“A User’s Guide to the Crises of Civilization” – Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed

(Colin Bell)

I’ve been reading Nafeez Mosaddaq Ahmed’s A User’s Guide to the Crises of Civilization and finding it fascinating, if rather dense. His claim that “it remains accessible to a general audience” is just about tenable, but here is my attempt to summarise what he’s arguing.

The author is a British Muslim political scientist, with a specialism in International Relations. His interest in the Islamic world is clear, but his argumentation is purely secular and largely Marxist.

He sees the civilizational crises of the title as fourfold: climate change, peak oil (and energy and resource issues more generally), food insecurity, and economic instability, with international terrorism and tension, and militarism being linked issues. Possibly surprisingly, neither population nor demographics feature very much: he notes these among other topics he could have considered, but secondary ones arising from the ones already listed.

Each of the six is treated in turn, with synthesis, analysis and recommendations for how we should change our thinking at the end.

More detailed reflections on the book follow at the end of what’s quite a long post, but for now, I can recommend it as a reasonably good exposition of this strand of secular thinking on the subject, although I’d suggest skimming over some of the details in the historical political sections.

The climate change and peak oil chapters provide a good standard exposition of the current position, if towards the more pessimistic end, taking time to deal with standard “denier” arguments. He sees little prospect of temperature rises being kept under 4 degrees C this century. Peak coal and oil are forecast for about 2025, but with considerable uncertainty. Neither nuclear nor renewables will provide economic replacement electricity, so the only prospect is for a low-energy post-carbon future, whether planned or forced.

On food, however, the picture is better. The problem is not the amount of food produced, but that the process is commercialised, unsustainably energy-intensive and in the wrong places. He cites the UNFAO and a University of Michigan study which argues that low-intensity localised organic production can match and even outperform current methods, and with a better and fairer distribution network, feeding the expected peak population of 10-11 billion by 2100 shouldn’t be a problem.

He doesn’t give much space to discussing the alternatives – I think it’s clear his heart isn’t quite in the science involved, which comes out with the contrast with the remaining three chapters on economics politics where his expertise is definitely more to the fore.

Here the overall message is clear: since WWII the West and in particular the USA has been seeking to run the world for the benefit of its own security and continued dominance, through the Bretton Woods System and since:

The IMF and the World Bank promoted a narrowly US-centred conception of world financial stability as an expansion in foreign economic life and its adjustment to the needs of capacities of America. US Government claims thus were formalized into an institutional edifice of world economic domination. (p112)

This has materialised through World Bank requirements for countries to run liberal economic regimes open to foreign investment, military action, support for terrorist groups to stabilise or destabilise foreign governments as desired, and more recently in internal security. A dangerous game has been played in that Western attempts to forestall global crises by influencing world politics, particularly in the Islamic world, has caused dissatisfaction in various quarters, with extremism leading to terrorism that in turn needs to be addressed. The solution adopted has partly been to label Muslims at home as enemies and potential terrrorists, a process Ahmed describes as ‘securitization’. He writes:

Global crises are driving a Western state tendency toward the maximization of social control, ostensibly justified with reference to only one crisis, international terrorism; and the predominant victims of the measures taken are largely Muslim civilian communities, both in strategic peripheries and at home. In other words, an exclusive focus on the threat posed by Islam and Muslims is increasingly a preoccupation of these broader ‘securitization’ processes, which are actually driven by the ecological, energy and economic crises.

The other side of the coin is the economic instability which led to the 2008 financial crisis. Like other analysts such as Joseph Stiglitz, the immediate cause of this was the US housing bubble and actions taken which tended to increase rather than mitigate it. The Bush administration comes in for a lot of blame. Like our speaker Ann Pettifor, he foresaw the problems – albeit not so far ahead – and sees them as an inevitable consequence of the structural flaws in the financial system. Ahmed traces the situation back, again, to WWII, and imbalances created then to enable trade to continue when the USA effectively held almost all the world’s assets, together with the dollar being the world’s reserve currency which has enabled America to build up a dangerous budget deficit.

The penultimate chapter – Diagnosis – brings the threads together, with a critique of global capitalism from a Marxist position. As has already been hinted at, the crises are not due to some outside misfortunate that hit our world, but are largely inherent to capitalism itself.

One key flaw is a short-term maximisation of profits.

Issues such as climate change and resource depletion illustrate that neoliberal ideology fails to fully reflect the real conditions of human life as fundamentally embedded in the natural environment. … [It] is unable to recognize the limitations to that growth. It therefore cannot respond effectively to global crises of climate change and resource scarcity, even though those threaten to undermine its premises. This is because it remains irrevocably preoccupied with short-term concerns… with little or not regard for external risks or costs. (p201, my italics)

Modern economic theory is restricted in the same way, so that it is blind to the way our systems are irrational and unnatural, and disregard the natural world and resources. A combination of the search for profit and the way that the majority of the world are essentially dispossessed from the means of subsistence (or, more simply, that people are no longer self-sufficient and need to buy and sell just to eat) mean that an elite minority can own them and exploit them for their own ends using economic or political force as applicable – in fact this is more or less necessary to be able to compete with others in the elite. That much is straight out of Marx. Modern banking, in particular the fractional reserve system and the effective ability to create money as a result, merely makes it much, much worse.

Not only is the system itself broken, but those in power are in denial about it: the threat of terrorism is seen as the main issue facing us, rather than our over-dependence on oil, or the fact that our system is failing us.

What of the future? The book is subtitled “And How to Save It” so what are the elements of hope and what does he predict?

He makes two specific predictions. The first is that the actions taken to address the 2008 economic crisis have merely postponed it and made it worse, and he forecasts a further similar crisis, but worse, probably sparked off by an oil price rise, before 2018. This one will probably involve some considerable level of international conflict. It could be staved off with an immediate shift to a more sustainable economy, but the timeframe for that being possible is dangerously short. More likely is that this will be one of a sequence of crises in the kind of catabolic collapse argued for by John Michael Greer and others.

The good news, if you can call it that, is that with the impending lack of resources, this might be the last such conflict. By mid-century, the kind of domination that the US currently seeks to hold will just be economically impossible. Decentralism is inevitable, and the nation state as we currently understand it will struggle to continue to exist. From here, things can go one of two ways. Ahmed writes

The dangers should not be underestimated, but we should also recognise that such a development will create a new and unprecedented opportunity for grassroots communities to reclaim political space based on the values of peace and cooperation. (p199)

We will have reached a post-carbon civilization, either by choice or out of necessity. Some parameters for such a society are given in the final (rather short) chapter, together with a call for people of all disciplines, nationalities and interests to explore what it should look like, even now while business as usual holds sway. Though Ahmed declines to make a definitive proposal for the structure of a society, he is clear about where its philosophical basis should lie, drawing upon recent scientific findings in quantum theory and biology that everything is deeply interconnected.

Post-carbon civilization will need to be oriented around a fundamentally different understanding of human life as a phenomenon that is inextricably embedded in the natural world…. Based on a new, more holistic and scientific understanding of human nature and the natural world, a new ethical system based on human cooperation, grassroots participation and the mutual needs and well-being of all will be increasingly viewed (and justifiably so) as the basis of the rational pursuit of self-maximization. In this alternative post-materialist ethics, the welfare of others will literally be equivalent to the welfare of the individual, and vice versa…. Such a new ethical system will be capable of uniting different humanist, spiritual and religious traditions in the overarching recognition that moral values objectively harmonize us with nature… (p257)

What contribution does this book make to the debates over sustainability and the other crises it discusses? As Ahmed argues, Marx’s views are sufficiently influential that they need to be taken into account, but not accepted uncritically. He is far from the only scholar to note that there is a distinct correlation between Marx’s criticisms of capitalism and what we are currently seeing.

I am wary of giving them as much weight as Ahmed does, particularly looking at the more political and historical aspects of the subject, which I’m a bit less qualified to judge. Of course, historical interpretations of events and the motivations for certain decisions being made vary considerably, and a Marxist approach does seem to be consistent, but it feels too much that the story is being shoe-horned into a particular grand narrative, and the actors doing what they “should” as capitalists. For instance, George W Bush’s economic policies may have been motivated as part of a long-term attempt to maximise the wealth of the ruling classes, possibly in the full knowledge of the consequences. But they may well also have been out of short-term expediency, to gain votes at the next election, or even just sheer incompetence. Or a combination.

There is also rather too much weight given to analysis of extreme proposals, such as an internal US government idea to redraw many of the boundaries in the Middle East and South Asia. These seem to be more wishful thinking than anything that could be plausibly attempted.

My biggest criticism though is of what seems a hopelessly naive view of human nature, as exemplified in the last quotation. Ahmed is not alone in proposing that if we strip away “evil structures” that humans can co-operate and live happily ever after. For him, it is class inequality and things that derive from that; for the New Atheists, religious belief is the problem.

This area is certainly one of major debate currently, but my view is that the evidence from human history – and indeed from theology – is that humans are, to an extent, co-operative and altruistic, but that they are also competitive and selfish, and no philosophy is going to change the fact that this is a challenge we must face. Ahmed criticises Joseph Tainter and others for their theories of collapse on the grounds that historical civilisations fell due to class inequality, rather than merely complexity. “High civilisational complexity is … theoretically sustainable….” but this seems to depend on humans being theoretically cooperative, which doesn’t equate to practical reality for any civilisation yet seen above a fairly low level of complexity and/or technology. Empirically, it seems that any distortions in resource usage or power get amplified over time, and while things can flatten out in good times, when difficulties face us, those who hold the power do their best to hold onto it – unsurprisingly.

So while the attributes of Ahmed’s post-carbon society are attractive, probably they can only be ideals to aim at, and we need more pragmatic solutions recognising that we can only put limits on the excesses of modern society, not remove them altogether.

All that being said, this book does provide a clear view of a major strand of modern thinking, albeit a slightly extreme version of it, and is well worth working through.

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