Belmont Club

How a World Without Borders Became a Ward With No Exit

Spanish flu. Otis historical archives

A New York Times reporter argues that “the fires that have burned across Australia are not just destroying lives, or turning forests as large as nations into ashen moonscapes [they mean] the end of Australia as we know it.”

When summer is feared. When air filters hum in homes that are bunkers, with kids kept indoors. When bird song and the rustle of marsupials in the bush give way to an eerie, smoky silence.

“I am standing here a traveler from a new reality, a burning Australia,” Lynette Wallworth, an Australian filmmaker, told a crowd of international executives and politicians in Davos, Switzerland, last month. “What was feared and what was warned is no longer in our future, a topic for debate — it is here.”

“We have seen,” she added, “the unfolding wings of climate change.”

Therefore the much more catastrophic COVID-19 virus outbreak, whose effects are manifest and whose cause is definite, will have an even more dramatic impact on the global world than “the unfolding wings of climate change.” Even at this early stage, the economic losses due to the epidemic are set to dwarf those of the blazes. Even if the 2019 coronavirus ends immediately — and it is still growing — it will have already altered the way our interconnected civilization works. Here are some challenges it has already posed.

  • The need for contingent telecommuting. “The unprecedented quarantines – which have put 60 million people in China’s hardest-hit cities under lockdown – hopes to help reduce transmissions across the country. So instead of offices filled with workers, and shopping centres serving customers – millions of people are working from their apartments, in what’s been dubbed the world’s biggest work-from-home experiment.”
  • The need for backup logistical systems to supply communities under lockdown. “Around 500 million people in China are currently affected by policies put in place restricting movement, to contain COVID-19. That’s more than the entire population of the United States and is equivalent to roughly 6.5 per cent of the world’s population.”
  • The need for interlocks in the travel stream to safely move people from one environment to another without passing a pathogen. The U.S. is establishing quarantine sites on military bases. Australia is considering turning outback mining towns into isolation centers.
  • The need for failover arrangements to replace critical processes knocked out by the disruption. The effect on the supply chain caused by events in China has affected many areas of manufacturing but, ironically, none more than the pharmaceutical industry.

    In October 2019, Dr. Janet Woodcock, the director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, testified before Congress that the United States “has become a world leader in drug discovery and development, but is no longer in the forefront of drug manufacturing.”

    Woodcock identified as a key health and security concern the cessation of U.S. manufacturing of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), the basic building blocks of medications. She testified that 72% of API manufacturing takes place outside the U.S., and that the number of facilities making APIs in China has more than doubled since 2010.

    The use of foreign-sourced materials “creates vulnerabilities in the U.S. supply chain,” Woodcock concluded.

With COVID-19 on track to become a worldwide pandemic, many challenges will be met by the market by repurposing or expanding physical assets. These arrangements will in time evolve to become the consensus interfaces of a newer componentized global world, part of the way a more subsidiary, more loosely coupled world does business.

The virus is only one sort of threat. The world will face other catastrophic risks that we cannot even anticipate.

The one thing the markets will have difficulty in fully addressing is the stifling state control of information. This is a sovereign problem that companies can’t fix. The evils of mass surveillance and excessive information shaping are not confined to China but are most clearly exemplified by it. If governments do not meet minimum standards of information freedom, trust networks will be very difficult to construct and maintain. A New Yorker article cited a 20th-century Chinese poet to illustrate Beijing’s problem.

“Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?” …

A century after Lu Xun imagined the suffocations of the iron house, China is besieged by a modern crisis of body and spirit, an epidemic that has threatened its people and underscored the perils of a suffocating politics. By Wednesday, the coronavirus had sickened more than forty thousand people there and killed more than a thousand. The disease had spread to at least twenty-four countries, sparking fears of a global scourge, as well as an economic chain reaction, as China’s economic behemoth fell silent. By the first week of February, home sales in China had fallen by ninety per cent compared with last February; car dealers predicted that the month’s sales would fall by up to eighty per cent, compared with last year. Half of China’s four-thousand-plus Starbucks were closed.

The metaphor of the Iron House captures the problem of concealing risk in a world that is supposed to be open to intercourse. In a world of deadly communicable diseases, excessive official secrecy itself becomes the threat. In a world without borders, every inch of which is potentially surveilled by Beijing’s 5G, everyone, not just the Chinese, is menaced by the Iron House.

As China itself is already demonstrating, the days of the naive open borders and single-point-of-failure world order are over. The greatest beneficiary of globalization has destroyed its original form. It must now change by creating such interfaces as necessary until it is sustainable. The process of transformation will not cease till all are free to breathe outside the Iron House.

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Books:

Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America, by Scott Adams. The creator of Dilbert has come up with a guide to spot and avoid mental habits trapping victims in their own bubbles of reality, such as the inability to get ego out of your decisions, thinking with words instead of reasons, failing to imagine alternative explanations, and making too much of coincidences.

Humanity in a Creative Universe, by Stuart A. Kauffman. Best known for his philosophy of evolutionary biology, Kauffman calls into question science’s ability to ever accurately and precisely predict the future development of biological features in organisms. He argues that our preoccupation to explain all things with scientific law has deadened our creative natures and concludes that the development of life on earth is not entirely predictable, because no theory could ever fully account for the limitless variations of evolution.

Working , by Robert A. Caro. From the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, an unprecedented memoir of his experiences researching and writing his acclaimed books.

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll. A masterful result of Coll’s indefatigable reporting, this book draws on more than 400 interviews; field reporting from the halls of Congress to the oil-laden swamps of the Niger Delta; more than 1,000 pages of previously classified U.S. documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act; heretofore unexamined court records; and many other sources. This is a defining portrait of ExxonMobil and the place of Big Oil in American politics and foreign policy.

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Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.

The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle, why government should get small

No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.

Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.