Paralysis. Atrophy. Inertia. Perplexity. These terms describe the state of mind of governments around the world, grappling with an existential crisis they do not understand and whose course they appear impotent to change.
None of the usual levers work, push them or pull them how you will. You can't halt wildfires by printing money, settle COVID with tax breaks, subsidise the sea so it stops rising, or battle global overheating with armies. The whole political juggernaut, lovingly hammered, screwed and bolted together by politicians and economists over nearly two centuries, is at last seen for what it is: a fantastic, rust-bucket contraption of whistles and wheels that no longer works, if indeed it ever did.
The science has been in for some time. Modern industrial civilisation is headed for collapse under the onset of 10 catastrophic threats which, singly, severally and collectively, traditional national politics now seems powerless to resolve. It doesn't help that the world has recently chosen many political leaders - both democratic and autocratic - without the intelligence, learning or ability to understand what is happening. But don't they look good on TV?
Search where you will, the picture is similar. Governments are grappling with phenomena beyond their limited experience or expertise, and failing dismally. The trust which the public once reposed in politics and leaders has evaporated in the face of their patent inability to cope, and in the sewerfall of lies and half-truths they now feel compelled to gush forth to disguise their inadequacy.
Of course, there are exceptions. New Zealand, Bhutan, most of the Scandinavian countries and Germany, perhaps, are doing their best. But, in the face of an overwhelming existential emergency which most other nations are seeking to make worse, it is never going to be enough. Certainly, individual countries alone are not capable of overcoming any of the catastrophic threats. These are global threats, requiring global action.
Politics, the charming theatre that has held the world enthralled for over a century and a half, is collapsing like a pricked balloon. The Earth won't be saved by communism, capitalism, deism, socialism, liberalism, monarchism or any other -ism. There is no longer any point to political ideology. All it can do is distract us with frivolous argument from the main task of trying to save ourselves. The more "politics" we engage in, the lower our chances of survival.
Unfortunately, for many, it is their chief sport and entertainment. They adore the lunge and riposte of politics, no matter how pointless they now appear. They will sacrifice their children for mere spectacle.
Unfit for purpose
Let us apply a simple test to human governance, to establish how fit it is for the 21st century. How many countries have either a constitution or a policy committing them to human survival? The answer is none. Most, apparently, don't even know it is at stake. The data telling them that civilisation is in peril has been available for up to 50 years, but like good little politicians they have managed to bury the facts under a fantasy of never-ending growth, wealth and "happiness".
You cannot negotiate with physics, horse-trade with chemistry or filibuster biology - and these are the forces now shaping human destiny. Unfortunately, with the marvellous exception of Angela Merkel, most recent political leaders have no education whatsoever in these disciplines. Where the existential emergency is concerned, they are little better than beached mullet, thrashing around without insight or direction.
Politics is one of the four great mass delusions (the others are money, religion and the human narrative). It is a thing that people constantly put their faith in, all objective evidence to the contrary. It is meat and drink to a media that prizes entertainment more than it does information. And, if political differences are one of the triggers for a nuclear war or a climate stalemate, then it can destroy the human species a good deal more effectively than any pandemic.
Another reason that politics, at least of the national variety, is finished is that it is running out of money. Once upon a time, governments controlled or oversaw most of the wealth within their borders. Now much of that wealth has been seized by global corporations - and governments no longer have it to dispense to grateful voters or citizens. Their only recourse is to lie to those who elect or appoint them, as they no longer have the funds to keep their promises. Intent on short-term profit, the corporations do little or nothing for human survival. Economic globalisation has sandbagged world systems of governance while hardly anybody noticed.
To take a single example: the flood of more than 200 billion tonnes of chemicals emitted by human activity is killing over 12 million people a year and crippling 600 million more - twice as many victims as World War II. But are governments trying seriously to stop it? No, partly because they do not understand it and partly because they are hand-in-glove with the polluters - and what the latter do satisfies the government's political ends. It is a clear case of politics failing to serve the interests of humanity while it continues to serve the interests of the killers. The situation is similar with climate and extinction, although there is more lip-service by politicians about the need to do something.
What comes next?
So, if "politics", as defined by the 19th and 20th centuries, is broken, is there any fixing it? Not while definitions irrelevant to human survival, like "left" and "right", remain in the ascendant. And not while political economics promises illusory wealth while it quietly devours the habitability of the planet.
However, for the first time in the history of our species, humans are having an Earth-wide conversation about these matters - sharing knowledge, experience, wisdom and solutions to the mounting threats we face. The internet has over 5 billion participants (out of the world's population of nearly 8 billion). By 2030, everyone will be online. This is the first (and last) chance we have ever had to think together as a species. To earn our self-lauding title "sapiens".
The slow collapse of industrial civilisation is already under way, and is accelerating. It is written in an increasingly savage climate, a toxic world, in raging pandemics (there have been six since 2000, in case you didn't notice), in the obliteration of nature and its ability to sustain life, in the rising scarcity of essentials like water, soil, forests and fish. Politics, absorbed in its own theatre, treats these matters as side issues compared to the trivia which are its daily fare. By the time it awakens, it will be far too late to fix any of them - and anyway, today's politicians will not know how. Human survival is not even on their agenda.
Hope, if it still exists, resides in the increasing outreach of individuals and groups around the planet to one another, seeking to come together and collaborate to address the existential emergency. It resides in female leadership, not male. It lies in the universal sharing of wisdom and co-operation (as distinct from competition and conflict) across the whole of humanity.
In today's politics lies only the haemorrhage of precious time and the opportunity to save ourselves.
- Julian Cribb AM is an Australian science writer and the author of several books on the human existential crisis.