The heat is on to find global saviours

Tuesday. Berlin. The weather has flipped inside a week from mid-summer high 30s to a chilly-breeze autumn.
But it is still fresh and light. And generally women can walk on the streets day or night, or go to the post office to pick up a parcel, without fearing for their lives.

Bad things still happen, of course. Early on Saturday evening, just one kilometre away, a man lost control of his Porsche SUV on Invaliden Strasse and killed five people, including a child. So there is now an extended public debate about whether SUVs should be banned from cities.

Yet Germany has other, bigger problems to fret about. Two Sundays ago, in provincial elections, its far-right party, the AFD (Alternative For Germany) won 23.5% of the vote in Brandenburg, the federal state that surrounds Berlin — almost double its tally from five years ago.

It almost caught up with the Social Democrats (SPD) which polled 26.2% — their worst result since German reunification 29 years ago. Further to the east, in Saxony, the AFD won 27.5%, again squeezing the

moderate middle of the SPD and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).

The rise of the right in Europe continues, almost unabated — although in Italy last week an unexpected right-left coalition government was formed to push Matteo Salvini and his hard-right, anti-immigrant party out of power, at least for the time being.

A sense of perspective is hard in a time of crisis. But South Africa is not exceptional. It is a microcosm of a meta-level intersecting political, economic and ecological global crisis of the kind no baby boomer or even Generation Xer, let alone a millennial, has experienced in their lifetime.

Perhaps the mid-1980s came close. A boom-bust economic roller-coaster was the backdrop to the final, taut years of the Cold War. Conflicts in Central America, provoked by American imperialism, as well as in Palestine, Angola, Ethiopia and Northern Ireland, plus the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, played out dangerously.

And South Africa had a state of emergency.

Thirty-five years later and there may be less warfare, but the scale, intensity and interconnectedness of global challenges are far greater.

The current crisis has three dimensions. The first is economic — a system of capital accumulation, based on never-ending growth and high levels of consumption, has hit the buffer of planetary boundaries. The economic roller-coaster finally came fully off the tracks with the global financial crisis in 2008. The global economy has not recovered and nor has it reformed; still less has it recognised the need for a radical, fundamental rewiring.

As a result, an even more serious crash is now brewing, encouraged by Donald Trump’s crudely mercantilist trade war with China.

Most likely, Trump will retreat — there are already signs that he is — but not before his own economy has slipped into recession, which will, in turn, serve to encourage the bigoted, anti-immigrant political discourse that has been a defining feature of Trump’s time in power.

As usual, emerging economies will suffer as a result. Unfortunately, South Africa is in a far weaker position to absorb the shock than it was in 2008.

The second dimension of the current crisis is the climate emergency — which is a symptom of the first. All sorts of people around the world are now waking up to the realisation that climate change is not an environmental — “green” — problem, but rather a social and economic problem.

It is because of the way in which humans use — and deplete — the ecological infrastructure and natural capital of the planet. And the fact that since the industrial revolution carbon emissions have caused global heating to increase at an unprecedented rate.

It is also a human rights problem, as Philip Alston, a highly-regarded leading socio-economic rights thinker and advocate argued forcefully in his recent report to the United Nations: “Climate change will have devastating consequences for people in poverty. Even under the best-case scenario, hundreds of millions will face food insecurity, forced migration, disease, and death.”

Actually, it will affect everyone, everywhere, even the wealthy. German schools were having to close a few weeks ago as the temperature gauge stuck around 40°C for several days in a row. Welcome to the new normal.

The window to take action is close to shutting. We are at the equivalent of five minutes to midnight. Ten years left then to adapt economies, drastically mitigate carbon emissions and transform the financial system so that capital is deployed on fundamentally different forms of economic activity.

The UN secretary general aims to fire the starting gun on this “last chance decade” with his climate summit in a fortnight. He will argue that decisive leadership is urgently required.

And this is where the third dimension, the political, kicks in viciously because not only are so many of the current band of political leaders nasty bigots and racists, and anti-poor, but they tend to be climate change deniers.

Exhibit A: Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. Exhibit B: the burning Amazon rainforests, which are a defiant symbol of nationalism in the face of the rational imperative of multilateral co-operation in defence of the global commons.

It is not yet easy to discern whether the ultra-populist leadership that is dominating in so many regions of the world is a symptom or a cause. History — think of the fascism that followed the 1929 financial crash — suggests the former.

But it could be both. Armed with his own version of alt-right ideologue Steve Bannon (Dominic Cummings), Exhibit C: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears determined to read straight from the Trumpian playbook, setting up a grotesque “people versus Parliament” dichotomy in his pursuit of Brexit.

What an outrageous proposition. Johnson is simply a paler Trump, save with a better, classical education. Though they can do a lot of damage along the way, one by one they will be exposed as political snake-oil salesmen.

The truth will out. Exhibit D: our own version, Julius Malema — a dishonest hypocrite, claiming to represent working men and women so as to return their land to them while stealing their hard-earned savings and spending them on expensive European designer labels.

Charlatans, all of them.

Nevertheless, it is clear that liberal democracy — the ostensible “victor” of the Cold War when the Berlin Wall came down at the end of the 1980s — is in deep trouble. When the “mother of all parliaments”, the House of Commons, descends into the sort of fractious chaos it did on Monday evening, itself a victim of what its heroic speaker, John Bercow, described as an “executive fiat”, it adds a sense of institutional febrility to the existential uncertainty of the current zeitgeist.

What a week. What a fortnight. It does feel like a tipping point, in South Africa and throughout the world.

What will determine whether society tips over towards the collapse that Jared Diamond foretold in

his 2005 book, Collapse, will be whether enough progressive people mobilise to defend human

rights, expose the impostors who claim to speak “for the people” and to hold those with the power to transform economies to account so that they act at the speed and scale necessary to avert a human catastrophe.

A critical mass is accruing to push the other way. Dots are being joined. Strategic alliances are being formed. Unlikely activists for radical change are emerging in surprising places.

The September 20 global climate strike will be an important staging post in this process of regeneration and a potential springboard for the kind of global protest movement that is needed to shift power and reset social norms and values.

The ultra-populist fascists and demagogues will be defeated, just as they have been defeated before. Why? Because once again they will inspire a new generation of progressive democrat activists.

But, given that six million young people didn’t even register to vote in May’s election in South Africa and we don’t yet understand why, this may be an unduly optimistic view given that the youth will be crucial in providing the energy — and the anger — needed to achieve climate justice.

Disinformation, amplified by digital communications technology and social media, is part of the enemy. And so the truth will need to be defended to secure the future.

Youth, truth and the future. Amid the cruelty and suffering of the crisis that engulfs humanity there are grounds for hope as well as despair.

Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a partner in the political risk consultancy, The Paternoster Group. He is currently serving as co-chair of the technical task team on mobilising climate finance appointed by the UN secretary general in the run up to the Climate Summit

Richard Calland

Richard Calland

Richard Calland has for past twenty five years been working in the fields of democratic governance and sustainable development in South Africa and beyond. He is a founding partner of The Paternoster Group. Read more from Richard Calland

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