As Danish Physicist Niels Bohr (1885 – 1962) noted, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Bohr himself often attributed the saying to Danish artist and writer Robert Storm Petersen, (1882 – 1949), also known as Storm P, who was said to have borrowed the quotation from another source.
Human societies are close to creating a nearly perfect storm of government, educational, economic and environmental redefinition. Increasingly dense populations, consuming ever-greater quantities of hard and soft goods, natural resources, and services have pushed the boundaries of supply/demand market concepts. As with air and water, in cases where the laws established by the governed do not prohibit or otherwise discourage pollution, assets are at risk of being squandered.
Although there is no absence of price signals that most resources are valuable, given the rising costs of fuels, precious metals and other mined/extracted commodities, people as a whole, represented by the UN, by larger, allied-government interests, are coming to view extractives as finite resources. Some, like fuel, wear out, or are wholly-consumed with use. Some, like precious metals, do degrade, but can be re-fined and re-used. Some, like minerals and energy catalysts, fall within a murky territory of degradation and/or depletion through consumption, while also often producing pollutants and by-products which further degrade or damage the environment as a whole.
Because of these characteristics, extractives are becoming public goods, consumables intermediated by the market, therefore theoretically beyond price. Normally, when human societies produce goods of this kind, they may not be sold. Private companies have no incentive to produce goods which cannot be sold. Logically, then, production/use/reclamation of mined, finite resources must be conducted through government intervention.
But, as the U.S. baseball-playing philosopher Yogi Berra said, “it’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”
No market can cling to the past. Everyone is affected by something apparently as changeable as the weather-- the future. Is there a perfect storm looming? Let’s look at some of the factors involved.
Widely available internet connectivity; a wired-in economy with radically-shifting concepts of value costs, and processes of production; contrasts between private (goods that can be used by only one economic entity/consumer at a time, and which wear out with use) and public (goods which contribute to our wellbeing, and which, through non-rivalry in consumption, may increase in utility or value with use) goods/products . Efficiency of distribution is increased because access is so widespread and mobility practically unlimited; efficiency of procurement is increased because with increased knowledge and access come increased confidence in consumption; yet efficiency of market controls, self-selection mechanisms of price, availability, and responsibility have reached a point where accountability is avoided at almost all costs, and so the terrible costs of mis-appropriation or unrivaled assimilation/consumption are being passed on to all individuals, whether they have consumed or profited from use of the resources, or not.
And these costs, of un-limited commercial exploitation, are borne and felt most severely by the public on the periphery of economic well-being, by the subsistence-consumers, by those least able to afford alternatives, and least able to claim the protection of their leaders and governments to prohibit this exploitation.
On our shared planet, we are coming to understand that water and air are valued commodities—yet still “public” resources—characterized by non-exclusivity in access, non-rivalry in consumption. We would perish without water and air. Yet people pay a premium for goods claiming a low “carbon footprint,” pay a premium for “pure water,” pay king’s ransoms for vacations or living spaces with crystal-clear air, sparkling water, nature untrammeled by the noises of an industrial, clamoring public, intent on earning a living, achieving some measure of leisure and entertainment, attaining some security for an increasingly unstable future.
In tinsel-town, on the silver screen, disasters only last as long as the film is running. In the looming perfect storm of our globally-wired-in, socio-economic biosphere, our lives increasingly resemble a big-screen disaster film: almost predictable in the unprecedented number of shortages, instabilities, black-swan events, and natural disasters. Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, credited with his own version of “never make predictions—especially about the future,” might have loved this real-life “script.” Except that this digitally-powered revolution of the market is likely to last long after the excitement disappears, and attendance for most of us is neither voluntary nor painless. Many of our old economic and consumption habits appear to be walking with us on a path toward extinction.
We do not need every generation to reinvent concepts of social, environmental, and economic responsibility. We can stand on the shoulders of the giants of the past, and dedicate our energies and collective intelligence to moving forward.
Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), wrote in his Politics that: Civilization is a group of good people working together to do good things. While legislation proposing the abolishment of private property and the holding of all things in common appears attractive and might be thought humane [philanthropos], the opposite will prove true. Every state is a sort of partnership [koinonian], and every partnership is formed with a view to accomplishing some good [agathou]… the partnership entitled to the state [polis] and political association [koinoia he politike] would include all the others, work the most of all, and aim at the most supreme of all goods and good things.
Aristotle placed a low value on political innovation, and highly valued balance and stability. He warned against recourse to civil war as a means of correcting political imbalance, because through revolution “the bonds of civil society [politiken koinonian] are loosened.”
If confidence measures the level of trust needed for the economic health of individuals and nations, and monetary systems consist of mixed values, such as: precious metals; resources; production, trade and service assets; trust (confidence)-based paper money, loans, debts, and credit-- then reciprocated-confidence/mutual-trust is a cornerstone of continued economic balance. When work, savings, and investment have been remunerated with favorable returns, then confidence in the soundness of economic behavior, and trust in the continuation of increased wealth grow.
When elements beyond the reasonable expectations of those individuals and nations to maintain their wealth jeopardize or efface economic well-being, individuals are reluctant to abandon their trust in their monetary systems and the politicians and agencies appointed to oversee and run them. Nations are often slow to protect the cornerstones of the credit and economic systems, and in times of economic turmoil, politicians, economists and media pundits offer a confusing and often contradictory barrage of accusations, opinions, and possible solutions. Leaders and businesses are called upon to rectify bad decisions and economic losses, in exhortations based largely, again, upon “trust” that our collective, national, regional, and community bonds of “civilization” will empower, impel, even compel all the “good people” involved to do “the right thing.”
Possibly because the alternatives, acknowledging the loss of life-savings, fiscal balance or even national economic sovereignty are too frightening to masses of financially-untrained people accustomed to comfortable sustenance or even moderate affluence, confidence in the power of a charismatic voice to re-establish economic order raises even further.
Panic ensues when undermined economic systems, returns for work, trade and investment, insurance against calamity, collapse. Confidence gives way to increasing distrust, in leaders, media, banking and business systems. Unlimited distrust threatens the cessation of services, production, provision, and protection. Local and national economic system failures spiral toward infrastructure crisis, and provide opportunity for a new cadre of leaders to gain the confidence, sway the loyalty, and seize the reins of economic, political, and often, resources/production and military control, either through rebellion/impeachment, coup, or revolution. And the old order is replaced with a new order.
Rules enforcing transparency, financial accountability, and shared responsibility have some role in whether or not safeguards against ensuing insufficiencies of replacement, continuing depletion, corruption and repeated collapse are established and implemented. However, if no citizen-wide, community-to-nation enacted agreement exists to recognize the assessment, arbitration and authority of these rules or powers of enforcement, the fragile re-establishment of economic health and sovereignty remains in jeopardy.
So where does this leave us?
Libya is currently in turmoil; assets frozen, current leadership and a “Libyan Opposition” fighting for their concepts of economic freedom, political sovereignty, individual human rights. A treasure trove of natural resources are at stake. Similar scenes in Egypt find crowds revolting against years of established rule and practices, oil pipelines exploding, futures uncertain. The uneasy peace in resource-rich Sierra Leone, blessed with deep-water ports, a wealth of resources, and struggling to develop a recently-war-wrought, newly-empowered population. Consider also the contrasts in Namibia: poverty and promise, resources, deep-water ports, established elites and emergent populations. And increasingly visible is the unrest in Uganda—with private corporations of foreign nations involved in drilling and mining for oil and resources, profits widening gaps between elite classes, urban dwellers, and some of the most isolated peoples on earth, straddling the horizonless sands of the desert, the endangered waters at the sources of the the Victoria and African Great Lakes, the Nile and other great rivers of the region, experiencing load-shedding and power outages, water pollution, and apparent government clamp-downs on information/internet/communications access and public gatherings.
What of South Africa? Seen as a middle-income, emerging market, South Africa enjoys an abundant supply of natural resources (value estimated in the billions of dollars), well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy and transport sectors; a profit-oriented infrastructure which supports the distribution of goods and services to major urban centers throughout the region.
In 2007, South Africa began to experience an electricity crisis. The 18th largest stock exchange in the world, trade and trust began to be disrupted. Confidence had blossomed between 2004-2007, as South Africans enjoyed macroeconomic stability, a global commodities boom, and increasing microeconomic development and security among its formerly-excluded, least-advantaged citizens.
Legacies of problems from the apartheid era: poverty, lack of economic empowerment for most of the disadvantaged groups, a shortage of public transportation and services for most of the disadvantaged groups, aged power plants, lack of economic mobility and opportunity for most of the disadvantaged groups, and lack of education and communication, which has largely kept isolated and allowed the exploitation of the disadvantaged groups.
At an economic panel at the World Bank on Thursday, 14 April, 2011, Jay Naidoo, founding General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the former Minister of Communications for President Nelson Mandela’s cabinet said, “Global governance cannot be determined by elites… civil society cannot simply be relegated to side forums… “ Reiterating the fact that the core of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was the struggle against a labor system that exploited black workers, Naidoo continued: “Of course there will be attempts to co-opt these movements but I am confident that the leaders know what they want.” http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=55284
On Monday, April 18, 2011, Minerals Minister Susan Shabangu announced that South Africa has found widespread violations during an audit of miners and other mineral rights holders in the country. Over 400 notices were issued for prospecting violations, and over 700 for environmental violations. The notices include intentions to cancel previously awarded prospecting and related rights licenses. Shabangu was speaking at the official launch of a new online mineral application system that aims to ensure transparency and end administrative blunders. The eastern province of Mpumalanga, which is rich in coal and other minerals, has caused particular concern on the environmental front.
But Minister Shabangu also said that she was disappointed that, “despite our genuine effort to engage them… BEE (Black Economic Empowerment—a policy in South Africa to expand economic ownership to historically disadvantaged blacks) partners did not even honor this call. “ South African mining companies must be 26 percent black-owned by 2014, and many are scrambling to meet that target—and “fronting”—where black investors are named beneficial owners, but the company is really owned and run by white miners—remains a problem. http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/04/18/us-safrica-mining-idUSTRE73H2QF20110418
The process of grafting transparency, economic parity, environmental security and political stability can be very painful. While skill, union or other affiliation, racial or linguistic background, education and access formerly excluded some, and assured others of secure places in the economy, transitions to modern, wired-in systems of education, communication, and exchange have virtually ensured that an entire new ecosystem of public and private goods, holdings and distribution must be developed.
While transition in a few areas may not pose excessive problems to stability, if a large number of economic sectors are challenged, stressed, and fail simultaneously, that perfect storm of instability, crisis, and revolt could ensue. With the price of industrial products becoming, in the digital age, intangible: patents, design, branding, marketing, the price of limited resources, and finite resources is even more intangible.
Who can gauge the cost of depletion or extinction? There is no replication, there are no grafts or infusions or quick fixes to the eradication of something that had been plentiful, which no longer exists.
The competition of the market, for goods so precariously balanced, is fierce. The message is clear. The high profits and privacy margins of industry are in danger, threatened by open source technologies, communication, and accountability. People are able to “unbreak” the misguided misappropriations of resources, access, and distribution of the past. No sector can truly hold itself separate from the perfect storm of information sharing, of digital access, of nearly instant application and accountability.
If the brokers of information are trustworthy, the authorities elected to represent the citizens, to stand in the governments and infrastructures which uphold public values, public and private interests and freedoms, human rights and biosphere-sustainability will be well able to at least guide our progress to the future. The rules of physics have yet to be transformed; Niels Bohr is still correct—“it is very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”
But when governments can integrate the advances which internet-enabled collaboration and verification have commenced, states can also use the internet, the coordination of wired-in systems of infrastructure, to safeguard the markets, the possible nationalization of finite resources, the re-assessment of resources and products as private goods produced in coordination with the public good… Individuals can, in a wired-in world, pursue their specific interests, maximize their abilities, and still have time and the knowledge to affirm that the states and officials whom they elect and support are safeguarding the interdependent systems which connect us all.
Should South Africa nationalize its mining and extractive industries? We all share the problems of scarcity, depletion, pollution, human rights access/violations, bio-security, which face all humanity. We are not necessarily burdened with the task of deciding who should benefit and profit from extracting and using the minerals and resources buried in the earth of South Africa, any more than global citizens are responsible for deciding the sovereign affairs of the unsettled situations in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Uganda, and elsewhere. Where there can be a black market of goods traded over the internet, as well as a reconfigured open market accountable through access to the internet, the economy will be challenged, will require reconfiguring from old models of ownership and profit through exclusivity, to more equitable, open, sustainable systems.We may not have the advantage of being able to forecast the future, but we can protect our futures, requiring those handling the goods, services, resources, and profits of our individual efforts to maintain transparent, equitable, accountable and responsible practices