It is Sunday morning where I am right now, a time when, in years past, my primary activity was reading the New York Times, especially the op-ed page where articles by people like George Soros were featured regularly. Many of the ideas that shape the articles I write for CleanTechnica trace their origins to those Sunday musings.
I haven’t read the Sunday paper (or any other newspaper, for that matter) in decades. All the information that finds its way into my consciousness these days comes via the internet. Today, the gods of Google delivered an opinion piece penned by George Soros to my inbox. Now, I don’t know a lot about Soros, other than he made a pile of money investing in the stock market. All I really know about the man is that he is loathed with a white hot passion by reactionaries, primarily because he espouses progressive ideas. I suspect the fact that he is a Jew has something to do with it as well.
As I was reading what Soros wrote, I found myself nodding in agreement with him many times. Since CleanTechnica readers also tend to be progressives, I thought I would share his thoughts with you. He writes in simple declarative sentences without a lot of polemics or invective — techniques that are pervasive in the world of reactionaries. It was a refreshing change from the harangue one usually finds on the internet and I thought it was worthy of being shared with CleanTechinca readers. So, assuming this gets published on Sunday, sit back in your favorite chair, put on your reading glasses, and partake of the wisdom of George Soros. I think it will be well worth your time.
I have taken the liberty of editing his remarks in the interests of brevity, but you can read the full text for yourself at this link. Registration is required, but access is free.
Global Warming, Hot Wars, Closed Societies
Feb 16, 2023
An accurate summary of the current state of world affairs can be stated succinctly. While two systems of governance are engaged in a fight for global domination, human civilization is in danger of collapse because of the inexorable advance of climate change.
MUNICH – I’ve spent my entire life trying to understand the world I was born into, and I can claim some modest success. At a relatively early age, I realized that our understanding is inherently imperfect. That’s because we are part of the world in which we live. We are both participants and observers. As participants, we want to change the world in our favor. As observers, we want to understand reality as it is. These two objectives interfere with each other.
The interference doesn’t affect all domains of reality equally. For instance, natural scientists like astronomers can come close to perfect knowledge because they have an objective criterion, like the movement of the stars, that allows them to judge whether their predictions are correct. Social scientists don’t have it so easy. People’s behavior already reflects their imperfect understanding. Therefore, it doesn’t provide as reliable a criterion for social scientists as the movement of stars does for astronomers. So how can we understand the current state of affairs? We must find a way to distinguish what is important from what is less so.
Let’s start with a bold assertion. While two systems of governance are engaged in a fight for global domination, our civilization is in danger of collapse because of the inexorable advance of climate change. This is a very succinct statement, but I believe it provides an accurate summary of the current state of affairs. My statement links climate change, which belongs mainly to natural science, with systems of governance, which is a social concept. I’ll discuss climate change first and systems of governance later.
I have always been fascinated by the Greenland ice sheet, which is several kilometers deep and has built up over a thousand years. In July 2022, an extreme weather event occurred in Greenland. It was so warm that scientists there could play volleyball in short-sleeved shirts and shorts. When I saw this, I sent a team of photographers to Greenland to gather visual evidence. They were present when a second event occurred in September and they recorded it live.
The melting of the Greenland ice sheet would increase the level of the oceans by seven meters. [The melting of the Antarctica ice sheet would raise ocean levels by 200 feet.] That poses a threat to the survival of our civilization. I wasn’t willing to accept that fate, so I tried to find out whether anything could be done to avoid it. I was directed to David King, a climate scientist who had been chief scientific advisor to previous British governments. He has developed a theory which is widely shared by climate scientists. It holds that the global climate system used to be stable but human intervention disrupted it.
The Arctic Circle used to be sealed off from the rest of the world by winds that blew in a predictable, circular, counterclockwise direction, but man-made climate change broke this isolation. The circular wind used to keep cold air inside the Arctic Circle and warm air out. Now cold air leaks out from the Arctic and is replaced by warm air that’s sucked up from the south. This explains, among other things, the Arctic blast that hit the United States last Christmas and the cold wave that hit Texas recently.
The Arctic Ocean used to be covered by pristine snow and ice that reflected the sun in what is called the “albedo effect.” But rising temperatures have caused the ice to melt and the Greenland ice sheet is no longer so pristine. It is covered by soot from last year’s forest fires on the West Coast of America, Arctic shipping, and other causes. David King has a plan to repair the climate system. He wants to recreate the albedo effect by creating white clouds high above the earth. With proper scientific safeguards and in consultation with local indigenous communities, this project could help restabilize the Arctic climate system which governs the entire global climate system.
The message is clear: human interference has destroyed a previously stable system and human ingenuity, both local and international, will be needed to restore it. At present, practically all the efforts to fight climate change are focused on mitigation and adaptation. They are necessary but not sufficient.
The climate system is broken, and it needs to be repaired. That’s the main message I’d like to convey. The message is urgent because we are dangerously close to breaching the 1.5° Celsius limit set in the 2015 Paris agreement. We are already at 1.2°C and if we maintain our current course, global warming will reach more than 2.5°C around 2070. That would take us past several tipping points such as the melting of the Arctic permafrost. Once that happens, the amount of money needed to restabilize or repair the climate system will grow exponentially. This is not well understood.
The accelerating pace of climate change will also cause large scale migration for which the world is ill prepared. Unless we change the way we deal with climate change, our civilization will be thoroughly disrupted by rising temperatures that will make large parts of the world practically unlivable. We must reorient our international financial institutions, particularly the World Bank, to focus on climate change. World Bank President David Malpass, who was a climate denier, resigned yesterday.
Soros On Politics
Now, I should like to turn to geopolitics. There are two systems of governance that are fighting for global domination. I’m talking about open and closed societies. I have defined the difference between them as simply as I can. In an open society, the role of the state is to protect the freedom of the individual. In a closed society, the role of the individual is to serve the interests of the state. As the founder of the Open Society Foundations, open societies are obviously close to my heart, and I consider them morally superior to closed ones.
When we talk about moral superiority, however, we encounter a difficulty — both systems consider themselves superior. Open societies must therefore distinguish themselves by actually protecting the freedom of the individual. That would certainly attract people living in closed societies. Of course, repressive states may still prevail because they may be able to force their subjects to serve them. The fact is, both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. By understanding them better, we can improve our understanding of the world.
I have distinguished between open and closed societies. This leaves out many countries that have gone to great lengths to avoid tying themselves irrevocably to one side or the other. India is an interesting case here. It’s a democracy, but its leader — Prime Minister Narendra Modi — is no democrat. Inciting violence against Muslims was an important factor in his meteoric rise. I may be naïve, but I expect a democratic revival in India.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey is perhaps an even more interesting case of a country seeking to have a foot in both camps. Erdoğan is actively engaged with both sides of the Ukrainian war and established himself as a neutral intermediary between them. Erdoğan has much in common with Modi. But, while Modi seemed to be firmly in the saddle until recently, Erdoğan has mismanaged the Turkish economy and will face elections in May. All his efforts are focused on winning the elections.
There are many other regional powers that can influence the course of history. Brazil stands out. The election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva at the end of last year was crucial. On January 8, there was a coup attempt much like the January 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol. Lula handled the attempted coup masterfully and established his authority as president.
Brazil is on the front line of the conflict between open and closed societies; it is also on the front line of the fight against climate change. Lula must protect the rainforest, promote social justice, and reignite economic growth all at the same time. He will need strong international support because there is no pathway to net zero emissions if he fails.
The current situation has some similarities with the Cold War, but the differences are much greater. There is a real war going on in Ukraine that has changed everything. President Xi Jinping would be an obvious loser of a Russian defeat in Ukraine. His close association with Putin would hurt him. But China may already be undergoing a revolution.
Most of Xi’s problems are self-inflicted. He started mismanaging the economy right from the beginning of his rule when he went out of his way to undo Deng Xiaoping’s reformist achievements. Xi’s zero-COVID policy was his biggest blunder. It imposed enormous hardship on the population and brought them to the verge of open rebellion. Then, responding to popular pressure, Xi suddenly abandoned the policy without putting anything else in its place.
The result was a form of social Armageddon. The chaotic way Xi exited zero-COVID shook the Chinese people’s trust in the Communist Party under his leadership. The current situation fulfills all the preconditions for regime change or revolution. But this is only the beginning of an opaque process, whose repercussions will be felt over a longer period of time.
In the short term, Xi is likely to remain in power because he is in firm control of all the instruments of repression. But I am convinced that Xi will not remain in office for life, and while he is in office, China will not become the dominant military and political force that Xi is aiming for. Fortunately for Xi, he is not personally threatened from abroad because Biden is not interested in regime change in China. All he wants is to re-establish the status quo in Taiwan. The fact is, we are witnessing a historic process in China, whose significance is not widely appreciated.
To complete the geopolitical picture, I must also examine how democracy is functioning in the US. When Donald Trump became president in 2016, he posed a real threat to US democracy. Trump is a deeply flawed character, a confidence trickster whose narcissism grew into a disease. He feels no commitment to democracy. Democracy merely provides him with a stage on which to perform. As president, he was more interested in hobnobbing with dictators than in promoting democratic principles. Trump’s role model was Putin, who amassed a fortune while asserting total control over his country.
Trump attracted a lot of non-educated white followers, but his biggest backers were the mega-rich – and he certainly delivered for them. First, he cut their taxes. Second, he nominated to the Supreme Court ideologues who embraced an extreme version of the Republican agenda. Third, he brought the Republican Party under his control by threatening those who didn’t swear loyalty to him with a challenge in the primaries. Lastly, he encouraged Republican-controlled states to introduce outrageous measures of voter suppression to ensure that his party would remain in power indefinitely. With that program, he was almost re-elected in 2020.
My hope for 2024 is that Trump and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida will slug it out for the Republican nomination. Trump has turned into a pitiful figure, continually bemoaning his loss in 2020. Big Republican donors are abandoning him in droves. DeSantis is shrewd, ruthless, and ambitious. He is likely to be the Republican candidate. This could induce Trump to run as a third party candidate. This would lead to a Democratic landslide and force the Republican Party to reform itself. But perhaps I may be just a little bit biased here.
To conclude, I want to repeat what I stated at the beginning: while open and closed societies are in a fight for global domination, our civilization is in danger of collapsing because of the inexorable advance of climate change. I believe this sums up the current state of affairs accurately. I also believe that an open society is superior to a closed society, and I grieve for people who must live under repressive regimes like Assad’s Syria, Belarus, Iran, and Myanmar.
I subscribe to A Word A Day, a service that focuses on language and how words originate and develop over time. While the daily word is often interesting — did you know virescent means “turning green?” — every day the editor adds a thought, saying, or phrase from someone. I collect those thoughts in a Google Doc I have created and refer to it regularly for inspiration. Recently, the thought of the day was from historian Henry Adams, who said, “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”
While I was there, I scanned some of the other thoughts I have saved over the years. Here are few things Carl Sagan had to say about humanity and the state of the world.
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
“For all our conceits about being the center of the universe, we live in a routine planet of a humdrum star stuck away in an obscure corner … on an unexceptional galaxy which is one of about 100 billion galaxies. That is the fundamental fact of the universe we inhabit, and it is very good for us to understand that.
“Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”
If we as a species are to survive, we must learn to live together in peace. There was a fellow in the Middle East some 2000 years ago who tried to teach us that lesson, but it didn’t stick. Our hatreds are what will doom us, for they will keep us from working together to address the most vital issue of our time — global heating.
Cooperation is learned behavior. Our instincts, as Malcolm Gladwell taught us in his book Blink, are all geared toward self-preservation, back in the days when if our neighbor said they were having us over for dinner, they meant it quite literally. Danger was everywhere and our limbic brains created “fight or flight” responses designed to protect us from perils of all kind. Sadly, those survival instincts now threaten our very survival. If we do not learn to overcome them, the odds are great that we shall all — or at least a very large percentage of us — perish from the face of the Earth.
Perhaps the next species to have hegemony over the Earth will be better able to preserve their terrestrial home. If so, we will have provided an historical record that demonstrates in exquisite detail how not to live in a sustainable way that nourishes the Earth rather than pillages it. Mistakes are the best teachers. Our errors may profit others of a different species in a time yet to come.
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