Turbulent times

Colin James. Photo: ODT files
Colin James. Photo: ODT files
New Zealand political commentator and author Colin James’ latest book is a sobering report card on the world, yet it also offers reasons for hope, writes Shane Gilchrist.

Before Colin James even begins to paint a detailed picture of how New Zealand and the world at large has arrived at this period of great flux, he offers some words that serve as both warning and pep-talk:

''This is an exhilarating and scary time, the very time for humans at their best.''

No dystopian work of fiction, his latest book, Unquiet Time: Aotearoa/New Zealand in a fast-changing world, could be regarded as a report card that has a clear message - could do better.

James lists various ways in which the world of 2017 is disordered:

Major powers continue to jostle for geopolitical and geo-economic influence; the Middle East remains in turmoil; Europe and the United States are in populist ferment; economic, social and political tensions within China are testing its technocrats; international finance is overheated, fragile, and there is a widespread retreat from promoting freer trade.

Despite Unquiet Time arriving just weeks before a general election, the political journalist and commentator is adamant one has nothing to do with the other, even if many of the points he makes have obvious ramifications for those in power.

''It was never intended to be an election book, although I have done a few political books,'' James explains via telephone from his Wellington home earlier this week.

''I'm addressing a span of issues that affect us and the ways in which we are responding. Of course, we are a bit slow to respond to some issues.''

''I'm a journalist and journalism is often about questions rather than answers. So what I've done with this book is empty out my head of a whole lot of questions. I hope it offers thoughts on different ways of thinking about some of the issues in front of us.

James also looks to a future in which climate change might seriously exacerbate already worsening water constraints and affect food production in the 2020s and into the 2030s.

Such issues could trigger conflict, especially where rivers flow across borders, as they do from China south into India and south-east Asia. There is also the issue of mass emigration from low-lying countries or regions to consider.

He also speculates on disease, raising the spectre of pandemics brought about by drug-resistant bacteria or viruses that take forms for which there is no vaccine and spread faster than a cure can be devised. A related concern is biosecurity, the transmission in a globalised world of biological threats to food security.

''This is the world a tiny, quiet nation at the bottom of the world has to learn to navigate going into the 2020s and beyond,'' he writes.

''The simple fact is that no set of policies can quarantine New Zealand from the outside influences of a hyperglobalised world.''

James points out that New Zealand is no longer just in the Pacific; it is becoming of the Pacific. In fact, if not in formal name, the nation in 2017 is ''Aotearoa/New Zealand'', he says.

''Our nation has some real strengths.

''We have space; a good environment, by and large; a fairly calm population; we have worked out how to be bicultural, more or less; we have a good education system by world standards; our institutions aren't perfect but we have low corruption.

''Put all those things together and it's not a bad place at all. We have become - and will continue to become - a very attractive country to outsiders.''

Which brings James to the issue of immigration.

New Zealand has experienced record levels of net migration in recent years.

According to a recent Statistics New Zealand report, three-quarters of the record 132,100 migrant arrivals in the past year were non-New Zealand citizens. Annual net migration reached 72,400 in the year to July, an increase of 3400 on the same period a year earlier.

Chinese migration continued to be the largest on a net basis, with 9961, while India was the second-largest source at 7444 (although that was down 34% from a year earlier). The United Kingdom contributed a 53% rise on the previous year, to 6750; and South African migration was up 50%, to 4862. The number of net migrants from Australia dropped to 469, from 1750 a year earlier.

James acknowledges immigration is a key election issue. Yet any policy need not be a barrier to cultural diversity.

''It's about working out what we want to be and working out how to achieve that. Rather than just getting a populist response, isn't it better to have a constructive, forward-looking approach?''

Such a strategy is not xenophobia, racism or isolation, he says. It does not equate to restricting migrants to people like ''us''. Quite the opposite.

''Xenophobic populism is more likely if there is no strategy and unplanned changes surprise or disorient too many people. A strategy gives us the opportunity to remain distinct without turning inward.

''In fact, Auckland is already one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world.''

On the subject of cities, it is worth noting that 54% of the world's population now live in one. In fact, New Zealand is one of the world's most urbanised nations; 86% of us prefer to exist close to one another.

James says this centralisation of people provides challenges but also great opportunity.

This includes global cross-border co-operation or what he terms a ''coalition of the willing'', subverting former United States president George W. Bush's words regarding the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

''Increasingly, cities are centres of power as the global population continues to urbanise. Many cities are getting to the point where, although they exist within a sovereign state, they are also distinct from it.''

Such coalitions of the willing are a form of soft power, exercising influence and eventually winning compliance through example and persuasion.

''We are now seeing cities that take initiatives on big issues, including climate change,'' James says, referring to a ''bottom-up'' approach that includes the agreement of 7100 cities, formed at the Marrakech climate summit in November last year, to cut global emissions and monitor each other's actions (they announced 596 commitments).

Soft-power arrangements do not require states to give up their sovereignty, James notes. But a widening range of bilateral or multilateral treaties impinge on that sovereignty, weaving their own webs of rules.

''There is no foregone conclusion but, even amid global disorder, there is a trajectory which points to an eventually more 'global' world.''

Possibly the fastest evolving paradigm is technology. Our current hyperglobalisation is driven by the digital/information revolution, which has contributed to a reordering of societal structures, creating new opportunities but also threats.

James points to a recent book by a former chief scientist at Amazon, Andreas Weigend, who details a ''post-privacy'' world in which it is difficult to hide.

A physics professor at Stanford University in California, a consultant to many data users, Weigend says even if you don't join social media platforms, trading or dating websites - ''even if you divulge the minimum information about yourself'' - information is being collected.

This has obvious implications. As a recent Guardian article notes, the public sphere - ''the space where we offer up reasons, and contest the reasons of others'' - ceases to be a space for deliberation. Instead, it is a market in clicks, likes and retweets.

''The Internet is ... a mutual-affirmation apparatus banally referred to as a 'marketplace of ideas'. What looks like something public and lucid is only an extension of our own pre-existing opinions, prejudices and beliefs, while the authority of institutions and experts has been displaced by the aggregative logic of big data,'' the Guardian stated.

Still, the information revolution has massive positive outcomes, too.

As economic theorist and a pioneer of the peer-to-peer movement Michel Bauwens pointed out during a 2015 visit to Dunedin, the concept of global co-operation via digital mediums has immense cultural and economic value.

The term ''open-source'' might have its roots in software development but it has been expanded to encompass the idea of people working together for a common goal. These include peer-to-peer computer networks, open source interaction, crowd sourcing, fablabs, micro-factories, hackerspaces, the makers' movement, urban agriculture ... the list goes on.

James agrees.

''There is the 'crowd', the capacity through social media to engage very large numbers of people for specific purposes.

''One outcome is 'crowd-funding' for charitable or environmental activities (such as the 'sale' of Awaroa beach in Golden Bay in 2016 to a consortium of the Government and thousands of individual donors) or for start-up businesses, including news platforms.

''Crowd sourcing ideas is a way of honing ideas and overcoming problems on the basis that 1000 minds is better than 10.''

Sir Isaac Newton, the 17th-century English scholar responsible for ground-breaking physics concepts, whose contributions to mankind's greater understanding of the universe was a product not only of his vision but the work of many other minds, perhaps put it best:

''If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.''

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Colin James speculates on some future global scenarios

• Autocratic populist governments take over liberal democracies and turn nationalism into xenophobic conflict.

• The world divides into hostile blocs, undermining multilateral systems (such as they are) and posing hard choices for small countries, including damage to their economies - or worse, disintegrates into devastating conflict in some new form of ``war''.

• There is serious endemic failure in, or sabotage of, increasingly tightly and highly interconnected and interdependent digital systems on which utilities, transport infrastructure and systems, banking, military systems and much of daily life and sustenance depend.

• China experiences serious internal disturbances as a result of economic slowdown and/or turbulence, the impact of radical new production technologies, a younger-generation middle class with different and more diverse aspirations than its parents and grandparents who climbed out of poverty, or serious pollution, which bends the economic trajectory off-track. China tries to deflect internal upsets by turning attention outwards in aggression along its borders or in adjacent seas, which ends in military conflict.

• India experiences a series of economic, social and political crises which cause it to take unpredictable and potentially seriously destabilising stances vis-a-vis its neighbours.

• A crisis in Indonesia destabilises the south-east Asian region.

• The United States or Russia does something "silly''.

• Rapid development of renewable energy sources transforms energy-dependent activities from about 2025 and/or rapid development and adoption of new water extraction and management techniques overcome water shortages after 2025.

• New medical technologies and information systems (including, real-time feedback of personal conditions) greatly improve personal understanding, responses, prevention, diagnosis and treatment and so health quality.

• New production methods greatly improve availability of goods and services with much lower environmental impact. Robots, drones and autonomous vehicles start to change lives for the better in multiple ways.

Generation Y or Generation Zero injects positive transformative values into business and power.

Fact file 

A life member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery, Colin James is a political journalist of more than 40 years experience. He writes a weekly column in the Otago Daily Times.

A New Zealand correspondent for Oxford Analytica, he is a senior associate of the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and makes presentations on the strategic political, policy and political-economy environment to companies, industry associations, government departments and other groups.

From 1990 to 2013 he was managing director of The Hugo Group, a forecasting panel with a membership of more than 100 medium to large corporates.

He has written six books plus several editions of an election guide for journalists as well as chapters in books and has edited or written six books or monographs for the Institute of Policy Studies.

He has contributed papers to seminars, conferences and symposiums in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and has held several university fellowships, including the J.D. Stout Research Fellow at Victoria University of Wellington in 1991 and inaugural New Zealand Fellow at the Centre for Comparative Constitutional Studies at Melbourne University in 1993.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Victoria University in 2008.

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