From time to time it is useful to zoom out and take a longer perspective on events. Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, considers the long stretch from the Big Bang to the near future as a story of the punctuated equilibrium evolution of information processing. According to Kurzweil, some time in the 2040's the information processing power of our computational devices will reach, and then rapidly surpass, the human brain. At that point, there is no way to predict the course of human, or post-human, history. There is good reason to believe that on the pathway to the Singularity (which may, if malevolent AI develops, be the end of human history) there will be fundamental clashes between those elements of human irrationality which aim to destroy civilization and those forces within us which tend to build civilization.
The wave of unrest that is sweeping through the Middle East, the birthplace of Civilization, illustrates the risks and rewards that may emerge from the current destabilization of the status quo. The possible emergence of consensual democracy in Egypt could, in time, facilitate Egyptian Arab Muslims joining the modern world. Such an outcome, as devoutly as we may wish, is not the most likely outcome. It would require finesse and a level of commitment and organization that has not been seen in the Middle East outside of the Muslim Brotherhood and would also require the full (though subtle) force of American support, an unlikely possibility considering the ideological stance of our President who seems to have difficulty making difficult decisions. Even if democracy or some semblance emerges, it is by no means certain that the short term outcome will be salutary. Democracies can easily be swayed by their passions and there is no passion stronger in Egypt right now than hatred of Israel. A war in the Middle East would threaten the lifeblood of the modern world, oil. The more likely outcomes in Egypt, a new totalitarianism by the Army or MB, present their own quanta of risk.
The problematic fact is that the Egyptian revolution is a mere digression from the underlying realities of the Middle East: There are too many people inhabiting failing economies who have too little money to support themselves and feed themselves in a world which is becoming more and more competitive and more and more complex.
In Egypt, Tunisia, and Neo-Mathusianism, I suggested three possible outcomes to this conundrum:
1) The marginal peoples discover ways to increase their productivity to catch up to their populations (as so many nations in Asia have done since WWII.)
2) The productive nations find an exponential increase in their productivity so that they have enough excess largess to support (ie, bribe) the failed economies of the world.
3) The marginal states descend into greater chaos and the ancient scourges of famine and pestilence, with a soupçon of terror and war, emerge to devour ever greater numbers.
It may be possible to wall off the Middle East if the 3rd option comes to fruition but this neglects an important point for those of us who inhabit the Modern World, ie Tom Barnett's Core. As the world has gotten smaller and more interconnected, the level of complexity has increased markedly. If Joseph Tainter is correct that complex societies start to fail when the marginal returns on increased complexity in solving societal problems peak and start to diminish, then our increased interconnectedness, which provides significant resiliency for those who are connected, is also a potential source of catastrophic collapse.
The Global order is still working through the results of the economic meltdown of the last few years. Climate change, man caused or from natural causes, is a given (though at the moment cooling seems as likely as warming) and events such as China's drought, mean that in an interconnected world the least efficient economies will suffer terribly from any disruptions.
The Arab nations have a tendency to externalize their problems and seem to prefer violence as their primary form of conflict resolution. The inescapable fact is that they also do not grow enough food to feed themselves and the title of this post reflects reality.
It is possible to concoct scenarios in which the entire global order disintegrates, taking with it the near future and any hope of reaching the Singularity. It will take a fair amount of luck and resilience in the world's most efficient economies to bridge the gap between our current economies of scarcity and a potential future of abundance.
[Without going into detail, the abundance is certain if we can make it for another 20-30 years. Mature nanotechnology means that the cost of goods will decrease exponentially; if you can literally print a computer on your desktop, or a Stradivarius, for the cost of a few pennies worth of raw materials and a small fee to the designer, the cost of "things" will be vanishingly small. Once we grow our meat in vats, the cost of food will also start to descend rapidly. Eventually our grandchildren and their children will make what they want and need in their homes and grow their own food in the basement. This does not presuppose a Singularity but may be necessary for us to reach the Singularity.]
Lately, there has been a great deal of attention being paid to Civil Defense; administration comments have not inspired confidence that we are protected from a dirty bomb or a nuclear attack by non-state actors. Our relative decline in power, a necessary transition in a globalizing world but a transition unnecessarily sped up by our President's disinterest in foreign affairs and inability to rein in his desires to spend for his constituencies, means that the likelihood of an attack has increased. How our enemies factor in the appearance of a disinclination to respond to confrontation is impossible to gauge; but our current course is clearly not making Iran more amenable to peaceful coexistence with its own people or its neighbors. In a world "red in tooth and claw" a defenseless animal, even if defenseless by choice, is attacked rather than allowed to slink away in peace.
One of the great errors in liberal foreign policy is the belief that if we refrain from using our power, people will like us more and therefore be more willing to live in peace. The sad fact is that the world has been most at peace when the United States was most powerful. The turmoil in the Middle East, with its potential to metastasize and mutate, is worsening in response to the American retreat from confrontation with the Islamists, both Shia and Sunni. Our foreign policy is being run by people who seem eager to disengage from the Middle East, abandon the battlefield to Iran, the Taliban (and their supporters in Pakistan), and willing to elevate the Muslim Brotherhood, the font from which much of today's radical Islam has emerged, to a position of power in Egypt.
Through much of the Cold War the consensus mantra was that any future world war was likely to start in the Middle East. With the importance of the Middle East as great as ever (in fact our refusal to drill for our own energy makes their resources even more important than in the 1970's) turmoil in the Middle East has the potential to facilitate collapse for all of us.