Politics of wellbeing versus the politics of survival

Spent the afternoon at a water-park in Dubai, mainly reading Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road .

If there’s ever a book I don’t recommend reading in a water-park in Dubai, its Cormac McCarthy’s novel, The Road.

The book is set in a post-apocalyptic world, in which some unspecified ecological disaster led to the sun being covered behind dust or ashes, leaving the earth in perpetual winter. American society has broken down, most people are dead, most plants and animals are dead, and most of the survivors are marauding bands of cannibals.

In this horrendous environment, a man and his son travel a road, trying to stay alive and get south, where they hope some form of human society may have survived.

Reading it makes me wonder if the so-called ‘politics of well-being’ may be hugely presumptuous.

Geoff Mulgan said this century would be defined by the politics of well-being. Lots of others are involved in this emerging politics - Lord Layard, Richard Reeves of Demos, Martin Seligman, Oliver James, NEF, and in a small way I am too, that’s why I named my blog www.politicsofwellbeing.com

But the main idea of the politics of well-being is western societies are safe and affluent, therefore can afford to turn their attention to higher transcendent goods like inner peace and so on.

Then you read a book like The Road , or like James Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia , and you wonder…

What if this century isn’t about well-being at all? What if it’s mainly about ecological disaster, food shortages, water shortages, extreme weather, burnt out fields, societies breaking down?

James Lovelock predicted that the global population go from 10 billion to 1 billion in the next 90 years, because of food shortages. The hotter earth will not have enough arable land to support a population of 10 billion.

If people don’t have enough food, they will eat each other. That is the grim message of McCarthy’s book. Civilisation will break down.

In this sort of situation, the question becomes ‘how can states prevent themselves from breaking down’?

They need two things - food and security. They need to be able to protect their borders from the huge amounts of people who will migrate in search of food, and from other states hunting in search of food. And they need enough arable land to make their own food.

The UK as a society, in such an apocalyptic future, would have a chance of surviving, because its institutions are strong, and its people are (one hopes) good at coping in crises and not eating each other.

But if we are facing huge food shortages in the future, then is there an argument for controlling or even stopping immigration? Partly because we can only take a population that we can support with our own land, and partly because I am not sure how a multi-cultural society copes under extreme stress…

Do you think liberalism survives climate change? Or that the open society survives climate change? I don’t think they do.

Like I said, not a great beach book…but a great book nonetheless.