January 28, 2004 | Peter

Here Comes the Global Society

Bird flu – it doesn’t have the apocalyptic sound of SARS or AIDS or any of the other acronyms that made you wonder if this is what Nostradamus was on about, but it might just be the disease that makes us face the new realities of the 21st century.
SARS was beaten by unprecedented cooperation between national authorities to coordinate action affecting a number of crucial global systems, including those related to health and air travel. Even China, perhaps the last relatively independent nation of any worth left, got with the script, fessed up and took appropriate action. A disease with a kill rate of around 10% and that could have potentially wiped out millions was stopped in its tracks – for now.
Underlying the problem of SARS, bird flu, BSE and whole host of other nasties is the problem that we treat animals like industrial commodities. The constant and intense interaction between animals and humans in unhygienic conditions is not new, although it is clearly exacerbated by population pressure, but the capacity of the resultant diseases to travel and instantly infect multi-millions instead of just thousands is. We have to rethink these practices or we face a perpetual threat from this sort of disease.
There are real lessons in these diseases for humanity: indeed, there is something fundamental going on right now that receives minimal public acknowledgment but that will shape how we live in the coming century as much as anything else. We are now to all intents and purposes a genuine global society. These diseases are just confirmation of that increasingly obvious fact.
But there is a growing disjuncture between physical reality and our social formations. The problem is that authority still lies with nation-states which are naturally secretive. Such secrecy has been a cornerstone of national security, to bluff international rivals and contain domestic dissent. For centuries good old ‘reasons of state’ have justified any lie or obfuscation.
We just can’t afford this approach any more. To deal with global problems, like infectious disease and climate change, humanity as a species must be sovereign, not some entity called Thailand or China or Australia. If we want to make sure any country adopts practices that minimise the risks of potentially pandemic disease, we must know what is happening everywhere and we must be able to intervene anywhere. This inevitably leads to the need for constant intervention in some areas to eradicate unsafe practices, and this means support for the development of alternatives. Suddenly, the busy street markets of southern China are as important to everyone as the need to abolish weapons of mass destruction.
So there is a new principle at work. Previously we needed international cooperation to prevent nations from going to war with each other. That is, information exchange and collaboration were necessary to prevent the action of war. Now we need constant communication and collaboration between nations to prevent the rise of diseases which will inevitably appear otherwise. Thus we need to be pro-active in safeguarding global health. This will require cooperation between governments and other organisations of unprecedented sophistication.
Which brings me to Mark Latham and the Tasmanian old growth forests. Latham will clearly make some kind of gesture to the Greenies on this issue, and to some extent at least re-enact the Federal intervention by Prime Minister Hawke to save the Gordon below Franklin River, also in Tasmania.
In the light of the comments above, this raises interesting questions about sovereignty. When is it suitable for a wider authority to intervene to overcome the actions of a smaller authority? For instance, the south west of Western Australia is an extraordinary reserve of unique genetic resources, including a large percentage of the world’s wild flower species and unique old growth forests. WA governments have always been development focused and treated this region as valuable land for farming and more recently holiday housing. Although this approach is changing, it could just as easily go back to the development at all costs approach under certain circumstances.
So, would it be reasonable for a global authority to step in and demand better management of this unique global resource to guarantee its survival, as Hawke did and Latham may well do in Tasmania? If so, who would pay for it?
Of course, that global body the IMF intervenes and radically transforms the economics of certain countries as a matter of course. This intervention is justified on economic grounds. How long before such actions occur on the grounds of global health or rare global resource protection? And will the possible global genetic resource protection authority demand enhanced quarantine measures to protect genetic variety just as the global trade authority (the existing WTO) demands their cessation?
Interesting times ahead, folks.

Posted by Peter at 10:39 am | Comments Off on Here Comes the Global Society |
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