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Anarchy, Totalitarianism, or Other?

The evidence is clear, some of which has been explored earlier in this blog, that climate change – global warming, rising seas, more powerful storms, new rainfall patterns -is happening faster than at any time since civilization began 10,000 years ago. We see Houston flooded, Cape Town running out of water, global temperature averages rising year by year, and other signatures of a new natural world. This article guesses at what America’s political responses to climate change and its consequences, particularly food and water shortages, will be during the 21st century.

This article makes certain assumptions:
1. No voluntary human actions will significantly slow the pace or extent of climate change, which now has considerable momentum.
2. Climate change will be life-threatening to billions of people this century.
3. There will be huge numbers of climate change refugees as starving and oppressed people move towards better environments.
4. peoples and nations will respond politically to climate change realities, and anarchy and totalitarianism are both foreseeable possibilities.

Humankind history has examples of societies collapsing from food and water shortages brought on by climate change, and by populations which exceeded the land’s carrying capacity. Industrial man in recent centuries has added strains to natural systems – for instance, increasing CO2 concentration in Earth’s atmosphere above any levels seen in the past 800,000 years – which magnify and alter climate instability. Consumption beyond sustainable levels has already led to patches of anarchy in today’s world, such as in parts of Africa where there is little effective government while hunger and desperation reign. North Korea offers us another solution to severe want: a brutal, totalitarian government enforcing order with endemic and unchecked violence. Our question: Is there a danger of either in the U.S.A?

American history has evidences of both anarchy and totalitarianism. The legends of the “Wild West” where radical individualism governed and every man took care of himself or failed (and every woman needed her male protector) are part of the American story and character. Rejection of strong public authority is echoed in today’s right wing suspicions of government and of public regulations, with its specific fixation on the Constitution’s 2nd amendment and the right to bear arms. More lawlessness is foreseeable if growing numbers of Americans bear automatic and military-grade weapons, whether to defend themselves and their possessions or to take from others.

Our Constitution is crafted to prevent both anarchy and totalitarianism. The founders and their successors imagined independent legislative, judicial and executive branches of a federal government, branches which would create, interpret, and execute laws. A core idea was that the preferred guide to public conduct was “not of men, but of laws.” Some presidents, notably Andrew Jackson, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump, have violated the founders’ planned division of power and the country’s laws, and they mostly got away with it.

President Jackson ordered and had carried out forcible relocation of native American tribes in violation of treaties and court decisions. He commented on a Supreme Court case which displeased him with open defiance: “(Supreme Court Chief Justice) John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” President Nixon seemed to operate on the premise that actions of a President were by definition legal. His agents sometimes performed as criminals, such as the Watergate burglars, and Nixon then covered up his Administration’s responsibility and lied to investigators. Trump is clearly restless about any restraints on his freedom to act as pleases, and now he is attacking the FBI, and free speech protected by the 1st amendment, as unwelcome obstacles to his operating outside of applicable law.

My guess is that America is moving towards a mix of greater anarchy in the short term and greater authoritarianism in the long run. Some observers believe that the 2016 elections were decided by voters who felt “left out” of the prosperity which upper income and wealth sections of our citizenry experienced. How much angrier will the “left out” be when the economic tide turns and prosperity becomes ever more elusive? How much will crime rise as those feeling “left out” steal and cheat to satisfy their wants? In a society with large gaps between the very wealthy and the rest of us, some will feel justified in playing “Robin Hood” and taking outside the law. Insecurity will produce more vigilante action as weaponized private citizens act to protect themselves and their property; enough of such conduct is anarchy.

If shortages of essentials lead to more crime, leaders will respond with tighter controls and greater willingness to use force. The Constitution’s time-tried and mostly successful system of checks and balances will erode as executives, commanders of government force, act under their own rules. The arrogance that power often brings will encourage individuals, such as the presidents mentioned above, to reject all limitations on their powers. When a country’s restrictions on executive powers are removed, what we have left is dictatorship.

My own hope is that this country has enough goodness and faith in itself to maintain the balance we call liberal democracy, and that our children and grand children will live with a politics as good or better than our own. This is my hope despite ongoing stresses from climate change which will make our world less accommodating to humankind’s wants and needs, and which will complicate maintenance of social order.


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