A World Warning: Populism, Tribalism and the Future of Planet Earth
27th June 2018

Chris King










We are entering a new phase of danger for the future of life on planet Earth, which could result in a very hard landing and possibly wipe out the human race unless we recognise the sources of the problem and arrest the creeping drift towards annihilation. 

There have been many previous danger points, not least the nuclear arms race and threat of mutually-assured destruction, which is still with us, although we have lived with it so long that we have become complacent. We have also witnessed utopian aims of world conquest by military power and by modern social movements, from fascism to communism, and from the equally utopian aims of world religions which see their world dominance as God's destiny, ordained by the violent means of "holy war". We have also witnessed the stratagems and deceits of world leaders vying for power over both their own peoples and the states around them, with whom they interact and interdepend.

The current crisis arises from a new breed of confrontational populism, based on an archaic form of tribalism which takes us back to the Neolithic era of clan overlords seeking only what benefits them and their following, at the expense and exploitation of both humanity as a whole and the living world around us. Human societies have grown from gatherer-hunter bands, through founding tribal allegiances, to militarised states vying for power and dominance. These societies and social patterns emerged when we still thought the Earth was flat and its resources were unlimited or ordained by God and we had no idea that we were contained in a closing planetary circle in which we depend as species on the robustness and diversity of life for our food, for the atmosphere we breathe and for the largely beneficial climate in which we coexist. We cannot afford to sink back into reliance on these archaic notions of leadership and jingoism when our impact on the planet is threatening our own long-term survival.

Both fundamentalist religious agendas and the deceptions of populist strongmen are archaic notions that hobble us from a responsible stewardship of the planet that can ensure the survival of the future generations. We cannot afford to sink back into the mire of history with no foresight for the central issue of the survival of life as a whole.

Democracy was, with some irony, extolled by Winston Churchill as the least toxic of an unsatisfactory bad bunch of totalitarian systems: "Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…"

But democracy itself suffers from tragic flaws in its current design. Its Achilles heel is tyranny of the majority, which becomes mutual annihilation in its "hunger games" form in first past the post. Compromising structures such as the US presidential electoral college can even result in the exclusive election of a leader who only holds a strategic minority of the vote, turning the very principle of the popular vote on its head. While these features can be mitigated by forms of proportional representation such as MMP, these too, while having a more inclusive and representative composition, are still prone to backroom deals which can undermine their legitimacy, albeit to a lesser degree than first past the post, which inherently leads to tyranny of the majority through outright one-party control. Gerrymandering and manipulation of the vote is also part and parcel of the adversarial system many democracies become. In some countries the judiciary is politically appointed, as in the US Supreme Court, meaning that justice is held hostage to political interests.

Into this mix comes the toxic agency of populism, a form of abuse of the democratic principle founded on monopolising a divisive sector of society, to instigate a confrontational dominance of one sector over other sectors, which in a diverse society could and should all coexist to mutual benefit and respect. Populism itself can come from valid causes, which induce natural tensions, but these can and are being shamelessly exploited by populist leaders, from Donald Trump on down through an increasing number in Europe. Other strongmen, from Putin in Russia to Xi in China and now Erdogan in Turkey, hold effective one-man control over vast populations, either through corrupted democracies driven by KGB insiders, all-encompassing social propaganda sustained through the great firewall of China, or the politics of coup suppression and media incarceration in Turkey. 

It is imperative that the Western tradition of democratic freedom of the people does not become eroded in a disintegrating war of attrition by unilateral trade tariffs and lack of strategic unity, accompanying the divisive and gerrymandered elections in the US, the UK Brexit referendum, and some populist elections in Europe and Turkey, manifestly corrupted by manipulation, both by external powers, and agencies such as Cambridge Analytica, to subvert the democratic will. In all honesty, both the last US presidential election and the Brexit referendum should have been promptly annulled by a second popular vote, recognising the fraudulent nature of the vote, given the intentional subversion of public opinion through social media, hacking and other means.

Migration has become a populist cause in both Europe and the US.  There are good reasons why existing populations can feel threatened by large scale migration as a result of war or economic disadvantage, particularly when the migrants hold strong religious beliefs that invoke the utopian aim of world domination and insist on resistance to, rather than acceptance of, the existing culture into which they enter. But the way populist leaders have exploited these concerns is degenerating into a tribalism that throws the world back to the Neolithic at a time when there is an ever-increasing need to heal the world, as a closing circle, in which we all coexist, and protect its biosphere and living species from a mass extinction, which will also threaten the survival of humanity as a species.

This new phase of danger threatens every attempt we can make to deal with the long-term issues of survival within the closed circle of a single common planetary home. Whatever our point of view, whether religious or secular, conservative or liberal, our ability to have any kind of future for ourselves, let alone our offspring and the generations to come is to preserve the sanctity and viability of life on Earth. To do this we have to preserve the climate, habitats and biosphere of the planet in a resilient and viable condition, not let them fail together due to myopic throwback tweets emanating from a Neolithic strongman view of self-motivated supremacy of one group over another.

A signal warning manifestation of this crisis, was the announcement by the "real" Donald Trump that he was pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord in the midst of a rash of appointments of climate deniers, stoking the coal fires of an outmoded maximally-polluting energy source, almost as soon as he was inaugurated. This bald-faced travesty of global responsibility needs to be reversed forthwith, but the issue has deeper underlying causes that mean that Trump is just one manifestation of a serious crisis of confidence about our ability to act as responsible stewards and guardians of the planet for the generations of life to come.

Churchill further said: "If I had to sum up the immediate future of democratic politics in a single word I should say "insurance." That is the future-insurance against dangers from abroad, insurance against dangers scarcely less grave and much more near and constant which threaten us here at home in our own island."

It is thus the dangers of the future which democracy serves to protect us from and particularly those from outside that could become irreversible tipping points and threaten us in the very places we exist. Of all of these threats, the greatest and most troubling is the dire risk to the future of the human race in the closing planetary circle coming to a hard landing, if the leaders of the world continue to pursue self-serving tribalist agendas that drag us back to the earliest days of Neolithic supremacy amid trade, diplomatic or military warfare, driven by clan strongmen who deceive their own people into divisive and confrontational fragmentation, with the short-sighted aim of dominance and superiority.

We now have ultimate powers to damage the planet and to destroy ourselves, through nuclear and biological weapons of mass destruction. Our impact on the planet, its habitats and climate is a serious global threat to the survival of the diversity of life, not just the human species. We have also become a highly technological world society, whose energy demands and power to alter the face of the Earth dwarf those of the Neolithic age, so we cannot afford to allow archaic fantasies of domination to destroy our living planetary future.

So be warned and ponder this carefully. The sleep walkers who cannot see beyond their own short-term horizons cannot survive in a closing circle and they cannot be left to bring the whole world down around us in a crisis of our own making, driven by our own inability to see the impacts we are causing to our detriment and our capacity identify the issues which really matter for our long-term survival and the prosperity of the future generations to come.