The title of this article has nothing to do with the terrible war in Ukraine. Nor does it has to do with nuclear warheads controlled by secret codes that one hopes are in safe and rational hands.
Instead, I have just read an amazing book that is as serious as it is zany and that merges solid science with parody and farce. The book, How to Take Over the World: Practical Schemes and Scientific Solutions for the Aspiring Supervillain, captures the contradictions that help to explain the madness that has enveloped a world caught up in a train of events that seem to be the work of a master comic bent on toying with the fate of humankind. The author is the Canadian writer and computer programmer Ryan North, known for his award-winning dinosaur comics.
North’s “manual” presents various schemes for taking over, dominating, and destroying the world. Climate change is an obvious avenue for the wannabe arch-tyrant. Using advanced technologies to wreak havoc on the Internet is another. We are reminded, of course, that these same technologies are also available to the supervillains’ foes, do-gooders determined to enhance cybersecurity in order to safeguard essential data or to protect the climate from further deterioration, to which I will return below.
There are three ingredients for the perfect crime, the guide tells us: flawless planning, masterful execution, and a professional escape. But only those criminals “labouring under a basic, entry-level definition of success and a basic, entry-level definition of perfection” would follow this recipe. The manual assumes that anyone reading it would be above such modest limitations to evildoing, which merely aim to protect the criminal from detection and getting caught.
“You are not becoming a supervillain to be anonymous.” If you are a genuine supervillain, you will want to go down in history and be remembered by posterity. This presents a paradox as “the perfect crime isn’t the one you get away with. The perfect crime is the one they thank you for,” the book says. In other words, the arch arch-criminal does not strive to become a symbol of evil; he strives to become a hero, celebrated as the saviour of the world and humankind for generations to come.
Once the destructive results of his criminal deeds become evident, this brand of supervillain will find adulators rushing to his defence, protesting that inclement weather or other uncontrollable circumstances hampered the fulfilment of his noble and glorious deeds.
One of the wonders of the world today is the way in which its attention is now riveted on a war that could have been avoided, sparing countless innocent lives and preventing further economic collapse. Let us not forget that we are still officially plagued by a pandemic that has infected more than 470 million inhabitants of this planet and killed more than six million. No one has declared an end to this blight that continues to threaten people’s lives and livelihoods everywhere.
As long as there is a passion for war and sacrifice for its own sake, then why not make it a war against a deadly disease, or a war against the poverty that has grown worse as a result? Or how about a war against the rise in unemployment because the economic recovery has been slower than envisioned, or a war against inflation that will exceed five per cent in most developed nations and that will be tangibly felt in the form of rising prices the likes of which the developing world has not seen in four decades? What about a war against the foreign debt the likes of which the lowest-income nations have not seen in half a century?
If anyone is truly looking for the causes of these crises, they will find that the pandemic has exposed longstanding flaws in the prevailing economic system and that the symptoms we are experiencing are the manifestations of ailments that have spiralled out of control since the global financial crisis.
What we cannot do is pin all these things on the fallout from the war in Ukraine. No one can claim that the global economy was working smoothly until the pandemic threw some spanners into the works and then the war came along to make things worse. The world is suffering from gross inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth, demographic disparities, and climate threats. The adverse effects of these have been aggravated by war, geopolitical rivalries, and the pandemic.
After endless talk about the state of uncertainty that hampers economic analysis and complicates the task of identifying the public-policy measures that need to be taken, we should take our cue from the incontrovertible proof that there exist certainties that we should not ignore on the pretext of uncertainty.
For example, it is certain that there have been declines in growth, investment, trade, economic convergence and inclusion between and within countries. It is certain that the rates of poverty, inflation, and malnourishment are rising and that debt and the probability of foreclosure are increasing.
There can be no doubt that the world is not on course to attaining sustainability as defined by the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that should be reached before 2030. We are not even on course to sustainability in its laser focused sense in terms of climate change and meeting the pledges of the 2015 Paris Agreement. According to the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world is nowhere near the pledged carbon neutrality targets. Emissions are increasing by 40 per cent, leaving us about 60 per cent off-target.
It is particularly disturbing that recognised scientific solutions exist to gradually reduce carbon dependence and increase investments in alternative, renewable energy sources, but that the practical management of the transition suffers from wavering and confusion among the developed nations. Furthermore, the industrialised nations have been remiss in meeting the pledges they made at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009 to donate $100 billion a year to the developing nations to help them with climate mitigation.
No amount approaching that figure has been raised in any year from 2009 to the Glasgow Summit last year, despite the flexible ways of estimating the sums that are actually transferred for the purposes of reducing harmful emissions or climate mitigation. The result has been a severe shortage of funding from the developed nations. This is not to mention the sensitive subject of the money needed to address the losses and destruction the developing nations have experienced as a result of the accumulation of harmful emissions to the climate since the first industrial revolution.
There is no longer any doubt that climate change, even presuming that temperatures remain at their current levels, has become an existential threat to humanity. In concrete terms, this means sharp increases in destructive storms, hurricanes, floods, forest fires, and droughts, which translates into mounting losses in lives, nature, biodiversity, and production capacities and facilities, and into massive population displacements.
The Economist Intelligence Unit, a UK research group, has recently produced a report on “five ways in which the war in Ukraine will change business” and international trade. These are: further supply-chain disruptions; a surge in energy and commodity prices that will jeopardise food security; increased investments in alternative energy sources, which will come at the expense of investments in developing nations; a likely acceleration in the transition away from US dollar-backed currencies to central bank digital currency solutions as a means for countries to immunise themselves against the type of sanctions that were imposed on Russia; and mounting geopolitical tensions over the uses of information technology and cybersecurity risks.
I see these possible developments as some of the manifestations of a world that is in deep flux as it forges a new order that reflects the changing relationships between the major economic powers. Until the contours of that world coalesce, and the rules of the new order become clear, the world will continue to deal with the remnants of the post-World War II order and the post-Cold War arrangements that have remained in place up to now.
* An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.