By Anton I. Botha
As J.K. Rowling once noted, we do not need magic to change the world, we already have the power to imagine a better one. And so, as humanity finds itself faced with unprecedented global challenges the question remains, do we have the power to imagine something better or will we let the winds of history blow us toward a pit of damnation of our own making? The only thing I know for certain is that a shift is coming, whether we, the people of this world, are ready or not.
What is driving this shift?
The rise of the Industrial Age marked the end of monarchies through the bloody conflicts of the 20th century to give rise to the current geopolitical world order characterised by national sovereignty and capitalism. Those who designed this 20th century world order could have hardly envisioned the challenges we face today as the Information Age matures to give rise to something else, something new, something yet to be fully imagined.
And while some look at what is happening in geopolitics currently as a regression through the rise of Trump, Brexit, and other retrogressive conservative movements, these are merely symptoms, the last gasps of dying ideologies fearful of change and marred by nostalgia of an age that never was(1). This period will be short lived and is already helping mobilise the next generation to help birth what is to come next. At the very least we can thank Trump and his ilk for providing our generation with a clear picture of what we don’t want our future to look like. And as a friend of mine used to say, “knowing what you don’t want is the biggest part of the battle”.
There are several compelling reasons why nationalism and the sovereign nation state, as an idea, has seen its day.
Four drivers of change in the information age away from sovereignty
One: Ecological crisis
The first, and most compelling reason, is our current global environmental crisis. Pollution is no longer a localised problem. Every lump of coal, litre of petrol, and cubic meter of gas used impacts everyone on the planet, no matter if it is burnt in Albania or Zimbabwe. Similarly, a plastic bag used in Australia can end up on a beach in Mozambique contaminating food sources thousands of kilometres away. Climate change and pollution will impact us all, either directly through rising seas, droughts, floods, and ever more frequent and extreme weather events, or indirectly through food insecurity, mass migration, resource conflicts, and new diseases.
Two: Hegemonic global corporations
The second reason is the now near complete hegemony and unchecked power of multinational corporations. These enterprises span the globe and have been playing nation states off each other in an ever-accelerating race to the bottom in terms of tax breaks, legal loopholes, lax labour laws, and unwarranted subsidies. Massive multinationals pay less tax today than before the 2008 financial crisis with many like Amazon paying close to 0%, yet these entities generate revenues of well into the tens of billions every year. The true cost of their exploitation is ever decreasing real wages and crumbling infrastructure (2). The world’s rich, the 1%, have also managed to exploit this system by making use of international tax havens thereby hiding their wealth from their governments, and their fellow countrymen, in “tax efficient vehicles” registered in Panama, the Caymans and the Cook Islands, too mention but a few.
Three: The rise of AI and automation
The third reason has to do with the changing nature of work. As automation and machine learning progress most remedial jobs will be taken over by machines. Even more complex occupations, like those in financial services, journalism and other white-collar occupations are unlikely to survive the rise of AI. However, the jobs which remain will for the most part be creative and global in nature, meaning the tasks associated with these jobs can be carried out anywhere at any time for clients the world over. It is already the case that an American national can design and deploy a website for a Scandinavian client while working from Vietnam. Most remaining job growth will be in the services of these global workers with cities competing for the economic windfall that comes with hosting these cosmopolitan labourers. And as more and more people enter this globally mobile workforce income taxation at a national level will simply become impossible.
Four: Global cultural cohorts
Because of the global nature of those raised in the information age, we can honestly say millennials, and subsequent cohorts, the world over, have more in common than ever before. We were all raised in the same global media space with a common cultural framework governing our values and opinions. Younger people also travel more than any generation before them, meaning that the peoples of the world have more opportunities to interact and build empathy than ever before. No longer do we rely on our governments to tell us what to think of the nationals of other countries. In today’s world, thanks to our interconnectedness through social media and streaming services, I have more in common with a Mohammad my age in Riyadh than with a John my dad’s age in Jo’burg(3).
Given these challenges and developments national sovereignty seems an antiquated and inadequate concept in a world where you can be practically anywhere in less than 24-hours and people can instantly communicate and trade goods and services through multiple mediums no matter where they find themselves.
The shift to salvation…
But what will the next phase in human history look like? As best I can tell what comes next, as in most cases in history, will simply be a technological and social response to the problems and inconveniences of the contemporary world. Given current trends one could extrapolate at least ten responses which may aid in addressing our current global problems:
One – A single global currency
The world of finance is ready for a revolution. Recently, while travelling I was hospitalised in Vienna thanks to a spider bite. Thankfully, I was staying with a friend who, not only took care of me, but also paid the hospital bill. I then had to transfer funds to her. To my surprise I couldn’t easily, or freely, transfer money to Europe and eventually I had to get it to her through my bank using the SWIFT system at some expense to me. The SWIFT system has hardly evolved since the invention of the telex, and given how easily information can be sent from A to B today, the transaction cost of this system is no longer deserved. Rather, the tumultuous rise of blockchain technologies has given us a taste of what a global currency could look like. Transaction costs will be one-one thousandth of current rates. This is not to say that kinks don’t have to be ironed out, work still needs to be done to make these currencies energy efficient, secure, and stable. However, these are merely technical problems to overcome. A much bigger risk is that these currencies are privately controlled. Facebook will launch their Libra currency next year and while it holds promise, it comes with significant risk. Make no mistake, this currency will be controlled for the benefit of Facebook’s shareholders and not the world. It would therefore make sense to adopt a cryptocurrency built on an open source model, publicly controlled for the benefit of humanity. Imagine a world with no currency conversions and foreign transaction fees where you can easily pay for goods and services no matter where you are at virtually no cost.
Two – Universal access to the internet as a basic public service
The internet has become the corner stone of commerce, communication, finance, education, health, travel, logistics, and a significant driver of economic growth. There is hardly a part of our lives that is not touched by the internet. The first ever utility delivered was water, then sanitation, followed by electricity, the next utility is the internet. There are several organisations racing to provide global internet access, hundreds of mini satellites are being deployed to low earth orbit and will form the backbone of a global internet network that will provide access to every square centimeter of this planet’s surface. The internet should no longer be a private service, but rather the first global public utility. However, as with all things the internet brings with it many risks, including the dangers of unregulated social media, the dark net, and other cyber threats. No single nation can regulate the internet, its associated risks, and its tech-giants like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter(4).
Three – Global free movement
In an age of ever-increasing international travel where a person can cross the Atlantic Ocean for less than the price of a pair of designer jeans, requiring travel documents and visas is becoming less practical and less defensible. I, for one, fail to see why the arbitrary location of my birth should prohibit me from travelling anywhere on earth. Why should I present myself in-person and provide mountains of documentation and pay huge sums of money for a visa in order to see the majesty of the Red Woods of California, while someone born at different coordinates don’t. Why should I ask permission to visit my friends in Canada or New Zealand? These notions are as absurd as needing paperwork to take a breath or to drink water. No one should be denied the right to enjoy the wonders of the world merely because of the geocoordinates of their birth. Furthermore, as mentioned, as more jobs become virtual, and people work on the global market as independent contractors, it would be in the best interest of local economies to entice these workers to their shores. They will not be taking jobs from locals but will be spending their hard-earned money where they are present. In the future, people will choose where they want to live and cities will compete to have them live there. In the world of tomorrow, it should be your choice if you want to work from Hanoi or Buenos Aires.
Four – A universal second language
While multilingualism is culturally important and has shown to have multiple benefits, I would argue that a global universal second language is equally important to help evolve humanity into its next phase. Having worked at the United Nations for more than 8 years and having travelled the world for far longer I can attest to the value of a universal language that everyone can speak (even at a basic level). Though my first language is Afrikaans, I am grateful that I can communicate in English. Through various coincidences (and some out right accidents) English has become the global lingua franca. And as its usage continues to grow globally it will continue to evolve beyond its geographical boarders into something that represents us all(5). While I can already hear many outcries in response (especially from the French) ask yourself this: name any widely used computer programming language not written in English. Whether you are a programmer sitting in Moscow or Beijing the foundation on which that language is built is most likely Anglo-Saxon. The majority of the internet is English, and English is the language of travel. I, for one, love the fact that I can sit in a hostel in Bolivia sharing a joke with a German and South Korean in English. There is great value in a universal language, it helps build empathy and a shared humanity making arbitrary “us vs. them” distinctions harder to hold on to.
Five – Universal basic income
As technology continues to evolve and automation takes over all the algorithmic and routine tasks associated with manufacturing, logistics, transport, and administration there will be mass unemployment. Take the US trucking industry with its more than 3.5 million truck drivers. We are about six years away from the first fully autonomous self-driving trucks taking to the roads. Soon afterward there will be no truck driver jobs in the US. The same can be said for many factory workers, logistics workers, and people doing routine jobs all over the world. These jobs will simply disappear and with them the income generated through the labor of their bodies. Those displaced through automation in the current system face a stark choice, re-skill or become unemployed. And while some will be absorbed through new jobs created to support automation many will not. However, there is another way, a few countries have begun experimenting with universal basic income to prevent the latter. More experimentation is required, but if we fail to make provision for people in this situation, they are likely to become a major destabilising force in the world (again, see rise of Trump)(6). It is not all doom and gloom though, if well managed we could benefit from this transformation by working less and enjoying more leisure time for the first time in two generations.
Six – An end to blind consumerism
Younger generations are waking up to the fact that experiences are more likely to bring about subjective well-being than material goods. More and more people have come to realise that a hike in a beautiful location is more likely to make you happy than sitting behind the steering wheel of an expensive car along with mountains of debt, insurance, and maintenance obligations. Our generation was shaped by the 2008 crash where the ephemeral nature of materialism was laid bare. People worked their lives to buy investments, homes, and cars only to see these possessions evaporate overnight. Millennials are thus more likely to seek out experiences that can’t be taken away. That doesn’t mean we don’t want an opportunity to drive a fancy car, but we don’t want the burden of ownership. Consequently, in the future, material goods are more likely to form part of the gig/sharing economy. Want a fancy handbag, rent it for the night, no need to have it sitting around unused 99% of the time. The desire to own new goods is also decreasing with “vintage” and recycled goods carrying more appeal with younger folks. This in turn will mean a reduction in the need for manufacturing but an increase in the need for efficient logistics services.
Seven – A world powered entirely through renewable energy
This is more than a pipe dream. It is an inevitable consequence of our current fossil-fuel energy paradigm. By definition these energy sources will run out. Whether we fully change over to renewables to avert climate change, or we wait for the fossil fuels to runout, our planet, or what’s left of it, will be running off renewable energy. This doesn’t only make environmental sense either. As the world’s population increases and more people move from poverty to the middle classes so will the demand for energy increase. As fossil fuels are by their very nature finite the cost of energy will increase as demand increases beyond a sustainable point. And as everything we consume has an energy cost component this will have a huge global inflationary impact. Renewables don’t only make environmental sense; they are the only way to guarantee long term global energy viability. Imagine a world no longer beholden to OPEC and the US. A world where the oil price no longer dictates the cost of food, heating, cooling, and transport. We have the technology. All we lack is the will and global coordination.
Eight – Universal legalisation of illicit drugs
The war on drugs has been lost and there is a clear winner. One in every ten dollars spent on earth goes toward the illicit drug trade. Some countries have begun to recognise that illicit drugs are a public health issue much like smoking, alcohol abuse, and gambling addiction. Portugal, for instance, has made the possession of hard drugs legal and those found in possession are referred to a clinic, not a prison. The effect has been a net positive. Canada and Uruguay have legalised marijuana and in the US more and more states are following suit which has provided much needed tax revenue for schools and infrastructure. There too the impact has been a net positive. It is time that humanity acknowledges our long history as a species with psychotropics and figure out a way to make this illicit industry legal and work to make substance use more transparent while preventing abuse. This will have further positive knock-on effects as much of the world’s terrorism, illegal arms trade, and human trafficking go hand-in-hand, and are funded through, the illegal drug trade.
Nine – An end to animal husbandry
Farming with livestock will be a thing of the pass over the next 30 or so years. There are a couple of driving factors here. First, more and more people are becoming aware of the sentient experience of animals and the conditions they are subject to, especially in factory farms. As more people in the developed world have taken note, so has the demand for meat decreased in favour of plant-based substitutes. However, the demand for meat is increasing in the developing world. It is no secret that the meat industry is one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters. Therefore, increased meat production is simply not a viable option going forward. This is not to deny that some of us are more carnivore than herbivore. Here technology will step in and we will see more and more laboratory meats grown in a disembodied fashion. The hamburger you’ll eat in ten years is therefore more likely to come from a petri dish than an abattoir and it will be engineered to be healthier than the meat we currently eat.
Ten – A decentralised world government
An inevitable consequence of the above is that at some point there will have to be a global body with more oversight and responsibility for the activities of the peoples, environment, and corporations of this planet. As mentioned before, the problems we face today are bigger than any nation and supersede sovereignty. If we are to reign-in the ecological crisis, rogue multinational corporations, and the 1%, while providing a global currency, universal free movement, the internet as a basic right, as well as universal income, then the next generation will have to take up the challenge and begin imagining what such a body might look like.
What about the United Nations I hear you say, isn’t this body exactly what you described above? Having worked for the UN for almost a decade, the answer is regrettably, no. While the UN is a collective of sovereign states its mandate and charter are far too narrow and restricted. The UN was created to address the problems of the 20th Century and does not have the authority, mandate, or design to address the problems of the 21st. Its major decision-making body, the Security Council, is continually hamstrung by the permanent five (P5) exercising their veto only in service of their own very narrow political interest while no General Assembly resolutions are binding. The P5 also no longer represent the five leading nations in the world. The UK, Russia, and France have smaller economies and/or populations than India, Germany, and Japan while no countries from Africa or South America are represented. The two other leading lights of the UN, the US and China are also no longer reliable supporters of multilateralism (see Trump foreign policy and China’s desire for hegemonic power). Much has been written and said about Security Council reform, yet, those with the power to do something about it are the least likely to act. The UN is therefore largely an impotent world body with mostly symbolic power. Despite the existence of the UN sovereign states able to ignore the problems of the planet and even act to exacerbate then with no consequence.
So what else? I mentioned “decentralised” world government because there is value is balancing local and global needs, perhaps the city state it worth reinvestigating with representatives from each city serving on a global body. There are other models out there, the European Parliament for one. While imperfect and inefficient, it is an interesting model to study. Maybe this can be improved on as a model for the world to follow. Maybe someone can think of something even more radically different like government through social media using a form of liquid democracy? And while a global government is one of the things science fiction warned us about, we at least know what to look out for in order to avoid tyranny. Checks and balances will have to be put in place to ensure that such a body delivers while balancing representation, integrity, and merit.
Make no mistake, if we fail to imagine a world beyond national borders governed through narrow self-interest, the future will be bleak and unwelcoming for future generations. We will fail to tackle climate change, the income gap will continue to grow, the odds of a global-level conflict increases and many will suffer. And while some hark back to the time where sovereignty reigned supreme, those days are quickly coming to an end for incontrovertible practical, rather than ideological reasons. National sovereignty and bilateralism simply cannot solve our current global problems.
It is said that every generation must carry a burden, ours will be the painful birth of a new world. It won’t be easy, it won’t be without sacrifice, but one thing is for certain, it must be done if we are to deliver a world better than the one we found. Let us hope that it won’t take a major global conflict to force us into action like it did in the 20th Century.
A possible way to kick off this transformation is to constitute a Manhattan-like project on a global scale. Bring the best minds this world has to offer together to tackle our biggest problems, like climate change, new governance models and to help us navigate our new information age.
This moment also presents an incredible opportunity to unite the world as one and to embrace our shared humanity, not as nationals of this country or that country, but as citizens of planet Earth, a share celestial life-support system hurling through space in a vast ever-expanding universe. The problems of our world are fixable, the only thing standing in the way is ourselves.
What do you think? Do you agree with the outlined drivers of change? Are there others you foresee? Which other adaptions do you anticipate emerging for us to address these our global challenges? I invite you to help us imagine a new world…
Anton I. Botha has five degrees in a diversity of fields and spent the last decade working for the United Nations and travelling the world. He is reading towards his PhD at Durham University in the United Kingdom
1. One only has to look at the demographics of those who supported Trump and Brexit, overwhelmingly the elderly. The majority of Millennials supported the opposite views during these crucial elections.
2. A paradox in which the consumer they relentlessly pursue won’t have much purchasing power or very high standards of living in the near future.
3. I was sitting in a hostel in Chile watching the final Game of Thrones season with people from 40 different countries. Each person a bigger fan than the next. Our mutual dislike for the final season sparked off many conversations and friends were made over long discussions over how it should have ended.
4. Having watched the US Congressional hearings on social media I can assure you they have no idea how even the internet works let alone social media platforms. Equally, no single country can police the worlds cyber security threats and as the “internet of things” increases in its influence on our daily lives the risks posed by these threats become more impactful.
5. Maybe a hybrid between English, Spanish and Korean as these languages have come to dominate the world’s pop-culture scene.
6. Alternatively, we could rethink work as a whole with more people working less hours for more money (see Scandinavian model). Labour would be more evenly distributed through the economy and people would enjoy more leisure time. If we fail we are likely to see more authoritarians rise through the political ranks as they provide easy solutions to new complex problems that can not be fixed with old ideologies.