By Jack Pearce
Excepting a complete worldwide collapse of human culture, or civilization, the form of this question predetermines an affirmative answer -- at some level.
Some forms of global interactions have been prevalent for some centuries. One can imagine many scenarios in which limited forms of interactions might persist in global networks at reduced levels and frequencies, for some time to come.
So, to focus on the more hopeful prospects, let us consider why we could hope to have continued high levels of global economic and social interaction, with or without American leadership.
Though it may seem unusual, I will briefly address this question from fundamental considerations as to the nature of order in the Universe, and the nature of the life process on Earth. Doing so could make somewhat clearer in comprehensive terms why ‘globalization’ arose in the first place, and what its trajectories might be. I will then move to terms and considerations more familiar in discourse on global economic activity.
In my 2017 book, “Fundamentals for the Anthropocene”, published by De Gruyter in Open Access format, I describe the order building process of the universe as proceeding in the formation of groups of elements, in hierarchical fashion, from quarks, through suns and planets, up to and through complex life processes.
In a parallel, but I must admit more readable, work, “From Quarks to Culture”, also published in 2017, Tyler Volk, an accomplished biologist -- and more -- develops the same theme. Our approaches differ somewhat as to how particular topics are introduced and developed, but the base argument is the same.
So one can, I believe, propose that the basic combinatorial, hierarchical nature of order construction in the Universe provides the reason for large, complex, highly communicative social animals having arisen, and reason to hope for the possibility of such social animals then creating highly integrated hierarchical interactions across the entire Earthlife platform. The architecture of the Universe provides the foundation and dynamic for such layers of development, as far as we can determine. It would be, in a sense, “natural”. “The force” is with us, so to speak. (Of course, the Universe works in a probabilistic manner. We just have what we think are possibilities. The Universe does not guarantee us our fondest hopes or our self-appraised highest potentials).
Given this physical basis, thinking in terms of biology, are we the kind of animal which could have a global civilization, or integration, as distinguished from more local and patchy forms of social groups? The ants and termites, which became highly organized social animals long before us, remain fragmented in numerous rivalrous hives and species. Why should socialized humans have a possibility of close and active global integration, when the prolific but minute insectoids do not?
There are some basic grounds for hope. We are much larger and more mobile animals. We have developed complex, and interpretable, communications systems. One -- only one -- species of human has achieved global diffusion. Global interbreeding is not only feasible, but evident. We are not, visibly, so far, impelled to exist in competing reproduction pools, sealed off from each other (though there is apparent a possibility that subsets of the common pool may have differential rates of growth).
Also, we can see in the course of the last ten thousand years of ‘civilization” (which we can take to mean complex human group building) persistent tendencies to aggregate humans into geographically widespread systems. “Empires” rise and fall. As they do, they seem to be getting more extensive and larger in bulk.
We have been approaching the prize -- assuming it is a ‘prize’ in order building in the Universe. It is probably accurate to say the post-World War II “Pax Americana” has led to an extensive and pervasive set of social and economic interactions which can be said to be global, highly integrated in scope, and embodying high levels of energy flow. Can you name a part of the Earth where humans are not directly affected by and in some significant particulars linked to the “global economy’? With the spread of the “internet”, an almost instantaneous electronic signaling, and thus coordinating, system is available over most of the earth’s surface.
Even so, ‘nation-states’ will persist, with somewhat divergent ‘operating systems” so to speak, and differing trajectories. Their alliances, or larger-group confederations, show shifts and rifts. The United Kingdom, the site of the start of the industrial revolution, seeks a form of separation from the United Europe structure. In North America, The United States, Britain’s offspring, is engaged to a degree in an attempted regression from major forms of global integration. And In Europe, ‘nativist’, or self-differentiation, tendencies are more evident than in the recent past.
Tendencies of the divisive sort merit careful and intense consideration. The increases in global integration in past decades have facilitated major rises in living standards worldwide. Will an unraveling of the global linkages threaten diminution of human life standards, and even recurrences of major conflicts which degrade the industrial and agricultural systems which sustain those life standards?
In this writer’s -- perhaps single -- opinion, this question rests most fundamentally on whether, globally, humans are able to acquire energy flows which would support the components and the whole of a successful global polity. We need to accomplish a transition from a near-total reliance -- for industrial civilization -- on fossil energy sources to a combination of other, more renewable, energy sources, with some admixture of legacy of fossil sources, at a rate and scale which avoid widespread disappointment of human expectations of increases in living standards, and without climate changes which themselves prejudice human living standards.
This is to state the obvious, really. If a deterioration of living standards in developed venues, and frustrations as to anticipated growth in other venues, lead to loss of faith in governmental systems, and increased contention over scarcities in resources, major setbacks in global integration would appear much more likely.
Let us make the (enormously) heroic assumption that the various cities, nations, and international organizations will, step by step, find ways through the critical transition here projected.
If the United States steps, or shuffles, away from a globalization leadership role, who will step forward, and how? Are we likely to see gradual replacement, a sort of flowing around, the US default?
There are many reasons to hope and, at least for non-Americans, to work for the vacuum-filling process.
In overview, the major structures of international coordination still exist. This includes institutions such as the UN, the WTO, the G20, the major international funding organizations, the regional and subregional networks, and the global climate control concord.
There are major economic incentives for these institutions, and institutions like them, to exist. China, Russia, Europe, South American countries, all, by and large, gain from international exchanges of goods and services, and international financing systems.
The world has an abundance of diplomats, trade emissaries, corporations with international stakes, and the like, who can, and one may assume will, seek economic and political work-arounds if the United States cedes from or diminishes participation. China, Europe, and perhaps even Russia, can seek to devise alternative goods, services, and financial flow structures.
So the world may just flow around us, and, as it does so, pass us by.
As an American, one hopes that the primitive, anti-integration, threshing around of our current Executive Branch leadership will thwart itself. But there is also anxiety that the arrogance, ignorance and belligerence of current American leadership will blunder us into serious conflicts and setbacks in global economic and political arrangements.
What is to be done, locally and globally, about our dilemmas and our hopes?
This author would urge and hope for pervasive attempts at education of our various populations, our ‘elites’, and our self-declared non-elites (why would one want that characterization?) on a few critical matters.
As to the energy-supply transition which now confronts humanity, I suggest a particular peril we may need to surmount. I have suggested in the “Foundations” book that it may very well be the case that the declining energy returns on fossil fuels, the energy return rates and the extended ramp up times on ‘sustainable’ energy sources, and prudent efforts to avoid major climate change disruptions will make possible, for some decades to come, only more-modest welfare gains than humans have come to expect. We may face an era of diminishing growth possibilities, or, worse, diminishing possibilities over-all.
This would put great pressure on governmental institutions at several levels.
Much of the American population seems to reject, or to wish to reject, this perspective. Continuous denial of realities can only lead to wasteful use of our assets and grief for our progeny. Denial would be a very expensive strategy. The nature of the energy transition challenge which humanity faces needs to be pushed front and center, in all available fora. The current failure of the American President to perceive this need must be compensated for at all levels -- local, city and subnational organizations in the United States and abroad, and international organizations.
Thus, we need to keep in focus that we have to maintain functioning societies to get through this sort of bottleneck. If we do not maintain workable social institutions at the local, state, national and international levels, our industrial, agricultural, and economic systems will falter and fail. If and when that happens, the entire human prospect can fall out from under our feet.
The precise forms of global integration are to be negotiated. One can imagine second and third best “global” arrangements. Hopefully our global political ecosystem can adapt so as to maintain workable reconfigurations. As we try to negotiate our future integration, we have to keep in mind that having overrun the world, we humans need to bypass the stage of warring ant hives and termite mounds, if we wish to flourish on and in this Earth.
From the American perspective, as we continue this negotiation, we had best recognize that, even though we in the Americas have great geographic, ecological and economic assets, we also have some handicaps in competition with the remainder of the world, and if we are not wise could easily lose position the world.
North America, though huge, and currently highly developed, does not embody anything close to the total geographic and population assets of the great Eurasian world-island, and its nearby African continent. Just a few centuries back, Eurasians which invaded and exploited the Americas overwhelmed the less-developed human inhabitants, and the less diverse ecosystem supporting them.
The two American continents -- if effectively integrated -- do have available substantial economic and ecological potentials. Among the potential advantages is a high ratio of coastlines to inland areas. Also, the water transport links to the two edges of the world-island, in the northern hemisphere, may be advantageous, at least in a high energy civilization. However, the mass and combinatorial potentials of the world-island may relegate the Americas to an inferior position relative to Eurasia and Africa, as a combination, particularly if the Americas adopt an insular posture.
If we opt for insularity, our current leaders -- may they be transitory -- would have succeeded in making America second or third rate, not ‘great’, again.
As an American I would hope that my beloved homeland push forward -- carefully, prudently, and cooperatively -- a broader international integration, even if it is only one among several leaders. There is, after all, only one world and one human species, and we are enormously privileged to be a part -- not the whole -- of it.
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.