As technocrats, many of us are either uncomfortable (or at least unfamiliar) with dealing with issues of politics, and in particular with concepts of the public good. The role of government, especially for those of us educated in the 1970’s, was more often seen as an impediment to progress, and many of us embraced with some degree of energy the idea that more government was inherently bad and less was inherently good. The rise of gigantic multi-national corporations and greatly enlarged multi-lateral trade has certainly given the impression that we have entered a new world order, and one that can lift the vast majority of humanity to a higher standard of living and quality of life.
The economic shocks of the past two years have shown how shallow was the foundation for such a belief. Governments have come back with a considerable degree of energy, if not true leadership, and intervention is once again a popular concept. I am, however, rather suspicious of the true motivation for this new level of government activity. Is it borne of true concern for the public good, or is it rather that our political leaders have drunk the koolaid of the multi-national corporations and their interpretation of the globalizing economy? My suspicion is that it may be more the latter than the former.
Why should we think that increased government is a good idea? Why not let the new world order be played out by the multi-nationals? Is not the market simply an extension of our democratic ideals?
To begin with, while we have indeed seen the rise of economies in China, India, Brazil, and Russia (and others), and that has certainly elevated the standard of living of tens if not hundreds of millions of people, it has also been done in a manner that cannot be sustained. The coastal cities of China alone could consume most of the oil in the world if per capita car ownership were to match that of the United States. If you go to China, you soon realize that gasoline, while expensive in local terms (China’s currency being artificially low), is not so expensive as to drive people to own small cars. Everywhere new highways are being built, and the level of growth in car ownership is fairly breath taking. Even with a very concerted push to electric vehicles and alternative primary power generation, the course on which China is now directed must inevitably meet the wall of climate change and energy insufficiency, with consequences for China and the entire world. This is not to say that the Chinese have any less right than anyone else to move in such a direction. The Chinese have just as much right to own two cars, or to take a 1,000 km vacation trip, as anyone in the West. How then can we proceed?
It seems that we need to find a new way forward and in the not too distant future. To find this way forward requires that we begin a discussion on a global level about equity. I live in a country that has about 0.06% of the world’s population but has, depending on your measures, anywhere from 6% to 30% of the world’s fresh water. While some might see this as no more than the foundation of a future economic bonanza, I think it is also unsustainable.
Without confronting the issue of global equity, a least in modest terms, how can we hope to avoid the darker potential futures of Fortress World or a World of Chaos, so well described in the Tellus Institute’s “Great Transition”? Without confronting the issue of global equity, can we seriously deal with the problems of international terrorism, or the confrontation between the world of fundamentalist consumerism and the world of fundamentalist religion. To hope to confront such issues we must find a route to a dialogue on global equity.
It is here that government must find its voice. Centuries of experience have shown that unbridled capitalism, or corporatism, does not lead to improvement in the public good. Corporations driven by profit, especially those driven by capital markets, have no motivation to engage in discussions of equity or the public good. They are too busy making money. Furthermore, they are not representatives of the citizenry in any way other than their buying habits.
This is not to say that corporations are evil or do not contribute to social welfare. Many corporations do so, either out of fear of government regulation, or in an attempt to build a good image with their consumers, or from the enlightened actions of their management or employees. It is not their role in society to engage in the discussions of equity, just as it was not the oil companies that sought to bail out the automotive industry in North America.
I think it is equally clear that governments, as we now know them, do not seem up to the task. Too many years of being in the service of corporations and decades of “management” rather than “leadership” have provided us with neither the individuals nor the government infrastructure that is needed. Why is it that our governments have not provided us with anything like a clear picture of what is happening in the world?
It is the institutions of government that must find the leadership and that must reform and revitalize our notion of what government means. We must find leadership that is willing to discuss, in an open manner, issues of equity and issues of sovereignty, and which has the strength to forge a new world consensus and organization. Some may see this as a form of global governance and this may indeed be what is required. One can only hope that such a way forward can be found.
You may wonder what any of this has to do with the GeoWeb? I think one of the objectives or motivations for a GeoWeb is a sort of global accounting system, not simply of money in the abstract sense, but something that provides visibility into what is happening in the world. This is the function of any accounting system in a corporation. It makes the actions of the corporation and its customers visible to the corporation’s management. For our world, a much more sophisticated notion of “State” is required than money, and the presentation of that “state” and its distribution in the world is something to which the GeoWeb can make a significant contribution. Such a system (or system of systems) can provide the information base for the discussion of equity and, ultimately, some of the key tools to enable this discussion to proceed.
Many of you will find these ideas fanciful and vague. You would not think to board an airplane if you did not think it was supported by global tracking and management systems. You like to believe that you are defended by sophisticated and far flung systems of satellites, aircraft, and other military systems. You readily allow your governments to invest tens and hundreds of billions of dollars in such systems. Yet we all are quite willing to move forward almost blindly in the real world which is infinitely more complex and without any security at all!