A House Divided: What Raging Wars and Escalating Geopolitical Tensions Reveal About Our Failure to Co-Exist and Contain Existential Threats

Photograph Source: David James Henry – Public Domain

The world recently saw the hottest day in 120 thousand years, mainly driven by climate change arising from our addiction to fossil fuels – sustaining economic growth and maintaining our lifestyles. We are consuming more oilthan ever before in human history – enough to fill 6,500 Olympic swimming pools every day.

The impact of extreme weather is one of a handful of the most serious challenges facing the people of the world. Others include poverty and inequality, management of natural resources including fresh water, biodiversity loss, and food security. Wars are a total diversion from these issues, resulting in the squandering of resources that should be deployed to tackle the existential challenges of our time.

Clearly, there exists a grand self-deception in the global response to climate change and these other existential challenges. Geopolitical actions, governmental policies, corporate activities, civil society demands, and consumer behaviour have failed to produce meaningful results: often so obviously ignoring or stalling on deliberate actions that exacerbate existential threats.

Take for example the response to the Ukraine War in the Western world. All wars are at some level about maintaining or expanding economic power, primarily through the domination of resources and thus the people who own them. They are rarely about principles and advancing human values. In modern times, a major driver for war has been access and control of that which keeps our economies alive: fossil fuels and other key resources.

The Ukraine War is the latest case, and in many ways no different from the Iraq War (though dressed differently). The latter was justified through the need to defeat a tyrant and stem the growth of Islamic fundamentalism; the former is justified as fighting for sovereignty and democracy against another tyrant. Even as the impacts of climate change ramp up in severity – exacerbated by our addiction to fossil fuels – Western political leaders with influence and power still work relentlessly to maintain consumption-driven economic growth, thereby often continuing to engage in conflicts and power plays, rather than make peace. Often this is done under the guise of protecting human rights and maintaining market freedoms, all to secure the economic benefits that come with their unfettered access to these same resources. Oil, which has been the lifeblood of modern economies, has ironically now become the precursor of existential threats.

The recently concluded BRICS meeting in South Africa and the G20 meetings in India point to a major shift in the world order. The inclusion into the BRICS of three of the world’s leading oil producing countries (Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the UAE) and of the African Union into the G20 are part of a global movement to reduce the disproportionate and unfair influence of the West on world affairs. Both provide insights into how the global majority intends to coalesce to help build a multipolar world, where nation-states agree to co-exist despite major ideological divisions and commit to working to solve them peacefully. This is no easy task but stands in sharp contrast to the Western desire to maintain global leadership, which has often meant continuously escalating tensions with any nation or bloc perceived to be a risk to its hegemony, and thus displaying double-standards which can no longer be overlooked.

For example, despite imposing sanctions on other nations and castigating them for buying Russian oil, Europe continues to depend on this same oil. Together with the US, they are hoping to win a war that allows the West to put in place a more compliant government, opening the door to stake a serious claim on Russian energy supplies and thereby dictate how they are used geopolitically, with the US putting its economic interests at the fore.

One need look no further than the Nord Stream bombing: this is a major act of sophisticated terrorism, which many – including renowned American development economist Jeffrey Sachs – believe was only possible through the tacit support of leading Western powers, like the US, UK, and Norway.

The outcome has been an energy crisis in Europe, forcing the continent to turn to other fossil fuel sources – namely from the US, which has overtaken Russia to become the EU’s top crude oil supplier, increasing its supply share by nearly 65%, while Russia’s supply has dropped by 61%. US economic interests have been served, and as that old saying goes about understanding seemingly foolish deeds and acts of criminality, “just follow the money”. There is even more to this. Look at the proposals to reconstruct Ukraine and scrutinise who will be the beneficiaries: they are often those who have supported wars and are part of the military-industrial complex, especially defence contractors who are engaged in everything from building infrastructure to machinery and even running large enterprises. The scale of this in Iraq and Afghanistan was enormous. It is a robust ecosystem that has not been carefully studied and exposed for its threat to the world and the endemic corruption it thrives on. Most people in democracies with advanced economies like the US and Europe – where this industry is largest and thrives – are often ignorant about its workings.

The driver of these acts of war and even the Nord Stream act of terrorism – conveniently carried out under the guise of war – is an economic model that is addicted to promoting consumption-driven growth, not just of fossil fuels, but of all resources. It is managed by elites who are ideologically captive to outdated notions about growth, prosperity, and wealth accumulation, and even believe in their own exceptionalism. They are thus incapable of subscribing, for want of a better phrase, to a new consciousness of living within limits. This consciousness can be described as an acute state of global awareness that allows us to recognise that human progress should no longer be constantly accompanied by resource competition to pursue growth at all costs, but should instead be defined by the ability to create commercial and social value without damaging the fabric of society.

Ultimately, it is limiting to discuss wars and rising tensions without also critically examining the underlying economic systems that leverage these brutal competitions for access to resources. Just as importantly, these economic conditions allow the secretive, powerful, and predatory military-industrial complex to flourish, which in turn helps to cause and prolong the wars of which it is a part.

These same systems play out in the halls of power of governments across the world. On the one hand, there has been a rise in commitments to address existential threats like climate change and biodiversity loss: many leaders have been willing to sign agreements pledging to reduce carbon emissions and transition to renewable energy sources. On the other hand – as we have seen with Western powers over the last 30 years – governments have greenlit invasions and interventions that, at their core, are gambits for resource control and economic power expansion. Just look at Niger – the recent coup prompted a response from Emmanual Macron that speaks to the nation’s unwillingness to relinquish its colonial (and therefore, economic) foothold in the country. He vowed he would “not tolerate any attack against France and its interests”, and that retaliation would come “immediately and uncompromisingly”.

Thus, despite international accords and high-profile climate summits, many governments’ hypocrisy reveals their inability to move beyond the demands of the current economic system. Most recently, the summit for a New Global Financing Pact – in which high-income nations promised to empower lower-income countries – concluded without a single pact. And while grandstanding about the transition to renewable energy, many have taken pitifully small strides toward truly divesting from oil. It’s a sobering example of the ‘doublethink’ that is all too prevalent in modern political governance.

Similarly, corporations gild their public image with the language of sustainability, touting their commitment to decarbonisation and promoting eco-friendly products. They seek to appease an increasingly climate-conscious yet naïve consumer base and a financial sector desperately seeking to burnish green credentials by adopting ESG requirements and imposing these on others without fundamentally asking questions about the role of finance in aiding and abetting relentless consumption and even wars. These same corporations continue to lobby governments to relax environmental regulations and maintain a status quo that sustains their profits as if entitled to them, irrespective of the true costs of their business models, which are untouchable sacred cows in the sustainability posturing game.

There are examples in all sectors of our economy and one of the most extreme can be found in the businesses that comprise the military-industrial complex, which exists at the intersection of an array of vested interests and geopolitical power games. These companies hold massive sway with governments and are able to capture the state and influence the direction and execution of foreign policy – the US’ actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and now in Ukraine demonstrate this.

The sentiments of civil society organisations also reveal the same pattern of contradictory expectations. The cry for climate justice and reduction in fossil fuel dependency is getting increasingly loud. Yet, this same civil society will rally behind military interventions when their version of justice requires others with less power to conform, endorsing the ‘ends justify the means’ doctrine. We saw this repeatedly in the “Responsibility to Protect” era. This exposes an uncomfortable truth: even the most well-intentioned can, because of funding needs, become complicit in a system that perpetuates the problems they rally against.

At the heart of it all, we find the consumer, the ultimate culprit-cum-victim – a lemming, a product of the economic model which thrives on driving relentless consumption. Caught between the desire for sustainable living and the preconditioning to feel entitled to ever-increasing creature comforts, consumers in all parts of the world are exhibiting extreme reluctance to let go of a wasteful, harmful, and ultimately convenient consumption-driven lifestyles. While there is a growing interest in using less energy and purchasing fewer carbon-intensive products – provided it is cool, cheap, and convenient – the resistance to truly consume less or to make significant sacrifices in personal lifestyles weighs heavier than most are willing to admit.

All this paints an unsettling picture of our socioeconomic realities: a house divided against itself, standing on the precipice of environmental catastrophe with other existential threats – such as AI – looming, yet still willing to wage war (disingenuously under the pretence of spreading and preserving liberal beliefs) for access to the very resource needed to maintain the economic status quo, whilst accelerating global risk. We seem unwilling to fight the good fight for peace and to learn the hard lessons of living within limits; unable to reject the notion of “more, bigger, faster and cheaper” and placing a check on our economic model, which is at war with the planet and people.

Our economic approaches and governance systems need to be fundamentally reconsidered and reshaped. They must be recalibrated to confront the realities of the 21st century, where ecological sustainability is not just desirable, but is existentially the only way forward.

We need an honest reckoning with our current systems’ limitations. We require both national and international efforts that not only acknowledge the scale of the crisis but act decisively to address it. This cannot be achieved without structural changes to the economic and governance systems that currently dictate our world order.

The future hinges on our ability to reconcile these contradictions and move towards a more holistic, resilient, and equitable paradigm. Only then can we hope to prevent the looming environmental and civilisational catastrophe that our current, paradoxical practices are directing us towards.

Chandran Nair is the CEO of Asia’s leading independent think tank The Global Institute for Tomorrow based in Hong Kong. He is the author of several books including the acclaimed, Dismantling Global White Privilege: Equity for a Post- Western World.