Issue of the Week: Human Rights, War, Population, Hunger, Disease, Economic Opportunity, Environment

The Great Unravelling, BBC World Service, 2018


The End Of Civilization As We Knew It, Part Twelve.

In our first installment on the end of civiization as we knew it, utilizing the begining of 2016 as a focal point, we noted the thoughts we reassured ourselves with, on an early 2016 winter’s day in London, for another moment until the dam broke:

“The extreme lunacies in the UK and US would be trounced, and serve all the better to underline the need for global unity and to focus on the fights needed to make that a project of full equality at last. It was wonderful to walk and sit and talk of what could be accomplished on that cold clear winter day.

But on reflection.

2015, in fact, had been a year of catastrophic warning. Here’s an excerpt from our second post in 2016, about photos of the year in The New York Times:

“One more look at pictures from 2015, from The New York Times. The introduction follows:

THIS was the year of the great unraveling, with international orders and borders challenged or broken, with thousands of deaths, vast flows of migrants and terrorist attacks on some of the most cherished symbols of civilization, both Western and Muslim.

Palmyra and Paris (twice). Aleppo, Homs, Kobani and even San Bernardino, Calif. The Syrian war grinds on, half the prewar population displaced or gone, and the Islamic State fills a vacuum created by sectarian struggle and Western fatigue.

The conflict spurred the migrants lapping against the shores of bourgeois Europe, a million or more, huddled in small boats or crammed into airless trucks, abused by human traffickers, thousands dead on the journey, prompting both empathy and backlash.

Just look. The year is here.

The outrages of Boko Haram and the Shabab in Africa. The abuse of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar. The war in Ukraine and the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. New tensions in the skies over the Baltics and a Russian plane shot down by a NATO country for the first time in decades.

The ruins still in Gaza, a year after a brutal and inconclusive war, and Israel hunkering down in a region losing its compass. Even the energetic secretary of state, John Kerry, has given up on serious negotiations for Mideast peace.

So much uncertainty, anxiety, anomie, so many civilian victims: A crazed German pilot flew his plane into the French Alps; a Russian plane was destroyed over Sinai by what seemed to have been a bomb; attackers with automatic weapons killed 130 people in Paris in restaurants, a stadium and a concert hall.

Even the Earth seemed slightly unhinged ‘ the ice caps melting, sheep stuck in the smog of Beijing, huge snowstorms and floods, a major earthquake in Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries.

And in the United States, it was a year of anger and protest against police brutality, with racial unrest ripping apart Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo. A massacre of black worshipers in a church in Charleston, S.C. Drought and terror in California, blows to the myth of paradise.

Presidential politics took on a carnival atmosphere during the pre-primary season, with an amazing cast of would-be successors to a grayer, grumpier Barack Obama. Bernie Sanders, the sort-of socialist from Vermont by way of Brooklyn, was giving Hillary Clinton a run, at least, for her mounds of campaign money. Donald J. Trump thrilled, amused and horrified, depending on your point of view, with his populist fulminations, his hairdo and his narcissism.

But not all of the memorable events of the year were about loss, violence and terrorism.

The changing climate brought a historic if relatively toothless deal to cut carbon emissions and help the poorest countries cope.

The massacre in Charleston helped lower the Confederate flag over the South Carolina State House. The Supreme Court made same-sex marriages legal throughout the land.

The United States and the United Nations Security Council finally reached a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear ambitions, promising some sanctions relief and opening a still-uncertain path toward a Syrian settlement.

In another resolution of a longstanding diplomatic sore, the United States recognized Cuba. And Myanmar’s military government seemed at last to recognize the political victory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who stuck to her principles through decades of house arrest.”

Even many of the good parts noted at the end turned bad as we look back.

And the unmentioned speaks louder than anything. The virtually never headlined. How were the Syrian children and children everywhere and people everywhere doing in general before or without the above disasters?

After decades of progress, billions hungry, sick, homeless, stateless. Terror and war rising. In the US and UK, economic inequality rising, and rising and rising. Important human rights gains overshadowed by a dying middle class and increasing underclass. And where poverty was reduced, it also remained and grew, and the price of more prosperity for more people in some places was and is an increasingly unsustainable wasteland in more ways than one.

No one thinks population can continue its extraordinary sudden exponential growth over the past century after all of human history. No one thinks that the planet and its resources can magically expand beyond finite. The predicted population bomb was defused in part due to expanded prosperity for many. The arrogance of thinking it will level off because of a trend, with inequality on the rise again and with unsustainable economic models that are suffocating the planet, will lead to the only other way it will more than level off—global catastrophes threatening us all—making the thus far false prophecy of Malthus come true, and more, by our own doing.

For the first time in history, an architecture of technology has been created in which a Brave New World soma of control turns the most far-fetched science fiction into reality with the controllers themselves increasingly out of control or not capable of knowing what the architecture is becoming.

HIV-AIDS and other pandemics taking millions of lives and then seemingly, hopefully, maybe, coming under control (for those who can afford it or who are recipients of an always-at-resource-deprivation-risk system of assistance) that are precursors of global pandemics to come unprepared for.

Space to the rescue as the late Stephen Hawking mused? And a growing list of tech moguls. And to some extent, NASA. Exploration? Good. But full-scale space, Mars and other such migrations would at best look something like The Expanse—a corny and brilliant by turn SYFY television series, with the UN (the hub of government), Earth, Mars, and the underclass of workers strung out between. All engaged in competition and class and identity and power struggle with the good, the bad and the ugly. A real possibility. Which demonstrates why it needs to get worked-out here on earth first.

A billion children abused.

A handful of people and corporations with more money than half the planet.


The progress of globalism commandeered by the greedy and powerful, not just individually, but more importantly systemically and politically. And a culture of meaninglessness on a good day, leaving more and more disenfranchised in every sense.

What the hell did we think was going to happen?”

“The great unravelling” had already begun, as we noted The New York Times piece so aptly observed. And this has been a mantra for our observations since.

So what a surprise, or no surprise at all, at the BBC World Service series from the programme The Compass just completed in it’s broadcasts on Sunday:

The Great Unravelling.

In two and half hours of radio, over the last month, in five parts, much of what we have been covering for the past half-year and before is covered here.

This isn’t nearly enough time to cover everything, much less in-depth. And we don’t agree with every observation, or emphasis in the series. But as the BBC World Service (it is a service in the main, of great broadcast journalism, with the largest reach in the world) is often wont to do, it does a superb job of exploring issues.

So for now, we urge you to take the time to listen. Its an easy listen, and enlightenening immersion into many of the issues of our times, which we have been and will continue to cover in our series the end of civilization as we knew it.

Here is The Great Unravelling, with the introduction to each segment:

The Great Unravelling: Human Rights

Episode 1 of 5

In early August 1941 Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met on a US flagship off Newfoundland and drew up The Atlantic Charter. It laid the foundations of an international system that has been in place ever since. But is it now under unbearable strain?

Has the international human rights machinery worked? What about the global human rights movement? Many believe we are now at a crisis point, with populism and the rise of China both challenging the project. Others think the human rights movement is itself partly to blame.

Journalist and former barrister Afua Hirsch talks to a wide range of international lawyers, historians and thinkers and asks if the world order forged after World War Two is coming apart.

Presenter: Afua Hirsch
Producer: Lucy Bailey

(Photo: Illustration of a knitted ball resembling Earth unravelling. Credit: Nadia Akingbule)

The Great Unravelling: War

Episode 2 of 5

The UN Charter and Security Council were supposed to prevent aggressive wars. Who has broken the rules, and how much damage has that done? It is often said that the great powers have always done what they wanted and ignored international law. But will new forms of war present even more of a challenge?

The Great Unravelling: Self Determination

Episode 3 of 5

Afua Hirsch examines the principle of self-determination, which Franklin Roosevelt insisted on including in the Atlantic Charter. It was a powerful force behind the liberation struggles which peaked in the 1950s and ’60s as a wave of decolonisation swept the world and countries such as Tunisia, Jamaica, Nigeria and Guyana achieved independence. But it is not the same as a right to separate and form your own country, as the Catalans have recently been reminded. And it has a forgotten dark side as a justification for population transfer, going back to 1923 when Greece and Turkey agreed to uproot two million people in a forced population exchange.

The Great Unravelling: Trade and Trump

Episode 4 of 5

The World Trade Organisation was established in 1995, building on earlier global trade mechanisms. Did this represent a capture of the systems by neoliberals after the Cold War? Now President Trump is waging a trade war on China and sidelining the WTO. Does he have a point – and can the system survive?

The Great Unravelling: Trade and China

Episode 5 of 5

China has been described as the greatest threat to the World Trade Organisation, and its biggest champion. The WTO wasn’t designed to handle China, and its entry has had seismic consequences. If China won’t change, can the WTO adapt? Without reform, could China break the WTO?

And finally, can the post-war rules and institutions survive in a recognisable form, or are we already witnessing the birth of a very different world?

Journalist and former barrister Afua Hirsch talks to a wide range of historians, politicians and thinkers and asks if the world order forged after World War Two is coming apart.

. . .

To be continued.