Jeremy Leggett – Appropriate Civilization versus New Despotism

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Suddenly believers in the possibility of a better civilisation, one rooted in increasing human co-operation and harmony, find ourselves in a world where demagogues can now realistically plot the polar opposite: a new despotism rooted in rising isolationist nationalism and human conflict.

The more we dig into how the demagogues and their supporters have organised their recent successes, in particular in using technology to manipulate voter beliefs on an industrial scale, the more terrified many of us find ourselves. Yet at the same time, tantalisingly, our visions of a better civilisation, one appropriate for common security and prosperity among nations in the 21st century, seem more feasible today than they have ever been, at least in some of their component parts. In this struggle between two vastly different world views, a kind of global civil war seems to have broken out in the last 9 months or so.

I invite the reader to consider my seven chosen themes as dials, each of which will need to be turned up near to full positive in the next decade. They are labelled climate, energy, tech, truth, inequality, reform, and conflict. This list is not comprehensive in capturing the struggle between appropriate civilisation and new despotism. But I contend that if most of these particular dials are turned down anywhere near full negative, demagogues will have found their road to new despotism, and we can expect a future based on unbreakable police states.

First, climate. Turning this dial up requires being on course for the Paris Agreement target of under 2 degrees of global warming.

Without this, an increasingly runaway global thermostat is likely to wash away all civilisations – appropriate, despotic or otherwise – as it slowly renders the planet unliveable.

Second, energy. Turning this dial up requires being on course for a clean energy future both in order to address climate change and to escape the multiple ways that fossil fuels err humankind towards societal problems, including mass killers like air pollution, terrorism, and war.

The good news here is that a global energy transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is unfolding before our eyes, and fast, and not just because of serious intent in climate action. Solar and wind power will be the cheapest option in most countries within just a few years, and in some sectors and countries already are.

Third, tech. Turning this dial up will require artificial intelligence and robotics to be applied with appreciable net benefits for society as a whole.

The development of AI and robotics is evolving even faster than clean energy. On one hand, profound social benefits are in prospect. Medical diagnosis is a good example… But on the other hand tech leaders are openly worrying about the effect of exponential AI and robotics on jobs. In Japan, the government is looking to robotics to boost the national economy, and robots already outnumber humans in the kitchen of one restaurant.

Fourth, truth. Turning this dial up will require tech to be used for improving the processes of liberal democracy, including quality and verifiability of information, and the transparency thereof.

As Wired put it, in 2016 “the Mainstream Media melted down as fake news festered.” By August fake news about the US election was increasingly outperforming the top stories at the 19 major US news outlets.

Fifth, inequality. Turning this dial up will require significant narrowing of the income gap, both within the developed and developing worlds.

The figures are shocking in America. Between 1970 and 2014, average income grew 77%, but almost all of these gains went to the top 1% of earners.

Sixth, reform. Turning this dial up will require much more attention to market failures.

The need for significant reform of capitalism has been widely acknowledged since the financial crisis of 2008. The absence of it has been the subject of rage even in the conservative press. The virtual absence of legal redress for financial malfeasance, even in the case of companies and executives with hands caught jammed in the till, has undoubtedly contributed to the rise of the populist right and the demagogues they support.

Seventh, conflict. Turning this dial up will require a proliferation of common security in the world.

Russia and Syria stand accused of deliberately “weaponising the refugee crisis” – as one NATO official has put it – in an effort to destabilise Europe. Meanwhile the superpowers are probing each others’ cybersecurity with increasingly sophisticated malware.

More on Jeremy Leggett

Jeremy Leggett is Founding Director of Solarcentury, one of the world’s most admired solar energy companies, and Founder and Chair of SolarAid, a charity set up with 5% of Solarcentury’s annual profits.

He is also chair of Carbon Tracker, a financial think tank focussed on risk in carbon fuel investment that has won global traction with its arguments since 2011.

In his first career, Leggett was an award-winning earth scientist on the “other side” of energy: on the faculty at the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College, researching among other things shale deposits, funded among others by BP and Shell.

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