Transcending the Trappings of the Twentieth Century

This was my last paper in my history of globalization class last semester. The professor really dug my optimism, but said I missed the mark in not tying everything together more. I’m willing to bet this was more interesting than the other papers.

Rashid Khalidi, in his book Resurrecting Empire, laments that “the ghosts of American military overreach and imperial arrogance … are back to haunt us,” (Khalidi, vi) in reference to American occupation of Iraq. Mike Davis in his Planet of Slums focuses on mega-slums and, in his reference to Joseph Stiglitz’s statements, on “an emerging ‘post-Washington Consensus'” of “‘soft imperialism’, with the major NGOs captive to the agenda of the international donors, and grassroots groups similarly dependent upon the international NGOs.” (Davis, 76) Even Michael Mandelbaum, a defender of the twentieth-century theme of American hegemony, is caught in the framework of present-day geostrategy and heavily discounts resource exploitation as justification for past colonialism and imperialism, and of superpower dominance over smaller countries. Only J.R. McNeill hints at something new under the sun, when he mentions that

“by 1970, however, something new was afoot. The interlocked, mutually supporting (and coevolving) social, ideological, political, economic, and technological systems that we conveniently call industrial society spawned movements that cast doubt on the propriety and prudence of business as usual. Some of these movements demanded the antithesis of industrial society, denouncing technology, wealth, and large-scale organization. Others called for yet more and better technology and organization, and more wealth for those who had least, as solutions to environmental problems.” (McNeill, 355)

Is it possible that there has been too much hand-wringing about the twentieth century being a continuation of earlier centuries of colonial exploitation of weaker civilizations, about it being an era of unsustainable hyper-growth that has led to ecological destruction and the impoverishment of hundreds of millions of people now slumming in megacities? Is it possible that the twenty-first century will look nothing like before, that mankind will transcend the limitations of realist ideology and limited resources in the past? Perhaps the analyses by these authors represent the fleeting twilight of a passing era, about to be enveloped by an optimistic, limitless new way of life for the world.

The first common thread through most twentieth-century international affairs literature deals with the overwhelming security influence of the United States on the world stage in the second half of the century. Khalidi’s polemic Resurrecting Empire, for example, posits that one of the goals of the Iraq War was to “[establish] long-term American military bases in a key country in the heart of the Middle East” (Khalidi, x-xi), presumably to set up President Bush’s beacon of hope that would shine throughout the Muslim world. In the bigger picture, this move by the United States, according to Khalidi, “[demonstrated] that it was possible to free the United States from subordination to international law or the U.N. Charter, from the need to obtain the approval of the United Nations for American actions, and from the constraints of operating within alliances.” (Khalidi, x) Many interpret the United States’ actions from a realist’s international relations perspective, where the U.S., in a dominant world position, ensures that the international system is stacked in its favor, maintaining veto powers in the UN and acting outside the UN when convenient, and spending many times more on its military budget than most other countries combined. Mandelbaum, in The Case for Goliath, makes a favorable case for these actions, proposing that “the American military deployments at the outset of the twenty-first century provided reassurance to the governments and the people of Europe”, while admitting that “the bases for these forces continued to be useful for launching military operations in nearby regions where wars were still fought — the Middle East, above all.” (Mandelbaum, 33) American victory over communism in the Cold War left it to reap the benefits of presence in countries all over the world from Europe to Japan to Central and South America, with massive carrier and submarine fleets to provide dominance of the seas. This is not unlike the imperialists of centuries past, such as the western Europeans who used naval supremacy to reinforce slave-based agricultural colonies and to conquer far-away civilizations. The American footprint worldwide is with little argument a continuation of superpower geostrategy, even with the allowance of Mandelbaum’s evocation of a peace dividend as a result of American military deterrence.

Closely linked to American dominance is another issue common to intersocietal relations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the pursuit of control over energy resources. Khalidi lists as another reason for the Iraq War the argument that the Bush administration sought to “reshape, along the radical free-market lines so dear to Bush administration ideologues, the economy of a country with the world’s second-largest proven reserves of oil.” (Khalidi, xi) A very realist perspective of the war, this cynical view of the administration’s goals seems to be corroborated by history: the Middle East being central to many trade routes and to oil extraction, a “sovereign model of the nation-state, produced by centuries of European experience, was imposed arbitrarily the world over by the European powers, often causing lingering problems.” (Khalidi, 65) What has the Middle East ever been to outside powers except a resource to be exploited? When Winston Churchill in 1909 decided to switch his British navy entirely to oil, replacing coal, a new era was born and oil “overnight became crucial to Britain’s global hegemony, intensifying its attention to Iranian oil and vastly enhancing the strategic importance not just of Iran but of the entire Middle East.” (Khalidi, 85) Such a massive energy shift must be viewed with respect to the great divergence taken by the Europeans when they began using coal “to provide energy inputs that would significantly outpace a rapidly growing population for decades to come or to permit chemistry to substitute for land.” (Pomeranz, 61)

Disappointingly, it takes Mandelbaum’s assessment of the future oil situation to begin to see the limitations of current ways of thinking on the subject of energy. His depiction of the energy problem is rather gloomy, surmising correctly that “the price of oil will likely rise” and indeed “rise substantially” soon (Mandelbaum, 106), but continues, “The price mechanism by itself, however, may not provide a smooth transition from one energy system to another,” (Mandelbaum, 108) predicting massive pollution costs and political instability within Saudi Arabia and in the world. Under this scenario, major powers, and particularly the US, will continue to try to secure oil reserves worldwide through whatever means possible. But is there not more than just hope and naive optimism that alternatives will present themselves? McNeill can only partially provide guidance when he firmly states that “the exhaustion of fossil fuels on the global scale is not imminent” as “quantities of proven reserves of coal, oil, natural gas tended to grow faster than production in the twentieth century.” (McNeill, 16) With regards to pollutive industrial practices that have ravaged the environment in the last century, McNeill invokes the success of chloro-fluoro carbon (CFC) bans which dropped deadly CFC use by eighty percent in less than a decade. What McNeill fails to do, like his contemporaries, is to follow such historical facts to their conclusions: technological innovations and pervasiveness of environmentalist ideas (mentioned in the introductory McNeill quote) have the potential to reverse environmental devastation faster than most people (including these experts) are capable of comprehending. Indeed, Google has just announced that its goal “is to produce one gigawatt of renewable energy — enough to power the city of San Francisco — more cheaply than coal-generated electricity,” adding that “this can be accomplished in ‘years, not decades.'” (http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/11/28/technology/28google.php) As costs rise for companies like Google, whose welfare exists solely in its ability to keep its massive power-hungry data centers running, they will

“spend hundreds of millions of dollars, part of that to hire engineers and energy experts to investigate alternative energies like solar, geothermal and wind power. The effort is aimed at reducing Google’s own mounting energy costs to run its vast data centers, while also fighting climate change and helping to reduce the world’s dependence on fossil fuels.”

What is happening is a paradigm shift: as solar paneling becomes more efficient and more ubiquitous, working hand-in-hand with more energy-conservative urban design, demand for energy will not necessarily have to take a hit, although certainly within McNeill’s environmentalist movement consumers’ tastes for energy could decrease also. Dirty energy will not disappear completely as large amounts of energy are required for today’s industrial tasks, but the overall impact of energy demand could be substantially reduced for day-to-day useage, as Google has shown in powering its headquarters with solar paneling on its roofs. (http://www.google.com/corporate/solarpanels/home?gsessionid=t7X6aYntxaQ)

A final component of twentieth-century intersocietal relations is a new form of an old theme: slavery. Coinciding with the massive growth in today’s developed nations after World War Two, because of what McNeill lists as “industrialization, ‘Fordism,’ and economic integration,” (McNeill, 314-315) is the worldwide urban population that is now larger than when President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. (Davis, 2) David Brion Davis coldly describes slavery as it is more commonly recognized from the 1800’s as “not only highly productive but anticipated much of the efficiency, organization, and global interconnectedness of industrial capitalism.” (David Brion Davis, 77) McNeill continues a chilly assessment, saying that “slavery was the most efficient means by which the ambitious and powerful could become richer and more powerful” (McNeill, 12) and that

“for rulers, the stock of human and domestic animal populations served as an energy store, a flywheel in the society’s energy system. They could be put to work whether the primary energy source — plant crops — was bountiful or scarce. The stock could be built up in fat times and drawn down in lean times, but at virtually all times rulers could lay their hands on people and animals for their enterprises.” (McNeill, 12)

Mike Davis, in describing the unfathomable movement of people to cities, blames the rapid emergence of mega-slums on “policies of agricultural deregulation and financial discipline enforced by the IMF and World Bank” which “[generated] an exodus of surplus rural labor to urban slums even as cities ceased to be job machines.” (Davis, 15) Clearly, life has become unsustainable outside of cities worldwide as different economic sectors have become so productive that only large-scale operations requiring quickly-deployed pools of labor such as in China are financially feasible. These massive numbers of slum-dwellers can live only in the least desirable parts of megacities, as “the rich have ninety percent of the land and live in comfort with many open areas” (Davis, 96), reinforcing the imperialist pro-growth imperative lamented by Davis, McNeill, and Khalidi.

Davis, in the end, prescribes no solutions for the problem he describes, a common theme among the authors cited above. Perhaps in efforts to state the dire nature of their respective pet causes, or perhaps to avoid taking a definitive stand, or in some attempt to remain objective, the reader is left distracted by the five-hundred pound gorilla in the room that is not discussed: a brighter day tomorrow.

With crude oil reaching near $100 per gallon, public awareness of megaslums and industrial and consumer pollution, and a whole generation of entrepreneurial-minded, intelligent public-private-oriented individuals raised under the boom of environmentalist activism, there is much reason to be hopeful about the future. Efficiency yields from solar panels have increased much faster than skeptics have anticipated, and architectural design has incorporated technological and common sensical techniques into corporate and residential buildings. Money is being thrown at plug-in hybrids, which, as batteries become more durable and last longer, will cut out a significant amount of demand for combustible fuels. A diversification of energy inputs will lower input costs for production and will enable companies to be more productive — by extension, leaving individuals to be happier. Sustainability on a smaller scale will enable people to move out of the cities and support themselves through cheaper housing, food, and energy costs. A reduction in the importance of control of energy resources will defuse much of international tensions among superpowers and unfortunately-located regions such as the Middle East. Not all limited resources will become ubiquitous (such as water), but the world as the authors describe it will look nothing similar to the future. In fact, what these books all suffer from, being published recently, is being stuck in this transitionary stage between oil-based geostrategy and a world where technology-sharing and economic trade (by way of developing and trading more efficient solar and energy collectors) is in everyone’s best interest and in individuals’ best interests alike.