen wealth inequalities. But this is a practical, not a revolutionary, country. Sweeping wealth redistribution does not have a central position on its local, regional, and national agendas. One gets further in the public debate by talking about 'raising all the boats' than by insisting that one boat size fits all.
In terms of recognizing and working with international coordinating mechanisms, the United States has been creative in establishing such organizations, adept in manipulating them, and resistant to restraint from them.
For example in matters of law, this author's primary background, the United States will recognize the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (a United Nations body) only on a case by case basis, does not submit itself to the International Criminal Court, has declined to make its court system generally available to lawsuits involving non-US entities and fact situations outside the US – we will not be the court for the world's disputes – and makes no visible effort to help establish an international court of civil justice to facilitate settlement of international disputes, even though such a body might be useful in facilitating commercial activity by settling disputes among participants which include, among others, multinational corporations important to the volume and efficiency of international trade originating and terminating in the United States.
In matters of war and peace, as a recent example, when the Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, declared the United States' second war against Iraq 'illegal', in 2004, we promptly ignored the UN and created a rump coalition outside its charter. With no apparent apology to the UN to date. (And don't hold your breath waiting for one.)
As to internal parasitism, the US may not be – almost certainly is not -- the healthiest country in the world, but is not a major laggard. We can do better.
As to sound knowledge systems, the US has good universities, strong academic production, and a lively public press. Many outlandish and ignorant things are said in public discussion. But generally, knowledge is prized and protected.
There is a good deal of continuity in American institutions, and we have fostered many international organizations of various sorts. The United States has a very big stake in the continuity of Earth, Inc.
Over all, this self appraisal sounds rather smug. Our arrogance shows. The biggest kid on the world's block, we are not fully domesticated, internationally. I sense among Americans no current intention to be so. And the world does notice.
However, the pressures for international coordination are many, various, and persistent. Whether and when they sufficiently restrain us, and the rising China, remains to be seen. And even the definition of 'sufficiently' remains to be seen.
Jack Pearce has served as Assistant Chief of United States Justice Department’s Antitrust Division's ‘Public Counsel and Legislative’ Section, Assistant General Counsel of Agency for International Development with responsibilities in Near East, South Asia sector, National Insititute of Public Affairs fellowship at Cornell, Deputy General Counsel, White House Office of Consumer Affairs, law practice relating to pro-competitive regulatory reform, and innovator of virtual office system for attorneys and others.